You shall consume all the peoples which the Lord, your God, is giving over to you. You are not to look on them with pity, nor serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.
And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you, shall be as one of yourselves, and thou shalt love him as thyself: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Those who attack the God of the Abrahamic faiths as a genocidal maniac often quote the text from Deuteronomy but never the one from Leviticus. The reverse is true for those who conceive of Abraham's God as some kind of ethereal fluffy bunny. Yet both texts belong to the same religious tradition and are considered to form part of the divine revelation of God to man. It is especially difficult for the followers of Jesus to reconcile the smiting hip and thigh which forms such a great part of the Old Testament histories to the peaceful teachings and witness of the Son of Mary. So much so that from the earliest times various heresies have been proposed by figures like Marcion and Mani suggesting that there is an evil God who does bad things (most of the Old Testament) and a good God who does good things (most of the New Testament.) Whilst such heresies are seldom actively advocated nowadays they are, as it were, taught by default by those, mostly liberal, theologians who simply omit to defend the 'difficult' passages of the Old Testament.
Is there a single common thread which unites the command to destroy the Canaanites with the Law demanding that strangers be treated with love? The Lord has an abiding concern for His people 'You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine' (Leviticus 20:26) His concern is that the Israelites should be a people apart, different from the surrounding nations because devoted to the One True God. The purpose behind the occupation of Canaan is not primarily the destruction of its previous inhabitants or even the mere acquiring of territory. It is that the Israelites be not contaminated by the sin of idolatry. A sin which, as I discussed in my post Disappearing Into Darkness, is rather more serious than simply expressing a preference for a Pepsi god over a Coca Cola god. Of course one might quibble over the means used to attain this end, genocide, ethnic cleansing, a point to which I shall return later.
The concept of holiness is not exhausted by an adherence to monotheism it also includes imitation of the object of worship 'The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity' (Exodus 34:6) So, in their dealings with their neighbours the Chosen People must also behave in a like manner. The apparent contradiction between the command 'destroy' and the Law 'love' is resolved into a question of power. If the Israelites settled into a land with a substantial existing population with established religious and cultural practices then the temptation to adapt to their surroundings, or 'integrate' as we might say today, would be irresistible and their character as a separate monotheistic people would be lost. On the other hand if they became the dominant group with their culture solidly established, their faith secure, then they would have nothing to fear from ethnic and cultural minorities in their midst and certainly no imperative to expel or extirpate them.
What implications does this have for 21st Century Christians? Well, the idea of a People of God remains but not one which lives behind a physical boundary and is policed by a written Law. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one (John 17:15) The Church takes its mission to the heart of the world and rests in the Spirit for protection against the world's temptations to idolatry and other sins. Which means that the weapons of conquest and dispossession are, under the New Covenant, wholly inadmissible and any Christian who claims to be doing God's will while carrying out such atrocities adds blasphemy to their other wickedness's. The call to imitation of Divinity remains and in Jesus, Divinity Incarnate, we have a clear role model always before us. The strangers in our midst, minority ethnic, religious and cultural communities, must be loved. How must they be loved? As we love ourselves.
It is certainly possible to love someone without actually liking them. Sometimes we don't like ourselves very much but even then we are seldom less than kind to our mind, body and spirit. So too with our neighbours. We can be self critical but seldom do we mock, stereotype or caricature ourselves. So too with our neighbours. When we are hungry we feed ourselves, when naked we clothe ourselves, when threatened we keep ourselves safe. So too with our neighbours. A person who is harsh with herself, who doesn't listen to herself, who blames herself without considering her own account of events first would be unbalanced and possibly ill. So too in our relationships with our neighbours. All of this, of course, applies to any neighbour but those who come from minority communities are most at risk of being dismissed by us as 'not really neighbours.' We see what we imagine to be the problems they cause or what we imagine to be the threat which they pose before we see the person. Or indeed we fail to see the person at all, only the problem. This is not a mistake we make with ourselves, we never forget our personhood, our identity as an individual beloved by God and for whom Jesus died. If we are to follow the Law of the Spirit then the 'illegal immigrant' disappears into the 'man like me,' the refugee into the 'woman like me,' the Muslim, the Jew, the Hindu into the 'child who loves their mother.' Certainly we should not pretend that there are no problems but in dealing with them we must start from the principle that all humans, each human, must receive from us no less than we give to ourselves.
So, genocide, ethnic cleansing are these signs that the Old Testament God was evil? There are a number of points seldom considered which I shall briefly flag up. Whether, taken together, they constitute a reasonable refutation of the charge is a matter of judgement.
- The Canaanites lived morally reprehensible lives 'it is not because of your justice or the integrity of your heart that you are going in to take possession of their land; but it is because of their wickedness that the Lord, your God, is dispossessing these nations before you.' (Deuteronomy 9:5) This included child sacrifice to their deity Moloch.
- While no doubt some Canaanites were innocent, including those children who hadn't been sacrificed, in ancient warfare separating the innocent from the guilty was not possible so either the guilty would never be punished or the few must suffer because of the acts of the many.
- Such actions require an unequivocal mandate. When the God who has gone before you as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, who has parted the Red Sea, who has rained down food from heaven upon you, who has brought water out of a rock and so on tells you to do something you should be sure to do it. Unless you have such a mandate these actions would be monstrous crimes. Something I hope to touch on in my next blog (Ancient) Israel & Ethnic Cleansing.
- The existence of divinity is proof of eternity. The life of the Canaanites was not limited from the period between conception in the womb to death in massacre or battle. They always are in the hands of God. If they suffered injustice in time it shall be compensated in eternity. This is not a general licence to kill people and let God sort them out afterwards but it can be considered as an operative factor in association with the previous point about a Divine mandate. Where such a mandate is known on irrefutable evidence to exist then the agent of that mandate arguably is not morally culpable so long as his motive is obedience not anger, greed or lust.
The main point to grasp is that the Canaanite genocide is a problem of history and theology the need to love the stranger that dwelleth with you is an urgent necessity and a basic Christian duty. Go to it!
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ps Here is the picture I very nearly used to illustrate this post-
The Brick Testament