How a loving God could command the wholesale extermination of nations
Posted by Matthew on May 26, 2010
Here is a longer way of expressing the conflict present in the title of this post:
(1) God is good (something we can assert by definition or, more importantly, we can testify of through our experience with him).
(2) Killing innocent people is not good. (If we wanted we could use the word genocide here as it also seems to fit what is described. )
(3) We have scripture (Joshua) which praises completely wiping out peoples as ordained by God.
(4) And, to top it all off, the book Joshua doesn’t seem to recognize any tension with these views (or does it and I’m missing it?)
Interestingly we do see something of this tension in other scriptures referring to the same events. We see there the need to explain why it was okay to wipe out an entire people–see Deut 9:4 (this reference is in the course transcript linked to in Cheryl’s post) & 1 Nephi 17:31-35 (this reference is linked to in Cheryl’s post). And obviously the idea of tension created by a command by God to kill innocent people is a critical part of the story of Abraham and Isaac. But I don’t see this tension in Joshua. Why isn’t the tension part of the story here? From this lack of tension, should we presume that Joshua is written in the context of a culture which doesn’t find the idea that God tells the people to kill every last person (including the clearly innocent) as very problematic?
Do we want to assume that God did command the Israelites to kill innocent people or do we prefer looking at this as human error in the scriptures or mis-translation (in the broad sense of A of F 8)?
Now to get to my real question for this post….Suppose that one way or another we get to the point where we think there is at least a reasonable possibility that God doesn’t want us to and didn’t want Israel at the time to kill innocent people (Morm 4:5). What then do we make of stories which have central to them the killing of innocent people? Are the stories still instructive? I’m interested in your thoughts. Here’s my strawman response…would love to have you attack it and defend the idea that we can get things from the story anyway.
If the killing of the innocent people is a critical part of the story and one begins to lack full confidence in that part of the story, then one ends up often having to throw the whole story out. (For some of you the result of needing to throw out the whole story may be taken as a reductio against doubting that God commanded to kill the innocent. I don’t feel there is a reductio here).
As an example, take the story of Achan (Joshua 7). Can we use this story to talk about how Achan loved material things more than following the commandment of God (Joshua 7:11-13) ? For me it’s hard for that to work. The scriptures talks about not allowing the “accursed” thing in their midst. But this idea of not allowing “the accursed” to come into their midsts seems very related to killing all the people in the city “both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6:21). If we doubt it would be correct to kill everyone in the city, I end up not knowing how to make sense of the story of Achan either.
PS I know that this same general topic has been dealt with several times in the past … I guess I feel the need to keep writing on it as it is far from resolved in my mind…
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