Genocide, as defined by the United Nations, is action intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Reading about genocide in Nazi Germany (1939–45), Cambodia (1975–79), and Rwanda (1994) will make the stomach churn and the mind reel.
The human toll of natural disasters like tsunamis or pandemics is difficult enough to bear. What more genocide, where humans wilfully slaughter other humans?
Now read some of these passages: Ex 23:23–33; Num 21:1–3; Deut 2:31–35, 3:1–7, 7:1–6, 9:1–5, 12:29–32, 20:16–18, 25:19; Josh 6:21, 8:24–29, 10:40, 11:12–14; 1 Sam 15:1–33.
Our moral intuitions tell us, rightly, that we should feel sorely troubled by these texts. Before leaping to defend God, it is important to acknowledge how truly horrendous genocide is. Only then can we move from moral gut reaction to mindful reflection: are these genocide texts reason to distrust and disregard the Bible and the God it presents?
When reading the Bible, we are thrilled by the miracles and awed by God’s love and grace. But then we run into difficult texts like these. We start to feel disturbed.
“Reject everything” is a simple way to resolve the moral distress arising from the genocide texts. Some strident atheists conclude from such passages that the Bible is untrue, dangerously toxic, and must be rejected wholesale. Others relegate these uncomfortable passages to a lower tier. In the 2nd century, Marcion rejected the Old Testament because its violent and angry God seemed too different from the Father of Jesus. All these would upset a Christian who takes Scripture seriously.
Others have tremendous respect for Scripture and seek to obey every command in it. Unfortunately, the genocide passages have served as a backdrop or an after-the-fact justification for violence (see Hofreiter, chapter 6). Sometimes misapplying Scripture can be far worse than not applying it.
This principle holds true: not every Biblical command has timeless applicability. Look at Deut 20:10–15, and then Deut 20:16–18. These passages are clear—the annihilation command was limited only to specific groups, in a specific time and place. The eradication of enemies is simply not the norm for all Israelite warfare. Since, outside of a limited context, the genocide commands did not apply even for ancient Israel, then all the more so, they definitely do not apply to Christians today.
Hence, we cannot simply assume the direct relevance of every Biblical instruction. Rather, we must first understand each passage in its proper context and in light of the whole Bible, under the guidance of other faithful, wise Christians who have preceded us. We must also consider not just the letter of the commands but the principles underlying them, and be certain that the contemporary and Biblical situations are comparable.
In sum, the genocide commands are not applicable today, nor do they justify contemporary acts of violence.
This in no way implies that all biblical commands are irrelevant. It is a logical fallacy to go from “some of these do not apply” (a truth) to “all of these do not apply” (a falsity). Numerous commands in both Old and New Testaments retain a timeless quality, including “pray constantly” (1 Thess 5:17), “bless those who curse you” (Matt 5:44), “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3:16). These directives may also cause us discomfort, but for an entirely different reason—following them entails countercultural sacrifice on our part.
“Hang on,” someone might protest, “even if the command doesn’t apply today, genocide did occur in the time of the Israelites, and that’s still a problem.”
However, the same passages which command genocide also state that God would drive the Canaanites out from the land (e.g. Ex 23:28–31, Deut 9:1–4), which implies non-annihilation. Provisions were also made for the survival of Rahab’s family (Josh 6:21–25) and the Gibeonites (Josh 9:3–27). Further, some passages about Joshua’s annihilation of entire city populations (e.g. Josh 10:38–39), are followed just a few chapters later with descriptions of how those cities remained to be conquered (Josh 15:15–16). The Amalekites were depicted as both annihilated by Saul (1 Sam 15:7–20), and yet still present to fight against David (1 Sam 27:8, 30:1). Read holistically, the occurrence of genocide seems less extensive than first impressions suggest.
Are the Biblical narratives simply deceitful fabrications then? No. While the Bible is more than mere folklore, we also recognise that taking Scripture seriously does not always mean taking it literally.
Consider passages such as Isa 19:1, Lk 14:26, Mk 1:4, and Acts 2:5. God does not literally ride on a cloud, nor is Jesus commanding us to hate our parents. Neither did every single person in Judea and Jerusalem visit John the Baptist. Nor were Yayoi or Mayans (ancient peoples of present-day Japan and Central America respectively) present in Jerusalem at Pentecost. The point is: the Bible contains hyperbole, which is an exaggerated figure of speech used for the sake of emphasis or poetic expression. Taking hyperbole literally would be to misinterpret the intent of the human and divine authors of Scripture. Respecting the genre and context of a passage is key. To have a high view of Scripture means knowing when not to take it literally.
There does seem to be some evidence that the genocide passages were hyperbolic, given the plurality of descriptions above and the fact that hyperbolic war rhetoric was commonplace in that region and era. Several recent authors (Wolterstorff, Copan and Flanagan, Webb and Oeste) argue for this, and while no interpretation is without problems, their views are worthy of serious consideration.
The hyperbole view is also an important alternative to the proposal that Joshua’s conquest and the associated genocide was simply a fictional construction. Based on archaeological findings, some scholars assert that the conquest (and hence genocide) never occurred at all, but was simply a grand tale created to bolster Israel’s national identity. This may evade the genocide problem, but creates a new one concerning the nature of Scripture.
More recent archaeological studies seem to indicate fewer inconsistencies with the Biblical account than earlier research suggested. Overall, the data remain far from conclusive and there is no perfect fit with any explanatory model.
Regardless, it is recognised that the Bible is not a history book in the modern sense, but is a theological account which interprets events via the lens of faith. Scripture, is not purely historical in genre, but neither is it entirely ahistorical. These passages do not need to be read as mere fabrications ex nihilo (out of nothing), but as literary and theological reflections of pivotal moments in the history of Israel as God’s people.
There is a third difficulty: even if hyperbole was present, a good amount of harsh warfare still occurred. And even if genocide was not fully executed by the Israelites, does it not remain a problem that a good God commanded such an atrocious deed?
For Marcion and others, the genocide texts are simply irreconcilable with the compassionate, gentle, and loving Jesus of the Gospels. Yet, numerous passages (Mt 10:34–36, Mt 23:1–36, Mt 24:45–51, Lk 19:11–27, Jn 2.13–17, Jn 5:26–30) show that Jesus was remembered by the earliest church as more than just a mild and serene sage. Similarly, Revelation depicts Jesus as both victim and ultimate victor (Rev 5:6–14, 19:11–16).
We must avoid thinking of God as merely a doting parent. He is also a warrior and a judge. The Canaanites’ sinfulness was given as an explicit reason for the genocide and expulsion commands (Deut 9:4–5, 12:29–31, 18:12). Further, the Israelites themselves were not exempt from God’s judgment. The severity of God’s punishment fell on His own people too, on account of their sins (Lev 26:14–33, Deut 28:15–68, Jer 9:10–16). God is indeed a loving Father, but He is more than just that.
We must likewise avoid thinking of God as merely a vengeful punisher. When God first revealed himself on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:6–7), elements of both mercy and justice were present, with noticeably more emphasis on the former (see Webb and Oeste, chapter 14). God is indeed a judge, but He is more than just that.
In the end, mind boggling as it may initially seem, we can acknowledge that the severity of God’s judgement is congruent with His loving mercy. The Bible itself holds this tension throughout its pages, and nowhere is God’s kindness and God’s justice more closely intertwined than when God himself suffered on a Roman cross.
This article has outlined only the most basic elements of this complex issue. Much more could be said; the interested reader is directed to the references below.
Nevertheless, we have seen, firstly, how the genocide command was a specifically limited one which is absolutely not applicable today. This does not invalidate other Biblical principles which retain a timeless applicability.
Second, we have appreciated that the commands of annihilation sit side-by-side with less severe instances of expulsion and assimilation. Some degree of hyperbole may be at work in the text, and hyperbole is not the same as fiction.
Third, we have gone beyond the genocide texts to consider what the whole of Scripture says about God’s mercy and His execution of judgment. Since God is both lover and judge, we can hold this tension. Taken together, these indicate that the genocide passages need not result in a distrust of the Bible.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for brevity. The full article can be found at http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/index.php/resources/bible-matters/26-resources/245-should-we-distrust
Gilbert Lok is a Local Preacher at Aldersgate Methodist Church. He graduated from Trinity Theological College and is now undertaking further training in New Testament at Oxford University. Upon his return, he hopes to serve in the pastoral ministry.