Were the genocidal actions of the Old Testament God justifiable?

Inspired by this thread and opened at the behest of Johanna.

In post #22 of this thread, FriarTed wrote:

sparking a fairly emotional response by a hothead from Memphis, in post 24:

As Johanna observed in the next post, though I was responding a post of FriarTed’s almost point-by-point, the whole of my post amounted to a hijack, so I’m opening a new thread.

And now for the opening question: Is there any justification for the genocidal campaign ordered by the OT God in Exodus-Joshua? If so, what is it? If you assert that we cannot judge the actions of the OT Israelites because it was a different time, then by what moral authority, if any, do you condemn Pharoah & Herod’s slaughters of the innocent, or the Romans’ razing of Jerusalem, or any other ancient atrocity?

Well, it’s an interesting issue. There are a lot of points to be addressed:

  1. Who defines “good” and “justifiable”? If it’s a God who is the source of our understanding of good and evil (which is alleged by some who defend these actions), then they are by definition good. Regardless of whether a human being calling for or supporting a similar genocide would be blackest evil.

  2. What investment do you as an individual (not Skald but every reader/responder) put in the Bible as history? Are these accounts accurate? Particularly in view of the fact that textual evidence seems to place the accounts in which the events are recorded anywhere up to 250 years after the events themselves.

  3. Anyone who has had any experience with True Believers knows how easy it is for them to offload responsibility for their actions onto God. “I don’t condemn gay people, but He does” is the least of it. It would be very, very easy to adopt a genocidal strategy as a leader of troops and give out the purport that it was commanded by God. And of course any such alleged commandment is going to survive.

Those are first thoughts towards trying to resolve the question.

While there are other possibilities (i.e. that someone mistakenly thought, or dishonestly claimed, that God ordained the genocide), I’m going to, for the sake of argument, assume God really did command such wholesale slaughter, and explore the question of whether God could have been justified in doing so.

My answer: I don’t know. But if anyone would have been justified in commanding such a thing, God would have; it’s not the same as if a human being had ordained it. God, as the creator and giver of life, arguably has the right to take that life away. God, being all-seeing and all-knowing, would have known whether they “needed killing,” and he would have known what kind of life they could expect to have if they hadn’t been killed—maybe it wouldn’t have been worth living? God would have known what would happen to their souls after they were killed, and could have arranged some sort of afterlife (or reincarnation) that was better than the life they would have faced. Or did they even have souls? Could they have been a nation of psychopaths, genetically lacking a soul, heart, or conscience? Could they have been living in a society that was so corrupt and depraved that anyone in it would have had no hope of a decent or happy life? If you could spell out for me exactly why it’s wrong to kill people, maybe I could say why that reason doesn’t necessarily apply in this situation.

These are all speculations, and they don’t really satisfy me. Even if I could be assured that God was indeed fully justified and that it was the right thing to do, I still don’t like it, because it sets a bad precedent and because it makes God look really bad in the eyes of people like Skald (and many others).

I was not the hothead from Memphis who responded so vehemently, but I pretty much agree with what s/he said. The story of the Amelekites was one of the straws that broke my belief in God–the Christian variety, anyway. “Thou shall not kill” indeed.


You seem to be under the impression that I disbelieve in God. Au contraire. I simply don’t believe that the OT is anything other than a collection of (often slanderous) Bronze Age myths about God. I’ve felt God’s presence in my life; I just don’t believe He or She would do the things attributed to him in I Samuel 15. That would be an evil God, and there’s no point in believing or following one of those.

Obviously you do, Polycarp. By you, I mean the persons responding, not you in particular.

No. God or human, genocide is evil.

That just shows the moral bankruptcy of that position; morality that is whatever God says it is isn’t morality at all. You’re not being moral with that attitude; you’re “just following orders”, like a good concentration camp guard.

Nonsense. Do my parents have the right to murder me ? Does my boss have the right to steal from me ?

Arguably, indeed. I don’t get to take away something I gave.

My opinion is that, whether God exists or not, the depiction of “God” is a human creation, and that human morality has evolved a lot since the OT was written - in part, I think, because books like to OT were written.

At the time of the OT, a lot of things in it were definite advances in human morality.

An example of this process underway is I think the story of the aborted sacrifice of Issac. When reading it the first time, I was struck by how nasty God is - what kind of a god asks a father to sacrifice his own son? What kind of a worshipper would go through with it?

However, considering that the story was written in a social setting in which child sacrifice was commonly accepted, the story can be read another way - as a “just so” story as to why this particular tribe does not perform child sacrifice (even though it is commonly done and perhaps the tribe used to). Not performing child sacrifices is definitely a step forward - a way to escape a negative cultural pattern. Child sacrifice is okay if God tells you to do it - but he no longer does.

Similarly with genocides. These are mentioned in the OT, on orders from God. The message could well be that the only time one is “allowed” to commit genocide or similar rutheless acts is on direct orders from God - something that no longer happens, as prophets no longer exist. Such actions only belong in “the olden days” of myth and legend, when God personally ordered such stuff - and he doesn’t any more.

Personally, I think the world would be a much better place if genocide and the like were confined to the “olden days” …

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.-King Lear IV, 1

According to the bible, at least, those groups of people were irredeemably evil. If that’s true, and they really were irredeemably evil, then wouldn’t it be an act of justice to kill them? And in the case of the Amalekites, they attempted genocide against Israel, so genocide against Amalek was fitting revenge.

Personally, I find these actions just evil, but I’m going to give what I’ve seen apologists say.

First, there is the argument that they never happened, and were inserted into the Bible as being either old legends or the fantasy of a small and not very powerful kingdom that got its behind whupped by just about everyone. It must have been satisfying to puff themselves up with a story about how they wiped out their enemy (which surprisingly, was still around after being wiped out) in the distant past. The level of destruction was certainly not out of line with common practice, and God hadn’t seem to have grown up into any sort of morality yet.

Second, there is the “your arms too short to box with God” explanation, which we’ve seen already. Not very satisfying, since it means you can’t really distinguish commands from god and from Satan.

Third, there is the “they were so evil they deserved it argument,” including the “the babies were better off being killed than growing up evil,” addendum. Supposedly the young girls didn’t qualify as evil.

Still, these genocidal actions pale before the Flood, which doesn’t have the escape clause of someone misinterpreting God’s command.

I meant in your view, CA, not the Bible’s–unless you’re saying the two are identical. :dubious:

Where does God come down on the subject of revenge? Oh yeah:

Oh,I don’t know. God may have had the angels do the donkey work of arranging the Flood, in which case the memo about evacuating all the mortals first, THEN fumigating the place may have been lost.

Damn cherubic temps.

The counterrgument to this is that you do get to take back something you loaned.

God never claimed that life was a permanent, no-strings-attached gift.

“Irredeemable evil” is logically impossible. If you can’t be redeemed, you have no choice in what you do, and are therefore not evil but under compulsion.

Ummmm, no. You can’t plausibly kill a child and claim it is a genocidal threat.

I think we must bear in mind that the God of the Old Testament is a very different God to the one Christians now believe in.

Firstly, he is one among many gods. The early Hebrews were henotheists rather than monotheists. In other words, they believed in the existence of other gods, but they believed Jehovah to be more powerful.

Considered in this light, the God of the Old Testament is more of a war chieftain, leading his tribe to victory against the other tribes and their chieftains/gods. And in such war there is no mercy.

Well, a key point of the Flood story is that God sent the Flood because humanity were so depraved that they deserved it, and that Noah was saved because he was the one righteous man in existence. If you can swallow the rest of the story, why would you disbelieve this part?

If this is the same God who talked with Abraham in Genesis 18, presumably He wouldn’t have ordained the total destruction of a people if there had been even ten of them who didn’t deserve it?

Glad to see somebody gives me respect! :smiley:

And then you had to go and spoil it! :wink:

I don’t see how the question is seriously debatable. If you believe in god AND you believe in the OT then you believe that god is infallable…which sort of tosses out the whole ‘justifiable’ part. Of COURSE he/she/it is justified…its GOD after all!

If you don’t believe in god, or you don’t believe in the OT, then the acts were either never happened, or they were the acts of men…perhaps men deluded into THINKING they were doing the will of god. Or perhaps attempting to justify their actions after the fact by saying they were the will of god.

Um…apologists wouldn’t use this arguement. They BELIEVE that the events in the bible are/were real. This is an arguement used by the other side (and, BTW, where I myself come down…i.e. it never happened, or if it did the account in the bible is so garbled as to probably be unrecognizable from the actual event. There are a LOT of examples of the bible exaggerating the relative importance of the early Hebrew tribes and what they did or didn’t do).

You are projecting your 20th century outlook on events that happened (well, assuming they did) thousands of years ago. I.E. YOUR mindset and morals, values and thoughts are markedly different from the people who lived back then. To THEM, perhaps the killing of children was a mercy…after all, if you killed or enslaved all the adults, who would feed and care for the children? Or perhaps they wanted to make sure none of the children grew up to become a later threat. Both these attituded, while appaling to us today (sickening to me), were pretty much accepted AT THE TIME.

That said I found it curious when I used to go to church and the priest occationally would do a reading from one of these types of passages. Well, more repelling than curious I should admit. One of the myriad reasons I’m not a Catholic anymore…