When God’s People Commit Massacres at God’s Command

I like to search between the lines of Scripture, to think and wonder about biblical stories from fresh angles, searching for meaning and insights which I’ve never heard in sermons. And sometimes, that can be very uncomfortable. I cling tenaciously to a God who is fair, just, and loving. But sometimes, meditating on Scripture–on what exactly happened, and how–can lead to disturbing places.

I recently finished reading through Joshua, and I was struck by this: God repeatedly told the Israelites to massacre people. To wipe out entire towns–men, women, terrified children, even livestock. And babies. Of course, I knew this from a childhood spent in Sunday school. But as an adult I’ve lived in a world where horrific massacres have occurred in my lifetime. I’ve seen and read about these atrocities, stared at the photos, and wondered what kind of people could do that. And here in Joshua, the “what kind of people” are God’s people.

Actual Jews carried out these massacres–Jewish sons and husbands and nephews and brothers. I wonder how it affected them, as they wiped out entire populations of living, breathing people. There was nothing antiseptic about it–no guns to kill at a distance. It was all up close and very personal, with edged weapons and clubs.

Did it bother them? I sure hope so.

Have you thought about that before? About the actual process of killing hundreds of women and children? Have you probed that far between the lines and let your imagination run? The Bible is the story of God and his people. So what can I learn about God from these massacres, and how can I reconcile it with a God who, I firmly believe, is fair, just, and loving?

When those walls of Jericho fell down, the Israelites stormed the city. Jericho’s soldiers would have died fighting or buried in rubble. But then there would have been groups of women and children and the elderly scattered throughout the city, just trying to hide or get away, pleading for mercy. Mothers holding toddlers in their arms. How did the Jews go about killing them? Ever ponder that?

I vividly remember the horror of the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, in 1982, when “Christian” militiamen slaughtered a couple thousand Palestinians, as Israeli forces watched (and fired flares over the camps to illuminate them at night). Women were raped and killed, boys castrated and even scalped, Christian crosses carved into bodies, countless babies and toddlers ripped apart and thrown into piles. I remember, as a young adult, staring at length at the photos of the aftermath.

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killed millions in Cambodia during the 1970s. There was the Rwanda genocide in 1994 of nearly a million people. There was Bosnia. Shiites killing Sunnis and Christians in Iraq, and Sunnis doing plenty of the same. And there was My Lai, the very first massacre I remember–small scale by comparison to some of these others, but especially troubling because it occurred at the hands of my own countrymen.

People massacring other people–not in battle, but to exert power and demonstrate hatred.

What would I think if several million Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande to settle in Arizona, and began wiping out everyone in town after town–thousands of people, men, women, and children. Babies. Everyone. What if they rode into Tucson and just killed everybody living there. No exceptions.

As the Nazis swept through Russia, in each city the SS would round up all of the Jews, take them outside the city, and slaughter them. Men, women, children. Town after town, city after city. Hundreds of thousands of people. “Cleansing” the population of Jews.

That’s basically what the Israelites did, under orders from God. Is it okay if it bothers me? If I’m not able to reconcile wholesale slaughter with a fair, just, and loving God? It doesn’t damage my faith or my love for God, whose ways, I realize, are far different from our ways. But it does bother me.

I understand what God was trying to do–to clear the land he had promised his Chosen People, to remove sinful influences, especially idol worship. The fact that they quit before the job was done came back to haunt them later, causing all kinds of problems–idol worship, years of submission and subjugation to Philistines and other peoples. They never fully possessed the land, as God commanded them to do. But you can still call it genocide.

After conquering a town, I assume the Israelites would gather the survivors someplace, and then proceed to kill them. Men sheltering their families. Children clinging to their mother’s gown, crying. Kids watched as other kids, and their parents, and friends, were killed before their eyes…and knowing their turn would come. Imagine the weeping, the hysteria, the screaming for mercy. Imagine the Israelite soldiers who had to ignore it and simply kill, kill, kill.

How did they do it? There was no bullet in the back of the neck, as the Nazis did it to the Jews. Did they slit their throats? Chop off heads? Run them through the heart with a spear or sword? (The Khmer Rouge liked to use a dual bayonet thrust through the heart–one from the front, one from the back.) How did the Israelites carry out these mass slaughters, in town after town? What was their system? When a group of women and children were found huddled fearfully in a bedroom, how did they go about killing them?

Did some soldiers refuse to take part? The book “Ordinary Men” tells the story of a German reserve police battalion that was sent to Poland to assist in exterminating Jews. They would round up Jews, take them to a remote place, break them into small groups, and then execute them group by group. It could take all day. Some Germans never participated; their commanders allowed them to go somewhere else until the killing was done. Others participated for a while, but finally said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and they simply walked away. They would go sit in a jeep, light a cigarette, and try to ignore the gunfire and screaming occurring down that path leading into the forest.

I hope, with all my heart, that the Israelite soldiers were scarred by the experience. That they had nightmares about it. That they sometimes woke up in a cold sweat thinking about the baby they had skewered, or the young boy, or the pregnant mother, or the newlywed couple who thought they had their lives before them. That when a soldier returned home to his own family, seeing his own daughter reminded him of the bawling little girl whose throat he had slit; and seeing his pregnant wife reminded him of the pregnant women and newborn babies whom they had so recently slaughtered at God’s command. I hope these memories stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Because that means they were humans, not psychotic killing machines. I hope they did God’s bidding not because it was enjoyable, but purely out of obedience.

I’m also confident that it bothered God.

Because my God is fair, just, and loving, and does not normally require stuff like this. The fact that I can’t understand it only tells me that there is so much more to learn about God.

I find it interesting that Numbers 19:11 says, “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days.” If you came in contact with a dead body, you had to be isolated, perhaps outside the camp, for seven days. In the case of soldiers, perhaps there was some therapeutic value to this. Rather than wipe out a town of people and then immediately go home to their families, they had a week to decompress from the horrors they had inflicted.

Again–I understand why God commanded the Jews to massacre the Canaanites. And I firmly believe in a God who is fair, just, and loving. Reading Joshua doesn’t change that. I have difficulty squeezing a genocidal God into my “fair, just, and loving” picture, but I know there is a proper place which I can never really comprehend. But although I can’t fully grasp God’s eternal purposes, I can grasp the idea of a young Israelite soldier killing a helpless child who is begging for his life. That happened, over and over. And I don’t think God minds that it bothers me.

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