Several weeks ago I was chatting with some friends about the topic of God (Yahweh) in the Christian Old Testament. And, as is often the case, we ventured into the topic of whether or not Yahweh commanded genocide during the Old Testament period. While I am by no means an expert on this topic, I proceeded to suggest that God did not actually command genocide in the Old Testament, or at least what we would consider to be genocide in today’s context . Thinking about this topic led me to think more about how we read and interpret the Bible.
Many Protestant Christians talk about reading the Bible “literally.” But I often don’t understand exactly what that means. Websters defines “literally” as “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” When applied to the interpretation of a written text, this type of reading would seem to indicate that you take the text at its simple face value. But there are many portions of the Bible that even those advocating a “literal” reading of the Bible do not suggest should be interpreted woodenly. For example, the parables of Jesus. Is it possible that the Parable of the Sower or the Good Samaritan were actual events that Jesus was merely repeating for his followers? Possibly. But most people who have read or heard these stories have understood them as parables–stories that Jesus told to make a point and teach a truth–and not as historical narrative. But parables are not the only parts of scripture that should caution our desire to read the Bible “literally.” The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (the central portion of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and the Psalms are two additional chunks of Christian scripture that most people are hesitant to interpret “literally.”If we shouldn’t read every part of the Bible literally, then how should we read the Bible? I would suggest that we seek to read the Bible contextually. What does that mean? That means that when we read the various types of literature found in the Old and New Testaments we should read them according to their historical and theological genres. For example, when contextually reading a parable of Jesus, you might need to do some historical research to better understand what a talent was, how economic transactions occurred in Jesus’ time, learn something about the general economic climate of the Roman Empire and Palestine, and pay attention to any literary features of the text which may or may not be immediately obvious when reading a translation. Reading a parable contextually also means considering the theological and social implications of the text and noting any meaning(s) that has typically been taken from the passage.
Another important component in seeking to read the Bible contextually is attempting to understand how a message would have been heard by its original audience. When Jesus delivered a message, he was speaking to a real live audience full of human beings who would have been expected (at least in most circumstances) to understand something about what he was saying. On this note, I sometimes hear people say, “Well, God says that he speaks in riddles and Jesus says that he speaks in parables so that people don’t understand. So can’t just assume that Jesus would have spoken in such a way that a first century Jew living in Palestine would have understood him.” And while I’m willing to grant that at times God’s messages are not clear, this type of thinking doesn’t really persuade me for a couple of reasons. First, if you believe that the Bible is important/scripture/the Word of God/inspired/etc. then you’re already assuming that something is being communicated, no matter how wrong the occasional interpretation might be. Second, if you read the gospels (especially Luke), it’s pretty clear that Jesus was a popular fellow in his time. I don’t know about you, but I’m don’t know many people who are excitedly following someone who only speaks in unintelligible riddles. So it seems likely that, while clearly not everyone understood everything Jesus said (even the disciples), the things that he was saying made enough sense in their original context to warrant our being interested in how they would have been understood. All that to say: understanding what a message meant in its original context is an important component of understanding the context of a passage.
So back to my conversation about God not commanding genocide in the Old Testament. In response to my claim that Yahweh did not claim what we think of as genocide in the OT, several texts were submitted as counters, that is, that Yahweh did command the people of Israel to commit genocide. The one that I want to look at here is Exodus 23:21-22, which reads: “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.” Here the implications seems to be that not entirely obeying God will be a problem for the people of Israel. But let’s step back and read the wider context of this passage, beginning in verse 20.
“See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.”
Read in this light, the implications for Israel if they fail to obey Yahweh are still not good. But what is God asking that they obey? Verse 24 would suggest that Israel should not “bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practice. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces.” This is clearly a warning against idolatry. But what about the end of verse 23, where God says that he will “wipe them out”? But look at how the passage suggests that this will happen: “I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you…” In this passage, God is going to wipe out Israel’s enemies by driving them out of the land. Being dispossessed from your home is certainly a terrible thing, but it’s not really the same as being executed as a non-combatant. This passage goes on to suggest that God will drive out the Canaanites little by little, and then closes again with a warning against idolatry. So contextually, this passage doesn’t seem to indicate that Israel not murdering everyone in Canaan will evoke God’s wrath. Instead it suggests that obedience to Yahweh involves not worshiping other Gods and progressively taking control of the land (which is the pattern that we see in Joshua-Judges).
However, most important for our purposes is considering the language of this passage, especially in light of other passages (such as Deuteronomy 20.16-18) which can be interpreted as a command to wipe out everything that breathes. When reading passages such as this, I would argue that it is especially important to situate oneself in the context of the original audience. As Paul Copan argues in Is God a Moral Monster?, it is of the utmost importance to recognize that in the Ancient Near East context, especially when discussing war and military conquest, language of total domination was the norm. For example, there are ancient military records that, if not read in the milieu of ANE warfare language, would suggest that after a conquest no one was living and no brick stood on top of another, whereas historical and archeological records suggest that this was not at all the case, that people were left alive in these locations and cities remained. A good analogy is modern day sports smack talk. After this past Thursday night, it is totally expected to hear things like “The Broncos killed the Ravens” or “Peyton Manning annihilated the Ravens Defense.” While not an exact parallel (typically people did die when language of destruction was used in the ANE), this idea begins to get at my point– understanding the context that language is used remains integral to understanding its meaning. And in the Ancient Near East context of war, there is good reason to interpret language of total destruction and annihilation as a rhetorical device rather than a statement of actual intent.
Please clearly hear what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that God did not command the people of Israel to fight against the Canaanites. I’m not suggesting that God did not use language of total destruction when telling the people of Israel how to conquer the land. I’m not suggesting that the people of Israel always appropriately followed God’s commands during the conquest. I’m not even suggesting that there are possibly situations in which God commanded Israel to totally annihilate certain people groups (for example, in I Samuel 15). What I am saying is that when I attempt to contextually situate myself within the context of 1) the Ancient Near East and 2) warring people groups, it seems more contextually appropriate to read at least some calls for total destruction within both the ANE rhetorical context as well as a more complete Biblical context.