I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.
I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.
Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30
So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?
I think he did. And I think it does.
But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.
This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…
The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.
The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?
What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”
But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.
I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.
And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.
Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.
Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.
Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.
And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.
Bigger than we can grasp.
We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?
Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.
Anyway. If you want to read on…
How to approach “moral” questions from the past
This is probably one of the trickiest parts of assessing an ancient text – Christians want to affirm that the Bible, as a unit, contains relevant moral instruction, thousands of years after the fact. And we don’t want to jettison the bits that we don’t like through a series of fairly arbitrary rules or interpretive gymnastics. However, the moral framework we take for granted in the western world – the fact that we value human life, and rightly condemn genocide, is, I would argue, inextricably linked to the influence of Judeo-Christian moral and political philosophy.
Even the language we use to speak of the essential value of life – the “sanctity of life” – carries with it, etymologically, the idea that human life is somehow special and sacred, and of more value to a divinity. In the West, this is largely a product of Christianity’s social influence. The concept of the sanctity of life isn’t exclusively Christian – it exists in Eastern religions where even insect life is sacred, and in Islam. Whether the same values would have necessarily been derived through something like secular humanism is largely moot – they quite possibly, or even probably, would have, but they didn’t. And even humanism is the product of philosophy derived from Christian presuppositions.
The point is, we need to be careful to avoid anachronism – reading old texts and judging them using modern moral standards that developed, in part, through the way those texts have been used by people for thousands of years. The morality on display in these texts is dealing with the reality of life in the time the texts were produced, and the time narrative, featuring the events in the text, is set. I’ll try to do that.
We also need to be consistent in how we treat texts. And I’ll get to that a little below, where I’ll argue we need to take texts on their own terms – not ours. This shouldn’t be problematic, really, because if you’re an “author is dead,” “meaning is in the eye of the reader” type post-structuralist literary critic then it shouldn’t actually matter what an ancient text says, because texts don’t mean what they say, they mean what we decide they say…
The Biblical text and what it says only matters if it is what Christians claim that it is – the authoritative word of God.
How I think the Old Testament works (my presuppositions)
The Old Testament, as we receive it when we pick up a Bible, is a collection of books written by various people, over a long period of time – which have undoubtably been edited at some point (you can find editorial comments like “x remains the case until this day”), and collated into one text, which presents a narrative account of the history of the nation of Israel and their interactions with their God.
These books contain multiple genres – poetry, history, genealogies and lists, sermons, proverbs, and possibly allegories and fables designed to teach theological truth. These books were written for a particular audience, to achieve a particular purpose, and had some explanatory power about particular situations the readers found themselves in – so, someone hearing the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), Joshua, and Judges, in Jerusalem, under King David would think “this is how we got here,” and someone hearing the Pentateuch and the histories including 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings, sitting in exile, out of the land would think “this is how we got here”… at every point in the chronological history of Israel, as more books are being written and collated, the Old Testament has explanatory power for its first audience. Israel.
The historical context is important – the stuff we know from the time the text was produced, from the culture, from the surrounding cultures, from the time and place of the initial audience. This stuff is important because it helps us understand how the text may have functioned for its audience, and it helps us avoid anachronism.
I think that wherever possible the literary context – stuff we know from the text itself – the genre, the setting, the author, the original purpose, and the setting within this bigger book – ie the context within the collection that has been deliberately collated, and Israel’s narrative – is really important for understanding a particular text. A text from early in the piece has to be interpreted not just on the basis of what has come before it, but also what we know comes after it.
Because I’m a Christian, I think this includes what happens in the New Testament. The arrival of Jesus. This is the theological context. In this sense the Old Testament works to foreshadow the new. It is the shadow, Jesus is the fulfilment.
The reason we read the Old Testament, an obscure collection of texts, from an obscure Ancient Near Eastern people group – as Christians – is because we believe it talks about Jesus. It doesn’t just contain records of the triune God’s interactions with humanity, it foreshadows the arrival of Jesus. A person of the Trinity made a person of humanity.
Image Credit: Flickr user N0ll.
The richer and more detailed a picture we have of the shadow, the better we can appreciate the reality.
I’m keen to stretch this analogy a little further. If you’re standing a long way away from the light, an object’s shadow is blurry and it’s difficult to get any sense of the object from the shadow – but the closer you are to the light, the more detail you see in the shadow, the closer you are to appreciating the object from the shadow, and the more you’ll grasp the detail of the object when you look at it instead. But also, the more aware you are of the reality, the better your understanding of what the shadow is on about will be.
I think the Old Testament text is interpreted most truly, most vividly, and closest to the light, when it is understood with the object – Jesus – in mind. I think, not surprisingly, the answer to where God’s conduct is morally normative is in Jesus, as is the answer to how we might begin to understand the wanton destruction of human life in the Old Testament (and beyond).
What I think the Old Testament narrative is about
It explains, primarily, the nature of God, the nature of nature, the nature of humanity, the nature of human society, and the nature of God’s people. Israel.
It explains that God is magnificently in control of all things, and is bigger than we can imagine. It explains that he created the world and keeps it operating (and reveals his operations) through what we might call “natural causes” – like the sun rising and setting.
Like in Psalm 19.
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.”
As we’ll see way down the bottom, Job’s young friend Elihu is a bit impetuous, and a bit prone to think to highly of himself and a bit too keen to speak for God, but he’s pretty on the money when he speaks of just how big God is. So in Job 36-37 – again, looking at God’s relationship to natural events. Using the example of a storm…
“He draws up the drops of water,
which distill as rain to the streams;
the clouds pour down their moisture
and abundant showers fall on mankind.
Who can understand how he spreads out the clouds,
how he thunders from his pavilion?
See how he scatters his lightning about him,
bathing the depths of the sea.
This is the way he governs the nations
and provides food in abundance.
He fills his hands with lightning
and commands it to strike its mark.
His thunder announces the coming storm;
even the cattle make known its approach
“He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven
and sends it to the ends of the earth.
After that comes the sound of his roar;
he thunders with his majestic voice.
When his voice resounds,
he holds nothing back.
God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways;
he does great things beyond our understanding.
He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’
and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’…
…He loads the clouds with moisture;
he scatters his lightning through them.
At his direction they swirl around
over the face of the whole earth
to do whatever he commands them.
He brings the clouds to punish people,
or to water his earth and show his love.
“Listen to this, Job;
stop and consider God’s wonders.
Do you know how God controls the clouds
and makes his lightning flash?
Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?
You who swelter in your clothes
when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
can you join him in spreading out the skies,
hard as a mirror of cast bronze?“
God is really very big.
And God works by controlling his creation. His creation serves him, and achieves his purposes. God works through causes that seem natural to human observers. We get the physical reality – but have no real access to what is going on metaphysically. That’s how the Bible – particularly the book of Job – seems to express this…
Where things get a little bit unnatural – or supernatural – is in the moments that God steps in to human history and participates as an agent. Where he speaks. Where he miraculously suspends, or modifies, natural law. But the God described in the Bible also works through things that appear not to suspend these laws.
God himself affirms this bit of Elihu’s speech when he starts speaking to Job… in chapter 38…
“Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges
and shake the wicked out of it?
The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
its features stand out like those of a garment.
The wicked are denied their light,
and their upraised arm is broken.
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this.
The natural causes God chooses to work through include the natural actions of human agents. God works through human history. Human history is messy. God works despite messy people. God works through messy people. That’s the Old Testament meta-narrative, and it’s part of how it foreshadows Jesus. Time and time again the human agents in God’s plan do terrible things, but his plans go on. And while God’s plans go on, the terrible cost of the human part of the equation spirals out of control. Lets take, as a brief example, King David. King David who is a “man after God’s own heart,” King David, whose rule over a united kingdom is the apex of the fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham to build a nation of people, in a land, and bless them. King David who wrote most of the Psalms.
King David the womaniser. Who sees a woman he desires from a rooftop. And grabs her.
King David the murderous adulterer.
King David whose son Solomon has a harem featuring 1,000 women.
King David whose son Absalom tries to kill David to sieze his throne – who steals the women from David’s harem to publicly shame him. On a rooftop. So that everybody can see. As 2 Samuel 16 puts it…
“Ahithophel answered, “Sleep with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and the hands of everyone with you will be more resolute.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.”
There’s an accelerated generational messiness at play here that has been at play in the Biblical narrative since Adam and Eve – and since one of their sons killing the other…
The Old Testament narrative reveals two things to us:
- We are more broken than we imagine, and we inherit this brokenness from a line of broken people. While what is broken was created beautiful, and in God’s image, and while some of that image still exists, even at our best we are incapable of meeting God’s infinitely perfect standards of our own accord, and are of limited use to God’s plans and purposes – especially without him enabling us.
- Despite 1, God’s plans unfold through humans, culminating in a human who bridged the divide, fusing the finite with the infinite. A human. The image of God.
This means God’s plans unfold through a bunch of mucky human stuff – and appear to take natural human courses – like conquests of land, and the driving out/killing of people living in that land, in a bid to annihilate cultural expressions that are set up against God.
Because there’s such a massive gap between God’s infinite capabilities and our finite capabilities – an infinite gap – and between God’s moral “goodness” and ours – an infinite gap – God has to accommodate himself to us, he has to bridge that gap. In order to relate to us – that’s at the heart of the Biblical narrative too. God wants to relate to us. And any of this relating, to be significant, has to be at his initiative. For God’s plans to work, through human history, he has to use finite beings who are unable to act as infinite beings.
God accommodates his ‘work’ by largely working through and directing natural causes, including the actions of people. Including the immoral actions of people. Including immoral actions of people who are acting immorally because he has hardened their hearts.
It’s at this point that we want to avoid anachronism too – God could have parachuted a nation with modern values and a bunch of United Nations Resolutions into the Ancient Near East sometime in the last five thousand years. And they could have had modern moral values. But they wouldn’t have found anywhere to live. And if they were given land, their neighbours, not obeying these moral values, probably would have tried to put them into slavery, taking their cities and inhabitants as a sacrifice to their tinpot gods (really the ‘divine’ puppets of the power hungry kings). That’s not accommodation. That’s not particularly logical, nor is it God’s pattern of engagement. The Israelite conquest is patterned on the conquests of its time – it had to be, because part of the purpose was to show the nations that Israel’s God was superior – the laws of Israel for dealing with foreign nationals who wanted to join Israel suggests that had the nations paid attention they could have become part of team Israel, following God with them… There’s also this indicator that the transition wasn’t just going to be supernatural, but appear natural, from the end of Deuteronomy 7…
“The Lord your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. But the Lord your God will deliver them over to you, throwing them into great confusion until they are destroyed. He will give their kings into your hand, and you will wipe out their names from under heaven. No one will be able to stand up against you; you will destroy them. The images of their gods you are to burn in the fire.”
Israel waged war like the nations of the Ancient Near East waged war. Except that their God was an active participant.
It’s, I think, a category error to assess the morality of God’s actions at this point from a human perspective, because we are finite and limited. God’s actions may seem immoral from our perspective. They may well be immoral from our perspective – if I set myself up as God, and started taking lives, you should be rightly condemn me, because human lives aren’t mine to take. They don’t belong to me. Not even my own. It’s right to see them as immoral acts when they’re acts by people – but I want to suggest it’s a category error to assess non-human entities using human moral standards. We intuitively know this when it comes to non-human ‘lesser’ beings. We don’t kill animals that kill people for doing the wrong thing, but because they are dangerous to us.
The question then for us to answer is a bigger question about how God’s actions shape our moral compass. If we’re made in his image, but clearly not in his category. One of the problems with the criticisms of Christians acting inconsistently when it comes to the morality of God in the Old Testament is the assumption that these acts of God are a paradigm for human action. But as God points out to Job (in chapter 38) – who is a most righteous,but still finite and broken, man… Job is not God. He knows comparatively little. While God knows a lot.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
To act like we are gods – or judge God like he is like a human – is the folly at the heart of Job’s quest to understand his suffering. We’ll get to him a bit more later.
The Christian Dilemma
The messiness of how God’s plans happen, as described in the Old Testament, is a long term dilemma for Christians – there was a guy named Marcion (check out his church history trading card), way back in the early days of the church, who recognised the problem so tried to ditch the Old Testament, and just keep Jesus.
This approach is largely unhelpful – because it gives us an anaemic understanding of who Jesus is, but it’s also theologically problematic… In a nutshell, Christians want to avoid Marcionism, because as a commenter on a post here said two weeks ago, at the heart of Christian theology is the idea that the God of the Old Testament is the Triune God who incarnates himself as Jesus. So. Whatever God did in the Old Testament, Jesus also did.
Wikipedia defines Genocide as:
“The deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, caste, religious, or national group”
So, did the God of the Bible command genocide? Did Jesus commit genocide?
There are a few problematic texts on this front. And I’d suggest that using this definition, God did command genocide. Here are two examples, probably the earliest examples (the events of the Exodus might count, except that they were something like self defence through divine agency, where Egypt wanted to wipe out Israel, and its army was, itself, wiped out by the Red Sea – an equal and opposite reaction – so if one wanted to refer to modern self defence type laws, one could suggest the level of force wasn’t excessive)…
From Deuteronomy 2…
“The Lord said to me, “See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his country over to you. Now begin to conquer and possess his land.”
When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, the Lord our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors. But the livestock and the plunder from the towns we had captured we carried off for ourselves. From Aroer on the rim of the Arnon Gorge, and from the town in the gorge, even as far as Gilead, not one town was too strong for us. The Lord our God gave us all of them. But in accordance with the command of the Lord our God, you did not encroach on any of the land of the Ammonites, neither the land along the course of the Jabbok nor that around the towns in the hills.”
And this is a pattern that repeats itself… in Deuteronomy 3.
Next we turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan with his whole army marched out to meet us in battle at Edrei. The Lord said to me, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.”
So the Lord our God also gave into our hands Og king of Bashan and all his army. We struck them down, leaving no survivors. At that time we took all his cities. There was not one of the sixty cities that we did not take from them—the whole region of Argob, Og’s kingdom in Bashan. All these cities were fortified with high walls and with gates and bars, and there were also a great many unwalled villages. We completely destroyed them, as we had done with Sihon king of Heshbon, destroying every city—men, women and children. But all the livestock and the plunder from their cities we carried off for ourselves.
And it will be an ongoing pattern for Israel, so long as they’re faithful. Again, in Deuteronomy 3…
At that time I commanded Joshua: “You have seen with your own eyes all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings. The Lord will do the same to all the kingdoms over there where you are going. Do not be afraid of them; the Lord your God himself will fight for you.”
It does repeat, as Israel enters the promised land, in Joshua, and as they establish themselves as a nation in Judges through to 2 Samuel, this comes at a cost for the nations they displace. They are pushed off their land, their cultural and religious identity, which is often tied to the land, is destroyed. Deliberately and systematically.
The narrative accounts of the battles report total destruction – we’ll see below that there might be a little bit of exaggeration involved in these declarations…
But I’d say, ultimately, that God clearly commands the death of many people. And according to the text – even participates in their deaths.
What about the children?
Including the deaths of children. According to the text. And here’s where this gets complicated and messy. Especially if you don’t try – like some famous Christian apologists – to tie yourself in theological knots here about the eternal future of these children. I’m not going to suggest these children are in heaven – I can’t speak for God.
I think the key, again, is to be human in our response to these texts. To feel them. To be horrified about the brokenness involved in this story. And to remember that while we’re human, and our right response is to be horrified, and want to protect children – we can’t even begin to see things from God’s perspective. The chasm is too wide.
So the narrative tells us that the people of Israel put children to the sword – and while it might not have been all of the children, it is some of the children… and one of the children would be, in a sense, too many.
Children died in this conquest.
Which is horrible.
We’re meant to feel that.
We’re meant to feel the brokenness of the people involved. The horror of death. The horror of war. It’s meant to make us look for something else. We’re meant to understand that there are no heroes in the Old Testament – only broken people who God uses despite their brokenness. And through their brokenness.
So even Bathsheba – the wife David stole, whose husband he murdered – becomes the great great great great (multiplied a few times) grandmother of Jesus.
We, rightly, love children. Most of the time. And we hate seeing them mistreated. Because they’re vulnerable, and young, and blank canvases waiting to grow into their futures… As a relatively new father, I don’t think you can mount the argument that they’re innocent – if my experience with a stubborn 21 month old is anything to go by. Children aren’t innocent. But they are unable to protect themselves. And they are lovable. Incidentally – I reckon there’s a bit of generational messiness at play, almost immediately, in our kids. My daughter has my bad habits – and bad habits I taught her.
We are, I think, rightly horrified when we think of any situation where the death of children is deemed necessary, by any person, to kill a child.
Again – we’re largely horrified, in the west, because Christianity taught us to be horrified. It was the early church who stopped infanticide by changing the culture and values of the Roman Empire – which stretched over much of the Western World, or the countries that colonised what is now the west. Things could be very different if early Christians hadn’t acted the way they did to protect the lives of children they believed were made in God’s image. It’s that sanctity of life thing again.
It’s interesting that in some sense, these children are facing the consequences of their parents’ decision to defy God. The Canaanites, according to the narrative, knew Israel was coming. This inheriting consequences thing is fundamental to Christian theology – to a Christian understanding of what it means to be human…
It’s also interesting that the narrative is at pains to remove culpability, as much as is possible, from the Israelites who did the killing.
Israel enter these fights as the weaker military power, the narrative makes it clear that it’s because of God’s intervention, that they are successful. To be angry at this situation you have to accept that God is directing a lesser human power to wipe out a greater human power. Israel wasn’t a crack military operation – at least not according to the narrative, they won unlikely battles through unlikely improvised weaponry and tactics, against far superior military machines.
It is God who the narrative says is responsible for the conquest. Not man.
I can’t begin to imagine what the Israelites were thinking as they carried out their grizzly task. I can’t even begin to excuse their actions, nor am I particularly interested in doing so – except to say that while I think “Divine Command Theory” is a pretty scary ethical system (and a “Jesus sacrificial example theory” is much more preferable), if the God of the Universe is speaking to a group of you out of a fiery furnace, and everybody is hearing the same thing, and he’s just freed you from slavery and helped you avoid genocide, and you’ve collectively been waiting for hundreds of years for particular promises, about a particular place, to come to fruition, and the people you’re fighting against hate you and have big armies and march at you to do battle, and you have no security because you have no land, and the Geneva Convention doesn’t exist yet, and nor do rules of engagement, and this is normal military practice at your point in history, and he tells you to wipe these people out because if you don’t, things won’t be so good for you – then I reckon you’re going to listen.
Especially if these people are deliberately opposing God – like all of us do in our own ways, but in a particularly direct and pernicious way. And especially if the warning is that death is the fate of anybody who turns their back on God, or rather fronts up to God and opposes him, because life is a gift from God and we’re all actually living on given time anyway. That’s kind of what’s going on here. In the next chapter of Deuteronomy (chapter four), Moses lays out the logic…
“You saw with your own eyes what the Lord did at Baal Peor. The Lord your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, but all of you who held fast to the Lord your God are still alive today.“…
…After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and arousing his anger, I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you.”
According to the narrative presented in the Old Testament, God commits actions that we would, in modern terms, define as genocide.
It gets worse though. It’s not just those people who oppose God in and around Canaan that face genocide. Remember our definition:
“The deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, caste, religious, or national group”
That sounds a lot like Hell. Well. So far as the book of Revelation puts it – this is apocalyptic in genre – so prone to a little bit of hyperbolic gore and imagery, but you can’t help but feel that a whole “religious group” ie – those of any religion not belonging to God, is being wiped out here. In Revelation 20 and 21… it starts with God deciding the fate of every person ever…
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.“…
… He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
If this is going to happen to people – for eternity – does it matter if they’ve lived one year on earth, or one hundred? It’s a perspective issue. I think. To have a hang up about what God does to people on earth.
Interestingly – at this point something else is happening. Those who become God’s children become immortal… The gap between man and God closes a little bit – we get God dwelling in us. We get conformed to the image of Jesus.
But for those who get this second death, is this not also an example of genocide.
Is God committing genocide a moral problem?
But is this a problem? It feels like it, from our perspective. It’s certainly a problem if you or I decide to commit genocide.
I may lose you at this point, if you think I’m advocating for genocide, or somehow trying to justify the slaughter of children. I’m not going to try to mount some human case for that, nor will I suggest .
But I’ll give away the next few thousand words here and suggest that if this is the moral question you’re left struggling with when you read the Bible, your emphasis is probably all wrong.
And this is probably because your perspective is all wrong. It’s possible you’re not seeing the bigger picture, because you’re standing in the wrong spot…
Your picture of how significant you are, or any human is, is probably wrong.
Your picture of how significant your finite life is, or any human life is, is probably wrong.
Your picture of how significant your death is, in the scheme of eternity, is probably wrong.
But more importantly, your picture of how significant and infinite God is, is probably wrong.
Your picture of how significant you turning your back on, or humanity in general turning its back on God is, is probably wrong.
Your picture of how significant it is that God bridged the infinite gap between infinite him and finite us, is probably wrong.
Your picture of how significant Jesus death is, in the scheme of eternity is probably wrong.
Your picture of how significant it is that God bridged that infinite gap by sending himself to be murdered by us is probably wrong.
And not just a little bit wrong. The gap between one and infinity wrong. Very wrong.
If you object to God taking away a human life in the narrative of the Bible, or the narrative of human history – even though all human life is said to be given as a gift by God, and from God, you’re looking at it wrong. You are judging these narrative from the wrong starting assumptions.
Why are these deaths worse than any human deaths at this point?
If your human objections to God are starting with genocide in Canaan, and not with God’s ultimate final judgment, they’re probably wrong. You are judging the narrative from the wrong finishing assumptions…
I suggest we largely have a moral problem with God committing genocide because we intuitively have an anthropocentric (man centred) view of the universe, not a theocentric (God centred) view of the universe.
And that that view is natural to us. As people. As finite people. The thought of some other being – non-finite, and all powerful, acting in this way is pretty scary, and the thought of a person acting this way is abhorrent – we’ve rightly condemned such examples from human history.
But that’s not the point of Old Testament history.
The emphasis of the Old Testament isn’t to answer questions of human morality – the morality or otherwise of what people do to each other – though it speaks to that question. The emphasis of the Old Testament is the wonder that it is that God would choose to care about what people do to each other enough to direct human history at all. And care about it enough to mold and shape and work through human history such that the conditions were ripe for him to eventually become human, and be murdered by humanity, for humanity.
The only thing the Old Testament reveals about human morality is that humans are incapable of acting morally, consistently. In all our actions, and you don’t need a Holy Book to tell you that. All you need is a newspaper.
The only way this genocide becomes a moral problem for humans (rather than a moral problem humans might have with God) is if we think, with Plato, that God’s actions are somehow “good” or “moral” and by extension then, normative for us. That they give us license to also commit Genocide. Plato’s classic philosophical work Euthyphro – contained a dilemma, which has been applied from the question of piety, to the question of morality. It goes something like this:
“Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”
This has classically been thrown at Christians in debates about morality and violence in the Old Testament. I want to suggest it’s kind of a false dilemma. This isn’t simply a command from God without justification. It’s part of God’s long established plans to identify himself as the true God. It’s not a command of God. It’s an act of God.
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
You were shown these things so that you might know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire. Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength, to drive out before you nations greater and stronger than you and to bring you into their land to give it to you for your inheritance, as it is today.
When God specifically asks some humans to participate in the outworking of his plans – breaking the natural order and stepping into the narrative – we’re not talking about normal circumstances, or an ongoing command, a moral order… we’re talking about God acting as an agent.
If God is infinite, and we are finite – if he’s the God the Bible paints him to be, and we’re the people the Bible paints us to be – it’s an ontological error to ask questions about, or judge, the moral goodness of God’s actions from our finite perspective. just as it’s a category error to see descriptions of God’s actions in judgment of people and think they are commands for us now. That’s a big part of the reason Christians aren’t running around committing genocide right now.
The dilemma doesn’t work. What is morally good is commanded by God because it is morally good, and it is morally good because it is commanded by God. But God’s actions aren’t his commands. And what he commanded in this particular event was part of one of his actions.
His actions are the actions of an infinite God, with infinite knowledge, and infinite power. His actions in charting the course of history through global conflict are the actions of the provider of human life and the director of natural events. We can’t possibly emulate these actions.
It’s a category error to think that anything other than the way God acts when he becomes human is necessarily a moral imperative for us – God’s character and actions do have some bearing on human morality in the Old Testament. Israel is told, in Leviticus 19:
‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’
That’s a command it was clearly never possible for Israel to keep. The command and the narrative that surrounds it is meant to be jarring. We’re meant to see that Israel isn’t holy, like God is holy.
The message of the Old Testament is that while we’re made in his image, this image is broken, and becomes increasingly distant as generation after generation of Adam’s children move further and further away from God. Israel keeps failing.
We can emulate some actions of God. The actions that come when God becomes man. When he bridges this gap. When he reveals himself, makes himself known, and calls us to imitate him. Here’s what Jesus says… in Matthew 16.
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
Interestingly, this “taking up of the cross” seems to be what Paul’s trying to capture in his description of his approach to life in 1 Corinthians 9-11…
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings…
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
So, it’s not a question of inconsistency when Christians don’t kill their enemies – but love them instead. Like Jesus told us to. And it’s possible, if one has a big enough view of God, and correspondingly, a big enough understanding of the offence and stench of sin, and its generational/corporate/global impact on humanity’s standing before God – then it is possible to argue that it is moral for God to take any and all human life at any stage in that life. The miracle is that he offers life, and that he bridges the gap between our natures to provide a path back to life as it was meant to be, a path that opens up a door to unending life for humans.
Did the “genocide” even happen?
At this point it’s worth considering what actually happens in the narrative – not to try to excuse it, but just to point out some of the flaws in the case against God. It takes a pretty poor reading of the text to think the genocide happened exactly as a flat, un-nuanced, reading would suggest. These exceptions don’t quite hold for the Deuteronomy 3 events… which is why I’ve chosen them above… but when it comes to inhabitants of the promised land, there are some significant issues in the narrative that must be taken into account.
Firstly, the commands themselves don’t seem quite so watertight.
In Deuteronomy 7, Israel is told not to marry the people they’ve just destroyed. Which seems odd.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession…
those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction;
he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him“
The people opposing God will be destroyed – but the objects of destruction are the objects of their opposition to God. Their religious icons. The people opposing God will be destroyed – but the people of God are told not to marry them? Huh?
There are some other mitigating bits of information in the text. We’re told the people being displaced aren’t just normal not very nice people like you and me, they’re exceptionally not very nice. Here’s Leviticus 18…
“I am the Lord your God.You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.”
The list that follows is a list of things the Canaanites do… Here’s the “bracket” around the list:
“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.”
It’s interesting that Leviticus suggests the inhabitants of the land have already been vomited out before Israel arrived. There are heaps of shady sexual practices – but it’s not just about sex…
“Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.”
They’re militarised – they almost always, in the narrative, attack Israel, a nomadic people who have just escaped Egypt and the armies of Pharaoh, where they’d experienced something akin to genocide themselves. That’s kind of the point. God is triumphing by taking on the bullying giants with an unlikely hero. A bit like David and Goliath… Again from Deuteronomy 7…
The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.
And the nations know, according to the narrative, that Israel is coming to take the land. They know Israel claims to have God on their side. By the time Israel reaches Jericho at the gateway to the Promised Land, that Israel has been coming for 40 years… And they chose not to leave. Here’s what Rahab, a resident of Jericho, says in Joshua 2 – it’s possible this whole speech is an invention by the writer – but if you think that, then why is the genocide itself not, similarly, an invention? The genocide happens in the context of this statement…
“I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”
Joining Israel was also an option. There are heaps of laws about foreigners living with Israel, as members of the nation of Israel – these foreigners, like Rahab, could come from the people groups in the land.
The biggest case against the Genocide being the wholesale slaughter the book of Joshua suggests – perhaps deliberately a little over-confident and hyperbolic in its celebration of Israel’s great victory – is that when Judges, the next book, part of the literary context, kicks off – the people who were said to have been exterminated are still there. In the land. Living with Israel. Who then start pairing off with them, so that Israel itself is eventually booted out of the land, exiled. Culturally knocked down. Objects of worship destroyed. If you follow the literary shape of the Old Testament, it’s pretty clear Israel didn’t commit the wholesale destruction of her enemies that certain verses suggest. So if we assume the people who put the collection that is the Old Testament together were aware of this discrepancy, we have to account for it in some other way. I’d suggest the best way is to think of it as a little bit of hyped up rhetoric to celebrate a comprehensive military victory. Something akin to a football player talking about “slaughtering the opposition” or “putting them to the sword”… but I recognise that for some people that’s not a satisfactory answer. Any divinely ordained death might seem like one too many. Especially if it’s the death of a child.
Here’s what I think is the better, more coherent, solution.
Life itself is a gift from God… for him to take…
The book of Job is a pretty interesting place to go when it comes to questions of life, death, and morality. It’s interesting because one of the questions it seems to answer is the question of why people – righteous or otherwise – suffer, and how to respond when that happens. Ultimately it’s a book that shows the significance of who God is, compared to who we are, and, significantly, what a wonder it is that God cares about us at all. There are multiple voices in this little pre-Socratic dialogue… one of these voices is Elihu, who has an appropriately grand picture of who God is, and speaks truly about his magnitude, but he wrongly assumes God is disinterested in humanity, and won’t speak into Job’s situation on that basis, only for God to then speak up. In Job 34, Elihu speaks rightly about God’s relationship to human life.
“So listen to me, you men of understanding.
Far be it from God to do evil,
from the Almighty to do wrong.
He repays everyone for what they have done;
he brings on them what their conduct deserves.
It is unthinkable that God would do wrong,
that the Almighty would pervert justice.
Who appointed him over the earth?
Who put him in charge of the whole world?
If it were his intention
and he withdrew his spirit and breath,
all humanity would perish together
and mankind would return to the dust.
“If you have understanding, hear this;
listen to what I say.
Can someone who hates justice govern?
Will you condemn the just and mighty One?
Is he not the One who says to kings, ‘You are worthless,’
and to nobles, ‘You are wicked,’
who shows no partiality to princes
and does not favor the rich over the poor,
for they are all the work of his hands?
They die in an instant, in the middle of the night;
the people are shaken and they pass away;
the mighty are removed without human hand.
“His eyes are on the ways of mortals;
he sees their every step.
There is no deep shadow, no utter darkness,
where evildoers can hide.
God has no need to examine people further,
that they should come before him for judgment.
Without inquiry he shatters the mighty
and sets up others in their place.
Because he takes note of their deeds,
he overthrows them in the night and they are crushed.
He punishes them for their wickedness
where everyone can see them,
because they turned from following him
and had no regard for any of his ways.
They caused the cry of the poor to come before him,
so that he heard the cry of the needy.
But if he remains silent, who can condemn him?
If he hides his face, who can see him?
Yet he is over individual and nation alike,
to keep the godless from ruling,
from laying snares for the people.
You may not like this God. You may wish to shake your fist at him. And I think I’d join you, if Elihu was right about God. If God was disinterested in the affairs of man. If he just crushed us like ants. For petty reasons. Cruelly. With no hope. If Elihu is right, if God is a disinterested observer – then what is the point following him, worshiping him, or admiring him for his creative power.
Or perhaps, if we were morally upright and didn’t deserve death. If we didn’t turn our backs on God – corporately, with Adam, and in our decisions to reject God in how we frame our lives. If we didn’t try to topple God off his throne just like Adam. If we didn’t – corporately, with the crowd, murder Jesus. If we weren’t responsible, with the rest of humanity, and through our own rejection of God and our own wrong actions, for sending Jesus to the cross.
These things are a big deal.
They require starting assumptions about what it means to be human that are part and parcel of adopting the Bible as an authority – and as we’re discussing why the genocide in the Bible is or isn’t problematic – we should be discussing the genocides in their literary context.
They occur after we’ve been told:
- That the earth is God’s.
- That people were made to bear God’s image, but we chose to reject that role, and bear our own image.
- That life itself comes through God’s breath, presumably for him to withdraw, as he does over and over again in the narrative.
- That God is Holy, by his nature infinitely perfect. And that people who don’t meet his standards deserve death.
- That people, especially the people in these nations, have, time and time again, deliberately rejected God in the most horrible ways imaginable.
Elihu is right that life is God’s to take. But he’s wrong that God stays silent.
God “speaking” as the ultimate solution
Job, in the midst of his own season of suffering, amidst the death of his loved ones, gets a little angry at God for not explaining himself. He gets plenty of answers from well meaning friends – that are all a bit stupid, man-centric, and wrong. Then this young guy Elihu speaks, and he points out it’s a miracle that God would ever explain anything to anybody – such is the difference between God and man – in Job 33.
“But I tell you, in this you are not right,
for God is greater than any mortal.
Why do you complain to him
that he responds to no one’s words?”
Elihu, who has been pretty wise up to this point… goes a little too far in his rebuke of Job, in chapter 35. Elihu claims that God is indifferent to human suffering. That he is unaffected by human behaviour. Because he is so much greater than man. He’s half right…
“Do you think this is just?
You say, ‘I am in the right, not God.’
Yet you ask him, ‘What profit is it to me,
and what do I gain by not sinning?’
“I would like to reply to you
and to your friends with you.
Look up at the heavens and see;
gaze at the clouds so high above you.
If you sin, how does that affect him?
If your sins are many, what does that do to him?
If you are righteous, what do you give to him,
or what does he receive from your hand?
Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself,
and your righteousness only other people.
“People cry out under a load of oppression;
they plead for relief from the arm of the powerful.
But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker,
who gives songs in the night,
who teaches us more than he teaches the beasts of the earth
and makes us wiser than the birds in the sky?’
He does not answer when people cry out
because of the arrogance of the wicked.
Indeed, God does not listen to their empty plea;
the Almighty pays no attention to it.
How much less, then, will he listen
when you say that you do not see him,
that your case is before him
and you must wait for him,
and further, that his anger never punishes
and he does not take the least notice of wickedness.
So Job opens his mouth with empty talk;
without knowledge he multiplies words.”
Elihu continues in Chapter 36… he says much that is useful about God, but suffers from the same arrogance he accuses God of – the arrogance of assuming to be able to speak for him…
““Bear with me a little longer and I will show you
that there is more to be said in God’s behalf.
I get my knowledge from afar;
I will ascribe justice to my Maker.
Be assured that my words are not false;
one who has perfect knowledge is with you.”
“God is exalted in his power.
Who is a teacher like him?
Who has prescribed his ways for him,
or said to him, ‘You have done wrong’?
Remember to extol his work,
which people have praised in song.
All humanity has seen it;
mortals gaze on it from afar.
How great is God—beyond our understanding!
The number of his years is past finding out.
Now no one can look at the sun,
bright as it is in the skies
after the wind has swept them clean.
Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.
Therefore, people revere him,
for does he not have regard for all the wise in heart?
As Elihu sees it, the answer to questions like why do humans die – or why does God do what he does – can’t be fathomed by our limited minds, and he’s right about this natural state of affairs – God is naturally beyond our reach, beyond our understanding…
Except that he’s not. The Almighty is not beyond our reach. Though ontologically – by his nature and ours – he should be. Because he reaches out to us.
God does explain things. God does speak. In Job – and in every book of the Bible – and ultimately by becoming human. Becoming man. He is not so distant that we rely on recognising the gap between us and him. Between infinite and finite. Immortal and mortal. Creator and creation. He explains things to Job. He speaks. He bridges the gap.
He speaks to affirm part of Elihu’s argument. He is really big, and there is a difference in the scope of our understanding and God’s understanding. So he starts by rebuking Elihu, in Job 38…
“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.”
God’s plans have always been to speak with humans. To bridge the divide. To relate to his image bearers. To restore them. That’s his plan. That’s why he created. That’s why he created a people. That’s why he persevered with them – even though the narrative suggests he shouldn’t have.
God talks about some really big stuff – like setting the stars in the sky… but the biggest bit in this little stanza is the setting up of God’s kingdom. His dominion. His job.
“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?
The answer to every one of these rhetorical questions is a resounding no.
And it’s after this that Job shows that he is, indeed, the wisest of his friends. He recognises the gap, and it’s how he resolves the question of his suffering and what appears to be the wrong done to him. God asks Job to reply to recognising this difference and he says:
“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.”
God presses him to speak.
Then Job replied to the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”
After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.
This vindicates Job’s earlier words – when his friends were abandoning him and condemning him, and giving trite theological answers to his grief, rather than grieving with him.
The human response to genocide – and indeed any suffering and death – in human history is to be grieved by it. To be horrified by it. To grieve about how broken humanity is. And to wait for something new.
That’s the answer the Biblical narrative gives. The narrative which records the offence of genocide, and other “heroes,” warts and all. That’s why the authors didn’t write their own version of a clean history where the land was just handed over to God’s people with gifts and trumpets sounding… in triumph. The mess is on display. For a reason. To grieve us about what it means to be human.
That’s what Job was doing. As he suffered. In Job 19.
“Oh, that my words were recorded,
that they were written on a scroll,
that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
or engraved in rock forever!
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!
For us to know God, God has to reveal himself to us. He has to bridge the divide. He has to speak to us. He speaks to us in and through mess. But ultimately, he speaks to us in Jesus, his word made flesh. Who suffered and died for us. To change us. To restore us. To clean up the mess. That’s how Jesus is the answer to genocide. An infinitely good being died a terrible and humiliating death – murdered by those he was here to restore. Suffering for us. Dying for us. The ultimate evil human act merged with the ultimate divine loving act.
Here’s what Peter says about Jesus, and how he fits in God’s plan, in Acts 2…
“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
The mess in Israel’s history, the brokenness, foreshadows their killing of God himself. The unfolding of God’s plan despite their worst efforts, foreshadows the way he will triumph through their brokenness.
Hebrews 1 shows the significance of Jesus becoming flesh, dying, and being raised, this way…
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
This is how God deals with death, and brokenness. Our brokenness. Our mess. This is how the narrative explains the genocide, and why it’s an important part of the story of God’s interactions with humanity.
1 thought on “Dealing with genocide in the Bible”
Pingback: John Stackhouse on Q&A gives a great answer to a tough question (and explains why I’m not an atheist) | St. Eutychus
Comments are closed.