Gentiles in the Hands of a Genocidal God
There is genocide in the Bible. Scripture both describes the Israelites exterminating the Canaanites in cities like Jericho (Josh. 6:21), and also presents this as the command of God. This is what the Israelites are supposed to do when they enter the Promised Land and encounter its inhabitants: "devote them to complete destruction . . . and show no mercy to them" (Deut. 7:2, esv).
The Hebrew word for "devoting to destruction" is herem. It is not an ordinary kind of massacre but something sacred, a way of giving things totally to the Lord. It includes property and livestock as well as men, women, and children. And it has the effect of cleansing the land of abominations. The procedure looks very much like an ethnic cleansing demanded by the holiness of God.
Is this what holiness looks like? Is this what we are supposed to imagine when we read, "Be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44, ESV)? How can we possibly read and teach the genocide accounts in our churches today?
To answer that question, we have to go back to the narrative and our peculiar place in it. And we have to ask who "we" are, who are hearing the command.
Who Do We Think We Are?
We are a bit too apt to forget that this is a problem. The vast majority of Christians after the earliest decades of the church have been Gentiles—"the nations," to use the biblical language. We have been reading Israel's Scriptures so long that we forget that these words were not originally addressed to us.
For example, the preface to the Ten Commandments says, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex. 20:2). To hear the commands that follow as addressed to us, we have to identify ourselves with the people God brought out of Egypt. We have to say, in some sense, that we are Israel.
And how do we Gentiles get away with that? The difference is highly relevant to the issue of how we are to understand the destruction of Gentiles in the land of Israel. What could give us the right to think of ourselves as belonging to Israel, rather than being the kind of people who should be destroyed?
The New Testament's answer is clear: faith alone. Only faith in Jesus Christ brings Gentiles into covenant with God, grafting them into the life of Israel like a wild olive shoot grafted into a well-cultivated olive tree (Rom. 11:24). And even so, Paul insists, Gentiles who believe in Christ don't simply become Jews: they are not required to be circumcised or to follow all the laws of Moses. And that leaves us Gentile Christians in a rather complicated position with respect to the Old Testament commandments. We read them and believe them to be the Word of God, but we don't try to put all of them into practice.
In fact, with respect to the command to exterminate the Canaanites, our position is less like Israel's and more like that of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute in Jericho who befriends the Israelite spies. She has not taken part in Israel's exodus, but she has heard of it and believes it. She knows the name of the Lord, the God who has given the land to Israel, and she confesses that he is God of heaven and earth (Josh. 2:9–11). She is a believer, and eventually will be included in Hebrews 11's great litany of heroes who lived by faith. But she is not an Israelite. She is a Canaanite who hopes to live, not die.
As a believer, Rahab can have hope, because the threat she faces is not so much moral as religious. It is not as if the Israelites were so much more righteous than every other nation (Deut. 9:4–6). Israel is holy not because of their own righteousness but because the Lord loves them and chose them as his people. And the holiness of the Lord is a kind of jealousy that claims Israel as his own, not allowing other nations to lead them into worshiping false gods (7:5–8). That is the holiness that leads to herem, the extermination of Rahab's people for their idolatry.