Collateral Damage Killing- Is It Ever Justifiable?

Sodom and Gomorrah #4 (Genesis 18:25)

Students often ask, “what is this chapter about?”  My answer is always the same, โ€œany chapter of the Bible is never about a thing. It is always about many things.โ€ Some would go as far as to claim that each chapter of the Bible is about everything.

I do not know if โ€˜everythingโ€™ is true. But among the many things this chapter tells us about is collateral damage. That is, is it justified to punish the innocent together with the guilty?

In the previous post, Abraham started his defence: โ€œWill you exterminate the righteous together with the wicked?โ€ Now, as a good lawyer, he builds up on this emotional plea and adds a logical argument.  

Isnโ€™t that the way we all operate? Once we are emotionally convinced, we need logic to justify our conviction? This is what every good lawyer does. First, they convince you, and then they give you the reason so you can justify your conviction to yourself and to others. This is the method Abraham is teaching us as the defence in the trial in front of God.

ื›ื”  ื—ึธืœึดืœึธื” ืœึฐึผืšึธ ืžึตืขึฒืฉึนื‚ืช ื›ึทึผื“ึธึผื‘ึธืจ ื”ึทื–ึถึผื”, ืœึฐื”ึธืžึดื™ืช ืฆึทื“ึดึผื™ืง ืขึดื-ืจึธืฉึธืืข, ื•ึฐื”ึธื™ึธื” ื›ึทืฆึทึผื“ึดึผื™ืง, ื›ึธึผืจึธืฉึธืืข; ื—ึธืœึดืœึธื” ืœึธึผืšึฐ–ื”ึฒืฉึนืืคึตื˜ ื›ึธึผืœ-ื”ึธืึธืจึถืฅ, ืœึนื ื™ึทืขึฒืฉึถื‚ื” ืžึดืฉึฐืืคึธึผื˜.ื›ื”  ื—ึธืœึดืœึธื” ืœึฐึผืšึธ ืžึตืขึฒืฉึนื‚ืช ื›ึทึผื“ึธึผื‘ึธืจ ื”ึทื–ึถึผื”, ืœึฐื”ึธืžึดื™ืช ืฆึทื“ึดึผื™ืง ืขึดื-ืจึธืฉึธืืข, ื•ึฐื”ึธื™ึธื” ื›ึทืฆึทึผื“ึดึผื™ืง, ื›ึธึผืจึธืฉึธืืข; ื—ึธืœึดืœึธื” ืœึธึผืšึฐ–ื”ึฒืฉึนืืคึตื˜ ื›ึธึผืœ-ื”ึธืึธืจึถืฅ, ืœึนื ื™ึทืขึฒืฉึถื‚ื” ืžึดืฉึฐืืคึธึผื˜.
It would be desecration (not a literal translation)ื—ึธืœึดืœึธื” ืœึฐึผืšึธ
chalila lecha
If you did such a thingืžึตืขึฒืฉึนื‚ืช ื›ึทึผื“ึธึผื‘ึธืจ ื”ึทื–ึถึผื”
meโ€™asot kadavar haze
to kill the righteous together with the wickedืœึฐื”ึธืžึดื™ืช ืฆึทื“ึดึผื™ืง ืขึดืืจึธืฉึธืืข
lehamit tsadik eim rasha
That will make the righteous the same as the wickedื•ึฐื”ึธื™ึธื” ื›ึทืฆึทึผื“ึดึผื™ืง, ื›ึธึผืจึธืฉึธืืข
vehaya chatsadik karasha
It would be desecration (not a literal translationื—ึธืœึดืœึธื” ืœึฐึผืšึธ
chalila lecha
25. It would be desecration if you did such a thing, to kill the righteous together with the wicked. That will make the righteous the same as the wicked. It would be desecration if you that judges the entire earth would not do justice.

Discussion

The expression ื—ึธืœึดืœึธื” ืœึฐึผืšึธ does not have an English equivalent. ื—ึธืœึดืœึธื” (chalila) means to take something sacred and make it unholy, or to make it empty. It is a strong warning that, in other situations, might be translated as God forbids. In our case, however, Abraham tells God, your judgment is sacred. But if you punished the righteous and the wicked the same way, your judgement would not be holy anymore.  While being polite, once again we see that Abraham is concerned with justice more than he is fearful of the judge he is facing. He is teaching us, once more, that justice must come first, and at any personal cost.

Note that Abraham does not start with logic and reason. In our culture we often forget it, and use logic first in discussions and argument.  But it is the emotional plea, which appeals to our sense of justice, fairness, and ethics, that must come first. Only then comes logic.

And using logic, Abraham explains why God must avoid collateral damage

In the previous verse Abraham asks God to save the city if it had 50 righteous people in it. Here he continues: If you do not,

ื•ึฐื”ึธื™ึธื” ื›ึทืฆึทึผื“ึดึผื™ืง, ื›ึธึผืจึธืฉึธืืข
That will make the righteous the same as the wicked

That is, if you do not distinguish in judgement and punishment between the righteous and the evil, the righteous will become evil. After all, if right and wrong do not matter to you, God, how can you expect us, people, to care about them? How can you expect us to distinguish?  Can we expect man to struggle to be righteous if it is all the same for God?

This is far from being a theoretical question; far from being a Biblical question. It is a question that is relevant to our very lives today, as we see over and again.

Unfortunately, conflicts around the world continue with no end in the horizon, and collateral damage is an integral part of such conflicts. How often have we heard about innocent civilians getting hurt just because they were in the wrong place?  But then, as we see over and again, those originally innocent, peaceful people, once hurt they turn against us, often performing inspirable acts of evil.

Then we scream foul when they do not distinguish between innocent and guilty, between fighting men and innocent children. But we hardly ever stopp to think that it was us who turned them off the way of peace. And this is what Abraham is warning God and us against. If we do not distinguish in judgment and punishment between good and evil, we should expect the righteous to become wicked and turned against us.

You can see here the text of the Bible (Genesis 18) both in Hebrew and in English: https://mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0118.htm

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Mark
Mark
8 months ago

A thought-provoking post, thank you. If God considered to spare an area with a predominant number of horrible people for only 10 righteous persons, what gives us the right to murder a huge part of a population, whether they are good or not, during wars and claiming it as collateral… Read more »

Eleonora
Eleonora
8 months ago

Extremely interesting what a different meaning the sentence “That will make the righteous the same as the wicked” gets after reading your post. I always thought it means that God would treat the righteous persons the same way as the evil ones. But you are right. This is exactly what… Read more »

Lea
Lea
8 months ago

Very insightful article. If a lawyer uses emotional words in a plea we suppose it is just a trick to change peoples mind by touching their feelings. This is not what Abraham tries to do. He really cares about the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, he is imagining atheir lives,… Read more »

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7 months ago

[…] the previous verses we discussed how Abraham presents his defence in an attempt to save the cities of Sodom and […]

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7 months ago

[…] have already seen in a previous post that Abraham starts with a general, moral principle that is beyond dispute. As it is a universal […]