The Bible and genocide

How do contemporary believers in the inerrancy of the Bible deal with the clear statement in the text that God ordered on several occasions actions that would now count as genocide?

My notes on 1 Sam. 15 covered the appalling (to a modern eye) story of the massacre of the Amalekites. God is depicted as ordering that an entire people be wiped out, regardless of age or sex, in revenge for a centuries-old quarrel, and as being angry only because the Israelites spare the king and the best animals rather than killing everything that moves, according to instructions.

This strikes me as an interesting text with which to confront those Christian and Jewish bigots who quote random nasty-sounding passages from the Koran and use them to sneer at the claim that al-Islam is a “religion of peace.” That’s especially true for those (Franklin Graham springs to mind) whose own religious commitments include belief in Biblical inerrancy.

Our little study group, having worked its way through Deuteronomy, is used to encountering in ancient Hebrew texts attributions to God of atrocious actions and commandments; much of the rabbinic tradition is devoted to interpreting some of those commandments (to stone to death the “stubborn and rebellious son,” to wipe out the “apostate village,”) so as to ensure they will never be invoked in practice.

Within contemporary Judaism, the distinction between the haredim on the one hand and the modern Orthodox, the Conservative, and the Reform traditions on the other has to do, among other issues, with the willingness of the latter groups to distance themselves from the repeated claims in the text (especially in the book of Joshua) that it was the Divine will that the Israelites commit genocide.

Theologically liberal Protestants and Catholics presumably find this problem even easier, since they can appeal to the New Covenant as superceding what Christians (but not Jews) call the Old Testament.

But I’m curious about what traditionalist Catholic and evangelical Protestant theologians have made of, and now make of, these passages. I know that slavery was defended on Biblical grounds; was genocide? And how, if at all, have things changed in the post-Holocaust period?

If you have expert knowledge in the area or can cite relevant authors or texts, please respond in the comments. If you feel a strong need to rehearse your contempt for evangelicals in particular or religion in general, or to argue that Jericho is a good model for dealing with Mecca or Teheran, please do so elsewhere.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “The Bible and genocide”

  1. Really shouldn't be a problem for Catholics who are actually Catholic. The Church is the one responsible for examing and explaing the texts with divine guidance. Now this might just be my Jesuit education, but very few Catholic leaders seem to believe in an inerrant Bible.

  2. This what an ex-fundamentalist friend of mine told me about his former church's interpretation of the book of Joshua. He was taught that this shows what God will do to you if you do not believe. He will smite you like he did those evil Caananites if you succumb to the devil's snares. The question of genocide thus was never even considered or asked. It really was all about fearing the Lord and unquestioning obedience. My friend is enjoying the chance now to ask such questions in our mainline liberal church. We have no answers either, only more questions!

  3. I am an Episcopalian who has spent time in both conservative and liberal sides of the Episcopal Church, and I would say there are a wide range of views on passages like this.
    First, most serious theological thinkers on both liberal and conservative sides believe God makes arbitrary choices, or at least choices that appear arbitrary to humans. Even without genocide, the entire doctrine of the Chosen People and the story of Jacob displacing Esau require some divine fickleness.
    Second, most non-theologically-educated liberals (as opposed to theologians and theologically-trained priests) would just dismiss this text as an error or a deliberate political lie by George Bush-like Israelite leaders. There is often a whiff of Gnosticism and anti-Semitism in what untrained liberal Christians say about passages like this (or about the state of Israel), and many but not all liberal theologians take even the genocidal texts more seriously than that in part to avoid insulting the historical and Jewish roots of Christianity.
    Third, Episcopal conservatives (who are every bit as conservative as any other evangelicals) would generally either define the genocide command narrowly or as special circumstances:
    — as your notes mention, maybe God was angry because they spared animals out of greed, not mercy. In fact, maybe God would have shown mercy if Saul has asked — Abraham was always asking for and getting mercy from God.
    — perhaps it is a special command relevant only to the ritual purification of the Promised Land, or otherwise special in the same ways rabbis might limit it to a specific situation that can't recur again.
    — or perhaps, as SamChevre said, it was a direct divine command, now superseded by Jesus' direct divine commands.
    Finally, the best take I know on stuff like this in the Old Testament is the work of Dr. Walter Brueggemann. He describes the Old Testament moral codes as containing both a social justice/mercy approach to serving God, and a purification/ritual holiness approach to serving God by keeping out the women, gays, and foreigners and making sure you keep all the right ritual rules. Christianity basically expanded the first while reducing or discarding the second.

  4. Second, most non-theologically-educated liberals (as opposed to theologians and theologically-trained priests) would just dismiss this text as an error or a deliberate political lie by George Bush-like Israelite leaders.
    There's certainly room for a lot of other, liberal theologal views on this passage other than this strawman you've set up.
    The traditional Anglican expression of the authority of Scripture is "Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation". It does not logically follow from this that all things contained in Scripture are necessary for salvation.
    The entirety of Christian Scripture is that of a history of salvation. Repeatedly in this history, God reveals and people misunderstand. Those who misunderstand report that God told them to do X even though later revelations demonstrate their error.
    I think Mark has more correctly summarized the Christian view than you.

  5. Genocidal Yahweh: see Deuteronomy 20:10-18, in which God instructs the Israelites to exterminate *all* the Canaanites who have occupied the Promised Land while the Isrealites were away in Egypt. For the follow-through, see Joshua chapters 8, 10 and 11.
    The Deuteronomy texts were composed long after the fact (approx 620-610 BC), at which time indigenous non-Israelites were a problem, militarily and otherwise. Backdating God's command to exterminate wd be like white racists in the US today "discovering" a revelation from 1800 w/ instructions that all Indians are to be killed. "We wdn't be having this trouble today (nativbe Americans w/ casinos!) if we'd done God's will back then!"
    Btw, the business in Deut 10:15 abt how to deal w/ "those at a distance, as opposed to those near at hand" is to explain the exception made for the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, who claimed to come from a distance, got promises from the Israelites sparing their lives, and then turned out to be from "near at hand", ie, *inside* the promised land. (The Israelites kept their promises.)

  6. You wrote:
    "This strikes me as an interesting text with which to confront those Christian and Jewish bigots who quote random nasty-sounding passages from the Koran and use them to sneer at the claim that al-Islam is a 'religion of peace.'"
    This procedure would indeed be the height of hypocrisy for Christians and Jews who believe in Biblical inerrancy; and perhaps hypocrisy even in some Christians and Jews whose embrace of the Bible is not quite unconditional.
    However, those nasty, not just nasty-sounding, passages in the Koran really DO exist, and orthodox Muslims do not have the same wiggle room as do Christian exegetes to impose some benign interpretation on such texts. As the liberal Muslim legal scholar, Abdullah Ahmed An-Na'im, put it: "To the over nine hundred million Muslims of the world, the Qur'an is the literal and final word of God and Muhammad is the final prophet." (3 Harv. Hum. Rts. J. (1990)This is the view of the overwhelming majority of Muslims, not just of a few crankish sects.
    This fact really does call into doubt (along with the religiously motivated violence endemic in the Islamic world) any characterization of Islam as a "religion of peace." The breathtakingly obvious fact is that Islam is a more than ordinarily violent religion. The only wonder is how intelligent people could think otherwise.
    I say this as a fairly devout atheist, with no ulterior motive for picking sides in this fight. To my mind, all religions are more or less bad; in the modern world, Islam is worse than most.

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