Is Sin Relative?
Micah Murray asked a few questions on Twitter that I felt should be answered. Unfortunately, to answer responsibly will take a lot longer than 140 characters, and probably longer than most blog posts should be…
He asks about Rahab, and it being seemingly okay for her to lie about the spies hidden on her roof, about the God-commanded genocide in Canaan, and whether sin is relative. These are all excellent questions, and they are often answered with platitudes that convey very little that satisfies that asker.
So here we go…
The first question is: Is there any time when it is okay to lie? And the answer is yes. In my sarcastic/snarky way I usually sum it up like this, “For the most part, God does not condone lying. In the Bible the devil is known as the Father of Lies, and the need to tell the whole truth is heavily stressed. BUT, when a crazed psychopath bent on killing someone barges into your house and asks where someone is in order to kill them you can lie your bottom off.”
How do I come to this conclusion? When the midwives lied to Pharaoh to save babies, they, childless women, were blessed with children of their own. (Ex. 1) When Samuel goes to anoint David as the next king of Israel, and Samuel expresses his fear of Saul to God, God tells him to tell Saul he is merely going to make a sacrifice (which he does do). Why? Because Saul will likely try to kill the next king in order to secure the throne for his children, which he does when he finds out. (1 Sam. 16) Rahab too lies to save lives. We have a bit more trouble with this one, since these men are spies, a job we do not usually consider ‘innocent.’ There are extenuating circumstances here. (Remember, the prostitute is the most godly person in this town.) Canaan and Jericho are not good places. (More on this later. Right now just take my word for it.) It would not be proper to destroy a place without seeing how the people behave for yourselves, so spying, by responsible individuals is proper in this situation. (Jos. 6)
This leads us to the next question: Why is genocide okay in the Old Testament?
What we see in the Bible, during the time of Canaan, are a large number of tiny communities bent on destroying one another whenever possible. Here is a list of their heinous activities:
1. Raiding for fun. (1 Sam 13:17-21)
2. Going to war every spring. (2 Sam 11:1, 1 Chron. 20:1)
3. Killing the wives and children of others. (2 Kings 8:12)
4. Enslaving anyone they wish to oppress. (Judges 2:14)
5. Rape and torture. (Dt. 28:30)
6. Stealing food so the people will starve. (Judges 6:11)
7. Destroying fields and crops so the people starve for fun. (Judges 6:3)
8. Orgies and forced prostitution. (1 Kings 14:24)
9. Sacrificing their oldest child to gain blessings from their gods. (2 Kings 3:27)
10. Burying their youngest child in the foundation of their homes (most likely alive) to bless their house. (archeology)
11. Leaving unwanted babies on rocks to die in the weather or from animal attack. (old writings)
12. Heinous tortures before killing prisoners. (archeology)
13. Killing the old, young and pregnant at the back of a caravan for sport. (Dt. 25:18)
14. Ripping babies out of pregnant women’s bellies while they are still alive. (2 Kings 15:16)
15. Watching baby animals slowly die as they are boiled in their mother’s milk. (Ex. 23:19)
16. Putting their children ‘through the fire’ to see if the gods meant for the baby to live. (Dt. 12:31)
Remember Gideon, who was hiding in a wine press trying to thresh grain where no one would see him? There was a good reason for this. If the neighbors the Israelites did not kill when they were told to saw him they would take the grain, or destroy it, and his family would starve to death slowly that winter. These were people who did evil for fun. (Judges 6)
God does not condone, even during this time, the mass extinction of just anyone. The Israelites are to remain within their boundaries, and are not to keep a standing army. (1 Sam 8:12) They will only have a volunteer force of men 20 and over for defense. (Num 1:3, Dt. 20:8) The rest of the time the men will be at home working their land. (1 Sam 8)
So why did the Israelites need to kill the women and children as well? Aren’t they innocent?
The Bible gives us some answers to this in the story of Haman, and another child that was left alive.
Haman is an Agagite, meaning he is descended from Agag, the king Saul was supposed to kill. Tradition tells us that between the time Saul captured Agag, and Samuel arrived, Agag escaped, hid with a concubine and she conceived. The result was the line that produced Haman. Haman was not part of a group that wished to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. (1 Sam 15, Esther 9:24) 1 Kings 11 also tells us about a baby who grows into a man who causes great trouble for Israel, though in his case Joab was wrong for killing his people…
Further, many remind us that the innocent go to heaven. If they had continued to live here, learning to hate, this would likely not be their eternal fate. We also see, in the rescue of Lot, that God does save the righteous from destruction when there is hope.
Still, the genocide we see in the Bible occurs in extremely limited times, and for extremely limited reasons. Abraham is told that the land cannot be his because the sin of the people in the land is not great enough to warrant eviction. (Gen 15:16) We see that the people who fled Canaan were not killed, only the ones who stayed. (Gen. 9:4) And we see, once the era of warlords and terrorists ceases in this area, the Biblical instruction is to obey the laws of the oppressors and work to bless them. (Jer. 29:7, Lk 6:28) Orders to wipe everyone out are only for those who are extreme in their cruelty as a society, and, it seems, only with a very clear mandate from God.
So, is it all relative when it comes to sin? Not in the way most people speak of it today, but in many ways, yes, it is.
We have seen that you may lie to protect the innocent, but let us look at a few more examples.
Aaron’s oldest sons offered incense of their own design, instead of doing what God told them, and they were smote. Right after this Aaron’s younger sons did not eat the portion of the offering as God told them to, but instead burned the whole thing. They disobeyed, but were not smote. Why? Because their motive was to please God. They felt they were not worthy to eat part of the offering due to what had happened to their brothers today. (Lev. 10:19-20)
We then see the priest giving the Bread of Presence to David and his men to eat, even though it is set aside to be eaten by the High Priests alone. Jesus emphasizes that this was not a sin. Why? Likely because David’s men were truly in need of food. They had come to the Tent of Meeting hoping to share in a fellowship offering (which was typically offered and shared with all who were there). There was no food, even the regular offerings seem to be missing. Why? Because the people were not sacrificing as they should. The priest is now in a bind. He can either refuse hospitality, and refuse to feed truly hungry men, or break God’s rule. God’s rule was likely meant so the priests were provided for. Here David and his men have a greater need, and it is apparently okay to prioritize that need. (Mk. 2:25-28)
We also see in Hosea 4:14 that God refused to punish the women who turn to prostitution and adultery because of the actions of the men that lead to this corruption.
This does not mean that we allow everyone to do whatever they want. Jewish theologians point out that these situations typically occur when one commandment is in conflict with another, so one must weigh the two and decide which is the more important one to follow. We do this today.
No one calls an ectopic pregnancy that is treated by removing the embryo growing in the fallopian tube an abortion. Why? Because the baby will not survive if left to grow there, and it will likely kill the mother, cause her serious problems, or affect her future fertility if left alone too long. Would it be nice if we could relocate the embryo and allow the pregnancy to continue? Sure, but we are not there yet, so we have to make a choice. And since the choice is baby and mom die, or just baby die, we choose to remove the baby.
We also allow police to enter a home if they have reason to believe someone is being attacked without a warrant. Preventing a murder supersedes your right to privacy.
So, how did we all learn that there was never a time to lie in most of our churches, and that morality was black and white, when the Bible clearly teaches it is not always that way?
Most people point to a man named Immanuel Kant. Despite his name he was not a Christian, but a philosopher who taught a very absolute view of morality. This philosophy leaked into he church, and has remained part of many sermons. The Jewish people do not appreciate his teachings, since many Jewish people were saved because of the lies told by their Gentile neighbors. Kant would have been honest, to the detriment of the Gentile and the people they were protecting…
Gandhi had a similar problem. His teachings of non-violence worked well in India, against England, a country that had a few people in charge at the time whose morality could be appealed to, once one got their attention. Gandhi then wrote to England advising them not to resist Hitler, telling them that their non-resistance would cause Hitler to see his sin and change his ways. The Jewish people were not impressed by this advice either.
As we see, there is a time for certain actions, but other times completely different means are necessary. It takes wisdom to know when to do what. This is why we must study our scripture, talk about it, and debate every option in depth before situations occur, because life is not easy. It is not an ‘if this then this’ style of existence. Sure, there are things one must absolutely not do, but then there are the extremes, when life is so full of sin and wrong choices that it is hard to know how to work your way out. This is why we need to study, and pray, and remain close to God, not so much for the easy days, but for the days when nothing seems like a good choice.