Genocide, the Bible, and Biblical Scholarship

in Brill Research Perspectives in Biblical Interpretation
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This essay makes the case that the ongoing scholarly conversation around divinely sanctioned violence can be enriched by engaging with the emerging field of comparative genocide studies. The argument proceeds in four parts. Part 1 introduces the term genocide and the scholarly debates that have emerged around it. I posit the existence of two generations of genocide scholarship, with the first focusing on definitional issues and appropriate terminology and the second on the historical-structural conditions that make genocide possible. Regarding the latter, particular attention shall be devoted to the emerging consensus that, far from being an atavistic irruption outside the world of civilized modernity, genocide is made possible by the very structure of modernity itself. Parts 2 and 3 look closely at genocide in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament era, respectively. These parts will examine the extermination campaigns of ancient empires (Assyria, Babylon, Rome) that brought destruction upon the biblical Israelites and will compare these imperial actions with modern settler and colonial genocides. This is one area where biblical scholars could fill in a lacuna in comparative genocide studies, since the topic has received modest attention in that particular field. I pay attention to the ways that the Bible appears complicit in genocide, whether through the command to exterminate the Canaanites or through the Gospels’ tendency to cast blame upon the Jews for the death of Jesus. I also analyze a variety of hermeneutical approaches developed to respond to these thorny issues, paying particular attention to the presumed views of genocide in each hermeneutical position. The final part of the essay explores the issue of genocidal ideology itself, emphasizing that the content of genocidal ideology is much broader than usually assumed by scholarly critiques of anti-Judaism and that genocidal ideology maintains a complex relationship to the actual practice of genocide. This part encourages scholars to reexamine the widely held beliefs on the ways that biblical ideology led to horrific events like the Holocaust and to take seriously the widely held conclusion that ideology alone is an inadequate explanation for genocide. The essay will conclude by suggesting possible future directions that could be taken by scholars who wish to confront the legacy of genocide in the Bible and its interpretation.

Genocide, the Bible, and Biblical Scholarship

in Brill Research Perspectives in Biblical Interpretation



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See Kuper 1981: 22 for an explanation of some of the terminological complexity.


Regarding individual lifespan see Jones 2011: 59 n. 105; Fogel 1989: 424 n. 2 p. 424; and Patterson 1982: 164.


One very promising exception is Langille 2015which is part of a larger project that is informed by genocide and trauma theory on the imaginative and mythical function of the genocidal narratives in Joshua. It asks what it means for a people who survived genocide to create a genocidally inflected myth of origins. I am grateful to Dr. Langille for sharing his paper with me.


On this framing technique see Tolbert 1989: 311–15Appendix A.


For my analysis of Mack see Kelley 2009: 200–202.


See Crossan 1995: 12–13120–27 on the place of scripture in the process of creating tradition and Crossan 1995: 100–112 for his identification of Mark’s literary fingerprints in constructing and indeed inventing most of the Passion Narrative.


See especially Mazower 2008: 204–211245–56 412–14; Snyder 2010: 159–61 172–73 187–89 227.

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