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Did God Command Genocide?

If you've ever taken any interest in the debate between Christianity and Atheism, you've more than likely come across the following critique of the Bible: "The Old Testament God is hardly one to be worshipped. He's a vindictive, angry, jealous God who commands genocide!"

This line of attack is hardly unjustified. How are we to respond when we come across verses like these? 
However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them - the Hitties, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusties - as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deut 20:16-17)
Go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. (1 Sam 15:3)
For some, the solution is easy. Simply pretend like these verses don't belong in the Bible. Problem solved. But this creates an even bigger issue. Maybe we can pretend these verses don't belong in the Bible, but then why didn't Jesus? Jesus made it pretty clear that all of Scripture is about him (John 5:39), Old Testament warts and all. So what is going on? Are we supposed to imagine that the same Jesus who told the little children to come to him (Matt 19:13-15) at one point would have commanded their execution? If you've struggled with this conflict, you aren't alone.

This is hardly an easy question and one that must be tackled head-on by any serious theologian. Over the centuries, theologians have given different answers that roughly fall into three different models: denial, justification, and correction. Since the denial option doesn't work for Jesus, it should quickly be rejected by his followers. So what is one to do?

Individuals such as Saint Augustine and John Calvin argued that God is within his rights to command the deaths of whomever he wishes, in any way he wishes. These theologians stress the seriousness of sin - sin has consequences, and sometimes God enters into human history to deal with it. The problem however with the justification model is that it essentially reduces morality to ambiguity. Think about it - if God were to command you right now to execute his judgment by going to your neighbour's house and kill everyone in it, you probably would object - and rightfully so! But that's what the justification model does, it ends up forcing us to make statements such as, "killing children in war is wrong . . . unless God tells you otherwise." This response seems to create far more questions than answers!

As it turns out, this question is more about how we are to read the Bible than anything else. Are we suppose to read the Bible as a flat text, or do some parts "supercede" others? Some people frame this debate as to whether we should take the Bible "literally" or not. For reasons I won't go into much here, there were understandable reasons why people ended up thinking the entire Bible needed to be taken literally. Suffice it to say, however, that this approach has caused all sorts of theological problems. For example, the Old Testament clearly teaches that disobedient sons are to be stoned to death if they won't reform their ways (Deut 21:18-21)! I'm thankful that this wasn't the law when I was growing up!

The reality is, we all believe someway or another that the Bible is a progressive story. When we read the story of the Lost Son we immediately understand it, because we are hearing it through the voice of Jesus. We recognize the Father in the story because Jesus finally has revealed what God is like. That's the "big picture" of the Bible. Jesus eventually went to his death, hung on a cross, appeared to the world like an ugly criminal to show us just how much God is willing to suffer to bring about human salvation. When that's the starting point of your theology, you can start to see more clearly exactly what is going on throughout the Bible.

It turns out people in the Old Testament really thought they were doing God a favour when they attributed genocide to Him. That's the world they lived in. When we look at these types of passages through the lens of the cross, we realize that God is willing to let humanity see him how they want. The religious leaders saw Jesus as a false messiah. The Romans saw Jesus as a political revolutionary. When we come to cross, it appears that's just who Jesus was - killed because of his blasphemy and stupidity. No one thought he was dying for the sins of humanity and to conquor death. On the surface, it appears to be one thing, but in reality, something else entirely is going on.

These difficult Old Testament passages will continue to remain difficult. Did God Command genocide? When answering that question through the lens of the cross, we must answer no. He did, however, break into that sinful world and eventually walk among us to show us how he was going to deal with sin and death once and for all - with his own life.

The following post is based on my upcoming paper entitled, "The Old Testament Crucified: Examing the Theology of Gregory Boyd's The Crucifixion of the Warrior God." For more on Boyd's theology, see Boyd, Gregory A. Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017.


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