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Genocide, the Bible, and Biblical Scholarship

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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.

Affiliations: 1: Daemen College USA


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