In my last post we wrestled with difficult texts in the Bible, particularly ones in which God commands the Israelites to annihilate certain people groups, which today we would label as genocide. How are we to understand these texts? Is it possible to square these texts with other biblical presentations of God as a God of love, mercy, and compassion?
Possibly, but it isn’t easy.
One possibility raised to my last post was that God was showing people, in a warring culture, how to act in war.
1. Offer terms of peace.
2. Spare the women and children and cattle (who doesn’t love being lumped in a group?)
And all of this was part of a plan:
3. God was giving the Israelite people a new identity and land.
I like this approach. I really like it. This was a different era in history, a different time and culture and context in which warring between nations was a common reality. Perhaps God was merely working within that culture, and even presenting some improvements on how things might normally be done.
These are some good thoughts.
The trouble is that the first two points above didn’t apply in every case for Israel.
When we look at Deut 20:10-18 as we did in the last post, we find that that “a distinction is made between the way Israel is to treat those within ‘their’ land and the way Israel is to treat those outside those borders. Those inside the borders are to be utterly annihilated with no exceptions. No peace treaties are to be made with them. Every last living thing that has breath is to be extinguished. On the other hand, those outside the demarcated borders are to be offered terms of peace. Israelite men may take women from outside the borders as wives and concubines, if they so desire.” So notes Thom Stark in The Human Faces of God.
So they weren’t always to offer terms of peace.
[And in fact, when you read the stories of when Israel did offer terms of peace, the text generally notes that God inclined the other nations to not accept the terms of peace but rather be provoked to fight, so in some ways, the offer of peace was a bit of a sham. See Deut 2:24-34 or Joshua 11:18-20, where it says, “In the end not even one city made peace with Israel… because Yahweh hardened their hearts so that they could not do otherwise than to meet Israel in battle. This way they would all be utterly destroyed and none of them would get any mercy. They were to be exterminated, just as Yahweh ordered Moses to do.” Exterminated?]
Why the differentiation of those inside and outside the borders?
Some say that perhaps it was due to the sinfulness of the various nations, and that they were getting the punishment they deserved.
Stark continues: “Did it just so happen that only the tribes living inside Israel’s borders happened to be sufficiently wicked to annihilate, whereas it also just so happened that everybody outside those borders were only slightly wicked, but not enough to merit annihilation?”
Hmmm… As the church lady would put it, “Isn’t that convenient?”
So Stark: “The convenience of this picture exposes once again that the appeal to “divine punishment” in order to justify the Canaanite genocides is another attempt to conceal the real motivation: the acquisition of land and consolidation of power. If Yahweh wanted to use Israel to punish wicked nations, why did such a crusade conveniently terminate precisely at Israel’s borders?”
Really good questions. Tough questions.
The third point above was that God is giving Israel a new identity and a new land. It seems he was, but man, it certainly wasn’t an easy step, and you wonder if the opposing nations deserved what they got or if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But perhaps we need to understand it another way, within the broader framework of God’s overarching plan for Israel, expressed in the form of his promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
One theologian, Christopher Wright, puts it this way: “the overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.”
I certainly prefer this approach, and we’ll explore it more in the next post.