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 Moral Monstrosity of Old Testament Genocide


Israel wasn't actually told to wipe out Palestine's population, and they didn't actually do it. They had to kill the families in nearby towns who attacked them because those children would have wanted revenge. This was a necessary law in days when there were no prisoner-of-war camps. They did this to only a handful of towns - which was enough to stop others attacking. Israel's policy was as humane as possible, in contrast to surrounding nations.

Why destroy all livestock and goods of the enemy? This removed the prime motive for warfare, which was plunder. Israeli soldiers were forbidden to rape and loot, so that their only motive for warfare was self-defense.

Is God a Moral Monster?
Dawkins proposes this with characteristic flair in The God Delusion: 
 "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction:jealous and proud of it; petty, unjust, unforgiving, control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevent bully."  
- Hmm. I think he may have put up a straw man, or rather, straw god.
- it is so exaggerated that we might simply dismiss it. But lets take it seriously.
God gave Israel two great gifts: The Law and the Land
- unfortunately the Land was occupied, and the Law looks barbaric to us
- but that’s the problem. It all depends on how things look to us, now.
- we have to think about the practical problems of people then.
For all aspects of Ethics, it is worth asking "What would Jesus Do?"
- in him we see what God is like when human, and we know how to be human
- we see him motivated by compassion and justice. He shows love and anger
- he did miracles of healing because he felt gut-wrenching love for them
 (the Gospel invented the word "gut-wrenching", (splagchnizomai) just for Jesus)
- and we see him angry - he verbally attacked the Pharisees and all hypocrits
- and he made a whip to physically drive financial crooks out of the Temple

We ask ourselves "what would Jesus do?" because often the Bible is silent
- it doesn't tell us about evils like heroin or cybercrime or daytime TV
- because different times have different problems and different solutions
- different times provide different possible methods for stopping evils
- now we even have no-fly zones to stop dictators attacking their own people

So, we need to put ourselves back into ancient Near Eastern times
- the easiest way to get rich is to kill your neighbours and steal all they have
- there are no facilities for prisoners of war – no prisons could hold them
- you could dig through even a stone wall before mortar was invented
- and family revenge was the central motivating morality of the time
- if someone killed one of your family, you were honour-bound to kill them
- if you were a child, you’d need to grow up, but eventually you’d get revenge

The simplistic version of the Conquest of Canaan goes like this:
- the Israelites all escaped from Egypt one day in spring and went to Canaan
- they spent 40 years in the desert, because the older generation were scared
- a new generation defeated Jericho then swept through Canaan killing everyone
- they were following their law which told them to kill men, women & children
- and they even had to kill animals and “devote” (ie destroy) everything of value

The reality – as we find in the Bible text and archaeology – was different
- they did destroy Jericho and kill everyone living there but it was a military post
- they destroyed Ai & Hazor but not many others acc to Joshua and archaeology
- lots of Canaanites continued living in Canaan, acc to the Bible & archaeology
 (See esp. Ken Kitchen's Reliability of the Old Testament)

If they were told to kill everyone, why were they also told not to marry them?
eg: Deut 7:2-4   When the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.  3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,  4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. 
- how do we square this circle? How do you wipe them out and then marry them?
- the answer is in v.2: “WHEN the Lord gives them over to you to defeat them”
- they killed those who attacked. Those who didn’t attack, lived among them. 

Who attacked them? In the simplistic version, everyone did
- but acc to the Bible & archaeology, only a handful of cities actually attacked
- and not many people lived in cities – they were for rulers, army and admin staff
- most people were farmers and lived next to the land they tended

Of course, when an enemy attacked, lots of people fledf into the cities
- farmers suddenly become soldiers and perhaps their families did too,
- or, if they were sensible, they ran away and hid till the fighting was over

Now: if you attacked a city and defeated it, what would you do?
- a normal army would rape, pillage and kill. It still happens today sometimes
- but the Law of Moses didn’t allow soldiers to do anything like that

Israel was not allowed to rape – and if they did fancy a girl they had to marry her
- and they couldn’t do this immediately; they had to wait at least a month:
Deut. 21:11-13  11 If you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife,  12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails.  13 … and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.

And Israel wasn’t allowed to pillage – they had to destroy everything of value
- livestock & clothing were burned, and indestructible metals given to the Lord
- most people went to war in order to steal stuff. Israel wasn’t allowed to
- so the law of Moses left them no motive for warfare, except self-defence

Israel’s total destruction of livestock and property was unique in the OT world
- because looting enemy goods was the main reason for being a soldier
- Julius Caesar was the first to pay wages to solders because previously they always paid themselves by plundering the enemy's wealth
- so if you wanted to keep soldiers loyal, you regularly went to find enemies
- but God said that all plunder had to be destroyed, and indestructible metals had to be given to the Tabernacle
- the reason was to prevent wars by making self-defence the only motive for war 

BTW, the Israelites didn’t need to kill people to make room for themselves
- the land was fairly empty at the time, according to archaeological studies
- in about 1550 BC there were only about 140,000 people in the land
- as a comparison, the present population is 8.3 million – ie 60x as many
- there was plenty of land available, esp in the hills where they lived to start with

Some cities did amass all their men and make an army to attack Israel
- when that happened, the law of Moses said they had to be brutal
- when they won, they had to kill everyone. But did they really have any choice?
- when a modern war ends, the victors destroy the enemy tanks and planes
- they have to, otherwise the same tanks would be back next year again
- the ancient arsenals of war weren’t tanks and planes, but people
- and ancient codes of revenge meant that even children had to be killed
- because family members were honour-bound to get revenge in the future
- the sad truth is that they had to kill children, else they’d grow up and kill them
- but they only did this when it was necessary: when they lived too close
- there were different rules for distant enemies than for neighbouring enemies

A modern army is always sent out with a set of Rules of Engagement
- for peace-keeping they may shoot only if they are shot at
- in some warfare they must avoid civilian casualties at almost all costs
- in others, civilian deaths are acceptable, esp. if they are harbouring the enemy
Joshua read out Rules of Engagement to the people outside Jericho:
Josh.6.17 “The city shall be under the ban, it and all that is in it belongs to the Lord;...
18... do not covet them and take some of the things under the ban, and make the camp of Israel accursed and bring trouble on it.
19 “All the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron are holy to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.”

He is applying the general Rules of Engagement given by God in Deut.20.16f
- if they attack an enemy town within Palestine, they destroy it utterly
- they kill every person and animal, and burn everything flammable
- the indestructible gold, silver and bronze is donated to the Tabernacle
- this is what is called the Ban, or Devotion (translations of Herem)

I think any modern reader should be horrified by these Rules of Engagement
- if not, I'd say they'd seen too many bloodthirsty movies at an early age
- in modern warfare it is mandatory to avoid civilian casualties
- and soldiers who surrender or are captured are not executed
- there have been some very serious exceptions to this of course
- especially World War 2 when the British invented civilian bombing
- and when the Americans ended the war by Atom-bombing civilians
- and Vietnam when the enemy were indistinguishable from civilians
- in international law it is now a war crime to deliberately target civilians

Actually, there are two sets of Rules of Engagement in Deuteronomy 20
- this utter destruction and death is reserved only for cities within Palestine
- but cities outside Palestine should be dealt with much less severely (v.10-15)
- anyone who surrenders should be spared, though they are put to forced labour
- eg supplying a tribute of wood supplies like the Gibeonites (Josh.9.23)
- and if cities do fight, only the males should be killed when they’re defeated
- this still sounds very rough by moderns standards, but is remarkably lenient
- especially when you compare this with what surrounding nations did at the time

They didn’t have to kill the women & children or livestock of towns far away
- they didn’t live round the corner, so they weren’t in such danger from them
- and there’s less motive to attack simply to take plunder from rich neighbours
- because they weren’t neighbours, and you’d need to plan a serious campaign

The point is that Israel was told to only kill as many people & stock as necessary
- they only killed men in cities that actually fought them – not those who didn’t
- if they surrendered they made them into servants and keep an eye on them 
- but within Palestine the situation was more serious, because they lived nearby
- if they left any men or even women & children, they would fight them again
- they would be an enemy within. So they couldn't afford to leave them alive
- they didn’t have movement detectors or cameras or a wall like modern Israel

Other nations at this time normally killed all males even if they surrendered, or at least maim them so they couldn’t turn round and fight you again
- eg in 1Sam.11.2 a city tried to surrender to the Ammonites and were told:
We accept your submission, but we will gouge out the right eye of every male
- but Israel was known to be different, so in 1King.20.30 the advisors of the King of Aram tell him: Let's surrender – the Kings of Israel are merciful.

It is therefore totally wrong to say that Israel was committing genocide
- yes, they were told to kill the occupants of cities nearby that attacked them
- but in the end they only totally destroyed 4 cities, according to the text
- Jericho & Ai (which were next door to where they stayed at Gilgal)
- in the Southern offensive, only the city of Lachish was destroyed
  (the text doesn’t tell us, but archaeology suggests this happened)
- in the Northern offensive we are told that only one city was totally destroyed
Josh.11.11-13: And he burned Hazor with fire. 12 And all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua captured, and struck them with the edge of the sword, devoting them to destruction, …13 But none of the cities that stood on mounds did Israel burn, except Hazor alone
- and this is confirmed by archaeology. Most cities were virtually untouched
- they killed those who attacked them, and left the other towns standing
- they didn’t occupy the land till later; they gradually move in and farmed it
- this wasn't merely self-defence (they sometimes provoked fighting)
- but it was very far from genocide, and the book of Judges confirms that most of the indigenous population remained after Joshua's campaigns.

However, the law of Moses was completely uncompromising about religion
- it DID tell them to wipe out a particular form of religious culture in Palestine
- the Israelites had to go out of their way to destroy altars and ‘high places’
- they weren’t told to kill all people but they WERE told to destroy their religion

Numbers 33:51-53  51 "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan,  52 then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places.  53 And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.

We can feel morally offended about this, because it sounds like racism
- and yet, ancient Israel wasn’t interested in racial purity like they were later
- when they left Egypt there was a “mixed multitude” of foreigners with them
 (this same word is used for foreigners Nehemiah got rid of (Ex.28.38; Neh.13.3)
- Moses married a Midianite and then he married a Cushite
- the Canaanite Rahab and Moabite Ruth were ancestors of King David
- Judaism was a uniting religion with tribes based on an ancient family, but they didn’t have a common ancestry any more than the British or Americans
- but they certainly didn't show religious toleration. Why?

We can understand why they were against these religions when we look at them
- to be honest, we know very little some of them, because they were wiped out 
- but the little we do know is horrific enough to justify wiping them out

Child sacrifice was central to the devotion of many gods in Canaan
- these practices re-surfaced at times of crisis – such as at 2King 3.27 when the King of Moab resorted to sacrificing his firstborn son when facing defeat in war
- but in earlier times, child sacrifice of the firstborn was normal for everyone
- the Molech religion had huge metal statues with outstretched hands as an altar
- under the arms was a hollow belly for a fire which roasted the baby offerings

Baby sacrifices were offered to this horrendous god in places called a Tophet
- there are very few archaeological remains in Israel because it was stamped out
- but the Phoenicians continued the practice at their outpost in Carthage

If you go on holiday to Tunisia, make a trip to the Sousse museum
- I remember my utter shock and distress when I wandered into a dull-looking room and realised what it was – the remains of a well-preserved Tophet
- lots of stone tablets like small tomb-stones, each representing someone's baby, sacrificed to the placate the gods.
- buried under the stones they found the baby or child’s bones, sometimes burned
- modern Tunisian archaeologist explain this as a baby's graveyard,
- but why weren't they buried in the family burial plots? And why burn them?
- Because they belonged to the horrible gods who demanded their sacrifice

In our modern world we have a commendable attitude of religious tolerance
- but some things we cannot tolerate
- the Spanish invaders stamped out human sacrifice of the Mayans
- the Baptist missionary William Cary successfully campaigned against Sati
(the Hindu practice of throwing a widow on the funeral pire of her husband)
- Christianity wiped out the last cannibalism from Papua New Guinea
- while at the same time defending the rights of Jews, Hindus, and Muslims to worship as they liked even when living in overwhelmingly Christian countries

Joshua’s army made a start at ridding the world of human sacrifice
- and fortunately that kind of worship is now almost completely gone
  (there are still some occult groups in Congo and elsewhere who do this)

So, was Israel asked to commit cultural genocide? Yes.
- did this involve killing everyone? No. They weren’t asked to and didn’t
- they killed any soldiers who attacked them, and families who lived nearby
- but those who weren’t living nearby were spared. They only killed as necessary
- their laws forbade rape or pillage, so they only went to war in self-defence

Today warfare can be very different. We have far more resources
- when people surrender, we can take away their weapons and leave them be
- if we defeat soldiers we can imprison them till the war is over
- so, like ancient Israel, we aim to minimise casualties to what is necessary
- but, like ancient Israel, we have a zero-tolerance to any cruelty to children
- and if there were any religion like those in ancient Palestine, we’d wipe it out

So the moral principles are still the same as God taught to ancient Israel
- you shouldn't kill more people than necessary, esp. non-soldiers
- you should prevent and punish looting and rape
- you should not allow any religious practices that harm children or others
- we still follow these, and we still should
- and now that we have far more resources, we don't need to kill so many people



(C) Dr David Instone-Brewer 2015

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David Instone-Brewer