If there is one strong theme so far in the Book of Deuteronomy (or the Bible in general) it is that you must fear God. God doesn’t want to be loved or praised or have a personal relationship with you, he wants you to fear him. Plenty of times the Bible explicitly says that God is to be feared by all. When the Israelites sin and beg forgiveness, God ignores their cries. He is not a God of mercy, moreover, he gives plenty of reasons for you to fear him.
I’ll be honest; the Book of Deuteronomy starts pretty slowly. The first twelve chapters are merely a repetition of what happened in the previous books as Moses reminds everyone what happened after they escaped from Egypt. It’s basically an episode of “Previously, on the Bible . . .” I’m not sure why he needs to do this as the Israelites were there so they should remember. Nor do I see why this made it into the Bible as we can simply read the previous books instead of hearing the same story again. The only detail added is to the story of King Sihon, who refused to let the Israelites through his land, so they attacked him. This time it is noted that God hardened his heart so that he would refuse and be destroyed. The Bible explains what happened next:
“We captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women and children. We left no survivors.” (2:34)
The genocide of these nations is recapped for those who missed it first time around. Moses recalls how they defeated King Og and destroyed his sixty cities along with every man woman and child in them. I don’t want to do the maths on how many hundreds of thousands of people that could be that were exterminated just for being in the wrong place.
Now most people ignore the Old Testament (at least when it suits them) and act as if those laws no longer apply. However, the Bible is clear on the matter, these laws are not temporary or context specific, they are the unchanging law. The people “shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it.” (4:2)
There are plenty of reminders that God is a jealous God who everyone must fear and no other religion should be permitted (which makes the current argument about religious freedom all the more ironic, religions want for themselves what they don’t grant to others). There is no talk of respecting other beliefs and opinions, no, all those who follow a different religion should be murdered. God is a jealous God who punishes children for the sins of the father until the fourth generation. Punishing someone for something that they didn’t do is one of the most unjust things you can do and seriously undermines God’s authority as a fair lawmaker.
One thing that is not explained in the Bible is why God chose the Israelites out of all the people in the world. Was there not a single other tribe worthy enough? Or even any other people in a tribe who lead good enough lives? It would immensely strengthen the case for God if people all over the world independently started worshipping him, instead of just a single tribe. Some suggest that this is because the Israelites were especially holy or righteous, but God dismisses this. He is not rewarding the Israelites, but punishing the other nations (it’s never said what they did to deserve the punishment). The Israelites don’t deserve reward and he frequently condemns them as sinful and God recounts how close he came to destroying them.
Now something that is rarely reflected on is the fact that the Promised Land was not empty when the Israelites reached it, but rather several other nations lived there. God (being all-powerful) could have made it empty but for whatever reason decided not. Now, what do you think God suggested as a solution? Perhaps they could co-operate and live together in peace? Did God use his powers to make them peacefully leave or open their hearts? What action did the only people (allegedly) with access to the supreme moral law of the universe do? What did the God from whom justice (supposedly) comes from suggest?
“You must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”
God is quite clear that he is neither tolerant nor loving, rather he wants to create a totalitarian theocracy. No mercy is to be shown, all other viewpoints are to be crushed with an iron fist. All other places of worship must be destroyed. If anyone suggests you worship another God, they are to be executed. If your brother, son, daughter, wife or friend suggest you worship another God, you are to not listen to them, pity them, conceal them or spare them, but you are to kill them. If some people in a city join another religion, you are to put the inhabitants of the city to the sword and take their cattle. You are to burn the city and leave the rubble untouched forever.
If Christians knew that they worship a God who orders genocide, there would be a lot fewer believers. I wonder what goes through the mind of a religious person when they read passages like this. How would they explain it? Would they try and justify it by suggesting the other nations must have done something deserving extermination? Or would they just ignore it? There is a disturbing evil not dissimilar to Nazism in the Bible, that views all other nations as inferior to the chosen people. These inferior races must be exterminated lest they corrupt the purity of God’s people. Genocide of other people is encouraged and destruction of their religion is ordered.
Chapter 20 deals with the rules of war, though they are as odd as they are inhumane. Before a battle an officer shall ask his soldiers if any have built a house, but not dedicated it. If so, they may leave and go home. If there are any who have planted a vineyard but not tasted its fruits or married a wife but not “taken” her, they can also go home. If anyone is scared they can also leave the army. To be honest, I don’t see the point of this, I mean most soldiers get scared, so why fight if you can easily go home? Surely officers should be trying to increase not decrease the size of their army?
God also provides rules as to how to treat enemy cities. If you think this story has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention. There is no love or justice to be shown to ordinary people who had no say in their cities politics. If a city surrenders without a fight to the Israelites, all the inhabitants are to be turned into slaves. Why not show them mercy? Why not give them some incentive to surrender? Why not make friends out of your enemies by showing treating them fairly?
It gets worse (of course it does). If a city doesn’t like the prospect of being invaded and made slaves, and decides to resist, when the Israelites capture the city God orders them to murder all the men are to be murdered. All the women, children, livestock and everything else is to be taken as plunder. However, these rules are only for the faraway cities. None of the cities of the promised land are to be spared, “you shall save alive, nothing that breathes”. So even if a city surrenders, every human being is to annihilated in a Holocaust.
One of the most harrowing experiences of my life was when I visited the ruins of Auschwitz. I was deeply disturbed by the pure evil that was committed there, the utter malevolence of exterminating countless innocent people. Good decent people whose only crime was to be of a different ethnic group and worship differently. Yet here we have the very same form of genocide here in the Bible itself. No wonder there is such a strong emphasis on fearing God, if he was real, I’d fear him too.
(I’d highly recommend you watch the following clip. It’s a taken from a movie “God On Trial” and is the most powerful monologue on God I’ve ever heard.)
For the rest of the series, see here.