Canaanite Genocide and another new (to me) blog

In the comments (which are perhaps more enlightening than the post) to The Bible wasn’t written for David Ker the eponymous David (or should be be called the pseudonymous Lingamish?) points to a superb article1 :

Randal Rauser. “‘Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive’ On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide.” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 27-41.

That neatly skewers every attempt to argue that a perfect God could order the Israelites to commit genocide. Rauser’s article makes harrowing reading, but is unflinching.


Randal also has a blog and is reviewing

Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011.

The first part of the review is charitable but again unflinching: “Is God a Moral Monster?” A Review (Part 1) again the comment thread is full of good stuff! I am eager for part 2 :)


  1. PS David helpfully points out below that I also have been a careless reader, it was actually, he says Mike Koke who pointed to the fine article. []

How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part Two) 1 Sam 15

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) via Wikimedia Commons

In comments on the previous post Jeremy raises the question of 1 Sam 15. Which seems a worse problem. There (1 Sam 15:2-3 ) Samuel, in God’s name, instructs the newly anointed king, Saul, to slaughter all the Amalekites. He explicitly orders that non-combatants like women, small children and babies be included in the massacre. Saul then wages war on the Amalekites, successfully, but takes spares Agag the Amalekite king and the best of the flocks and herds (1 Sam 15:9) keeping the best and slaughtering what was not “good”.

Samuel then chases after Saul and is greeted by the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle, which Saul claims that “the people” have “spared” (1 Sam 15:14-15). It becomes clear that Saul’s sin is twofold, first he has become so great in his own estimation that he not God is the arbiter of his actions (1 Sam 15:17), secondly he has “swooped on the spoil” (1 Sam 15:19).

A Karen family after their home and paddy rice burned by Burma Army troops (photo Free Burma Rangers)

Saul’s wrong, which seems to be the point of the story, the reason it is told, is that he places himself over God, and that he is greedy for spoil.

Saul’s sin then is unexceptionable, pride in one’s own authority or  greed for spoil and self-advantage1 are wrong. What is left totally unacceptable in the story is Samuel’s claim that God orders the killing of a whole people.

There are a number of possible approaches here:

Firstly one might claim that this again is hyperbole. Despite the specifications this might be an extreme case of Ancient Near Eastern war language. This is probably true, but the specification not to spare babies makes it an unsatisfactory answer as this draws attention to the claim that God commands war, and war does inevitably involve innocent suffering.

Secondly, one might consider the possibility of God’s commanding warfare. Here I can only say that while in comfortable, middle class Western contexts a God who takes sides and even commands war may seem “uncivilised”, if thought of from the perspective of the brutally oppressed in many other contexts such a God would be considered a saviour. Such people pray that God will intervene to protect them from the physical and economic violence of the oppressor.

Thirdly, and more radically one might notice that here we have a narrative. In this narrative it is Samuel who repeats to us (and to Saul) God’s commands. Clearly we must not always take the words of  characters in biblical narratives as truth. Characters often lie. They can even lie about what God has said (see 1 Kings 22) where on one of the two occasions (1 Kgs 22:15b cf. 1 Kgs 22:14; or 1 Kgs 22:17) Micaiah does not tell accurately what God has said.

Perhaps most radically one might ask whether the biblical writers have correctly understood and interpreted what they tell us. This option is not open to an American fundamentalist, who needs to assert that Scripture is inerrant. It is a possibility to be considered on other views of Scripture. Or equally ask whether we have perhaps not understood and interpreted correctly! The details of Scripture are often difficult and complex, what matters is perspicuous. It is perspicuous throughout the Bible that God is loving and merciful. Can such a loving and merciful God command desperate warfare? Given the broken, spoiled and desperate world that we see around us, probably. Was this such a case? I do not know!

In the light of all this, what also seems perspicuous to me is that the message of this story is NOT murder babies and commit genocide, but do not claim absolute authority and do not be greedy for advantage. Messages like that were the reason this story was told, to take other messages from it is to abuse the story.

  1. Especially when, as the commander, one seeks to transfer the blame to others? []

How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part One)

I can’t get away from those pesky Canaanites recently, their latest intrusion into my quiet existence came when someone asked my colleague who is responsible for the training of pastoral leaders what Carey was doing to prepare pastors to help their congregations deal with such “difficult” questions about the Bible. It’s a good question. Not least  because the hot anti-Christian blogs and hotter atheist bestsellers have spotted it’s potential.

God told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, the argument goes, so God is not loving and forgiving but a genocidal maniac  like Slobodan Milošević only worse because God should have known better. Deuteronomy 7:2 is a prime example, and it hardly matters which translation you read, they are all as bad as each other:

The fall of Jericho by Jean Fouquet (1420–1480) from Wikipedia


and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.

NIV 1984

and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy


When th/e LORD your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy.


and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

And it’s not just the modern ones: KJV

And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, [and] utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them:

The Young’s Literal is the only one to suggest that “exterminate them” might not be quite what God was saying:

and Jehovah thy God hath given them before thee, and thou hast smitten them — thou dost utterly devote them — thou dost not make with them a covenant, nor dost thou favour them.

So, how is the average pew sitter to cope?

1. Cotext

First: Never, ever take a few words or a verse all on their own look at the text around! In this case already in the verse we can see something strange is happening… God apparently says “Exterminate the Canaanites [the verse before helpfully specifies several different nations that are to be specifically included] and while you are at it, make sure you do NOT make treaties with them. Either one part or both parts of this verse are not intended to be taken literally.

The immediate cotext1 in this case (though often you have to look wider at the passage, chapter, or sometimes whole book) gives us clues. (At least) one of the two things God says in this verse is not to be taken literally.It is difficult to see how “do not make a treaty with them” could be understood any other way, so perhaps it’s “Exterminate them!” that is non-literal. In fact such expressions are common among sports fans, and even in talking about the more aggressive board games, in our world should alert us to the possibility that this language is not literal.

In a comment on a previous post of mine on this topic Thom pointed out that simply spotting that these texts are not literal does not let God “off the hook”. We are still talking about war, if not genocide. I have not forgotten this comment, I will return to it, but in a later post. In the next post I want to turn to the even bigger question of how we “read” God’s speech in the Bible…

  1. This is a specialised term for the text around the text, what people often mean when they say “context”, but by context I’ll mean all the other “stuff” around a text, what linguists call “pragmatics”. []

Genocide in the Bible – again

[amtap amazon:asin=0801027012]

Kenton Sparks, (Biblical Studies, Eastern University) has a good (if somewhat polemic) short post, part 2 of a series After Inerrancy: Evangelicals and the Bible in a Postmodern Age in which he sets up nicely the inner-biblical problem of genocide in texts like Deut 7:2. I hope that it is more than merely a stick to beat the fundies with.

I was glad he pointed out that concern over such issues is far from new, citing Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395CE) one of the most respected patristic authors. Gregory was disturbed by the murder of Egyptian children ascribed to God in the Exodus narrative:

The Egyptian [Pharaoh] is unjust, and instead of him, his punishment falls upon his newborn child, who on account of his infant age is unable to discern what is good and what is not good … If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s evil, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries … “The son should not suffer for the sin of the father?” How can history so contradict reason?

As Sparks points out, Gregory’s solution, which fails to take the text literally although there are no (or at least very few possible) signs that it was intended as picture language, will not work for us. But he is evidence for this issue not being only a modern one.

[The previous post was about a week earlier, so I’m hoping for some good reading next week.]

God as cold-blooded killer

I’ve been podcasting my way through the E100 (100 “essential” Bible readings designed to give a good overview introduction to the Bible). Today we got to Exodus 12: E100-19: Exodus12: A great festival, but a huge theological problem. I faced a dillemma, the podcasts are billed as 5 minute Bible, so I can’t go much over 5:30 for even a difficult passage. This chapter tells the story of Passover, vital stuff, not least (for Christian readers) as the NT takes it up as picture language to speak of what God does for us in Christ. But of course, in telling that it also (inevitably) tells of the killing of the first-born of every Egyptian household, even the animal ones (shades of the Ninevites in Jonah?). So how do I deal with that? How do you talk about God the cold-blooded killer in less than 5 minutes? Or at all?

At least, when many of your listeners are conservative Christians, who believe that the Bible is Word of God, and who do not understand that phrase as “liberally” as you do?

Genocide in Dt 7:2?

Yesterday I was reading bits of theses I am supervising (catching up after an Easter holiday), both were complex material, one because she is writing about Bakhtin (stimulating and likeable but not easy), the other because he’s dealing with two of the more difficult passages, basically dealing with the question of God’s commands to Israel in to commit the Canaanites etc. to the ban.

A basic question in dealing with this is: What do the passages actually say? For Dt 7:2 the English versions are pretty unanimous and clear (this is therefore just a small sample):

New Revised Standard
and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
New International Version
and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
English Standard Version
and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

It is not just the translations that follow the AV slavishly either, the CEV and New Living are as bad or worse.

So, to adopt (though hopefully with other motives) the snake’s question (Gen 3:1): Is this really what God says?
וּנְתָנָם  יְהוָה  אֱלֹהֶיךָ  לְפָנֶיךָ  וְהִכִּיתָם
הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם
לֹא־תִכְרֹת  לָהֶם  בְּרִית  וְלֹא  תְחָנֵּם׃

The key phrases are in the second and third lines (above, this phrasing is based on the Masoretic accentuation).

הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם is something like “you will certainly ban them” using a superlative construction that repeats the verb. The only major question about its meaning is what exactly the verb חרם means. Whatever it is they are most definitely to do it to the seven nations mentioned in the previous verse.

The last line is easier, they are not to make a covenant with them, nor show them “mercy”. Mercy here represents חנן “grace, mercy favour”.

The first clue that the English translations are wrong, if they mean – as I understand them to – that the Israelites are to wipe these seven nations out, is that they are commanded to make no covenant with them. One cannot make covenants with the dead. Secondly they are to show them no favour, this is not the same as showing no mercy!

Thus the traditional reading depends entirely on understanding of the ban חרם if this means “kill” then the rest of the interpretation is possible, but if it means something else then the rest is misleading (to put it mildly).

The Greek already had this understanding rendering הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם  as ἀφανισμῷ ἀφανιεῖς αὐτούς.

So, does this ban mean “kill” or even “kill as a sacrifice to a god”. Not exactly, it seems rather to mean “exclude from human use, devote to a god exclusively (sometimes by sacrificing or killing).

So, does Dt 7:2 mean: “Exterminate them!” ? Sadly I think the answer is “yes and no”. As a command from God it clearly does not, one cannot make a covenant with someone one has killed! The command is rather to have nothing whatever to do with them. However, as an instruction in time of war to the Israelite forces in Joshua’s day, it does mean “Take no prisoners.”

I think a better translation would render the verse something like:

“and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them,
then you must completely cut yourselves off from them,
you shall make no covenant with them and nor offer them grace.”