Tag Archives: violence in the Old Testament

Dealing with genocide in the Bible

I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.

I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.


Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30

So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?

I think he did. And I think it does.

But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.

This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…

The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.

The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?

What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”

But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.

I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.

And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.

Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.

Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.

Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.

And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.

Bigger than we can grasp.

We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?

Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.

Anyway. If you want to read on…

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Some reflections on violence in the Old Testament

I’m writing an essay at the moment on the following: Violence, Joshua, and the Christian. Quite apart from the fact that literary criticism of the Old Testament means we have no real sense of who wrote Joshua or when it was written, the question of what role the violence plays in the narrative is vexing. Did the Israelites actually carry out God mandated genocide of those in Canaan? And if they did, is that really a problem?

I’m going with no, and no.

Is God ordering genocide a problem?

Tackling the second question first – I have no problem with God carrying out judgment on his creation. The earth is his, and everything in it. If we all deserve death, and God is infinite, then who are we to quibble about the timing and manner of the inevitable and deserved end we face. Because death is the punishment for sin we’re all essentially facing genocide at that point.

The Canaanites were by all accounts particularly wicked people whose practices were frowned on by those in the nations around them (let alone God) their practices included incest, bestiality, child sacrifice and a fairly murderous militant culture. Presence in the promised land – for the Israelites – depended on them acting rightly, but their entrance into the land was due to the occupants acting wickedly.

Other people have a major problem with this notion – one scholar goes so far as to suggest that commands to kill the Canaanites came from Satan and the Israelites were too theologically illiterate to be able to tell the difference. Richard Dawkins calls the God of the Old Testament the nastiest character in fiction. Another school of thought thinks the violent rhetoric was just a tool to help Israel establish some (rather late – in the time of King Josiah) national identity. Which brings us to the second question.

Did the Israelites carry out genocide on the Canaanites?

No. They didn’t. They certainly killed some Canaanites as they moved into the promised land – but these would appear to be those Canaanites who stayed to pit their might against the people of God. Rahab’s little dialogue with the Jewish spies suggests the Canaanites knew full well what was coming. They had plenty of time to leave (forty years of wilderness wandering for the Jews). And God’s promises of possession for Israel were almost always coupled with a promise to “drive the people out” with only those who remained destined for destruction. This was not genocide – it was the destruction of a national identity. An identity that was synonymous with evil and loathed by the surrounding nations. We also see plenty of Canaanites appearing throughout the Old Testament after they’re meant to be wiped out. Clearly no genocide actually occured.

So what do we make of the commands for genocide then?

What I’m sure of is that we can dismiss the idea that these commands were somehow Satanic misdirection. Ordering the punishment of death for sin is completely consistent with God’s character in the New Testament. If we’re going to go with the notion of one God in both books – not a bipolar happy God/angry God then we need to read these passages in the light of Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23 – we all sin, and thus we all deserve death. The Canaanites were no exception.

There is some merit in seeing the book of Joshua as some sort of identity building missive for the nation of Israel – an answer to the question of why they are God’s people living in a land God promised. At that point the theory that the language of violent conquest was a common sociological phenom is useful, but I don’t think it’s the primary purpose, because that essentially removes the need for some form of historical conquest, and doesn’t actually explain Israel’s presence in the land.

Questions about the historicity of a complete and total conquest – and people do ask those questions – are a bit silly, because Joshua demonstrates, in the narrative, that the conquest was neither complete or total. But it also shows Israel occupying the promised land – alongside those they were meant to wipe out.

The question I keep asking when I come back to passages like this is what theological purpose does it serve? I think this is my rubric for assessing every passage in the Bible, it comes before the question of “what historical fact does this teach”… and so, when I read Gary Millar’s commentary on Deuteronomy (Now Choose Life) I resonate more with his treatment of the issue than with the sociological view (Sociological readers of the Bible seem to have an incredibly low view of God’s sovereignty or ability to intervene – interpreting theological writings by looking for natural causes seems dumb to me. They almost always dismisses any miraculous intervention from God in establishing any identity – Israel’s identity, in their view, stems from their own self identity rather than from identity through God’s election). Millar even goes so far as to suggest some rabbinic hyperbole. Which is one of my favourite expresssions… here is his commentary on the instructions in Deuteronomy to wipe out the Canaanites (so that the Israelites may stay true to God. If they fail the author clearly says the Canaanites will lead the Israelites astray).

“This is theological preaching, urging Israel on to wholehearted obedience. In this context we should expect some hyperbole, at least.”

He argues that the Hebrew word הרמ (I can’t figure out how to do a final מ on my keyboard) – or herem – is a pointer to the theological nature of this destruction. Israel is to wipe out the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites, and their identity, rather than the people themselves.

Millar says:

“The intensification of the command to disposses the nations to destruction is not primarily about warfare at all. It is a theological conviction, arising from recognition that the Canaanites will be a snare in the land; their influence must be purged from the land if Israel is to survive.”

Deuteronomy 7 itself points to this sort of interpretation. Verse 1 says God will drive the nations out ahead of Israel, verse 2 that he will deliver them and the Israelites “completely destroy them” (that’s that Hebrew word), and verses 3-5 are instructions for what to do with the survivors (ie don’t marry them or worship their Gods). Why are there instructions for dealing with the survivors if they are to be completely wiped out?

Millar again:

“Throughout this chapter, it is clear that the Mosaic Preaching is concerned to bring the Israelites to the conviction that shattering the structures of Canaanite society is a theological necessity. This is expressed not in terms of driving out or dispossessing the Canaanites, but of destroying them.”

Regarding further instructions about the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 20 Millar acknowledges that the “leave no survivors” command is “startlingly literal” – but again suggests that the instructions are not simply about military victory but the annihilation of a way of life.

In the case of the Canaanites it seems the adage of “hate the sin, love the sinner” can’t really be carried out – because the two can’t be separated.

Biblical gangsters

We’re working through 2 Samuel at church at the moment, during Bible Study on Wednesday I was struck by the thought that the book reads like a gangster novel (I’ve read quite a few, I consider myself an expert). There’s a touch of Arthurian legend about David and his champion (Joab) and Saul and his (Abner).

Someone ought to use the narrative structure of Samuel 2 to write a mafia drama. In chapter 2 there’s this cool scene where Saul’s Capo (Mafia for captain) Abner decides that Ish-Bosheth will take over running Saul’s family.

Then Saul’s family meets David’s family for a bit of a discussion (2:12-13), family enforcers Abner and Joab decide to let the up and comers earn their bones – and twelve of the men knife each other (2:14).

Then Abner whacks Joab’s brother (2:13). But David’s family gets more powerful, and people stop paying tribute to Saul’s gang (3:1). Before long, Abner falls out with his Godfather and wants to switch families after an argument about some broad (3:6-21). Joab doesn’t like this, so tricks him, and sends him to sleep with the fishes. His Don (David) doesn’t like this (3:22-38).

Ish-Bosheth goes to the (metaphorical) mattresses, but two of his capos betray him, killing him on his (literal) mattress. David whacks them (4:1-12).

And the rest of the book plays out a bit like the Godfather, David, like Michael Corleone, comes to power, has to deal with the betrayal of a family member, the jostling for power of his “family”, while taking over the kingdom of his predecessor.

Who says the Old Testament can’t be fun…

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Gary Millar on preaching God’s wrath

You can’t preach the Old Testament faithfully while avoiding the subject of God’s judgment. Especially in the current age where the idea that the God of the Old Testament is “evil”.

Bonus Bit – David chopping Goliath’s head off is an echo of, and an allusion to the story of the Philistines capturing the ark and it causing their idol to fall over until its head falls off.

Apparent injustice may in fact be a case of not knowing all the facts.

To make sense of the cross we need to understand that God is:

  • Infinitely angry at sin
  • Infinitely irrevocably committed to justice
  • Staggeringly creative and innovative.

The God of the Cross is breathtakingly holy, passionately commited…

Without the OT – and in particular these stories of judgment – we can not have any idea how holy God is, or the depths to which people sink, or how important it is for the God of the Bible to deal with sin in a way that is fitting. We can not hope to understand the cross without it.

If we ditch the nasty bits we are ditching the holiness and justice of God. These stories are there to teach us that God is not tame – that he does things that shock us.

It is not our job to apologise for God’s behaviour.

God’s actions are explained in Romans 3.

19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Bizarrely, we culturally think that our treatment of the planet reaps just rewards – seeing causation in our actions – and occasionally predicting our own painful demise – but we will not afford God the same courtesy. Gary referenced the Day of the Triffids and this post from an Irish friend.

In the two episodes (which were rather a drag unfortunately), we got lots of warnings about what happens when you interfere with nature, namely that nature will eventually inflict its wrath on you. Come to think of it, this was a sort of Wrath of God story with nature standing in for God.

In fact in the last few years there have been several ‘Wrath of Nature’ movies; The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Day After Tomorrow to name but two. In both movies, and in this latest version of The Day of the Triffids, we are led to believe that we deserve what’s coming to us.

The funny thing is, no-one would ever make a movie these days about the Wrath of God in which the message also was that we had it coming to us. We’re able to accept that if we sin against nature we deserve our punishment, but not if we sin against nature’s maker.