Did God command the Israelites to commit genocide in the Old Testament Scriptures? This question has aroused quite a lot of debating in Christian and anti-Christian circles. It even featured in Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion to blame religion for perverting morality. Of course, the questionof morality iteself is ironic, since without the reality of natural and revealed law as found in religion, morality would cease to have any concrete meaning, and would be nothing more than a subjective guessing game on how each of us should behave. But anyway, to the point: did God command genocide, or not?
It’s a complicated subject matter, one that is open to debate among Catholic Biblical scholars and readers alike. I have heard the argument that God is sovereign and therefore can command us to do anything He likes with impunity. But this is more of a Puritan tradition, used by the likes of Cromwell to justify his own mass murder as the self-appointed Scourge of God. It flies in the face of the Catholic teaching on Natural Law. God, by His very nature, is goodness and righteousness itself, and by His very nature cannot command us to do something intrinsically evil and somehow make it right just because he ordered it. For God to counteract the Natural Law would be equivalent to him destroying Himself.
Some might say that certain things were allowed for a given time in human history, but forbidden now. For example, sibling marriages would have necessary to populate the world at the earliest part of human history, but is now forbidden. That having been said, I think the question of murder is another field entirely. Massacring non-combatants (women, children, the aged, and unarmed civilians) is one of the greatest crimes against justice and mercy because it evolves taking the lives of the innocent. Even after having their judgement clouded over by the Fall from Grace, I believe that human beings, whether Jewish or Pagan, still had an inkling that such activity was gravely wrong. And that “knowing” was placed in their hearts – and our hearts – by God. Would He really counteract His own law, nature, and essence, to such a dramatic extent?
Another argument insists that the cultures wiped out were so perverse and wicked that they deserved annihilation, down to very last infant, and God gave the Israelites something of a dispensation to carry out His Divine punishment. Furthermore, it is proposed. the children of these cultures were better off dead than being raised in Paganism and going to Hell. Frankly, this smacks of religious fanaticism.Trying to prevent children from going to hell never gives anyone the right to slaughter them. Similarly, the evils of a given culture would not give conquering cultures the mandate to commit genocide. Would it have been right for the Spanish to wipe out every single Aztec in their conquest of Mexico, even though the Aztec Empire worshipped devil gods and practiced mass human sacrifice?
At this point in the argument, many Biblcal apologists simply throw up their hands and say, “It’s a mystery!” I’ll agree with them to a certain point – the ways of God are a mystery, and the language we use to describe Him will always fall short of the reality. He is above and beyond anything we could ever say or write, just as the glories of heaven and the pains of hell are beyond our wildnest imaginings. And yet the combination of Natural Law and Revelations of Jesus Christ has given us a greater capacity than ever to see the Face of God. We know that He would never order others to commit evil, and genoice is always and forever one of the most heinous crimes. So my theory, in keeping with theological consistency, is that God never ordered the Israelites to commit genocide. So why does the Bible claim that He did?
The Old Testament is a history and folk anothology of the Jewish people – a people who I belive, in concurrence with the whole of Christendom, was chosen by God to revive belief in a single, omnipotent deity, become the deposit for many of His laws, and prepare the world for the coming of Christ. That having been said, they were still a pretty primitive people. Ancient Israel was basically a conglomoration of savage desert tribes, and their perspective on life seems to have been fairly distorted. Like many of the Pagan cultures that surrounded them, warfare was a way of life and mass killing an excepted result.
When describing God, the Jewish authors of the Old Testament often used imperfect human attributes such as “jeolous”, and perceived Him as having a strictly tribal identity as opposed to a universal one. They honestly seemed rather uncomfortable with God, as if he was an unpredictable stranger, which the Fall of Man had indeed made Him. But this, I believe, can be traced back to the warped mentality of humanity as opposed to any personality incongruity on the part of God. God was revealing himself a little at a time, but in the process, his identity and intent were bound to be mangled now and again by human interpreters. As a result, historical events were sometimes meshed with certain theological meanings that seem near unreconcilable with our present understanding of God through Jesus Christ.
For example, it is said in the Book of Exodus that God “hardened the heart of Pharoah” so that he would chase after the Israelites who had just been set free from bondage. But God, by his very nature, is the softener of hearts, and would never cause someone to reject that which is right. This has to be a clumsy theological interpretation made by a human author. Likewise, whenever Israel conquers territory, wins a battle, or massacres a nation, the Israelities say it is God’s direct intervention and order. Whilst I do believe all things are under the Providential will of God, and the Israelites were meant to rise in prominence in The Middle East in order to be a bastion of monotheism and prepare for the coming of The Redeemer, I also believe that the will of Man sometimes found justification by calling it the Will of God. The same problem can be found throughout history, when people commit atrocoties by championing manifest destiny and self-glorification under the banner of religion.
If this sounds like I’m rejecting the Bible, well, I’m not. If anything, I’m rejecting a strict literalist perspective commonly embraced by Fundamentalism. The Books of the OT are “inspired” because through them God reveals important truths. That having been said, we are not bound to accept every single theological explanation introduced by human authors, just as we are not bound to accept every scientific assumption. In the give and take of human-divine relations, not every word in the Biblical texts was necessarily dictated directly from the mouth of God. The project was definitely divinely inspired, but human beings, with their limited capacity for understanding the truth, may well have infultrated it with their own imperfections.
That’s not to say these ancients did not hit the nail on the head many times, both in transmitting Divine Revelation and picking up on Natural Law. There are prayers and poems of extreme beauty, prophecies of redemption that came to pass, tales of heroism and virtue, as well as the grudual acceptence of the the Law through The Ten Commandments. But it also should be noted that the extended Law of Moses for the People of Israel was definitely imperfect. “Moses permitted divorce,” Christ said, “but I say that any divorced person who remarried commits adultery.” Also, it has ben speculated that when Christed tossed the money-changers out of the Temple, it was more that just the business dealings that angered him. “My Father’s house should be a house of prayer for ALL the nations,” he said, possibly pointing out that the Pharisees had made the faith into an exclusive Jewish club.
Famously, there was also the issue of stoning women who commited adultery, which Christ put aside, and the primitive practice of having a woman drink poison, assuming that she would somehow survive if innocent of a crime. There were, of course, elements of the law that were meant to work for a time and then ceased to be feasible. “New wine cannot be poured into old wine skins,” Christ said. Things like circumcision, blood sacrifices, and abstince from pork are no longer manditory. Things like singling marriages, polygamy, and divorce are now forbidden. Naturally, human perspective has also come a long way through a reawakening to natural law and fuller revelation. Then again, it has also sunk back into obscurity in many ways. We continue to be, tragically, a fallen, confused race.
Of course, using a critical interpretation of the OT, there are many things to be questioned. Would God really ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, when God abhorred human sacrifice and natural law markes it out as intrinsically evil? At least in that story, however, it’s pretty clear that God never intented Abraham to go through with it. Nevertheless, in these cases perhaps we need to penetrate the bare bones of the stories and look for the moral and allegorical significance to make them worth while. Basically, if soemthing doesn’t make sense literally, try to analyze it a different way. So in God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, we are seeing Man put to the test of offering up his only beloved son for God…just as God would offier up his own beloved son for Man.
Likewise, in the destruction of other nations and everything belonging to them (booty, livestock, etc.), we see a turning away from sin and its near occasions that draw up to sink into hedonism and hethanism, running after the world, the flesh, and the devil. The list of potential allegorical and symbolic meanings goes on. That having been said, while the perception man has about God may chance, and God may reveal His nature to us gradually, God never changes and has always been perfectly aligned with the Natural Law.
Just as the Genesis narrative of Creation is not built on scientific criteria but on the perspective of the men of that age, so we must view it according to our growing understanding of geology and biology. Just as the histories are something of a socialogical anthology, so we must view them according to our increased knowledge of ethnology and psychology. Catholicism left behind a strictly Fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible generations ago. Now its time to move forward, using the fullness of our God-given intelligence to understand the Bible and embace the fullness of Divine Revealation found in Jesus Christ.