By Israel Drazin


A literal reading of the Bible seems to indicate that God will kill someone for even a minor mistake and when killing guilty people, God kills innocents as well.


An example of the former is the story of the two sons of Aaron the priest told in Leviticus 10:1-11. The eleventh century Bible commentator Rashi quotes Midrash Leviticus Rabba that they were either punished because they decided a law in Moses’s presence without allowing him to answer a question first or they entered the sanctuary intoxicated. Leviticus 16:2 seems to say that they died because they overenthusiastically entered the sanctuary too often. Each suggests wrongful behaviors that hadn’t been prohibited before their death, for the prohibitions are mentioned after they died. They may not have known they were acting improperly. They had just been appointed priests, and perhaps in their enthusiasm tried to show with their answer that they knew enough to be fit for their new position, celebrated, or rushed to perform their job. Why were they killed for this behavior? It doesn’t seem to warrant death.


An example of the later is the killing of every person in Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that not every town inhabitant acted so bad as to deserve death? Why were they all killed, and only Lot and his two daughters saved?


Many people believe that God kills people for minor misdeeds and that when God does so God also kills innocent bystanders. Recently a respected rabbi claimed that God caused the holocaust that killed six million Jews, including over a million children, because the Jews in Europe were behaving improperly. Similarly, an admired protestant minister claimed that the tsunami that killed people in New Orleans and destroyed property was sent by God because the city was polluted with homosexuality.


We can dismiss these clerics’ extreme notions without comment. But, how can rational people understand the biblical events?


The difficulty exists only if we accept Scripture literally. If we do there is no satisfactory answer to the question. However, if biblical accounts are understood figuratively, as they should, the problem disappears. The Bible is not describing supernatural events, but natural ones. Aaron’s two sons died because of an unclear overenthusiastic action, perhaps extreme intoxication or negligent use of fire. They should have been careful. Work in a sanctuary does not protect people from bad judgments. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah perished in an earthquake. The Bible may be saying that had they acted properly, had they paid attention, for example, to the rumbling earth, they could have escaped; but they died because of their negligent misbehavior.