God of War: The Genocide Question

Anthony Weber —  July 21, 2012 — 10 Comments

In the previous post, “God of War(ning) and Waiting,” I offered four important points we need to remember while reading through the accounts of the battles between the Israelites and the various people groups in Canaan:

  • God waited and warned the people groups involved;
  • He commanded the Israelites to accept and assimilate any immigrants from these nations, clearly showing God was not interested in genocide;
  • He sought not to destroy individual people, but to destroy the religious and cultural centers that promoted their particular evil;
  • He exercised lex talionis (a principle which says that punishment cannot exceed the crime).

As the first two points have been addressed, we are ready for  the third point – the question of the war itself.

The “obliteration language” is certainly daunting. If God is truly a bloodthirsty tyrant who orders the killing of women and children, he would have a hard time explaining how he is different from the gods of the Amalekites. I believe an understanding of the language of hyperbolic semitic “war texts” offers a plausible context from which we see a very different image of God emerge.  Read carefully, the historical accounts show that God’s intent was to get rid of destructive cultural influences and world views, but not necessarily the people in them.

The hyperbolic exaggeration of war texts is recorded in many documents of other Ancient Near East cultures of the time (all examples cited from Historical Backgrounds of Biblical History, by Jack P. Lewis).

  • An Egyptian monument commemorating Merneptah’s conquest of Canaan noted, “Plundered is the Canaan with every evil…Israel is laid waste; his seed is not.”
  • The Babylonian Chronicle makes this claim of Nebuchadnezzar: “…the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and to non-existence beat them” – and then goes on to talk about what they did to all the soldiers in the army who escaped.
  • Esarhaddon once claimed that he led Sidon’s people into exile, “teeming subjects which could not be counted.”
  • When Mesha secured a Moabite victory of Israel, he claimed, “Israel has perished forever.”
  • When Shalmaneser defeated Ahab, he penned this commentary: “I spread their corpses everywhere, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered soldiers…I made their blood flow down…the district. The plain was too small to let all their souls descend into the nether world, the vast field gave out when it came to bury them. With their corpses I spanned the Orontes before their was a bridge.”  

This is a specific type of genre, one understood by the audience then in a very particular way.We can’t read the war texts of that time with 21st century eyes and do justice to the original intent.Israelite scribes wrote in a cultural context; their war texts reflect historical reality as it was typically recorded in the ANE.  So the Bible records that God (or the Israelites) plan was to:

  • “wipe them out” (Exodus 23.23)
  • “throw them into confusion” (Exodus 23.27)
  • “make them turn their backs and run” (Exodus 23.27)
  • “drive them out of your way” (Exodus 23.28)
  • “struck down” (Psalms 135.10)
  • “dispossessed” (Numbers 21.32)
  • “destroy them” (Deuteronomy 9.3)
  • “subdue them before you” (Deuteronomy 9.3)
  • “annihilate” (Deuteronomy 9.3)
  • “delivered them over to you” (Deuteronomy 7.2)
  • “defeated them” (Deuteronomy 7.2)

Were the Israelites supposed to “make them run” or “annihilate” them? Well, yes. In ANE vocabulary, these commands are not inconsistent considering the hyperbolic language of the war texts in that time period. The question is which command was consistently given.

These biblical “war texts” use words that fall into two categoriesdispossession or destruction. If all biblical references were listed here, we would see that the “dispossession” words outnumber the “destruction” words by 3-to-1.  This would seem to indicate that the dominant purpose was not destruction, but disruption and displacement of particular cultural groups (such as the Amalekites).

For example,  in Exodus 23 God tells his people that He himself would “wipe out” their enemies (verse 23), but he explains this means to slowly drive them out ahead of time (verse 29).  God tells the Israelites their specific role: ” demolish their gods and break their sacred stones to pieces”(verse 24). Just to make sure the people would not return, the Israelites were not to make a covenant with them, ” because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you” (verse 33).   Plenty of people continue to live – just not as neighbors, because God did not want his people to start burning babies on the outstretched iron arms of Molech.

Dueteronomy 7 (read the whole chapter here) contains a similar clear command for destruction, but also has insightful information about how this “destruction” would look:

” This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession…He will give their kings into your hand, and you will wipe out their names from under heaven. No one will be able to stand up against you; you will destroy them. The images of their gods you are to burn in the fire.”

Note the traditional war language, but also note that they specifically command the destruction of  centers of worship.  There is certainly a violent  military aspect to this, but the destruction was for the worship centers and cultural systems that created and sustained systemic horrors, not necessarily the people who committed them.

The commands were given with two consistent goals:  the destruction of religious systems that fostered remarkable evil, and the displacement of those who refused to give up their allegiance.  God did not command genocide as is so often claimed.

Even so, this does not yet show that these wars were necessarily just.  There was a lot of fighting, and a lot of evil can occur short of wiping out an entire people group. So just how violent were these battles?  Stay tuned….


Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.

10 responses to God of War: The Genocide Question

  1. I’m curious about how 1 Samuel 15 fits into this account. In that chapter, YHWH tells Saul, “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” Saul goes and attacks the Amalekites, and “[h]e took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword.” But Saul had the temerity to allow his soldiers to take possession of some of the livestock of the Amalekites in order to sacrifice it to YHWH – rather than killing it all immediately – and this omission made YHWH so angry that he stripped Saul of his kingship and “regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.” Oh, and Samuel killed Agag himself. 

    Perhaps you think that story leaves open the possibility that Saul also left alive all the women and children of the Amalekites, and made sure that they had the opportunity to “assimilate” into the Israelite culture, but I don’t see it. To me, it sure sounds like God wanted everything dead, and failing to kill everything cost Saul his kingship. Do you disagree?

    “The commands were given with two consistent goals:  the destruction of religious systems that fostered remarkable evil, and the displacement of those who refused to give up their allegiance. ”

    It seems like any program to destroy “religious systems that fostered remarkable evil” in the ANE would need to start with the destruction of the religious system which invaded and conquered whichever lands its god commanded and demanded that all people conform to the whims of its god. I’m finding it very difficult to understand how you can feel comfortable saying that the Israelites were justified because all they did was invade the homelands of other people and drive off everyone who didn’t submit to the Israelite god. Doesn’t that seem at all problematic to you?

    • Steve, you are quoting passages of Scripture as if you didn’t read my post. My point was that we tend to read into the text a meaning that was not there. We may disagree about how to read them, but based on my explanation, I’m not sure what I need to defend. I feel like I’m responding to someone else’s position.  However, I will reiterate:
          1) They were not at war with civilians. They were at war with the priests and soldiers – the cultural gatekeepers. My next post will deal more extensively with the details.           2) My point about God warning the culture/driving out civilians ahead of time/assimilating immigrants into Israel was that genocide is off the table. That is obviously not what Hitler did, as you well know.As for the Saul incident, obviously I believe the language is the hyperbole of warfare texts, as my post carefully noted.   If you read the entire chapter of 1 Samuel 15, you will see that  Samuel clearly identified why God was angry – Saul brought animals back.  Animals were wealth and plunder; so there was no misunderstanding about the purpose of the battle (it was not for plunder, money, and power) they were to bring nothing back.  Saul tries to hide his greed behind pious religious observation, and God calls him on it.  I will discuss the treaties soon in this series.As for your last point, I’m not sure where you are getting your information, but it’s not from my post.  I never said the other people had to submit to Israel’s God.  The  full Israelite Law was only for the Israelites. As I pointed out, God very specifically said He wanted His people to stop a couple very specific atrocities  – bestiality, incest, and the burning of babies – in a couple very specific cultures. Nowhere does it say they are to make the other people worship the Israelite God.  

      I’m curious: where do you read that the intent was to force everybody else to join Israel’s worship? 

      • I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel like I’m not interacting with your actual arguments. I think it’s important to consider the full import of what you’re saying: that at several significant points in Biblical history, God did not actually mean what he said; and that several important historical accounts in the Bible are not actually accurate depictions of what actually happened. That’s a pretty big claim! What I’m trying to do is making sure that you really mean what you appear to be saying, by picking out places where YHWH says things that you claim he does not mean and asking you to explicitly confirm that YHWH is commanding people to do things that he does not in fact want them to do. To that end:

        Your position seem to be that when YHWH says, 

        “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” 

        what he really means is, 

        “Now go, attack the Amalekites and kill their priests and soldiers. Spare the rest, but don’t bring any plunder back to Israel.”

        And the rationale for your position is that hyperbolic commands were common in war in the ANE. So: do you think that if Saul had killed all the Amalekites – men, women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys – YHWH would have condemned him for committing genocide against the Amalekites?  Do you think it would have been unreasonable for Saul – when so condemned – to respond by pointing out that he had simply done what YHWH had commanded?

        In response to your other points in this comment:

        – It’s true that Hitler didn’t allow Jews to assimilate (except for himself). But the Holocaust didn’t come out of the blue; it was preceded by many years of propaganda and violence which made it increasingly clear that Jews had better get out of Germany. Sounds familiar. In any case, the Israelites were commanded to not offer the Caananites et al. a chance to assimilate – see Deuteronomy 20:16-18, or my comment below – so it’s a moot point.

        – No, I don’t think that foreigners were supposed to worship YHWH, but I get the distinct impression that they were not supposed to worship anyone else while living inside Israelite-occupied territory. And since the laws of the Israelites were given by YHWH (even the civil laws), submission to Israelite law was de facto submission to the Israelite god. Perhaps there is a passage which shows that foreigners were permitted to continue their worship of their gods unmolested within Israel, and were not required to follow the non-ritual laws given by YHWH, but I don’t remember reading it.

        • Good clarification, Steve. Two thoughts come to mind in response to your first point.  One, the Hebrew Bible was written by Hebrews for Hebrews.  God spoke to Hebrews in a way that was accessible to them.  I don’t think they were confused by what God had to say in those context.  Second, genre is important.  It gives context to the text. The Bible has history, poetry, parables, songs, romance, apocalyptic, prophecy, genealogy…the list goes on. The war texts are a genre just like the others. If you try to read them like something they are not, it gets confusing.  

          I’m not sure of the answer to your second paragraph. I know that foreigners who assimilated into the Israelite culture were granted access to the same justice system.  I will need to check up on whether or not they were coerced into actual worship of Yahweh. I don’t recall that being the case, but I could be wrong.  

          • I’m still not clear on the hermeneutic you’re using to interpret 1 Samuel 15:1-3. Are you saying that what was written down was not an accurate account of what YHWH actually said through Samuel, or are you saying that what was written down is an accurate representation of what YHWH said, but that Saul would have (correctly) understood him to be commanding an action that was quite different from the apparent meaning of the words? 

            Also: I can understand the argument that the war texts exaggerate the violence and ruthlessness of the Israelite armies (it’s a good propaganda device, if nothing else), but there are other texts that seem to be in a different genre, yet still appear to commend or command the conquest and slaughter of entire cities. For example, the passage in Deuteronomy 20:10-18 is embedded in the middle of what certainly appears to be a law text, and indeed reads like a spelling out of law rather than a boast. What is the logic of the hermeneutic you use to determine that the laws on either side of Deuteronomy 20 are “real” laws which should be read as accurate reflections of the character of YHWH, while Deuteronomy 20 should be read as a “culture-specific” law that should be heavily interpreted and not taken as an accurate reflection on YHWH?

        • I did a little research last night about the topic of your last paragraph, Steve.  Here is what I found in Exodus and Leviticus.  Many chapters begin with a distinction: either “Say to the Israelites” or “Say to the Israelites and the foreign born.”  Here are some examples: 
           – Leviticus 17: Native or foreign born, if you offer a
          sacrifice, do it right.  – Leviticus 17: Don’t eat blood or kill an animal in such a way that is
          unclean (non-kosher?) – Leviticus 18: Native and foreign born were to  follow the laws governing
          sexuality.  – Leviticus 20:  Native or foreign born,  don’t sacrifice your children
          to Molech or consult mediums.  – Leviticus 23: The rules for the observance of festivals are specifically for the
          Israelites.   – Leviticus 27: Regulations
          for tithes and sacrifices are specifically for the Israelites. – It appears that standards governing economic and labor practices were for everyone, but that’s civil law, not ceremonial or temple law.  
          Two conclusions stand out.  First, the foreign born had to obey some very specific moral/civil laws. Second, they had to use the same worship ceremonies and standards as the Israelites IF they entered into the worship rituals. I did not read that they were required to do so – which may explain why throughout Israel’s history in the Old Testament they struggle with idolatry from within their own land.

  2. I just read the interview with Paul Copan from the “dispossession or destruction” link in your post.  Towards the end of that interview he gives us this remarkable sentence:

    “In all the alleged cases of ‘genocide,’ we see plenty of survivors, which provides ample indication the biblical authors didn’t intend literal obliteration.”

    I wonder if Copan would say that the fact that some Jews escaped the Holocaust provides ample indication that the Nazis didn’t intend literal obliteration of the Jews. The logic of that argument seems rather strained.

    He also writes, “If [the Caananites] are to be driven out, they are not literally killed or destroyed. You can’t both drive out and destroy.” But this is just obviously false: clearly you can drive out those who can be driven, and destroy the rest. The Israelites did not drive out the Caananites by asking nicely for them to leave; they drove the Caananites out by threatening them with destruction if they stayed:

    “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.”
    -Deuteronomy 20:16-17

    Note well: this commandment is in contrast to another commandment:

    “When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.   If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it.  As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.”
    -Deuteronomy 20:10-14

    It’s pretty clear: far away cities were to be given the opportunity to become slaves of the Israelites; if they distained this generous opportunity, all the men were to be killed and all other people and things in the city were to be plundered by the Israelites. But for the cities within the land there was to be no offer of peace and slavery, and no preservation of the women and children and livestock: the Isaelites were to “not leave alive anything that breathes”. If this text does not mean what it says, then what is the meaning of the contrast between the treatment of near and far cities?  Can you provide an alternative explanation?

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