Of God and Genocide

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
—Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited”

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

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

You say yes? But hastily add that God didn’t actually require Abraham to go through with it — it was just a test of faith.

All right.

Next question: Did God command Joshua, King Saul, and the Israelites 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?

I sense your confident answer of no to this question. And you are quite correct. A cornerstone of Christian theology has always been that God is immutable — that is, God doesn’t mutate from one kind of being into another kind of being. The immutability of God is the solid ground upon which our faith stands.

Next question (brace yourself): Since God doesn’t change, and since you have already acknowledged that in times past God has sanctioned the killing of children as part of a genocidal program of conquest, is it then 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 bear with me a little more; we’re almost done.

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

I know, I know! Calm down. Of course, you answer without hesitation that under no circumstances would you participate in the genocidal slaughter of children. (At least I hope that’s how you answer!)

Yet in answering with an unequivocal no to the question of whether you would kill children, are you claiming a moral superiority to the God depicted in parts of the Old Testament? After all, the Bible says God commanded the Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants of the land during their conquest of Canaan, including children…right? Yet (hopefully) you find the very suggestion of participating in genocide morally repugnant. So what’s going on here? Is genocide something God used to command but now God has reformed his ways? We already agreed that God doesn’t change, God doesn’t mutate. So if God used to sanction genocide, and God doesn’t change…well, you see the problem. You’ve been painted into a corner.

So where do we go from here? Our options are limited. We really have only three possible courses.

1. We can question the morality of God. Perhaps God is, at times, monstrous.

2. We can question the immutability of God. Maybe God does change over time.

3. We can question how we read Scripture. Could it be that we need to learn to read the Bible in a different way?

For some there seems to be a fourth possibility: to simply ignore the whole thing, to pretend there is no problem. But this is impossible for honest, thoughtful readers of the Bible. I regularly speak with serious readers of the Bible — usually young people — who are deeply troubled with the problem of the divine sanction of genocide in the Old Testament. They just can’t reconcile a God who commands genocide with the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. As a pastor I can’t very well tell these anxious inquirers to just ignore the problem. And you shouldn’t ignore it either.

So we are left with questioning the morality of God, questioning the immutability of God, or questioning our reading of Scripture. For me, the first two options are off the table. I cannot believe that God is a moral monster or that God is in the process of mutation.

If you suggest that we 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 this. I must not do this. Genocide is immoral. The murder of children is immoral. I know this. And you know it too! Who doesn’t know that killing children is wrong?! Only those who want to defend at all cost a certain flat reading of Scripture can pretend that the wanton murder of children is not always immoral. In an effort to defend a simplistic “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” reading of Scripture, they find it necessary to ignore the cognitive dissonance of deep moral contradictions. But justifying genocide is too high a price to pay for the cause of defending that way of reading the Bible.

Worse yet, clinging to the idea that if God commands genocide it’s not immoral opens the door for all manner of atrocity to be justified in the name of God, something the human race has proved itself all too adept at doing. Persecutions, pogroms, crusades, and the Shoah are all the bitter fruit of this corrupt seed. ISIS may justify killing children in the name of God, but followers of Jesus must never do this. Never! What we should do is recognize that it’s very easy for us to project our own violence and immorality on God in an attempt to assuage our conscience by an imagined divine sanction for our sins.

Others seem comfortable with the second option, the option of a mutating God who is in the process of learning and growing. I am not comfortable with this. The immutability of God is foundational to our faith. If God is subject to change, then the very ground beneath our feet is moving and nothing is stable. If God is evolving, how do we know that somewhere down the line God won’t mutate into an omnipotent malevolent monster…or something else? The idea of a mutating God is a radical departure from what the church fathers and Christian theologians, from Gregory of Nyssa to Thomas Aquinas, from Karl Barth to David Bentley Hart, have always said about God. Christian orthodoxy has always attested to the immutability of God. I cannot accept the heterodox idea that God changes.

What I can accept is that our own understanding of God is in the process of growth, change, and mutation. Something is changing, but it’s not God. When we watch the sunrise and sunset, it certainly appears that the sun is moving, when in fact it is the earth that is rotating. The apparent movement of the sun is an illusion created by our own movement. Likewise, if it appears that God is changing over time, it is in fact we who are changing. We mutate, we grow, we change, but God does not. Just as we can project our own violence and immorality onto God, we can also project our own moral development onto God.

This leaves us with 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 who is the true Word of God. This is nothing novel; it’s the accepted orthodoxy of a high Christology. 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 that it is Jesus who finally and fully reveals to humanity what God is really like. The Incarnation is the ultimate act of divine self-disclosure. It’s Jesus, not the Bible, that is the perfect revelation of God. The Bible’s relationship to the living Word who is Christ is similar to the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. In the prologue to his gospel, the apostle John describes John the Baptist like this:

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. …
John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'” (John 1:6-9, 15)

John the Baptist was sent by God, but John was not God. John bore witness to the Word, but John was not the Word. John was inspired by God, but John was not God incarnate. This is how we should understand the relationship between the Bible and the revelation of God in Christ. The Bible is sent by God and inspired by God, but the Bible is not God. The Holy Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — not Father, Son, and Holy Bible. John the Baptist and the Bible play similar roles in relation to the eternal Logos who is Christ. We might say it this way: “There was a book sent from God, whose name was the Bible. It came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through it.” The Bible testifies through John the Baptist, “[Jesus is] he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” (John 1:15) This is not a low view of Scripture but a high view of Christ.

So if we don’t want a monstrous God who occasionally commands genocide, and if we don’t want a malleable God who is slowly mutating away from a violent past, 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. It’s a process. God doesn’t evolve, but Israel’s understanding of God obviously does. If the revelation of God is perfectly depicted in the Pentateuch, why follow the story line of Scripture into the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles? It seems obvious that we should accept that as Israel was in the process of receiving the revelation of Yahweh, some unavoidable assumptions were made. One of the assumptions was that Yahweh shared the violent attributes of other deities worshiped in the ancient Near East. These assumptions were inevitable, but they were wrong. For example, the Torah assumed that Yahweh, like all the other gods, required ritual blood sacrifice, but eventually the psalmists and prophets take the sacred text beyond this earlier assumption.

Even a casual reader of the Bible notices that between the alleged divine endorsement of genocide in the conquest of Canaan and Jesus’s call for love of enemies in his Sermon on the Mount, something has clearly changed! What has changed is not God but the degree to which humanity has attained an understanding of the true nature of God. The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God; Jesus is. Jesus is the only perfect theology. Perfect theology is not a system of theology; perfect theology is a person. Perfect theology is not found in abstract thought; perfect theology is found in the Incarnation. Perfect theology is not a book; perfect theology is the life that Jesus lived. What the Bible does infallibly and inerrantly is point us to Jesus, just like John the Baptist did.

The Old Testament tells the story of Israel coming to know the living God, but the story doesn’t stop until we arrive at Jesus! It isn’t Joshua the son of Nun who gives us the full revelation of God but Yeshua of Nazareth. It’s not the warrior-poet David who gives us the full revelation of God but the greater Son of David, Jesus Christ. We understand Joshua and David as men of their time, but we understand Jesus Christ as “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3)

Once we realize that Jesus is the perfect icon of the living God, we are forever prohibited from using the Old Testament to justify the use of violence. Using Scripture as a divine license for the implementation of violence is a dangerous practice that must be abandoned by we who walk in the light of Christ. If we hold to the bad habit of citing the Old Testament to sanction our own violence, how do we know that we won’t use those texts to justify a new genocide? This isn’t inflammatory rhetoric but a legitimate question. It’s a legitimate question because the Old Testament has been used by Christians to justify genocidal violence. This was the very justification used by European and American Christians during the American Indian genocide in North America. Here is just one example.

In 1637 the English colonial leadership in Connecticut sought to launch a war of aggression against the Pequot tribe for the sole purpose of acquiring their cultivated land. A war party of ninety settlers was raised and placed under the command of John Mason. When some of the colonists expressed moral qualms about launching an unprovoked attack on their peaceful neighbors, the matter was referred to their chaplain, the Reverend John Stone. After spending the night in prayer, Reverend Stone “was ‘fully satisfied’ with Mason’s proposal.” At dawn on May 26, 1637, the armed colonists attacked “the main Pequot village at Mystic Lake on the central Connecticut River, killing an estimated 400 to 700 Indians. Most of the dead were women and children — often historically the victims of ethnic cleansing — burned to death in their wigwams as the English slaughtered those who ran.” (James Wilson, The Earth Shall Weep, p. 90) Captain Mason describes the slaughter in these words:

“Thus was God seen in the Mount, Crushing his proud Enemies and 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 is marvellous in our Eyes!” (Ibid. p. 91)

Notice how John Mason attributes the massacre of Pequot Indians to the actions of God. What followed over the next few months was the virtual extinction of the Pequot tribe. But apparently not all the colonists were comfortable with a Christian-led genocide. In his critically acclaimed history of Native America, The Earth Shall Weep, James Wilson writes,

“There also seem to have been colonists with misgivings about what had happened. Captain Underhill was clearly replying to criticism when he wrote: ‘It may be demanded, Why should you be so furious? (as some have said). Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion?’ He echoes Mason by taking his defence from the Old Testament, presenting the English—typically — as the put-upon underdog in a crusade against Evil. Underhill writes: ‘I would refer you to David’s war. When a people is grown to such a height of blood and sin against God and man… Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents… We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.'” (Ibid. pp. 92-93)

There you have it. The Bible used to bless barbarism. Genocide justified in the name of God. (This kind of biblical justification of genocidal violence against the native peoples of North America continued throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.) There is a sad and twisted logic to evoking God’s will as the rationale for ethnic cleansing. If Captain Joshua can claim God commanded the Israelites to kill Canaanite women and children, why can’t Captain Mason and Captain Underhill claim God commanded English colonists to kill Pequot women and children? My point is, if you leave the door open to justify the Canaanite genocide, don’t be surprised if modern crusaders try to push their way through that same door and then cite the Bible in their defense. We need to say something more responsible about the depiction of God-endorsed violence in the Old Testament. We should acknowledge that in the late Bronze Age, Israel made certain assumptions about the nature of God, assumptions that now have to be abandoned in the light of Christ. It is abundantly clear from the Gospels that Jesus has closed the door on genocide…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This is the first part of chapter 2 of Sinners In the Hands of a Loving God. It’s the opening stage of my argument that in wrestling with the “texts of terror” our only real option in the light of Christ is to think carefully about how we read and interpret these passages. What we must not do is attribute monstrous actions to the God who is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ.

(I do not have permission reproduce the whole chapter here, but perhaps you can get an idea of what I’m trying to do.)


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