The Catholic Thing
Why Did God Command Evil Deeds? Print E-mail
By Michael Novak   
Monday, 04 May 2009

Two different persons have told me recently that they cannot accept a God who commanded Moses and others to do evil. One challenge came by email, and the other came from my fifteen-year old granddaughter. They asked me to explain how I can accept a God who commanded Moses and others in the Old Testament – good people – to do bad things. Among many examples, God ordered Moses and his army to execute the Midianites, not only the men, but the women and male children. The virgin girls they are to keep for themselves. Initially, the Israelites resisted this command, and Moses had to give the harsh order again.

Does this mean that following this God forces me to abandon compassion and reason, respect for human rights, and the value of every human life? Both my correspondent and my granddaughter abhor the implied glorification of lawless will. My correspondent wrote: “I take this episode as expressing the idea that God’s authority is absolutely without limit, that there are no values apart from God’s will, thus man has no dignity or rights on his own account. If he wishes us to slaughter one another, we are in no position to question or to disagree.” To follow this God, he implies, is to abandon one’s humanity.

I am no specialist in biblical studies. I do not know how Jewish rabbis have explained these texts down the centuries. Still, I have always read the stories of the Jewish testament – from the polygamy of Abraham to the commands of Yahweh to bash the heads of captured infants against stones – as a description of the way things once were on earth, everywhere, whereas in the Bible there was a slow unfolding of humane, even godly, values. This unfolding was slow, although not nearly so slow as the eons of Darwinian evolution so many enlightened people today find acceptable.

As I recall, even the wisest of the Greek philosophers allowed for the killing or enslavement of captured populations. They killed so that threatening peoples would not soon again be a threat. They enslaved, to free up more Athenian and Spartan warriors for battle. They approved of infanticide among their own people. Further, both Plato and Aristotle thought slavery a natural institution, and held that most humans have the souls of slaves, and deserve to be slaves. They did not believe in human equality; quite the contrary. Some men are made of bronze, some of silver, only a few of gold.

What my email correspondent described as compassion, reason, human rights, and human dignity entered slowly into human history as yeast into dough. It took a long time for a new way of viewing human individuals to emerge; even today, compassion and respect for the dignity of every human being (in the womb, in helpless old age) are hardly established in universal practice.

Certain characteristics that we now hold to mark a fully “humane” person emerged only slowly through time. (In fact there are still parts of the human race that have not heard of them, or appropriated them as their own.) Forgiveness, compassion, and a sense of all men as equals in the sight of God are, in historical perspective, late blooms. Another relatively recent and important characteristic is the responsibility of the human individual to follow his own conscience (and the inner Light that illumines his conscience).

As I read the Old Testament, it consists of books that tell the history of the education of a privileged part of the human race in the Creator’s high standards for all of humanity. Not all is revealed at once. Many existing evils are not immediately uprooted. Slowly and spiraling up and down through the centuries, though on a slightly upward tendency, Israel is taught that God wishes to be approached not in subservience but in friendship, and that our proper approach to Him is not self-abasement but love.

Israel is also commanded that humans should love one another. God’s commandments outline the basic social code – not to dishonor one’s parents, kill another human, steal, bear false witness, lie, commit adultery or fornication, covet, etc. This code turns out to be very close to what the natural law of human experience also teaches disparate peoples outside the circle of God’s covenant with Israel – it teaches by painful trial and error. Peoples that violate this basic social code slowly destroy themselves. People who follow this code prosper, and establish mutual trust and cooperation.

My sincere and respectful questioner has helped me catch sight of a profound irony. Now that he has learned from the Bible a very high standard of virtue, conscience, judgment and aspiration, he rejects the Author Who taught him those moral advantages. Why? Because that Author did not reveal everything at once.

My correspondent rejects God by the standards that God – and God alone – taught us to observe: not only the Ten Commandments (which all may learn), but also the love of God and neighbor, compassion, forgiveness, the dignity of every single conscience, the immortal worth of everyone (we alone made in the image of the Creator), and the human rights that follow therefrom.

Somehow, my correspondent’s path does not seem right to me.

I think it admirable that God has been patient in schooling us, and in schooling us still.

Michael Novak’s website is and his wife’s is

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Mark Reilly, May 04, 2009
I teach in a Catholic high school and encounter the polygamy and violence question often. Why would God tolerate such barbarity? Your article confirms a response I've developed to this query: "Would your parents tolerate you soiling your pants when you go home tonight? No? Well, there was a time when they did. Perhaps even thought it 'cute' as they changed your diapers. But, over time, gradually, you had to grow out of that, get potty trained, etc." Thanks for your added insight.
Problem of Evil
written by William Dennis, May 04, 2009
G K Chesterton said " Madmen have no doubts." That's good because this morning I have doubts. What happen to the "Natural Law" when the slaughtering occured at the command of God? Was this law, written in the hearts of men, suspended or was there some sort of anthropological shift? What is so different here from the slaughter engaged by Islam at the behest of Allah? This was a very poignent article. I am not sure I am convinced by the conclusion. TCT enlighten me please in future articles
Psalm 137?
written by Irenaeus, May 04, 2009
You write, "to the commands of Yahweh to bash the heads of captured infants against stones..."

While my PhD is in New, not Old Testament, I'm wondering if you're not thinking of Ps 137 -- "Happy is he who takes your little ones [Babylonian infants] and dashes them against a rock!" These are the words of the Psalmist, not the words of YHWH; I can't think of anywhere in Scripture where YHWH directly commands what you suggest. But it's possible I'm overlooking something.
An answer to Irenaeus?
written by Brad Miner, May 04, 2009
In Hosea 13:4, YHWH speaks: "I have been the LORD your God/Since the Land of Egypt . . ." And in 13:15 we read--I believe it is still the LORD speaking--of Samaria's guilt: "For she has rebelled against her God./They will fall by the sword,/Their little ones will be dashed in pieces,/And their pregnant women will be ripped open." I guess the question is whether or not this constitutes a command.
written by william j quinn, May 04, 2009
God used human authors to transmit his word to us, humans subject to the mores and practices of their milieu. That is why He left us a teaching Church to teach us the proper interpretation of scripture. The Church does not teach us to murder our opponents, kill their children, etc and never has. Follow the Church magisterium and don't worry about this kind of thing.
I AM-Who Never Changes
written by debby, May 05, 2009
another question for all of you regarding us poor beings trying to know & love the Infinite I AM: is it possible that the One Who is Love, in His Mercy allowed these deaths only to redeem these very dead when He decended into Hell? i am not baiting anyone, i grew up Protestant & know NO theology about saving the dead. its just that if i believe Scripture(which i do) He is always longing for union with us all-Always! so, maybe we dont see His mercy in the middle of these Scriptures. please respond
written by Achilles, May 05, 2009
Wil, I too am not convinced. I think it is dangerous to draw conclusions about roots from observations of the fruit. The correspondent gave himself far too much credit (as we all seem to in this day) for drawing conclusions based on very little information. Imagine the vast amount of contextual, cultural, political, information that is not present for us in the Old Testament. This confusion seems to be what happens when we try to answer questions of revelation with logical thinking.
written by Dean Brooks, May 05, 2009
I'm the e-mail correspondent that Professor Novak refers to. I do thank him for responding.

Just one observation. Progressive revelation only works for defects of omission. God could tell us some principles now, more later, and that would be fine. But what He did with the Midianites was contradict moral principle. The Israelites saw that killing children was wrong, tried to refuse, were overridden.

Analogies about progress fail here. The only progress possible is to reject the order from God.
written by LexEtLibertas, May 05, 2009
I have to say this is a huge stumbling block for me as a Christian. I accept the inspiration and the inerrancy of Scripture on faith, based on the authority of Christ and His Church, but I find Novak's repetition of the standard explanation to be shallow, even disingenuous.

No, we DON'T find God "gradually revealing" more humane laws. Rather Yahweh apparently COMMANDS genocide from a people who, however fallen they are, don't really wanna do it because it grates against their moal fiber.
written by LexEtLibertas, May 05, 2009
It's also not necessarily the case that we are judging God by his own laws. Rather, we are reading Yahweh's POSITIVE COMMANDS of genocide in the Old Testament in light of the natural law and find Yahweh lacking, to say the least. Obviously the scope and duration of the command aren't the same, but it's hard to differentiate the Biblical Israelites from Islamic jihadists, except that the jihadists are far more compassionate! I'd take Bin Laden over Joshua anytime!
written by John Hamm, May 05, 2009
Your point touches on a tendency modern humanity has of looking at the past through the eyes of the present. In addition to God revealing His ways and His will to us over time, the events written about in the Old Testament need to be understood in light of the times in which they occurred. Looking at them with the eyes of the past may reveal those Israelites, while seemingly barbaric, to be the most compassionate people of the era.
written by Andrew, May 05, 2009
I think the point Lex is making is indeed a good point which Novak does not seem to address, one which is the crux of the problem. The fact that God commands murder...not that he allows it, but He commands it. If murder is immoral now, it was immoral then (unless you are a Divine Command Theorist, which I am happy to reject). There might be an answer to this. It is based on whether God 'really commanded' murder. What sense of Scripture is this "command"? Literal?Analogous?
written by JediGraz, May 05, 2009
Re: the defeat of the Midianites. It was the same with Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord knew that these people were completely beyond redemption and corrupted by the demonic "gods" of the time. They were a threat to The Lord's salvific plan of establishing a nation that his annointed (Christ) could spring from. Yes, even their children were evil. We see this with today with Islamic terror groups. Yet today they're redeemable because of Christ's sacrifice. We see the roots of just war concept.
written by anthony, May 06, 2009
How I deal with it.

God is the author of life, and all life belongs to him. He cannot unlawfully take someone's life (murder) because he is the owner of all life. The same with him ordering someone to kill someone else. The very term murder cannot be applied to God, becuse it implies an unlawful taking of a life.
written by Donna, May 07, 2009
I don't think that Mr. Novak really dealt with the primary objection : What about those instances where God seems to not just tolerate but command what are objective injustices ? A prime example would be the prophet Samuel denouncing King Saul for not killing all of those 'under the ban' in a town. If the Lord were trying to move the Israelites away from such barbarity, wouldn't He approve of such a move, rather than denounce it as disobedience?
written by Ron, May 18, 2009
Based on a reading of the text (Numbers 31) it looks like God ordered vengeance on the Midianites without giving details. It was Moses who interpreted this to mean the slaughter of the male children.

15 "Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asked them. 16 "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

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