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, ...