When God Tells You to Kill Your Neighbor

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Torah — the five books of Moses — and the early history of Joshua through 2 Kings these last few weeks working on a lengthy piece on biblical sexual ethics. No need to thank me… 😉

Honestly, I love the Hebrew Bible. From top to bottom. It is a bloody, gory, incredibly grace-filled and very human story of a people’s encounter with God, their inability to be faithful to the God that calls them, the consequences they face in their faithlessness, and God’s never-ending pursuit of those same people — to rescue and redeem them in and (sometimes) from their faithlessness. It’s a staggering story, and it has formed me, really reached into my soul and rewritten the entire way I think about my life.

This bloody and strange story is my story. It is how I have found meaning in my rough, sometimes brutal, and meandering life. I love this story. It is my story.

I love this story, in large part, because it does not shy away from the awful things human beings can do. And be. It also doesn’t flinch from God’s awfulness, either.

Case in point. God has given a patch of land as an inheritance, a patrimony, to the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The problem with this patch of land it that it is already full of people. Which clearly is going to be a problem. The answer God contrives in Deuteronomy 7 is to destroy those people utterly — exterminate and expel them:

1 “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2 ESV)

Now, I know people — tender and compassionate pastors and lay people — who do not believe a God of Love could have ever uttered these words to God’s people. This “command” is Israel thinking, some centuries later after all that had come, that yes, it probably would have been better had they killed all the Canaanites rather than live in their midst, tempted by their customs and their ways. I once believed that myself.

But no longer. I am convinced Israel’s God did command Israel to annihilate the Canaanites, to — in terms invented only in the wake of World War Two — commit genocide. To be the instrument of God’s genocide in Canaan.

Yes, because this is God’s genocide.

However, that is not the end of things. The commands of God given in the Torah can never be evaluated on their own. They have to be looked at in terms of the entire story. And the story shows something interesting. Israel does not live simply with God. God does not command Israel to jump, and Israel responds with “how high?”

The rules of war for the conquest of Canaan in Deuteronomy 7 are different from the general rules of war outlined in Deuteronomy 20. The conquest of Canaan is a war without mercy, a war in which no quarter will be given. All this because the gods of the Canaanites, and the ways of the Canaanites, will prove too much of a distraction. (It actually is amazing just easily distracted the people of God are from the worship and teaching of that same God. And thus, “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves” proves a great confession of an essential truth.)

Israel makes a stab at killing Canaanites in large numbers. Numbers 21 outlines the destruction of Arad. The first few chapters of Joshua shows how the campaign goes, in fits and starts. It is not always successful.

But as Israel begins to win victories in Canaan, and solidified its presence in the land, it becomes clear that Israel is less committed to exterminating its neighbors:

10 However, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor. (Joshua 16:10 ESV)

And here:

12 Yet the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 13 Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.(Joshua 17:12-13 ESV)

By early in Judges, it is clear the land is still full of Canaanites, many of whom continue to successfully resist and persist:

21 But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day. (Judges 1:21 ESV)

Now, the work of driving out — of expelling and exterminating the Canaanites — is Israel waging war, but Israel’s God continually tells Israel that God is doing the work. In Exodus 23:20-30, God is clear:

20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.

22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.

23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you. (Exodus 23:20-33 ESV)

This is God’s work. And God’s work alone. It is done in cooperation with Israel, but the victories won against the Canaanites are God’s victories. Israel must keep up it’s end of the deal in order for these victories to be secured — Israel, in effect, is working to secure its own salvation here — but the victories are not Israel’s. Just as at the Red Sea, they are God’s.

So, as Israel has decided to enslave the Canaanites, rather than expel or exterminate them, God has come to a very fateful decision about the whole enterprise:

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars. ’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 2:1-5 ESV)

God will no longer work to expel Canaanites. Israel will have to live with them. And with the consequences of living in their midst.

We cannot speak to God’s intentions, or what God foreknew (I hate conversations on foreknowledge, and don’t find them interesting or edifying), but God gave Israel a command, and Israel failed to follow that command. In fact, it could be said that Israel refused to follow that command. Not in a “f**k you!” kind of way, but in a “you know, this really is tiring work, and frankly, I’d rather not do it anymore. Besides, their girls are cute.”

(Sorry. I’m a boy, and I like girls.)

The rest of the story, then, is how God deals with Israel — and how Israel encounters God — given all this. How God adjusts to Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness, and goes to find Israel, to comfort and redeem, a people who cannot will themselves to be a faithful people yet never stop being God’s people.

I think the story is actually more interesting if we read this as something God really commanded Israel to do. Remember, the command of God — the teaching of God — can never be read without considering the story of the people of God, the people to whom that command and/or teaching is given.

This story says there is a limit to the awful things human beings will do. Even divinely ordained murder and destruction lose their attraction after a while. This is no end of good news to a pessimist like myself. Laziness triumphs over brutality, and even the righteous eventually get weary of wielding the sword.

In that, it suggests that sin and disobedience might even be a good thing. There are some commands from God maybe we should not obey. We are not the people who exterminate our neighbors, whatever our God says. Because the relationship with God is not based on our obedience and faithfulness, but on God’s faithfulness and God’s adherence to his promises. So, we can, from time to time — or every other breath — tell God to go suck on it, that no, we will not do as we are told. We don’t stop being the people of God for failing to adhere to the teaching — the history of Israel proves that.

Granted, there will be consequences. God was not wrong in saying the ways and means of the Canaanites would be a distraction. They were, constantly. God has to spend a good portion of scripture rescuing Israel in and from those consequences, and the Hebrew Bible narrative more or less ends with Israel finally being redeemed from captivity in Babylon, a conquest and exile earned because Israel couldn’t leave the pretty gold and bronze idols (and the beguiling young women) of its neighbors alone.

But note carefully — even in their idolatry, and as they lived with horrific consequences, Israel NEVER stopped being the people of God. (There is no emphasizing that enough.) Even past the coming home from Babylon, there would be another redemption, a final redemption, from which there would be no more redeeming and no more need for redeeming. God promised a new covenant, in which the teaching would be written on the hearts of God’s people, so they could no longer stray.

The truth is simple. God doesn’t meet us halfway. God learned over time there was no halfway. We weren’t capable of making it even a tenth the distance to God. And so God, our astoundingly faithful and compassionate God, kept coming closer to us. Until he dwelt in our midst, as one of us — one of pathetic, venal, faithless us — to show us what it means that he is faithful. And what it means that God’s faithfulness, God’s love, is all that matters.

This is why I take this story seriously, and see such wonder and grace in it — a story about terrible destruction and mass murder. Because it shows how complex and wonderful our relationship with God is. It shows a God willing to learn from us, to learn what we are capable of and what we simply cannot or will not do. And then go find us. It is the beginning of a marvelous and amazing journey with lots of really horrible parts tossed in.

Tell me your life has not been something like that.

Oh, and one other thing. God does learn. God never commands Israel to do anything like this ever again in scripture. Oh, lots of war follows in scripture, and some of it evenly divinely arranged (Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites with 300 fighters, God’s miraculous defeat of the Moabites and the Ammonites during the reign of King Jehoshaphat), but there is no more command from on high to destroy and dispossess an entire people. That is not our calling.

Because that is not God’s promise. Not anymore.

3 thoughts on “When God Tells You to Kill Your Neighbor

  1. Another profound statement. I was starting to worry when you hadn’t posted for 2 weeks, and was hoping your events of weekend before last would be energizing. Guess so.

    I agree with the futility of discussions of foreknowledge. The only useful reason to consider any such thing was to support the understanding that our redemption is entirely from God and secondly that God does not abandon his people. These are already evident from scripture. All the intellectual superstructure erected to promote assurance and argue against the culture of asceticism as a source of merit ends up tempting to self-righteousness and pride, the opposite of the original intention.

    • Sometimes, in the midst of the uncertainty, it is difficult to be motivated. I’d lost my mojo. It’s come back, at least for a season.

  2. A late comment regarding your “lengthy piece on biblical sexual ethics” in progress. I recently had an epiphany, not on biblical ethics, but on sex in pop culture, which might be relevant, so here goes:

    There are three main positions about sex and romance in current American culture.

    A) “True love” trumps everything else. It is forever. Anyone who stands in its way is a villain to some degree. This by now traditional view goes back to Romeo and Juliet, and before that the troubadours, etc., but Hollywood sealed the deal. Once gay relationships were accepted as a valid mode of “true love”, that settled the question of gay marriage in popular opinion, as the governor and legislature of Indiana are now discovering. This view now competes with two post-modern or avant-garde variants.

    B) Pessimism: Relationships never really work out. All love is doomed. Mitigating misery is the only option. This view accepts the premises of A), except the possibility of its realization.

    C) True lust trumps everything else. It is usually called love, but it is at best serial monogamy. “Falling out of love” happens frequently, in which case it is a moral imperative to discard the unloved mate and find a new love. There are now poly-amorous versions, which must be horribly complicated to adhere to.

    The sentimentalization of True Love in the 19th and 20th centuries in bourgeois culture allowed for its acceptance and incorporation into the popular understanding of Christianity. Christian marriages routinely reinforce a sentimental version of A) above, which stipulates that passion must not become too unruly, and periodic conventionalized expressions of TL must be made to ensure that no one doubts its existence. God may be mentioned as fundamental, but hardly anyone pays attention to that part.

    I don’t mean to sound too snarky about the subject. TL is a mostly very good cultural development, which in its original form encourages faithfulness and fortitude in times of trial, as well as expressing a symmetry which helps realize equal respect for men and women.

    If any kind of biblical or theological wisdom is to stand a chance of making a dent in TL, type A [much less the other two], it will have to convince people that love of God trumps everything else, flowing both ways, and that all other forms of love depend on it, and that idolatrous love will ultimately fail in this world of moths and rust and thieves.

    We live in a radically different culture from the 1st century AD, which may in turn have been radically different from the time of Moses. This does not negate the relevance of Biblical teaching to conduct today – far from it. But until people understand the love of God (which might require receiving that love via the Spirit), they won’t pay any attention to any other details which seem to abrogate the primacy of secular True Love, unless it merely reinforces prejudices which they already hold.

    So goes the analysis, from an old guy with a very low social IQ.

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