Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Genocide in the Bible

What of the genocide in the bible? There isn’t much wiggle room for a warrant for genocide, not now, not ever. The destruction of an entire people’s culture and every member of the culture is an act that’s simply abominable. Quite early on in the bible, god’s chosen people are depicted as a fighting, warrior tribe. Fair enough, plenty of good causes needed the taking up of arms at their inception. What bothers me about some of these passages is not that men are doing the killing, it’s that god is purported to have sanctioned the slaughter. The very same god that we are led to believe is the arbiter of morals and the absolute author of ethics. The god apart from whom no other authority exists. I shall argue briefly that the two statements of a god that is moral and one who sanctions genocide are irreconcilable.

One justification for the attack could rest with personal protection and the safety of one's family and tribe. Well perhaps the Israelites were being attacked. Maybe they had to defend themselves from the Amalekites. But peace can’t always the goal of the genocide of an entire culture. I will have none of it in my moral code because I fail to see where such a drastic action can result in anything other than hatred, racism, nationalism, and personal trauma. It may be personal ignorance but I can't see how an all-knowing and all-powerful being can think that the mass slaughter of people is the best way around a problem. I may be presumptuous here but I figure god could have thought of some more diplomatic way...

It has been suggested that the Amalekites were sacrificing children and committing all manner of wicked deeds. Well I really don't care what they did in their spare time, the fact that it was god who commanded wholesale slaughter should give us pause for thought if we are to say god is moral.  Indeed, the idea of painting another group of people as wicked and horrible, even if it was only a few members who committed such terrible acts, is a classic weapon called propaganda. We can do better today; in fact I know the Hebrews could have done better back then. There’s absolutely no reason to enact a policy of genocide and scorched earth. They didn't act better though and they resorted to lying to each other about a divine commandment to steal other people's land. God was used as a pretext to invade another tribes land.

I know there were people fighting all the time in those places. People picked up swords more often than spades. And I have no problem with the defence of one's own tribe. Like I said before though, this is not the issue under scrutiny. The issue is the divine commandment to do so. People love to say that the Christian god is moral; this is clearly not the case because there's no situation where the genocide of a people is a moral act. I'm sorry if I'm spelling this out. I am also aware there are indications of Amalekites elsewhere in the bible. But this doesn't help the very common thought pattern that the bible is inerrant. 

The context doesn't help either. No matter which way you read it, god still winds up sanctioning the genocide of an entire people. This is still the case even if the Hebrew army was too inept to actually finish the job (or too filled with pity in spite of the commandment). And I am told the only way we can get our morals is by divine command from this god! The very same deity that sanctions a thing I wouldn't dream about in a million years. This is why I say that even though people say 'without god, anything is possible', it is more the case that with god anything is possible, even genocide; so long as god sanctions, compels, commands, or decrees it. This is why the decree for divine genocide is immoral. It would have been immoral without the divine decree, but somehow, for me anyway, the addition of a celestial stamp-of-approval makes this episode that much worse.

If straw manning is reading the bible as it reads, then I'm guilty. I understand there are multiple ways of reading biblical text, be that metaphorical, literal, allegorical, poetic, etc. The thing is, the command of genocide was written in a literalistic form, as part of a description of history passed down through the ages, and to top it off is supposed to be divine verbatim. If you consider this part of the bible to be metaphorical, I really can't see how you can believe any part of the book is actually literal. The rest of the bible is less literal than this section. 1 Samuel is more vivid than any of the accounts of Jesus:

"Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation--men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys." 1 Sam.15:2-3. 

So according to Christians this is your god speaking, not some devious author trying to invent a reason to steal other people's land (although this is a more simple explanation, and probably the correct one). I am reading it literally for two reasons: 1. God is supposed to have said it, and the creator of the universe shouldn't really have his words twisted by reading them 'metaphorically' when he was supposed to have literally said them, and 2. By all accounts, the Hebrews gave this commandment a fair go. Given the existence of Amalekites in later parts of the bible, the Hebrews were probably too incompetent to finish the job, but there's no indication they didn't at least try to enact a scorched earth policy.

And another thing, how in the world can one read this passage and many others like it, in a positive way? Was god right in sanctioning the slaughter not just of fighting age men, but women and children down to the lowliest cattle? There are reliable sources that indicate the Israelites were partial to human sacrifice as well should they have been wiped out by god too? Or perhaps mercy really is afforded only to god's chosen people... Imagine if you were an Amalekite. Would you still agree with god decreeing your annihilation? Surely every single person in the tribe wasn't killing children (even the donkeys are to be killed, I had no idea donkeys could plan to kill children premeditatedly). 

Perhaps there was a reason god commanded the genocide. This seems to indicate that whatever god commands (even if he says to kill hundreds of people) at least some Christians would obey. As long as the group of people are sufficiently "bad" in thier view. Of course, there's absolutely no way of verifying objectively what god supposedly says, so this kind of thought pattern may lead to some pretty horrific outcomes. If a modern-day Moses were to appear in your church and say "follow me, God has told me to destroy ____ people" you'd have absolutely no authority to second-guess this statement if he uses the bible to back himself up. Even worse, what if he were to perform miracles to validate his personal connection to god? Now you'd really be in a conundrum. There are always "bad" people in the world that we'd rather weren't there, but isn't it just a little bit convenient that god hates those people too and actually tells men to go and kill them?

Sure, I get that god could progressively reveal himself. It doesn't save one’s position to offer Jesus as a counter-example. Jesus never dismissed or redacted the god of the Old Testament. He never said that the actions of that god are bad or that he would've done better. He simply 'fulfilled' them, which is a scary thought I guess.

And perhaps god could only speak to the people of that time in a certain way. Why, then, do most of the loudmouths ever since, who proclaim to be hearing from god, always end up advocating ideas just as brutal and seemingly in-line with the god of the old testament. God hates fags!, The Crusades, the Inquisition, Christian black slavery, and wars. God is the supposed justification for all these things, and it would appear to be more accurate to say they were following the bible than it would be to say the opposite. Plenty of holy men have said the things Jesus said, most people would be good and do good even if Jesus never existed, but to get good people to do bad things, you need religion and god.

I've heard the idea before that the war-speak in the bible may be only hubris and rhetoric, but that doesn't fly. There is no caveat in the text that clearly separates metaphor from historic fact (fact, which is, according to the bible). Some parts of the bible may seem like metaphor or poetry, but most believing scholars struggle with passages like the one with the Amalekites because it screams historic recital, not poetry. Which is why the genocide of a whole people, commanded by god, is so disturbing to them. I doesn't seem to square with the Jesus of the New testament. But the two versions of the same deity are supposedly identical.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear, where does one begin to tackle such a post! I can see that you are genuinely seeking answers and it would seem that either you or a friend has led you to many draw many erroneous conclusions and sweeping assumptions. This has happened because you don't understand the Bible or the framework of its unfolding revelation. Bear with me while I take you through this logically because I can see this is something you struggle with - why else would you jump around all over the place without seeking to understanding the timeline involved. A good example of this is your statement that 'God's chosen people were previously depicted as a fighting warrior tribe' - where do you get this from? The Israelites assembled at Mt Sinai had been slaves only months before! In fact if you really understood what is happening here you would realise that God's instructions were to a bunch of slaves He was asking them to take on the inhabitants of Canaan - some of whom were giants (the Amalekites were actual giants!)Ten of the spies that went up to spy out the land came back a blithering mess - hardly a scary invasion force!
You see what you call genocide, the Bible calls judgment and if you understood the background to what is happening here you wouldn't be so quick to jump to conclusions or defend the inhabitants of Canaan who culturally were a despicable people. The extent of their moral pollution was legendary and every level of their society was corrupt. Their men, women and children all prostituted themselves, even their animals, and the immorality of these people reached heights unknown (or thankfully unrepeated) anytime since. Read some of the Canaanite pornographic literature of the time to understand the depravity of this culture and you'll see what I mean. Read Genesis 14:13-16 which predicts hundreds of years before it happened that Abrahams descendants would be slaves and when the 'sin of the Amorites had reached its full measure' they would return to claim the land that God had promised. If God was as cruel as you make Him out to be then He should have sent
Abraham on a holy war but God showed grace to the Canaanites and it would appear from Rahab's comments that they knew if they did not cease their horrendous behaviour they would be judged. Your problem is that you are confusing genocide committed in the 20th century with what happened here - two very different events. God has a right to judge because He has put a limit on evil. He allowed the Canaanites 430 years to stop their evil behaviour or face judgment. The Israelites were (very ineffectual) instruments of God and the reality is they failed. You speak like Canaan was cleared of its inhabitants - another huge error on your part because the Israelites failed to do this at all and apart from a few battles they broke every instruction that God had gave them. The terrible genocide's of the 20th century were all committed by godless men who based their right to ethnically cleanse this earth on the writings of Charles Darwin. 100 million people suffered and died the first half of that century for the ideology of one man. Men like Hitler and Stalin justified their actions because evolution set them free from God's judgment (or so they think).
It would take another huge post to try and explain why God was and is entitled to judge His creation. He judged it through the flood, babel and he'll judge it again in the near future 'when the sin of the gentiles reaches its full measure'. The background to the Exodus and the taking of Canaan was God choosing and setting apart a people to be His representatives. They had to be set apart and live holy lives, they could never have endured the pollution of the Canaanites and history shows that they didn't.

Anonymous said...

Leviticus 18 gives an example of what the Caananites were like: "The land is defiled, therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants." The chapter records that the culture concerned was so evil that it was even engaged in child sacrifice.

As for the slaughter of children mentioned in 1 Samuel 15, as other theologians have noted, "given the cancerous state of the society into which they were being born, they had no chance to avoid its fatal pollution." You could argue that those "suckling infants" slaughtered by the Jews had a better chance of salvation than if they'd been left to become adult Amorites.

God considered those cultures to be a spiritual cancer, and made a judgement call.

I understand that this may be difficult to comprehend, as it goes against the grain of the loving God that is portrayed - but these were people so immersed in evil that it was the only option.