Depicting Immorality in the Bible and Science Fiction

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Every once in a while I run into someone criticizing the Bible because it contains some depiction of someone doing something immoral, usually when the text never endorses that act or even if it's clear from the general context that the narrator considers the act downright evil. For example, Richard Dawkins objects to the story of Jephthah's rash vow, that if God gives him victory he'd sacrifice the first thing coming through his gates to greet him as he returns home, only to be greeted by his daughter, so he sacrifices her. His reason for objecting? Well, Jephthah did something obviously wrong. So the Bible must not be a good guide to immorality.

As has been said many a time, Dawkins would fail an introductory philosophy or religion course if he submitted materials from his book or similar quality work for such classes. This idea that the mere inclusion of an immoral act in a narrative somehow makes that narrative immoral is downright crazy. No one really believes that. Murder mysteries would suddenly because evil, for instance, because a murder does take place in them. You couldn't have crime-fighting stories of any sort, because those would contain evil acts to be fought against.

Nevertheless, despite this idea being absolutely ridiculous, it apparently comes up in contexts that have nothing to do with the Bible. There's been a campaign against the forthcoming Stargate Universe, the third (and I think what may well be the best) series in the Stargate franchise. Darren Sumner of Gateworld has an excellent discussion of what these objections are and why they fail completely.

Aside from the fact that it's pretty dumb to criticize a show you haven't even bothered to wait to see when you have at best partial information, the argument itself seems silly. It's been rumored that there will be some temporary body-switching, with the consciousness of one person controlling the body of someone else in a different galaxy (which the Stargate franchise has done several times before), only this time the controlling parties will have sexual encounters using other people's bodies. That raises obvious moral questions, in particular if the owner of the body in question didn't consent to have their body used this way. But merely depicting them something doesn't imply endorsement, and it's almost certainly true (given what I know from the Stargate writers) that they will want us to question whether this is ok, again assuming no consent (and we haven't been told if there will be consent to use each other's bodies this way by mutual agreement, which for all I know will be part of the arrangement).

The claim (see the comments) is that it's rape, and they shouldn't be depicting it. Well, we don't know if they'll be depicting it. But they do depict rape on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or at least they sometimes come close enough. They did depict rape on Battlestar Galactica. There were people who objected to the latter, but I never understood why the mere depiction of rape, especially when it's absolutely clear that the people doing it are being downright evil, is somehow wrong. It was, in that case, an easy way to show the morally degenerate state of the Pegasus crew under Admiral Cain's command. The Galactica crew were certainly not perfect, but the Pegasus crew had gone well over the edge to true evil. That scene made that abundantly clear, and it was good storytelling.

The difference here, as some commenters in that thread point out, is that main characters carry this out. But main characters can be morally flawed in a good story. They can even be pretty evil. Why is it immoral for a storyteller to have a main character do something as bad as raping someone? I see no argument for this claim anywhere in any of these discussions.

But comparing these two kinds of fallacious criticisms at least helps me understand that such shoddy thinking isn't present just among those seeking to have any argument, no matter how bad, against the Bible. Those who want to have any argument, no matter how bad, against a forthcoming TV show will resort to the same tactics. So maybe this isn't a problem just among those who want to attack Christianity, the Bible, or religion. It occurs much more generally than that.


True that. You're definitely right that having, say, rape in a story can't be taken as an endorsement of rape. In fact, some of the most meaningful stories are those where the main character isn't perfect. It's more true to life, instead of some Hollywood glitz.

I can't remember, does the story of Jephthah clearly show his act as immoral?

Dawkins' argument, if I remember, is that the ambiguous mixing of the moral and immoral in the bible is a strong indicator that it is not the source of morality, not that its inclusion of immoral stories is proof of the bible's immorality.

If we need to decide which stories teach us to be good, then the stories themselves are probably not the only source of that knowledge.

I'm not sure that Dawkins' argument is sound, but I think you may have oversimplified things.

Dawkins' larger argument in that chapter is that the Bible can't be a guide to morality. What he specifically says about Jephthah is that he's an example of someone doing something very bad. In arguing for this he asserts quite plainly that the narrator's attitude toward Jephthah is itself evil, because he claims it presents Jephthah as being a good boy and keeping his promise to cook his daughter. It does no such thing, and biblical scholars who have little interest in preserving the idea of an inerrant Bible have come down on him pretty hard about this.

As for the more general issue, I don't see why it could possibly be bad to tell a story that happens to mix the moral and the immoral when the very point of the book is that moral ambiguity amounded during this period as a result of their following their own ways rather than God's. Jephthah is a perfect illustration of the very message of the book. So even if that were his argument (and I think his actual language about this text shows that it's not), it would be a terrible argument. Any moral person should agree with what this Judges text is saying in its use of Jephthah.

And it's not like the writer (compiler, whatever) doesn't know his audience. He inserts a story of Samson, a Nazarite from birth, eating honey from a corpse (and sharing it with his parents!) without ever mentioning the problem with Nazarites, much less any Jew, doing that sort of thing.

In any story telling, sometimes it's better to let the wrongness of the situation speak on its own without a narrator coming in and saying "By the way..."

OK. I can see how Dawkins (and, by proxy, I) may have been wrong.

I do think it's overreaching to conflate the argument Dawkins made with the one made by the Stargate haters, though. Dawkins' argument is that if the bible tells stories that teach immorality then it is a poor moral guide. The argument the anti-Stargate crusade make is that if Stargate contains immorality then it is immoral.

Dawkins doesn't say the bible should be banned, or even that it shouldn't be read, because it contains immorality. He says it shouldn't be taught as true (or a good place to look for morality).

He's strong in other areas (e.g. biology), but Dawkins sometimes struggles with the context of scripture.

I enjoy reading you. You're well written, and very thorough on the topics you tackle.

They're not the same argument, but they make the same mistake. That mistake is to conclude something about the intention of a narrator from the mere portrayal of an action without regard for whether the narrator might disapprove of that act, and in both cases there are contextual reasons to think the narrator either disapproves of the act or at the very least has a mixed stance toward the act.

Dawkins mistake was factual (or contextual, or something). He believed (or so I infer) that the narrator didn't clearly show disapproval of the story of Jephthah, which would be a [minor] mark against the bible as a moral guide.

In a work of fiction [for entertainment] the narrator's point of view is irrelevant to the audience. It doesn't matter whether Aaron Sorkin wrote the first four seasons of the West Wing for cocaine money, or whether he was trying to convert people to communism, because it's an entertaining show.

I think you're underplaying the derision Dawkins shows for the author of Judges. He speaks as if the narrator thinks Jephthah was being a good guy by dedicating his daughter to God and that she's being a good girl by going along with it. The sarcasm is so deep that there's no way he considers it a minor mark. He thinks what the narrator is doing there is horrific. He describes God's attitude as "looking forward to the promised burnt offering" and the daughter as having "very decently" agreed to be killed. The next thing he goes on to say is that God's divine jealousy (which the Bible consistently reports as loving concern for his people) is akin to "nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind". He's not taking these things to be minor marks.

I totally disagree with you about the narrator. One purpose of much good fiction is to raise philosophical questions that don't come up as easily in our daily thinking about our lives, and really good fiction writers can do so while subtly influencing how we think about such questions. Bad fiction writers often end up trying to do so not so subtly (and often fail at moving people in any direction because of it). But most science fiction writers are especially good at this, and the Stargate writers are no exception. They raise very good questions and have presented the issues in a thoughtful enough way that I usually like the ways they steer the conversation. I use an SG-1 episode for discussions about both capital punishment and whether someone can do terrible evil and be reformable. I use another episode for discussions about skepticism, and it's highly effective, better even than the Matrix movies in some respects. In a fictional work, you get an attitude that usually agrees with the writer and presents things in a way that affects how you think about what the characters are doing. There are ways to present evil in a way that glorifies it. My point here is not to resist that observation. It's merely to note that the presentation of an act in fiction isn't the same thing as the endorsement of that act. A fiction writer can present the act in such a way that it's clearly steering the reader to think of the act as bad or as morally mixed, or a writer can simply present the facts and leave the reader to evaluate it without putting it in a good or bad light or trying to get the reader to sympathize or to be horrified.

You're right, I should have checked Dawkins on this before I engaged (I'm abroad and don't have books). I was unclear when I used 'minor mark,' I meant it as my appraisal, not my interpretation of Dawkins, who considers [most of] the bible to be the work of the proverbial devil (with the exception of a few of Jesus' sermons I believe). I concede my earlier points.

"It's merely to note that the presentation of an act in fiction isn't the same thing as the endorsement of that act. A fiction writer can present the act in such a way that it's clearly steering the reader to think of the act as bad or as morally mixed, or a writer can simply present the facts and leave the reader to evaluate it without putting it in a good or bad light or trying to get the reader to sympathize or to be horrified."
What I was trying to say about the storyteller of fiction was that a fiction writer can endorse an unambiguously evil act and it doesn't really matter. We allow the story to stand on its own. There is a way to depict an evil act in fiction in a way that shows the endorsement of the narrator. That's to present your text as the authoritative moral guide and to unambiguously show acts in such a way that they are lessons to be learned. I am in no way saying that this is my interpretation of Jephthah. I am saying that the author of fiction can write the exact same thing, but presented as a work of fiction the text would lose the endorsement.

What I'm trying to say (very poorly) is that the Bible is not the same as a work of fiction. Its narrator intends something. A given fiction narrator may intend something if he/she so chooses, but we can't assume that he/she does. This extra leeway in our knowledge of the author's intentions is pretty important. We are supposed to take something from the bible, so what we do take is our best interpretation of something that has the narrator's endorsement. This is compared to our best interpretation of something that may or may not have the narrator's endorsement.

I think perhaps I'll choose more stable footing for the next confrontation. Dammit, this was supposed to be my concession post.

"What I was trying to say about the storyteller of fiction was that a fiction writer can endorse an unambiguously evil act and it doesn't really matter. We allow the story to stand on its own. There is a way to depict an evil act in fiction in a way that shows the endorsement of the narrator. That's to present your text as the authoritative moral guide and to unambiguously show acts in such a way that they are lessons to be learned. I am in no way saying that this is my interpretation of Jephthah. I am saying that the author of fiction can write the exact same thing, but presented as a work of fiction the text would lose the endorsement."

This is fragmented and mistake ridden, please ignore.

If you distinguish between the narrator and the author, where it's clear that the narrator is supposed to be evil or to endorse evil in a way that the author isn't expecting the audience to agree with the narrator, then yes. But it's very difficult for an author to pull that off well, especially in a way that the average reader will pick up on it, and most fiction isn't like that.

If jealousy is bad until the adjective ‘divine’ is applied to it, when it becomes good, then perhaps divine behaviour can't be a model for human behaviour or can't be captured in natural language or we’re equivocating or something. If Jephthah was into such games he could have argued that his daughter was not a ‘thing’ but a person; I don’t remember the precise details of the story of course, it’s an old memory, and I can’t even recall the girl’s name. But I think her agreement to the sacrifice doesn’t resolve much. Iphigeneia too agrees to be sacrificed because she sees herself as the destroyer of Troy, the one who’ll bring victory to the Greeks, and considers her dad to be a patriot. Clytaemnestra thinks otherwise though. Agamemnon lured her to Aulis with Iphigeneia on false pretences, unbecoming a king. No hero’s welcome awaits him when he comes back from Troy; it’s death in the bathtub. Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter because he’d insulted Artemis. Perhaps Jephthah’s hubris was that he tried to bribe God, like a corrupt official in a parochial town hall. Stories can’t be a guide to action if some examples are to be emulated and some to be avoided but it’s up to us to decide which is which. Of course actions can be evaluated if we already know what ought to be done and what not, but in that case we don’t need the stories to do ethics. So I can't see why what you call Dawkins' 'larger argument' does not stand or why one should tear any degrees one may have for failing to see that.

I'm not sure I agree that jealousy is always wrong except when it's divine, although I do think it's very hard for anyone to keep it pure jealousy not mixed with other things. It's sort of like anger that way. It's not impossible to be angry at just the right level and not for the wrong reasons, but it's very hard. There would be something wrong with us if we never had negative emotions, because we live in a world that rightly leads to negative evaluations, and since we're emotional beings that should include negative emotions.

Aquinas talked about analogical predication to explain how we could use the same language for God that we use for us. Alston suggested that functionalism could allow for literal use of the same terms when the same word could be applied to two things that are fundamentally different. It's an interesting problem, but it's been a while since I looked into it.

However you deal with such problems, I don't think it's necessarily a problem, as long as you think through the differences between how a perfect being embodies moral perfection and how the same virtuous traits should appear in someone imperfect responding to other imperfect people.

You might be right that part of the problem with Jephthah is the attempt to bribe God, but I think the deeper problem is how he did so. He made a rash vow whose consequences any clear thinker could have realized might easily lead to what it led to, and then he kept the vow when it required him doing something pretty horrendous because he took one moral rule to be absolute even in cases where it makes him violate another moral rule. Both moral rules are found in Torah commands, but one has a much older pedigree than the other (in the biblical order of presentation, at least, and I take that to be important). The death penalty for murder goes back to Genesis 9 with Noah (and there are indications of it in Genesis 4 with Cain). The law about vows is a particular law in the Mosaic law code, which had ways of redeeming an animal or person dedicated to God so that it need not be sacrificed. Jephthah not only didn't avail himself of such methods, but he placed a command that merely has a monetary penalty over a command whose penalty in the Torah is death.

So in the context of ancient Israel's own legal code, you can give a pretty good explanation of what was wrong with what he did, and I think the author assumes any reader will recognize that. This isn't just a matter of using a story as a moral guide by deciding which people to emulate. The way it's a moral guide is by showing how badly things can go if you're not following the clear moral teaching elsewhere. It's exemplary in a moral way, but it's not as if you just pick and choose which people to see as good models and which to see as bad models. You begin with a moral framework already, and the Hebrew prophets relied on this, both in their narrative (Judges is considered part of the Former Prophets, which consist mostly of narrative) and in their prophetic speeches.

This isn't true of all narrative passages, either. There are plenty where the narrative describes God's reaction either by including a speech from God (often through a prophet) or by including a divine consequence in response to how someone acts.

As for Dawkins, he wouldn't be so bad if all he said is that you can't use the Bible as a guide unless you use the clear moral teachings to interpret and understand some of the narrative portions. But that's not his claim. His claim ignores the different genres in scripture and shows little indication that he wants to think through the difficult hermeneutical issues that biblical scholars, teachers of scripture, and ordinary believes have spent a lot of time thinking through. He makes it sound as if a believer who uses scripture as a moral guide should be able to use every passage as a moral guide in a way that you can just read off the text whether any act depicted it in is good or bad, and often it's not like that. Then he dismisses the entire thing because some passages aren't as easy as others to interpret in terms of the moral issues going on, when some of the examples he gives are designed to show morally mixed people as examples of how Israel had compromised themselves during a very dark period where God was both judging Israel and protecting them, often by means of the same person who led and protected them. It really is a terrible argument. There are other arguments he gives in the same section that aren't anywhere near that bad. I wasn't commenting on them. It would take a lot more work to do that. I'm just saying that particular component of his argument isn't very good.

I did try to indicate how I thought Aquinas & co could have helped Jephthah try to wiggle and argue his way out of a rush promise to God, but if the employment of scholastic arguments would have made God angry I'd side with God.

I guess I can’t see why one would use a chess board to show what white looks like. But since the same board could be used to illustrate what’s white and what’s not white, I may not be able to tell of any individual tile if it’s the colour I’m meant to be shown or the contrast. Nor can I see how blurry areas dispersed at random intervals can be intended to show ‘how badly things can go if you're not following the clear moral teaching elsewhere’ if I can’t 'clearly' tell whether I’m ‘here’ or ‘elsewhere’ or where I ought to be really. I don’t know if the Bible was written more for the benefit of Bible scholars than of those poor in spirit, but I doubt the latter can excel in the intellectual acrobatics reputedly performed by the former; I certainly can’t. For example, I fail to appreciate the significance of temporal precedence in a hierarchy of moral prescriptions unless Jesus’ teaching isn’t really that important. And if the penalty for murder goes back to Genesis I don’t see how e.g. Abraham’s story is any less ambiguous than Jephthah’s. Abraham seems oblivious to that penalty and to any precedence of a Genesis command over God’s current command and to the inconsistency between the two. But God doesn’t make a second personal appearance to Abraham to repeal anything, which may be significant. Perhaps the angel involved was working for the other side and God doesn’t ‘really’ disapprove of human sacrifice. Or perhaps God doesn’t disapprove of the sacrifice only of females. Whilst I can discern apparent inconsistency between the two stories, I don’t find there’s something blindingly obvious about Abraham’s story compared to Jephthah’s. Nor do I think Abraham was left any less a broken man. Perhaps such stories are about tragic conflict and the predicament of humans as the toys of fate. One doesn’t need to disapprove of patricide or incest to appreciate the irony of Oedipus’s destiny being brought about through his very struggle to escape it. You’ve referred to the Sermon on the Mount a couple of times; I think Jesus would take Abraham to have already killed his son ‘in his heart’. Did you ever wonder how Abraham and Isaac could bear to look each other in the eye since? I still wonder.

I'm not actually talking about a chessboard to illustrate what white looks like. I'm talking about illustrating (1) the principle that in a fallen world you have fallen people by showing examples of fallen people and (2) the downward spiral that comes from not following God by narrating events that go in a downward spiral when people don't follow God. That seems to me to be the main theme of Judges, and Jephthah is part of the illustration of decreasing goodness in the sequence of leaders in his not-so-good moments.

It's not intellectual acrobatics to recognize that there are shady characters doing even the best deeds during a dark time in Israel's history when most everyone did what was right in their own eyes (to use the language of the book itself). Christians throughout history have recognized this. It's not as if it's the fruit only of modern biblical scholarship.

There are a lot of differences between Abraham and Jephthah. Jephthah makes a rash vow. Abraham is carrying out the ongoing covenant relationship with God and obeying a command from God. He must have thought God wouldn't allow him to succeed in eliminating the very son God had promise to him. There's nothing like that in the Jephthah case. This fact both explains why Abraham might trust God and carry out his instructions and why we should take the appearance of the ram to be God's own act.

I don't think Jesus would take Abraham to have killed Isaac in his heart, because he wasn't acting based on anger to Abraham. Jesus says anger is killing in your heart, not reluctantly carrying out a command by God that, were things otherwise, he'd be as opposed to as anyone could be.

As for his relationship with Isaac, I'm sure he told him the whole story and explained that God wanted to see if he would trust him to the point of being willing to give up the one thing he'd waited so many decades for but also told him that his trust included a trust that God wouldn't revoke the promise, which meant Isaac would remain at the end somehow. The author of Hebrews says as much, actually, taking Abraham to have thought Isaac would be resurrected, which I think is plausible given the other beliefs he would have brought into the situation.

I’m afraid I just can’t picture Abraham and Isaac sorting it out over a nice cup of tea and living happily ever after; I don’t see how anyone may ‘reluctantly’ cut a child’s throat, like a bored firing squad member who aims and yawns and dreams of a pint down the pub once off-duty. Where’s your sense of drama? And I can’t see why you let Abraham off so lightly either, compared to Jephthah: Wasn’t Abraham as oblivious to the ‘precedence rule’? How did he fail to spot the contradiction between God’s commands? Wasn’t that an indication that God might also just take back any promises made earlier? Didn’t Abraham know that the penalty for murder was death? Didn’t he consider that breaking a vow only had a monetary penalty attached to it, so that if God broke a vow to Abraham all he’d get was some money? (Or rather his widow would get it since Abraham would have been executed.) So Abraham is no subtle thinker either, it seems to me; it’s evident you’re more sympathetic to what Abraham did than what Jephthah did, but your reasons why aren’t clear to me at all. Perhaps Jephthah went ahead with the sacrifice expecting God to stop him; God could have easily sent him a ram too, or a ewe maybe.

I wonder if it would have made a difference if it was Jephthah’s mum or dad who’d turned out to greet him first. Why isn’t his daughter just ‘opaque’ to him as a candidate for burning at all? He seems to count her as a possession to be disposed of, at his pleasure or to his detriment, but his to dispose of nonetheless and that’s the underlying concern for me: Patriarchy, slavery and property rights. Where’s Jephthah’s wife in all this, what does she think and does she get to have a say? Did Jephthah’s marriage survive the daughter’s sacrifice any better than Agamemnon’s? You’re solving a problem I don’t have by suggesting that Jephthah was no good at maths and didn’t make the rational decision to break the rule with the minimum cost to him; because you take the cost to the girl to be reducible to the cost to Jephthah if he kills the girl, her having no rights. So problem formulation can be as ‘theory-laden’ as Jephthah’s perception of his daughter was. And all the same questions apply to Abraham, e.g. would it have made any difference if God had asked him to sacrifice the neighbour’s kid and why would it have made a difference? It’s not that there may be no easy way out, it’s that there may be nothing to get out of if it’s not ethics we’re talking about; if it’s e.g. about socio-linguistic conventions or the hazards of rational decision making in the absence of spreadsheets at Jephthah’s time.

But you have Bibles for breakfast while I admit I take Dawkins to be theologically sophisticated compared to myself, which you may find funny; and that I take your ‘precedence rule’ to entail that the first and foremost sin is doing philosophy, which you may not find so funny! Anyway, I think you’ve realised I was just struck by what I took to be an insinuation re people’s credentials, as if one would look down on Socrates because he lacked any; but you’ve made it abundantly clear you didn’t mean it that way.

I agree with you that the issue goes wider than the Bible: You’re right to point out that it’s always possible to drive a wedge between the author and persona/‘voice’/perspective etc. I admit I can’t see why the author of a manual would employ literary devices that might obscure the message and confuse the reader, but I grant that any author may be morally exonerated, at a price: The cost is that we subsequently ought to give up on any claim as to what that author’s moral views are. So I think I can agree with you and also agree with Dawkins that the Bible can’t be a moral guide: Once the wedge is in place it does take audacity to sort the ‘clear’ moral teaching from the rest, where one’s only reading-off what one’s importing into a text.

Abraham didn't have the Mosaic law, which came later. What he did have is an assurance of an outcome from a divine being who promised something, delayed to the point where action on the promise would require a miracle, and nonetheless delivered.

He may well have supposed that the general prohibition on killing would allow for exceptions, as he apparently thought with cases of war, since he did go to war to rescue his family from kings of other peoples. I assume he figured the very God who instituted the rule could exempt it in a particular case. There was a divine command in his case, where there wasn't in Jephthah's.

Also, this isn't just a matter of what was right. The point I was making about Jephthah wasn't just that what Jephthah did was wrong. It's that the book itself seems to present it in a context that shows increasing departure of Israel's leadership from behaving in a way that was right and gradual abandonment of God, whereas Genesis portrays Abraham's act as trusting in God. Dawkins fails to see that about the book of Judges in a way that shows no sensitivity to the literary purposes of the book he's discussing. My argument against Dawkins should be clear to someone who doesn't see any divine intention behind any biblical text. The issues you're raising do come up for someone who does, but they're irrelevant to the point I'm making about Dawkins.

The general point I'm making is that the Bible can be a moral guide without being the kind of crude "do whatever any character in it does" kind of manual that Dawkins seems to think it has to be to be a moral guide. You're right to say that if it's a guide it's not so clear as to be what Dawkins thinks someone like me must take it to be, but that doesn't mean it can't be a guide. Jews and Christians alike have long taken the process of interpretation to include a lot more than just the simplistic sort of thing you find in the most extreme fundamentalist circles. But that's compatible with taking it to be God's inspired word that is useful for finding out a fair amount of what God wants us to be like.

‘Abraham didn't have the Mosaic law, which came later.’ You caught me there! It still sounds audacious to me to accuse Dawkins of showing ‘no sensitivity to the literary purposes of the book he's discussing’, when the issue at stake is precisely that: As I suggested, I don’t see on what grounds you may claim that the Bible can be a moral guide after the 'moral exoneration wedge' is in place: If there are several wedges, to be selectively inserted 'just where moral exoneration is required', then all the questions are begged. For millennia, Jews and Christians alike have been projecting their approval of slavery onto the Bible: That’s a pretty basic one to get wrong, I think, so I don’t know what ‘a fair amount’ can be anyway. To me, it’s entirely ambiguous what the moral message in the Abraham and Jephthah stories is, if any; and I’m bracketing off the patriarchy since it permeates both.

I grant that when Jephthah makes his bargain with God he’s taking chances: To impress perhaps, to show that he’s genuine and means business, that he thinks nothing can be too much for God. Should he have qualified saying that his daughter would be too much for God to have? Abraham certainly didn’t dare say Isaac was too much for God to have. So Jephthah’s failure to qualify can’t make Jephthah blameworthy if Abraham isn’t. Also, Jephthah’s daughter agrees to the sacrifice. She gets the chance to do that because Jephthah presumably comes clean with her about his vow; he doesn’t just lead the girl to her slaughter under false pretences. But we don’t know that Isaac was willing to bear the cost of what Abraham was willing to give up. Because unlike Jephthah’s daughter Isaac was apparently misled as to what was going on. Abraham seems cunning; he’s not being straight with his son: Is he afraid Isaac will try to run away?

Jephthah takes himself to be bound to act in compliance with his own proclamation, and does so. He’s a tragic hero. He doesn’t hire Aquinas & co to bail him out. There’s something naïve but also pure as Jephthah sticks to his promise to God and bears the cost. How can this be a context of departure from ‘a way that was right and gradual abandonment of God’? Abraham just goes along with a God who’s apparently self-contradicting because Abraham believes that (a) God has a right to revise own proclamations, and (b) God will comply with own proclamations, which sounds absurd. Abraham’s being no less naïve, or ‘stupid’ than Jephthah. And if Abraham believed God could bring Isaac back to life, then Abraham is taking a gamble too.

So I can’t see where Jephthah goes wrong unless Abraham also goes wrong, and I think I can see where Abraham goes wrong and Jephthah doesn’t. And both stories are equally about broken relationships and people smashed to bits: Nobody ‘gets spared’. Perhaps people can get resurrected. I claim trust is beyond resurrection; and Isaac’s trust has been betrayed. Have you ever tried to get into his sandals? You said Abraham would explain what ‘God wanted to see’, but what may the omniscient ‘want to see’? That’s a human prerogative. The omnipotent needs no agents to get things done either; so this wasn’t about Isaac dying: It was about Abraham killing. So Abraham did ‘see’ something, about himself; and he would have to live with that ever after. Sophie’s choice made no more difference to her kids’ fate than Abraham’s made to Isaac’s fate; but Sophie had to go on living knowing she’d made that choice, and that’s what made the difference.

So I’m amazed you seem so confident in disapproving of Jephthah while approving of Abraham or what they did as if you can clearly discern what ‘God wants us to be like’: How can you claim to be able to detect divine approval if the command from God to ‘kill Isaac’ was not a sign of approval? And how can you claim to be able to detect divine disapproval if the sign was that Abraham was stopped in his tracks when Jephthah wasn’t?

Even if you don't want to grant that the Jephthah account in isolation clearly teaches what I'm saying it says, I don't think I need that for my argument. My argument is simply that the Jephthah account, in context, can't be taken the way Dawkins takes it. It appears in a longer work, the book of Judges. Judges portrays the period between Joshua and Samuel, during which a downward spiral of moral ambiguity appears not just in the people of Israel but in their leaders, the ones the book itself says God appointed to lead them and bring about their freedom from oppressive control by other nations.

Barak is hesitant to do what God tells him to do through the prophet Deborah and is disciplined by not being able to deliver the killing blow to the oppressive foreign ruler (it is even given to a woman).

Gideon needs several signs from God before he's willing to lead, and he has to include himself in his war cry "For Yahweh and for Gideon". He doesn't just attack the enemies of his people, but he even kills those who refuse to fight against the Midianites. He refuses to be made king afterward, but he does construct an idol for the people to worship, and his son Abimelech was a truly wicked man, killing all his brothers so he could become the king his father refused to be.

Samson was dedicated from the womb to a special vow of holiness, including abstention from alcohol and not cutting his hair. But he has no problem scooping honey out of a corpse, which anyone in ancient Israel would have seen as the most unclean act. He's given strength by God, but he's willing to attribute it to all manner of things instead when pressured to give up his secret. When he finally gets sick of it, he says one thing that isn't his secret (because his strength comes from God, not some magical property of his hair) but amounts to a violation of his oath, since he had every reason to believe she would cut his hair given her response to his previous lies about the cause of his strength.

The book ends with several accounts of fighting within Israel itself and not just with enemies that seem intended to demonstrate just how bad things can get if there's no one enforcing justice and enforcing rules for how the various tribes and individual players within Israel should be interacting.

Jephthah appears right between Gideon and Samson as the penultimate judge of the book. It's very hard to accept the overall point of the book as consistent with Jephthah's being seen as a righteous man in all his doings. I'm not sure there's a lot else in Jephthah's segment of the book that seems all that problematic, so I don't think it fits well with the narrative structure of the book to take the book as endorsing what he does in this episode as being morally praiseworthy. In the narrative of the book, the story has to be indicating how morally problematic Jephthah is.

Also, there's a big difference with the Abraham account. In the Abraham account, we're told that God tells him to do what he does. There's nothing like that in the Jephthah account. It's Jephthah's idea to make the vow, and it's Jephthah's idea to carry it out, and I suspect his motivation was that he'd lose face if he didn't. But the author/editors of the Genesis account about Abraham do say that God told Abraham to do what he was about to do and that God's angel appeared to Abraham to tell him at the last moment not to do it but to sacrifice the ram instead. The angel tells him he'll be blessed for being willing to give up the promise God had given him. You don't have any such thing in Judges.

Furthermore, Dawkins' claim is that the Bible can't be a source of moral teaching. That means to test his claim we'd have to consider the Bible as a whole. Hebrews chapter 11 also specifically calls Abraham's act an act of faith and says that Abraham expected Isaac to be resurrected (and then parenthetically says that he did receive Isaac back from death figuratively). The same chapter mentions Jephthah among a number of other figures, but it doesn't credit him with anything specific. It does list examples of things the people listed with him did (several of them mixed figures discussed above), and the only things close to his own deeds are military accomplishments. This would have been an easy place to draw the parallel between Abraham and Jephthah if there were one to be drawn.

So I don't think it's fair to the text to say that Jephthah is in the same epistemic situation as Abraham. Abraham has been given reason previously to trust God as good and as able to follow through on his promises. He's given a command that doesn't make sense to him, but he follows it. Jephthah rashly makes a vow without thinking about the consequences but isn't presented with a situation by God to test his faith. His situation is a result of his own actions, actions he shouldn't have taken.

You're right that Abraham does engage in deception of a sort. But keep in mind that (if we take Dawkins' task seriously as an examination of the view that the entire Bible is a source of moral guidance) other parts of the Bible shed light on this text. According to Hebrews 11:17, Abraham did think he'd have to kill Isaac, but he didn't think God would leave things at the end of it all with a dead Isaac. With the various things that didn't fit together well, his conclusion was that God would honor his promise and resurrect Isaac. It didn't occur to him that God would just tell him not to do it at the last minute. But his approach to the situation is to favor the God he trusts more than what he knows about how the world works when you ignore this God whose works of miracles he's already seen (e.g. Isaac's own existence is the result of something that seems biologically impossible). All the while he might have been hoping God would do something to resolve the confusion, which is what the account says God did, but he just hadn't thought what that might be. I can see how he might think it unwise to bring all these confusing things into Isaac's mind when Isaac didn't actually have to do anything. It doesn't have to be because he thought Isaac would run away. We're not told how old Isaac was either, except that he was old enough to talk. Abraham's statement that God would provide the sacrifice does move in that direction, even if it doesn't necessarily anticipate the means of it (with an outright revocation of the command).

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