Some Follow-up Thoughts about the Bible and Genocide
Comments here responding to my earlier essay about Jesus, the children, and Old Testament texts of terror (e.g., God commanding Israel to slaughter infants) have often, in my opinion, distorted what I said—reading into my essay points I did not make. For example, I never suggested “cutting out” portions of Scripture and I certainly did not advocate Marcionism. These are ideas read into my essay, not out of it. The issue was literal versus figurative interpretations, not “cutting out” or deleting portions of Scripture.
I admit that I struggle with this issue (interpretation of the OT) greatly and that’s really all I’m trying to get people to do with me—struggle with it. I think we evangelicals (including fundamentalists) have too cavalierly (without reflection or struggle) accepted literal interpretations of portions of Scripture and non-literal interpretations of others. For example, many conservative evangelicals I know balk at believing God literally changed his mind in spite of the fact that certain biblical texts say he did. Yet the same people will charge “cutting parts out of the Bible” when I cannot take as literal something they do.
I repeat my claim: Nobody takes everything in the Bible literally. And there seems to be a lot of arbitrariness in this matter. There is no litmus test for it. A traditional rule of thumb is to take “as much of the Bible literally as possible and as much figuratively as necessary,” but that hardly helps. It just raises the question of what “possible” and “necessary” mean.
Here is something I want people who take literally Old Testament texts of terror that portray God as commanding people to commit genocide to consider: If you believe God ever commanded genocide you cannot absolutely, firmly close the door to later (post-biblical) claims that God commanded people to commit genocide. (Here “genocide” will stand as a cipher for ethnic cleansing and mass slaughter of people just because of their nationality, culture, geographical location or religion.)
Let me repeat this: If you believe that God ever commanded genocide, you cannot close the door absolutely, firmly on later claims that genocide was carried out according to God’s commands. In other words, you have to consider at least possible that post-biblical historical acts of genocide were God’s will and commanded by God. And that contemporary acts of genocide are God’s will and command.
And, of course, throughout history, most acts of genocide were justified that way—if not blatantly and explicitly, at least implicitly. For example, American colonists and their descendents defended genocide against Native Americans by comparing themselves with Israel and Native Americans with Canaanites. For example, South Africans defended their treatments of native inhabitants the same way. The crusaders certainly believed God was calling them to slaughter Muslims in the “Holy Land” and even Greek Christians in Constantinople. “Deus vult!”
Turning it around—if you believe that genocide is in principle always wrong, which can only be because it is against God’s will (as I have argued here in posts against atheist “ethics”), then you will have to struggle with Old Testament reports of God commanding it. Unless you believe God’s character changes. (This was the argument made by Dutch theologian Van de Beek in Why?: Suffering, Guilt, and God.)
I would like to hear someone make a reasonable case why and how a person could absolutely condemn all contemporary acts of genocide, especially including the slaughter of infants, as against God’s will while maintaining that God willed and commanded them in the history of Israel.
It seems to me that one cannot have this cake and eat it, too. If I believe that God ever commanded the slaughter of an entire people group, including all the children, then I don’t see how it is possible to argue with assurance that God never does that today. When confronted (e.g., in the news) with a claim that God commanded a particular event of ethnic cleansing or genocide (as defined above), I may doubt it, but I cannot be absolutely certain that claim is false—if I believe God ever commanded such.