An issue lurking in some news stories: In Old Testament, was God guilty of 'genocide'?

The Religion Guy poses this complex historical question himself instead of the customary answer to an item posted via “Send Your Questions In” -- new submissions very much welcomed.

There’s been important debate on this issue recently, and a new book proposes sweeping reinterpretation of the Old Testament depiction of Israel’s “Conquest” of the Holy Land under Joshua. More on that below.

Richard Dawkins, a fervent foe of religion, indicts the biblical God for inciting “genocide” in the Bible’s conquest passages and verses like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 that direct believers to wipe out neighboring populations. Many U.S. Jews and Christians frankly admit this material is troubling.

Let’s begin with three standard Jewish commentaries on those Deuteronomy verses.

“Pentateuch & Haftorahs,” a classic Orthodox compilation by J.H. Hertz, Britain’s longtime chief rabbi, observes that Joshua informed Canaanites before the invasion so they could flee bloodshed, offered peace to all, and only waged combat if they insisted on it. (That was relatively humane for violent times 3,000 years ago.)

The quest for a homeland, the commentary observes, is part of all human history including most European nations. Israel added to that the “ethical justification” of countering Canaan’s “depravity,” for instance human sacrifice. Moreover, “the whole moral and spiritual future of mankind was involved.”

Less confidently, Conservative Judaism’s official commentary also notes Canaan’s “abhorrent” practices and Joshua’s peace offers but says “the reader recoils from seeing these demands [to obliterate entire populations] ascribed to God.” The context of such verses is said to be “the Torah’s abiding fear that these pagan nations will lead Israel astray.”

According to Reform Judaism’s official commentary, Joshua’s forces did not in fact annihilate any populations, though that “would not have offended against the usual practice of the times.” Such words were instead a “retrospective command” that meant if Israel had done this “you would not have lapsed into idolatry.” Ancient military events were always interpreted “as manifestations of God’s will,” and -- notably -- the Bible assailed not just other nations but Israel itself.

In Christian interpretations, pacifists say Jesus’ preaching of love eliminates all war-making by believers. Liberals and skeptics may dismiss the narratives as nationalistic propaganda not to be taken literally. Even Catholic exegete Tommy Lane of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary thinks “Israel misunderstood and misjudged God” in these scriptures.

Conservative U.S. Protestants seek to explain God’s will as expressed in disputed conquest verses. To explore this debate in depth, consult two recent works: “Did God Really Command Genocide?” (Baker, 2014) by ethicists Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, and “Holy War in the Bible” (InterVarsity, 2013), an anthology edited by Copan, philosopher Jeremy Evans, and Old Testament scholar Heath Thomas.

Thomas, formerly director of doctoral studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and now theology dean at Oklahoma Baptist University, offers representative points in an article. Among them:

First, the few verses about annihilation use the “exaggerated” rhetoric found in all ancient war narratives. Second, the Bible put far more emphasis on dispossessing Canaanites from the land than annihilating them. Third, God’s primary concern was not such obliteration but “resolute” moral opposition to Canaan’s idolatry and sin. Fourth, God waited patiently 400 years before the conquest re-established the covenant inheritance of the Holy Land promised to Abraham’s descendants.


Continue reading, "In the Old Testament, was God guilty of 'genocide'?", by Richard Ostling.

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