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What About Old Testament Genocide?

What Would You Say?

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What About Old Testament Genocide?


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You’re in a conversation and someone says, “If God is so good, how could he command genocide in the Old Testament?” What would you say? In Old Testament passages such as Deuteronomy 7, God commands the Israelites not only to drive out the people who lived in the land of Canaan, known as the Canaanites, but also to take over their land and destroy them all. If God is so good, how could He command His people to do such a thing? The next time you’re in a conversation and that question comes up, remember these 3 things: Number 1: God’s command for Israel to drive out the Canaanites was not race-based, but behavior-based, as the Canaanites engaged in acts that would be considered criminal in civilized societies. In Canaanite culture, horrific acts such as infant sacrifice, ritual sex, bestiality, and incest were not only legal, but common. This behavior had been going on for centuries and was integral to the worship of their idols. These acts of cruel injustice had God’s attention, because God is just. He cares about the victims of injustice. At the same time, God’s judgment wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. For centuries, God waited patiently for the Canaanites to repent. In other Old Testament passages, God demonstrates that He desires mercy over judgment, and is always willing to relent from judgment if the people are willing to repent. In fact, God had a reputation for showing mercy, not only to Israel, but also toward Israel’s enemies. For example, you might remember that Jonah didn’t want to deliver God’s warning to the Ninevites and he even tried to run away from the job. Why? Because he knew God would show mercy if they repented. Apparently Jonah knew that God’s justice always goes hand in hand with his compassion and mercy. Number 2: God is willing to work with people where they are, not where they ought to be. He works within messy human cultures to move them towards redemption. When the Canaanites refused to repent, God finally brought judgment in a language they would understand: the language of war. In fact, war was an everyday part of life in the Ancient Near East. All nations at that time depended on war for survival or subjugated themselves to another nation for military protection. While it’s hard for us to imagine a world where war is an everyday norm, God is always working within all cultures no matter what their “norm” is. Just as we adapt our own behavior and language when we are in a different culture or country, the language of the Ancient Near East was violence and war. And a victory by the Israelites, a much smaller and weaker nation than the Canaanites, suggested divine intervention. It’s also important to note that God instituted rules and limits to war that were against the norms of the time. He limited the Israelites to warfare only within specific circumstances and time-frames, or for specific purposes. God also limited who could fight, exempting those who had recently bought a house or a vineyard, or were engaged to be married, and even those who were just faint-hearted. There were even rules against needlessly destroying the nearby trees. God works with people where they are, not where they ought to be. And when He accommodates certain inferior conditions of a culture, it is to move people in a redemptive direction. In the case of the Canaanites, even beyond using Israel to stop their violence and evil, God was working to accomplish a larger plan: His mission to bring redemption to the entire cosmos. Even as He was judging the Canaanites, a seriously corrupting and evil force in the world, He was orchestrating the story of redemption, securing the land for Israel in which the Messiah for all nations would appear. Number 3: The Old Testament’s mention of many Canaanite survivors shows that its “total-kill” language is simply Ancient Near Eastern exaggeration or hyperbole. Whenever we read ancient literature, we should try to understand the context in which it was written, including what kind of literature it is and the language devices that were normal for that time. If I tell you my suitcase weighs a ton, you know that I mean it’s heavy, not that it literally weighs 2000 lbs. If I say I’m so hungry I could eat a horse, you would know that, at least in Western culture, I don’t literally mean I will eat a horse, just that I’m very hungry. There are common hyperbolic expressions in every culture. In the culture of the Ancient Near East, there were stock hyperbolic phrases about warfare. Sweeping language with “utterly destroyed” bravado was common in Ancient Near Eastern war texts. In that literature, victories were often described in terms of “total conquest,” “complete annihilation,” and “leaving no survivors.” One Moabite king wrote of his victory over Israel by saying “Israel is no more.” Both his Ancient Near Eastern readers and readers today understand this was hyperbole and not literally true. The “total-kill” language in the Old Testament command was closely followed by directions to not intermarry with the Canaanites – the ones who were supposedly to be wiped out. In fact, the biblical language of the Canaanite “destruction” is identical to that of Judah’s destruction in the Babylonian exile – which clearly did not mean utter annihilation or genocide. In both cases, people from these nations turned to God, and were accepted into Israel. God even made Rahab, one of the Canaanite women who turned to God, one of the great great great great grandmothers of Jesus. All of this indicates that to some degree the language used in the Old Testament about “utterly destroying” the Canaanites was hyperbolic. Passages dealing with God’s command to drive out the Canaanites from the land are difficult passages to read, and we have to be honest with those difficulties and resist offering trite answers. But the first step of understanding what happened and why is to evaluate the context of the biblical narrative and the Ancient Near Eastern culture. So the next time you’re in a conversation and someone objects to the “genocide” in the Old Testament, remember these 3 things: Number 1: God’s command for Israel to drive out the Canaanites was not race-based, but behavior-based, as the Canaanites engaged in acts that would be considered criminal in civilized societies. Number 2: God is willing to work with people where they are, not where they ought to be. He works within messy human cultures to move them towards redemption. Number 3: The Old Testament’s mention of many Canaanite survivors shows that its “total-kill” language is simply Ancient Near Eastern exaggeration or hyperbole. For What Would You Say, I’m Brooke McIntire.


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