Is Divine Genocide Defensible?

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 5.35.23 PMThe question about divine genocide arises when one reads specific Old Testament texts about the wiping out of the Canaanites in the conquest of the Land after the exodus and wanderings. Here are some examples:

Josh. 11:12 And all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded.

Josh. 11:15 As the Lord had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses.

Josh. 11:20 For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Josh. 11:23 So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

One who has explained and ultimately justified divine genocide is Paul Copan and a decisive, sustained refutation of Copan has been made by Greg Boyd in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing, at accusations against the Bible and the God of the Bible, is considered by some to be too strong. Here is Boyd:

I fully empathize with Copan and other fellow Evangelicals who undoubtedly believe that attaching this label to a biblical portrait of God is irreverent. Given their conviction that these narratives accurately report what God actually told the Israelites to do, it is completely understandable that they would be averse to attaching this label to him. I stood in their shoes up until ten years ago. Yet, it now seems to me that to refrain from applying this label to a portrait of God in the Bible, when we would immediately do so for any similar portrait of a deity found outside the Bible, is disingenuous. Even worse, if we refrain from calling the Israelites’ slaughtering of entire populations “genocide,” we are implicitly admitting that wiping out entire populations in the name of God is sometimes, at least in principle, justified. And, as history clearly demonstrates, this opens the door for others to follow this horrific precedent if and when they feel “called by God” to annihilate a particular people-group. Hence, though I fully agree with Copan and other Evangelicals that this narrative is completely “Godbreathed,” I am nevertheless persuaded that we have a moral obligation to be consistent by admitting that the portrait of God giving the herem command is genocidal.

. Copan first notes that God is the author of life and thus has the right to determine how long any person is going to live.

Inasmuch as I agree with Copan that life is a gift from our Creator, I cannot dispute his claim that God is under no moral obligation to grant anyone another breath. But I submit that the important question is not over whether or not God has the right to take the lives of innocent children and infants; it is rather over whether or not God has the kind of character that would command his people to mercilessly take the lives of innocent children and infants.

we have to seriously ask ourselves if we can imagine Jesus, under any circumstances, commanding devotees to bludgeon untold numbers of infants and children. I, for one, cannot.

Hence, since I started this series on Boyd’s book, I contend that the problem is that some don’t think there’s a problem of dissonance or contradiction between what is ascribed to God in texts like those above and what we learn about God in the cruciform God of Jesus. That’s the problem.

Copan seems to get close to this cruciform solution at times, but Boyd contends this: “Copan simply has not adequately grasped the absolute nature of God’s self-revelation on the cross.” Diminishing the breadth and depth of herem destruction or the racism of some of these texts or the need to protect from idolatry or protect the people of God, in the end, are not convincing to Boyd. Nor does calling these texts “war bravado” or hyperbole or exaggeration; yes, not all were killed but innocents, apparently lots of them, were killed because of a line of authority from Moses to Joshua to the armies.

The war bravado rhetorical theory won’t work for too many texts. Boyd:

I will again state that I fully empathize with Copan as he attempts to tackle the challenge he faces, and I believe he does as good a job as can be done, given his conviction that we must accept the surface meaning of the portraits of Yahweh in the conquest narrative. Yet, on the basis of the objections I have raised in this chapter, I find both lines of defense that he employs to justify the genocidal commands and practices found throughout the conquest narrative to be implausible. Yet, whether we interpret the violent portraits of God in the conquest narrative as depicting God commanding the literal slaughter of entire populations or as merely using “war bravado,” we still have not disclosed how these portraits bear witness to the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love of God revealed on Calvary, which is, for followers of Jesus, the most important hermeneutical task.

To rise to this challenge, what is required is not an ethical story but, as I have said, a cross-centered story of “what else is going on” when God is depicted as giving the herem command.

That, I am saying, is precisely the problem: Copan and those like him don’t sense the need to work these herem and conquest and destruction texts out with a cross-shaped hermeneutic.

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