‘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.


13 thoughts on “‘God’s Genocide’: some not-so-sensitive campus evangelism

  1. 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???

    By Jesus
    17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.
    18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
    19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

    3 The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.

    Psalms 144
    1 A Psalm of David. Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle;

    By Jesus
    42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

    By Jesus
    2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.

    By Jesus!!!
    27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.’

    By Jesus
    16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

    By Jesus
    15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.

    Atheist 100%

  2. I wasn’t agreeing with this option, only mentioning it. I think we could read Jesus lots of ways and appeal to different proof texts.

    I am a little confused by some of the verses you’ve chosen to quote, but get the general gist.

  3. Hi Marc,
    The quotes you take from the gospels do not actually refer to Jesus as a violent person as you seem to want to imply. You do not discuss their contexts within the text of the gospels.

    The new testament scholar, N.T. Wright maintains that the Jesus movement in first century Palestine was a Jewish “peace movement” (Jesus and the Victory of God, pp.151-160, 250-253, 268-271). These early disciples got their teaching on peace making from Jesus.

    In fact, the christians of the first three centuries refused to join the Roman army or participate in warfare. They worshiped Jesus as “Lord” and refused to worship Caesar as such. They also refused to fight because of Jesus’ pacifist teachings.

    Your quote from Mat.5:17-20 is set within the sermon on the mount (Mat. chs.5-7). In this block of teaching, Jesus tells us to love our enemies (not kill them) and this teaching is totally incompatible with the genocide texts of parts of the O.T. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets, especially the prophetic vision of shalom.

    If we look at the overall teaching and action of Jesus in the gospels, he showed compassion and that unconditional, others-centred, self-giving love is the fulfilment of the OT.

    John Yoder points out that the biblical story is a story with direction whose central story is the story of Jesus. The bible is not a flat, undifferentiated text with all passages put on the same level. Thus the bible needs to be interpreted in the light of Jesus and the texts need to be taken in their immediate and broader contexts as well.

    Richard Hays makes the point that Jesus’ teachings in the sermon on the mount are non violent and this position is taken by all the NT writers (Moral Vision of the New Testament, pp.329,332-333). A similar position has been taken by John Yoder (Politics of Jesus) and by G.H.Stassen and D.P. Gushee (Kingdom Ethics, Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, chs. 6 & 7).

    If we picture God in existentially repugnant ways, then how can we expect people to believe. It is better to be an atheist like you. But God (revealed in Jesus) is a wonderful person/presence who loves you and wishes to uplift, inspire and encourage you to be a peace maker like Jesus.

    Best wishes,
    John Arthur

  4. Hi Nathan, good post and a few options for people on the topic. Its a real hard one. That trying to reconcile some of the Old testement stuff with the New.

  5. Hi Nathan
    Long time sisnce we have seen each other.
    Thanks for being concerned about the poster. We (the Christian Union at UWA) are concerned that many people (eg Richard Dawkins) dismiss Christianity because of such incidents reported in the book of Joshua, and many students around uni have similar impressions. So we wanted to address the issue by looking at the event (in this case the “Battle of Jericho”) and seeking to make sense of it.

    It is difficult to argue that the story is meant to leave us morally outraged as the story itself has no hint of such outrage. There must be better and more honest ways of understanding it than that.

    I don’t think any of your options are viable as they stand (some are straw men simplistic) – they generally don’t deal with the text and its place in our scriptures with honesty.

    Was the poster “completely insensitively and appallingly provocative”? I guess that is a value judgement, but it seems to me that what happens in the book of Joshua is tantamount to genocide, and that many people already consider it such, so why not put it out in the open and talk about it?

  6. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your gracious comment. Responding to Richard Dawkins is important and you’re right that it needs talking about. (Hence my ‘strawman’ shot at mainstream evangelicals who tend to just ignore it.)

    The responses I laid out ARE inadequate – agreed. (And deliberately almost cariactures.) It’s some initial thoughts rather than a full engagement with the text. I was cataloguing the options I’ve heard. I do have sympathy with Phyllis Trible’s treatment, but it’s been years since I read it. I don’t have an answer as to how to understand Joshua as Scripture today.

    I do feel the poster is provocative in the wrong way and it disturbed me- but you’re right, that’s just a value judgement.

    How did the talk go?

    Shalom, Nathan.

  7. I’m glad to see Tim contribute to the discussion.

    I am concerned though that because this potential act of ‘genocide’ was committed by the ‘good guys’ and is included in the cannon, that it then becomes an act of God, ‘God’s Genocide’.

    Yes, we can read and try our best to understand what was going through the minds of the ‘People of God’, what these individuals discerned God was saying to them, but can we actually attribute these actions to God?

    Christians have a long history of killing people, abusing people mentally, physically, verbally and sexually in the ‘name of God’, even the Blues Brothers were on a ‘mission from God’. Does that mean that those acts are acts of God? Or are they acts by people who think they are doing what God wants them to do?

    Dawkins would thrive in the knowledge that some Uni Church group has claimed God responsible for genocide just to mount an argument against him. Was he there?

    I dare not think that I know the mind of God. I will give the benefit of doubt to grace and love. I will do what I do, and if it is wrong, I guess I may pay the consequences at some later stage.

  8. Wes, I’m right with your comments, they reflect my concerns too. I think Dawkins would love this poster; it would seem to prove what he was talking about. Matt, it’s a great place to stand, I think.

  9. Hi Nathan,

    I am confused about your concern that Dawkins would love trhe poster. He isn’t in Perth. The poster was for students at UWA. Some interested inquirers did come to the talk, because they perceived it to be a genuine issue, and my discussions with one of them indicated that he appreciated both the fact that Christians were willing to address the issue and the way it was addressed.

  10. My comment was agreeing with English St:

    “Dawkins would thrive in the knowledge that some Uni Church group has claimed God responsible for genocide just to mount an argument against him.”

    I meant that I think Dawkins would feel the Killing Fields image and the title ‘God’s Genocide’ is exactly what he thinks about the Book of Joshua. But I’m saying that without knowing much of Dawkins’ arguments, so I may be wrong.

  11. Hi Nathan,
    Options 5 or 6 appear to be the best to me. I’d call 6 a Christological option rather than “pick and choose” but then so is option 5 that Yoder presents.

    Ray Gingerich has an interesting article entitled “Theological Foundations for an Ethics of Nonviolence: Was Yoder’s God a Warrior?” and it can be found on the web at http://www.blufton.edu/~mastg/pacifism.h

    By the way, you are spot on regarding Richard Dawkins’ view on God’s genocide which is set out in his book “The God Delusion”.
    John Arthur

  12. John, thanks for the link to the Gingerich article – this will be interesting reading. Good on you for wading through the God Delusion – you can at least engage people who like it.. 🙂

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