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Archive for July, 2015

Did God Approve Of Genocide In The Old Testament?

Certain questions about Old Testament morality must be answered for some to respect the God of the Bible. As an adult I am not going to follow my parent’s guidance blindly if I don’t respect them. Did God approve of land grab without any provocation? Did God command genocide by insisting on the killing of women and children during war times: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them: put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (I Sam. 15:3)? 

Keep in mind a writer doesn’t always record all the particulars of their story because those who live closer to the times knew such details. God ordered Noah to build an Ark before setting out to destroy the entire earth and all that lived on it. Genesis says nothing about God allowing anyone to enter the Ark with Noah’s family, but Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Pe. 2:5). God would have welcomed anyone in the Ark if they had chosen to heed Noah’s warnings. The Bible says God always judges with a heavy heart (Gen. 6:6). When is it merciful for God to take extreme measures to break the cycle of evil for the sake of future generations?

God did not arbitrarily order Israel to attack the land of Canaan that was possessed by seven people groups. God had given the land to Abraham and his heirs to possess in the beginning (Gen. 13:14-17). The Israelites did not immediately possess the land because God was to judge them morally for their actions by allowing Egypt to enslave them for 400 years (Gen. 15:13-16). So, the Canaanites lived on a land that Israel had lived on to which God had given so that Israel could be used as a means to bless all nations. This was a unique time in history. A nation was needed to be God’s voice for true morality. It isn’t favoritism when all benefit. God, to fulfill His divine purpose to bless all nations, needed one nation to be born into to walk the talk and exemplify true love. Jesus did that!  

The people of Canaan knew the land had been given to the Israelites from the beginning (Josh. 2: 9-11). Canaanites were well aware of the uniqueness of this God from other gods by the miracles that followed Israel such as the parting of the Red Sea. God never prefers violence if there are peaceful alternatives, but the Israelites were outnumber and fully capable of being persuaded by the evil practices of the Canaanites that included burning their children as sacrifices to their gods (Deut. 12: 31; Lev. 18:21). Israel had to be separated to be protected morally for the purposes God had in mind. Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in Canaan, were full of gangs that attacked for fun. The Canaanites could have avoided moral judgment for their evil ways, though not always explicitly mentioned in every narrative, just as those in Noah’s time or later the Ninevites during Jonah’s life.

Before discussing genocide it seems clear God at least did not approve of ethnic cleansing, as not all the Canaanites were annihilated as we see below. The narrative does not suggest either that God approves of arbitrary expulsion of members from their land. It is true that many innocent lives cannot be spared when war is necessary to protect the lives of inhabitants or those from surrounding nations from evil. Women and children will die when forced to flee. Wars sometimes are going to lead to innocent people dying if God is going to allow freedom. Does it matter that at least this God can make good on His promise to provide a better place after death for non-survivors than continuing to be subjected to the practices of adult evildoers? Expulsion is not always merciless. Gradually driving the Canaanites out of their land and into neighboring nations where they would be the minority could force them to change their evil practices that was leading to death for their citizens.

Paul Copan and Mathew Flannagan in Did God Really Command Genocide? defend how the OT does not suggest such moral atrocities from God. You may not agree with all their conclusions but this book is a must read if you struggle with whether God is a moral monster. Much of what I say below is from reading their book. It is common to use rhetoric to make a point (i.e. evil must be dealt with come hell or high water), or to embolden the victor or inspire fear in the enemy. It is plausible that the OT passages that seem to suggest God commanding genocide can be understood as the writers making deliberate use of exaggeration (hyperbole) for effect:

  • Moses and Joshua were the main leaders used by God to repossess the Promised Land. God advised Moses about taking back the Promised Land (Ex. 23:20-33), stating God’s intentions to drive out the nations in Canaan little by little (v. 30-31). Joshua though speaks of destroying all by the sword (Josh. 10:39). The writers or editors were surely aware of what God had communicated to both Moses and Joshua but they did not attempt to rewrite the supposed contradiction – the driving out commands versus the annihilation commands. God surely did not intend for the Israelites to hunt down those fleeing and kill them. But, God had made it clear why the Israelites could not live with the Canaanites as a nation. Besides, would terrorists today be willing to live together in peace if we were invading the land they occupied?
  • Many scholars accept that Deuteronomy through 2 Kings is a literary unit. The last chapter in Deuteronomy discusses the end of Moses’ life and passing on his leadership of Israel to Joshua. The first chapter of Joshua begins with the mention of Moses’ death and God telling Joshua how he is going to take back the land of Canaan. Deuteronomy clearly talks often of the Canaanites being driven out and not exterminated (Deut. 9:3, 11:23, 18:12, 19:1). As mentioned Joshua uses extermination language. It seems reasonable to understand extermination passages within the context of initially trying to drive out the enemy. Deuteronomy 7:2 uses language of total destruction of the nations in the land of Canaan. But, in the same context God speaks of driving out the nations (7:1) and advising against treaties or intermarriage with the enemies (7:2-3). How do you make treaties or intermarry with dead people?  The people of Canaan were surely allowed to flee but some stayed to the end. Some women and children likely did not have choices to flee, but the alternative is to insist that God magically pluck the adult evildoers out of the land and zap them.
  • Survivors clearly existed in spite of these supposed genocide commands. Inhabitants were driven out as opposed to exterminated. Joshua 10-11 is the best example, since in the same narrative, of where annihilation or utter destruction should be understood within the context of driving out the enemies. Israel attacked Debir and the text states everyone was put to the sword leaving no survivors (10:39). But, Joshua 11:21 reports more Anakites in Debir were destroyed and Caleb marched against the people living in Debir (15:15). Were the Israelites destroying and marching against dead bodies already put to the sword, or did the writer mean in Joshua 10 that the victory was decisive as not everyone person was killed. It simply was not mentioned those that fled or even surrounded.
  • The story speaks of certain innocent people not being killed as Rahab was spared because of her willingness to not participate in the evil practices God was seeking to destroy (Josh. 6:25). Joshua 8:35 reports many survivors, including women and children, were allowed to live with the Israelites in the land promised to them by God to bless all nations. Deuteronomy 12:10 says: “But you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and He will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in safety.” God is always willing to live in peace with those of different beliefs if they are willing to stop their evil ways.
  • Were the writers of the Bible mindless enough to contradict themselves almost in the same breath, when obviously seeking to protect God’s integrity against the other supposed gods? Clearly, some sayings were not to be taken literally but were warfare rhetoric such as speaking in exaggerated terms to induce fear and inspire victory. Other ancient conquest accounts were similar. Exaggeration even of numbers was common. It is believed it was impossible for the Israelites to actually have an army size of 200,000 soldiers (I Sam. 15:4) at this time in history. It is an acceptable literary device to accentuate the victory. It is no different than saying the United States took tens of millions of soldiers to utterly destroy ISIS. Strong language was necessary as Israel was outnumbered and the possibility of the Israelites being assimilated into the evil practices of the Canaanites was a reality. No one took Mike Tyson serious in his rhetoric when preparing to battle Lennox Lewis: “I want your heart, I want to eat your children.”

God has been a respecter of freedom of beliefs from the very beginning. In today’s world the differences are obvious between the Israelites’ God and the extreme Islamists’ god. The same could be said for the Canaanites’ gods. God for one is not involved in torture and rape. Recently, extreme Islamists executed children for not fasting. Warriors are promised a lustful afterlife at the expense of women. Blasphemers are put to death. The truth is Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, does not force belief here or after death. Hell, not a translation but a substitution for certain Hebrew and Greek words, is an invention over the centuries to scare people into submission and obedience. You can even blaspheme God but you can’t treat others immorally without consequences. Despite the loss of innocent lives, future generations may look back on the 21st century and accept nations invading lands inhabited by evildoers who seek power only to eventually destroy their own and people of other countries.

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