Are the stories of genocide in the Bible actually made-up?

Q.  I saw this review and it made me think of many of the difficult questions you’ve been untangling on your Understanding the Books of the Bible blog. Perhaps you’ll find in it a few more.

The friend who sent me this note was referring to a review by Patrick Allitt of Philip Jenkins’ book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.  I should specify that I haven’t read the book itself, only this review.  But it does indeed raise difficult questions.

According to Allitt, Jenkins insists that “the Bible contains incitements not just to violence but also to genocide.”  He argues that “Christians and Jews should struggle to make sense of these violent texts as a central element of their tradition.”  This, he says, would be much better than past approaches, which have included:

•  Taking the passages about merciless warfare literally and imitating them when the occasion seems to justify, as the Crusaders and conquistadors did.

•  Ignoring the passages, as the Revised Common Lectionary and most preachers do today.  This is equivalent to taking them out of the Bible, as  Marcion wanted to do in the second century.

•  Allegorizing them as metaphorical descriptions of the individual believer’s struggle against sin, as Origen and Augustine did.

•  Arguing that they discredit the God of the Bible, as some Enlightenment figures did and as today’s “new atheists” are doing.

Instead of taking any of these approaches, Jenkins argues, we need to recognize that the biblical stories of divinely commanded genocides are actually a historical fiction made up many centuries after the facts, to encourage Israelites to “live up to the rigors of monotheism” by having nothing to do with the gods of the surrounding nations.  The biblical authors were “‘telling a story and at every possible stage heightening the degree of contrast and separation between Israel and those other nations,’ not for the sake of historical accuracy but to send a spiritual message to their own people.”

Jenkins, citing archaeological evidence that “the Hebrews coexisted with many other peoples in the Canaan of the 12th century B.C.,” is convinced that  “the pitiless massacres in question almost certainly did not take place.”  So “perhaps,” he concludes, “the later commentators, Jewish and Christian, were not that misguided in seeing the massacres in allegorical terms.”  “Israel had to kill its inner Canaanite.”

This is a very attractive proposal, because the biblical stories of genocide are so disturbing.  It would be a great relief to think that they never really happened.  However, I do have some concerns about this proposal, at least as it’s summarized in this review.

As I understand the Bible, it’s the written record of God’s initiatives throughout history to bring humanity back to himself.  I allow that the recounting of this history, like all historiography we do on this earth, was necessarily shaped and limited by the sources available to the human authors of the Bible.  In it we may encounter multiple perspectives on the same events.  But this is very different from saying that the biblical authors, in telling their story, deliberately altered events as they were known to them from the historical record.

We shouldn’t have to read the Bible with a built-in skepticism about what it says happened.  We may sometimes get slightly varying accounts of how, and there are often questions of why, but in general we are supposed to trust that we are hearing an overall narrative of what God has actually done in human history.

So I would take a different approach to the violent stories in question.  I would accept that they actually did happen.  (Even if there is archaeological evidence of co-existence with Canaanites in ancient Israel, this is no more than the Bible itself says:  Joshua’s campaigns were against the fortified royal cities of the region; when these were subdued, Joshua gave the individual tribes the task of conquering the Canaanites remaining in their allotments, and in many cases they chose to co-exist with them instead.)  But I do not believe that followers of Jesus should consider these stories a “central element” (admittedly Allitt’s phrase) of their tradition.

Quite the opposite.  I see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible.  The challenge is not to see how we can incorporate them into the heart of our faith and practice (as epitomizing the struggle against sin, for example), but rather to see whether we can somehow account for them without losing our faith.

I talk about how we might do this in this post, in which I argue that “Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.  Jesus taught that we should love even our enemies, and that we should show mercy to others so that we will receive mercy ourselves.  He died to save people who were, at the time, his own enemies.  So his life and teachings show that judgments of total destruction, like the one described here, are “exceptional.”

The question then becomes, “Why did exceptional events like this occur as the Israelites took possession of Canaan?”  This is, as I also say, “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.”  It does not have a simple, easy solution.

But I would suggest that if we did abandon the God of the Bible because we found these violent episodes impossible to reconcile with the biblical presentation of God as essentially loving and merciful, then we would also be abandoning that loving, merciful God in the process.

I think it’s better to take as our bottom line John’s statement that “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”  If we want to know what God is really like, we can look to Jesus.  This is the “made him known” part The challenging questions that remain then have to do with the “no one has ever seen God” part, and we can hope that they will finally be resolved once we do see God.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

12 thoughts on “Are the stories of genocide in the Bible actually made-up?”

  1. “But I would suggest that if we did abandon the God of the Bible because we found these violent episodes impossible to reconcile with the biblical presentation of God as essentially loving and merciful, then we would also be abandoning that loving, merciful God in the process.”

    Yes, but that is not an explanation nor argument either way. Why should you have to struggle to “account” for them if the bible is really teaching the latter? It is or it isn’t. Or is it just wishful thinking?

    1. My point is that if we want to keep using the Bible as our source of information about what God is like, we have to account in some way for everything the Bible says about God. We may still believe that God is fundamentally loving and merciful, but we have to integrate uncharacteristic episodes into the portrayal in some way. Simply saying that they never happened seems like an easy way out.

      1. Perhaps. But you avoid the question entirely. I commend you at least for recognizing that it’s an incongruous and brutal act – there are plenty of those in the bible. But it’s not enough to say “it’s a hard question” and leave it at that. This, to me, is a “stop the presses” moment and address the question before moving another step forward.

      2. It’s one thing to “stop the presses” and address the question, as I try to do here and in other posts on this blog. But it’s another thing to stop the presses and resolve the question, which frankly I don’t think we can do. As I explain in my review of Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible, I think there are simply some parts of the Bible we can’t make sense of, and these genocide passages are among them. Some might say that for that reason we shouldn’t have any confidence in any of the Bible. But I think that’s too extreme a reaction. I think we need to be humble about what we can and can’t resolve from the perspective of our own place in time and culture. Ultimately it comes down to a choice, or an act of faith. Is the Bible a reliable account of God’s dealings with humanity through the centuries? The Bible itself won’t force you to a particular decision about that. The most it will do is draw you into the very story it’s telling, one that is full of difficulties and ambiguities but also great hope and glory. That’s how I understand the invitation we’re being offered.

  2. Thank you for answering. I understand what you’re saying. You have an acceptance that even if there are things in the bible you don’t like or understand – you prefer to take the position that there must be a good explanation since God is involved. That you don’t have this explanation at hand right now doesn’t take anything away from your faith.

    But frankly, this is what scares me about religion in general. If a religion can get people to dismiss the concerns they have with murder, brutality and genocide, they find in a sacred book – then those same people will be far more likely to stand by as atrocities are committed today if they think these are being done in the name of their religion. It’s easy enough to find examples of this even toda much and even more throughout history..

    Not to be funny at all .. but with so many Christians talking to God as they claim – why isn’t there some insight into this question?

    1. Throughout history people have indeed committed atrocities in the name of God, but I do not think that people of faith who find the violence in their sacred book disturbing, perplexing, and incongruous–out of synch with its main teachings about love for enemies, peacemaking, and forgiveness–are likely to be the ones committing these atrocities. Rather it is those who already have a penchant for violence and who find a convenient rationalization for it in a selective and unreflecting appropriation of only certain pieces of a religion.

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