Did God Commit Genocide in the Bible?

By Tom Gilson

June 7, 2009

The God of the Bible is often charged with gross immorality, especially for ordering entire nations to be destroyed in the Old Testament. He commanded Israel to cleanse Canaan of its immoral, idol-worshiping nations after the Exodus, and in 1 Samuel 15 he instructed them to destroy Amalek completely, “man and women, child and infant, oxen and sheep, camel and donkey.” So is there really God-ordained genocide in the Bible?

This post is the first of at least two I will write on the genocide question. I will begin by working out a more careful definition of the question. We know what genocide is, of course: it is the attempt (successful or not) to eliminate an entire race, tribe, or nation of people. It is murder writ very large, involving many co-participants in evil and resulting in the deaths of many.

There is no hiding what God told Israel to do. The question is whether God or the Bible are free of the guilt we attach to genocide.

I do not propose to answer that question now. I believe there is an answer, but I will save that for the next post (and possibly beyond). The first task is to reflect on what makes genocide the extreme evil that it is, for that sort of definition is essential to the next steps.

For example, one thing that makes genocide so evil is the sheer numbers of deaths that result. In Rwanda, the dead numbered in the hundreds of thousands; in the Holocaust, they totaled many millions. For humans to choose to kill that many is unspeakably wrong. A believer in the Bible must be prepared to say how God could be free of blame for ordering thousands to die.

Genocide is also wrong in that it:

• Originates from a heart of hate

• Involves a desire to dominate

• Ignores justice and mercy toward the victims

• Targets its victims indiscriminately, without respect to guilt or innocence, age, status in life, sex, or ability to defend themselves or to be aggressors themselves

• Generally entails taking the law into one’s own hands

• Is oriented against the ultimate establishment of justice and mercy in the land

• Provokes severe terror

• Forces huge hardship (massive displacement, refugee situations, economic hardship that may extend as far as nakedness and famine)

• Tears apart families

• Seeks to systematically destroy not only individuals (in large numbers) but also their cultures or ways of living

• Rends the conscience of the perpetrators

What did I miss? It’s easy to overlook things when one tries to systematize in this way. That is essentially the question for today’s post, and you’re welcome to extend my list by adding comments. Even from this, clearly there is something about genocide that is more wrong, and more obviously wrong, than just about anything else in human experience. Yet we who believe in God continue to hold that he is holy, good, and just. How can we do this?

I am setting up the question today, not answering it, but I will preview the manner in which I’ll be answering by offering a partial response to the first point raised here: the sheer number of deaths. My overall approach will be to treat each of the bulleted points separately first, and then later to integrate those treatments into a combined closing response. Therefore, for now, I’m separating out the matter of the number of deaths from the other listed issues. My first look is not at the way they died, or the terror that accompanied it, or any of the other related aspects, but at just the number of those who died. Can God be free of blame in calling for so many deaths?

Let’s be very realistic about this. On that matter, if God has a problem, it’s far worse than just these genocides. From the very beginning, from the time of the Fall, God has watched over the deaths not of thousands or millions but billions. Some have lived long lives (by human standards); some have been cut off very early by disease, malnourishment, neglect, injury, or violence. Every victim of genocide was destined to die, even apart from such violence, for every human who lives is destined to die.

So we have three options in assessing this. Either:

1. God is wrong and morally culpable (blamable) for his actions as God concerning all the deaths in history, and genocide is just another instance of this (though possibly a special case due to other factors already named); or

2. God is not wrong (and therefore not morally culpable) for his actions concerning all the deaths in history, except for genocide, which is a special case for one or more of the reasons named in the bulleted list above; so he remains morally culpable in the case of the OT genocides; or

3. God is not wrong (and therefore all not morally culpable) for his actions concerning all the deaths in history, and he is also not morally culpable with respect to the other bulleted items in the list above; so God is not morally at fault for the OT genocides.

The three options are very different, yet they have something very important in common; and for today’s purposes, it’s what they have in common that matters. You can take your pick of any of the three, and no matter which one you choose, inevitably you will have to see that the issue is not the same for God as it is for humans.There is no way it could be the same. We have not looked on the death of every human that has ever lived. God has. If we consider God’s role in these genocides the same way we do humans’, then we are virtually guaranteed to get it wrong, for God’s role and relation to the events is not the same as ours.

We need to think through these differences. We humans have an automatic, reflexive reaction toward mass killings. God’s position being different, that reflexive reaction is inadequate to apply to him without at least further reflection.

That last point bears repeating, I think. This whole matter is laden with emotion, and rightly so, based on tragic  experiences around the world over the last century and more. I respect that depth of emotion, and will continue to do so. But I will also lead us to consider whether those feelings tell the whole story with respect to God’s actions in the Old Testament. The question must be asked that way, because as we have seen, the issue for God is not the same as it is for humans. The question is not whether it’s different for God, but how it is different for God, and whether that makes a difference.

It also bears repeating that I have not yet begun to answer the questions raised here. I haven’t begun to assess God’s culpability with respect to the moral categories on the bulleted list, because I wanted to focus first of all on the fact that if there is a God, then God is not like us and we cannot  treat this issue as if he were. This is hardly special pleading, for God (if there is a God) cannot be like us. In fact, as I have already said, if God is guilty at all, he is even more guilty by reason of presiding over the death of billions.

So I think it may be premature even for commenters to start in with other answers, because it’s so crucial to get the question defined clearly first. I would prefer it if we could all focus our comments on defining the question for now. We’ll start working on answers soon enough.

The Old Testament God doesn’t seem to make sense. “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris accuse him of genocide, and most Christians have no idea how to answer. Added to that are charges that God endorsed slavery, enacted grossly inequitable treatment of women, legislated unreasonably harsh punishments for minor offenses, and delivered an embarrassingly quirky set of strange laws and commands.

Paul Copan faces all these challenges squarely in his 2010 book, Is God a Moral Monster? One short answer to the question asked in that title is no; God is not a moral monster. But there’s another short answer, which is that really there is no short answer—and Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have acted irresponsibly to treat it as if there were.

Copan, professor of philosophy at Palm Beach Atlantic University and current president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, is a student of Old Testament history and of the Bible. Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins are not. They don’t even care that they are not. Therein lies the critical difference: for things in the OT are not always what they seem; and why should they be? If there’s any lesson the 21st century world has learned, preached, and even made the basis of a master moral standard, it is that cultures differ across time and place. To judge events in another culture without even caring to look at what might be on going below the surface is ham-handed at best, grossly judgmental at worst, and stupid and silly in either case.

The Ancient Near East (ANE) was vastly different from 21st century Western culture—much more so than most of us have begun to suppose. This is the all-important reality Copan urges us to keep in mind as we consider the strange and often difficult passages of the Old Testament. He also wants us to consider the altogether reasonable proposition that what God was doing with the Israelites was historically situated, and not all of it was intended as normative for all time. (Some of it was, and there are principles by which we can tell which is which.)

The biggest moral question there is that of war and genocide. Copan shows in three well-documented chapters that to a great extent we’re just reading it wrong. Linguistic practices were different in ancient Palestine than in contemporary Oxford, Cambridge, or New Haven, particularly as they pertain to war. Wild exaggeration (as we would view it today) was the norm. Readers at the time of Moses, Joshua, Saul and David—the audience for whom the relevant passages were written—would have known that a report of total annihilation really meant something much less than that.

Copan demonstrates this with comparative literature from the time, and further proves his point by citing the Bible’s own guidance to the Israelites concerning how to deal with the population that remained after they were supposedly all destroyed—proof that total annihilation hadn’t really been undertaken at all.

Further, in the few cases where total destruction actually can be responsibly inferred from the text (Jericho and Ai are examples), archaeology informs us that these were small military garrison cities with few non-combatants. The battles there were not the wholesale slaughter of thousands of civilians that many of us have supposed it was. In fact a strong historical case can be made that the Israel’s practice of warfare, under God’s guidance, represented a considerable moral advance over the practices current among other peoples at the time. Was it ideal? No. But it was a step forward.

The same goes for other thorny issues, such as apparent maltreatment of women, and certain seemingly kooky laws and commands (don’t wear garments of mixed fiber, for example). Copan repeatedly reminds us it was an early age in the progress of humanity, a brutal age, one of horrific practices of child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, rape, slaughter, and a host of barbarisms beyond our imagination. Our contemporary conception of slavery just doesn’t fit the OT context; it was something else entirely. Again, was it ideal? Of course not. But it was progress for the time.

God’s laws were in virtually every case a significant advance toward treating humans as fully humans, compared to customs among other peoples. God did not force Israel instantly into four or five millennia of social progress. He took them forward a step at a time. To fault this would be like faulting Abraham Lincoln for merely emancipating the slaves, when he ought to have selected a Black woman as his running mate.

So here you have my short answer to a question that has no short answer. If it seems inadequate to you I say“Good: it ought to seem inadequate.” In this space I cannot begin to cover these topics with the depth they require. But I can at least point you in a direction where you can do the study for yourself. Copan assures us that what he writes represents majority, mainstream scholarship. He also tells us that although he intended the book to be reasonably accessible to lay readers, he found it necessary to document his case in depth anyway—so if you question the scholarship, you have every opportunity to follow his sources and find out for yourself.

Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have pointedly refused to go there. The reason for that is transparent, or so it seems to me: they have locked themselves into an extreme atheism that blinds them to genuine scholarly insight and to the culturally sensitive treatment of peoples different than themselves. It is yet another example of their self-serving, selective application of values they claim to hold dear; a further illustration of what really motivates them. And what is that? By all appearances, it’s not knowledge, science, or regard for morality or human distinctiveness. It’s that they are persuaded that there is no God, and they hate him. Copan concludes his book with a positive case for God’s moral excellence. You and I need not follow the New Atheists down their unstudied, unthinking path to ridiculously reflexive conclusions. God’s goodness stands up to scholarly examination. He is holy and just, and the God of all the earth shall indeed do what is right.