God’s and Joshua’s genocide?
My apologies for being quiet on the blog here, and my apologies in advance for likely having to be away again for an extended period. It’s another busy time for me in matters elsewhere.
Yesterday, nonetheless, a conversation began in the blogosphere that I feel BLT readers may be interested in. It’s the question of whether the Hebrew Bible makes God the perpetrator of genocide. It was Rachel Held Evans who pointed out the supposed problem with the book of Joshua as history to be ethically puzzled about. In a post that’s got people talking, she wrote:
I encountered this [emotionless evangelical Christian theology] recently after I spoke to a group of youth about doubt. In the presentation, I mentioned that upon reading the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho for myself, I realized it was a story about genocide, with God commanding Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in the city for the sole purpose of acquiring land. I explained that this seemed contrary to what Jesus taught about loving our enemies.
Afterwards, a youth leader informed me that when it came to Joshua and Jericho, I had nothing to worry about…and had no business getting his students worried either.
“I don’t know why you had to bring up the Jericho thing,” he said.
“Doesn’t that story bother you?” I asked. “Don’t you find the slaughter of men, women, and children horrific?”
“Not if it’s in the Bible.”
“Genocide doesn’t bother you if it’s in the Bible?”
He crossed his arms and a self-satisfied smile spread across his face. He was proud of his detachment, I realized. He seemed to think it represented some kind of spiritual strength.
“But genocide always bothers me,” I finally said, “especially when it’s in the Bible. And I get the idea that maybe it’s supposed to. I get the idea that maybe God created me to be bothered by evil like that, even when it’s said to have been orchestrated by God.”
Held Evans actually started her blogpost by quoting John Piper from one of his own:
“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”
– John Piper
She didn’t link to his post, but you can find it here. With a cool head (but, Held Evans claims, with no heart), Piper reasons:
“My answer to that [question 'Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament?'] is that there is a point in history, a season in history, where God is the immediate king of a people, Israel, different than the way he is the king over the [non-Jewish, Christian] church, which is from all the peoples of Israel and does not have a political, ethnic dimension to it.”
Not long after Piper asked, and definitively answered, his question, blogger Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, encountered something similar. Mariottini had been to SBL where the conference theme was actually the question, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” In his own blogpost, Mariottini recaps a session he attended, and he discusses in the post some of the passages from Joshua, to conclude the following:
“These texts and many others clearly show that there was no genocide.”
The question for Held Evans and for Piper and for Mariottini is not at all whether the literature of these narratives of the Bible is really history or not. The question is how they must reflect on God in real life and in actual genocide. Held Evans is led to doubt. Piper is led to make God different in the Old Testament for Israel than he now is in the New Testament for the church. Mariottini’s SBL fellows want to know if Yahweh is a moral monster; while the blogger himself reads Joshua and other such biblical texts as descriptions of war, presumably of just war, not of genocide.
So what must we do with such scriptures? Are they for faith vs doubt, heart vs head? Are they for rationalizing and proving dispensational ethics? Are they for understanding dimensions of human violence among peoples of God and of godlessness? Are there other understandings and responses and questions that we would do well to ask?