Genocide in Bible?
Written by Ps David Wong
As we begin our sermon series on Joshua, the question of wholesale extermination of ethnic groups may trouble us. Here is a reprint of an article by Pastor David published in IMPACT magazine, Feb/Mar 2018.
Does the Bible allow, encourage, even command genocide, the wiping out of entire tribes and communities? If so, are we Christians guilty of ethnic cleansing?
The answer to the questions, as in any complex issue, is Yes and No. Yes, the Bible does record instances of genocide sanctioned by God. But no, the Bible does not sanction genocide as a practice for Christians.
The Israelites, on entering the Promised Land, were commanded to “completely destroy” the tribes of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (Deut 29.16-17). Joshua devoted the city of Jericho to the LORD and destroyed all life in it, animal and human, except for the family of Rahab.
In each case, reasons were given by God for such wholesale destruction. When the Israelites entered Canaan, it was a land steeped in idolatry compounded with immorality. Eliminating the inhabitants was akin to radical surgery. “Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Deut 20.18). Hence Jericho, the gateway city of Canaan, was utterly destroyed.
But note that the harlot Rahab was spared with her family. Despite her sordid background, she expressed faith in the God of Israel (Josh 2.11-13). The fact that she was subsequently grafted into the family line which produced the Jewish messiah (Matt 1.5) is evidence enough against the charge of ethnic cleansing.
In contrast, one of their own, Achan, an Israelite, was severely punished in the aftermath of the Jericho battle. He with all he had was put to death for disobeying God. Moreover, unlike ethnic cleansing as we know it today, Israel then was not a majority ethnic group oppressing the minorities; it was God acting on behalf of a young emerging nation, ensuring their survival.
Each instance of total destruction was specially ordered by God and for specific reasons. Assigning a tribe or people for destruction remains God’s prerogative, an extreme measure chosen when all other options are exhausted. Thus divine chemotherapy operates to save the body by ruthlessly excising all cancer cells.
As God’s people, we have no biblical grounds to target unbelievers or any ethnic group for harm or extermination. Instead, God called on Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing so that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12.3). Likewise, Jesus calls on us to “preach the good news to all creation” and to “make disciples of all nations” (Mark 16.15; Matt 28.19).