Genocide in the bible

Uploaded by deathray32 on 27.10.2012

Many people are familiar with Psalm 137, which begins, "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and
wept when we remembered Zion." But how many people know how it ends? "Happy is the one
who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."
In the book of Esther, the evil courtier Haman plots to kill the Jews in Babylon. They get
wind of the plot and spend two weeks slaughtering Babylonians. Finally, after killing 75,000
Babylonians, they hold a feast to celebrate. This feast is still celebrated by Jews today.
It's called Purim.
Perhaps the bloodiest book in all the bible is the book of Joshua. It tells the story
of Joshua, the successor of Moses, rampaging and slaughtering his way across Canaan, rather
like Kony and his Lord's Army terrorizing Africa today.
It's interesting to note that Joshua and Jesus are simply two different forms of the same
name, rendered Iesous in the Greek language. Imagine you are an early Christian, reading
the Gospels and the Septuagint in Greek. In one, you read of Jesus healing the sick and
preaching universal love and brotherhood, and in the other, you read of Jesus massacring
whole peoples and destroying cities.
A reader with modern sensibilities would get a severe case of congnitive dissonance. However,
early Christian writers revelled in this coincidence of names. A common theme was, just as Iesous-Joshua
slaughtered the Canaanites, Iesous-Jesus will return to slaughter the sinners and unbelievers.
In the centuries since then, the story of Joshua commiting genocide on the Canaanites,
Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Moabites, Edomites, and may other tribes has been seized
on to justify countless atrocities from the devout Christian Oliver Cromwell butchering
the Irish, to puritans wiping out Native Americans.
Even today in Israel, the term "Amalekite" is commonly used against Palestinians, Muslims
and Arabs in general, and even Jews who are considered not hawkish or ultra-orthodox enough.
For example, Benjamin Netanyahu justifies trying to drag the U.S. into war against Iran
with the words, "Think Amalek". Considering that orthodox Jews believe themselves under
a divine command to wage eternal war against Amalek and wipe it out, any thinking person
should be worried.
Now, slaughter and massacre were regular aspects of war in antiquity, but the type of all-out
warfare practiced by Joshua was unique. It was called herem warfare and was supposedly
mandated by God - nothing that breathed was to be allowed to live. Other groups at the
time routinely slaughtered all the able-bodied men who could bear arms against them, but
it didn't make economic sense to wipe out the women and children, let alone the livestock.
However, the Israelites introduced a new level of savagery as they roamed Canaan in their
search for Lebensraum, in an orgy of bloodshed that makes Mein Kampf look like the teachings
of Buddha.
The Book of Joshua was probably written in the seventh century B.C.E and the writers
of that time saw no need to sugar-coat or apologize for Joshua's genocides. There was
no suggestion that the Canaanites were any more evil than any other group of people - they
were just inconveniently living in the land that Yahweh had promised to the Israelites,
and they had to be destroyed because they were in the way.
Later writers, however, started to feel moral qualms about such wholesale massacre. That's
when the trope of the Canaanites as uniquely depraved and debauched humans got started,
and it's the excuse still used by many Christian apologists today, including William Lane Craig.
However, it just won't wash, since we know a great deal about the Canaanites from archeology
and independent historical records. They were a civilized people whose offshoots included
the Phoenicians, the great traders of their time, and the Carthaginians, whose military
genius Hannibal posed a threat to the Roman Empire.
One way in which many people in previous centuries dealt with the violent and disturbing books
in the bible was to imagine that there were two gods, the bloodthirsty tribal god Yahweh
of the Old Testament, and the superior god who revealed himself in Jesus. This dualistic
theology was at the root of many movements such as Gnosticism, Marcionism, Manichaeanism
and Catharism. Of course, these movements were denounced as heresy by the mainstream
Christian church, which eventially wiped them out.
Still later, a new approach was to suggest that the genocide stories in the bible are
just metaphors. The Canaanites represent our lower sinful natures, which must be overcome
if we are to achieve salvation. "No actual Canaanites were harmed in the creation of
this myth." Of course, this approach is problematic.
Suppose that Hitler had completed his Final Solution and wiped out all Jews. Perhaps a
few centuries from now, people might say that the Jews were not flesh and blood people but
metaphors for greed and treachery. Now, the number of people killed in the bible's war
and battles is probably hugely exaggerated, but it is important to remember that religious
fanaticism hurts and kills real people, always has, and always will.
Today's most common solution to the problem of biblical genocide is a sort of institutional
amnesia. All of the troubling passages in the bible have been weeded out of the Revised
Common Lectionary, so you could attend church services every day for years and never hear
anything to burst your illusion that the bible is a book of peace and love. Many Christians
and Jews will tell you with confidence that the Quran is a book of blood and slaughter,
but they are ignorant of the violence and butchery in their own holy books.
In fairness, though, it must be mentioned that over the centuries, many Christians have
wrestled honestly and courageously with the problematic parts of the bible. Some of them
have ceased to be Christians as a result. For example Matthew Tindal, the father of
British deism and a hugely influential figure in English and international law, reached
his position after struggling with what Phyliss Tribble calls the Texts of Terror. Other writers,
while remaining Christian, have gradually dragged sections of the church, kicking and
screaming, in a more humanist and tolerant direction.
So when William Lane Craig glibly asserts that the Canaanites deserved to be massacred
because they were wicked and sub-human, not only is his attempt at justification horrific
to modern sensibilites, particularly in the wake of the World War Two holocaust, the Rwandan
genocide and other nightmares, but his theology is centuries behind the times.