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Jesus, God, and the Problem of Genocide

By Dr. Adam Jones

Deuteronomy 25: 17-19

1 Samuel 15:1-9

On October 28 of this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted the same text:

“They [Israelis] are committed to completely eliminating this evil from the world. You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.”

It has also been used by religious and right-wing extremists to target Palestinians:

“In 1980, the Rabbi Israel Hess wrote an article that used the story of Amalek to justify wiping out Palestinians. Its title has been translated as ‘Genocide: A Commandment of the Torah,’ as well as ‘The Mitzvah of Genocide in the Torah.’” (Mitzvah means ‘good deed’.)

The Midianites in Numbers 31:7–18 again features the dynamic of failing to fulfill a totally exterminatory agenda:

They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and slew every male... And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones; and they took as booty all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. All their cities . . . they burned with fire... And Moses was angry with the officers of the army... [He] said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these caused the people of Israel, by the counsel of Balaam, to act treacherously against the Lord... and so the plague came to the congregations of the Lord. Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him [sexually]. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.”

Steve Wells, Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible. Overall, Wells calculates “the following grand totals for the number killed by God and Satan in the Bible: God: Approximately 25 million[;] Satan: 60”

Why? Old Testament is a body of tribal patriarchal writings, designed to exalt the chosen and dismiss or demonize out-groups. Old Testament God is patriarchal, violent, vengeful (as in the Amalekites being punished for crimes committed centuries earlier).

I happen to think most of this, in terms of real-world genocide, is just stories and fantasies and massaged histories. Hard to distinguish genocide from classical methods of war-waging. I also hear echoes of blood feuds, which I’ve studied in places like Albania and the former Yugoslavia. That addiction to intergenerational vengeance seems pretty ancient in human affairs. But seeing it celebrated in one’s holy texts is problematic for a Christian, or should be.

What is quite spectacularly different in the New Testament writings is that there is so little of this violence, in fact very often very much the opposite. I’m leaving aside Revelation here, which I think we can agree is an outlier in the New Testament.  

Worth mentioning here my favourite heretics of the early Christian era, the Marcionites. We only have critiques of Marcion, not his original writings, but it’s pretty clear that he and his followers believed the God of the Old Testament simply could not be the same god as the God of the New Testament.

As Wikipedia puts it, “Marcion preached that the benevolent God of the Gospel who sent Jesus Christ into the world as the savior was the true Supreme Being, different and opposed to … the Hebrew God of the Old Testament. … Marcionites held that the God of the Hebrew Bible was inconsistent, jealous, wrathful and genocidal, and that the material world he created was defective, a place of suffering; the God who made such a world is [bungling or malicious].” The Marcionites found no way to reconcile a gospel of love, compassion, and forgiveness with the often very bloody and bloodthirsty texts of the Hebrew Bible. They didn’t win the theological and political battle, but they wrestled with things and themes that I find myself wrestling with today.

In the life and teachings of Jesus, it’s again almost miraculous how little of the ethnic-supremacist appears to exist in this Jew. There’s only one passage I can think of where he arguably dabbles in negative ethnic stereotypes: in the encounter with the Canaanite woman at the well, related in Matthew 15:

A Canaanite woman from that vicinity [of the city of Tyre] came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. ... It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

It's both a triumphant and a disturbing passage, with the apparent reference to the Canaanite woman as a dog. Some have sought to explain it away as good-natured repartee between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. But it’s also relevant that Matthew is usually considered the “most Jewish gospel,” and so perhaps it’s the most likely to feature a vignette, real or imagined, in which Jesus adopts an ethnically-superior posture in dealing with out-groups, and an exclusionary ethnic focus to the teaching and the mission.

Otherwise, in just about everything he says and does, Jesus seems revolutionary with regard to the classical Hebrew narrative. His vision of the Kingdom of God is expansive and clearly open to gentiles and pagans as well as Jews. The Beatitudes, the inversions of high and low, rich and poor, proud and humble, all still seem radical today. Parables like the Good Samaritan caution against superior posturing, and valorize the out-group Samaritan over the hypocritical in-group passersby. And then there is “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone” – a highly symbolic rejection of a time-honoured but barbaric practice.

I don’t think you could reasonably picture Jesus as a genocidaire, a genocidal killer. I don’t think he would have allowed himself to be caught up in genocidal enterprises, or would associate with people with genocidal leanings. Maybe that’s why he was alone a lot.

I think it’s also interesting that Jesus runs his ministry as a healing one, as in the encounter with the Canaanite woman. He’s not a prophet with a mass following, or a monarch, or someone bellowing at the heavens. He travels on foot from community to community, and lays on hands to heal, providing practical service to even the poorest and most despised. Doctors and other healers have sometimes been seduced into participating in genocide, but as an ideal, it’s pretty far removed from the warlords, patriarchs, and power-seekers of the Old Testament.

Jesus also points to reckoning with ourselves, our limitations, our sins and fragilities. After a quarter-century of studying genocide, I’m convinced that it’s not rocket science. It very much comes down to our human psyche, our fears and anxieties, our desire to immerse ourselves in a larger group in opposition to other groups, our greed and pride and envy. You see the same dynamics playing out again and again in genocides throughout history, these days just with some modern trappings. But you also find people working for peace and reconciliation and coexistence, which I would consider a truly Christian agenda, whether or not it’s inspired by Jesus.

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