Ethical Criticism of the Bible: The Case of Divinely Mandated Genocide


Taking as a test case biblical texts in which the God of Israel commands the destruction other nations, the present paper defends the legitimacy and the necessity of ethical criticism of the Bible. It takes issue with the suggestions of several contemporary Christian philosophers who have recently defended the view that (in Israel’s early history) God had good and morally sufficient reasons for commanding genocide.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example, Deut. 7:1–5, 20:16; Josh. 11:15, 6:20–21; Num. 31:8–18; and 1 Sam. 15:1–5. All biblical citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, as given in the Oxford Annotated Bible (Metzger et al. 1991).

  2. 2.

    Yhwh is the English transliteration of the Tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters representing the proper name of the God of Israel), and Yahweh is the standard scholarly guess as to the correct pronunciation. Most English Bibles render Yhwh as ‘the Lord’ (small caps). This is differentiated from ‘the Lord,’ which is used to translate the Hebrew Adonai. ‘Lord’ comes to us from the Greek kurios, which the Septuagint uses to render Yhwh.

  3. 3.

    Some people object to the use of the word ‘genocide’ in this context, arguing that God’s intentions were good and/or that obedience to a divine command is not wrong. However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘genocide’ as ‘the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group’ (OED 2010). That is the precise sense in which I am using the term here.

  4. 4.

    The line taken by Swinburne in this context may surprise readers familiar with his work on revelation. Swinburne has a sophisticated hermeneutical apparatus – one that in no way requires biblical literalism or inerrancy (Swinburne (1992) and (2011)). In his most recent statement on the subject, Swinburne continues to approve of some of the metaphorical and allegorical interpretations given by Origen (2011: 222). However, when he turns his attention to the Canaanites, the line he takes is hardly distinguishable from that of biblical inerrantists like Paul Copan (2008) or Craig 2007).

  5. 5.

    I assume the falsity of the most extreme form of divine voluntarism. If you think there are no restrictions – not even ones internal to the divine nature – on what God can do and still be ‘good’, then you will not by troubled by the problem discussed in this paper. Your problem will be a different one – that of giving any significance at all to the claim that God is good.

  6. 6.

    Murphy appeals to the ‘skeptical theism’ of Michael Bergmann (Bergmann 2009) to establish that our grasp of ‘intrinsic value and the means of realizing it’ is insufficient to warrant the judgment that God acted in careless disregard of the intrinsic value of Canaanite persons (Murphy 2011: 154–7). Murphy also argues that God could not have violated the rights of ancient peoples, since he and they did not belong to the same ‘dikaiological order.’

  7. 7.

    Here are a few examples of what noted biblical scholars have to say on this topic.

    ‘Archaeological work in the land of Israel has demonstrated that the conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua simply did not happen’ (Anderson 2011: 271). Anderson adds: ‘It is rare indeed for Biblical scholars to agree on almost any question, but historical critical scholars are virtually unanimous on this one’ (271, fn. 4).

    ‘The law of herem in Deuteronomy,’ is ‘a utopian law which was written in retrospect’ (Weinfeld 1993: 154). It ‘was never put into practice’ and ‘originated in a theoretical manner a few centuries after the wars of Israel in Canaan’ (152,160). ‘[I]n practice, the inhabitants of the Canaanite cities were not destroyed but rather placed under corvée labor…’ (152).

    ‘The texts are not naïve reflections of primitive practice but programmatic ideological statements from the late seventh century B.C.E. or later. We can no longer accept them as simply presenting what happened’ (Collins 2003: 11).

  8. 8.

    If the reader is interested in what biblical scholars have to say about the issue addressed in this paper, a particularly good place to begin is an article by Eryl Davies (Davies 2005). His extensive bibliography is also quite useful.

  9. 9.

    See Leviticus 18, which provides a long list of respects in which the Israelites are not to imitate other nations. Child sacrifice is on the list, but most have to do with sexual behavior. Temple prostitution is not mentioned.

  10. 10.

    Swinburne seems to have forgotten the ‘ban’ against the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15), which (in the timeline of the biblical narrative) occurred some 400 years later during the reign of Israel’s first King. As we shall soon see, the rationale for the Amalekite genocide is quite different.

  11. 11.

    See note 7 above.

  12. 12.

    For a morally sensitive discussion of this particular story that is in many ways complementary to my own, see Fales (2011), 94–98.

  13. 13.

    See, for example, Deut. 34:10–12.

  14. 14.

    Num. 20:2–13.

  15. 15.

    Stump follows the translation of Robert Alter (1999: 89).

  16. 16.

    See note 18 below.

  17. 17.

    The thought in Exodus 20 is not merely that bad behavior has bad consequences for later generations, but that God will impose unpleasant consequences on them because of the sins of the fathers.

  18. 18.

    It is hard to tell how much of this Stump thinks is true. She presents it as part of an elaborate ‘thought experiment’ concerned with a ‘putatively possible world’ in which there is evil and in which ‘the central claims of Christianity are true.’ The question she asks is whether, in such a world, the story of Samuel and the Amalekites could be ‘literally true’ (2011: 182). In order to give an affirmative answer to this question, she feels free to make up details that are not present or implied in the text. On the other hand, it is clear that she thinks of the result of her efforts as a possible interpretation of 1 Samuel 15. Indeed, she repeatedly refers to her various stories as ‘interpretations’ when all she has done is to invent things that are (at best) logically compatible with the text. This way of proceeding is dubious, to say that least. It is one thing to tell a story that is logically consistent with all the sentences in a text, and quite another to provide a possible – i.e., sensible – interpretation of what the text says or implies. Paul Draper is right on the mark when he says that Stump ‘takes the story literally only in a very impoverished sense…’ (Draper 2011: 200–201).

  19. 19.

    For a brief but insightful discussion of the ‘psychological damage’ to those who engage in this kind of warfare, see Paul Draper (2011: 201).

  20. 20.

    I don’t mean to deny that God could miraculously have prevented harm to the Israelites. I claim only that this logical possibility contributes nothing to a sensible interpretation of 1 Samuel 15.

  21. 21.

    Stump assures us that in the world of her ‘thought experiment,’ God has a separate plan for the ‘formation’ of the Amalekite people – one in which their suffering at the hands of the Israelites ‘has a role to play in the relationship of this people to God, during the time of their existence as a people’ (2011: 194–5). I believe that Stump is implying that being slaughtered by the Israelites was somehow good for the Amalekites.

  22. 22.

    See Jeffrey Goldberg (2009). Goldberg explains:

    ‘Amalek,’ in essence, is Hebrew for ‘existential threat.’ Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit.

    If Iran’s nuclear program is, metaphorically, Amalek’s arsenal, then an Israeli prime minister is bound by Jewish history to seek its destruction, regardless of what his allies think.

  23. 23.

    See note 18, where I express my reservations about Stump’s use of this word.

  24. 24.

    Alvin Plantinga backs up this idea with an appeal to core Christian doctrines: ‘So we are perplexed by those OT passages: did God really command something like genocide? But then we recall the love revealed in the incarnation and atonement, and we see that whatever God did, he must indeed have had a good reason, even if we can’t see what the reason is’ (Plantinga 2011: 112–13).

  25. 25.

    For a very brief presentation of one possible skeptical theist solution, see the Introduction to Bergmann, Murray, and Rea (2011), 10–11. See also Murphy (2011), 155–6 and 166–7.

  26. 26.

    I owe the inspiration for (though not the details of) this example to Evan Fales (2011: 96).

  27. 27.

    In the next paragraph, Stump also rejects the possibility of interpreting the text in such a way that it ‘says something very different from its obvious literal meaning.’

    … [T]he cost of this sort of move is not much different from rejecting the story outright as true, and it has the same effect. Human standards and understanding judge the texts; they decide which texts can be taken literally and which have to be taken allegorically. Consequently, the texts do not supply a standard by which human affairs and human views can be corrected. (181)

  28. 28.

    For examples of other rebarbative texts, see Curley (2011).

  29. 29.

    Strictly speaking, the prophet announces a new moral economy without explicitly disputing the validity the earlier one. This is even more obvious in Jeremiah’s version of this oracle (Jer. 31:29–30). Bernard Levinson speculates that Ezekiel’s ‘indirection’ may be intentional, since ‘explicit rejection of transgenerational punishment’ would involve repudiation of ‘an authoritative teaching’ that is present in the Decalogue itself (Levinson 2008: 62). Whether or not this is correct, we can see that transgenerational punishment is morally problematic, and we can see dramatic moral progress in Ezekiel 18.

  30. 30.

    See, for example, Prov. 11:5–6 and Ps. 1.

  31. 31.

    See Crenshaw and James (1993): 380.

  32. 32.

    See Amos 51–27 and Isa. 1:10–20. See also Ps. 51:16–17.

  33. 33.

    For example, Christopher Begg thinks the passages cited in note 32 are best read as ‘hyperbolic reminders of the truth that cultic sacrifice is pleasing to God only when offered by one whose whole life is lived in accordance with God’s will’ (Begg and Christopher 1993: 667).

  34. 34.

    I wish to express my appreciation to Justin McBrayer, Edwin Curley, and Evan Fales’ for reading and commenting on early drafts of this paper. I am especially grateful to the referees of this journal for incisive criticisms and suggestions for improvements. Without their prodding, this paper would have ended up in the trash.


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Morriston, W. Ethical Criticism of the Bible: The Case of Divinely Mandated Genocide. SOPHIA 51, 117–135 (2012).

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  • God
  • genocide
  • ethical
  • Bible
  • Old Testament