How Do Christians Deal with the Genocidal Texts in the Bible?


Christian philosopher Randal Rauser is familiar with the more disturbing verses of the Bible especially those involving genocide, some of which he tackles in his book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, a book that I’d highly recommend.

First off Rauser informs us how Christians deal with the tough verses in the Bible (1). And given the flood of books in recent times focusing on biblical violence one might get the impression that it is a freshly discovered problem, however Rauser dispels such an idea as “That would be a misreading, however, for theologians have wrestled with this problem for centuries. Consider, for example, the extended discussions of the problem in third and fourth century theologians like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.”

Rauser subsequently identifies the main force behind the surge of books focusing on this problem is from atheist writers, notably Dawkins and Harris:

“The post 9/11 discussion does have some distinguishing features, however. To begin with, much of the current discussion has been spurred on by self-described skeptics and atheists, many who convey a sense of urgency, boldness, and sweeping incredulity toward all claims of biblical revelation. In addition, the current discussion is often framed in the terms of modern legal concepts like ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

However, Rauser rightfully identifies the strength behind this challenge “As Copan and Flannagan recognize, the concept of genocide is particularly significant because it “carries a heavy rhetorical punch, which often calls forth echoes of Rwanda or the Holocaust,” and that charges of genocide against the Bible and God “has become, for many, a watershed issue which brings together incredulity and moral indignation toward the Bible and the violence it contains.”

But how do Christians deal with this problem? Randal tells us:

“In my experience, the overwhelming strategy is avoidance: we just don’t talk about those texts.” In my own experience this is true, I’ve never, if seldom, heard sermons preached on this issue or at least a sermon that includes it. In fact, a recent sermon had the young pastor talking about God’s love and righteousness in the context of the Torah, especially Leviticus. But as I well knew that was but half of the story. But other Christians hold the following view:

“Among those who do address the problem, the most common answer seems to be a straight reading that concludes God did command the genocide of the Canaanites and Amalekites because of their wickedness. This hard teaching is commonly backed up with a warning not to question the justice of God (Isa. 45:9; Rom. 9:20).”

This essentially, as Rauser notes, leaves us with two options to either “avoid the glaring topic of genocide or embrace it,” and “each, in turn, introduces a shattering cognitive dissonance into the heart of Christian faith. How are we supposed to bring together the image of mass carnage with that of God the Son telling us to love our neighbors (while defining neighbor with the hated Samaritan) and even dying on the cross with the words “forgive them, for they know not what they do?””


1. Rauser, R. 2015. Did God Really Command Genocide A Review (Part 1). Available.

3 responses to “How Do Christians Deal with the Genocidal Texts in the Bible?

  1. There are really 2 apologetic approaches I take to the aforementioned “genocides” in the Bible:

    The first is analyzing the concept of murder. Genocide, after all, is the mass murder of a particular group of people. When one human kills another in cold blood, that is considered murder. You took the life of someone else from them. That life does not belong to you, yet you took it away from them for your own selfish reason. This rule does not apply to the Creator, however. All life is His and His alone, though we are free to do what we will with it. He gives life and has just as much right to take that life back away from His own creation.

    I take a similar approach to the Christmas presents my children receive. If I were to give my son an iPad, that iPad is his until he chooses to discard of it. He is free to do with it whatever he wants, yet there are still household rules in play that dictate what I approve of in terms of his usage of the device. If he were to freely choose to disobey one of these rules, it is my right as his parent and true “owner” of the iPad (since, in his eyes, I created it in the first place or am at least responsible for its existence in his life) to take the device away from him for whatever period of time I choose.

    God created life, and is thus the true Owner of it. He gives it to us freely, as well as giving us the freedom to do with it whatever we want. However, there are household Commandments in play, and in the context of the Canaanites and Amalekites there were very real and very apparent commands from God Himself. They chose to freely and willfully ignore those commands and their lives were taken back from them.

    The second way I approach this issue is that of an objective perspective. It’s not as if God never spoke to the Canaanites or Amalekites. It’s not as if He didn’t warn them multiple times over or give them any chance to escape the true righteous justice of the universe as we know it. Here’s a great article taking 2 types of approaches with this in mind:

    An excerpt: “God was angry. Indeed, He was furious. And with good reason. Even by ancient standards, the Canaanites were a hideously nasty bunch. Their culture was grossly immoral, decadent to its roots. Its debauchery was dictated primarily by its fertility religion that tied eroticism of all varieties to the successful agrarian cycles of planting and harvest.

    In addition to divination, witchcraft, and female and male temple sex, Canaanite idolatry encompassed a host of morally disgusting practices that mimicked the sexually perverse conduct of their Canaanite fertility gods: adultery, homosexuality, transvestitism, pederasty (men sexually abusing boys), sex with all sorts of beasts,10 and incest. Note that after the Canaanite city Sodom was destroyed, Lot’s daughters immediately seduced their drunken father, imitating one of the sexual practices of the city just annihilated (Gen. 19:30-36).

    Worst of all, Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. There was a reason God had commanded, “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech” (Lev. 18:21 NIV):

    Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death….And it was not just infants; children as old as four were sacrificed.”11


    A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.12

    Archaeological evidence indicates that the children thus burned to death sometimes numbered in the thousands.13

    The Canaanites had been reveling in debasements like these for centuries as God patiently postponed judgment (Gen 15.16). Here was no “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser” (to use Dawkins’s words). Instead, here was a God willing to spare the Canaanite city of Sodom for the sake of just ten righteous people (Gen. 18:32), a God who was slow to anger and always fast to forgive (note Nineveh, for example).

    But is there not a limit? Indeed, what would we say of a God who perpetually sat silent in the face of such wickedness? Would we not ask, Where was God? Would we not question His goodness, His power, or even His existence if He did not eventually vanquish this evil? Yet when God finally does act, we are quick to find fault with the “vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser.”

    The conquest was neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide. God cared nothing about skin color or national origin. Aliens shared the same legal rights in the commonwealth as Jews (Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:22, Deut. 10:18-19). Foreigners like Naomi and Rahab were welcome within their ranks.

    God cared only about sin. The conquest was an exercise of capital punishment on a national scale, payback for hundreds of years of idolatry and unthinkable debauchery.14 Indeed, God brought the same sentence of destruction on His own people when they sinned in like manner.”

  2. This is definitely an interesting direction, James, although I can’t say I’m fully on board (just yet at least). I lean more towards Diginio’s comment. I’ve also read Copan and Flannagan’s book and I thought it was excellently argued and thought out. James, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Glenn Millar, he’s one of my favourite sources when it comes to historical apologetics. He’s written in detail about this here: It’s definitely worth the read. Still, I’m interested to see where this goes🙂

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