Marshall, Vanhoozer, and the Canaanite genocide

Genocide memorial by Scott Chacon

Near the heart of Marshall’s plea, for a principled way to “go beyond the Bible” biblically, is the issue of genocide. The apparent approval (or even command) from Yahweh of genocide seems incompatible with divinity. Like Marshall, many/most/all(?) who think about this issue from a time after the attempted genocides of the 20th Century, feel genocide would make the godhead a demon. The Turkish massacres of Armenians, German attempts to eradicate “the Jewish problem”, Idi Amin’s cleansing of Uganda of Asians, the frighteningly human brutality in Rwanda, the mass graves of the Balkans, the killing fields of Cambodia and other sometimes less reported horrors have sensitised us to these stories in ways which our ancestors in the Faith did not find so troublesome.

This is a key point that Vanhoozer attacks in his response to Marshall. This issue was the third Marshall raised in making his plea:

…where teaching is given, particularly in the Old Testament, that seems more like “cruder notions” to be abandoned than “the foundation for later revelation.” The divine approval (expressed or tacit) of genocide in certain situations is an obvious and disturbing example.1

Vanhoozer’s critique is sharp and pointed:

Marshall wants Christians to get beyond genocide. So do I. But I’m not prepared to say that God’s judgement of the world, or of nations, is “intrinsically wrong” if it involves killing people. Marshall is doing more than “reconsidering”, it seems to me, when he says that we “can no longer think of God in that way”. Unless we are prepared to jettison significant portions of the Old Testament (or to revise their meaning in the light of contemporary sensitivities), this way of going beyond Scripture has more of Marcion than of Marshall about it. For it really is not about numbers. If Marshall is to be consistent, he should say that God does not have the right to take a single life. After all that is unacceptable human behaviour, and we cannot justify God “by saying that he is free to act differently from believers”. On the contrary, I think we must say that God is indeed free to act differently from believers. The Creator is bound not by the laws that he has imposed upon creation, but by his own nature… Finally, if we are shocked by images of judgement, what are we to make of the Cross?2

It seems to me that Vanhoozer’s neat sidestep here (which also seems typical of “divine command” theorists) will not work. The issue is not whether God should be held to the same standards we would use for believers, though that issue may be less cut and dried than it might seem. Rather the issue is genocide. By its nature genocide attempts (even when unsuccessful and bungled) indiscriminate killing. Or rather, it discriminates, but only on grounds of race, ethnicity, or geographical proximity, and not on any moral criterion.

The question Vanhoozer ought to be addressing is not: may God commit acts that are rightly forbidden to creatures, but rather is indiscriminate killing an attribute of Godhead. In particular (since this discussion is among Christian believers) is indiscriminate killing an attribute consistent with the godhead revealed in Christ crucified.

  1.  I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004, 30. []
  2.  Ibid, 85. []