Updated: Mar 4, 2021
I have been asked to talk about God and genocide. This topic seems to be coming up a lot in my life over the past couple weeks. So, someone asking me to write about it just seems like a sign.
What should we make of this? This idea of God commanding the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group (1). That is what genocide is, after all. And it doesn't help to say that God never commanded such a thing, because He... definitely did.
For example, in Deu 25 Moses tells the assembly, "When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!"
Besides the method for which the Israelites were to possess their inheritance, this passage has a specific command to blot out the Amalekites. But this was Moses. Was God on the same page?
In 1Sam 15, the prophet Samuel delivers a message from God to King Saul. This message gives us the infamous, "Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."
So, it would appear that God was in agreement with Moses on how to deal with the Amalekites. And that "dealing" was genocide. Do these passages also provide God's justification for commanding the genocide?
Yes. At least in part.
But that doesn't change the fact that God is commanding genocide. So, how should we understand that? How do we reconcile a good and loving God with genocide?
Do I have enough space to fully answer this problem? Absolutely not.
Will that stop me? ... No...
There's more to God than love. Sure, the love of God is very important, but is there something even more important?
A much overlooked attribute of God is His holiness. However, there seems to be sufficient biblical evidence to suggest that God thinks that holiness is His most important attribute (2). And who are we to disagree with God over His preferred attributes?
What does it mean to be holy?
Essentially, it means to be "set apart". To be different, special and unique. In the context of God's relationship with humanity, God's holiness is "first and foremost his transcendent sovereignty as the ruler of the world... At the same time his holiness encompasses his moral authority, which derives from his royal position. As king he has the right to dictate to his subjects how they are to live; indeed his very own character sets the standard for proper behavior. He is 'set apart' from his subjects in a moral sense as well. He sets the standard; they fall short of it." (3)
These moral standards (laws), set by God, are extremely important as they express who He is. Any deviations from those standards are a direct revolt against God and a challenge to who He is and His authority. That, my fellow sinners, is what we call "treason". And, it's the worse kind of treason. Unjustified treason.
R.C. Sproul writes in his book, The Holiness of God, " Hans Kung, the controversial Roman Catholic theologian, writing about the seemingly harsh judgments of sin God makes in the Old Testament, says that the most mysterious aspect of the mystery of sin is not that the sinner deserves to die, but rather that the sinner in the average situation continues to exist."
In short, we think the death and suffering that we currently experience are not appropriate because we fail to understand/appreciate God's holiness.
God and Humanity
God's relationship with humanity takes on a variety of forms. In the Bible, He is described as relating to us as king, shepherd, father, husband, and warrior (just to name a few). In addition to these ways, God also relates to humans on an individual level, as He did with Abraham, but He also relates to humans on various corporate levels, as He did with the nation of Israel (Israel, of course, being depicted in the Bible as God's adulterous wife).
In the Bible, nations are treated very much like individuals. So, we should see the different ways nations interact with each other and with God through the lens of how individuals interacting with each other.
But how does one go about punishing a nation? The answer is strikingly similar. For example, a nation can be punished by removing economic security (this can be done by God or another nation). Or by causing "pain" with a plague of some kind. God can exile a nation as He did with the Israelites. And, finally, God can kill a nation, and that can sometimes be done through genocide.
My main point here is that God can sentence a nation to death as a punishment for the evil that that nation does. And a method for that death can be genocide. This is not to take away the difficulty of the situation. No one should look at a nation destroyed in this manner and look down on her. We should be sober, knowing that we have the capacity to earn the same punishment. To be honest, it's likely the case that we already have earned it and the only reason we haven't been destroyed in some way is because of God's mercy.
Let's say that someone remains unconvinced. Perhaps they think, "Genocide is still evil and that makes God evil. I don't care how holy God is or how immoral we are."
I would say three things to that person:
First, you thinking that way is why we're in this mess to begin with.
Second, someone can't be considered "evil" if an evil act they do/command has moral justification.
Third, you are not in a position to say that the evil of genocide, as commanded by God, isn't morally justified.
I understand that some might think that my third response is a particularly bold claim and that it might be hard to believe. But there are a couple properties that God has that we are lacking. The God of the Bible has the following properties:
Being the main author of the world
The responsibility of ordering a world containing creatures with freewill (4)
I have no difficulty saying that no human possesses all of those properties. Let alone any of them. And these are not trivial properties. Even if it were true that someone possessed "moral perfection", they still lack the omniscience necessary to know how to flawlessly judge a situation. They would still be unable to flawlessly judge a situation even if they had omniscience but lacked moral perfection.
For us to challenge God on these matters is like someone challenging Magnus Carlson (the chess world champion) on a move he makes, when they barely know the rules for chess (except, it's infinitely worse). Sure, they can criticize Magnus, but their critiques bear absolutely no weight. It's even more absurd for us to criticize God.
What's even more clear to me is that, unlike God, we lack what is necessary to know when it's appropriate to be merciful.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive explanation for God and genocide. I too lack the credentials necessary to explain why a perfectly loving God would command genocide. This post is simply to offer a different perspective on this question. I strongly believe that we should endeavor to understand God in the context of His full being and the context of our relationships with Him and in the context our notable limitations. Thank you very much for reading!
(2) In Isa 6:3 and Rev 4:8 declare this attribute of God using a threefold format. Repetition is sometimes used to emphasis something. We still do this occasionally in english. Take a look at Eze 21:27 for another example.
(3) NET Bible Note 5 on Isa 6:3
(4) These four properties are based on my study of the Bible. It would take a long time to expound on each of these. I'll do them in other post in the future.