Church Theology

Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?

Is God a ‘genocidal maniac’ as Richard Dawkins suggests in his bestselling book, The God Delusion? When taken literally, some passages in the Bible certainly help paint this terrifying picture.

However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God (Deut 20:16-18). 

If we take this passage and others like it at face value, then yes, we can comfortably conclude that God is probably, at times, a genocidal maniac. A God who commands the indiscrimnate slaughter of infants—or any other group of human beings—is simply evil incarnate.

This, of course, poses a major dilemna for Christians and skeptics alike. How can Jesus—love incarnate—be the same God who commands genocide in the Old Testament? It’s a question that demands an answer.

One approach often put forth appeals to God’s self-determination and righteousness/holiness as justifaction for commanding genocide. Scholars like G.K. Beale and E.H. Merrill argue that because God is self-sufficient (not bound to human ethics) and able to self-determine what is right, regardless of whether it is moral from a human perspective, than He is justified in commanding genocide. In other words, God can suspend ethics when he deems it to be appropriate.

According to Beale, at the core of God’s essence is His “self-sufficiency and self-determination.”[1] And therefore, “The scriptural command for people not to…take human life in a premeditated way…cannot apply to God.” [2]

Have you felt chills run up your spine yet? 

Merrill takes an equally disturbing approach. For Merrill, if God sanctions genocide, it is no longer a question of whether genocide is good or evil—“its sanction by a holy God settles that question.” [3] Merrill goes on to explain his reasoning: “biblical genocide was part of a Yahweh-war policy enacted for a unique situation, directed against a certain people, and in line with the character of God himself, a policy whose design is beyond human comprehension but one that is not, for that reason, unjust or immoral.” [4]

For the simple fact that God’s essence—according to orthodox Christian doctrine—is love (1 John 4:8), and because God cannot act outside of that essence, I would suggest that this approach is not only dangerous but faulty at its core. Not to mention that to adopt such an approach plainly undermines the ethical capacities of Christians to think for themselves in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, whom the “fullness of Deity lives in bodily form” (Col 2:9).

 So is the Old Testament unreliable? 

Not at all. But we need to learn how to read it within its proper cultural and biblical context. To do otherwise can create some serious deficiences in our theology of God.

Comparing Joshua and Judges

The first hint that something doesn’t quite add up with the genocide command is found in the clear discrepancy between Joshua and Judges. The conquest narratives in Joshua identify specific cities and regions where Joshua (“and all Israel with him”) is said to have “totally destroyed” its inhabitants and “left no survivors”: Hebron (Josh 10:36-37), Debir (Josh 10:38-39), and the “whole region [of] the hill country and the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes” (Josh 10:40). Yet, as Copan and Flannagan explain,

in the first chapter of Judges, we are told that the Canaanites lived in the Negev, in the hill country (Judg 1:9), in Debir (Judg 1:11), in Hebron (Judg 1:10) and in the western foothills (Judg 1:9). Moreover, they did so in such numbers and strength that they had to be driven out by force. These are the same cities where Joshua 10 tells us Joshua had annihilated and left no survivors. [5]

What’s with that? How could Joshua say there were no survivors left, and then Judges comes along and says there were many survivors? Why does God’s word contradict itself? Which one is historically accurate? These are good questions. Here are some helpful solutions.

Hyperbolic Language in Joshua 

If we are serious about reading the Old Testament responsibly, seeking to understand the cultural context of the Ancient Near East (ANE) should be our first priority.

Scholars have studied the ANE world and found the same hyperbolic language (i.e. “destroy them all” language) expressed in military reports. Here are three examples:

1) In the fifteenth century (BCE), an Egyptian Pharaoh by the name of Tuthmosis III went to war with the kingdom of Mitanni. Old Testament scholar, K.A. Kitchen, documents Pharaoh’s claim that “the numerous army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those…non-existent.” [6] What’s interesting, Kitchen observes, is that the army of Mitanni was indeed not totally annihilated like Tuthmosis III claims. In fact, they continued to fight wars well into the fourteenth century.

2) In the thirteenth century (BCE), the Egyptian Pharaoh, Merenptah, announced in the “The Merenptah ‘Israel’ Stela: Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not.“[7] If it must be said, we know for a fact that this is not historically accurate, and that Israel existed well beyond the thirteenth century!

3) Sennacherib: Sennacherib, the Assyrian ruler from 701-681 (BCE), is also documented using exaggerated language when depicting the outcomes of war: “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.” [8]

What is clear from these examples and others like them, is that this exaggerated language was used as a literary device in the ANE world to commend leaders as faithful servants of their gods. “The knowing ANE reader recognized that this was massive hyperbole and the accounts were not understood to be literally true.”[9]

So where does this leave us? 

Given that genocide is doubtful, we still cannot escape the fact that Israel engaged in some form of holy war as part of God’s promise to give Israel the land of Canaan. The question that arises then is how God used war as a way to create sacred space in Canaan for His people. If the solution to the interpretive issues of the conquest narratives is that we read Judges (and not Joshua) literally, than Exodus 23:30 is the most historically accurate description of how this most likely took place – through a gradual conquest. “Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23:30). This is exactly what we find in the book of Judges; Israel has managed to enter the land of Canaan, but many Canaanites are said to still remain in its cities and regions (Judges 1).

In light of this crucial insight, we can argue that “Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua should be taken as hagiographic history.” [10] That is, history which is not meant to be historically accurate, but rather, meant to elevate Joshua as a leader on whom Yahweh’s favour rested.

Therefore, we can conclude wth a reasonable degree of confidence that God did not command genocide, and that the Israelites did not committ any such atrocities.

Imposing Modern Assumptions on Ancient Bibical Texts 

In modern society, we place a “premium on historical reliability and accuracy.” [11] However, as we saw in the hyperbolic examples of the ANE war reports, this was not the case in the ancient world. Indeed, “Assuming that [all] Old Testament narratives were written to preserve a record of what actually happened is a modern—not an ancient— historiographic assumption.”[12] Therefore, it is important that when we read Joshua (and other Old Testament literary genres) we be “extremely careful not to impose modern assumptions on these ancient texts” (Seibert, 105).

By imposing modern assumptions on ancient bilical texts, our theology of God will fall victim to interpretations which justify genocide and paint God out to be an unstable and ruthless tyrant.

Up next: I will be tackling the divine warrior motif in the book of Revelation and answer the question of whether Jesus will literally “strike down the nations” (Rev 19:15) with a real sword in the end times war.  Stay tuned.

[1] G.K. Beale, The Morality of God in the Old Testament, eds. Peter A. Lillback and Steven T. Huff (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Seminary Press, 2013), 17.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Eugene H. Merrill, “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” in Four Views On God and Canaanite Genocide: Show Them No Mercy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), 93.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, “The Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology,” in Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem, eds. Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013), 211.

[6] K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 174.

[7] K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing, eds. David J.A. Clines and Philip R. Davies (Sheffield England: JSOT Press, 1990), 227.

[8] Ibid., 228.

[9] Copan and Flannagan, 215.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Eric. A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behaviour: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009),92.

[12] Ibid., 105.

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