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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A troubling argument about genocide

Here is an troubling dilemma (formulated by Randal Rauser) that relates to some troublesome texts in the OT

(1) God is the most perfect being there could be.
(2) Yahweh is God.
(3) Yahweh ordered people to commit genocide.

(4) Properly functioning, moral adults have another powerful intuition that genocide is always a moral atrocity.

In addition, it seems very plausible that

(5) A perfect being would not order people to commit a moral atrocity.
(6) Therefore, a perfect being would not order people to commit genocide. (4,5)
(7) Therefore, Yahweh did not order people to commit genocide. (1,2,6)

So - how do we reply to this one?


James F. McGrath said...

My initial reaction is to ask why anyone would want to reply to this, rather than simply be grateful for the logical argument! :)

eclecticchristian.com said...

The reasoning here is one of the reasons why my co-worker in the next cubicle over does not believe in God.

Anything that might be offered here would be welcome.

Mike Bell

Matt F said...

I know there are a few ways of going with this.

By the way I agree with 1, 2 and 3 but I think we should see that these assumptions require specific content-full revelation and so would not be shared by everyone. This is therefore a problem only for those who, among other things, believe in revelation and the truthfulness of the Scripture's revelation.

Can I make a very risky argument and suggest the issue is (4) and in fact the improper functioning of our moral intuition?

To ask why did God order the killing of those people is really the wrong question. I think the question is why does he allow any human to live? Given (1) His utter holiness and (2) humanities' sin, the genocide is not the exception to be justified (who will justify God?). In fact it is those who are (temporarily) spared and so who are experiencing God's grace and mercy - are the exception that requires explanation. Or, was the serpent correct in suggesting that, "you will not surely die?".

Now the qualifications. I'm not sure how we could know today, in the way the Israelites seem to have done, that Yahweh was instructing them to commit genocide. Other people elsewhere (see Greg Boyd for example) argue that they interpreted God's instructions wrongly.

One thing I think we do see though is the way that Yahweh used the other nations to execute judgement on Israel so it seems that even without knowing or being covenanted to Yahweh, the immoral actions of the other nations (which they shouldn't have done and for which they are morally accountable) are nevertheless used by God for his glory and his will.

The category that I'm trying to open up are the wrong actions of humans which are used by God to achieve His good purposes without that impugning God's own character. The supreme example of which must surely be the Cross.

Ready to be shot down (metaphorically...)

pchurcher87 said...

I think in reference to point 4 we need to ask why its wrong. From our stand point genocide is wrong as we are equals are we are abusing others for our gain. Where as with God hd oes it for the good of the world and with the stance of a creator. Not water tight I know.

It is a hard question but one notes that God commited genocide himself (Sodom and Gemorra) so to call upon the aruement that the Israelites misunderstood is foolhardy. One is left with two options. God is not perfect or genocide is not always wrong. I personally adhere to the later.

Genocide (not that its wrong to use this here) is a very emotive word too. Its like abortion, or cancer. People suddenly go funny and treat them as special case which deserve special reverence. Strange!

If we refomulated this a a vegetarians perspective then:
(1) God is the most perfect being there could be.
(2) Jesus is God.
(3) Jesus ate meat.
(4) Properly functioning, moral adults have another powerful intuition that eating meat is always a moral atrocity.
(5) A perfect being would not commit a moral atrocity.
(6) Therefore, a perfect being would not eat meat.
(7) Therefore, Jesus did not eat meat.

Suddenly it becomes clear that premise 4 is the crux and that is we put it this way it seems silly.
If a farmer (lets use a modern example), a coptic Pig farmer, found that his Pigs were infected with Swine flu and he had to destroy the herd for the sake of the other animal and people we would applaud them for doing a good thing, yet when God kills of a race which is destroying humanity and is a threat to the common good is suddenly awful. Perhaps the issue is that we are worried that God will do it to us, not that its incositent with a Righteous God?

Just some initial thoughts.

Robin Parry said...

Thanks all.

I will post on my 'solution' another time. I am still working on it but I feel like I am getting there.

Ryan H said...

Just wanted to let y'all know that the Evangelical Philosphical Society's journal, Philosophia Christi, has dedicated it's current issue to just this question. I haven't read it but it might be helpful.


crisp family said...

Robin, I'd love to hear what you think on this one.

Robin Parry said...


It looks like a great edition of PC! Indeed I see that Rauser has an article in it (presumably a shorter version of the paper I saw).


Robin Parry said...


Currently I think that Randall's argument is sound and that if Deut 7 and Joshua record what God literally intended to happen then we have an insurmountable theological problem.

I do think that there was an historical conquest of Canaan and that it involved battles. I also think that there are various factors that mitigate this. However, I don't think that the 'herem' commands (kill them all) are intended to record what literally happened in the past nor what Israel was expected to do in the present. I think that they serve are 'mythical' texts serving a theological function and were never supposed to be taken as morally prescriptive for anyone. Indeed, I think that they remain very helpful and challenging (but very unhelpful if anyone thinks that they justify wholesale slaughter)

We have an excellent book coming out which defends such a view (although a more 'extreme' version of it than I would take). It is by Douglas Earl and is called "The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Old Testament". I do not go with him on everything but he has a lot of interesting stuff to say. I guess that he is defending a post-critical traditional Christian reading of the text in the tradition of Origen and most Christians since until the Reformation. He thinks that the big error is to assume that the text must be read as straightforward historical narrative.

crisp family said...

Boy, that solution sounds worse than the problem! So, when faced with a difficult text that runs contrary to our current moral intuitions, do you think that one option is to simply 'mythologize' said text? Even if this is an option, I don't really see how it does any moral work. God is still said to command herem, even if it didn't literally happen. That is, even if this is fiction of a sort, it is a fiction in which God ordains herem, and which God sanctions as a canonical text. So your solution doesn't seem to get you what you want. But perhaps I'm missing something ...

Robin Parry said...



That is not quite my solution. I am not suggesting that one mythologizes texts that one finds morally problematic (there'd be hermeneutical chaos). One would also need good grounds for thinking that the text was not intended (by its authors) to be taken as a straightforward historical account. But you are right in saying that moral problems would also play a role in such a hermeneutical move. The early church felt that God used such problems as a clue to move beyond the surface level of the text to the spiritual level. Perhaps they were not so wrong.

On the problem of the immoral ethics of myth you'll have to wait for the "Joshua Delusion?" book. He deals with that problem very well.

This is not a solution that I am committed to - I also feel a little awkward with it (how sure can we be that Joshua was not intended to be read a simple history?). But I feel less awkward than I did with my previous solution (which was to attempt a moral justification of genocide - something that proved very hard, required a lot of effort and ended up feeling like I was morally corrupting myself in the process).