Did God Command Genocide?

In Joshua 8:2, Yahweh seems to command the indiscriminate killing of the inhabitants of the city of Ai: “And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.” If this were said today, it would widely be regarded as a command to commit genocide.[1] The severity of the command seems validated by what Joshua records about the battle (vv. 24-25):

24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai.

This account—and others like it in the Old Testament[2]—are often viewed as problematic for contemporary Christians. How can a God of love command murder? How can the God who says “love your enemies” have ordered their destruction? These are, in my estimation, entirely legitimate questions worth wrestling with.

In what follows, I hope to breakdown some of the key aspects of thinking through the question of whether or not God commanded genocide and (some of) what that means for Christians today. Continue reading

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The Wilderness and Early Christian Monasticism

st-antony-agains-the-demonsIn the sixth chapter of his The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie reflects on the influence of eschatology, compunction (penthos), asceticism, and the struggle against evil on the shape of the scriptural interpretation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). Highlighting monastic awareness of coming death and judgment (182-3), compunction and the power of scripture (187-91), and the dual (internal and external) nature of struggling against evil (192-5), Burton-Christie outlines the desert reading of the scriptures, remarking on the centrality of allegorical interpretation (196), the recapitulation of Jesus’ time in the desert (198), the power of the words of scripture (199), vigilance and guarding the heart (203-5), and the lack of relations (207). In light of a course devoted to the study of wilderness traditions, while Burton-Christie’s work remains intriguing, this treatment against raises questions about why early Christian monastics did not draw upon and/or develop further Israelite wilderness traditions. To my mind, the Father who asked, “Did Satan pursue them like this in the early days?” could easily have turned to Israel’s wilderness testing for some type of answer. Instead, figures such as Abraham, David, and Jesus were regularly utilized, at least according to Burton-Christie’s presentation. Although the Fathers were clearly aware of Moses—and, it seems, the language of the Pentateuch, at least exhortations to “watch yourself” (Gen. 24.6; Ex. 23.21)—these narratives were not meaningfully employed in the monastic resistance of evil. Could it be that Israel’s time in the desert was viewed more as a model of what not to do in order to avoid temptation? Perhaps. But Burton-Christie’s reflection on desert interpretations of scripture doesn’t address possible wilderness interpretations of Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

Exodus from Bondage?

lukeResponse to “Exodus from Bondage: Luke 9:31 and Acts 12:1-24” by Susan Garrett

In her article “Exodus from Bondage: Luke 9:31 and Acts 12:1-24,” Susan Garrett argues that Luke employed a soteriology of exodus, wherein Jesus (and to a lesser extent, through thematic recapitulation, Peter) stood as true Israel and freed his people from bondage to Satan. Central for this paper is the collective memory of Israel, which Garrett suggests regularly drew upon the Exodus paradigm as a source of historical renewal for Israel. Picking up on these themes, Luke cast Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem as the faithful journey of Moses to the Promised Land. Culminating in his passion and resurrection, Jesus leads the better exodus and leads the people of Israel from bondage to Satan. Whereas ancient Israel sought to inherit the land, Luke indicates that only through the formation of the Christian community in Jerusalem—the Christ-follower inheritance of the land—may God’s promise to Abraham truly be fulfilled. Continue reading

The Day That Jesus Died

When students are first introduced to the historical, as opposed to a devotional, study of the Bible, one of the first things they are forced to grapple with is that the biblical text, whether Old Testament or New Testament, is chock full of discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable…. In some cases seemingly trivial points of difference can actually have an enormous significance for the interpretation of a book or the reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel or the life of the historical Jesus.”—Bart D. Ehrman1

Bart D. Ehrman

As this statement from contemporary (and popular) New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman indicates, there those who study Christianity—its scriptures and history—who argue that the canonical gospels2 do not present a historically accurate account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Around Easter every year, scholars and journalists of this perspective often pen pieces on the ”Why the Resurrection Story is a Myth” or ”Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” In more nuanced versions of these discussions, the credibility of early Christian accounts of Christ’s passion and resurrection is called into question, even on facts as seemingly mundane as the day on which Jesus was crucified.3 Such is the position of Ehrman, who argues that the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Gospel of John portray Jesus as being killed on two different days, thus revealing their historical inaccuracy and untruthfulness.4 As is my Good Friday custom, in this post I examine this claim and explain why the canonical gospels indicate that Jesus died on the same day: Good Friday. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part VI)

This is the final post in a series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

A Way Forward

Fall of JerichoGiven Ancient Near East warfare terminology, “driving out” language, and an emphasis on the destruction of the heads of state, it seems that the vast majority of Israel’s wars recorded in Joshua are non-genocidal wars against the wicked tribes of Canaan who are being punished in order to stop their crimes. This is not to suggest that God did not command the people of Israel to fight against the Canaanites. Nor is it to advocate that God did not use language of total destruction when telling the people of Israel how to conquer the land. Nor does it mean that the people of Israel always appropriately followed God’s commands during the conquest. And finally, it does not mean that it is not possible that God actually deemed total destruction appropriate in some instances. What I really want to emphasis from this study is that when trying to understand the Israelite Conquest of Canaan, we must consider the warring context of the Ancient Near East and carefully examine the biblical record before coming to conclusions about the possibility of genocide recorded in Joshua. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part V)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

The Total Destruction of Ai

Ancient Ai

Ancient Ai

What about those instances where near-total destruction—including women, children, and non-combatants—does seem to be ordered by Yahweh? As an example of this, let’s consider Joshua 8 and Israel’s battle against the inhabitants of Ai. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part IV)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

The Context of Conquest

Lego MosesSeveral texts can be submitted as examples of where Yahweh seems to have commanded the people of Israel to commit genocide. One such place is Exodus 23:23, which reads: “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out….” Here the implication seems to be that Israel and Yahweh will wipe out these nations. But let’s step back and read the wider context of this passage, beginning in verse 20: Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part III)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

Ancient Near East Warfare Terminology

Relief of Assurnasirpal II Killing LionsMost important for our purposes is considering the language of the conquest narratives in Deuteronomy and Joshua, especially in light of other passages 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 numerous places[1], 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. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

How Do We Read the Bible? : The Importance of Context

Context is EverythingMany Protestant Christians talk about reading the Bible “literally.” But I often don’t understand exactly what that means. Webster’s 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. Consider, 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.” Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part I)

Fall of JerichoThe Rock Church of Saint Louis–our church home–is in the midst of reading through the entire Bible narrative as a church community. The past two weeks we have been reading the book of Joshua, which is all about Israel’s conquest of the promised land of Canaan. One feature of this conquest that contemporary Christians are often hesitant to discuss (or that they are curious about) is whether or not Yahweh commanded the people of Israel to commit genocide as they entered the land. This question often rears its head after reading passages like Exodus 23:23, Deuteronomy 20:16-18, and Joshua 6:17-18. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be running a series reflecting on whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide as they took possession of the Promised Land. But before considering whether or not Yahweh commanded genocide, we must first begin to answer two important questions: How was the Bible written? And how do we read the Bible? Continue reading