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Catholic Dilemma: 1 Samuel 15

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  • Catholic Dilemma: 1 Samuel 15

    This is something I posted in the comments of Dr. Feser's blog last year. I still haven't found a satisfactory solution:

    How does one on Catholic principles resolve the tension resulting from accepting the following propositions:

    (1) Divine inspiration / inerrancy of Scripture
    (2) Scripture presenting God as commanding humans to kill infants (1 Samuel 15)
    (3) The direct killing of innocent humans by humans as intrinsically evil
    (4) The impossibility of God commanding us to sin
    (5) A rejection of theological voluntarism

    After all, it seems like you either have to dismiss the stories as not true (i.e., God didn't actually command that) which seems to contradict Church teaching on inspiration/inerrancy, or you have to say that deliberate killing of infants is not intrinsically wrong, or you have to say that God can command us to do things that are wrong, or you have to say that God's commanding of a thing is precisely what makes it good (voluntarism) such that killing of infants could be good, even virtuous, which is absurd.

    I've seen 2 attempts to square the circle here by appealing to:
    (1) Original sin. The Amalekites had original sin. All those who have original sin are worthy of death. Ergo...
    (2) Spiritual/mystical interpretation. God didn't literally command the killings. The story is mythological and meant to teach us some moral truth etc...

    The problem I have with the (1) is that it doesn't seem being "guilty" of original sin is a sufficient reason for God to command someone to be executed. If it were, then the only difference between murder and virtuous killing in this fallen world would be God's command (smacks of voluntarism). Besides, it seems to do violence to the text which mentions nothing about original sin. In fact, the text explicitly gives the reason as being what the Amalekites had done to the Israelites (centuries prior) when they came from Egypt:

    Thus saith the Lord of hosts: I have reckoned up all that Amalec hath done to Israel: how he opposed them in the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now therefore go, and smite Amalec, and utterly destroy all that he hath: spare him not, nor covet any thing that is his: but slay both man and woman, child and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
    Not that this makes the problem any easier to solve. Indeed, the reason given seems manifestly unjust. For how can it be just to condemn women and children to death for something done centuries prior by their ancestors?

    The problem I have with (2) is that even if the text is meant mythologically, it isn't obvious at all that it's meant mythologically. Why would God (Primary Author of Scripture according to Catholic dogma) give us a story that presents God as commanding the slaughter of children without also making it obvious that it's only a story and not meant literally? The danger of mistaking it as literal seems too great.

    (I use 1 Samuel 15 here as an example, but obviously the general argument applies to other cases as well such as God's commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac...)

    Any thoughts?

  • #2
    The case of Isaac and Abraham is surely more pertinent as it is so closely related to the Incarnation (God providing a sacrifice to pay Man's debts). As such it is much harder to explain away by accepting point 2 , since even if it's a parable or a fable presumably the content is still morally reflective of the sacrifices humans must make.

    I suspect the traditional Christian answer should be 1. Original Sin. Isaac is worthy of death because all humans are worthy of death as they carry the taint of Original Sin. Although I don't hold this view I don't see how it smacks more of voluntarism than the difference between murder and virtuous killing being the State's command, which is of course a view most Catholics pre-Vatican II held.


    • #3
      Yes, I think the Catholic is committed to (1). Original sin merits death, but God is not required to punish everyone who has original sin as soon as possible. If he has been suspending punishment, he may at some time cease to suspend it. And there may be some reason for his doing so, other than original sin. That is to say, although original sin will be the object of the punishment, it may have some other 'cause'.

      So the execution of the Amalekites might have been just in virtue of being a punishment for original sin, even if it was immediately prompted by some other wrong which they had perpetrated against the Israelites. It is moreover consistent with this view that it is not any human's place to punish others for original sin, without God's permission, and that to do so would be murder (just as it generally is murder to execute someone deserving of capital punishment, if one lacks the proper authority to administer such a punishment).

      That pushes the discussion to the questions of how someone could be punishable for original sin or how indeed it could merit death, which I grant are hard doctrines to swallow, but I think they are probably where the tension lies.
      Last edited by Greg; 02-09-2019, 01:38 AM.


      • #4
        Couldn't we also say that the prohibition of taking innocent life doesn't apply to God, and by extension those he commands? After all, is death per se an evil?


        • #5
          Originally posted by Jeremy Taylor View Post
          Couldn't we also say that the prohibition of taking innocent life doesn't apply to God, and by extension those he commands? After all, is death per se an evil?
          I think life is per se a good, so death is per se an evil, so I wouldn't take this route.