A genocidal God?
At Vox-Nova there have been several very interesting conversation on violence in the Old Testament and God’s apparent command to the Israelites to commit genocide.
Referencing 1 Sam 15, fellow EC blogger Kyle Cupp, posted his view that moral reason and Christian conception of God deny the possibility of God having commanded genocide. Nevertheless he wished to maintain the inerrancy of the Bible. He explains:
“I am not saying is that Bible is a perverse book or that we worship a perverse God. I’m not saying that God didn’t have a reason for having the statement in the Bible or that he didn’t have a reason for having the imperative attributed to him. I’m not saying that the author of Samuel is acting perversely or in error in his task as a sacred writer. Nor am I saying that God is acting perversely or in error by having perverse statements in the Sacred Scriptures. I am not denying or undermining the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, though, of course, what I say speaks to how I understand inerrancy. I affirm that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation,” but my affirmation doesn’t preclude me from recognizing cultural and even barbaric cultural influences upon those same scriptures. The Bible chronicles salvation history, and there’s not a little perversity in that story.”
Others responding to him seemed intent on protect the inerrancy of the literal sense of the Bible. God did indeed command genocide, but that’s okay he alone has authority over life and death. There is little or no moral difference between God allowing countless deaths via miscarriage and his commanding Israel to commit genocide against the Amalekites, especially considering this was done to preserve the spiritual purity of the Jews and enable God to eventually bring forth Christ from their community.
Nathan O’ Halloran offered another perspective:
The so-called “Historical Books” from Joshua – 2 Kings are more commonly known to scholars as the “Former Prophets.” The reason they are called prophetic books is because they are basically an unpacking of the book of Deuteronomy and its main message: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.” In other words, the Deuteronomistic author wrote them in order to explain to the Israel of his time what happens when God is disobeyed. They are prophetic more than they are historical. 1 Samuel 15 is not about telling a story from the past, but speaking a word to the present, using a well-known story from the past. These books “speak God’s word” through a series of historical tidbits, legends, stories, tales, etc. Some might be historical, others are clearly legends, and others morality tales.
In this sense, the “literal” meaning of a story like 1 Samuel 15 would be the prophetic message that it embodies. Who knows whether or not this event actually happened. However, whether or not it did, the message is clear: Amalek must be destroyed. Now, according to the legends of ancient Israel, Amalek had taken on a meaning far great than that of a particular nation. Amalek represented evil, and the enemies of God’s people. This goes back to the story in Exodus 17. Amalek opposes Israel’s journey when God is leading them out of slavery.
… Amalek is a symbol in a prophetic history of Israel. And we must read the intention of the author to be to use Amalek as a symbolic character in order to make a point.
This is the interpretation that I prefer, and I belief it is faithful to a proper literal reading of Scripture. If the true literal meaning according to a proper identification of the genre of 1 Samuel 15 is as “symbolic prophetic history,” then the intention of the author is simply to use the nation of Amalek as a symbol of God’s incompatibility with evil. Israel also cannot now (at the time of the author) go about making alliances with Egypt and Babylon and still think it is being faithful to the plan of God.
I tend to lean more toward Kyle and Nathan’s approach, but I am still wrestling with this. However, I would like to offer a few thoughts in reflection.
We can’t merely place this on their ancient context. “Genocide was just the way things were done back then, etc.” Christians were involved in both the NAzi’s attempted genocide of the Jews and settlers’ attempted genocide of the Native Americans. We (our time and culture) are no better in this regard than that of ancient Israel.
Reading passages like this as mere allegory seem to require a, perhaps unconscious, but nevertheless real suppression of the literal sense of the text.
This particular passage, 1 Sam 15, is not generally where scholars go to address questions of Genocide, those happen in Joshua, this text seems to be generally seen as an account which revelatory about Saul rather than about God. It attempts to show that Saul, because he is disobedient and willing to kill innocents (1 Sam 21-22), is unworthy to be king, and is therefore a nod toward the Davidic kingdom.
I think we need to be careful about discussing inerrancy, which has an important place in magisterial texts prior to VCII, but is curiously absent from Dei Verbum. DV says that “he books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation,” but it does not teach that the texts are inerrant in faith and morals. Furthermore, verification of error generally requires some sort of empirical fact check. This simply cannot be done in regard to the Bible. There is a Truth which is taught without error in the Scriptures, but what that is precisely is left unanswered by the Council. This does not seem to support to semi-fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy which is often put forth. For example, in 1 Sam 15:11 God tells Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king,” but in verse 29, Samuel says to Saul “The Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal that he should change his mind.” In Hebrew, the words for “regret” and “change his mind” are the same word. Clearly we must be cautious in how understand inerrancy and in how we draw grand theological ideas from these complex texts.
In conclusion, it seems to me we, myself included, need to be much more humble when approaching the Sacred Page. We ought not assume to know have God and the Scriptures fit comfortably within out theological system. I cannot completely or accurately place my wife, son, or best of friends, or random strangers into any given system. Why should I suspect God to fit into any of theological boxes? . It is so much easier to conceive of a tame and domesticated God that fits neatly into our lives and moral values. We can thus read the Bible according to this understanding of God and the Scriptures, and find ourselves and our understanding reaffirmed. But I do not think there is any such God, or that Scripture can be read this way. Hebrews tells us that it “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow” (Heb 4:12). We must approach it prayerfully and with great humility, with an open mind willing to allow the God of all creation to some about us to ourselves and something about Himself to us.