Meditations in Exodus: 4. The Horror of Genocide
Ex 1:22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.
Pharaoh has pressed Israel into slavery and now he takes a further step which is virtual genocide – but not quite. He calls for every baby boy born to the Hebrews to be put to death, not the girls, just the boys. Presumably this is a long-term expedient to weaken Israel in terms of manpower in the years to come. It is silly really, even from a practical point of view because it is going to be many years before it will have effect, but then sin makes us do silly things!
But then of course it grossly exceeds silliness because it is outright barbarism, so much so that it forced itself to my attention as something we should think about and not just quickly pass by. For anyone who thinks the human race is basically ‘good’, a quick study of genocide remedies that very quickly. How anyone in their right mind can purposefully seek to wipe out a complete people says a great deal about their state of mind and indeed their who outlook on life
Now there appear to be two stages to what takes place in this situation in Egypt. There appear to be two Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, (v.15) presumably head midwives for there would surely be a greater need than just two. The king instructs them to kill every boy being born (v16) at the moment of its arrival, but the midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. (v.17) When the king questions them (v.18) they say the Hebrew women have their babies too quickly before the midwife arrives (v.19) and the record stands, “So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.” (v.20,21) God continues to bless His people and it is then that we read this instruction: “Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” (v.22)
Now one wonders why death by this means, why take the babies to the primary source of fertility in their land and pollute it with hundreds of dead bodies, unless there is some ‘religious’ significance to this? Now we will see as we go on that Egypt had many ‘gods’ and the god of the Nile was Hapi (or Hapy depending on your source) who was a god of fertility but not a particularly important god, because the Egyptians took for granted the annual flooding of the Nile bringing fertile sediment to the land. How much easier it would have been for Pharaoh to appoint a small contingent of executioners to accompany the midwives and execute each young male baby they came across – but he didn’t, he required them to throw the babies in the Nile. Years later Herod obviously sent out squads of soldiers to kill every child two years and under, in his attempt to destroy baby Jesus (Mt 2:16). It may have been an indication of the location of the Hebrew people, perhaps near the Nile in Goshen, at least along one of the tributaries, or it may have been offering Hapi a sacrifice to encourage his ongoing inundation of the Nile every year. A mystery, but mystery or not, a horror!
It is too easy to pass by this sort of thing. Wikipedia states “The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) defines genocide in part as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” We are probably all aware of the Holocaust killing between 6 and 11 million Jews in Hitler’s desire to completely exterminate them, but in the 20th century probably few of us are aware that 75% of Armenians in Turkey were killed between 1915 and 1916, probably somewhere between 800,000 to 1,800,000. We’re probably also not aware of approximately 275,000 Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire who were slaughtered during 1915-23, or between 450,000 to 900,000 Greeks massacred by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918, and in Cambodia, a genocide that was carried out by the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot and which killed an estimated one and a half to three million people between 1975 and 1979. Perhaps we have forgotten the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that killed between 500,000 and a million people, and so the list goes on and on – within the last century!
If these seem further afield geographically, consider the Dresden bombings by the Allies in the Second World War, where casualties were thought to possibly exceed 100,000. The bombing of Coventry in similar style was, thankfully, puny by comparison with a little over a thousand. In each case the desire to wipe out industry also meant the deaths of men, women and children. These then stand alongside the up to a 145,000 killed in Hiroshima and up to 80,000 in Nagasaki. Now in each case of the four destructions in this paragraph the intent was not to expressly wipe out a people but to reduce the length of war, and thus they may be almost excused as not being genocide – but they were still mass killings by the human race on the human race.
The unscholarly atheist critics of the destruction of Canaan often use the word genocide but that is a gross distortion of the truth. Taking all the instructions in the Pentateuch to Israel as to how they should go about taking the land, the vast majority of references are to ‘driving out’ the inhabitants and only a very few to destroying them. Although there are instances of men, women and children being destroyed in the Old Testament, the instructions in respect of Canaan were not one of them.
The reality is that there are judgements in the Bible (not as many as some might like to think) where a people are wiped out – the Flood being one of them, but in those rare instances the conclusion has to be drawn that that degenerate state of that people destroyed was so bad it was more of a surgical judgement than anything else, to prevent it getting any worse and destroying the earth completely. Examinations of such people reveal things like child sacrifice and worse and we would be remiss if we failed to note that in primitive times (as in modern times!!!!) there was often no stopping killing and differentiating between men, women or children in war battles.
To conclude, we should probably also note that where Israel were involved, actions against other people were almost invariably cases of defence and fighting for survival. The Holocaust was not the first attempt at wiping out the Jews. The whole point of the book of Esther, is about the survival of the people of Israel under foreign rulers where the intent was to entirely wipe them out. One should wonder at the hostility that has been raised against the people of Israel through the centuries and recognise the rebellion of the world against God – and His people. Psa 2 expresses it well.
Is genocide ever acceptable? No! Should the voice of the world be raised against it wherever it appears? Yes, of course. Why do wars occur? The Sin of a Fallen World. Is killing in war ever justified? Justified is an inappropriate word. If it is a case of fighting to defend and survive, and fighting involves killing, where evil rises up, the lesser evil may be essential to prevent the greater evil spreading. Israel in Egypt were not an evil and so Pharaoh’s instructions were pure evil.