If God actually did command something that falls within modern definitions of ‘genocide’, then he must have done something wrong. Right?
No, wrong. Modern definitions of genocide can be great political tools to prevent bad things happening today, but they usually won’t work when looking at stories like the ones we have in the Old Testament. The definitions simply can’t cope with exceptional circumstances for which they were not designed, such as describing appropriate responses to alien invasions or analysing the sort of über-miraculous situations the Bible describes.
UNDERSTAND THE STORY
Though Christians believe the Old Testament is more than just a story, we can actually grasp the moral questions very well if we think of it as a story, just like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
When we read Tolkien we believe, for the sake of the story, in dwarfs, elves, orcs and Sauron. When we read the Harry Potter books we believe in magic and the reality of Voldemort. We cannot judge the morality of Bilbo, Harry or anyone else without reckoning as real whatever the narrative presents as real. The same applies when reading the Old Testament.
Even an atheist should admit that God is a real part of the narrative and accept, for the sake of reading the story, certain things about him. For instance, the God of the narrative made a good world, has shown many instances of undeserved kindness, seems to be highly intelligent and knows a lot about the future.
WAS GOD IMMORAL?
When you read that God told the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites, there are two main objections that can be made against the Old Testament story:
(1) It was immoral for God to command the destruction of the Canaanites
(2) It was immoral for the Israelites to obey such a command
Proving point (1) is very difficult, because arguably the being who gave all life has a unique right to take it. In addition, God’s knowledge of the future ought to make a big difference to whether his command was immoral.
Imagine if I could infallibly predict the outcome of a betting game, or know precisely an individual’s response to something I might do. The things I would be justified in doing would be rather different from at present, when I don’t have that foreknowledge. Do the thought experiment for yourself.
In the Old Testament story, the people groups in the land of Canaan are phenomenally wicked, to the point of sacrificing their own children, and God actually waits until they are bad enough to be judged (Genesis 15:16). The story also says that they were given much evidence of who God was (Joshua 2:9-11; 5:1; 9:9-10). Rahab, who came from a condemned nation, decided to switch allegiance to God, yet others who saw the same evidence as her did not.
God is also presented as kind and as having comprehensive knowledge of the future. In that situation, God (who is presented as preferring to give life than to take it) could arguably have done some pretty fancy calculations. He could have calculated that a given action of destruction of both parents and children – which seemed terrible in itself – would actually result in less suffering than the alternatives, such as leaving the Canaanites alone. In so doing, God puts a stop to the multigenerational cycle of violence that would probably have ensued if he had just judged the parents and left their children alive to avenge them.
THERE’S EVERY GROUND TO TRUST GOD HAD A GOOD REASON FOR WHATEVER HE ORDERED
We are used to filling in gaps in stories, particularly about what a character may have been thinking. When we do this with the Bible – using the guidelines we’ve been given about God’s character – we fill in the gaps about his character. Acknowledging that there’s an awful lot we don’t know about God’s thoughts, but based on all we do know about them, there’s every ground to trust he had a good and benevolent reason for whatever he ordered.
WERE THE ISRAELITES IMMORAL?
Objection (2) is that it was wrong for the narrative characters of Joshua and the Israelites to obey the command they were given by God to destroy the Canaanites. After all, add the critics, ‘God told me to do it’ is often the justification used by terrorists and deluded religious people for killing the innocent.
This is also hard to show, because again the story is unlike modern parallels. Joshua and the Israelites lived during the time of the most intense and visibly impressive set of miracles in the whole Bible. It’s not just the miracles of the Exodus, but also the constant pillar of cloud and fire showing God’s presence. More than 600,000 men hear God’s voice from the top of the mountain booming the Ten Commandments.
This means that the characters in the narrative have overwhelming and verifiable evidence of God speaking and authenticating Moses and Joshua as his spokesmen. So they all ought to know for certain that the God who made the world good and who made all life is ordering them to destroy the Canaanites.
That’s quite different from anyone who gets it into their head that they can fight today because their interpretation of a holy text allows them to do so. It’s different from anyone hearing voices in their head telling them to kill. It’s different even from a modern, publicly attested prophecy. It’s in a different league of evidence. But you shouldn’t kill just because someone in power tells you to. If the concentration camp guard tells you to kill your colleague, you should not comply. However, there are many differences between God in the biblical story and the concentration camp guard.
We have much evidence that God is benevolent and knows best. More importantly still, God is the one who initially gave life. The main reason you should disobey the command of the concentration camp guard is that it is an unauthorised command. The guard has no authority to give it, because your colleague’s life is not his to take.
Murder is not the taking of life, but the unauthorised taking of life. In a theistic world view, the only being who can authorise the taking of life is the one who gave it in the first place. That’s why God commanding that a life be taken is different from anyone else doing it.
The upshot is that, if we take the story seriously, we can’t make a good case that Joshua and the Israelites did something morally wrong by destroying the Canaanites.
DOES THE BIBLE BREED VIOLENCE?
A final objection from some sceptics is that reading passages about Old Testament violence has caused people to be violent.
GOD COMMANDING THAT A LIFE BE TAKEN IS DIFFERENT FROM ANYONE ELSE DOING IT
It’s certain that people have sometimes been violent under the influence of parts of biblical texts. I’m equally sure that one could trace links between some acts of violence and any number of books, films or computer games of which our culture generally approves. But unless someone can produce rigorous research showing that Bible readers have a greater tendency to violence than other comparable groups with different influences, the objection doesn’t stand. I would welcome such research, because I suspect that, if anything, it would show the influence of the Bible for peace.
Objections against the Bible typically arise when people divorce one of God’s actions in the narrative from the whole context, which tells us about his kindness; a kindness that is supremely shown in the sacrifice of his Son on the cross.
TRUSTING A GOOD GOD
In the Harry Potter series there is a scurrilous journalist, Rita Skeeter, who depicts every act of Harry’s wise and noble headmaster Albus Dumbledore in the worst possible light. Harry himself goes through a period of seriously doubting Dumbledore’s good character, but it’s interesting to note when he does so. He doubts Dumbledore’s goodness most when he underestimates Dumbledore’s ability to calculate what is likely to occur in the future. Harry was not aware of the way in which his headmaster could see elements of the larger plot in a way he was unable to. It’s the same with God, only God doesn’t have Dumbledore’s limitations in knowledge or goodness.
I would argue that based on the amount of good character displayed by God in the narrative, and based on his vast wisdom and knowledge, there was every reason for characters in the narrative to trust him, and there is every reason for readers of the biblical stories today to come away believing that, though he gave commands of frightening scope, he is still utterly good.
AN ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION
Some evangelical scholars have given a different interpretation to the Old Testament passages that instruct the Israelites to destroy the nations around them. The texts can be seen within a literary genre that allowed for hyperbole and, in any case, it is likely that the encampments attacked would not have contained women and children.
In their book Did God Really Command Genocide? Paul Copan and Matt Flanagan say of passages instructing the Israelites to ‘utterly destroy’ and ‘leave nothing that breathes alive’:
We see these commands as hyperbolic (using exaggerated language), which is evident both in ancient Near Eastern war texts and when comparing biblical texts with each other. For example, the Bible uses the language of “driving out” and “dispossessing” the Canaanites, and the Bible does not claim that God commanded the virtual extermination of everyone in Canaan—that is, genocide. And where we are told of the “utter destruction” of Canaanites or other groups, the Bible indicates that they continue to exist in large numbers.
Meanwhile, Old Testament scholar Richard Hess believes that, despite commands to kill ‘men, women and children’, these phrases were a shorthand in the language of the day for ‘all that you find there’. In fact, the towns attacked were more like military camps, in which innocent non-combatants would not have been present.
The conclusion they draw is that, despite the apparent severity of the commands, the reality of the warfare that took place was military combat, but not equivalent to genocide.
Did God Really Command Genocide? (Baker Books) Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan
Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker Books) Paul Copan
Time Travel to the Old Testament (IVP) Chris Sinkinson
The Skeletons in God’s Closet (Thomas Nelson) Joshua Ryan Butler
Peter J Williams is warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge. He is leading the Bible teaching at Spring Harvest in Minehead during week 2, 2-6th April. For last minute availability at Skegness and Minehead visit springharvest.org