God and Genocide

As I mentioned in my introductory post to this Searching Issues series, this question is not one which is actually in the Alpha Searching Issues book. However, in my experience, this is probably the most-asked question, even more than suffering and probably about as often as how we understand the place of other religions. So, after being asked this question in the past week’s small group discussion, as expected, I decided it was time to formulate my thoughts on it a bit more succinctly. The question, of course, is formed something like: how can we worship a God who not only allows evil (the problem of suffering discussed previously) but who actually even commands evil like genocide, assuming you take the biblical texts literally? My theory is that many are starting to be more satisfied with, or at least they’re more tired of arguing with, the Christian answers to evil in general, but this is a similar problem with a far more interesting and challenging twist. 

The Reformed Answer: God’s Sovereignty

This potential answer lines up with a similar answer often given to the question of suffering: we simply don’t know and must trust that God knew it would do more good than harm in the long run. This can get more specific as people theorize about how the price is worth it. One possibility is to say that it was the only way to set up God’s holy nation of Israel. As the text itself says at some points, the reason for the genocide is that Israel must be free of all of the pagan influences. Those who argue for this would point out that in many cases in Israel’s story, they did indeed become corrupted by the pagan nations around them. Another way is to simply say that they deserved it, and who are we to question God’s judgement? The most twisted version, in my opinion, will add to this judgement concept that if there really were some innocent children there who were slaughtered, it was really saving them in the long run since they’d go to heaven instead of being doomed to be corrupted by their culture.
With many non-Christian critics, I do not consider this a satisfactory answer, and the assumption that God is the source of all evil is one of the reasons that I reject Calvinism in general. I can handle the idea of God allowing evil for the greater good because of free will, but I don’t think God actively operates on this limited utilitarian principle by actively committing evil. I don’t understand my God as a brutally murdering God – I understand him as a forgiving God. So slaughtering children because their parents deserve it just doesn’t fit with God’s character to me. The last bit about it being a good thing for the children really bugs me because the logical extension is that we should kill all our children – if they are guaranteed Heaven by dying young vs taking a chance by growing up, and if this life doesn’t really matter anyway, then we should kill all our kids. That’s a scary extension.

The “Liberal” Answer: God Didn’t Really Command It

While the first was primarily a conservative Reformed answer, this is primarily a “liberal” (non-literal) answer. In short: the Bible recounts the human viewpoint, not necessarily the exact truth. Perhaps Joshua thought God told him to when he really didn’t. It’s not like there is corroborating evidence from others who heard God’s command. Alternatively, many (but not nearly all) scholars reject that this conquest ever happened in the first place, and thus say that this entire story is a foundation myth created by later Israelites. Myths are not to be ignored – they hold a lot of truth in other ways – but it probably didn’t literally happen. In that case, here’s two options for the point of the conquest story: that God is a righteous judge (must eliminate sin), or that at that point in history Israel had special treatment and had to be distinct under the Old Covenant. The fact that this point was conveyed through a genocide would be a misuse of the story in the same that claiming Genesis 1-2 gives us literal scientific truth, they’d argue.
I can generally respect this view, although I don’t find it nearly emotionally satisfying and it does force other questions about the Bible because it is pretty hard to just shrug that little detail aside.

The Process Theology Answer: An Immature God

This whole stream of thought is one that is generally unfamiliar to orthodox Christians, as it relies on rejecting what we usually consider a core belief: that God has always been of a consistent and perfect character. God matures over time, they’d reason, along with humanity. Process theologians could fairly easily answer this question by claiming that God simply was not as mature back then. As humanity was less mature then, committing these types of conquests, so was God. I reject this because I hold to the orthodox belief that God has always been the same in character, which includes most importantly sacrificial love.
I include it here primarily because it helps get you thinking in the right track to understand the last position.

The New Covenant Answer: The Principle of Accommodation

Christians today often forget about covenant theology. The Old Covenant (Old Testament) is different than the New Covenant (New Testament). That’s why we call it Old vs New. That’s why Hebrews calls the Old “obsolete.” So we have to ask the question: why are we so worked up over something that is no longer valid? According to the Scriptural story itself, God works in different ways at different times. Jesus is said to be the fullest representation of God. Not Joshua. Not even the things that God said to Joshua. Jesus himself says that John the Baptist was the greatest of the Old Covenant, but he was lower than even the lowest of the New Covenant (including us). So we always have to start with Jesus when we are considering our image of God. The question is not really how can we worship a God who ordered genocide, because we worship a God that is pictured in Jesus and it is clear that Jesus did not condone such things.
The real question then becomes: how we do reconcile the genocidal Yahweh with the sacrifice-for-your-enemies Jesus? There is a big similarity with process theology here: the correlation between humanity’s maturity and what the Bible says about God’s. However, the big difference is that we in this position don’t believe God actually is immature. On the contrary, it is the height of maturity to be able to lower yourself to the level of another in order to convey a point. God, in knowing what it took to reach such fallen humanity, operated on principles similar to (but progressive in many ways) the ways of the rest of the world. It was a national covenant, in the vein of the national covenant that other kingdoms had with their gods. I firmly believe that if God had tried to offer something bigger and better than that, they simply wouldn’t get it. Look at how most people didn’t get what Jesus was saying in his time. Look at how many today still don’t get what Jesus was saying. If most of us still don’t get the radical enemy-love Kingdom of God, imagine how hard it would have been to get through to people a few thousand years ago when everyone assumed that.
So in short, it isn’t that God actually wanted genocide. It is that God gave himself up to accept human fallenness, just like he did by becoming a human in Jesus. We do not worship a genocidal God. We worship a God who loves us and works through us even when we are so fallen that we think genocide is acceptable. Jesus gave himself up on a cross, a violent instrument of the ways of the world, to people who couldn’t comprehend that his Kingdom was different than the kingdoms of the world in order to help bring us to that realization. Yahweh, in his love and efforts to bring us over time to the greater realization of the Kingdom of God, similarly gave himself over to the ways of the world.
For how far God has gone to reach us, we praise him. And we repent of often being so slow and so stubborn to accept that our ways of violence and nationalism are at odds with the self-sacrificial love of God.
[update: the day after posting this I saw that Greg Boyd preached on this, and of course he says it better than me, so I’ve embedded that below]

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

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  • solarbuddy

    I like your approach re: accommodation, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. Recall that according to Rahab, *all* the Canaanites knew that the Israelites were coming, and were backed by an all-powerful God (i.e., eternal creator vs regional or nature-deities). She (and presumably others who followed her into that “protected” room) came out of the encounter transformed by the encounter. I think it is entirely possible that the “genocide” resulted in a harvest of Canaanites, much like the final phases depicted in Revelation (I am a futurist, of course) will result in a harvest that will dwarf the evangelism of the last many centuries.

    I’m not sure what name to give to this explanation; something with the word “harrowing” in it comes to mind!

    • That’s also a very good point. I didn’t include that theme here, but I’ve often talked about suffering as necessary for transformation. Thanks for bringing it up.

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