Facing the music: genocide is just genocide

Kenton Sparks contributes a humdinger of a post today, the second post in a seven-part series entitled “After Inerrancy: Evangelicals and the Bible in a Postmodern Age.” 

He begins with a starkly stated proposition: 

The factual contradictions within Scripture or between Scripture and extrabiblical sources cited in my previous blog are not, in my view, the most serious difficulties that Christians face in the Bible. More troublesome are those cases where a biblical text espouses ethical values that not only contradict other biblical texts but strike us as down-right sinister or evil. 

He then goes on to highlight the clear incongruence between Mat 5.43-45 and Deu 20.16-18. 

Says Sparks, “These words from the lips of Jesus and the Law of Moses are profoundly different. How can one biblical text admonish us to love our enemies and another command Israel to commit genocide against ethnic groups because they have a different religion?” 

I am quite familiar with most of the involved justifications for the ritual act of consecration-by-destruction, or “ban” as it used to be called, known as ḥerem. In my undergraduate Apologetics class (or was it Deuteronomy?) I devoted a paper to arguing how truly ethical and even merciful it was for God to want those men, women, children, and babies murdered. 

Sparks notes that many apologists, such as myself in that paper long ago, have argued that the shock we feel when reading about the ḥerem is merely a clash between modern ethics and older sensibilities. However, it’s important to note that the clash with the ethics of the Hexateuch begins not with us in (post-)modernity but occurred with the very onset of Christianity. It is clearly Jesus’ ethic that clashes with ethics that justify ḥerem. Sparks reminds us that even the early church struggled to justify the ritual slaughter of human beings; he specifically notes Gregory of Nyssa, but I’d also like to point out that the kernel of Marcionism was popped in the heat of that friction long before.

Sparks points out how important it is for evangelicalism to admit and come to grips with these tensions: 

Even if conservative Evangelicals can create eccentric scenarios that seem to preserve the doctrine of Biblicistic inerrancy, the straightforward evidence against this doctrine is so palpable that the doctrine should never be granted any kind of fundamental status in the Christian faith.

I hope you read the whole post.

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  • Stephen Greer

    While I can see the flow of the argument, it leaves out passages such as Gen 15:12-16, which states that the Ammorites were going to be judged by the descendants of Abraham when they came out of Egypt “for the iniquity of the Ammorites is not yet full.” The question is, when do we see mass killings again in the Bible? Times of judgment. Regardless of ideas about “herem” or whatever, the Bible does in fact offer a justification for the obliteration of these groups of people. If we're going to get upset over Joshua, what about Sodom and Gomorrah? Are we going to accuse God of being a genocidal megalomaniac like Richard Dawkins? Oh, but those destructions were justified because they were evil cities. So what? Genocide is genocide after all, right?

    In any case, Dr. Sparks can quote Gregory until the cows come home, it doesn't indicate anything. Gregory came from 4th century Hellenistic philosophy and culture, not the ANE, and so the “different cultures” argument stands. Nor should we be quick to determine what is a “clear incongruence” in scripture. How we come at a passage is very different from how the ANE peoples would have, because our assumptions about the world are very different, e.g. high vs. low context. So, while Gregory may have had problems with Joshua, we shouldn't be hasty to attribute it to his “Christian ethic” as much as his “Platono-Christian” one.

    One final comment: I have a serious problem with throwing out “inerrency” as though it's something we can do without. We should be very careful about abandoning a principle that seems to have lasted for the history of Christianity (so far as I can tell) due to our “sophisticated” post-modern tendencies. From what source of authority do we judge? If we are offended by a passage, do we through it out? We can claim “infallibility but not inerrancy,” but in the end, let's not forget that it was God who ordered the slaughter, and God who said “Love your enemy.” So do we then say that God is inconsistent? Well then how do we know if God hasn't changed His mind again and decided that Islam is the way to go? It seems like a very slippery slope to me, and while I can see problems with super-inerrancy, I seriously hesitate to toss it out, because the baby might just go with it.

    Stephen G.

  • Arcamaede

    When I teach Joshua, I try to understand why the people of Joshua's day would not have seen it Jesus' way.

    This is not really an attempt to justify the genocide but to understand why it wouldn't have been such an easy (or even practical) thing for them to do.

  • Stephen Greer

    I think that's an important consideration. The Israelites in that time would have seen the surrounding tribes as a threat, and frankly, had they left them, those tribes would have come in and destroyed the Israelites and enslaved them. Of course, God may have just wiped them off the face of the earth in the attempt, and who knows, maybe that would have been more acceptable to Dr. Sparks.

    I also had an idea after I posted: perhaps God did all these things as a lesson, to prepare the hearers of Jesus for what he was preaching. They may not have been able to accept it before hand, and perhaps that's included in what Paul meant when he said that Christ came in the “fullness of time.” He came at “ho kairos,” the “right time” for His words to be heard. And of course, we shouldn't imagine that the Israelites exactly took pleasure in slaughtering those people. Just my thoughts.

    Stephen G.

  • Stephen G,

    I agreed that Gregory of Nyssa is a late example. But what about Marcion? And just what about “Platono-Christian” philosophy is ipso facto incorrect? As I'm sure you know, Paul and the writer of Hebrews were fond enough of it to produce it in the NT. And besides, as far as I know there is nothing “Platonic” or otherwise Greek about assuming massacres were morally reprehensible, so even if one grants a pernicious type of influence from Greek philosophy, the root concern that “genocide is wrong” seems to be birthed from a non-Greek contrast between ḥerem and the love of God in the person of Jesus.

    I think it's clear we're coming from two very different perspectives, here.

    1) You think that God could actually have wanted the Israelites to massacre babies, kids, adults, and the elderly indiscriminately. I do not.

    2) You find it likely that God committed this act himself with Sodom and Gomorrah and presumably also the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. I do see the rationale for maintaining that a divine plan would need to make use of very human things like wars and natural disasters for greater purposes, but this is certainly different from actively commissioning those things.

    3) You believe that the doctrine of inerrancy, which in its current form is certainly not ancient, is so important that we should cling to it even if it means that we must demean God's character as revealed in the heart of Jesus so that we can justify genocide. I just don't. To me, the Word of God is only ever Jesus, and even he himself did not hold back from correcting the Scriptures; there is no substantial difference apart from æsthetics between fulfilling and setting aside for something better or more accurate (cf. Heb 8.6).

    4) I find it ironic when a full preterist appeals to the historic Church's acceptance of a doctrine. 😉 In point of fact, inerrancy as it is accepted now is not an ancient doctrine but a product of modernity.

    5) You find it necessary to ignore the human nature of Scripture for fear of sliding down a slippery slope. I function from no presupposition that the truth is at the top of the slope.

  • Arcamaede,

    My point was not to tar and feather the ancients for acting in a way that seemed in their time to be truly prudent. I'm calling foul on the Christian apologists of today who (unlike the Israelites) live in a world lit by Jesus and yet call the palpable darkness prior to his advent “light”.

  • Stephen Greer


    Before I make a response, I am interested in establishing what is meant by “inerrancy,” so that we can be agreed on the topic of our discussion. I've found that a lot of people use the same word to identify different concepts, and I would like to establish the terms early on.

    As a side note, I realize that I can come off as passionate when I write, and I don't want it to seem personal or appear like I'm being an “injured party.” The written word can be easily misinterpreted as to emotional content…and it's ironic that I say “misinterpreted” given the context. 🙂

    Stephen G.

  • Stephen G,

    Fair enough — I certainly identify with the “passionate” remark, so no worries, there. 🙂

    By “inerrancy” I refer to an expectation that the text was divinely insured against errors and misconceptions of some type. There are soft and hard versions of inerrancy, of course, both of which I reject.

  • Travis Jacobs

    Steve, your posts are good and your comments are better.

  • Thanks, man, that means a lot. Particularly from a blue-haired heretic.

  • Stephen Greer


    I want to apologize for taking so long to respond. I didn’t take all the school stuff I needed to do this past week into account when I commented, and I thought that I would have time to respond. I was VERY wrong! 🙂 So thank you for your patience.

    In any case, I’ll get on with the response. This example is not necessarily being birthed from a “non-Greek” distinction between the “God of Blood the OT” and the “God of Love in the NT.” It is interesting that you use Marcion as an example, a man who rejected the OT because of this very problem because it made God look like an evil, blood-thirsty overlord. Interesting, because Marcion was influenced by Gnostic dualism; it isn’t clear that the Hebrews (rabbis, teachers, scribes, writers of the books, etc) ever had a problem with these texts, even when you have men like Hillel saying, “What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellowman. That is the whole Torah.” Sounds oddly like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy. We never see Christ or the Apostles condemning these acts as “completely and totally unjustified.”

    In fact, when Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” He isn’t even quoting from Scripture. In all likelihood, he was quoting a rabbinic teaching. Sure, He could have been conflating concepts from different sources, e.g. David in Ps 139:19-22, but even in that case, David is cursing those who defile the name of God and love evil. And on top of this, we do not see repeated examples of the Israelites, even in their heyday, going around mercilessly slaughtering Gentiles because they were dirty and “under the wrath of God.” At worst, they did not bother to help them, but they certainly did not plot their demise. In short, there is no clear distinction from the “God of the OT,” who ordered that these cities and the whole of their inhabitants be destroyed, and the “God of the NT,” who says we are to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. If they are two different gods, then there are serious theological problems that we must address, since it is clear that the NT is looking to the OT for its “data” about God and the “things to come.”

    On to the rest:

    1) On what grounds do you believe that God would not at least be justified in ordering the killing of every man, woman, and child in those cities, regardless of whether He “wanted it or not”? I won’t explicate too much on this, as I’m sure you’re familiar with the “Reformed” arguments, but at least they have a coherent reasoning (cf. Gen 8:21). Again, we don’t see Jesus rejecting Gen 8:21 and saying instead, “Well, everyone is actually intrinsically good.” No, He agrees with Jeremiah saying, “The heart is deceitful and wicked above all things.”

    And besides this, you did not address my point that Gen15 clearly indicates that the Amorites et al would be judged when they “filled up the measure of their sin.” They were being judged for wickedness, and had 400 years to repent. In fact, based on examples like Jonah or even Balaam, we can be reasonably confident that prophets were sent to these people repeatedly, yet they did not repent. Look at the Rahab; she recognizes the work of the Lord, hides the spies, and is saved even at the last moment, going on to become an ancestor of Jesus. So, there was clearly opportunity for these people to turn around, and they did not, and so God chose to wipe them out.

    Finally, what would have been a better option? Would it have been more acceptable had they left the women, children, and elderly? Apparently it’s okay to kill the evil men, but the women and children? Noooooo. Of course, I am being facetious, but the point remains: had they left the women and children alive, would this story be objectionable? Killing is still killing after all; shouldn’t we condemn everyone who kills categorically? Or are there situations where it is acceptable?

    2) There is no distinction in the Bible between God incorporating “very human things like wars and natural disasters” into His divine plan and “actively commissioning” armies and nature for these purposes. Read Isaiah. God states that He put it into the Assyrian king’s heart to destroy Israel. That sounds a lot like commissioning to me. The burden is on you to show that these parts shouldn’t be taken seriously. If we follow Christ, and Christ never once disavowed such language (and as a good Jew, why would he?), then who are we to “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible are “accurate”?

    3) You’re begging the question about what it means to “demean God.” The people of the ANE, and even modern Arabic countries, have more of a problem with a merciful God than a righteous and just God who destroys those who are wicked, and would claim that you are the one demeaning God. What’re the criteria?

    You’re going to have to point out some examples of where Jesus “corrected the Scriptures,” because for my part, I cannot see them. I see “bringing out a fuller meaning,” or “pointing out what was already there,” but “correcting?” Not so sure.

    As far as “fulfilling” equaling “setting aside for something better or more accurate,” that is a gross misrepresentation of the message of Christ. He and the Apostles by means of the Holy Spirit were bringing out the original meaning and intention, not replacing in any way. The Garden of Eden is a perfect example. The Bible begins and ends in a garden, i.e. it’s a return to what was, not an evolution into something new. Had Jesus and the Apostles intended to set aside any of what the OT said, rather than point out its original intent, then why did they feel the need to reference the very Scriptures they were trying to void as proof texts that what they were saying was correct? Seems like you could skip the middle man and just declare something new, but this was clearly not the modus operandi for any of the NT writers.

    And even if there was something being “set aside,” it doesn’t negate the fact that Jesus never outright condemns the Israelites, nor does it negate the possibility of God ordering the Israelites to do these things as a “one-time only deal” that was required by the circumstances. Besides, when the Israelites went wrong in the OT, God sent prophets to condemn and correct them, specifically pointing out their problems. We see no evidence that any prophet ever told Israel, “You guys messed up on the invasion of Canaan, and God’s going to judge you for everything you did.” If you can find a reference, by all means post it.

    4) I don’t see why this should be ironic at all. There are plenty of good things that the Church has historically affirmed. Disagreeing about eschatology doesn’t mean we need to cast all of it aside on principle. That is pure silliness.

    5) Where else would the truth be?

    In any case, I don’t think that I have all the answers to these questions, and I will be honest that these passages are a struggle to understand. But it is better than the alternative that I see. If we reject inerrancy/infallibility/whatever of the OT, what makes the NT any better? Okay, Jesus said some cool things, but why should I listen to them over, say, Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Islam, or Atheism? If God is a God of love, then why not all paths? Who cares if Jesus said, “I am the Way. No one but through me”? “That was just put in later by bigots.” Without this principle, I see no reason to prefer Jesus over anyone else. It becomes a game of cherry-picking.

    Thanks again for your indulgence.

    Stephen G.