Love and genocide

Tiepolo, the capture of Carthage‘How could a “God of Love” order the genocide of the Canaanites?’ ask my atheist friends. The idea is completely silly. How could anyone believe that? To answer the question, one needs historical sensibility.

The bloodthirsty bible verses are easy to find, and a resource for atheists escaping fundamentalism. You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  You shall annihilate them, in Deuteronomy, for example. Sometimes, out of mercy, people are captured for slaves. Atheists collect such verses as enthusiastically as fundamentalists seeking proof texts. Fundamentalists try to answer- here CARM argues that because those killed in the Flood were “wicked”,  God was right to destroy them. Noah preached righteousness for a hundred years, and the people could have repented. That is not obvious from the flood story: here is the Answers in Genesis calculation putting it at 75 years at the most. To me, the 120 years figure in 6:3 refers to the limit for death from old age, but neither of these sites could accept that, as Noah was said to live for centuries. They cannot see Genesis as a mosaic of contradictory sources.

Tiepolo, the Triumph of MariusMy first answer was that atheists do not believe the conquest of Canaan stories, as archaeology does not support them.  We know that a peaceful people, without walls to their towns, lived in the area around 1000BC, and that Israel is mentioned on the Mereneptah Stele, from the 13th century BCE, but Jericho was not inhabited at the alleged time of conquest. But, say the atheists, the Christians do.

That was the way of the peoples at the time. I find the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem one of the most dramatic bible stories: the Jews tell the Assyrian envoy,‘Please speak to your servants in the Aramaic language, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall. But he responds, Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the people sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine? The Assyrian records boast of their conquests, destroying their enemies. Perhaps the Assyrian retreat was caused by cholera, which people at the time would call an Act of God.

The Romans were the same way. Here the Baldwin Project romanticises, for children, Cato the Elder’s demand that Carthage must be destroyed, and here it describes its destruction.

What was necessary for survival as a free people, with their own culture? I believe in moral progress, that people learn a better way of being together. John Woolman, born in colonial New Jersey, was led from discomfort at slavery which George Fox had tolerated, through small actions against it, to dedicating his life to abolition. So the best of us learn moral truth, guided by God. The Bible shows a progression in understanding of God, and our understanding continues to improve. The alternative to moral progress is moral luxury: we behave well unless under threat.

2 thoughts on “Love and genocide

  1. For me a lot of the Old Testament has to be taken with a grain of salt. Israel has always been a race of warriors and their tendencies have never been towards compassion and mercy. Whether God told them to wipe out everyone or not, that is still what they would be inclined to hear.


    • My working understanding is that much of the OT reached its current form after the exile in Babylon when there was concern for their survival as a separate people, by keeping the law and telling the stories. They also thought God would miraculously bring all nations to worship at Jerusalem. And there were other currents- “I desire mercy not sacrifice” etc etc.

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