If God Once (upon a Time) Commanded Genocide…
Earlier here (e.g., in my review of Kenton Sparks’ book Sacred Word, Broken Word) I questioned whether the biblical “texts of terror” should be interpreted literally. I pointed out that the church fathers, almost without exception, interpreted them allegorically. Just the other day I was talking with a conservative evangelical layman who is a self-taught theologian and member of an Evangelical Free congregation in the Upper Midwest. Somehow our conversation drifted to the Old Testament and then to the infamous texts of terror where it is reported that God commanded the slaughter of whole people groups including women and children. He told me that he has always interpreted those texts as encouraging God’s people to put to death all sins in their lives.
Of course, many conservative evangelical, especially neo-fundamentalist, Christians insist that these texts, like all of the Bible, must be taken “at face value”—literally (except portions that are clearly poetic or parabolic). The hermeneutical principle is to interpret the Bible “as literally as possible and as figuratively as necessary.”
Here is my challenge to those who take the texts of terror literally—as meaning that God actually commanded the slaughter by God’s people of whole towns and tribes including women and children: If God then—once upon a time—commanded genocide how can we be sure he won’t command it again—in our own time?
I take it that most thoughtful, morally mature Christians think genocide is always wrong. Let’s be clear what “genocide means.” It’s not just war; it’s the indiscriminate killing of whole groups of people because of who they are. It’s also called “ethnic cleansing.” Most Christians I know at least act as if they believe genocide could never be justified by appeal to “God commands it.” But how can they know that for sure if God ever commanded genocide?
Imagine that a Christian leader with an army at his beck and call declared that God had commanded him to rid the earth of a certain people group and proceeded to do it—slaughtering men, women and children of that people group just because of their ethnic or religious identity and because God allegedly commanded it. If God commanded God’s people to conduct themselves in that manner in the past, how can we know for sure he would not so command them now?
In fact, there have been cases in history when Christians claimed God was guiding them to eliminate whole groups of people including women and children just because of their ethnic identities. Of course, other reasons were given—such as that they were “savages,” etc. Most people today, even those who take the Old Testament texts of terror literally, look back on those horrors of history and castigate those who committed them. But how can we be sure God did not command them and they were not just obeying God?
Believing that God ever commanded his people to commit genocide would seem to require leaving the door open, even if only a “crack,” to the possibility that God might do it again. We then cannot say with assurance “God would not command that.” How do we know God would not command that?
The reason we know God would not command that is because Jesus is the perfect revelation of the character of God. That’s the only reason we know that our God would not command the slaughter of men, women and children just because they are allegedly “savages” (or whatever). But to those who say “our God” would never command such I ask “When did God slam that door shut?” And “How do you know he did?”
There are only two options open for those who do not want to leave the door open to God commanding genocide now: 1) Interpret the OT texts of terror allegorically, or 2) Interpret them as false reports—blaming God for what the Hebrews did to some Canaanites. Both options are forbidden by neo-fundamentalist and conservative evangelical theologians. But, then, they have to admit that it is possible that our God might again command genocide. They cannot close that door firmly and forever.