When I saw some hadith displaying cruelty and injustice [seemingly - though I acknowledge that there might be details left that would change the image considerably] I got also back the question how to explain some "shocking" passages in the Old Testament. In regard to those I want to display here some tentative answers which I gave my friend.
Let me say upfront. I don't understand everything in the Bible either. And some of the early war history of Israel is also difficult to me, but since you ask, I want to present you with a few thoughts of which I don't claim that they will answer everything, but they might be worth thinking about. Especially what I write about the last passage, which is more "typical" than the other two.
[Ezek. 9:5] And the Lord said, "Go through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have you pity. SLAY UTTERLY OLD AND YOUNG, BOTH MAIDS AND LITTLE CHILDREN, AND WOMEN.
Please do read the context of Ezekiel 8-10 will do. I think you will be surprised that many verses actually mean something very different from what you originally might have thought they mean when taken out of context. And in this passage that should have be clear even from casual observation. I grant that the other two are more difficult.
Don't you think it is a big difference if men take it upon themselves to slay others for whatever reason, or if God is pouring out his judgement? In any case, in this passage Ezekiel is seeing a VISION (see beginning of chapter 8), this is NOT happening at this very time, NOR is it a command to anybody to do so. Ezekiel sees this vision of God's future judgment and then he will bring this as warning and announcement of God's coming wrath over Israel.
I do not object if Qur'an or Hadith describe the pain of hell fire and God's punishment of evil. That is up to God. But I do have my questions where human beings take justice [or unjustice] in their own hands.
[Num. 31:1] And the Lord said unto Moses, "Avenge the children of the Mid'-an'ites.. They warred against the Mid'-i-an'ites, as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slay all the males. And they took all women as captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods. And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.
Moses said, "HAVE YOU SAVED ALL THE WOMEN ALIVE? NOW KILL EVERY MALE AMONG THE LITTLE ONES, AND KILL EVERY WOMAN that has known a man by lying with him, but all the young girls who have not known a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.
Numbers 22-25 and 31.
Please (as well as chapter 31) read all of chapter (22-)25, which is the reason and background of chapter 31. In chapter 25 we read how (the Moabites and) Midianites seduce Israel to idolatery (worship of other gods) of the worst kind, mixed with adultery (as the means of the seduction). This is scheme of the Moabites and Midianites after their plan to curse Israel through Baalam fails [ch. 22-24]. Note also, that God himself strikes Israel for it with a plague in which 24,000 in Israel die [25:9]. God is not partial. Sin will be punished, and will FIRST be punished in his own people [lots of references to that all through the Bible, ask me if you need more].
Second, it is on the explicit command of the Lord to Moses. The Israelites have not dreamed this up themselves. It was not their "idea" to go to war. Interesting observation for later: In the end among the spoils are 32,000 girls/women who have never slept with a man [i.e. have been innocent of this seduction to idolatery by offering sex]. What does that say about the number of men they fought against? 32,000 virgin women usually have brothers and fathers in military age. 50,000 might not be unrealistic [though I am speculating here]. Now the interesting bit: Moses after instructed by God, sends only 12 x 1,000 into battle, i.e. a "small" army against a big enemy. The meaning of that will come later.
Also [verse 2], Moses who is asked to announce this command, will have no part of the spoil. This is his last act as leader of Israel, after it (as God told him) he will die.
I don't know to say much more here. Main point is: It is a definite command of God, it is a punishment of the LORD to the evil of the Midianites [after the Israelites have already been punished in chapter 25], and it is "the Lord's battle", what is especially to be seen in verse 49. It was not a "normal, human battle".
In comparison with what comes next, one might remark that the Midianites in a certain sense had "not been on the Lord's program" of punishment. They have forced themselves into it by their attempt to stand against God plan of leading his people Israel into the land he had promised them. Therefore the "procedures" are a bit different than all the way through Joshua and as announced by Moses before they even enter the land.
[Josh 6:16] Joshua said to the people of Israel, "The Lord has given you the city (of the Canaanites).. all silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron, are c consecrated unto the Lord: They shall come into the treasury of the Lord. The people utterly DESTROYED ALL THAT WAS IN THE CITY, BOTH MAN AND WOMAN, YOUNG AND OLD, AND OX AND SHEEP, AND ASS, WITH THE EDGE OF THE SWORD.
Principle: God's goodness wants to lead us to repentance. [Romans 2:4] But where people consistently resist God, judgement will come [Rom 2:5, both in the day of Judgement as well as in this world.]
The following points are food for thought:
1) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, lived in the land of Canaan and among its inhabitants for around 270 years [100 years Abraham, 180 years Isaac, Jacob for over 130, though much of this is overlapping] and were a living testimony of the true God to these people. They observed that they worshipped a different God than their idols [read how many altars and worship places Abraham etc built], they observed how this God blessed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob abundantly, as well as protected them from much bigger tribes and enemies. Abraham even rescues many of them in one war (Genesis 14). And then he does NOT take any of the spoil for himself, though the rescued ones offer that he can take it all. But he refuses and says: Nobody should say that he has made Abraham rich [all of Abraham's blessing is from God alone] (see Genesis 14).
But these do NOT repent to God despite this great testimony. And God says to Abraham (read all of Genesis 15) that he will give his descendants this land, BUT NOT YET and only 400 years down the road BECAUSE the wickedness of the Amorites [the most prominent among the people, the part mentioned for the totality] has not yet reached its full measure. God sent them true prophets and witnesses and waits 400 years before he finally brings down judgement on these nations in Canaan. This is a very important background to see. Furthermore, it is important to notice, just how abominable their idolatery was [we know quite a bit from archeology today, as well as the Biblical record of it], which included sacrifices of human beings. God said, "that the land itself will vomit them out" [and threatens the same to Israel if they follow in the ways of the idolatery of the land they are going to possess.]
God sends them messengers for 270 years, and waits 400 years after the first announcement to Abraham until he finally judges the abominable practices of these nations. It is God's goodness which is the background. But God's wrath is reality too.
2) God gives the command of total destruction through Moses. But Moses himself will not be part of it. He is not allowed to enter the promised land and not to benefit from the punishment of God's enemies.
3) These commands of complete destruction of the Canaanites are very specific commandments and NOT a general freedom to deal this way with anybody you wish. Israel was never commanded nor promised an expansive kingdom outside the boundaries of Canaan. Israel in THIS instance is God's tool of judgement on the evilness of the inhabitants of Canaan. This cannot and hasn't been "generalized" to other peoples. Not even other idolaterous nations.
4) And this is GOD's judgement. NOTHING is to be taken as personal spoil. EVERYTHING has to be destroyed. The soldiers fight in a battle of the LORD not for their own enrichment. No booty and spoil of war for those who fought. They are God's "method/servants of punishment". It is God's victory and justice alone. In most of these encounters, the Israelites are vastly outnumbered or otherwise in complete disadvantage [Jericho is one point in case]. They are NOT to enter peace treaties with the people of the land until the Israelites have grown stronger and have the power to overcome them. NO, they are to fight the Lord's battle, being completely outnumbered and otherwise handicapped. [read Judges 6 following, where they even have do downsize by God's command, to make completely clear, it was NOT them who won the battle, but the Lord alone]. Not "their strength", but attack under God's specific command and in dependence and trust of God. This is alone the Lord's business, none of theirs. God uses them, he helps them, they will inherit the land HE has promised them, but no personal gain from spoils of war. And even the land is clearly said to belong to the Lord. Nobody gets "personal possession of land", God says "The land is mine, and you are just my tenants". And where the Israelites do not obey [read Joshua 7, Achan taking some of the booty] then God punishes them severely. As well as in later history of their idolatery, God punishes that.
5) Do you believe in Hell? If God can punish people in hell for their sin, why would you have problems if he punishes people on this earth? All this earthly punishment is small against the hell fire. And God is the one who is the Lord of life and death and the one who ends the life of anybody. Usually "one by one", but sometimes like here in greater numbers at once. Are we to question him?
BUT: We do not have the freedom to "claim a command of God for ourselves and then go ahead and eradicate whom we like, with the human power we have". The whole business of God using constantly an "outnumbered" army, makes that clear on top of the fact that back then it only is acting on a very definite and precise commandment of the Lord.
You might compare this with Muhammad and see the differences. Muhammad often makes treaties with the idolators as long as he is still in the minority. [The Israelites were NOT allowed to bond with idolators. Destruction was God's command, and God knew they need his help, since they were few in comparison to the Canaanites.] When Muhammad has grown strong, he comes with the power of his human army. And spoil and booty is the reward of the Muslim armies. Just as for any purely secular army who goes to war for just that.
How do you think these different approaches reflect on the interpretation and the authentication of these actions by God?
My "impression" when I hear some of the hadiths and Islamic history is that it is very different from God's acts in the Bible. Too often Muhammad takes justice in his own hands and decides it with human power where he is able to. That is decidedly very different from what I see God doing through his prophets in the Bible.
I hope this helps to understand more how to view some of the Biblical passages. I do readily confess again: In this there is still much that I don't understand myself.
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