Tag Archives: Bible

Rationalizing Genocide

How did I spend my Sunday morning?  Writing out a long comment to a pastor who was attempting to defend the genocides of the Old Testament.  Here’s my response to his rationalizations:

Thanks for the time you took in writing out this response.  I can tell you put a lot of time and energy into it, and I would be open to reading a book you’d write on the topic!  I do have a few issues with some of your explanations.

But before I get too picky, can I just state the obvious?  Can you hear yourself defending (rationalizing!) acts of genocide?  I’m always dismayed when I hear someone mentally disconnect the argument they’re making from the act they’re defending.  To be honest, it was one of the primary motivating forces that helped me reject my faith.  I got tired of having to condone God’s go-ahead for genocide.

You say that applying our “cultural mores” onto the horrors of genocide is an “anachronism.”  I’m not sure what to make of that statement.  So genocide (ie., the systematic act of killing a racial/cultural group) is a value that is relative to the time one lives in?  I’m having a hard time imagining a period of time in human history when it would be excusable to slaughter an entire people group.

So proving to me that I’m being anachronistic is going to be a tough sell.  You’re going to have to show me that the moral precept we hold that genocide is wrong was somehow NOT wrong back then.  I have a feeling we’ll come back to the supposedly-moral framework of “God is moral, God told the Israelites to murder, Murder is moral.”  You may be content in such a framework, I am not.

I know that there are other examples of ancient literature where these acts of systematic murder are described, and I find those passages equally horrifying as well.  But the difference between reading the Illiad and reading the Bible is that people don’t put any spiritual credence in the former.

I’m disappointed that you describe genocide as simply “distasteful.”

To summarize your arguments rationalizing genocide:
1. Genocide was not as evil of an act back then as it is today, so applying our 21st-century standards to this act is “anachronistic”.
2. Other people groups back then were committing genocide, so the Israelites were just following warfare protocol.
3. The ends justify the means argument: wiping out Israel’s enemies may have been unfortunate, but necessary — akin to the violence necessary to resolve other human atrocities such as slavery, racism, and fascism.
4. God compromised morality on behalf of the Israelites, and allowed them to commit such acts.
5. Israel is God’s “covenant people”, so “to maintain their cultural and religious distinctiveness”, wiping out a few ancient near eastern cultures is completely excusable.
6. The Midianites were bad people in their day, so they had it coming to them.

I asked you specifically about  Numbers 31.  I find it telling that you completely avoided commenting on the another morally “distasteful” passage in that chapter. Not only does God condone genocide, but he also mandates rape.

The Israelites went and destroyed all the males of the Midianites, but brought back as captives the “women and the little ones” (verse 9).   Moses then specifically goes to the Israelite army and tells them to KILL all the “women who had known a man” along with all the male children — *BUT* they could keep all the young virgin girls for themselves (verses 17-18).  As the chapter closes, these (32,000!) young girls were counted — along with the livestock — in the list of Israel’s war “booty” (32-35).  I don’t think I’m being anachronistic in being horrified by such actions on the part of such a God, and such a “covenant” people.

As I close, I noticed you describe yourself as a “good historian” — have you watched the PBS documentary of “The Bible’s Buried Secrets”?  This doc consults many historians, scholars, and archeologists who have the thesis that much of the OT as history is inaccurate.  The genocidal atrocities weren’t military coups, but more of a social/cultural revolution.

I’m curious how he’ll respond. I, for one, am feeling pretty sick inside after having to think about such atrocities. But, at the same time, I’m also glad I got out of the business of finding theological reasons to condone such cruelty.

In the meantime, it looks like Luke has posted a pretty comprehensive list of articles from theologians and non-believers who have responded to the OT genocides.  Check it out.

EDIT: I responded again, and here’s what I wrote: read more »

to thump a Bible thumper