What is Genocide?

28 Jan

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Some Biblical critics have accused the God of the Bible of being genocidal or an ethnic cleanser.[1] However, I believe such accusations betray both an ignorance of the context and of the examples history has shown to be genocide and/or ethnic cleansing. I don’t believe the Bible comes close to revealing God as genocidal. In fact, he says he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked and would rather they repent and be saved from judgment (Ezekiel 33:11). Moreover, he claims that if the wicked would repent, God would repent of any judgment he had made against them (Jeremiah 18:18). Does this sound like a genocidal maniac? Remember, if we are going to use the words of the Bible to accuse God of evil, we must take all of his words into consideration to preserve context and prevent misunderstanding.

What is genocide anyway, and what modern day examples do we have to compare with the Biblical text to see if God and/or Israel did, indeed, act in the manner in which modern Biblical critics suggest? Merriam-Webster defines genocide as: “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” Perhaps the most famous modern example of genocide would be the systematic killings of the Jews by the Nazi war machine during World War II. There were others, namely, the Ottoman Empire’s deportation of cir. 2 million of its Armenian citizens into the desert regions of modern day Syria. Most of these people died of starvation and exposure. Also during World War II the Croatians systematically destroyed cir. 300 thousand of its Serbian citizens. What can we conclude from these examples?

A common thread that seems to occur above is that these atrocities were committed internally, by the ruling government upon its own citizens. Yet, this cannot be said of the case between Israel and the Amalekites. They waged war against one another, but neither was the sole governing body of the other. So, does God’s judgment of Amalek in Exodus 17:14 and Deuteronomy 25:19 fit the our modern day models above? No, it doesn’t fit. Nevertheless, we might be able to conclude a similarity to Israel’s war with Amalek from how the Allies waged war against the Nazi regime in an effort to completely wipe out the Nazi government. Did the Allies seek to wipe out the German people with the Nazis? I don’t think so, and I believe we need to understand that utterly destroying a political power does not make that act genocide. The definition by Merriam-Webster above, I believe, is more concerned over wiping out an internal political party, so the power of the governing political party could retain its power indefinitely. Merriam-Webster’s definition cannot be used against the Allies for what they did to the Nazis in the aftermath of World War II.

We need to ask ourselves if the Biblical text speaks anywhere about genocidal acts committed by Israel or Israel’s God. I believe the closest the Biblical text ever comes to speaking of genocide or ethnic cleansing is not committed by a Jew but by an Amalekite leader. The text is found in the book of Esther, where Haman the Agagite (Esther 8:3-6; 9:24) sought to destroy all the Jews in the Persian kingdom. Apparently, Haman was of the royal seed of Amalek, namely of Agag (cf. 1Samuel 15:8-9).[2] The Jews were citizens of the kingdom of Persia and Hamen was given power over them. This example fits the three modern examples offered above. Yet, nothing like this is ever mentioned of the Jews in any of their wars or of the God of the Bible in any of his judgments against Amalek or any other nation. On the contrary, God always looked for a way to show mercy to the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11) and to refrain from executing judgment against them (Jeremiah 18:18).


[1] See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion; Bantam Press (2006); page 31. Also, Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great; Mcclelland and Stewart (2007) page 102.

[2] Josephus claims Haman, the Agagite (Esther 8:3, 5), was an Amalekite (Antiquities of the Jews 11.6.5).

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Posted by on January 28, 2016 in apologetics


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