While reading this morning, I came across this troubling passage that represents all that is wrong when a religious group thinks their deity has told them to kill an entire people group.
When Edom had finished killing all the men of Beer-sheva in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Edomites returned to Beer-sheva and killed those who were in it. Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Beer-sheva. For Malik-rammu did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Beer-sheva. But Edom did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as Ba’al had instructed Malik-rammu.
They chased the men out into the fields and desert to make sure that they killed them all and then returned to the city to kill the rest of the men and women, 12,000 in all. They then plundered the city as Ba’al, their deity, had instructed their leader, Malik-rammu, to do. I’m just glad that no one actually thinks Ba’al told the Edomites to kill everyone in the city just so they could gain some land that they thought, for no logical reason, belonged to them.
There is one problem with this passage, though. The passage isn’t actually about the Edomites and their conquest of Beer-sheva. It’s about Israel and their conquest of Ai. I simply changed the proper nouns in the passage from Joshua 8:24-27.
When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Ai. But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the LORD had instructed Joshua.
It seems to me that religious genocide is much easier to recognize when it isn’t our own tradition that supports it. As often as we point to the evil and killing and war in another’s religion, we should be pointing to the evil and killing and war in our own.
Now, does this mean that because the story of Joshua says that God instructed them to kill this entire city and plunder it that I think it was right? Absolutely not! Does this mean that I think they were right about God instructing them to do this? Once again, absolutely not! I can affirm that the authors of this text thought they were doing the will of God, but I can also affirm that nowhere in my understanding of God does an act like this fit.
This post certainly shows my hermeneutical hand, namely, that I don’t take as literal or agree with every text in the Bible and that my over-arching hermeneutic is a hermeneutic of love. This does not show, though, that the biblical text is not meaningful to me. It certainly is, but I do not blindly agree with cultures, societies, and religious leaders that thought they were doing the will of God by oppressing others (see the treatment of women in 1 & 2 Timothy) or killing thousands.
I may not trust all of the text, but I have established and grown a relationship with God that does not support and condone evil being carried out in God’s name, no matter how long ago it was or how right I think my religion is.