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'Ethic' Cleansing: God's Love and the Genocide charge

This page has been set up to provide the evidential detail needed to support the position that God's nature, as presented consistently throughout both Testaments of the bible and validated by Jesus, sets up principles (i.e., provides an ethic) for action against any persistent flouting of a committed relationship between God and his creation.

The development of this position and related discussion can be found on the Ship of Fools [ed. Nov 2014: now at this page] website.

To get to this thesis, a few things need explaining:-
[1] There is a need to draw on as much information as possible to get a feel for the way people thought, acted, and structured their life during the period of the biblical writings.
[2] The English words 'genocide' and 'love' are inadequate to explain the meaning of the related terms in the bible.
[3] None of what is being said here runs counter to God's love as it commonly understood. There is, however, a flip-side to the biblical love coin and both sides need to be taken into account if a balanced and true reflection is to be had of God and his nature.
[4] We need some definitions at this stage so that it's clear what I'm talking about, in case anyone needs to challenge, seek clarification, etc.
Ethics: the set of principles that govern individual or group behaviour.
Genocide: the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.
Ethnic cleansing: the forcible removal of one group from a geographical area. Different from 'genocide' as the phrase perhaps better describes exile. There are passages in the bible that record God as commanding something along those lines - “...drive them out before you.” To avoid spending too much time on voluminous texts, though, I propose to limit this discussion to the so-called 'genocide' passages as these probably attract greater reaction among bible readers.
Love: the loyal commitment to one another shown by both parties to a covenant.
I can well understand if that last definition causes the eyebrows to rise higher than is usually acceptable in polite society. It is that definition that I want to defend as being biblical. My concern here is that the English word 'Love' no longer sufficiently carries the connotations of its translated equivalent in the bible. In fact, I think 'Love' has become too broad in scope to be of any use in a translation process without qualification. The connotation with affection alone (with varying degrees of intensity) skews our reading of the bible. Better to come to the book having deliberately set aside the 'love' word first, and then see where we get to.

[5] I'm going to have to assume some things up front so as to get moving, but accept that the assumptions may need to be explored. Assumptions here include:
* We humans operate from within sets of (sometimes unconscious) presuppositions
* These presuppositions are conditioned in no small part by worldviews 
* The processes of translation and interpretation require an adequate understanding of those worldviews/presuppositions
* The biblical texts need to be taken on their individual contextual merits, but need also to be seen as contextually placed within a wider collection (canon)
* The NT writers were operating within an environment whose presupposition were informed by Hebrew/Aramaic writings (the Jewish scriptures).

Time to set out the stall. I think the biblical message on the issue can be summarised as follows:


[1] God's nature sets up universal principles underlying ethics. God's remit covers all creation – it is universal – even when there is a focus on a chosen people. There is a world-wide ethic that informs human behaviour. This 'clean' ethic, however, can be contaminated and become 'unclean' (below the norm). Before it can be readmitted into normal human behaviour, it needs cleansing. Sometimes only a holy (above the norm) act will achieve this. The references to the holy-clean-unclean model here reflect a cosmology known to the ancient near eastern world-view and which finds expression in the Eden-tabernacle-temple typology in the bible (and comparable texts elsewhere).

[2] God's nature is expressed via loyal commitment to his creation. That's 'love' to you and me. The model used by the biblical writers to demonstrate this is 'covenant,' a concept that formed an integral part of the world-view of the time. Life was essentially hierarchical – family, clan, tribe, nation, god.

[3] Hierarchical relations extended cosmically. The God of Abraham, Isaac,...Jesus was also the top god of a divine assembly representing every tribe and nation. Consequently commitment to God was reasonably expected of all nations, tribes, clans, families.

[4] The covenant worldview implied a two-way set of loyal responsibilities: protection and provision from above, and support from below (taxes, troops, etc.). Loyalty goes both ways and is rewarded generally with peace (shalom). Dis-loyalty from covenant is betrayal and treason, and is punishable.

[5] Elements of creation are in a state of rebellion against God. This means that God's ethical nature is no longer being used by those in the state of rebellion as the standard measure for behaviour.

[6] Rebellion in a covenant is punishable; the senior partner has the right to restore order and peace by force, if necessary. This right is sometimes assumed in texts, but we do find it spelled out in the various covenant stipulations found across the ancient near eastern territories – reflected as well in the likes of Deuteronomy 28. Rebels could not claim ignorance of outcomes or surprise at punishments; they knew exactly what risks they ran when they rebelled because they would have had to sign up to the statements of outcome when they first joined a covenant.

[7] The ultimate process for restoring peace and well-being in the face of continued rebellion is that of Herem. There is no one English word that adequately translates this Hebrew word. The basic idea is that of giving up entirely any interest (claim to ownership) in an object, whether property or persons. It is a stage further than 'dedication,' which is why some English versions opt for the word 'devotion' in translation. A person may be dedicated in post as a priest in the Temple, but that simply meant that he could return to his previous life if he later chose. If, however, he was devoted to a post in the Temple, that meant he had taken the irrevocable step of becoming a permanent priest. No turning back. Similarly, land dedicated to the temple could be sold on; devoted land could not. It is the verbal form of the nominal Herem that is used in Joshua 6:21 

[8] The process of Herem was always a final resort in the face of unrepentant rebellion. Herem is not the same thing as normal war. Rules for the latter are set out elsewhere in the bible and are the normal (clean) way of fighting. Herem, on the other hand, was the holy (above the norm) method for cleansing a land of rebellion. It too came with rules for observance. There was what looks to be a judicial aspect to Herem: a rebel was warned about his behaviour and the consequences. It was only in the face of continued, voluntary and die-hard rebellion that Herem was invoked. It was more in the way of judicial execution.

Thus far everything feels pretty Old Testament-y. However, crucially, we find a similar theme running through the New Testament. I won't list references here, but they are numerous and deal with a promised final day of judgement, where persistent rebels against God are dealt with in terms analogous to an above-the-norm (holy) cleansing. So...

[9] The concept of Herem continues into the present and future. Jesus confirms its continued validity when he is recorded saying there would be a divine judicial punishment. The rest of the NT is consistent with this expectation. Herem is deliberately reserved to God because only his nature is holy enough to accomplish the cleansing of ethics needed to ensure correct behaviour.

So much for Herem. Now what about 'Love'?

[10] The NT was written by authors who had the Jewish Scriptures in mind. It follows that the meaning of the word(s) translated by 'Love' in English should be located from within the meaning of a word or phrase in a Hebrew counterpart, rather than a historical Greek or English one. We know that the NT writers were steeped in the OT: quantitatively because of the number of direct quotes, paraphrases and allusions from the Jewish literature; and qualitatively because of the differences between the slants given on life, the universe, and everything, in that Jewish literature compared to those in non-Jewish literature. It follows that it is not safe to assume simply because the NT writers used Greek words such as agape that they must therefore have 'meant' a concept familiar to Aristotle. We should instead be looking for a meaning closer to the Hebrew use of, e.g., ahav.

[11] The Hebrew concept of 'Love' includes covenant commitment. Jesus validates this when he is recorded as quoting in an approving manner the commandment to love God (Mark 12:28-30 = Deut.6:4-5).

[12] The association of 'love' with 'covenant' in both Testaments means that Herem is bound up with God's nature, ethics, and action. Irrevocable devotion is the flip-side of God's peace and well-being. We cannot have one without the possibility of the other on the cosmic scale. This could be put using English terms: “Genocide is part of God's loving nature,” but that would be to run the risk of importing English concepts and emotions where they probably have little right to be.