To finish my series on God and his alleged acts of genocide in the Old Testament (OT) will take a longer post than usual. I’ve divided this series into four entries, but there’s no good way to split this last one.
First I want to remind you of something I mentioned very briefly last time, and to expand on it. There is room for doubt that God actually called on Israel to do anything of the sort that we call genocide. This Paul Copan article draws from Ancient Near East (ANE) scholarship and archaeology to show that:
- The language of “every man, woman, child, and beast” was very likely hyperbolic (exaggerated);
- God made provision for how Israel should relate to their neighbors in Palestine, implying that he did not expect them all to be exterminated;
- The cities for which God commanded complete destruction were likely military garrisons with few civilians in them;
- The command was never to attack the countryside, but only the cities; and
- At least one of those garrison cities, Jericho, appears from archaeological research to have had a population of only a hundred persons or so.
Copan takes this as a tentative solution to the “genocide” problem, since the verdict on all this is far from clear. Having no training in ANE scholarship, I must be even more tentative. It’s a solution that seems attractive, and it may be true. Even the possibility of its truth weakens skeptical claims (like Richard Dawkins’s) that the OT God cannot be regarded as anything other than a homicidal, genocidal maniac. There is the possibility that what he called on Israel to do was nothing at all like genocide; that it was standard warfare instead.
Even though this solution is attractive and may be true, however, and even though it weakens skeptical claims, it is still inadequate. It was still warfare of aggression, and it may have been warfare of complete extermination, something like genocide. Can we regard God as having sound ethical reasons for doing it?
At the start of this series we talked about what makes genocide the real ethical and existential horror that it is. In the second post we talked about conditions under which God could potentially be free of blame for the acts (apparently) ascribed to him. I intend to close my case here by following statement (D) from that second post:
Assuming that God is good, and assuming that goodness itself is adequately and accurately defined by the Bible, God’s ordering certain nations to be killed is no contradiction to that goodness; it is consistent with his character as generally revealed in the Scriptures.
More specifically God is good (free of guilt) with respect to the issues listed in the first post in this series.
(The assumptions and conditions contained in this statement were defended in that post.)
Holopupenko rightly described that my approach here as minimalist. My intent is simply to show that it is not logically or morally necessary to conclude that God is (borrowing Paul Copan’s words) a “moral monster.” One could certainly make statements of a positive nature than that, but my purpose in this series is less ambitious, and I think appropriately so. Given that God is good, which is knowledge available through other avenues, the question is whether these OT acts contradict that goodness. If we can show that the apparent contradictions can be resolved, then we can rationally continue to accept that God is good.
Thus I do not propose to satisfy any atheist’s or skeptic’s personal sense of moral outrage toward what they believe the OT says God did. It would be unrealistic to think I could accomplish that. I simply intend to show that it is rationally possible to hold to the goodness of God in the OT; that it is a belief that can be held without contradiction.
So can we rationally regard God as free of guilt with respect to the issues listed in the first post in the series? Yes, we can, as long as we bear in mind who God is: he is the sovereign creator and master of all life, he is fully holy and just, he is all-knowing, and he holds eternity in his hands. (It’s not necessary for me here to prove this about God. I accomplish my task if I show that this view of God can be maintained without contradiction.)
Some items on the list from my first post have easy answers, but I’ll save them for last, and begin with the harder ones. Genocide is extremely wrong in that it:
- Ignores justice and mercy toward the victims
- Is oriented against the ultimate establishment of justice and mercy in the land
- 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
God’s justice and mercy are not subject to human limitations. We will not grasp God’s actions clearly by thinking of him the way we think of ourselves. Our own capabilities for justice are very extremely limited. We understand only some of what constitutes the ultimate good, while God knows it fully. None of us is without sin, but God is holy. We have no ability to mete out justice in proper measure according to the offense, but by his wisdom God can do this. Very often we do not know what a person has done, whether right or wrong—we presume innocence in court because we know how easily we can make mistakes, and we want to err on the side of grace rather than condemnation. We could never know what each person in an entire nation has done. God knows exactly.
Most importantly, our options are limited to this life, while God can render justice beyond this life. Suppose an innocent person is killed along with the guilty. God can still make it right; for what happens in this short life is of little account in comparison to the rest of eternity, and temporary injustices can permanently be made right agin. By this means God can also dispense mercy as well as justice.
God’s holiness and justice also provide him with moral justification for this further item from the list:
- Seeks to systematically destroy … cultures or ways of living
These were cultures that needed destroying. They were idolatrous and rapacious. They practiced a host of moral outrages including ritual prostitution and child sacrifice. Israel, by contrast, was intended by God to be a holy people, set apart for himself so that through them he could reveal his reality and his character. God’s purpose for Israel could not coexist with the Canaanite nations’ practices.
Destroying their culture was quite intentional on God’s part, and fully justified. God is not a cultural relativist. He does not regard every culture’s different practices as, “it’s not wrong, it’s just different.” Some differences he celebrates, to be sure, but some are wrong, and some cultures are more pervasively corrupt than others. By his sovereignty, wisdom, knowledge, and holiness, God has the moral and legal capacity to judge cultures. Again, no human (or group of humans) is able morally or mentally to make that kind of judgment, but God is.
On the first post I also had this to say about genocide, that it:
- Provokes severe terror
- Forces huge hardship (massive displacement, refugee situations, economic hardship that may extend as far as nakedness and famine)
- Tears apart families
- Involves huge numbers of deaths
Some of this pain was justice being enacted on earth. Consider the case of a single offender being sentenced to execution or life in prison for murder. That individual will likely experience the same emotions named here, and will in the end (sooner or later) die without another moment of freedom. Most of us regard this as justice being served.
The Canaanite nations as a whole were guilty of gross crimes, and for those crimes the same kind of justice was served on a large scale. If you think it is wrong for persons to experience suffering and terror as a result of their sins, you fail to see what sin really is in the eyes of God. No one escapes God’s punishment for sin, except through the grace given through Jesus Christ. Now obviously it is impossible for us humans to imagine individual justice being scaled up to justice on a national level, but it is no stretch for God to think in that way.
Of course there were probably some persons involved who were innocent of these gross crimes, especially if there were children who were really caught up in the exterminations (which, as Copan has shown, is at least questionable). But God has the ability to make it right for them, even after death. His goodness is great enough to prevail even over temporary failures of justice. God’s people in both the OT and the New Testament recognized injustice happening on the earth, and looked to God to make it right. Until late in OT times, knowledge of eternal life was dim, yet still they trusted in God to accomplish justice somehow, some day; see Psalm 55 or Psalm 56, for example. In the NT it became clear that it would be accomplished through God’s judgment applied to each person after his or her death.
That leaves one final difficult issue on our list of what makes genocide so awful:
- Rends the conscience of the perpetrators
One wonders how the Israelites who were ordered to carry out these acts were able to do it without being seared in their consciences. William Lane Craig considers this to be the hardest issue of them all. He answers it in terms of the cultural conditions of the ANE:
Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.
But then, again, we’re thinking of this from a Christianized, Western standpoint. For people in the ancient world, life was already brutal. Violence and war were a fact of life for people living in the ancient Near East. Evidence of this fact is that the people who told these stories apparently thought nothing of what the Israeli soldiers were commanded to do (especially if these are founding legends of the nation). No one was wringing his hands over the soldiers’ having to kill the Canaanites; those who did so were national heroes.
This was not the day of modern liberal democracies, and to consider our own sensitivities as normative for them is temporally chauvinistic. Nevertheless I find that for my own satisfaction I must resort to the same answer as I have given above: God is able to make it right for those who must experience tragedy or horror, in this case the horror of being used as God’s instrument to carry out such large-scale justice.
The final three issues from our list are the easy ones:
- Originates from a heart of hate
- Involves a desire to dominate
- Generally entails taking the law into one’s own hands
Simply put, none of these apply to God. He is the sovereign lawgiver, so it is impossible to say he errs by taking the law into his own hands—that’s where it belongs! Similarly, what would a “desire to dominate” mean for a good God such as he is? And the answers to the above-listed issues show that his motivation is not hatred—at least not hatred toward person. He did (and does) hate sin.
So it is possible to resolve all the apparent contradictions here, and to continue to believe in God’s goodness. Some readers may have noticed a further condition upon which this defense of God rests: that these acts were fully his doing, and Israel was his instrument. It’s something only God can initiate, and given the massive changes in the world and in the way God interacts with the world since that time, there is no question about this being a guide or norm for any human action today. This is not about whether genocide could be okay under any circumstances today. It’s about whether we can rationally hold that acts ascribed to God in the Bible could be consistent with his goodness.
My minimalist approach to this will not satisfy everyone. Atheists and skeptics will continue to express indignation at what they think are God’s moral outrages. I have shown that there is no rational necessity to view it that way, but I doubt that will stop them. Some Christians will wonder why I didn’t express a more positive case for the goodness of God. The basics are there, in the eternal justice, mercy, and holiness I have affirmed of him, but admittedly this has been a defense of those attributes, not a positive Biblical case in favor of them.
If I had more time and space I would love to present that positive case, for quite positively God is good. God is good even in respect to situations we understand very dimly—including long-ago, immensely alien situations like these, which, as Paul Copan has told us, may never even have taken place in the way they appear to have happened.