Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Genocide? Or Obedience?

In 2010, I attended a writer’s retreat at Laity Lodge in the Hill Country of Texas. I was part of the poetry seminar, led by poet (and University of Missouri professor) Scott Cairns. Our overnight assignment was to write a poem about a Bible passage we found troublesome.

I chose Joshua 5-12.

One of the main themes in that section is herem, a Hebrew word meaning destruction of essentially everything. In that section, before a number of battles, God tells Joshua and the Israelites to commit herem when they defeat the foe. That means killing every living thing – men, women, children, domestic animals and livestock.

The command was given several times, and the Israelites obeyed (one tried to hold on to some treasure and got death for him and his family as a result). At Jericho, only the prostitute Rahab and her family were spared, because she had protected the spies. Every other living thing in the city was put to the sword.

The passage is clear. God told the Israelites to do it.

Today we use words like genocide or “ethnic cleansing.”

No matter what it’s called, the idea of herem is unsettling. In most of the conflicts, God told his people to undertake mass killings of those they conquered.

Theoretically, I can understand what was happening. God was cleansing the land. What I didn’t know, until Andy Stanley pointed it out in The Grace of God, was that God was also judging the Canaanites (referred to as the Amorites in Genesis), the people living in the land promised to the Israelites.

Stanley says that the sins of the Amorites were grievous and offensive to God (things like child sacrifice); that they had been given ample time to repent and change (several hundred years, in fact); that they had heard what was coming with the Israelites (Rahab clearly knew the whole story of the Exodus). So it wasn’t only about the Hebrews taking the promised land; it was also about the Canaanites being judged for their sins.

My modern sensibilities still recoil. It doesn’t seem harsh; it was harsh. But I’m reminded of our own examples of non-God genocide – the Nazi death camps, the war in the Balkans in the 1990s, Rwanda, and Dafur. The difference is that God had a godly purpose.

God is both terrifying and loving, Stanley writes. The terrifying part is, well, terrifying.

This is the poem I wrote.

As for me and my house
A meditation on Joshua 5-12

Would I have been cleansed
in the wilderness, or buried
in the sand as a submission
to the cleansing?

That man wielding the
great sword, that man
commanding the Lord’s host,
that man who makes ground
would I have obeyed, even
unto death?

Could I have stood in that
Jericho doorway, and plunged
the sword into the mother
and then the child? Or the child
first and then the mother?
And plunged that sword again
at Ai and Makeddeh,
Libnah and Lachish,
Eglon and Hebron,
Hazor and Anab, Jarmuth and
Gexer and Bethel and Aphek
and Tirzah and Megiddo and…

When the man who makes
ground holy turned over
the tables of shekels and
talents and doves, shouting
at thieves and robbers,
would I have conspired
to kill him, becoming yet
another submission to the
Or would he have
cleansed me?

Led by Jason Stayszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing The Grace of God. To see more posts on this chapter, “Rescued by Grace,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines


Maureen said...

The question as refrain is haunting. What I find terrifying is how often we humans cannot answer it until faced with the very act that requires response.

jasonS said...

God is unsettling in some ways. Thank you for not shying away from this. I liked that Andy said he wasn't going to try to offer up easy answers. There are no easy answers in this, but God's grace was still active in all of it. Reminds me of the old prayer that says, "may we be uncomfortable with easy answers" or something like that. Some things we just can't fully understand, but we can still trust Him. Thanks Glynn

Nyssa said...

I can not wrap my head around a God like the Old Testament God. My father, a baptist minister, tended to shy away from those passages and I'm glad he did. It's brave of you to tackle it. I'm not certain of my beliefs anymore especially about the taking the bible literally. I think, despite strong warnings from some Christians, I will heed only to the words of Jesus, Himself. Interesting read although it did make me squirm.

TC Avey said...

Reading through the Bible it's so easy for us to judge people who did immoral things (King David's affair and then murder) but we have to ask ourselves if we were in their shoes if we could have done better.
Today, it's still God's grace that saves us, that loves us, that forgives our sins.
The Bible is full of real people, with real sin and a loving God who goes out of His way to show us His grace.
Excellent poem.

Michael Dodaro said...

This is one of the reasons that we have to accept development of theology and ethics throughout the Biblical literature. In the late bronze age it was evidently conceivable that genocide was the will of God. Now we have to acknowledge the primitive nature of these atrocities. With this comes an acknowledgement that the Bible is not infallible, morally or spiritually. With St. Paul we can say, “as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.”
Our prophecy, including the Bible, is imperfect. Until the perfect comes, we can only work with what knowledge we have and act in love.

Lynford Rozario said...

Thanks for sharing..:)

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Michael Dodaro said...

"Thanks for sharing." I hear this often enough. With a wink to true believers, it says we can condescend to these ideas without discussion. If you have a defense of the indefensible, I'll hear it. Until I have a better explanation, I'll go with Jesus: "Those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."

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jmcr foundation said...

Thank you for visiting our website

we hope the following links will assist with any inquiry you have.

Mailing Address:
34490 Ridge Rd
Willoughby Ohio 44094

Phone number:

Customer Service, Products or Partner Relations Inquiries:

1 John 4:8
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.