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Can God Commit Genocide?

Mar 02, 2015 | Wes Hynd

We’ve dealt with quite a lot on this blog over the last year or so. Does science point to the existence of God? Is the Bible reliable? Did Jesus really resurrect from the dead? What about evil and suffering? What about Hell? What about morality? Can there only be one way to God?

We have discussed all of these questions (and more!). But one popular objection I hear still today is that the Bible contains horrible atrocities committed in the name of God, or that the Old Testament laws are offensive and disagreeable, and therefore God does not exist. One friend told me recently that reading the Bible was precisely what drove him away from believing in God because he couldn’t believe in a God who would do or say such things as are done and said in the Bible.

I’d like to begin a series today discussing these kinds of questions, but let me first say this: I’m not convinced that these kinds of questions are actually at the heart of most people’s disbelief when it comes to God. I think questions like these are absolutely legitimate ones, and ones we should ask in an effort to understand what is going on in the Bible, and I do believe they are honest questions when they are asked. But I also think that more often than not, these questions are not actually being asked. I think for a lot of people, these questions are convenient reasons to give for not believing in God, but I think there is often something much deeper, below the surface, which is the real reason why many people just don’t want to believe in God. It’s an easy out to cite moral disagreement with the Bible because it’s become a socially acceptable belief, and so that becomes the “reason.” But I think when these questions are actually asked, implying that some effort is put into searching for the answers, often answers can be found. I feel obligated to point out that it is not an open-minded person earnestly seeking the truth who asks a question, and then not expecting an answer promptly answers it for themselves. I think this points to something deeper, an underlying real reason for someone’s belief or lack thereof, conveniently propped up by the reasons other people give for their beliefs so that no real investigation is required.

That being said, I invite you, with an open mind, to explore these questions with me. They are, as I said, very legitimate questions which do need to be asked in the honest pursuit of truth. Let’s start with the objection that God commands the nation of Israel through Moses and Joshua to attack several cities and nations, killing the inhabitants. Many objectors today accuse the God of the Bible of committing genocide here, or at least commanding it. Genocide is a powerful word, especially because in our generation, we immediately think of Hitler and the Jews or the horrible atrocities committed in Rwanda. It is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political or cultural group.[1] It is murder on a massive scale. So is that what the God of the Bible is guilty of?

Is God’s Mission for Israel to Destroy Other Peoples?

Interestingly, when the story of Israel really picks up, God’s mission for them as a people is in stark contrast to destroying other nations. God first makes a covenant with Abraham (through whom Israel would eventually arise) in Genesis 12, saying that “in [Abraham] all the families of the earth will be blessed.”[2] Interesting. All of the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham, not destroyed. So, at least initially, the God of the Bible does not at all seem bent on destroying innocent people.

So Then Why Does God Command Israel to Kill Other Nations?

That’s a very good and a very important question. We can find the answer in multiple places, one of them being Deuteronomy 9:

Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”[3]

So God tells Israel not to get proud about killing these nations, but makes sure they know instead that the reason He is commanding this is because these nations have committed great evil and they are being wiped out as a result. If this is true, Israel is an instrument here of God’s judgment upon these nations. But, of course, God is still commanding the killing of certain people, which is still murder, right?

Can God Commit Genocide?

Wrong. Let’s consider what makes murder wrong in the first place. Murder is wrong because humans have inherent worth and value, and because nobody is in moral authority over another person. I don’t have the right to kill someone because I do not have the authority to judge or determine whether somebody else deserves to die. This is precisely why there is debate over whether the death penalty is murder. Do those in charge of our legal system have the moral authority to decide whether someone deserves to live? I don’t know, but I do know that if God exists, He does. God does have the moral authority to determine whether I deserve to live or die because God created me and thus what is morally right or wrong, what is true and what is just in my reality depend on who He is. God is not capable of murder because He is the only one justified in taking a human life.

Imagine that I lent you my iPod (if I could find it). I asked you to take good care of it and to use it to listen to great music. Two weeks later, I check in with you about how my iPod is doing, and to my horror, I discover that you’ve been using it as a chew toy for your dog! I am not impressed. I lent you my iPod trusting that you would look after it and use it for good, but instead you abused my gift! Do I have the right to take back my iPod? Of course I do. You’ve abused it.

If God created and gave us the gift of life, which ultimately is His property, not ours, and He entrusts us with it to use for good and not for evil, does He not also have the right to reclaim that life when it is abused? Of course He does. In this case, God simply chose to use Israel to carry out His moral judgment on evil and rebellious people. Let’s remember that these people were sacrificing their own children to their gods. Doesn’t that make you angry? Let’s remember that sexually transmitted diseases have been linked to these ancient cultures. They were far from innocent. If the killing of these people was initiated by Israel, then absolutely, it is genocide. If God simply reclaimed the lives of those who abused His gift, then it is not. As the only one possessing the moral authority to take a human life, God cannot commit genocide. It’s impossible.

Is God Inconsistent Then in How He Deals with Israel and Other Nations?

One might then argue that God showed favouritism toward Israel in overlooking their own flaws and evil. However, this is a very difficult argument to justify when you read through the Old Testament. Leading up to Israel entering the Promised Land, God had already punished them severely for their rebellion against Him. He had sent plagues among them, He had reclaimed the lives of many who led rebellions against Him, and He had even sent the entire nation wandering in the desert for an extra 40 years because they refused to trust Him to enter the land when they first arrived there. Ultimately, Israel is uprooted, scattered and taken into captivity after entering the Promised Land because they continue to rebel and commit evil. On the flip side, God saved the entire city of Nineveh in the Assyrian Empire because they turned from their sin and sought forgiveness.

And that is the great thing about this story. That first promise to Abraham that in him all families of the earth would be blessed? That’s a reference to Jesus. We’re all deserving of death, really. But according to the God of the Bible, anyone who turns from their sin and seeks forgiveness as a result of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins will be forgiven and receive eternal life.[4]

What do you call the deliberate and systematic giving of life to a particular group?

Are you willing to seek out the honest answers to your questions in your pursuit of truth? Then bookmark this blog and keep reading in future weeks.


[1] Dictionary.com.

[2] Genesis 12:3 (New American Standard Bible).

[3] Deuteronomy 9:4-5 (NASB).

[4] John 17:3 (NASB).

About the Author

Wes Hynd

Wes has been involved with Power to Change as a student and on staff for 10 years, including one year on STINT in Panama. Currently, he works with students at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University and loves to get students excited about living a life of passionate commitment to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Wes is married to Nadine and enjoys playing soccer, listening to music and talking about deep philosophical questions. He is also a Toronto Maple Leafs fan (do with that what you will).

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