Why God Sometimes Commands Genocide

Pop theology often likes to confront Christianity with what it sees as inherent contradictions in its viewpoint.  You have, they say, a Messiah purported to be God, in the New Testament, advocating peace and love and turning the other cheek.  How do you square this with the YHWH of the Old Testament, a God who kills people with floods and plagues and encourages genocide of whole subgroups and tribes of people?

The response of modern Christians to this problem, it has to be said, has been horrible.  Responses range from attempts to minimize or play down the malevolence of YHWH, to blunt juridical defenses of the “justice” of God, to bizarre attempts to claim that the Biblical narratives are not literal or historical.  None of these are satisfactory – God really did do this stuff! – and it seems that even in the Orthodox tradition nobody can offer a robust apologia.  Which is silly, because frankly, if one is Orthodox and approaches this problem with an Orthodox world view, it’s not that hard.

stjohntheologianTo start to answer the question, we have to first get rid of misconceptions.  We have to say that God is not a God of whim.  He is not like the Islamic god, who is a god of will and passion that initiates every material interaction from the atomic level on up.  In that sense, the touted “Divine Command Theory” of morality is nonsense.  Morality is not a creation of God.  Morality (or moral values) IS God IS morality.  Good is not good because God said so.  Good is what tells us there is a God in the first place.  Goodness reveals God.  God is Good is God.

This leads us to the Apostle John, the man who knew Christ, the incarnation of God, most intimately.  Expanding on the Apostle Paul, who discoursed on the greatness of love in his first letter to the Corinthians, John tells us that GOD IS LOVE.  Not that God created love, or God supports love, but God IS love.

What does this mean?  To paraphrase John himself, the world could not contain the books.  But in terms of the nature of God, it limits His actions substantially.  To quote Blessed Augustine in his Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed:

“God is Almighty, and yet, though Almighty, He cannot die, cannot be deceived, cannot lie; and, as the Apostle says, cannot deny Himself. How many things that He cannot do, and yet is Almighty! Yea therefore is Almighty, because He cannot do these things. For if He could die, He were not Almighty; if to lie, if to be deceived, if to do unjustly, were possible for Him, He were not Almighty: because if this were in Him, He should not be worthy to be Almighty. To our Almighty Father, it is quite impossible to sin. He does whatsoever He will: that is Omnipotence. He does whatsoever He rightly will, whatsoever He justly will: but whatsoever is evil to do, He wills not.”

To be Love is to forswear forceful power over creation.  A deity cannot force compliance from His creation and remain Love at the same time – love necessitates free beings with free will.  So when we define God as a set of “Omnis” (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc.), this is not without boundary.  There are just some things that God cannot/will not do and remain Love.  Death and sin and evil are not creations of God, but the absence of God, just as darkness is not a “thing”, but the absence of light.

Creation-of-AdamSo, from seeing God as Love, we conclude that this necessitates the possibility of evil.  A created being that is not capable of choosing evil is coerced – it cannot love and therefore cannot be created by Love and with love.  So evil may result.  Is God responsible for this evil?  Only in the sense that He created creation, and knew what was going to happen.  But if God is Love, there is no alternative – evil had to be possible.  Either He created beings, in love, with separate essences that were capable of not returning His love, or He did not create at all, or He created robots for His amusement.  The latter two options are an impossibility for such a God, who exudes Total Love.

Having created mankind, in love, the possibility to simply “magic away” the results and consequences of the Fall and the bringing of death to the cosmos is no longer there.  Creating the world, declaring it good, then making man in His own image to declare him “very good”, only to have this goodness corrupted and degraded by His creations, there are no good options.  God cannot be selective about evil – if He is going to get rid of any of it, He must destroy all of it.  This is why Stephen Fry’s recent outburst was so pathetic – God can’t just choose to destroy the eyeball-burrowing insects, yet leave a sodomite like Fry alone.  That would make Him morally inconsistent, which is the very thing that Fry accuses Him of in the first place!  No, God is Love, He has mercy on all His creation, and if He is going to redeem it, that redemption must be consistent with love – that is to say, voluntary on our part.

hiroshimaSo God has no circuit-breaker in terms of eliminating evil.  There is also no divine way of circumventing basic moral/ethical dilemmas that even we humans face in things such as war or criminal justice.  Just as President Truman in World War Two faced a choice between a bad option (killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians with an atomic bomb) and a worse one (an invasion that would take years and cost millions of lives on both sides), so the evil of the entire world only left God with either bad options or worse ones.

God needs to save the world from the bad choices that love enables.  How does He do that?  To tell the end of the tale, He incarnates, shows the Way of righteousness, suffers, is crucified, and rises again, trampling death by death and destroying the power of death and Hades.  He sends His Son.  And so we are now living in an age whereby His salvation can be received.  But it remains to ask why He didn’t just do this straight away?  Okay, so Adam and Eve have fallen, and now they will surely die.  Why not just send JC down to fix everything up like nothing ever happened?

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200Well… it wouldn’t work is probably the best answer.  Adam and Eve would not have truly repented.  They needed to work through the consequences of their actions for that.  Death and judgment and separation needed to be a reality for the human race so that it could, to use AA terminology, reach “rock bottom”.  God needed to be sure, in sending His Son to redeem humanity, that it would take.  The redemption had to occur in baby steps.  And so that’s what the Old Testament is really about – a lovesick God who has lost His creation desperately doing all He can to bring it back to Him.

We see the beginning of the redemption in the Flood, where Noah and his family were saved through “baptism”, so that a remnant of some God-consciousness could survive and grow on the earth.  Then there is the calling and covenant with Abraham, who is served the Eucharist by Melchizidek, and the growth of a covenanted “people of God”.  From this follows Moses, another salvation by passing through the waters of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Law, which is the Logos of God, and will indicate the One to come who fulfills it.

napalmgirlTo establish His Son as a Priest for His people, it was first necessary to establish His people, and establish His nation.  This was an omelet which required the breaking of a few eggs.  There were no good options for confronting the evil of the world in establishing a Holy people.  Either this was going to be done by force, or nobody would be saved.  The Antediluvians of Noah’s day, the Canaanites that Joshua fought against, the Amalekites of Saul’s day whom God commanded to wipe out, all of them were a danger to the fragile plan that was the Holy nation of Israel and the salvation of the world.  Even the children?  Sure!  The corruption of the world was and is a reality.  To paraphrase that oft-quoted phrase from the Vietnam War, “we had to kill the children in order to save them”.  It’s either kill these children, leaving them in the hands of Christ the Redeemer who is all Love and merciful to all, or let them grow up and corrupt even the remnant that God has reserved – the remnant that makes Christ’s incarnation and salvation even possible.

This may sound like callous utilitarianism on God’s part.  It is not.  It’s not God making arbitrary decisions so He can save the many at the expense of the few.  It’s more that some people, because of their evil will and choices, simply cannot be saved in the end, or at least not without the loss of too many others.  Someone could object – what about Matthew 11:23?  If Christ could have saved Sodom with a few miracles, why didn’t He?  To my mind, the answer is that God’s salvation is a marathon, not a sprint.  It’s tantra, not a quickie.  He is not hung up on individual battles, but the whole war.  Sometimes to have your D-Day, you need to organise a Dunkirk.

sayanythingcusackboomboxSo did God command genocide in specific circumstances for specific times? Yes He did.  There was no other way to save us.  There was no other way to win the war, to attain the Nika, the Gospel, the victory that Christ has achieved.  God is desperate for us.  He is John Cusack, standing on our street, with a boombox, playing Peter Gabriel, hoping we will requite His pure and Holy Love.  He is always working for us and for our salvation.  He has saved us, He is saving us, and by His grace He will yet save us at the last.  But for now we live in the age described in Psalm 109 (LXX), the most quoted Old Testament verse contained in the New:

“The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand,
Until I make Your enemies the footstool of your feet.”

The struggle, and the battle, are real.  To criticize God for His righteous acts in saving US is to apply naivety to the reality of evil in the world, and the necessary actions required to be rid of it after all other options have failed.

12 thoughts on “Why God Sometimes Commands Genocide

  1. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the story of Noah. After the flood Noah got pissed one night and passed out naked. Noahs youngest son Canan came along and seen him, went and got his brothers and a cloak and put it on his old man. When Noah came to the next day hung over he cast his youngest son in to slavery – Gen 9 20 – 27

    What’s up with that???

    Another one I can’t get my head around is the story of Job. God and his helper/servant Satan were having a punt on messing up a good blokes life Job 1. 6 – 12

    At the conclusion (after God goes on for a bit about how powerful he is, Job 38 – 40)it seems that God is saying Job was right and had the guts to tell the truth to Gods face while Jobs buddy’s Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar didn’t Job 42 – 7


  2. The first passage you mention is pretty straightforward. If you look at what Noah says, he’s not making anyone a slave himself, he’s prophesying, and in fact, not even necessarily talking about the people themselves. That’s the reason he curses Canaan, the son of Ham, not Ham himself, who was the perpetrator of the indignity. What he is really doing is predicting what will eventually happen – that the descendants of Shem – the Israelites led by the first Joshua, will subjugate the descendants of Canaan – the Canaanites. More obliquely it refers to another descendent of Shem – the second Joshua (Jesus), who will draw the Gentiles to Himself and subjugate the nations under Him – hence “may [Japeth] dwell in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his servant.”

    It’s interesting that this passage was often used by supporters of slavery over the last few centuries to justify enslaving Africans, but that’s not what the prophecy is about, and even if one was to somehow draw some tenuous line between West African peoples and Canaanites, a prophecy is neither a command, nor a justification for evil acts. Furthermore, it’s a rookie mistake, especially when reading the Old Testament, to conflagrate the words and actions of even the “good guys” in the texts with the words, actions and will of God. All of the characters therein, barring Christ Himself, are mere mortals who speak and act imperfectly.

    The Book of Job is nothing if not a philosophical/theological treatise on how mysterious and unfathomable God really is, and I’d be a fool if I thought I could completely explain what is going on in its pages, but I can hopefully scratch the surface a little. What it is definitely not is a story of collusion or gamesmanship between YHWH and the devil. Rather, we see an allegory of God’s salvation with multiple layers and levels. In Job we see a type of Christ, who creates a world of great wealth and beauty, only to have the devil corrupt and destroy His handiwork. In this, the devil is not colluding with God but contending with Him as one who seeks destruction of all goodness. However, as I have stated, God as Love can’t be selective about destroying evil, and rather than simply destroying even Lucifer as His creation, He condescends to suffer him, through the corruption of Christ’s handiwork, and the suffering and sacrifice undergone by Christ for the sake of His creation. It is through this suffering and sacrifice that Job, as a prefigurement of Christ, redeems and conquers, gaining back twofold what was lost. He is tested – judged even – and found worthy, defeating the devil and his works. It is, ultimately, an allegory of the triumph of God, His Son Jesus Christ, and through Christ, humanity as God’s image on the earth, permeating through even to the rest of the cosmos – one obtained only through humility, condescension and suffering. This is why God declares Job righteous and a speaker of truth at the end of the book, because while he questioned God, he retained his communion with Him, suffered without sin, and, like Christ, is therefore able to be a mediator and intercessor for his wayward, prideful and unrighteous friends who spoke falsely about God in their discourses. We even have, in the Septuagint version of the book (http://www.ecmarsh.com/lxx/Job/index.htm), the statement that “it is written that [Job] will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up”, completing the allusion to Job as a type of Christ.

    Ultimately God is mysterious in His ways, but I hope this helps answer your questions.

  3. Maybe God’s power has corrupted him???

    [Blasphemy I know but they do say absolute power corrupts absolutely]

    I do know if I was ever blessed by children I wouldn’t sit back up on high and allow them be stalked and hunted by a psychopath like satan, not for a second. I’d ride out and kick some ass!!!

    CYF’s would confiscate your children if ya pulled a stunt like that

    You can say mysterious all you like [sounds like a cop out to me]
    – I say gutless, or sick in the head

    [There I go blaspheming again – better burn me at the stake]

    I’ll keep reading the bible and keep on muscling my way through all the slavery and genocide, polygamy, concubines, ect but the more I read the more disgusted I am with God’s plan

    • Well that’s why YHWH is God and you’re not, to be blunt. Like I say, you don’t get to pick and choose which evil you get to eradicate. You either get rid of all the evil, or none of it. And if you get rid of all the evil, congratulations, you just wiped everything out. Including the children. You don’t seem to be grasping this concept.

      A God of Love does not destroy but instead redeems, cleanses, restores, saves. That sounds like a great plan to me! I’m in on the plan. I got dunked and oiled and signed up. If you don’t like the plan, if you’re on the side of hate and destruction, good luck. You’ll lose. And the message here is that Christ defeats the devil. He wins! He has to go through a lot of crap to get there, but He wins. As a father, I don’t want my kids to sit on the couch watching Family Guy reruns getting soft. I want them out there doing hard things, struggling, and beating the bad guys!

  4. “If you don’t like the plan, if you’re on the side of hate and destruction, good luck” Blair

    Take a look in the mirror bud – you’re the one condoning genocide.

    I believe we’re in the revelation – soon to be the tribulation, or maybe just another World War. I hope I’m wrong. I sincerely hope you get to see your kids grow up and they don’t become collateral damage as part of Gods plan, goes for all the little ones.

    As for me I have seen enough of God’s plan and hate being here in this evil place and no longer care for my own life as John 12. 25 says “Those who love their own life in this world will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for eternal”

    I worry about the next generation being collateral damage, that weighs heavy on my mind and I think they deserve better than the garbage they’re getting served

    • To rebut, let’s go back to the Hiroshima analogy. I think it is pretty clear that the US did not want to destroy Japan, but to pacify and redeem it. The results speak for themselves. Japan is now a peaceful, democratic, prosperous and civilized nation that is no longer a threat to the world.

      To get them there, a whole bunch of children had to be incinerated in nuclear fire. Nobody wanted that to happen, but it was the only way that Japan could be saved for all its people. Japan, and the 125 million souls who live there today, is redeemed as a nation.

      Hiroshima was therefore not ultimately a destructive act but an act of love. To bring it back to YHWH, there is no moral equivalency able to be drawn between His genocides and, say, the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The results speak for themselves. One action increases good in the world, the other only evil. And as I say, this is not a simple matter of ends justifying means, but acts done in great sorrow, because the level of evil is too great and the stakes too high to warrant any other response.

      Many people still want God to be a Deus Et Machina and magic everything up like a celestial vacuum cleaner of all moral and ethical problems. I’ve tried to explain, imperfectly, that as Love, that’s not His nature, and the results for us if it were would be dire. The evil of the world is not a simple intellectual or philosophical construction – it’s real, and can’t just be willed away, but must be engaged with, fought with, and suffered.

      Your reference to collateral damage is unfortunate. If one takes away anything from what I’ve said, it should be that the revealed Triune God is not a god of whim or micromanagement as in the Islamic tradition.

  5. Bit of history not taught at school

    In April and May 1945, Japan made three attempts through neutral Sweden and Portugal to bring the war to a peaceful end. On April 7, acting Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu met with Swedish ambassador Widon Bagge in Tokyo, asking him “to ascertain what peace terms the United States and Britain had in mind.” But he emphasized that unconditional surrender was unacceptable, and that “the Emperor must not be touched.”

    Specifically, the terms of these peace overtures included:
    •Complete surrender of all Japanese forces and arms, at home, on island possessions, and in occupied countries.
    •Occupation of Japan and its possessions by Allied troops under American direction.
    •Japanese relinquishment of all territory seized during the war, as well as Manchuria, Korea and Taiwan.
    •Regulation of Japanese industry to halt production of any weapons and other tools of war.
    •Release of all prisoners of war and internees.
    •Surrender of designated war criminals.

    It is a war crime to target civilian targets and commit mass murder

    Might is right. the ends justifies the means, history is written by the victors, and ignorance is bliss

    “The evil of the world is not a simple intellectual or philosophical construction – it’s real” Blair

    You and I are in agreement on that.

    God sits back on high and watches while the devil stalks the human race. I would not sit back for 1000’s of years and watch my children run round in the devils playground – that’s called neglect/negligence/unfit parent. I certainly would not act surprised/mad if the children then went on to learn evil – really what did you think was gonna happen???

    • Well it’s a side issue, since the analogy still holds, but clearly the Japanese made no formal offer, and did not do so even after Hiroshima. A second bomb had to be dropped. Nor do I accept that there were any real measure of “innocents” in Japan at the time – the entire nation was one gigantic Emperor Death Cult, and all the means of production were geared towards the war effort of subjugating the peoples of East Asia and the Pacific. But anyway…

      With regard to your charge of negligence on the part of God: It’s a very odd claim, given that the entire Bible, and the subsequent 2000 year history of the Christian Church, is testament to God acting to defeat evil, hell and death, and acting vigorously (and occasionally violently – the entire point of this post). This action culminates in the person of Jesus Christ, and is an ongoing project through His Church and through the Holy Spirit. God is acting to save the world – He has always done so. The battle continues.

  6. I know the God of the old testament was fond of genocide and killing women and children. Tell me what chapters/versus Jesus condones genocide and killing women and children – I haven’t got that far yet in the bible

    Here is some more history and what some had to say at the time

    A leading voice of American Protestantism, Christian Century, strongly condemned the bombings. An editorial entitled “America’s Atomic Atrocity” in the issue of August 29, 1945, told readers:

    The atomic bomb was used at a time when Japan’s navy was sunk, her air force virtually destroyed, her homeland surrounded, her supplies cut off, and our forces poised for the final stroke … Our leaders seem not to have weighed the moral considerations involved. No sooner was the bomb ready than it was rushed to the front and dropped on two helpless cities … The atomic bomb can fairly be said to have struck Christianity itself … The churches of America must dissociate themselves and their faith from this inhuman and reckless act of the American Government

    Pope Pius XII likewise condemned the bombings, expressing a view in keeping with the traditional Roman Catholic position that “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man.”

    When he was informed in mid-July 1945 by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson of the decision to use the atomic bomb, General Dwight Eisenhower was deeply troubled

    “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing … I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon,” Eisenhower said in 1963.

    Brig. General Bonnie Fellers summed up in a memo for General MacArthur: “Neither the atomic bombing nor the entry of the Soviet Union into the war forced Japan’s unconditional surrender. She was defeated before either these events took place.”

    Similarly, Admiral Leahy, Chief of Staff to presidents Roosevelt and Truman, later commented:

    It is my opinion that the use of the barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan … The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons … My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.

    Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born scientist who played a major role in the development of the atomic bomb, argued

    “If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them”

    I’ll leave the link for you, it’s a good read


    • If that’s true, why did it take two bombs and Soviet entry into the Pacific theatre?


      I think “fond” is the wrong word. The passions of YHWH cannot be proscribed in human terms. They are acts of necessity in response to evil, not acts of sadism.

      You really should read the Gospels first! No way you can understand the Old Testament without seeing how those books point to Christ. But I think you raise a good question about whether Christ, in His incarnation, endorses genocidal acts, and the answer is “horses for courses”. The Old Testament is about YHWH cultivating His nation – Israel, to prepare for the coming of Christ. So the acts of God in the Old Testament are nationalistic acts. They reflected the tribalism, and tribal gods, of the times, and defeating the rival gods was essentially involved Israel defeating the whole tribe, the whole nation. This made genocide the only feasible option in certain instances.

      Having established His nation, once the Messiah came, this provided a platform to seek the return of the Gentiles to God. The Christ is revealed as the great unifier of all the nations. What couldn’t be done before His coming can now be accomplished through the completed testimony that the nation of Israel provided in Christ. Salvation becomes possible for Gentiles, not in a legal sense but in a practical sense – they have something to receive that was previously incomprehensible to them. Thus killing them is no longer, in most cases, a necessity.

      There are exceptions of course. The most famous is the vision of Constantine, who received an endorsement to go out and kick the arses of his Roman rivals and thus liberate Christianity from persecution and oppression. There are other instances where rulers and nations must protect their people and command armies to fight for the defense of the faith. But violence at a personal level is all but incompatible with Christian faith. It’s never been what God has wanted. Violence is only useful at a political level for the warding off of, and defeat of, the threat of evil, death and destruction – and always in sorrow, never with anger or passion.

  7. There is no difference of opinion between the persons of the Holy Trinity – they are in complete communion with one another. It would be more correct to say that Jesus did condone genocide in the past before His incarnation, but that it is no longer necessary after. Though even to say that might be presumptive of how God seeks to redeem the earth and the manner in which He chooses to do it. Christ did fashion a whip and drive people out of the Jerusalem temple. I imagine this may have caused scarring on many individuals and drew blood. Violence is always an option.

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