“Exterminating Them Without Mercy”

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of October 11. Enjoy!

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The first half of the Old Testament book of Joshua poses special problems for modern Christians who unequivocally understand God as loving and peace-seeking for all people groups.  Per a straightforward reading of these first twelve chapters, the tribes of Israel march throughout Canaan and are seemingly commanded by God to dispose of anyone they find inhabiting the land.  Referring to a group of kings, the writer of Joshua explains, “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy” (Jo 11:20 NIV).  When preaching about the characteristics of Yahweh, most pastors do not include qualities such as “merciless” and “requiring complete annihilation,” yet these are found rather plentifully in Joshua.  This reflection paper will attempt to reconcile such primitive portrayals of God for today’s believers.

Given the significance of these issues, Victor P. Hamilton devotes several pages to a discussion of the Hebrew words kharam and kherem, which lie behind several of God’s apparent requirements for total destruction of “other” peoples in both Joshua and Deuteronomy.  Avoiding the problematic language present in many of the relevant verses, Hamilton explains kherem as “handing something over to God, with no ‘ifs, ands, or buts’ and renouncing of any further claim on the item.”[1] Unfortunately, when that item happens to be land claimed by someone else, those Yahweh-less people often cannot remain alive.  This is not a portrait of the peaceful, loving and forgiving God portrayed in the gospels by Jesus, despite Hamilton’s attempt to pacify by noting that “such wars of extermination” do not “become national policy” for Israel.[2]

Certainly, these apparent conquest accounts are not the only instances of senseless violence in the Old Testament.  Quite graphically, a psalmist in exile speaks favorably toward anyone who would murder Babylonian babies to exact revenge for the fall of Jerusalem (Ps 137:8-9).  Borrowing from medical lexicon, Israel’s xenophobia may be presenting itself symptomatically both in this psalmist’s lament and the kherem commands.  With this frame of mind, is the nationwide predisposition to violence driven by the authentic words of God, or is it merely a reflection of human imperfection?  Or, as Bart D. Ehrman colorfully inquires, “Does [God] really want his followers to splash the brains of their enemies’ infants against the rocks?”[3]

With the benefit of a more matured understanding of God and the good news of Jesus Christ, modern Christians – likely joined by some of the psalmist’s contemporaries – would be unlikely to answer Ehrman’s question in the affirmative.  Perhaps, then, the events and themes recorded in the Bible can be viewed as a chronological progression in the understanding of God’s character.  Brian D. McLaren compares this ever-developing perception of God to the way a schoolchild is introduced to new mathematical concepts as he or she enters new grade levels.[4] For example, whereas all numbers a second grader adds and subtracts are strictly whole and positive, in just a few years, the child will be taught both fractional and negative numerals.  Reasoning for God, McLaren suggests, “What if the best way to create global solidarity is by first creating tribal solidarity and then gradually teaching tribes to extend [that] to ‘the other’?  What if, then, God must first be seen as the God of our tribe and then only later as the God of all tribes?”[5] Only for the slain Anakites might this hypothesis prove insufficient (Jo 11:21-22).


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 34.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 11.

[4] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 103-104.

[5] Ibid., 104.

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