or God’s Genocides
What do we do with the hard texts of the Bible, like the ones where God tells the Israelites to kill everyone in a certain town, or of a certain people group, including women and children? The biblical record denotes that the Israelites were to wipe out the Canaanites as they entered the Promised Land, and do it in obedience to God.
We could ignore them, or pretend they aren’t in there… Or focus on other texts. But eventually, we come across them.
“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the man in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder Yahweh your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.
However, in the cities of the nations that Yahweh your God is giving you for your inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall devote them to utter destruction… just as Yahweh your God has commanded. You must kill them all, or else they may teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, causing you to sin against Yahweh your God.”
– Deut 20:10-18
Let’s get this straight. They had to wipe out entire peoples because otherwise they would ‘do the abhorrent things they do for their gods’? Like kill an entire town, including the men, women and children? Like ‘use the plunder’ including women and children, which in the ancient world meant forced marriage, rape, and slavery?
Is there actually anything worse the other gods could ask their people to do?
How do we deal with texts like this that portray God as commanding atrocities that today we immediately denounce anyone doing? Is it OK because it was a long time ago? Is it OK because Israel was special?
The church father Origen approached it this way:
“As for the command given to the Jews to slay their enemies, it may be answered that anyone who looks carefully into the meaning of the passage will find that it is impossible to interpret it literally.”
It’s impossible to take it literally, he says. So then what do we do with it?
Origen chooses the path of allegory:
“In his Homily on Joshua, Origen reiterates this position. Referring to the genocidal narratives in the book of Joshua, he stipulates that “unless those carnal wars were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches” (Hom. Ios. 15.1).” (quoted from The Human Faces of God).
So it’s really not about actual historical wars, but about the spiritual battles we all face in removing evil from our own lives. It’s an interesting approach, but probably one that will not satisfy most biblical readers.
Some, defending a position of inerrancy – that the Bible always communicates history, theology, science and culture 100% accurately – take this approach:
“Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient’s body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society.” So says Gleason Archer, apologist and biblical inerrantist.
In other words, the women and even children (and infants!) were not fit to live. They embodied some sort of evil. Perhaps allowing these children to live would have resulted in the Israelites following other gods, even if the children were raised in Israelite households. To me that might say more about the Israelite parenting than anything else.
But if these people were so evil, why did God not give them a chance to repent, ala Jonah and the Ninevites? They were also enemies of Israel. So certainly God elsewhere allows people the chance to repent of their ways without immediate retribution.
Shortcut to Heaven?
William Lane Craig notes that it’s actually better for the children to die than be raised in these pagan households, because children who die ‘automatically go to heaven’. So the Israelites were doing these children a favor by running them through with the sword. Seriously? If that were his actual position, why would Craig not be behind a wholesale implementation of abortion? Why let any child live and take the chance it might not go to heaven? Abortion should be the first option, not the last. Yet no doubt Craig is a strong pro-life advocate, who in actuality doesn’t really believe what he is saying, but is grasping – like all of us – to understand these difficult texts.
The reality is that if a text like the above was in the Koran, we would immediately denounce it as evil and unjustifiable. When such things happen today, we are horrified and speak out against it, even if the person was doing it as a Christian ‘in the name of God’. We would say they were misled. Yet when it is in our own Scriptures, we hesitate to denounce it as such. A quandary indeed.
I will raise some other possibilities in my next post, but for now am wondering your thoughts:
Are you satisfied with any of these approaches? Do you have another suggestion?
Post your thoughts below.