First, every person is informed in their reading of the Bible by moral (and rational) intuitions. Tolstoy believed that witnessing the act of killing another person punitively allowed him to see it was wrong. I agree with him on that. I suspect we would also agree that this moral perception is a God-given truth-producing faculty. You might consider it one of the deliverances of what is classically called "general revelation".
Second, as long time readers of my blog would know, I take a Christocentric approach to reading the Bible. I believe that Jesus unveils the illegitimacy of redemptive violence. And that becomes a key principle to read the rest of the Bible.
Finally, we need to deal with the facile assumption that the Bible is a revelation something like the Qur'an. It isn't. While I do believe that every word of the Bible is minimally human words that were divinely appropriated, that doesn't mean that the human voice is equivalent to the divine voice.
Last week the world gaped in horror at a photo posted to Instagram by Jihadist Khaled Sharrouf. The photo depicts Sharrouf’s seven year old son proudly holding up the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier. The moral judgment was unequivocal. “Appalling!” “Disgusting!” “Evil!”
This moral revulsion provides an opportune time to turn to one of the most familiar stories in the Bible, one that has provided fodder for countless Sunday school lessons. As you might have guessed, I speak of David’s defeat of Goliath in 1 Samuel 17.
While we don’t know David’s age, he is described as a “youth” (KJV) or “little more than a boy” (NIV) (v. 42). Both of these are translations of the Hebrew “na`ar” . (Cf. “na’ar,” Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, ed. Stephen Renn (Hendrickson, 2005), p. 176.)
One can surmise that he was not a diminutive child given that Saul, an individual of formidable size, attempts to dress David in his own tunic (v. 38), not to mention David’s impressive claim to have defeated both lion and bear (v. 36). Regardless, even if David was a formidable young man, he was still likely in his pre-teen or early teen years.
So how old was David, exactly? We don’t know, but we can make a ballpark guess. David was the youngest of eight sons, the eldest three of whom had followed their father into battle (vv. 12-14), a fact that suggests the youngest five were not yet of battle age.
So it is likely that David was about 5-6 years older than the son of Khaled Sharrouf. With this in mind, let’s revisit the horror of witnessing Sharrouf’s son carrying the Syrian soldier’s head. Would our moral assessment have changed if the boy had been 12 or 13? Or would we still consider that an act of indefensible barbarism?
And the issue is not merely about the involvement of children.
In our day and age we generally consider the desecration of corpses (whether of civilians or soldiers) to be morally indefensible.
And that includes the beheading of corpses whilst treating the head as a trophy.
This leaves us with some important questions. Does this divergence between our sensibilities and those of the ancient Israelites reflect merely culturally relative differences? If so, then it follows that we might be mistaken to extend a moral censure to the practice in contemporary Syria. But if we insist that the desecration of corpses in this manner is objectively morally wrong how should we think of the practice in ancient Israel?