In his 2008 book The God I Don’t Understand Christopher Wright makes the extraordinary suggestion that God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide against neighboring peoples as a form of accommodation to ancient near eastern standards of war. In the theaded discussion to my article “A Few Shades the Other Side of Silly” Jerry Shepherd suggested the same thing. He writes:
“A second factor I need to mention is the concept of accommodation. God’s laws, precepts, regulations, and commands in the OT were given in the context of the day and the cultural expectations of the ancient Near East. So, in contradiction to what is often stated, the law should not be considered to be a “perfect transcription of God’s holiness.” As John Goldingay says, and this is a paraphrase, law, by its very nature, is always a compromise between what is ideal and what is actually feasible. So again, when God commanded Joshua to engage in herem warfare, such a command was very much in keeping with the mentality of the ancient Near East. To be sure, God could have commanded Joshua to be a paficist; but he did not. Rather, he commanded him to engage in actions which were in accordance with the warfare practices of the day. Despite some of the complications associated with the concept, I still believe in something called “progressive revelation.”
So according to Jerry, God simply commanded Joshua “to engage in actions which were in accordance with the warfare practices of the day.” Since the warfare practices of the day included the slaughter of infants as herem offerings, God commanded the slaughter of infants as herem offerings.
I offered a critique of Christopher Wright’s “accommodation thesis” in “The God I Really Don’t Understand” and I will now present essentially the same argument, albeit somewhat formalized, to refute Jerry’s accommodation thesis. Here’s the argument in the form of a reductio ad absurdum.
(1) God commanded that the Israelites engage in the herem slaughter of infants as an accommodation to ANE practices of warfare. (Assumed for reductio)
(2) If God commands a person to undertake an action then it becomes that individual’s moral obligation to undertake that action.
(3) Therefore, the Israelites had a moral obligation to engage in the herem slaughter of infants. (1,2)
(4) If action A is not morally worse than action B then if God can command action B he can also command action A.
(5) The rape and cannibalism of defeated soldiers is not morally worse than the herem slaughter of infants.
(6) The rape and cannibalism of defeated soldiers has been a practice of warfare.
(7) Therefore, God could have commanded that other people engage in the rape and cannibalism of defeated soldiers as an accommodation to other practices of warfare. (4,5,6)
(8) Therefore, it is possible had some soldiers could have (or could have had) a moral obligation to rape and cannibalize other soldiers. (4,5,7)
Now I’ve been in the business long enough to know that there are some Christians out there who will be happy to accept the grotesque consequence that some people could have the moral obligation to rape and cannibalize other people. But for the rest of us this argument is a reduction to absurdity. And this leads to the conclusion that claims that God accommodated ancient practices of genocide are yet another proposal that belongs in the trash can of bad ideas.