Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide

Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages

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Christian Hofreiter
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


One of the most vexing moral issues that has challenged Christians over the years has been the question of what to do with teachings in the Bible that portray God as one who commands and empowers horrendous acts of violence. Despite continual attempts to find resolution, this issue remains as unresolved today as ever.

In this book, Christian Hofreiter’s revised Oxford University dissertation, we are certainly not given a quick and easy answer to the dilemma of divine violence. What we are given is a most helpful sketch of how various Christian theologians have, over the centuries, struggled with the issues. 

Hofreiter frames his account as an exercise in “reception history,” the discipline that “consists of selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative flavor” (10). He limits his focus, as a rule, to Christian theologians. 

Even so, Hofreiter casts the net pretty widely, choosing more for a sense of comprehensiveness over depth of analysis of any particular thinker. Still, he does spend a bit more time on the two thinkers who provide what seem to be the two main historical options: Origen and Augustine.

Hofreiter helpfully summarizes the dilemma in terms of five points. The question is how many of these points are affirmed: (1) God is good; (2) The Bible is true; (3) Genocide is atrocious; (4) According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide; (5) A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity. 

Each one of these points, taken in isolation, would seem likely to be true, at least for what Hofreiter calls “a pious Christian.” Things become difficult, though, when they are combined. Can they all be true? And, if not, which one(s) should be denied? What problems arise when one of the points is denied?

The texts that are at the heart of this discussion are what Hofreiter calls “genocidal texts,” especially texts that commonly use the Hebrew word herem (defined by the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament as the call, “in war, [to] consecrate a city and its inhabitants to destruction; [to] carry out this destruction; [to] totally annihilate a population in war” (1-2). In other words, Hofreiter suggests, herem means to commit genocide.

Interestingly, the first Christians, at least as represented by the New Testament, do not seem to have been troubled much by the problems these genocidal texts raise. Nor, going farther back, do the writers of the Old Testament. Likewise, with the early generations following New Testament times. The first known major figure who addressed this issue as a dilemma was Marcion in the 2nd century CE. He attempted to resolve it by essentially eliminating the problematic stories from the Bible. That resolution was rejected by church leaders and Marcion was labeled a heretic.

Not long after Marcion, a non-Christian critic named Celsus challenged the truthfulness of Christianity in terms of its illogical affirmation that God is good and the Bible is true. He argued that if the Bible is true then God must have commanded and commended genocide. But that would mean that God is not good. And if God is not good, then Christianity cannot be true.

The great early Christian defender of the faith, Origen, responded to Celsus with what became, in various forms, a classic answer to the dilemma. Origen affirms that God is good and that the Bible is true. However, affirming the truthfulness of the Bible does not require Christians to accept that God did, in history, command and commend genocide. For Origen, those difficult Old Testament texts could be spiritualized and read allegorically in light of Jesus’s message. When read this way, those texts have to do with eradicating sin in our lives, not historical acts of extreme violence.

A second major response came a few generations later in the thought of Augustine. Augustine accepted each of the five points of the dilemma except the third one. Because God is good, the Bible is true, God commands genocide, and a good being could never command an atrocity, then a God-commanded genocide must not be an atrocity.

Most of the theologians Hofreiter mentions down to the present offer versions of either Origen’s or Augustine’s approach. In his too-brief summary and conclusion chapter, he points out that in our contemporary world, most people (including “pious Christians”) have a strong gut feeling that “it is wrong to bludgeon babies.” This leaves them with the challenge to “simultaneously affirm the goodness of God, the truthfulness of scripture and the atrociousness of genocide” (250).

This is a helpful book that gives a good account of the history of wrestling with these difficult questions—a history very relevant for our necessary continued wrestling. Hofreiter does not discuss the importance of such wrestling for those who are not “pious Christians.” However, given the continued significance of religiously-sanctioned violence in our world, it’s not hard to see how widely relevant this discussion is.

Hence it is a bit disappointing that we are left with the dilemma so unresolved: “There is therefore, in my view, no simple solution to the challenge these texts pose” (251). That may be true, but hasn’t the perceptive analysis of proposed solutions from the past 2000 years provided us with at least some guidance?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ted Grimsrud is Senior Professor of Peace Theology at Eastern Mennonite University.

Date of Review: 
October 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian Hofreiter is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA). From 2008-2012, Hofreiter served with the Oxford Pastorate as a chaplain to the graduate student body at the University of Oxford.


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