Did God command genocide in The Old Testament?

17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. — Moses, Nu 31:17–18, NIV (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Moses here instructs the Israelite army how they are to take violent revenge against the Midianites, specifically the Midianite children & youth. This is one of the many instances of so-called divinely-sanctioned violence in the old testament. Most Christians that I’ve spoken to don’t really engage with the ‘texts of terror’, but of the ones that do engage with it, some, having been taught that God visited great wrath and violence upon Jesus on the cross, and seeing Jesus as a warrior God, happily accept the genocidal conquests of the Old Testament. Others, are led to ask the question “is this really what God is like?”. Personally, I’ve been thinking for a couple of years now that the question that should first be asked is “does God agree with Moses here?”

The example above, written and redacted under the authority of Moses, certainly claims that God instructed the Israelites to take revenge, though not specifically to kill the children & youth and take some of the girls. After Moses’ instruction, the act is carried out and the 32,000 girls that are not killed are divided as spoils. Presumably the idea was that the men were killed in the fighting, the boys were killed to prevent future enemies of Israel becoming an army, and the girls & women that were killed were followers of a foreign god thus preventing the spread of a different religion in a time when people were killed for their ideas. The remaining girls were allowed to live as some sort of merciful act (because who would look after them otherwise?) but they would be forced to marry the Israelite warriors. Both the genocide and the treatment of the girls that live is, without a doubt, an horrific and heinous act - undoubtedly war crimes. If, as is presented, it is historical rather than illustrative as some commenters claim, it paints Moses in a monstrous light. Even if revenge could be somehow justified given the barbaric era in which the events took place, and I don’t think it can be, because the author(s) don’t report God chastising Israel for these war crimes, we should assume that the author(s) think Israel has God’s blessing to do as it did, and thus God is either cooperating or complicit in these acts depending on your point of view. I’ve used the example above - one of hundreds of acts of either divinely-attributed or divinely-sanctioned violence, mostly in the Old Testament - to illustrate one of the assumptions I see made in many talks, books and articles that God’s inspiration of scripture acts as a divine endorsement of any surface meaning it may have. I’m yet to meet a satisfying argument supporting the idea that the inspiration of scripture, (or indeed scriptural inerrancy or infallibility if you hold those views) means that the human author’s intent is synchronous with God’s intent for a passage, yet that is the working assumption of so much exegesis, and so many books, talks and articles. Ideas about inerrancy & infallibility don’t help - besides these claims not being found in scripture - they simply mean that God intended what was written: an unerring account of what was believed by the human authors that may or may not be aligned with God’s perspective.

I’ve seen this assumption that ‘inspiration implies endorsement’ play out in the use of a bible character’s words or actions within a story (other than Jesus who of course should be our ‘controlling hermeneutic’, more on this later). Usually the passage quoted has a “heroic” character speaking or acting (Moses, David, one of the disciples or apostles post-Jesus’ ascension, the OT prophets for instance). This is fascinating, because there really is no controlling hermeneutic at work that says a heroic character’s action or speech act should be considered to represent God versus a non-heroic one, (except perhaps where they’re divinely chastised for their actions or speech). Accepting them as divine means signing up to defending the voluminious examples of “divinely-sanctioned” violence found in the OT as being representative of God. This leads either to a monstrous vision of God as a bloodthirsty warrior God, and all kinds of exegetical tomfoolery in order to maintain that view of God, and present Jesus as God’s blip before returning to His violent ways in time for the book of Revelation. Sometimes I see people try to iron out the incarnate Jesus blip of forgiveness & non-violence & prince of peace, by presenting events like the clearing of the temple as as violent events despite no-one getting hurt, or taking the “hell” and “eternal condemnation” verses out of context, idioms or parables they’re found in. Jesus does sometimes use terror and threat - thus modelling acceptable use of threat to those who oppress others - there’s no arguing with that - but in his actual actions he never actually harms anyone. This is an important distinction.

But more than characters, it’s so very easy to assume in a portion of narrative, that God is the narrator and that He controlled the story arc, and the values & conclusions that the narrative comes to. Again, it’s a massive assumption that says divine inspiration of narrative means divine agreement in its values and conclusions. The inspiration was in the recording, and clearly the authors of scripture were inspired to write how events were interpreted and understood in the context they lived within, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that God agreed with their interpretation, their values and their conclusion.

The epistles too lend themselves particularly to this phenomena because ‘devotional reading’ rather than ‘devoted study’ of a passage can have us slipping into, for example in Romans, swapping out instances of “you” meaning the church in Rome to mean you personally, and swapping also the “I/me” that is Paul for God. Thus, in a devotional reading, a letter written from Paul to the church in Rome becomes a letter directly from God to me in a way that was never intended: Paul’s epistles are proof-texted into universal truth and personalised in one swift move without any critique or recognition of the factors that make up the hermeneutical gap between an individual today and the first-century church in Rome. (Worse, the epistles themselves are like listening into one side of a telephone call - we don’t have the letters Paul received and we don’t have any documents from the church that state the problems he was speaking into - cue speculation). Typically good exegesis will of course take into account all these hermeneutical factors, along with the one-sided nature of epistles, but in amongst all this excellent encouragement to engage with the context of the letters and the debate between what portions of text can be universalised, rarely will the question be asked: “But does God agree with Paul here?”

Yet whatever controlling hermeneutic we apply to the narrative of Moses’ genocidal acts must surely apply also to the epistles. I have wondered for some time just how well (or rather poorly) the treatment of Paul’s letters as being representative of God has served the church, particularly given the way that Paul’s writings lend themselves so well to marginalising different people groups in ways that Jesus words and actions could never be used. Perhaps this is a discussion for another post, but I find it very strange that so much of Christian theology finds its source in Paul rather than Christ, and consequently we should call it primarily Paulian rather than Christian. Paul would be horrified that we treat his epistles anywhere near the same level as the scriptures he read. And if, as a Christian, you want a life of exegetical gymnastics and intellectual contortions, then by all means make Paul your theological starting and end point, but Christian theology, if we’re to call it Christian, must be anchored in the life & sayings of Jesus.

By extension then, the only way to know for sure if God does commend a particular view, speech, action, or command is to measure it against the sayings and life of Jesus. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30), “I only do what I see the Father doing” (John 5.19) and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14.9). God is like Jesus. Jesus is our ‘controlling hermeneutic’, the interpretive key through which we understand all other acts and words in scripture, but rarely will anyone expand on what that really means in practice. It means that all other sayings, works, values, claims and instructions, everything, both in scripture and in our every day lives, must all be measured against Jesus, and if contradicts Jesus, then it isn’t what God is like, or representative of God’s perspective. Uniquely in this view, I’d press this further - where something neutral is not found in the life of Jesus, then we cannot know if it represents God’s view. This is a departure from the tradition approach that finds ways to contort itself around passages that contradict Jesus but assumes that all other texts, neutral and like-Jesus texts to be plainly divinely approved and representative of God. To reiterate, my suggestion is that while actions and speech that contradict the life and sayings of Jesus are clearly not representative of God, I’d press further that actions and speech that do not find synchronicity in the life of Jesus cannot be presumed to be representative of God. Instead we should be like John, who understood that Jesus is the word of God, not scripture. Why would God inspire the recording of anything then, including Moses’ instructions of revenge? Apart from the obvious preservation concerns, tracking Judaism’s history, lineage, ancestry, spiritual heritage, Israel’s land claims and so forth, there are important spiritual lessons here when we contrast revenge itself, not least revenge against children with the life of Jesus. In Jesus we see that God refuses to take revenge against those who sin against him, and that he would rather forgive his murderers than harm them. Jesus urges us not to take revenge but to turn the other cheek, not because God will take vengeance on our behalf, but because the Father does not take revenge at all. The Father loves to forgive, and delights in showing mercy - Jesus, in urging us not to take revenge, is saying that we should be like God the Father who does not take revenge.

There are a number of other spiritual and moral reasons why I think God inspired the recording of Moses’ genocidal instructions, not least because it shows a step backwards in Israel’s journey of understanding of God that sometimes made great leaps forwards and at other times stepped backwards, progressing from an idea of a tribal deity who conveniently wants whatever the human leaders want, in this case rewarding them in battle, to, eventually, something much closer to Jesus. The passage also functions as a warning of how easily God can be used to get what we want: if you have enough authority, you can tell people that God wants children & youth killed, 32,000 girls taken as spoils and people will do it. It’s frightening, and similar things still happen today. Again Jesus provides a huge contrast - where humans sometimes try to speak for God, Jesus emptied himself of his divine reputation and called himself the ‘son of man’ to hide his divinity - an incredible contrast with the natural manipulative humanity.

To be really clear, I’m not suggesting cutting out any part of the bible or throwing any of it away - by no means! What I’m suggesting is that we take seriously the idea that Jesus is our controlling hermeneutic for all of scripture. If it’s not Jesus speaking or acting then God isn’t necessarily endorsing whatever you’re reading, but rather you’re reading is an inspired marker in Christianity’s theological journey. Theology is theo and logos, thus theology is our “dialogue about God”. The writings of Paul and Moses were not inspired so they would act as end points of theology, they’re not the inarguable sayings and doings of God where you can quote a line of Paul or Moses and the conversation ends. We’ve all been part of arguments where the objective seems to have been to find enough scripture verses as ammunition to prove one’s point. But only Jesus is the start and end of questions about God, no other bible character or author has that right or mantle. Rather the writings of Moses, David, Paul, and all the others are inspired starting points for our on-going dialogue about God. They’re meant to inspire debate and discussion about God, you’re meant to take these texts and wrestle with them, ideally together, and it’s absolutely part of that dialogue for you to bring out the idea that God instructing violent revenge against children is more a reflection of humanity than it is a reflection of divinity - if that’s where your journey with God has brought you. It’s absolutely no problem if you propose that the Canaanite conquest was a little bit morally dubious - that’s why God inspired the recording of it!

When you read scripture that isn’t Jesus, particularly the so-called ‘texts of terror’ or the claims of the divine-sanctioning & divine-attribution of violence, by inspiring the text, God is not saying “This is what I’m like - deal with it and submit”, he’s saying “What do you think about this?”, “Why do you think Moses said this?”. It’s all material for dialogue and reflection, and it doesn’t have to end in agreement with the so-called surface meaning(s) of the text. My reflection and wrestling with Paul’s view of Scripture in Timothy is that he is absolutely right that all scripture is useful for teaching and correcting (through dialogue & reflection I would add). Paul does not say that God’s inspiration of a text implies God’s endorsement of it. Our exegesis which has largely focussed on finding the author’s intent for a text should also ask: why did God inspire the recording of this text? Is this against the life and sayings of Jesus? Importantly, can we find any of this passage in the life & words of Jesus? Perhaps God inspired this text for the surface meaning, or perhaps he’s asking us to question the surface meaning? Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning that would only become apparent when humanity’s idea of morality and justice had sufficiently developed. All of this is available to us if when we use ‘Jesus as our controlling hermeneutic’ rather than inerrancy, infallibility or the traditional view of inspiration being our controlling hermeneutic.

I for one am thankful that God isn’t like us, but became one of us to reveal what the Father is like. God is like Jesus: the non-violent Prince of Peace, who delights in showing mercy & forgiveness, who is omni-benevolent, and unceasing in love.