Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes – Deuteronomy 20:16
The tentacles of God’s bloody instruction have been embraced as a political policy by the ancient Israelites, the papacy in Rome, the new world colonizing countries, the early government of the United States, and the current governments of the United States and its favorite strategic partner-in-crime, Israel. It reaches back four thousand years, more or less depending on when Moses was found floating among the bulrushes. It has a disgraceful, blood-ridden legacy.
The historian and magnificent literary stylist, Edward Gibbon, observed in his epic, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the difficulty of selecting myths to establish a religion (or a country). It confounded the early Christians too. It seems that the Nazarene Christians were in heated dispute with the Gnostics since the latter were upset about the Israelite devastation wrought at God’s behest. How, they argued, with its record of mayhem and destruction, could such a religion as Judaism have been instituted by the wisdom of the Deity?” Gibbon explains with more than a little sarcasm:
With the conquest of the land of Canaan, and the extirpation of the unsuspecting natives, they [the Gnostics] were at a loss how to reconcile with the common notions of humanity and justice. But when they recollected the sanguinary list of murders, of executions, and of massacres, which stain almost every page of the Jewish annals, they acknowledged that the barbarians of Palestine had exercised as much compassion towards their idolatrous enemies as they had ever shown to their friends or countrymen. (1)
And so the issue was decided. It was simple enough; barbarians beget barbarians as butchers beget butchers. And as history has long witnessed, blood and offal trace the path of the white man’s progress through the land they still call God’s country, whether it be Israel or America. No matter the perfume of their rhetoric, both reek from Biblical nostalgia.
It all began in the good old days of old Israel, in a land then inhabited by someone else. Sound familiar? The Canaanites were a sophisticated, ancient tribe that lived in a land bounded in the west by the Mediterranean, east by the Dead Sea, running northward through Syria, and bounded to the south by the land of Judah. Thus, Canaan generally comprised today’s Israel. Talented in agriculture, hunting, and fishing, the Canaanites lived in well-planned towns with a city-state political system. Homes had plaster walls, many of which were painted, and drainage systems. They were far more advanced than the Israelites who had spent generation upon generation in captivity and wandering. Canaanite artisans worked in copper, lead, and gold. Their pottery was sophisticated and finely turned, prized in the world of that time. The problem was their religion, at least by God’s and Israelite standards.
And for that the Canaanites would be destroyed.
In many ways, the primitive culture of the Canaanites was similar to the American Indian’s. They had been on their land since time immemorial. But somehow Abraham’s covenant with God trumped the Canaanites’ historical claim. Jewish religious myth held that God gave this land to the Israelites. How? The Bible’s Old Testament says so. End of discussion. The Canaanites should have written their own book, admittedly difficult since they were all slaughtered. Leading the Israelites out of captivity from Egypt, Moses hastened to the biblical Promised land. He spread mayhem as he went, as commanded by his (and, today, billions of others) inspiration, a figure now called alternatively Yahweh, Allah, and/or God, depending upon one’s myth.
God’s first victims, the Midianites.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites; […] And Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you […] to execute the Lord’s vengeance on Midian. [….] So they made war against Midian as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed every male [….] And Moses said to them, […] Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. (Numbers 31:2-18)
Killing every male child? Moses had learned this tactic well from the pharaoh. And in the name of God, the Israelites were allowed to keep the virgins for themselves. And so the slaughter and destruction of the aboriginal inhabitants of Palestine commenced. And unbridled slaughter it was, an epic story of brutality. The stuff that nightmares and religions are made.
Of course, this is just one of the many murderous episodes described in arguably one of the most inspiration and revered books in the Old Testament, Exodus. Therein is the implementation phase of the Mosaic Covenant with God, a divinely inspired strategic alliance for delivering the heretofore hapless Jews out of slavery and into the Promised Land. It represents the fundamental precept of Judaism, that of the deliverance of the Israelites – the chosen people – into their God-given destiny. The heroic Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, the Ten Commandments, the destruction of the Canaanites, it is all there, in the heart of the Torah. Of course, Christianity, too, has roots in the Mosaic Covenant but its New Testament symbol, the cross, has a connotation of redemption through self-sacrifice rather than slaughter. The Jews were ‘delivered’ because somehow they were identified by God as worthy of being chosen people. Perhaps God recognized their great potential? Perhaps. But we know that the Old-Testament-God demanded obedience. Orders were issued. Orders must be obeyed, no discussion allowed. But because the Israelites chose obedience along with the willingness to murder vast numbers of people, God loved them and gave them someone else’s land.
“Jews are obligated to establish themselves as an ethical community of caring,” noted philosopher Avishai Margalit in his book, The Ethics of Memory. “The force of the obligation is gratitude to God for having delivered their ancestors from the ‘house of slaves’ in Egypt.” (2) The brain floods with images. Joshua stopping the sun, the walls of Jericho tumbling to the ground whereupon the Israelites, as the Bible relates, “slaughtered every living thing”, the pharaoh’s army drowning in the Red Sea, under the gaze of Moses, the stuff of epics, this stuff of destruction.
I do not mean to disparage this great escape from bondage. Slavery is bad, for all peoples, in all times, even for the South and Central American Indians, and the African blacks, all of whom were enslaved by God’s white chosen people, and today’s Palestinians, enslaved in a political, social, economic hell by a crushing occupation. But it is vital to note that this perpetration of violence was all of a piece with the religious covenants made with God. And that promise necessitated a slaughter of human beings, all creatures of God, by other creatures of God. And in Old Testament Israel – the taproot of Christianity – the violence was done unto others under the direct orders of God.
This thinking would continue well into the second millennium of Christ. Some would argue it exists to this day. Simply put, there are some people destined to be slaves. We know how the popes of 15th century Rome gave away the terra incognita of the new world in the name of God who, according to them, owned it since he had made it. Except that the popes claimed ownership as a sort proxy real estate agent for God. The result of all this? Violence. The killing that ran down the generations to this moment began with the myth of Exodus. Humanity learned well its first God-given lesson.
And Moses said to the people,
Remember this day when you went out from Egypt […] And it shall be when the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Hivite and the Jubusite which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, that you shall observe this rite in this month. (Exodus 13:3-5)
And with that, the Lord, through Moses, his interlocutory strong-arm man, prescribed a series of dietary rituals, leavened by ritual slaughter of the first-born offspring of every beast owned, except donkeys. (Note: If by error one killed a donkey, one could be redeemed by killing a lamb. Blood. Blood. Blood.)
Taking up the bones of Joseph for protection, the Israelites set out on a long march of discontent and destruction. En route among the Israelites grumbling was constant. They rued they had ever left their slavery in Egypt. After all, in captivity at least they were fed. God grew angrier and angrier. Then, finally camping at Etham, “at the edge of the wilderness,” God took charge. Who knows why God would select this motley crew over some other, more sophisticated, civilization – the Hittites, for example? But this was the way it was. It was written in the Bible. Amen to all that. Anyway, select the Israelites he did, at least according to the Israelite version of the victor’s history. And it seems that God had even anticipated the unruliness and discontent of his chosen people. Thus he took scrupulous care to provide guidance that even they, the problematic Israelites, could understand – a celestial guidance system of sorts.
And the Lord was going before them in a pillar of fire by night to give them light. (Exodus 13:3-21)
And so under God’s direction and sponsorship, the slaughter commenced. The first to go under the sword of Joshua (Moses’ right-hand man and heir-apparent) were the people of Amalek. With Joshua and his men slugging it out below, and Moses standing on a nearby hill, the battle ebbed and flowed with the gestures of Moses. As a maestro conducts an orchestra, so long as Moses held up his staff, Joshua’s side advanced. But when Moses would tire and his arm fell, Amalek and his troops would rally. What to do? Easy. Have Moses sit on a stone and have two aides prop up his arms. So he did and so came victory. None of this is either credible or exciting writing but triumph was soon his (and God’s) for “Joshua had overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exodus 17:13)
And now God makes one of the least plausible statements in the entire Bible: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down this in a book as a memorial, and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Exodus 17:14) What? Record it in a book, the Bible no less, so it will be forgotten? Well, some ever-obedient Israelite scribe did so. And to this day we may all remember Amalek.
Moses, undeterred by an illogical commander-in-chief, proceeded on to Sinai and the issuance of the Ten Commandments. But it wasn’t just ten. Rather it was a slew of other injunctions dealing with issues like how, and who, to compensate if an ox gores a slave, if a slave’s tooth gets knocked out, and the behavioral complexities inherent when a donkey dies. Most interesting is the rendering of a convenient alibi for murder, thus adding a bizarre condition of clemency to the Fifth Commandment – thou shalt not kill. According to this quaint notion, killing was not a sin providing one did not engage in ambush, that is, concealment. Otherwise, murder most foul was fair.
He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. (Exodus 21:12-13)
What does it mean to have “God let him fall into his hand”? Is this a license to kill based on every individual’s inner voice that hears God say yea or nay? Like Moses and Joshua and the infamous 1976-77 New York City serial killer, David Berkowitz, the so-called Son of Sam, for example? And God will even provide a hideout? Yes, fair is foul and foul is fair, both in MacBeth and in the Bible.
Soon Moses received additional marching orders. More mayhem lay ahead. And the Lord spoke to Moses,
Depart, go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “To your descendents I will give it. And I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite and the Jebusite. (Exodus 33:1-2)
Note the escalation, adding extirpation as an option. In the earlier command, no mention made of driving them out. (In colonial America, the American Indians were considered by reputable theologians of that time to be descendents of the uprooted Canaanites.) The Lord’s blood was up, seemingly at both parties: at the above-mentioned foes, and at the thickheaded Israelites. So annoyed was he that he demurred from attending the next slaughter. “I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, lest I destroy you on the way.” (Exodus 33:3)
God seems on the verge of abandoning the chosen-people idea. But if he destroyed the Israelites “on the way,” who would do God’s dirty work on the others? What was God’s divine plan? Other than murder and mayhem and punishment, not much else rises from these pages that have inspired millions of people for thousands of years. What was this mission of death and destruction about anyway? To simply kill off tribes so the Israelites would be able to live in the land of milk and honey? Why didn’t God let them find (or develop) their own land of plenty, in a desert, for example? Like the Balfour Agreement pretended to do? The struggle would have been good for them, as struggle has been for all mankind through the ages as a way to build character. Then the Old Testament would have been a heroic tale of self-sacrifice and enterprise replacing all the blood and pillage. But regrettably it was not to be, not with this Old Testament God: “for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). Yes and the romantic expectations inherent in the Balfour Agreement have also been dashed since its enactment. For God was also a greedy God.
“For I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your borders,” said God. (Exodus 34:24).
And he did.
“And you shall consume all the nations whom the Lord your God will deliver to you; your eye shall not pity them.” (Deut 7:16)
And they did, to their God’s great pleasure.
Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. (Deut 34:12)
But even a “great terror” like Moses could not live forever, and after his death the sword was passed to a new generation of leaders. Enter, first, Joshua. He would make Moses look like Mother Teresa. For sure Joshua would make good God’s claim for he was “filled with the spirit of wisdom” (Deut 34:9). God spoke directly to him as well, as he earlier had done with “great terror” Moses, as he apparently did to the blood-ridden, dim-witted George W. Bush, God’s latter day Joshua. (3)
Cross the Jordan River, God commanded Joshua, and take the land of Canaan that I gave to the Israelites. Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them, to the sons of Israel, Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it too you, just as I spoke to Moses. (Joshua 1:2-3)
So without the slightest pause (such are the stories of faith) Joshua issued the order to attack. Thus the Canaanite civilization and their religion were destroyed, uprooted, enslaved and otherwise disappeared from the land. As we are seeing, what was done according to God’s name in the Bible is a wrenching, repetitive, bloody story. The Israelites wrought destruction wherever they went, a vengeful, angry divinity aiding and abetting them. Oddly, God seems to be not merely the Israelite’s inspiration but their commander-in-chief, issuing orders, brooking no disobedience, causing mayhem and slaughter in his name. Joshua’s land-grab campaign for God intensified the killing. And God does not mince words. Kill your own people if need be, he advised Joshua.
Anyone who rebels against your command and does not obey your words in all that you command him, shall be put to death: only be strong and courageous. (Joshua 1:18)
But in Genesis, this same God created man and gave him reason, the ability to determine right from wrong. How soon this idea became quaint. Do as I say, says God, or off with your head! Could it be? God a tyrannical, cold-blooded, murderer? God, the supreme terrorist? Nightmarish material, indeed, but what must one conclude? What must one believe? Indeed all the territorial accomplishments of the Old Testament were predicated on violence. The crime? Murder. The seizure of the land of Canaan was the consequence of blindly obeying an order. All was accomplished by slaughter, a murder spree, indeed a genocide. And these deeds remain bedrock examples of the principles of faith sanctified by two major religions, who harken to the “faith of our fathers,” striving to conquer all the way.
Faith of our fathers, we will strive/To win all nations unto thee; (Lyrics to “Faith of Our Fathers,” a traditional Christian hymn.)
Let us journey briefly and quickly along the bloody road past the main sites of the Israelite slaughter of the Canaanites, the Old Testament campaign of terror.
Sihon – “We defeated him with his sons and all his people […] we captured all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, women and children of every city. We left no survivor” (Deut 2:33-34).
Bashon – “We utterly destroyed them […] the men, women and children of every city” (Deut 3:6).
Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite – “You shall utterly destroy them […] You shall strike all the men with the edge of the sword […] the women and the children and all that is in the city you shall take as booty. You shall not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deut 20:13-17).
Jericho – “And they utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6:21).
Ai – “They slew them until no one was left. […] Joshua burned Ai and made it a heap forever; a desolation to this day. And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening” (Joshua 8:28-29).
Gibeon – (where Joshua stopped the sun “in the middle of the sky”) “He slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon [….] and the Lord threw large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died” (Joshua 10:11-13).
Makkedah – “Joshua and the sons of Israel finished slaying them with a great slaughter. [….] He utterly destroyed it and every person who was in it. He left no survivor (Joshua 10: 20, 28).
In case more casual Bible readers have become shocked, awed, or bored with the unremitting violence of the Israelites at the behest of their God, the following paragraph neatly summarizes the whole bloody mess:
Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel had commanded. (Joshua 10:40)
And just what was the extent of “all the land” of the so-called Promised Land? Well, in a word, it was vast. The covenant extended from the desert and Lebanon, north and east into modern day Turkey (the land of the Hittites), to the Euphrates, then made an about face and marched westward toward the setting sun and the sea.
From the wilderness and this Lebanon, even as far as the great river, the riverEuphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and as far as the Great Sea toward the setting of the sun, will be your territory. (Joshua 1:4)
The notion of the “setting sun” is unsettling to say the least.
After Joshua died the cry from the Israelites for a successor went straight up to God: “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites?” they wondered. And the Lord said, ‘Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.” (Judges 1:1-2)
And so the cudgel was passed to another biblical hero, another killer in God’s name, in a war that never seems to end.
“And Judah went up, and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hands: and they defeated ten thousand men at Bezek.” (Judges 1:4), cutting off the “thumbs and big toes” of Adonibezek, the Canaanite king (Judges 1:6).
We see writ large in the Bible the results of God’s imperialistic frenzy on behalf of the Israelites. One might well ask: My God, what has God done? Tragically, he has provided a rationale for genocidal subjugation, that’s what.
The connection is in plain sight and undeniable. The Israel of old – God-given, violent, self-righteous, biblically driven – thousands of years later serves as a convenient and comfortable myth to found a new promised land, a new wilderness, a “new” Canaan in America. It even had “new” Canaanites, the quickly demonized American Indians. And so began the dispossession and destruction of its many and culturally varied tribes. And it is same deeply rooted, violent myth that propels the Israelis – the latter day Israelites – and their American gangster partner to destroy the Palestinians in Gaza, as mythic Samson did in the very same Gaza, thousands of years ago.
What mythic, black-minded evil festers in the roots of these governments. And in the roots of religion.
(1) Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. II, The Folio Society, London, 1984. Page101.
(2) Margalit, Avishai. The Ethics of Memory. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002. Page 72.
(3) “God told me to strike Al Qaeda and I struck, and then he instructed me to strike Saddam, which I did.” So said George W. Bush as reported by the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz.
Schell, Orville. Cited in Why the Press Failed, Aug. 25, 2004
All biblical quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, Thomas Nelson, publisher.