The Old Testament stories, if presented accurately in their fullness, would not make very good Family Focus Films. These stories contain incidents of rape, brutal murder, cannibalism, and the slaughter of women and infants, to name a few. We tend to gloss over these stories usually because they don’t seem very spiritually uplifting or spiritually relevant. (Or perhaps they disturb our picture of a God who plays with ballerinas and teaches them how to play golf). Nevertheless, there are several good reasons (though not the only reasons) why we should pay attention to these passages in Scripture.
If we are honest, we have to say that we find it initially disturbing that God would command the slaughter of entire people groups. This realization should cause us to reflect on the ethical implications of these commands (if it does not, then you are reading your Old Testament too “devotionally”).
Another reason we should reflect on the ethical implications is that this is a favorite topic that critics and skeptics like to raise as an argument against the Christian faith (and telling them what Jesus did for you won’t answer this objection).
Consider the practice of the Israelites that God commanded in Numbers 31:7-18:
7 They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. 8 They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. 9 And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. 10 All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, 11 and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast. 12 Then they brought the captives and the plunder and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. 13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.
The women and children and livestock were spared, but in the end everthing had to be entirely destroyed – including women, children, and livestock.
Now, that people would do such things should come as no surprise. But what do we say about a God that would command the slaughter of infants?
I think this question has been sufficiently answered by many people. You’ll hear things such as: God is the giver and taker of life. No one can place God under moral obligation. All of humanity deserves his wrath and thus he justified in executing it. When he withholds destruction from us he has done what is merciful not what he is morally obligated to do. Furthermore, the Israelites were his instruments for God’s judgment of the wickedness of these people groups.
All fine answers as far as they go.
My concern, however, is whether it is possible to explain God’s command in a way that would not at the same time give license the practice of jihad or holy war in Islam. (Some bloggers have attempted to answer this question but fail to do so). Given everything that we commonly say to defend God’s divine command for destruction, couldn’t a radical Muslim use the same defense for the slaughter of people groups? The Israelites believed they were under divine command to slaughter the men, women, children, and livestock of surrounding people groups and there are millions of Muslims who believe the same thing. Is it merely arbitrary that we think it was right for the Israelites to practice genocide but not for Muslims? Couldn’t a radical Muslim offer every explanation for genocide that I’ve stated above to defend Israel’s practice?
William Lane Craig wrote an essay in which he seeks to answers these questions. He distinguishes the Israelite practice and jihad in several ways.
1) Islam sees violence as a means of propagating the Muslim faith. By contrast, the Israelites were carrying out God’s judgment against the unrighteousness of certain people groups not attempting to convert them to Judaism.
2) The slaughter of the Canaanites represented an unusual historical circumstance, not a regular means of behavior.
Are either of these answers satisfactory to anyone? Do the ethics differ if you are slaughtering to propagate your faith or carrying out judgment? If God had commanded the Israelites to slaughter people groups for the purpose of the propagation of Judaism wouldn’t that be sufficient to justify the practice?
Furthermore, when it comes to considering the question of the ethical difference between the Israelite practice of hāram and the radical Muslim practice of jihad does the frequency of the behavior matter?
Craig’s initial attempts at explanation are actually more confusing than they are helpful. However, he eventually comes to consider the real issue when he says, “The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God.” This is precisely the difference. I don’t think that there is any reason that one could offer in defense of the Israelite practice of genocide in the OT that could not also be used to defend the Muslim practice of genocide. The difference is more basic than that. We distinguish difference of which God is the true God and whether one has in fact received such a command. If Allah is not the true God, then Muslims are deluded and their behavior is immoral. The ethics of such behavior does not depend on its conformity to preconceived views of ethics but rather depends on obedience to the will of the one true God. Furthermore, Yahweh’s will is not arbitrary. He does not command just any and every behavior such that one can answer “it is the will of Yahweh.” He is God who has a definite nature and character from which he issues his command for us. Though it is not possible that God should issue a command contrary to his character, Christians may rightly ask whether God would issue a particular command or not. Muslims however, have a god whose character is so mysterious that they do not even have a starting point for answering whether a particular command would be out of character for Allah. He is a god who can lie to someone if he so chooses. When Abraham considers the command to sacrifice his son whom God has said will be his heir the option of God having deceived him or not keeping his promise does not enter into his mind. According to Hebrews 11:19, he sought to reconcile God’s command to sacrifice his son and God’s promise that “In Isaac your seed shall be called” by believing that God could raise the dead. In other words, he believed that God tells the truth. He does not decieve and he is a just God. While Islam could offer the same explanation for the practice of jihad that Christians offer for the Israelite practice of hāram, it nevertheless an arbitrary answer for Muslims since their God does not obligate himself to act in accord with his nature. Thus, literally any answer that a Muslim would offer would be just as consistent with the command of Allah. The doctrine of God in Islam cannot account for why one answer is better than another for the practice of jihad. But not just any answer will suffice for an explanation of genocide in the OT for Christians. We are trying to reconcile this practice with the revealed and definite character of Yahweh. Yes, he may command what he wills, but there is more to the story: Yaweh will not contradict his character or his word. Muslims cannot say the same for Allah.
[I thank Chris Gates for making the important point that if Muslims began to worship the true God, this would not justify their practice of jihad but rather cause them to cease this practice.]