The Genocidal God of the Old Testament?

Simple thoughts on some difficult passages

Subdeacon Kristian Akselberg

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ – 1 Reigns (1 Samuel) 15:2-3[1]

They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male…And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast…Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. – Numbers 31:7,9-11,15-18

Passages such as these have long made the historical books of the Old Testament[2] a stumbling block to believers, and a cause for ridicule for the disbeliever, for whom “the genocidal God of the Old Testament” has become something of a battle cry.

Many try to distance themselves from these passages with the oft repeated “That was in the Old Testament, now we have the New!” Not only is this a cop-out, but its implications are heretical. There is not one God of the Old Testament and another of the New. God is One. Moreover, while the movement from the Old Testament to the New signifies a change in man’s relationship with God, God Himself remains unchanged. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind”[3] and in Him “there is no variation or shadow due to change.”[4] Consequently, while God acted differently with His people in the time of the Old Testament, condescending to their weaknesses and limited knowledge, gradually leading them to greater understanding, it is still the same One God we encounter in the New. If someone, then, convicts God of unrighteousness in the Old, simply pointing to the New is no answer.

Rather than ignoring these passages, a second possibility, based on the Holy Fathers, is to interpret them symbolically. The command to slaughter our enemies must be understood as an exhortation to put to death our sins, of which men, women, children, infants, ox and sheep, etc. all represent different forms and stages. For example, when the Psalmist says to the Babylonians “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock,”[5] the Fathers understand this to mean that we should destroy all sin, no matter how small. For just as an infant grows into an adult, so do minor temptations quickly become overwhelming if we do not immediately dash them against the Rock, who is Christ. This is certainly how we should be reading the Old Testament as Christians. However, while such a reading explains verses like the one from the Psalmist, the historical books are so called because the events they describe actually took place. Thus, while symbolism gives them meaning for us today, the question remains: how do we reconcile these events with the God of love we hear of elsewhere?

What must be remembered is that the Old Testament is first and foremost a work of theology, and that its purpose is prophetic. Not only is the text of the Old Testament prophetic, but the very purpose, existence, and life of the Chosen People was prophetic. The bondage of the Israelites in Egypt, for example, represents humanity’s bondage to sin, their escape from death by the blood of lambs humanity’s salvation through the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God, on the Cross, their escape from Pharaoh through the waters of the Red Sea our own liberation from the tyranny of the devil through the holy waters of baptism, and so on. Many often scoff when they find in the Law of Moses, the code by which the life of Israel was governed, seemingly bizarre or meaningless prohibitions like not wearing clothing of mixed fibres,[6] or not eating a particular set of animals.[7] What these people fail to do is take into account prophecy. Every act of God’s People, down to the clothing they wore and the style of their hair, was prophetic. We see a perfect example of this in the Book of Ezekiel, where the holy prophet is commanded to lie on his side for 390 days in order to prophesy about the siege of Jerusalem,[8] or in the Book of Hosea, who had to take as his wife a prostitute, Gomer, in order to prophecy against the adultery Israel was committing against God through their unfaithfulness. Perhaps the most difficult elements of Mosaic Law are the many instances of capital punishment, which is applied not only to things like murder, but to seemingly undeserving offences, such as cursing ones parents,[9] homosexual relations,[10] sorcery,[11] working on the Sabbath,[12] or blasphemy.[13] These too must be understood in light of the prophetic nature of both the Law and the very life of the people who lived by it. We should not forget that much of Old Testament Law, and the accompanying punishments, was already present in pre-existing Semitic tribal law.[14] As Christ said to the Jews who questioned him on divorce: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”[15] God, then, did not wholly overturn existing cultural practices, but imbued them with new meaning, allowing them to continue for the sake of prophecy. “The wages of sin is death,” St. Paul tells us, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[16] It was through the fall of Adam that death entered into the world,[17] and it was the bondage of death from which our Lord Jesus Christ saved us through His glorious death and resurrection, trampling down death by death. The calls for capital punishment in the Law are first and foremost prophetic and theological, making ever present this connection between sin – the turning away from God, who is Life – and death. This is highlighted by the fact that in Jewish tradition, a Sanhedrin that issued the death penalty more than once in the course of seven years was considered “bloody,”[18] pointing to the infrequency of its actual implementation.

Returning, now, to the question of genocide. Although quite different from the issue of capital punishment, in that I do not believe it can be explained merely through God’s condescension to human weakness by permitting existing cultural norms, here too we must understand the synthesis between historical reality, prophecy and theology, and the reordering of purpose. In the case of the historical books, what we see are descriptions of the Jewish people in conflict with their enemies, and the realities of warfare in the Iron Age Near East, but told from a theological perspective, giving prophetic meaning to an otherwise conventional act of war. Throughout the Holy Scriptures we see the evil deeds of men being used by God to serve a good purpose. This is not to say God willed evil, but rather that, once evil had been committed,[19] God, as He is wont, turned something evil into something good. Likewise, here, the gruesome realities of war are presented to us as an image of our own spiritual battle, turning these stories into a source for our spiritual edification. In light of this, it seems to me that, while we read the descriptions of war as historical events, the words “Thus says the Lord,” and similar denotements of divine sanction and exhortation, apply not to their battle, but to ours. What we see in these books is not God saying to the Israelites “Kill your enemies” but rather God saying to us “As the Israelites defeated their foes, do likewise to your spiritual foes. As they left no one alive, not even infants, let no sin remain alive in you, no matter how small it may seem.”

The key to understanding these difficult passages, then, is to recognise that they are both historical and theological, neither abandoning historical truth in favour of pure symbolism, nor imposing on a theological text the rigidity of a common historical document, but simply reading Scripture as Scripture.

[1] All quotations of Holy Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version (Anglicised).

[2] I include in this term also the historical accounts we find in the books of Moses or the Prophets.

[3] Numbers 23:19

[4] James 1:17

[5] Psalm 136:9, apparently a verse too difficult even for Boney M.

[6] Leviticus 19:19

[7] Leviticus 11

[8] Ezekiel 4

[9] Exodus 21:17

[10] Leviticus 20:13

[11] Exodus 22:18

[12] Exodus 35:2

[13] Leviticus 24:16

[14] The prohibition against the eating of pork, for example, is attested to in ancient Egypt.

[15] Matthew 19:8

[16] Romans 6:23

[17] cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21

[18] Mishna (Mak. 1:10, Mak. 7a)

[19] And necessary evil is evil nonetheless.  “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).