Since I have been reading the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy along with the text, I wanted to place a short note about the response to this passage in that commentary. (The author of the Leviticus portion is Dale A Brueggemann.)
He notes the command to slaughter all the males, including the children, and all the women who were not virgins, then on page 403 he says:
This slaughter was not the result of “collateral damage” in the heat of battle, or even an outrage committed in the heat of war’s bloodlust. It was purposeful judicial slaughter after the battle was already over. In fact, this action fits the modern definition of ethnic cleansing or possibly even genocide. The conquest was a holy war aimed at driving out an entire human population from Canaan (33:50-53), annihilating everyone there to purge idolatry and remove its temptations (Deut 20:16-18). …
He continues (p. 404) to note that Israel was promised similar judgment if they did not follow God and stay clear of idolatry. It’s interesting to note that at this point the chapter turns to the issue of ritual purity, specifying purification rituals for the spoils as well as for the warriors who, at God’s command, have come in contact with dead bodies. Dale Brueggemann notes (404):
… Even glorious battles fought and won with God’s blessing cause death, which doesn’t belong in the presence of the God of the living.
Alright then …
It is here that I must note that this passage presents an interesting problem for those who want to quote the Qur’an and use texts, apart from their interpretation by representatives of any branch of Islam, to demonstrate that Islam is not a religion of peace. The Bible has similar passages which can be interpreted, and indeed have been interpreted by some, as justifying violence. Our commentator in this case calls this action a “holy war” and then a “glorious battle.” Apart from your particular means of reading this passage, could you blame someone not involved in your particular hermeneutic for concluding that Judaism or Christianity are not religions of peace either?
There are a number of ways of looking at this passage, some of which I enumerated in my article in Sharing the Practice, Preaching an Unpreachable Passage. Very few Christians would use this passage today as a justification for this sort of act of war. Reasons range from “that’s the Old Testament,” though it should be noted that few Jews would use it to justify slaughter either, to such violence is only at God’s specific and rare command, to noting that it was a violent time, and God worked with people as they were.
I must confess that I find the explanation give in the CBC on Numbers to be extremely unsatisfactory. The Canaanites were so wicked that the Israelites were justified in slaughtering everyone including the baby boys? Note as well that the women were not spared due to mercy. They were spared as spoils of war. I discuss my own responses in the article linked above, but I think that there is a requirement that we see a process of learning going on in scripture, that this was a way in which people behaved in the past in a world in which that behavior was standard, but that we have been told better (by the Prince of Peace, among others), and we have (I hope) learned better by now.
Most importantly, in our relations with other faiths, I would suggest that we need to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” We would object to the statement that Christianity supports genocide based upon this passage. We would reject interpretations by others that say this is so. We’d present our hermeneutic in support of our position. Just as we would like others to allow us to use our scriptures in our way, we should allow them the same privilege.