Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 17: “Is It Rational to Believe God Commanded the Killing of Innocent?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

It’s been argued that it’s rational to believe the Crucial Moral Principle is not absolute and this claim is rationally believable when the grounds for thinking God issued such a command are stronger than the ground for thinking killing innocent is always wrong. But does the biblical theist have adequate grounds for thinking that God on these unique occasions issued such an exemption? Wesley Morriston has recently argued that the biblical theist can’t have adequate grounds for thinking this. His claim is twofold. First, the relevant biblical texts explicitly state what God’s reasons are for issuing the commands. Second, we have good grounds for thinking these reasons are inadequate ones for commanding the killing of innocent people. The four relevant texts to consider are Deut. 20:16; Deut. 7:2; Numbers 31:15; and 1 Samuel 15:3.

Deuteronomy 20:16: “Save Alive Nothing that Breathes”

Morriston cites Swinburne’s defense of the destruction of various peoples. Swinburne likens the spiritual condition of the relevant peoples as an infectious lethal disease in need of eradication. Morriston replies that such reasons for their destruction are inadequate. He says the obvious worry is that this line of argument may have wider application than Swinburne intends it to have. Should a law be passed to silence or kill evangelical atheists?

F&C argue there are three problems with Morriston’s argument. First, contrary to what Morriston asserts, Deut. 20:16-18 does not explicitly state that God’s reason for issuing the command was to prevent the Israelites from being taught to follow the abhorrent practices of the Canaanite nations. It gives the Israelites a reason to obey a command God has already laid down. The reasons for issuing a command and the reasons why people should obey the commands are not always the same. As Richard Brandt argues, what justifies someone in promoting the acceptance of a code or set of rules is not necessarily the same as the motivation or reason people have for following those rules.

A second problem with Morriston’s argument is this: all his argument shows, if successful, is that Swinburne has failed to defend these reasons. The failure of one person to defend a position is a far cry from the claim that the position itself is problematic.

Third, Morriston’s critique of Swinburne is unpersuasive because it misses some important disanalogies found in Swinburne’s defense. Swinburne doesn’t just mention “spiritual infection”; he refers to a specific type of infection that includes child sacrifice. It was a defensive measure necessary to preserve the identity of the people of Israel and was limited to the nations the Lord gave them as an inheritance. Such features call into question Morriston’s analogies. If Dawkins was trespassing on church property, refusing to leave; leading people not just to apostasy but to human sacrifice of infants; and threatening the entire community of God’ s people, in principle frustrating God’s mission to bring salvation to the world, then perhaps he should be silenced or isolated from the rest of the population!

Deuteronomy 7:2: “Destroy Them Totally”

In this passage God is reportedly commanding the Israelites to totally destroy the seven Canaanite nations. Morriston makes two claims. First, he asserts that this passage teaches that God’s reasons were to prevent the Israelites from marrying Canaanites and worshiping other gods. Second, he offers an argument that this reason is inadequate. F&C think both moves are questionable.

First, the text doesn’t portray God as commanding genocide. Nor does the command commit Israel to kill people with the intention of physically destroying the whole or a substantial part of an ethnic or religious group. The text states that the Israelites must totally destroy the Canaanites after God had driven out these Canaanite nations. Only those who stayed behind to fight would be subsequently defeated. And again, the text doesn’t cite the prospect of intermarriage as the reason God issued the command. Contrary to what Morriston says, in this passage God doesn’t state explicitly what his reasons are at all.

Morriston’s second assertion is also problematic. He argues that intermarriage and apostasy does not constitute a sufficient reason for God to command such violence. He provides two grounds for rejecting this purported reason for God’s command: (1) God had other (presumably less morally reprehensible) means of achieving this goal, and (2) this method failed to achieve the goal in question anyway.

Morriston’s first point proves too much by making this assumption: A loving and just God would not command people to suppress some evil he desires to be suppressed if God has a more efficient means of suppressing that evil himself. But this is clearly false. If it were true, then we would have to give up almost everything we take for granted about morality. Consider, for example, the existence of courts which suppress crimes such as theft and rape. Clearly God could suppress such crimes far more efficiently without relying on human beings. Does it follow that a loving and just God would never permit human beings to set up courts that punish crime? Of course not.

Similar problems afflict the second justification for Morriston’s argument—that God’s chosen method did not get the job done. The biblical record shows that the Israelites did not follow God’s command and that the Canaanite nations and religion were not destroyed. The problem is that this is again true of many actions which a loving and just God would plausibly prohibit. God would command people not to murder, steal, and cause harm, but people continue to do so. Does this mean God would not issue commands to refrain from such actions?

Number 31:15: “Have You Allowed All the Women to Live?”

The third example Morriston cites to make his point is the defeat of Midian as recorded in Numbers 31. The Israelites fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man (v. 7). After the battle, however, Moses commanded Israel to kill all the boys and every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. Morriston says Yahweh was angered by the fact that some young Israelite men had worshiped Baal alongside their new Midianite brides, writing, “Not only must the Israelites be punished, but the Midianites must be punished for causing the Israelites to be punished.” God’s stated reasons, according to Morriston’s thinking, are inadequate.

But Morriston appears to have misread the text. First, consider his claim that the text explicitly states that God’s reason for commanding the killing of the Midianite women and boys was “spiritual infection” because “some young Israelite men had worshiped Baal alongside their new Midianite brides.” There are several problems with this.

First is the fact that, in the text Morriston cites (Num. 31:17-18), God himself does not explicitly command Israel to kill all the Midianite women and boys. God’s command to Moses regarding the Midianites is actually recorded in Numbers 25:17-18 and 31:1-2. God explicitly commands Israel to respond to the Midianites’ spiritual subterfuge by fighting against the Midianites and defeating them. The reasons why Israel is to obey isn’t the spiritual infection of women as Morriston says, but rather the fact that Midian has been hostile toward and deceived Israel.

The Numbers 31 text does not explicitly attribute the command to kill the women and boys to God, but to Moses. Morriston acknowledges this, but suggests three reasons why this observation doesn’t come to much. (1) Moses is regularly characterized as being very close to Yahweh, faithfully obeying his instructions most of the time; (2) Yahweh expresses no disapproval of anything Moses does in this story; and (3) Yahweh himself is the principal instigator of the attack on Midian.

These responses, however, are inadequate. Consider the last point first. The fact that someone is the “principal instigator” of an attack doesn’t entail that he approves of every single action that takes place within the battle in question. Similarly with 2: the lack of explicit disapproval in the text does not entail approval. Morriston’s argument is an appeal to ignorance; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is not uncommon in biblical narratives for authors to describe sinful behavior without expressing explicit disapproval. In most cases, no doubt, the author expects the reader to know certain actions are right and wrong.

Finally, regarding 1, the fact that someone is portrayed in the text as close to God or faithful to him does not mean that every action he is recorded as doing is commanded or endorsed by God. Consider David, or Abraham.

A second instance of Morriston misreading the text is that not only does he attribute Moses’s reasons to God; he also misstates the reasons Moses does give in the context. The real issue is that the Midianite women had been following the devious advice of the pagan seer, Balaam, who had been explicitly commanded by God not to curse Israel. Balaam had led the Israelites into acting treacherously at Baal-Peor. This is the clearly stated issue (31:16). What occurs, when the background is taken into account, is not that some Israelites marry Midianite women, but rather these women use sex to seduce Israel into violating the terms of their covenant with God—an event that threatened Israel’s very national identity, calling, and destiny. This act was in fact deliberate.

So Morriston’s comments are far off the mark when he insists that the Midianites could not have been trying to harm the Israelites by inviting them to participate in the worship of a god in whom they obviously believed. The whole point of the exercise was to get God to curse Israel so that a military attack could be launched by Moab and Midian. The picture isn’t one of innocent Midianite brides, but acts tantamount to treason and treacherous double agents carrying on wicked subterfuge.

Note that the problem wasn’t God’s opposition to Israelites marrying Midianites per se. Indeed, Moses married Zipporah, a Midianite, and he received wise counsel from his father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite priest.

1 Samuel 15:3: “Do Not Spare Them”

Morriston’s final example is the account of Saul’s destruction of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15, which he juxtaposes with Deut. 25:17-19. He rejects interpretations of the passage proposed by Stump, who suggests that God made a reckoning of what the Amalekites had done hundreds of years previously. Morriston dismisses this as unsupported speculation, which fails to do justice to the text. He writes that the implied reason for waiting a while to deal with the Amalekites has nothing to do with future Amalekite transgressions, but with the urgent need to get the Israelites safely settled in Canaan.

But Morriston’s own claim that the reason for waiting a while to deal with the Amalekites has nothing to do with future Amalekite transgressions is refuted by the text. 1 Sam. 15:18 puts the emphasis on the present wickedness of the current Amalekites. Likewise with Agag’s personal involvement in aggressive wars. In chapter 14 we see evidence of Amalek’s present aggression against Israel, and a reason for Saul’s military response.

So F&C suggest the best way to understand this passage is not just to read it alongside Deut. 25:17-19, but also alongside a passage like Jeremiah 18:7-10, which makes clear that announcements of future judgment against a nation are conditional, and can change if the nation repents. The book of Jonah makes a similar point. If prophetic pronouncements of doom are conditional, then this nicely explains what we see in 1 Samuel 15. Morriston similarly misreads 2 Kings 23:25-27.

Final Thoughts on Divine Judgment

How do we square God’s judgment with God’s love? God’s judgments are done with a heavy heart. God states emphatically that he does not take pleasure in punishing the wicked. Divine judgment can’t be characterized as indifference. Judgment is not opposed to God’s love and compassion, but rather springs from the character of a loving, caring God. F&C quote Yale Theologian Miroslav Volf, who experienced the horrors of war in the former Yugoslavia, who comments on the relationship between the two, concluding this: “Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”