Month: August 2009

‘God’s Genocide’: some not-so-sensitive campus evangelism


I am very disturbed by this poster that was seen around my university a few weeks ago. I’m a part time student, and I only saw the poster after the event, otherwise I would have gone to listen, mainly in the hope that they weren’t saying what I suspect they were saying.

My suspicion was that this talk from the Bible on ‘God’s Genocide’ might be an exegesis of Joshua or Judges. When a poster the next week advertised a talk from the Book of Joshua, my suspicions seemed to be true.

The poster seems to suggest, without any hesitation or moral concern, that God was responsible for genocide. The photo looks like it might be taken from Pol Pot’s regime, which is about the most unfortunate, evil thing you could impute to God.

I imagine that the impulse here is a proud refusal to be ‘ashamed of the gospel’. But the book of Joshua isn’t the gospel. It is Scripture, it is part of our canon, part of our story, but it isn’t the gospel.

I actually think God would like us to be morally outraged and confused by stories like the one in Joshua in which Joshua commands the Israelites in the name of the Lord to destroy every living thing. Maybe this is what the talk said and the poster was just being provocative. I think it was completely insensitively and appallingly provocative.

I don’t know what to do with the terrible stories of genocide in the early part of the history of Israel. Here are some approaches I’ve noticed people taking:

1. The conservative evanglical: God said it, I believe it, end of story. Believing the Bible is the inspired Word of God means taking the stories on surface value. The Caananites were obviously very wicked and deserved to be slaughtered. (The fundamentalist might find some contemporary peoples who need slaughtering; the evangelical will emphasise the extremity of Canaanite wickedness.)

2. The mainstream evangelical: It’s true, but let’s not dwell on it.

3. Historical-critical: some of the readings I was assigned at uni indicated that the archaeological evidence does not exist for the stories in Joshua. Instead of a slaughter and conquer, the archaeological evidence suggests a gradual settlement by ex-slaves from Egypt. This would mean that the biblical record is worse than the reality. Interesting consequences for our understanding of the OT.

4. Texts of Terror : having stories like these in the canon is actually meant to incite us as followers of Jesus to respond with outrage and repentance at our own history and our blindspots. Their canonical function is as a kind of warning.

5. God will fight for us: In Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder briefly outlines an approach which reads stories like these from the perspective of the Israelites. They are being moved from where they are (a culture of bloodthirstiness and military prowess) toward the pacifism of Jesus. The significant thing they hear is not that God is sanctioning violence, but that their victory is not linked to military prowess. Their victory comes from God, not from their own fighting. They are still a long way from Jesus, but the culture is already being transformed.

6. Choose your strand: the Old Testament has a diversity of outlooks, some of them in line with the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus, and some of them not. Where the Old Testament fails to live up to the revelation of Jesus’ nonviolence, it is corrected and superseded by Jesus.