In recent months, my daily personal scripture study has been from the Old Testament, specifically the Pentateuch. It’s a challenging read, if only because so much of it is a chronicle of God engaging in or commanding his followers to engage in mass murder. This has not troubled modern readers of these texts only. Many ancients similarly wondered if the God revealed in the Pentateuch wasn’t more like a demon — a “demiurge.” Many early Christians insisted that the God of the Pentateuch could not be the same God revealed in the New Testament in Christ.
Our world is not unfamiliar with mass murders bearing similarity to those described in the Bible. We have a special word for them: “genocide.” Genocide literally means murdering everyone of a particular “genus” or “type.” In modern times, we’ve seen attempted genocides against Native Americans, Armenians, and Jews; against Hutus in Rwanda, against the Hmong in Laos, against Kurds in Iraq, and against Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia. If genocide is defined as an attempt to eradicate everyone of a certain “type,” then surely countries where homosexuality is punishable by death (like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen and Sudan) can be said to engaging in genocide against gay men and lesbians. In any event, genocide does not appear to be the rare case or the exception in human history. It has been engaged in in ancient times and modern, and is found any where and at any time human beings engage in various forms of nation-building and warfare. I live in state (Minnesota) and a nation (the United States of America) that were established through genocide of Native Americans.
However mundane an activity genocide might be, the question remains, as some atheist scholars and critics like Richard Dawkins have suggested, whether a God who commands his followers to engage in it rightly ought to be dismissed as the product of murderous human fantasies.
I come to this question with one fundamental assumption. No scripture can be read or properly understood without the Spirit of God to assist us. So if any sense is to be made of God-commanded genocides in the Pentateuch, it cannot be made without drawing close to the God who reveals himself to us in the still small voice of the Spirit. That is the same Spirit who compels us to seek peace and love with our brothers and sisters, and who teaches us that murder is a sin of the worst order.
I have found that the answers to these distressing questions are in fact embedded within the very texts that are so troubling to us. Within these texts, we see a God who is striving to elevate a particular branch of the human family above the murderous and adulterous tendencies that were then and still are today the common human condition.
In the first chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses recapitulates for the children of Israel their history up until the moment they are about to enter the lands west of the Jordan River. This recapitulation included a description of the various genocides commanded by God. It also documented, for what it’s worth, situations in which God strictly forbade the children of Israel from doing any violence or harm to people they encountered along the way, such as the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Ammonites.
In his talk, Moses frankly acknowledged that he himself would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land west of the Jordan River because of his own sin. The sin for which Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land might seem inconsequential to most of us. When the children of Israel were thirsting in the desert, God commanded Moses to speak to the rock and water would flow forth. Instead of precisely following God’s commandment and speaking to the rock, Moses chose the more dramatic gesture of smiting the rock with his staff. His minor embellishment on God’s commandment was considered serious enough by God to incur the same punishment that the rest of Moses’ generation suffered for their rebellion in the wilderness.
In Deuteronomy chapter 4, Moses presents a principle to the children of Israel that appears elsewhere in scripture: “Ye shall not add… neither shall ye diminish ought [from the word I command you]” (v. 2). The presentation of this principle was particularly poignant coming from Moses, in light of his acknowledgment that his failure to keep this principle had excluded him from the Promised Land.
It may be a small thing, but Moses here uses the present tense of the word “command.” He does not say “the word I have commanded you,” but “the word I command you.” To me, this seems an implicit acknowledgment of the principle of continuing revelation. It is as if the Lord here says through Moses, “Listen exactly to what I tell you right now, and do it. Don’t add anything to it or take anything away from it, just follow what I tell you to do now and at all times.” We cannot prioritize what God once commanded over what God is commanding us now, in the living present.
Moses reminded the children of Israel standing before him, “Ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day” (v. 4). There’s a fine point here. In following the commandments of the Lord, it is not the commandments we cleave to, but the Lord.
God is a living God, and we cleave unto him by listening to him. Moses continued by telling the children of Israel what they should teach their children. He told them to “make… known to your children and to your children’s children: The day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb” (vs. 9-10). It was that encounter between a living God and his children that was most important for the children of Israel to remember.
The memory that they had literally stood in the presence of God was the strongest safeguard against idolatry. After the experience at Horeb, according to the following chapter (Deuteronomy 5:24), the people themselves had declared: “We have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and [God] liveth.” “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves,” Moses reminded them, “for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure” (4:15-16).
A graven image could be any fixed notion of God, that is separate from a direct, personal relationship with God. Moses warns here against serving gods that are “the work of men’s hands” (v. 28), but men work not just with their hands but their brains. Human beings generally have any variety of notions about God, a good many (probably the majority) of them false. But so long as one is in relationship with the living God, God is capable of proving false notions false. We learn about the truth of God the way we learn the truth of any living soul: from interacting with him.
Moses warns against inevitable fallings away from God, but he counsels “if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul” (v. 29).
When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; (For the Lord thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them. (vs. 30-31)
The centrality of this relationship between God and us his children is the key to understanding the baffling — terrifying, even — historical contingencies contained not just in the Pentateuch, nor just the Old Testament, but in all of scripture. Throughout this teaching of Moses, contrasts are drawn between the nation forged through God’s covenant and the kinds of nations that are forged as “the work of men’s hands” (in verses 6-8, verse 28, verses 33-36). Here, Moses acknowledges historical contingency at work in human dealings with God. God is reaching out to us and working with us in the worldly context and framework within which we reside. So we need to understand any given commandment as given to that contingency.
This is the only reasonable way to understand why God would categorically command in Horeb, “Thou shalt not kill,” but then command in Sihon to “utterly [destroy] the men, and the women, and the children, of every city, [leaving] none to remain” (Deuteronomy 2: 34). The Hebrew term “herem” or “cherem“ was used particularly in books like Deuteronomy and Joshua to describe the obliteration of people or property that was determined to be a threat to the covenant. The best I can make of those divinely ordered acts of genocide is they were special cases. They could never serve as an example of how anyone should act on their own cognizance. It was a terrible sin, for example, for Europeans arriving in the Americas to assume that they had the right to do to Native Americans what had been done in Canaan. Other biblical scholars have drawn similar conclusions.
Recently, my husband Göran and I watched Ingmar Bergman’s classic film Fanny and Alexander. In the film, the young boy Alexander Ekdahl and his little sister Fanny are horribly abused by their domineering stepfather, the Bishop Edvard Vergérus. “Uncle Isaac,” a friend of the Ekdahl family who is despised by the Bishop and his entire household because he is a Jew, uses a combination of trickery, magic, and divine aid to spirit the children away to safety. In one of my favorite scenes in the film, at night, while everyone is asleep, Alexander explores Uncle Isaac’s house, a shop filled with magical wonders, and has what he believes to be an encounter with God. “God” threatens to show himself to Alexander, and warns him that the encounter will destroy him, since no one can see the face of God and live. As the door begins to open and “God” begins to emerge, Alexander ducks under a table and cries out, “Det är slut för mej!” (“This is the end of me!”)
“God” turns out to be a giant marionette, and the divine encounter a practical joke played by Isaac’s nephew Aaron, who has a good laugh at Alexander’s expense. The moment of revelation when Alexander learns that the God he feared was just a puppet produced for the stage is profound. Alexander had feared God in the same way he feared his stepfather, a supposed man of God, who used his position as bishop to perpetrate abuse behind a shield of self-righteousness respectability. Bergman portrays God at work in mysterious ways in the film (in God’s intervention in response to the prayer of Uncle Isaac to help him steal the children out of the Bishop’s house), seldom in ways characters in the film expect.
Life is a process by which we gradually learn to distinguish between the true work of God, and the works of false gods, of the marionette gods, the works of men’s hands, that claim to be sovereigns of the universe when they are nothing but self-serving frauds. But that discernment process demands the engagement of all our whole heart and soul.