Monday, May 17, 2010

Three things about genocide in the Bible.

Mikey preaches here about understanding God's call to occupy the land of Canaan and destroy it's people. It's a difficult apologetically to explain and partly because you have to enter into the Christian worldview to understand the justification.  Essentially he argues from these three presuppositions; God intervenes in history, morality is a theocentric construction and Scripture must always be interpreted within a larger Scripture-wide narrative.  God's command to destroy the people of Canann is therefore bound by the following three parameters, beyond that we need to soberly accept that's part of the Biblical canon and worldview.

  1. Violence is always illegitimate but sometimes force for a specific purpose is permitted. 
  2. These particular commands are localised to the context of the ancient Israelites.
  3. God doesn't spring destruction on people, they know what's coming.


Nathan said...

I wrote an essay on the violence in Joshua at around the same time Mikey was preaching on this - I'd add a qualifier to "they know what's coming" to include "they had time to get away - and most did", and a further point - that most of the commands to execute inhabitants of the land were theological hyperbole, coming backloaded with instructions for how to deal with survivors of this "genocide"...

Nathan said...

Here's a post I wrote about it

Jon said...

Well Luke (and Nathan) never let it be said you dodge the hard questions. Given our own history, genocide is something Australians need to come to terms with. The key problem here is an apparent contrast between how God deals with sin here (by ordering his people to carry out genocide) and in the New Testament (by sending his own son to die in the sinners' place). How do you explain this?

Nathan you give two explanations - one is that it's OK for God to order the death of people who sin, and quite in accordance with his righteousness. That's probably OK in theory, but in practice there's a couple of problems - like did they all commit these sins, including the infants and even the sheep? Secondly, how does this square with God's mercy?

The other explanation is that the Israelites didn't actually carry out the genocide, since some of the Canaanites survived. Aside from being incompatible with the first explanation, this reasoning is just wrong. Many Jews survived the Nazi regime but that doesn't mean they didn't attempt genocide. Australia still has a large Indigenous population, but that doesn't lessen the killings cultural destruction that took place.

The trouble I have, Luke, is not that you have to enter into the Christian world-view to understand the justification, it's that you have to step outside it. You have to forget what you have learned from Christ about mercy and forgiveness, and step into a legalistic framework which says these people died because they deserved it and that's OK. It sounds scarily like the victim-blame that usually accompanies genocide, as in both Australian and Jewish/German history.

I don't know what the answer is, except that this is as good an argument as I have heard against the infallibility of the Bible.

Luke said...

Hi Jon,

Good observation about intention and fulfillment, I hadn't thought of that angle. About entering and leaving the Christian worldview, I guess this ancient genocide is Hell and judgment on a smaller scale. Outside of universalism, the future for some people isn't very good at all, even depending on your definition of Hell. I'd what to temper the command of bloody destruction with mercy but not to the point of universalism then or now.

I agree about the level of controversy, issues like gender roles or homosexuality will come and go over time, but this one, is one of the biggest apologetic issues facing Christians along with vicarious atonement and God speaking into the world.

Nathan said...


Worth considering (and I found it a bit convincing) - the passages containing instructions for genocide all come after a passage where God promises to drive the people from the land ahead of the Israelites. The people left, so far as the narrative is concerned, are the stubborn ones. Rahab's interaction with the Jewish spies shows that the residents of Jericho had ample knowledge of the impending arrival of the Israelites (and their purposes). While prostitutes may be privy to all sorts of secret government secrets I'm more convinced that this was common knowledge, rather than special knowledge.

The Canaanites were given ample opportunity to repent, they were a particularly immoral nation (see Leviticus 17 (I think) which gives Israel commands to not be like their neighbours who sacrifice children, and all manner of other wickedness. It could be 18. It's around there somewhere...

The question as to the historicity of the violence is moot so far as I'm concerned - though scholarly consensus seems to be moving in the direction of suggesting that the accounts of violence were socio-rhetorical boundary defining stories for Israel under the monarchy (especially king Josiah). I don't really buy this - and I don't think it helps with the apologetic issue at hand - God commands, affirms, and participates in violence.

I think part of our problem with this issue is that we, and our culture, have turned life into an idol. Something to be preserved at all costs. I don't know that this is the Biblical picture.

The "theological hyperbole" line is more convincing to me. It meshes with the accounts of Israel's interaction with the occupants of the land, and what Joshua says happens to the Anakim (they leave the land). I would suggest that rather than being a goal to wipe out the people it was a goal to wipe out the culture - and that occupation of land was closely tied to identity and culture in the period (it still is).

One other point worth throwing out there, is that other than the execution of hostile kings, every Canaanite the Israelites are described as "meeting" face to face in Joshua receive mercy, despite the hyperbolic commands in Deuteronomy to devote the occupants of the land to destruction.

Nathan said...

Hey guys, (Jon in particular) I posted my essay on violence in its entirety last night. It gives a decent overview of the thinking regarding the violence in Joshua (if not a decent conclusion on how we should deal with it).

Jon said...

Luke I think your uncle Alan has pretty much convinced my on universalism - not that I was that unwilling I guess.

I've left some more comments over on Nathan's site on the whole Joshua thing. What really disturbs me about this is that in every case of genocide that I'm aware of, the killers blame the victims. In Australia, Aboriginal people were protrayed as less than human, as treacherous and murderous, and their death as an inevitable consequence of evolution. Yet at the bottom of it, we wanted their land and weren't prepared to pay or take no for an answer. They were hardly innocent of sin, but surely the genocide itself was the greater sin.

If you project that back to the bible, does this become different if God orders the genocide? Or are the Israelite authors just doing the same thing, justifying their grubby, ruthless invasion by invoking the sinfulness of the Canaanites and the name of their God? Although I am myself a Christian, I can see why atheists find this such a problem.

Nathan said...

Why is projecting our take on genocide back onto the Bible a legitimate exercise? It smacks, a bit, of cultural imperialism for us, as modern readers, to take umbrage with the culture of the past.

There are a number of suppositions at play there that I think need to be checked and not simply assumed (I'm not saying I completely disagree - I'm just thinking we need to be careful what "moral" standards we apply to judging God's actions in a different time and place).

Jon said...

So, Nathan, you would be a moral relativist then? Genocide was OK then but not now?

I think there's something in that, actually, but it involves understanding the Bible as an imperfect, progressive piece of revelation, so that the teachings of the prophets add to and extend those of the Pentateuch, and those of Jesus add to (or complete, to use the verse you quoted from Mt 5) both of these. I'm aware that this is questionable on all sorts of grounds.

However, what I was actually doing was trying to see the issue from a perspective "outside" Christianity. If you don't accept the right of God to do whatever he likes (or his perfect rightousness, if you want to put it that way) how would you react on reading Joshua. I think the answer is, you would react with horror, and say "if that's what God is like, then I'm certainly not going to worship him".

Nathan said...

That last bit is the Euthyphro dilemma. I actually have no problem with the concept of God deciding what "morality" is quite arbitrarily.

I'm aware that atheists find this hard to understand (I had a pretty long argument on an atheist blog about it) - but I think once you grant God control of his world the whole thing becomes a bit moot.

I'm not a relavist by any means. I think if I were absolutely convinced that God wanted me to conduct genocide now (and if my military campaign was accompanied by a theophany, and won on my behalf) then I would do it, and be comfortable with that as "moral" - I think morality is completely objective, with God as the standard.

Clearly we have the New Testament now, and clear instructions about loving our enemies (which Israel was also commanded to love sojourners), and the boundaries of the "people of God" are less defined. So the likelihood of such a command is pretty low.

I don't think that makes me a relativist. I just don't think violence or indeed genocide are always "wrong" - if you had a nation full of Hitlers (consciously breaking Godwin's law) then I think it would be right to wipe them out.

Sodom and Gomorrah would be another relevant biblical narrative.

Jon said...

:):) Nathan, I'd be willing to call your bluff and raise you double that you wouldn't. Although you never can tell - people you "meet" online can often be not what they seem. If we haven't actually met then we're bound to at least have some mutual friends here in Brissy, so perhaps I should put out a warning.

Thanks for letting us clutter up your blog, Luke.

Nathan said...


I believe, if you are Ben's dad, that I know your son. I think that's who Kutz said you were...

I would take that bet because I don't believe I'd ever have to act on what I've bet - but I'm pretty sure if God convincingly manifested himself in your presence you'd be prepared to obey him. Otherwise he's not God.

Luke said...

Clutter away!

(I don't find Uncle Allan's arguments for universalism convincing, but that's fuel for another blog fire. )

Jon said...

@ Nathan, yes that's me.

Nate said...

Interesting discussion. I know I am jumping in late, but I heard a sermon on Deuteronomy 20 yesterday which had me thinking about it some more.

Although we remember that the destruction that was inflicted by God (through the Israelites) was a localised, but we still expect God to inflict similar destruction on the last day. When we declare 'come Lord Jesus', we are calling not only for the exaltation of the saints but the eternal destruction of all sinners.

But the day of judgement has not come yet, and the Gospel the church has been given to preach until then is an offer of forgiveness and redemption. We shouldn't preach like Jonah did: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned". Instead, we preach like Paul did, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved". (note that in both these cases there was gracious forgiveness and an expectation of violent judgement on those who do not repent)

A good point that was made by the speaker I heard yesterday, similar to Nathan's comments, was that the common accusation of atheists is that the gods of religion are simply projections of peoples desires, a crutch they need to deal with life (an argument going back to Feuerbach). So we desire a father who offers love and security, therefore our god is a father who offers love and security. Well, if we claim the right to judge the God of the Bible and pick and choose which parts we want to accept as true revelation and dismiss others because they don't sit well with us, then the accusation of the atheists is proved correct. If we say God couldn't have commanded the destruction of a tribe (including women and children) because that would be wrong, then we claim that God can only be what we determine he can be. We need to take the God of the Bible as he is, and he isn't tame.

Lastly, I think that violence in the Bible may be regrettable and the result of man's sin, but it may also be good and desirable (as in the case of God's judgement through Israel and at Judgement Day), or productive and necessary (as in the case of the cross).

ish said...

Coming in late too. "...if we claim the right to judge the God of the Bible and pick and choose which parts we want to accept as true revelation and dismiss others because they don't sit well with us, then the accusation of the atheists is proved correct." A very apt point Nate. Thanks for passing this along.
The reluctant stragglers of the Caanaite decadance who refused to leave when repeatedly warned still got to participate as players in the large drama on the landscape of history declaring for all time in their demise God's view of the sin in human behaviour. ... There is a sense in which they got what they chose. Could one even say ... got what they wanted? And the little ones? What is the greater horror? The sword of God's warriors or the abuse prospects of Caananite culture. They were delivered from a great horror. Love is not soft-morphing universal tolerance.
It involves a lot of intolerance.
And you don't have to be a universalist to harbour the possibility that heaven may await such as these.

Jon: It is far from clear that there ever was an "aboriginal genocide". Or else genocide becomes a meaningless word. Of course those with a particular agenda insist that there was one whatever the data and the definition. Its the same crowd that snarl about a Palatinian genocide too.

Jon said...

Just got back into this and picked up late comments.

@ Nate - the question is not so much picking which aspects of God we like, as trying to understand the events of Joshua in the light of the God we know through the New Testament. I don't think that a critical approach to the Bible equates to atheism.

@ Steve, I think to suggest that there was no genocide directed towards Aboriginal people is just semantic. Maybe the word is imprecise, but the crime remains for all to see, despite what the likes of Keith Windschuttle want us to believe. Genocide is not so much an attempt to kill everyone, as an attempt to destroy their society and culture, to remove them as a people, and there can be little doubt that this happened in Australia.