Did God Command Genocide?
I want you to imagine that a friend or family member comes to you and announces they have decided to start reading the Bible. You are overjoyed, after all, it is the Good Book. You begin to wonder where they will start. Will they begin with some of those beautiful Psalms? Will it be one of the Gospels that so powerfully recount the life of Jesus? Maybe on of Paul’s letters to Timothy, where he shares his deep wisdom with a close friend.
The person then tells you that they have decided to begin with the book of Joshua because they have heard it has lots of action. Having read Joshua before and being horrified of stories where God commands the Israelites to attack cities and kill every man and woman, you break into your friend’s home and replace their Bible with a New Testament and Psalms.
Whether you are just beginning your spiritual journey or have been a Christian for decades, there are some disturbing stories in the Old Testament. Skeptics make accusations of God being a genocidal maniac, who even if he does exist, is not worthy of worship. What do we do with this?
There have been numerous attempts to deal with this problem. As you may know, some Christians are pacifists and feel strongly about complete nonviolence. I will not be dealing with that here, but I will address some of the ways they look at these passages. Some look at the passages where it seems like God is calling Israel to commit acts of violence and assert that this was an example of the misuse of religion. God did not actually command these things but Israelites who wanted war attempted to borrow God’s authority by attributing their violent desires to God. Others will not give a specific interpretation but will simply say that the God revealed in Jesus Christ would never have commanded such a thing. We might not know why the Old Testament seems to say such things but we can be assured it was not God who commanded it. Finally, there are those who accept that in the Old Testament, God did use violence to accomplish his will. But now, with the appearing of Jesus, we are called to a higher standard. This is similar to parents treating their children a certain way at one age and then adjusting that relationship as they become adults.
From my perspective, I can’t just ignore the passages or pretend that they are not there. At the same time, I will confess I don’t like them. They make me uncomfortable and I’m sympathetic with those who want to dismiss them. But we are stuck with a Bible that makes us uncomfortable. For this reason, we are going to take a look at what God seems to do in the Old Testament.
Is God Different in the OT and NT?
One of the common claims is that God seems to be different in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, he seems to be a God of wrath who loves to smite. In the New Testament, he seems to be a God of grace who loves to welcome. What is going on here?
The different descriptions of God are actually not as separate as is often claimed. An Old Testament example is found in Jonah. The prophet Jonah gets mad at God. Not because God is too violent but because God is too nice and forgiving. Jonah wanted God to wipe out Nineveh but instead he shows grace.
When we look at the New Testament, we can find an example in Acts where God does some old fashioned smiting. We also see in the book of Revelation that God is not afraid of wrath. While there may be more emphasis on grace in the New Testament, it is the same God in both testaments.
A Closer Look
With that taken care of, let’s take a closer look at this problem. Did God command the people of Israel to commit genocide? The simple answer is no. What I mean by that is that God did not command the wiping out of an entire race. This was not the kind of ethnic cleansing that we saw in Yugoslavia or Rwanda.
How can I say this? Because over and over, God expresses his intention of driving the Canaanites out of the land that he had given to Abraham generations before. There is no command to the Israelites to pursue the Canaanites wherever they flee until the entire race is exterminated. In addition, we have examples of Canaanites, such as Rahab and others, who are allowed to stay in the land with Israel. The goal was not to end a race of people but for Israel to possess the land that was promised to them. We can still disagree with that if we want, but we need to call it what it was, and it was not genocide.
Why did the Canaanites have to go? It was not because God hated them as a people. Rather their worship, not only was it aimed at false gods, also include child sacrifice and other evils. God knew if the Israelites lived side by side with the Canaanites, they would adopt their practices. How do I know this? Because Israel did not drive all the Canaanites out and Israel did adopt some of their practices.
But it still might seem unfair. Something else for us to consider is that the people they attacked were not particularly innocent. In fact, God waited until they reached a certain level of evil before using Israel to punish them.
Something else to consider. There are a couple of passages where the Israelites are commanded to kill all the men, women and children. But that was not the command for the entire land. It was only a couple of cities. Some historical research has demonstrated that these towns were not large cities like St. Catharines. Rather, they were garrison towns that were mostly made up of soldiers and their families. That still does not make it easy, but it is important to know. We also see that there was plenty of warning and that these garrison towns were welcome to flee before the invading Israelites. I don’t believe that God rejoiced in the slaughter.
One other thing needs to be taken into account before labelling this as genocide. Yes God used the Israelites to punish the Canaanites for their evil. But God also used the Assyrians and the Babylonians to punish the Israelites for their evil. It is not as simple as God loved one people and hated another.
I don’t expect you to be comfortable with how Israel possessed Canaan or what God commanded them to do. But I want you to get the most important fact about this. This was a one time event that was never to be repeated, not by Israel and certainly not by the Christian church. These were extreme circumstances that were meant only for Israel to initially take the land.
There have been times in church history when these passages have been abused. During the crusades, some supposed Christians, including, clergy, were involved in slaughtering whole villages of Jews and Muslims. Sometimes they did this to Christians as well. They looked to these passages in Joshua as their justification. Joshua does not tell us to kill those who are different from us. We are not called to spread the gospel by sword or gun.
What we read about in Joshua is something that happened in the past and not an example to be given for repeating in the present or future.
How do you feel about these Old Testament passages? I know I still feel uncomfortable. But there are two things that I want you to get out of this. This is not about God hating an entire race of innocent people and commanding Israel to kill everyone until the entire ethnic group disappeared. They were not innocent and they were never meant to be exterminated. God was driving the people out, by measures uncomfortable to us, so that Israel could have the land. Secondly, this is not meant for us to repeat today. It has been abused by the church but it is not for the church. Things like the crusades and inquisition are mistakes of our past. What took place in Joshua was for that time only.
We still may not like what God did through Israel. That is fine. Thankfully the gospel is not about the invasion of Canaan but the coming of the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. It is the cross and the empty tomb that we look to for hope. Of that we can be confident.