To Kill and Take Possession, Part 3: Absolute Responsibility and Mens rea

One of the most perplexing moral disjoints between the Old Testament and modern readers involves the notion of absolute responsibility. In To Kill and Take Possession: Law, Morality, and Society in Biblical Stories Daniel Friedmann discusses some of the biblical stories where absolute responsibility is on display. In Chapter 7 of To Kill Friedmann takes up a little noticed but decidedly odd story in 1 Kings 13:

Scene One: The Man of God Successfully Delivers His Message
By the word of the LORD a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make an offering. He cried out against the altar by the word of the LORD : "O altar, altar! This is what the LORD says: 'A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who now make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.' " That same day the man of God gave a sign: "This is the sign the LORD has declared: The altar will be split apart and the ashes on it will be poured out."

When King Jeroboam heard what the man of God cried out against the altar at Bethel, he stretched out his hand from the altar and said, "Seize him!" But the hand he stretched out toward the man shriveled up, so that he could not pull it back. Also, the altar was split apart and its ashes poured out according to the sign given by the man of God by the word of the LORD.

Then the king said to the man of God, "Intercede with the LORD your God and pray for me that my hand may be restored." So the man of God interceded with the LORD, and the king's hand was restored and became as it was before.

The king said to the man of God, "Come home with me and have something to eat, and I will give you a gift."

But the man of God answered the king, "Even if you were to give me half your possessions, I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water here. For I was commanded by the word of the LORD : 'You must not eat bread or drink water or return by the way you came.' " So he took another road and did not return by the way he had come to Bethel.

Okay, so far the story looks very similar to other prophet/ruler tales in the Old Testament. The prophet comes and speaks a message of indictment combined with a miraculous sign. The king is convinced and invites the Man of God to stay and take refreshment and reward. But the Man of God declines as the Lord has commanded him to not eat or drink until he has returned home by a different route.

At this point the story takes a very odd turn:

Scene Two: The Man of God is Tricked
Now there was a certain old prophet living in Bethel, whose sons came and told him all that the man of God had done there that day. They also told their father what he had said to the king. Their father asked them, "Which way did he go?" And his sons showed him which road the man of God from Judah had taken. So he said to his sons, "Saddle the donkey for me." And when they had saddled the donkey for him, he mounted it and rode after the man of God. He found him sitting under an oak tree and asked, "Are you the man of God who came from Judah?"

"I am," he replied.

So the prophet said to him, "Come home with me and eat."

The man of God said, "I cannot turn back and go with you, nor can I eat bread or drink water with you in this place. I have been told by the word of the LORD : 'You must not eat bread or drink water there or return by the way you came.' "

The old prophet answered, "I too am a prophet, as you are. And an angel said to me by the word of the LORD : 'Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.' " (But he was lying to him.) So the man of God returned with him and ate and drank in his house.

While they were sitting at the table, the word of the LORD came to the old prophet who had brought him back. He cried out to the man of God who had come from Judah, "This is what the LORD says: 'You have defied the word of the LORD and have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you. You came back and ate bread and drank water in the place where he told you not to eat or drink. Therefore your body will not be buried in the tomb of your fathers.' "

When the man of God had finished eating and drinking, the prophet who had brought him back saddled his donkey for him. As he went on his way, a lion met him on the road and killed him, and his body was thrown down on the road, with both the donkey and the lion standing beside it. Some people who passed by saw the body thrown down there, with the lion standing beside the body, and they went and reported it in the city where the old prophet lived.

When the prophet who had brought him back from his journey heard of it, he said, "It is the man of God who defied the word of the LORD. The LORD has given him over to the lion, which has mauled him and killed him, as the word of the LORD had warned him."

The prophet said to his sons, "Saddle the donkey for me," and they did so. Then he went out and found the body thrown down on the road, with the donkey and the lion standing beside it. The lion had neither eaten the body nor mauled the donkey. So the prophet picked up the body of the man of God, laid it on the donkey, and brought it back to his own city to mourn for him and bury him. Then he laid the body in his own tomb, and they mourned over him and said, "Oh, my brother!"

After burying him, he said to his sons, "When I die, bury me in the grave where the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. For the message he declared by the word of the LORD against the altar in Bethel and against all the shrines on the high places in the towns of Samaria will certainly come true."

The End

Weird, huh? I don't want to spend a lot of time on the oddities of this story, but I have to mention a few things. First, what was the motivation of the old prophet? Why did he trick the Man of God? Friedmann discusses the speculation that the old prophet, upon hearing of the power and holiness of the Man of God, creates this plot to get the bones of the Man of God placed within his own tomb. The point of this? Apparently to have the holiness of the Man of God at hand when things go badly in Bethel (as the Man of God prophesied). The bones of the Man of God would be acting as some kind of magical talisman or protection.

The second oddity is that the prophet actually succeeds in his plot! This is another example of guile being rewarded in the Old Testament (see my last post). But it's worse than this. God actually speaks his judgment upon the Man of God through the old prophet who tricked him! How awful is that? The Man of God gets judged by the man who deceived him?!

It is hard for modern readers to get our heads around these stories. They just don't seem fair. The old prophet is bad. Yet the old prophet gets what he wants and, to top it off, is allowed to pronounce judgment upon the Man of God. This seems backwards to us. The Man of God was tricked! Shouldn't God take that into consideration?

Let me bring up a different story, one that has troubled me from childhood. Friedmann doesn't discuss this particular story, but it illustrates a tension similar to the one we find in the Man of God story. I bring this story up because it was one of the first stories I encountered in the bible that really shook my confidence in the bible's moral authority. It is the story of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel:

David again brought together out of Israel chosen men, thirty thousand in all. He and all his men set out from Baalah of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.

Like we saw in the Man of God story, I could never figure out why Uzzah was killed. He's doing a reasonable and helpful thing: Keeping the Ark from falling to the ground. This conscientious act deserves death?

How are we to make sense of all this, morally speaking? In To Kill Friedmann contrasts the notion of absolute responsibility with our more modern notion of mitigated responsibility. In the Old Testament responsibility was absolute. The only moral issue was if you did or did not do the deed. This notion of absolute responsibility is odd for modern readers who work with moral and legal notions of mitigated responsibility. Specifically, in modern ethical and legal decisions the fact that you committed the deed is not the only thing we take into consideration. Certain contextual or psychological factors can mitigate your responsibility.

Take, for example, the distinction between murder and manslaughter. In both cases you killed somebody. But we treat the two crimes differently. The critical distinction is intent to kill. Murder involves intent while manslaughter does not. You are still liable in manslaughter, perhaps for negligence, but you didn't intend to kill anyone. Because of this we punish you to a lesser degree than if you were a murderer.

In legal jargon the difference between murder and manslaughter is called mens rea, "guilty mind." For modern people moral responsibility takes things like mens rea into consideration. That is, intentions are critical in making moral decisions and deciding moral responsibility.

What is so jarring about the Old Testament is that issues of intention and mens rea play no role in assigning moral responsibility or blame. It doesn't matter what Uzzah's intentions were. It doesn't matter that the Man of God was tricked. All that matters in the Old Testament world of absolute responsibility is if you, in point of fact, did the deed. Your intentions, even if good, are not taken into consideration.

Thinking all this through, it strikes me that the notion of absolute responsibility is largely a focus on the body as a causal nexus. It negates psychological considerations. By contrast, notions of mitigated responsibility take psychological factors (e.g., intent, being deceived) into account. It seems to me that absolute responsibility may have been easier to implement in the world of Old Testament. The only issue was: "Did you do it?" The issue is neat, clean, and empirical. That is, witnesses are effective and decisive in reaching a verdict. This makes the legal and moral decision very public and (generally) beyond dispute. I suspect that in the tribal context of the Old Testament the ability of absolute responsibility to create a communal consensus is what made it so attractive.

Mitigated responsibility, by contrast, is much messier. By taking psychological factors into account the decisive role of witnesses is weakened. Worse, if we recall how trickery and guile are rewarded in the Old Testament, legal proceedings that allowed for psychologically-based testimony (e.g., "Did you know what you were doing?") would be very prone to abuse. Given what we know about guile in the Old Testament I don't expect we would see them having a very strong notion of perjury.

The point of all this is that there is a great moral distance between us and the Old Testament. Clearly, we moderns don't find the notion of absolute responsibility adequate, morally or legally. And it is this difference in the moral/legal notions of responsibility that creates a lot of the confusion when reading the Old Testament stories. But I also think we see erosions of the notion of absolute responsibility as we move through the bible. Intentions and psychological states feature profoundly in moral discussions in the Old Testament prophets and in the New Testament. Matters of the "heart" are just as critical as to what we do with our bodies. As Jesus discusses in the Sermon on the Mount, you might never murder with your hands but you can murder with your hate.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

6 thoughts on “To Kill and Take Possession, Part 3: Absolute Responsibility and Mens rea

  1. This would be taking the subject too much into the study of the OT, but I am wondering how Deuteronomy works in all this. Its very Greek name, "Second Law," implies a kind of revision of "first" Torah, and it is notable for its increased humaneness. The cities of refuge are a prime example, as well as the provisions for false claims made by a husband against a wife, etc.

    Might we imagine the contexts of Abraham, then slavery in Egypt, then the wilderness, then the judges, then monarchy, then Josiah/Deuteronomy, then exile/prophets, then Jesus ... as a kind of moral story? Israel slowly focusing the moral lens until the climax of the Messiah? I'm always hesitant to look backwards and see a progression leading to "us," though I know that's something you've dealt with extensively. Thought-provoking post, regardless.

  2. Mike,
    Sure thing.

    I with you on this. Like you I don't want to wholly see the OT as pointing to the NT. This is why I'm always keen to point out (as you do) that the moral movement is going on inside the OT and culminating in prophets like Amos (still our "go to" book for all things social justice) and then echoed in Jesus.

    This is, in my opinion, the great genius of the bible: It critiques itself. The whole book is full of tensions. Just when you want to praise God you run into lament and Job. Just when you are fed up with the Levitical machinations of animal sacrifice you run into "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." And why is Ecclesiastes even in the bible? What a wonderful counterpoint it provides.

  3. I find that from what you've written and in my own understanding of OT that the rulers ruled with full authority. This is the two level situadedness of the text. No one was "equal under law", as mutuality was not recognized. Rulers ruled with responsibilty in mind. But, prophets who spoke for God were to balance the power, so to speak between the leader and God....failing to meet covenanental "standards of behavior" was what the 'law and the prophets' were about....Saul's sacrifice, etc....Leaders were to recognize God in all of their responsibilities, as their understanding of absolute responsibility was social contract, or understanding of equality...theirs was a world of patronage, slavery, and a believer's life if under a "master/leader" was to submit, there was no other option...and since leadership had no mitigating factors, then, they didn't take into account any other person...but "God"....under fear of "correction", or "dismissal"...

  4. Clearly, we moderns don't find the notion of absolute responsibility adequate, morally or legally.

    Dr. Beck, while I agree with this with regard to current civilization on the whole, it seems to me that, anecdotally at least, there is a strong undercurrent of absolute responsibility within the western church, particularly the protestant/evangelical/fundamentalist branches. Or, maybe it's a desire to return in that direction, especially with respect to "culture war" issues. Do you see that, too, or am I making something up?

Leave a Reply