Why Did God Command Evil Deeds?

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 (1933-2017) was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.