Question: The Torah is filled with stories of the early Jews making war on the various locals as they enter the “promised land”, and killing every man, woman, and child in a given village. In some cases they even killed the animals. In one case Moses himself saw his men returning with some local women and children, and ran out and ordered them killed on the spot, lest they create “impurities” in the Jewish camp. In another case he ordered all locals killed, except young women who “have known no man”. These his men could keep.
How can we reconcile this mass murder ordered by Moses with his status among Jews as a prophet and holy person?? He appears to be a murderer on a grand scale. How can the Torah be filled with murder, rape, adultry, idol worship, conquest, etc., from front to back, and still be considered the “Divine Word of God”. Many of my Christian friends have the same questions, and never get a useful answer from priest or pastor. I believe in the one God, may his name be blessed, but I do have a problem with all this murder, rape, etc. in the Torah.
Answer: First of all, I am unaware of any reference in the Torah to any act of rape, adultery or idol worship that was sanctioned or encouraged by either Moses or the Torah itself. So that leaves killing and conquest. These references do exist and can easily and understandably cause discomfort.
Now, if someone were to consider the Torah to be a fraud which only claimed to be the word of God (see Deut. 31:24), but was really created by human beings, then these brutal acts are indefensible. Which moral human being could possibly order such acts? However, we believe that the Torah is actually a true record of God’s communication with Moses. Based on that assumption, Moses never ordered any violence nor did he initiate any conquest. Everything was God’s will (see Deut. 7:1).
What is morality? You might like to read my essay on subjectivity here, which discusses the inherent difficulties that exist in establishing absolute principles of good and evil from a secular perspective. Without God input, any values we adopt are always subject to debate and change. 500 years ago there weren’t many who questioned the moral right of the Spanish to virtually eradicate native populations in the Americas. Today, standards have changed. Tomorrow they’ll change again…and no one can say in which direction.
Jews (and others) who believe in a personal God who created this world and is its true master, will consider His definition of justice to be absolute. Even if we can’t understand it, if God wills that one nation should conquer another then it isn’t just His right, it is intrinsically moral.
I hope this is helpful.
With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton