God’s Genocide

Maybe they all lost because they didn't wear clothes into battle.

We’re reading Joshua and Judges for class this week, so there are a number of the passages that are … uncomfortable … for us who believe in a loving, gracious and merciful God. Verses like Joshua 6:21, about the destruction of Jericho:

They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

There are a number of verses like this as the Israelites continue their campaign through Canaan. But perhaps none is as disturbing as the one below, which gave me pause last night, even though I was expecting most of the other genocidal passages.

The campaign is pretty much over, 31 kings vanquished and their cities destroyed. You’d think the last four or five, at least, would have followed the example of the Gibeonites and worked toward peace instead of trying to fight futile battles against Israel and its God.

Joshua 11:16-20 explains why this didn’t happen:

So Joshua took this entire land: the hill country, all the Negev, the whole region of Goshen, the western foothills, the Arabah and the mountains of Israel with their foothills,from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, to Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He captured all their kings and put them to death. Joshua waged war against all these kings for a long time. Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace with the Israelites, who took them all in battle. For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

This echoes some of the challenging phraseology of the exodus story, in which God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, and we know this ultimately results in the death of many children. Here we have not just a statement to that effect but also a motive ascribed to God: He hardened their hearts so that he might exterminate them “without mercy.” Which seems incompatible with the notion of a merciful God, doesn’t it?

I look forward to what the discussion in class about these (and the many other) genocide passages say, and what they mean for traditional notions of how to read and interpret the Bible. Thus far, I feel similarly to Wesley Morriston, who argues these verses “provide us with a strong prima facie notion to reject biblical inerrancy.”

Indeed, like some of the passages in Genesis, it seems hard to argue these are anything other than historiography, history from the perspective of the conquerors, not necessarily from the perspective of God himself. The only other possibility is that universal reconciliation allowed these vanquished ultimately to receive a much better fate in death than their conquerors who remained alive.

Otherwise, we remain faced with the reality that the Bible essentially presents us with two gods: the genocidal, unmerciful God of the Old Testament, followed by the loving and gracious God of the New.


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