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Monday, December 22, 2014

Did God Order Genocide in the Old Testement?

   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. 
Israelites battle Canaanites



  1. The Old Testament informs us that war was to be conducted under the guidance of God, who was personally involved in the victories experienced by the Hebrews: “The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes” (Deuteronomy 1:30). This is also reflected in Deuteronomy 20:4: “For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” However, the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament anticipate a time where there are no hostilities but instead a time of armistice (Which Dawkins ignores). Micah 4:1-4 reflects on a time when a “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree and no will make them afraid.” Isaiah 40:2 also reflects: “prophets had grown war-wearing” when he comments: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hand service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.” Although if one would to follow a Natural Law perspective, massacring a collective group of individuals would erase their individual rights. Even Thomas Aquinas, the being responsible for developing Natural Law believed in some form of punishment, “Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good . . .” Conversely those who converted should have been spared, whereas those who resisted should have been removed but at that moment, an adolescent with immorality inside of them is as wicked as an adult.

    -British Free Corps

  2. Hi, British Free Corps,

    Welcome to the blog!

    I do agree with Thomas Aquinas' perspective on the occasional necessity of employing the death penalty (a subject I will discuss in detail in a future post...although I might replace the word "praiseworthy" with "necessary"), and the fact that wickedest can be just as prevelent in an adolescent as an adult.

    That having been said, to group together a given race as completely evil and slaughter them as such (including woman and small children, all of whom could not have been "evil") does go against the Natural Law in a very intrinsic way. Punishing crimes against the community and fighting soldiers is one thing; slaughtering non-combatants, despite the barbarity of their society, is Wrong. Two wrongs never make a right.

    I do believe that God willed the Israelites to have victory, but I also believed that sometimes the will of man became confused with the will of God with regards to massacring all of the inhabitants. It flies in the face of morality to such an extent, and there really is no way of justifying it according to Natural Law, put in our hearts by God.

  3. Interesting. The saying, "The Bible is all true, but it is not all factual" comes to mind. Mosaic Law distinguishes between "killing" and "murder" from the 10 Commandments onward, even to the establishment of specific cities to be used as havens (Exodus 21: 12 - 14) while the case for those accused of accidental killing is reviewed. The Vulgate reads "non occides" (Deut. 5: 17), which is "You shall not murder". "You shall not kill" translates to "non morieris." The meanings are similar, but not synonymous or interchangeable. Deut. 7 reads like a contract, spelling out the causes, clauses and consequences for keeping, or breaking the contract.

    Natural Law, according to St. Thomas, holds that the supreme principle, from which all the other principles and precepts are derived, is that good is to be done, and evil avoided. According to the contracts spelled out in Deuteronomy, we can understand that yes, God could instruct His People to what we now call 'genocide' to conserve His People. An Omniscient God would know the dangers of intermarriage with neighbouring tribes. An Omnipotent God would remove toxic communities and spare the innocent (Genesis 19) but not without repeated warnings (Genesis 14, and 15:16).

    But we also know the dangers of living without consequences. I understand how God wanted His People to earn their place in the Land, and respect the efforts made to take and keep that place. We see the same thing played out in the family, in the workplace, in our larger communities, every day.

    PS: I recognize that you were on a roll writing this, but the second half could use some proofreading. ;)

  4. I don't think there was any mass slaughter of, for instance the Canaanites. Nor indeed as a matter of history was there a mass slaughter when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. So whether or not God ordered it, it didn't happen. The Old Testament is not crucial to my faith and much of it I take as simply a part of the gradual revelation leading to the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament is sometimes someone I barely recognise as the God Jesus describes. Much of what happens in the the Old Testament I treat as wonderful Hebrew literature, some of which is useful to us morally, other parts of which are less useful and harder to understand. The God I know from what Jesus taught me did not and could not commit Genocide, nor ask a father to kill his son. My tendency therefore is to treat such stories metaphorically, while the Gospels I almost always take literally.