God and Genocide

abraham-slaying-isaac-chagall

Let’s play a little game. I’ll ask some questions and you answer them. OK?

First question: Did God tell Abraham to kill his son?

You say, yes? (Adding that God didn’t actually require Abraham to go through with it.)

Next question: Did God tell Joshua and Saul to kill children as part of the “ethnic cleansing” of Canaan?

Is that a hesitant yes I hear — like walking in untied shoes?

My next question is simple and straightforward: Does God change?

No?

Well then, since God doesn’t change — and you have already acknowledged that in times past God has sanctioned the killing of children — is it possible that God would require you to kill children?

You say you don’t like this game? I understand. I don’t really like it either. But stick with me, I have one more question.

If God told you to kill children, would you do so?

I know, I know, I know! Calm down.

Of course you answer without hesitation that under no circumstance would you participate in the killing of children!

Yet in answering with an unequivocal no to the question of whether or not you would kill children are you claiming a moral superiority to the God depicted in parts of the Old Testament? After all, God commanded the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, including children…didn’t he? Yet you obviously find the very suggestion of participating in genocide morally repugnant.

So what is going on here? Is genocide something God used to do, but now he’s changed?

But you already told me God doesn’t change. God is immutable. God doesn’t mutate.

So if God used to sanction genocide and God doesn’t change…

Aauugghh!!!!

Yes, you’ve been painted into a corner. And something has to give!

So where do we go from here?

Our options are limited.

1. We can question the morality of God.

2. We can question the immutability of God.

3. We can question our understanding of Scripture.

For me, the first two options are off the table. I cannot believe God is immoral or mutable.

If you suggest that I go with a variation of the first option by claiming that when God commands genocide it’s not immoral, that is asking me to violate my own conscience. I cannot do it. I will not do it. Genocide is immoral. I know this. And you know it too! Furthermore, such a position opens the door for all manner of evil to be justified in the name of God — something the human race has a long, tragic history of doing. For me, any variation of the first option is unacceptable.

Perhaps you are comfortable with the second option — a mutating God who is in the process of learning and growing. I am not. The immutability of God is foundational to my faith. If God is subject to change, how do we know that somewhere down the line God won’t mutate into an omnipotent malevolent monster? (I am aware of theologies that basically have such a god, but since I believe God is fully revealed in Christ, I reject the theologies of a monstrous deity.)

This leaves us with only the third option. We have no choice but to revisit how we understand Scripture — particularly the Old Testament.

Let’s begin by asserting that it is Jesus Christ who is the true Word of God. Christians confess that Christ is the Logos (divine logic) made flesh. This is the theme of John’s majestic gospel as he asserts over and over again that it is Christ who finally and fully reveals to humanity what God is really like. This is a whole subject in itself, but let’s move on.

So if we don’t want a god who occasionally commands genocide or a god who is mutating, how do we view the Old Testament. Something like this…

The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. But it’s a process. God doesn’t mutate, but Israel’s revelation and understanding of God obviously does. Along the way assumptions are made. One of these assumptions was that Yahweh shares certain violent attributes with the pagan deities of the ancient Near East. These assumptions were inevitable, but wrong. For example, the Hebrew prophets will eventually begin to question the assumption that Yahweh desires blood sacrifice. Jesus was fond of quoting Hosea’s bold assertion that Yahweh doesn’t want sacrifice, he wants mercy.

So let’s just say that between the allegedly divine endorsement of genocide in the conquest of Canaan and the Sermon on the Mount something changes! What changes isn’t God, but the degree to which humanity has attained a revelation of the true nature of God. The Old Testament is telling the story of Israel coming to know God…but don’t stop! Keep going until you get to Jesus! It isn’t Joshua the son of Nun who gives us the full revelation of God, it’s Yeshua of Nazareth! It isn’t the warrior-poet David who gives us the full revelation of God, but the greater Son of David, Jesus Christ! We understand David as a man of his time, but we understand Christ as the exact imprint of God’s nature! (see Hebrews 1:1–3)

OK, let me put my cards on the table. The whole point of this exercise has been to dampen enthusiasm for using the Old Testament to justify the use of violence. This is a dangerous practice that must be abandoned in the light of Christ. For if you want to occasionally revert to the Old Testament to justify the use of “appropriate” violence, how do you know you won’t be using the Old Testament to justify genocide? This is a legitimate question.

This very kind of justification was used by European Christians during the Native American genocide of North America. In 1637 the English colonial leadership in Connecticut wanted to launch a war of aggression against the Pequot tribe for the sole purpose of possessing their land. When some of the colonists expressed moral qualms, the matter was referred to their chaplain, Reverend John Stone. The good reverend spent the night in prayer and in the morning reported that God was “clearing the title” for his chosen people, the English, to possess America. The next day armed colonists attacked the Pequot settlement at Mystic and seven hundred men, women, and children were killed in the span of an hour. Captain John Mason described the slaughter in these words.

“Thus was God seen crushing the enemies of his people, burning them up in the fire of his wrath and dunging the ground with their flesh. It was the Lord’s doings and it was marvelous in our eyes.”

When some colonists questioned the morality of the slaughter, saying, “shouldn’t Christians have more mercy and compassion?” — Mason responded thus:

“I would refer you to David’s wars. Sometimes the Scripture declares that women and children must perish. We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”

(The Mystic Massacre is well documented. My primary source is The Earth Shall Weep by James Wilson pp. 89–95.)

This is the problem with reading the Bible as a flat text where every passage carries the same weight of authority. In such a reading the Bible can be used to justify every kind of violence including genocide. It’s been done before. This is why we must interpret Scripture in the light of Christ who is the true Word of God.

And so I assert…

The kingdom of Christ is without coercion. (And certainly without violence!) As Christians we persuade by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need be, martyrdom, but never by force. Christ followers are called to embody the peaceable kingdom of the Lamb.

Amen.

BZ

PS

For the philosophers and theologians among us: Let me say that though I love Kierkegaard, I find his description of Abraham as a “knight of faith” who achieves a “suspension of the ethical” in the sacrifice of Isaac anachronistic and ultimately unhelpful. Abraham didn’t “suspend the ethical” when he set off for Moriah, rather Abraham attained the ethical when he put down the knife. Abraham gained the revelation that, contrary to the assumption of the age, God does not want human sacrifice. If Abraham is the father of monotheism, he is also the father of the abolition of human sacrifice. It seems Kierkegaard missed this in Fear and Trembling. For my taste Kierkegaard’s knight of faith who suspends the ethical if far too close to Nietzsche’s Übermensch who is “beyond good and evil.”

(The artwork is The Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall.)