Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! Isaiah 36:37.
The 1st of July, 1916, was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on the Western Front during the First World War. Thousands of British infantry soldiers emerged from their trenches, weighed down by rifles and packs, expected by their superiors to capture the German lines ahead of them, which were supposed to have been annihilated by the preceding artillery barrage.
It didn’t happen like that. They walked (yes, walked) into a murderous hail of bullets, cut down by the German machine guns which had conspicuously survived the barrage. By the end of the day, nearly 60,000 British soldiers had become casualties, of which 19,000 died from their wounds. It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, and has been immortalized in British culture as an prime example of the futility and brutality of war.
19,000 young men gone. Left behind were the grieving parents, their distraught loved ones, their orphaned children. The loss of one human life affects many others, aside from the loss of the experience and achievements of those that die. And this is but one battle, in one war, a war in which millions died for little good reason.
Yet the carnage of the Somme pales in comparison to the destruction wrought by the angel of the Lord in the book of Isaiah.
For some background, earlier in the chapter King Hezekiah of Israel fears for Jerusalem as Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, marches to attack Israel. He prays to the Lord for deliverance, and the Lord answers in the affirmative. As usual in the Old Testament, the omnipotent Yahweh’s method of defending Israel is not a gentle word in the ear of the Assyrian king, but a bloody massacre, which leaves 185,000 dead, nearly ten times the number killed on that one day in 1916. “There were all the dead bodies…”
It’s beyond me to imagine what the corpses of 185,000 soldiers covering the ground would like. Enough people to fill Wembley Stadium twice over. We are not even told by what method they were killed. Strangulation? A sword through the belly? Did their entrails fall out into the dust, did their blood seep into the dirt?
Look at that quote again. The killings take up only half of the verse. That’s 185,000 human lives snuffed out in barely the time it takes to draw breath. The callousness of the act is amazing. It’s as if these people are not considered human beings – yet they must have had parents, and as (we must assume) young men, they must have left behind siblings, loved ones, families even. The cost in humanity is near unbearable.’s been
I refuse to believe that they were somehow deserving of their fate for being part of an aggressive army. Even when taking into consideration the atrocities perpetrated by the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, no-one could possibly argue that all German soldiers were inherently evil. It’s been demonstrated on many occasions that normal, moral humans will submit and commit unnaturally cruel acts when coerced by figures of authority – Stanley Milgram’s experiments and the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, to take two examples. The vast majority of soldiers are normal human beings persuaded to do awful things, not inhuman monsters devoid of empathy.
There is no justification for such a massacre. If the king of Assyria was a demonic tyrant in the mould of Hitler, as I’ve heard argued, then could Yahweh not have influenced him in some other way? After all, he’s supposed to be omnipotent. Why, on so many occasions in the Old Testament, is the answer always slaughter on a grand scale? The inescapable conclusion is that this god does not care for the humanity that he has allegedly created, and is perfectly willing to wipe thousands from the face of the earth on little more than a whim.
Quite apart from the lack of plausibility and evidence for a supreme creator, I cannot and will not worship a being that exhibits such a callous disregard for human life. The Christian notion of a benevolent, loving god is shown to be a lie by the words of their holy book.