Much attention has been given to the so-called “dark passages” of the Bible in recent years. This is largely due to the use put to these passages by the enemies of the Christian name, by which I mean the aggressive, new-fangled atheists, who lately write pompous books against God, and get further media attention in order to attack Him. The “dark passages” are those parts of Holy Scripture wherein God appears to demand, do, or allow shocking things, acts that would normally — outside of the context of a divine sanction — be forbidden by His own law.
One might categorize these passages under different headings, but the ones I am interested in now are those which testify to God commanding the slaughter of all of the inhabitants of a place, including children and sometimes even animals.
Here are some specific passages to consider (all the links will take the reader to the Douay Old Testament):
- Numbers 31, which relates the war against the Madianites, a war of God’s own vengeance against Madian (vs. 2-3). When the victorious Israelite army of 12,000 slays only the men, Moses was angered and ordered the slaying of all the male children and all the women who were not virgins, whereas the virgin women and girls are allowed to live (vs. 17-18).
- Deuteronomy 7:1-2, wherein it is said concerning certain people inhabiting Canaan that “God shall have delivered them to thee, thou shalt utterly destroy them. Thou shalt make no league with them, nor shew mercy to them.”
- Josue 6:16-20, which relates Josue’s command to the Israelites conquering Jericho: “And let this city be an anathema, and all things that are in it, to the Lord,” sparing only Rahab the harlot and her house. Accordingly, the Israelites, “killed all that were in it, man and woman, young and old. The oxen also and the sheep, and the asses, they slew with the edge of the sword.”
- I Kings (I Samuel) 15:1-3, where God Himself commands King Saul through the Prophet Samuel to “smite Amalec, and utterly destroy all that he hath: spare him not, nor covet any thing that is his: but slay both man and woman, child and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (Later in that same chapter, God drives the point home very dramatically when, upon Saul’s disobedience for allowing the Amalec King Agag to survive, and allowing the people to take certain animals to offer to God in sacrifice, Saul is stripped of the kingship. Samuel himself did what Saul should have done: “And Samuel hewed [Agag] in pieces before the Lord in Galgal” (v. 23).
Not an exhaustive list, but it is certainly representative of the “worst” of such sections. These passages are shocking, and I dare say that we should find them so. Better than that, we should find them challenging, and we ought to be willing to accept the challenge to our faith of reading them and discerning what it is that God wishes to teach us by means of them.
We approach this subject in the sprit of Saint Augustine, whom Ven. Pope Pius XII thus paraphrased in his 1943 encyclical on Biblical studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu (45):
“God wished difficulties to be scattered through the Sacred Books inspired by Him, in order that we might be urged to read and scrutinize them more intently, and, experiencing in a salutary manner our own limitations, we might be exercised in due submission of mind. No wonder if of one or other question no solution wholly satisfactory will ever be found, since sometimes we have to do with matters obscure in themselves and too remote from our times and our experience; and since exegesis also, like all other most important sciences, has its secrets, which, impenetrable to our minds, by no efforts whatsoever can be unraveled.”
What can we say of this supposedly “genocidal” war policy against Moabites, Madianites, Canaanites, etc.?
God is good. He is good in ways that are clear for us to understand, and He is good in ways that are difficult to understand. (This is the lesson of the Book of Job.) In the book of Wisdom, Chapter 12, Solomon the Wise takes up this very question concerning how God dealt with “those ancient inhabitants of thy holy land” (v. 3): “For who shall say to thee: What hast thou done? or who shall withstand thy judgment? or who shall come before thee to be a revenger of wicked men? or who shall accuse thee, if the nations perish, which thou hast made? For there is no other God but thou, who hast care of all, that thou shouldst shew that thou dost not give judgment unjustly. Neither shall king, nor tyrant in thy sight inquire about them whom thou hast destroyed. For so much then as thou art just, thou orderest all things justly: thinking it not agreeable to thy power, to condemn him who deserveth not to be punished” (12-15). The entirety of this chapter is worth reading and meditating on, as it directly concerns this subject.
As the author of life, who has sovereign rights concerning the death of creatures He brought into being, God can preventively or consequently will any kind of death He chooses for His creatures. He is God. We read in Father Challoner’s commentary for I Kings 15: “The great Master of life and death (who cuts off one half of all mankind whilst they are children) has been pleased sometimes to ordain that children should be put to the sword, in detestation of the crimes of their parents, and that they might not live to follow the same wicked ways. But without such ordinance of God it is not allowable, in any wars, how just soever, to kill children.”
Personally, I find Father Challoner’s explanation entirely satisfactory to “vindicate” God’s justice. Not everybody does.
In an effort to gain further understanding, we ought to put these passages in their historical context.
Canaan belonged to Abraham’s descendants because of the divine promise made in Gen. 15:18. Notably, God says in that same conversation with Abraham that his ancestors will be captives for 400 years (in Egypt, though God does not name the nation), and will then return to this land, which they cannot now inhabit, “for as yet the iniquities of the Amorrhites are not at the full until this present time” (Gen. 15:16). Four hundred years later, the iniquities of the inhabitants of that land are full, and God judges them harshly for abusing their free will.
In the meantime, at least one pagan king (Abimelech, the Philistine king of Gerara) realizes that “the Lord is with” Isaac (Gen. 26:28), and makes a covenant with him. This could well indicate that the inhabitants of those lands knew that they lived in a place promised to Isaac’s father’s people, or, alternatively, it shows that God made it so obvious that He was with His chosen ones that even these pagans could see it. (Let us recall that, later, God made it obvious to the Egyptians that He wanted Pharaoh to let His people go, but Pharaoh did not relent, so he and his people were punished severely, as God had foretold to Abraham back in Genesis 15.)
By the time Josue comes to claim the city of Jericho, the inhabitants well know that the Israelites are coming to make their claim. God has made it quite obvious to them, and has given them plenty of time to get out of the way. It is so evident that Rahab the harlot can see it (“I know that the Lord hath given this land to you: for the dread of you is fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land have lost all strength” [Josue 2:9]); she therefore helps the Israelite spies. Read Josue 2:8-14 to see how obvious God made it to the inhabitants of Jericho that God had given this land to the Israelites. Some of the inhabitants of the land accepted the faith of Abraham, were incorporated into God’s people, and were spared. Rahab the harlot — who foreshadows the Gentile Church — is one such (along with her father’s household), and she enters into the human genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).
Why could not the other remaining inhabitants of the land know what the harlot knew? They could, and likely did, but they had bad will, just as the Egyptians who held Israel captive did.
The participle “remaining” was purposely used to describe the denizens of Jericho just now, for some read Josue 6:1 to indicate that many had been fleeing Jericho before the city was besieged. There are indications that many, perhaps even most, of the Canaanites got the message and departed before Israel.
According to Old Testament scholar, Dr. Nathan Schmiedickie, “Modern archaeology supports the view that what is presented as a conquest in the Bible mostly took the form of a peaceful migration. (Note, this is often presented as being contradictory to the Biblical account, but it isn’t necessarily.). Certainly there were battles and such, and certainly there were Canaanites who did not leave, but for the most part, the Canaanites recognized the rights of Abraham and his descendants to the land and either took the hint and moved to a new location or, as in the case of Rahab’s household and the Gibeonites, made a covenant of peace with Israel. The Bible is, on the other hand, equally clear that there were many Canaanite groups that never left the land (Judges 1:19-31).”
Again Solomon the Wise helps us out here: “Yet even those [Canaanites] thou sparedst as men, and didst send wasps, forerunners of thy host, to destroy them by little and little. Not that thou wast unable to bring the wicked under the just by war, or by cruel beasts, or with one rough word to destroy them at once: But executing thy judgments by degrees thou gavest them place of repentance, not being ignorant that they were a wicked generation, and their malice natural, and that their thought could never be changed” (Wisdom 12:8-10).
The conclusion of all this is that we are not talking about a wholesale slaughter of Canaanites who rose up to defend their land against a people concerning whose just claims they were ignorant. No, it seems that the majority of Canaanites recognized either the just claims, or at least the grave threat, of the Israelites and fled, leaving behind relatively few, who were the rich and powerful (Josue 6:2) — and likely only some of them. These holders on rejected the claims of Abraham, and thus rejected the God of Abraham. They would, as is clear from Scripture, strive to destroy God’s people and deny them their God-given Land. The stern and harsh “ban” (Heb.: cherem), which called for (among other things) the annihilation of these people included their wives and children. These shared the fate of their foolish men because a father’s decisions affect the family for good or for ill. (Yes, God’s revealed religion is patriarchal.)
This Ad Rem has already gone longer than I prefer to keep them. I have some other thoughts on the “dark passages” posted on our site. Click here to read my Column.