Micah Redding — faith in humanity's future

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Ancient Israelite Violence and The Morality of Roadkill

This morning I started thinking about a Jewish law which prohibits prostitutes from putting money into the temple treasury. I’ve always had a problem with this idea - after all, why should you avoid doing something good (contributing to the temple) just because you did something bad (prostitution) in the past? And why shouldn’t the temple accept this money for the good of the society? And since all money is the same, the money will ultimately become part of the broader economy anyway, and eventually make its way into the temple treasury.

So what’s the problem? Why this concern?

I think what the law is trying to do is to build compassion. If we accept the benefits of certain activities (prostitution, thievery, warfare), it becomes very hard for us to mentally separate ourselves from those activities. The benefits coming to us become a corrupting force, sneaking into our consciousness, and contaminating our entire selves.

I’m not an ethical vegetarian (I’m a “taste” vegetarian), but this is really easy to see when applied to animals. There are some vegans who will not buy meat (for fear of encouraging animal slaughter), but who will eat meat that is already killed (roadkill, for example - I’m not making this up).

But this becomes really problematic. If you eat and enjoy dead animal flesh, but don’t believe in killing animals, what is your secret wish? Wouldn’t you slowly begin hoping to find a dead animal? Wouldn’t you begin wishing to find an animal killed in an accident? Wouldn’t your compassion for animals ultimately become warped into a kind of moral absolutism, and an attempt to find loopholes? What would keep you from gradually accepting free burgers from friends, eventually even suggesting they buy them for you?

At some point your rational moral stance becomes a rationalization for whatever you want to do.

In contrast, if you refuse animal meat whatsoever, your compassion will gradually become strengthened. Eating meat will seem more and more strange to you. The horror of animal death will become clearer and clearer. You will become a more and more extreme vegan.

It occurs to me that this is connected to the ancient Israelite wars.

In the early parts of the Jewish bible, there is a lot of bothersome destruction - cases where God apparently commands his people to go in and kill men, women, and children. This purported genocide of the native Canaanites is a tough point in the bible, making it hard to argue for the morality Jesus exhorted.

A lot of people have spent great effort defending the rightness of this slaughter at that particular point in history. I’m not going to get into that quagmire. What I want to do instead, is question what the text might be telling us on a larger level.

A curious fact about this destruction is that in many of the cases, the Israelites were ordered to utterly destroy everything taken in the battle. They were to take no plunder, no spoils, because this destruction was to be “holy”.

Joshua 6-7 gives the account of Achan keeping some plunder from the destruction of Jericho for himself. As a result, the Israelites are punished (losing their next battle), until they find out about the offending contaminant hidden among them. Once they have rectified this problem (killing Achan and burning everything he took), they return to their successful campaign.

Why is this so important?

Even in these early, brutal chapters of the bible, we see a move away from violence. The identity of the Israelite people was never supposed to be a conquering empire, but a peaceful society living within its own borders. And as a result, it was important that Israel not become addicted to killing, not begin to value death for its own benefits, and certainly not to value conquest for what spoils they could take. *

King David, later on, becomes the subject of just this sort of distancing. His successful but violent kingship “did what was necessary” for Israel to become established, but he is forbidden from creating a temple. He is a violent man, and the temple will not benefit so directly from the results of violence.

If you’re reading this as an attempt to defend the violence that happened, don’t.

But if you live in an extremely brutal world and society, and you wish to move towards compassion, what is your first step? Wouldn’t it be to introduce space between the necessity of violence you see around you, and the enjoyment of that violence? Wouldn’t it be to remove the profit motive of killing, eradicating that particular “conflict of interest”? And wouldn’t it ultimately be to establish the concept of an idealized “holy space”, which might acknowledge the existence of terrible things in the world around it, but would never allow them to enter its own peaceful sanctuary?


1) An ethical vegetarian refuses to eat animals because of concern for animal rights. I choose not to eat meat because I don’t like the taste/texture/concept. So I call myself a “taste vegetarian”. Nevertheless, above, I’m arguing using ethical vegetarian thought-processes.

2) In fact, some of the most brutal elements of these stories (killing women and children), should possibly be read as a refusal to benefit from war. At this point in time, women captives would have been considered plunder. Killing them instead is a move to prevent the most extreme forms of war-lust from taking hold.

Next: Ancient Israelite Violence and The Christian View of The Old Testament



I think Tolstoy is remembered to have said, "As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be war." After becoming vegetarian in 2006, the impact is still beyond imagining, not only in the reduction of health issues, but in the broadening of one's heart and perspective towards life, and a deeper kind of love that isn't from so much preference for what one likes and attachment, but one more benevolent towards others (at least, that is the direction of it). There are "holy places" already established for the public in the States and elsewhere for those who would like to review, reflect and correct ourselves according to one's realization. I call them holy because they are purified in that no animal flesh or other foods with negative impacts are brought, prepared or consumed there by sincere cultivators. It is not a requirement to be vegetarian to participate in classes and events there, but all meals provided are vegetarian. The guideline is to give it a try and review how it impacts one's heart. Most everyone who comes there to cultivate oneself is ready to give it a try, once the benefits of doing so are shared with them (and the food happens to be very tasty, like you say). These gathering places are the most peaceful and harmonious places I have ever been--it can be just as when we are viewing a beautiful scene in nature, except we realize we are a part of that scene, not just an observer. I have not experienced the same kind of settleness in places where the focus is worshipping certain saints, saviors or messengers whose essential message was mercy, love and compassion, but whose reflecting environment has not been purified in such a way. The trouble with profit is, when we are looking for it as our determining factor of what is the proper thing to do, we can be limited by our short-sighted understanding of life, as a timeline from beginning to end only. Profit is not the end result, but simply part of cycle of sowing and reaping. Sowing and reaping are subject to factors and circumstances, some of which are beyond human control--just an apple seed will always produce an apple, but the quality of the seed, the pH of the soil, the amount of sunlight and water received by the plant, and even some unknowable factors will impact the quality of the fruit. Everything in heaven and on earth is according to a joint effort between the two. Human beings are the bridge--as such a precious and important part of the continuum of life, the question arises, why would a merciful and compassionate omnipotent being encourage the killing of one people in order to establish another? I agree it is difficult to know whether truly the Israelites were following the "will of God" or the human heart focused on bliss and survival. Yet though one cannot be sure, still it is worthwhile to do as you have done; not just assume it was right or wrong according to what we prefer to believe, but most especially, if we have a preference in thinking one way or the other, to ask ourselves to determine a good reason the opposite could also be true. This helps us release our attachment to our own thinking, and broaden the heart. Also, in this way, we begin to see that truth is applied according to the situation. Perhaps the situation had something to do with the group's affinity from their previous causes, it may have been their time to harvest what had been previously sowed (though not necessarily from their current lifetime). For all we know, the people being killed were the fishermen previously and the Israelites were the fish. It was time for fishermen to reap what they had sown, to realize the pain of the hook and knife. Yet for the Isrealites to go beyond that, to steal and commit adultery (taking the "spoils of war" as their own), would create another cycle of bad seeds sown. They're called spoils for a reason. However, one cannot be sure God was so personally involved in guiding them to do so, no matter what someone once said that was written down and one day became known as biblical truth. In fact, the heavenly wisdom of our conscience does not demand (which is why it is so easy to ignore), so if the guidance to kill a people came from a heavy demand and command, it is hard to say whether that was from heart of heaven. In the end, one always has a choice whether or not to kill. It is not necessary to kill to live, and ultimately, how long the body survives is once again, a joint effort between heaven, earth and human beings. So if we make survival our goal, but we still don't understand the ultimate meaning of life, we may survive only to do our eternal heart more damage than good. Ultimately, then, our survival is meaningless, if the purpose of life has something to do with purifying and refining that eternal heart. It came to mind what originally inspired your thought began from another "end does/does not justify the means" situation. If the end is our focus, then, generally, we may be working from a more short-sighted perspective than focusing on whether what we are doing is benefitting others as well as oneself. This is why enlightened saints have guided sincere cultivators to be cautious of our causes. But ultimately, it depends; it depends whether our end is an eternal or long-lasting positive one, or one with a more limited positive impact. And we need to be cautious in thinking that our "good" is the same as heaven's--you know what they say about roads paved with good intentions.