How Genocide Can Provide a Good Moral Example for Children

In Numbers 13-14, God commands the Israelites to kill all the local inhabitants of Palestine, and take the land for themselves. The inhabitants are not even presented as properly human, but as Giants.

Yet even in biblical passages such as this, where we might sensibly conclude that Yahweh’s command for genocide is morally reprehensible, children’s book writers always somehow manage to derive a nice moral from the story. For example, here’s Gwen Ellis’ Read and Share Bible: More Than 200 Best-Loved Bible Stories, on Numbers 13-14, or rather, on the non-expurgated parts thereof:

But in all fairness to Gwen Ellis and other children’s books writers, this saccharine moralism doesn’t seem all that different from what’s done in many or most “academic” biblical commentaries on Numbers 13-14 – accentuating the faith and glossing over the means by which they demonstrate that faith (killing all the native inhabitants):

“Caleb’s exhortation expresses faith in Israel’s ability to enter successfully into the land.”
– Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, 78.

“God promises a reward to the two faithful scouts who gave a good report concerning the quality of the Promised Land and challenged the people to enter it with vision and faith.”
– R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, 236.

“Only those among the spies who had been sent out and had, in contrast to the majority of their comrades, issued a summons to confident trust, are to share in the gift of the land.”
– Martin Noth, Numbers, 101.

Yeah, well, this so-called exemplary faith which you’re describing involves genocide, doesn’t it? So what’s with the saccharine moral-making about faith? You’d think, by looking at the level of critical analysis engaged in here, that the authors of academic biblical commentaries get all their ideas from reading children’s story books.

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11 thoughts on “How Genocide Can Provide a Good Moral Example for Children

  1. Welcome to my happy little universe. Children’s Bibles are awesome! At least studying them is. Every single one has something interesting. This book is no exception. It is stereotypical for Lion pub. especially from the last 15-20 years but that is because of the growth of internationalism (another time…): the cartoonesque drawing, the pseudo-historical clothing, the moral message. But, there is a contradiction between the words and the images which makes it far more engaging: ‘they were like giants’ verbally but visually they are clearly giants (and friendly looking at that). The words and images have very different approaches to the material. This can be seen even more clearly in pages 13-15 (*shudder* at 15).

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    • I saw the “like Giants” – an attempt to tone down the mythic nature of a biblical text? Good point about the difference between text and images!

      Off to look at pages 13-15…

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      • The verbal does indeed do that, but the visual contradicts, and to an extent, overrides it. The degree to which the author and illustrator collaborated is unclear, but this is Lion so there would have been many other influences on the relationship. If the mythic were truly being eradicated no giants would be mentioned at all, and if they were simply being downplayed in the book they wouldn’t be illustrated. You can see the illustrator likes to use the fantastic in his work on page 13, with the giant hands of God literally making man. This is a gorgeous image! Contrast it with the horrific writing over the following pages and it becomes apparent that the author and illustrator have very different perspectives. My paper at SBL San Fran is on this very topic, you should come along! The whole session is on how to use different methodological approaches to read children’s Bibles at key stages in their production and reception.

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    • True that, Thom! And the German commentaries typically achieve the same spiritualization via source criticism: the dominant “theological” message of the priestly, final form of the text minimises or “demilitarizes” the earlier level of the text!

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  2. But hasn’t the children’s book writer actually expressed (for children) the reason the story was told? Or was it told to encourage some (then) future genocide? Or does the purpose of a text make no difference?

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    • I think that one purpose of the story was to encourage trust in the Israelite god, and one purpose was to encourage the military destruction of all the inhabitants. For both of these “positive” purposes and qualities are present in Caleb, who acts as exemplar of the true Israelite in Numbers 13-14. What the children’s story has done is to draw out the first purpose and ignore the second. What Christian biblical commentaries often do is draw out the first purpose, and gloss over the second. What recent German biblical commentaries often do is identify the military character of Caleb as belonging to the Grundschrift, which was de-emphasised or “demilitarized” in the later theological emphasis of the final form.

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    • The real question would be ‘what do the producers of the children’s book think the purpose of the text is and what do they do with it?’

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  3. I wonder why the artist didn’t make the giant more scary. This giant looks like a completely non-threatening guy in his bathrobe.

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