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Rhetoric of Genocide

Reading scripture, whether corporately or individually, as part of daily prayer or acts of public worship, can often be a challenging endeavor. This difficulty arises particularly when we confront passages that may seem troubling or morally challenging. While it's tempting to avoid this discomfort by cherry-picking more palatable readings, those who engage with the entirety of scripture or follow a lectionary are inevitably confronted with the full spectrum of biblical narratives and teachings.


For individuals sensitive to issues of violence or ethics of domination - and the follower of Jesus should be - this engagement can lead to emotional distress and a sense of disorientation, as the portrayal of God and the behaviour of both the divine and his covenant partners, expressed in scripture may appear at odds with the image of Jesus Christ the God-Man.


Allow me to highlight a few of these uncomfortable passages, not with the intention of airing our "dirty laundry" for public scrutiny or to instill shame, but rather to foster honesty, frank discussion, and a renewed turning towards Jesus Christ.


For instance, consider the concept of "herem" style warfare as commanded by God in Deuteronomy and put into practice in the book of Joshua. In Deuteronomy 20:16-18, God commands the complete obliteration and destruction of the inhabitants of the land:


However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God."


Similarly, in the book of Joshua, we see the implementation of this command in the conquest of Jericho and other cities in the Promised Land. In Joshua 6:21, after the fall of Jericho, we read:


"They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys."


John Calvin, an influential reformation theologian, characterized these depictions of God's actions in the Bible as "harsh," "savage," and "barbaric," terms that reflect the visceral nature of the violence depicted. For Calvin, however, these portrayals were not merely manifestations of divine wrath but also served as a testament of both God's holiness and goodness.


In contrast to Calvin's perspective, I posit that these "texts of terror" in the Old Testament serve as shadows—revealing and concealing aspects of the divine nature. Through the lens of Jesus Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, we are afforded a clearer revelation of God's character. It is in the light of Jesus that we find a profound reconciliation of justice and mercy, love and judgment—a revelation that transcends the limitations of ancient texts and speaks to the essence of God's nature. In Jesus, we see a God who is non-violent and full of self-giving sacrificial love, a God who commands that we love our enemies and be merciful like our Father in heaven.


In grappling with these difficult passages, we are invited to engage in a deeper exploration of scripture, guided by humility and a willingness to wrestle with challenging truths. It is through this process of honest inquiry and reflection that we may come to a more profound understanding of God's love and grace, even in the midst of apparent contradictions and complexities within the biblical narrative.


Why might this matter? We live in a world whereby extreme violence is being enacted on the civilian population of Gaza. Justified as defense, we see men, women, and children being obliterated and killed without mercy. The language of senior Israeli  political leaders uses genocidal rhetoric to dehumanize Palestinians and justify wholesale slaughter.


For instance, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said:


“We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly… We will eliminate everything - they will regret it.”


Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evoked a biblical ‘herem’ texts when he said:


“You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible - we do remember.”


Furthermore, Maj Gen. Ghassan Allan said:


“There will be no electricity and no water (in Gaza), there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”


Like scriptural herem passages, the quotes from leading Israeli leaders are disturbing and unsettling.


For the Christian community, we are challenged afresh to look at the scriptural texts by which we have been formed and shaped, and to ask whether we follow a ‘scriptural’ view - think herem texts - whereby extreme violence against women and children is at times necessary, or whether we follow the way of the peace-loving Jesus who commanded love of enemies.


Perhaps, there isn’t enough nuance in what I am saying, perhaps a failure to understand the complexities of scripture, theology, and modern-day conflict, or perhaps I see, as do others, that both scriptural texts and statements from leading Israeli politicians have a power and potency to incite genocide and extreme violence. Perhaps we see in Jesus that God is Christlike, enemy-loving, and peace-loving, and those texts or politicians who propose otherwise should not be enthusiastically encouraged or endorsed  by the wider Christian community.




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