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Divine Command Theory

Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 4: “Does the Bible Command Us to Kill Innocent Human Beings?”

By Mark Foreman

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

This chapter is titled with a simple question: Does the Bible command us to kill innocent human beings? And we can summarize the entire chapter with a simple answer: no.

I could easily stop there, but like many simple questions and answers, there is more beneath the surface. And a certain amount of explanation is necessary to fully understand both question and answer. First, as to the question. We have seen that F&C have used the argument of Raymond Bradley as typical of those who see the OT commands concerning the treatment of the Canaanites as problematic for the believer who wishes to ascribe authority to scripture. Bradley affirms that the Bible commands us, as in contemporary Bible believers, to fulfill the commands found in the OT to kill innocent human beings and that such action would be contrary to the Crucial Moral Principle (F&C will take up the questions of (a) the actual commend to kill and (b) innocence in subsequent chapters).

As to the answer, F&C are quick to point out that it simply does not follow that, just because God commands Joshua to carry out the commands he has given for treatment of the Canaanites, we are required to do the same actions towards other innocent human beings. This seems patently obvious. Jesus told Judas, “Do quickly what you have to do,” in his act of betraying Jesus. Certainly that command should not be taken that all believers are to betray Christ (and to do so quickly). Yet this answer does need some explanation, for believers are encouraged that “All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training for righteousness that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3: 16-17). The idea of application of scripture is an important part of the believer’s life. It is certainly possible that some believers might take the actions of Joshua as archetypal for how we should treat those outside the faith.

F&C point out that there are two distinctions one must consider when it comes to application of these commands in Joshua. The first concerns the distinction between those commands given for all mankind and those given specifically to the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. Jewish rabbis made this distinction themselves when they distinguished between Noahide Laws, those that apply to all men, and Mosaic Laws which were meant specifically for the chosen people. All people are to follow commands concerning basic moral treatment of other men, such as those regarding rape and murder for example. Before one considers the application of a particular command, it is important to note for whom the command is meant.

So what of the command to destroy the Caananites? Citing Dt. 7, F&C state, “An examination of the command to ‘destroy’ or ‘drive out the Canaanites’ in their [sic] historical and literary context makes it clear that this is a command specifically given to Israel in virtue of the special covenant God made with that nation as his chosen people” (p. 57). Hence it is inappropriate to apply these commands towards any people group outside of ancient Israel, including modern believers.

The second distinction is also important in understanding to whom these specific commands apply. This is the distinction between occasional commands and universal commands. Occasional commands are those given to a particular person or group of person for a specific occasion at a specific time. Universal commands are meant either for all persons at all times, or perhaps, for a specific group of persons for all occasions. An example of an occasional command would be the command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. An example of the first type of universal command would be general commands, such as commands against murder that apply to all persons in all situations. An example of the latter type of universal command would be the law of circumcision which was given to a specific group of persons, the Jewish people, but were to be maintained for all time.

F&C make clear that the command to destroy the Canaanites was not a universal command, which means, not only would it not apply universally to all persons, but it would not even apply universally to the nation of Israel. Citing Dt. 20:10-18, they show that these commands are occasional commands. These command were for a specific time, the return of the nation to Palestine after the Exodus, and were to be carried out in a very specific way. Dt. 20:17 lists the specific nations that were to be utterly destroyed (Hittites, Amorites, Caananites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites). So this was not to be interpreted nor applied as a command to destroy anyone that Israel felt was in their way. And it certainly is not a command for modern believers to kill innocent persons.

F&C summarize the results of their study succinctly: “. . . a careful examination of the commands to which Bradley refers suggests two things: First, these commands were given specifically to Israel in a particular historical context and not to all peoples everywhere; second, even when occasional commands were given to Israel in specific circumstances, we should understand that these are not general rules to be applied in future situations. In this respect they are like God’s commands to Abram to leave Ur. Such are commands to specific persons to carry out specific actions in the founding of Israel as a nation, not a command to all people for all times” (p. 56-57).

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “Moses” by Froberg. CC license. 

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