The famous attorney Clarence Darrow, during his defense of the wealthy “perfect crime” murderers Leopold and Loeb, argued a sort of moral determinism: “What has this boy to do with it?” Darrow asked. “He was not his own father; he was not his own mother; he was not his own grandparents. All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay.” Darrow was attempting to sway a county judge to give his clients‚ who had already pleaded guilty, a sentence of life in prison (rather than the death penalty). He contended, in part, that those who came before Leopold and Loeb led to their deranged worldview. Thus, they lacked individual responsibility for their actions.
What, you may ask, has this to do with Deuteronomy (especially since, as we all know, Darrow was not exactly religious). More than you may think, actually.
In a previous post, Ryan noted the stark absence of individual responsibility in the first version of the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2-17). Specifically: “…[F]or I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod. 20:5-6). Ryan commented: “Certainly punishing the guilty is just, but the guilty’s great-grandchildren? A lot of people don’t even live to see their fourth generation.” We even named this passage as one of the most ridiculous things in the Book of Exodus. The version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, although different from the version in Exodus, retains this peculiar passage. How ironic: considering most people who push the Bible—and the Ten Commandments—also push individual responsibility for one’s actions. Yet these two somewhat contradict each other!
The notion that God would punish the generations on down is, by our modern view, absurd, but it didn’t take the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason to identify that this kind of punishment is anything but just. Nope: even the ancient Israelites backed off from this view. Later traditions and prophets actually challenged this generational punishment as obviously wrong, and took pains to say so.* First, in the Book of Jeremiah, God—ostensibly through the prophet Jeremiah—goes back on his word:
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will plant the kingdoms of Israel and Judah with the offspring of people and of animals. Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the LORD. “In those days people will no longer say,
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge (Jeremiah 31:27-30).
The later prophet Ezekial echoed Jeremiah, making the point a bit more obvious:
The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them (Ezek. 18:20).
Here we have some actual moral development: the original language in the older traditions of generational culpability give way to a more modern notion of individual responsibility. This shift in the supposed “unerring” words of the Bible pokes (yet another) hole in the claim that scripture is without flaws. It would be fair, though, to say that this is a “good” hole (if that can be said): this is a place where we can admire, at least in this narrow way, the Old Testament, as moving in a more just and fair direction.
Now you may be wondering, what of Clarence Darrow and Leopold and Loeb? Well, funnily enough, Darrow’s argument—echoing scripture, if most likely inadvertently (remember: irreligious)—won the day. The judge gave the murderers a life imprisonment sentence, sparing them death. Of course, sometimes “personal responsibility” isn’t always seen as just. Maybe the Ten Commandments were right after all.
*Technically, God took pains to say so through the prophets. Which of course makes us question whether it was indeed God who was actually talking: Did he change his mind? Or did the Israelites?