In my last post, I mentioned three categories of violence attributed to God in the Old Testament that leave people scratching their heads. These are crimes for which the death penalty was prescribed, the disproportionate violence of God for the sins of his people, and genocide purportedly commanded in God’s name. That post, and what follows below, is an excerpt from a lengthier chapter from my book, Making Sense of the Bible, (HarperOne, 2014). In this post I’ll offer one possible way of making sense of the violence attributed to God in the Scriptures.
How do we resolve the moral and theological dilemmas that confront us in these Old Testament texts? As I see it, there are two broad paths forward.
The first—and the only option as I see it, for those who hold to verbal, plenary inspiration—is to accept that these commands and stories accurately capture what God said, what God did, and what God commanded his people to do. Then the task is to explain how the character of God revealed in these seemingly harsh and violent texts is consistent with the character of God revealed by Jesus Christ.
To make this case, advocates usually speak of God’s authority to give and take life at will, and of the need for God to demonstrate a firm hand to the Israelites in order to lead them to walk in his path. In the process, they downplay God’s attributes of love, kindness, mercy, compassion, and justice.
To explain the total and merciless destruction of the Canaanites, they point out the Canaanites’ wickedness, surmising that they were more wicked than other peoples in the ancient Near East. They argue that the Canaanites deserved their extermination. One author describes it as a form of collective capital punishment for the evil every Canaanite had committed. In response, it’s been pointed out that this is the same argument that has often been made throughout history to justify genocide. Think back to the arguments Hitler made concerning the Jews.
Many of us read these justifications for why God prescribed horrible and seemingly immoral acts of violence but find it impossible to reconcile these acts with the character of God Christianity proclaims. Jesus breaks bread with sinners. He ministers to prostitutes and adulterers. He hangs on the cross and prays for his accusers and executors, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . .” This is far from the God who, with little compunction, destroys tens of thousands of people.
So what is the alternative? The Bible says these things. If the Bible says it, are we not required to accept it? The point of the first half of this book was to recognize the complexity of the Bible and to help you see its humanity. If we understand the Bible as having been essentially dictated by God, then yes, we have no choice but to accept what is written as accurately describing God’s actions and God’s will. But if we recognize the Bible’s humanity—that it was written by human beings whose understanding and experience of God was shaped by their culture, their theological assumptions, and the time in which they lived—then we might be able to say, “In this case, the biblical authors were representing what they believed about God rather than what God actually inspired them to say.” If we use Jesus’s words, and his great commandments, as a colander, we’ll see that these violent passages in the Hebrew Bible contradict not only these great commands, but the very life and ministry of Jesus who was God’s unmitigated Word.
The impulse to kill, to destroy the enemy, and to put to death those who violate social norms is a continuing part of our world today. For those who believe in God, this violence is often perpetrated while asking for God’s blessing and help, and at times it is even committed in the name of God. But violence is an equal- opportunity illness in the human condition. Atheist regimes have sought to impose their view of utopia by slaughtering millions of people in the last century.
It is the human story that, throughout history, we have tragically supported the use of violence to enforce the will of dictators, kings, and even the majority in democratic societies. What is true today was true in the ancient Near East, only without the terrifying weaponry that can destroy entire cities with a single bomb.
In August 1868, a stone was found in a field in Jordan, commonly called the Moabite Stone or the Mesha Stele. It dates to around 840 BC and it describes the victory of King Mesha of Moab over Israel. Mesha and the people of Moab worshipped the Canaanite god Chemosh. Listen to King Mesha’s account in this selection from the Moabite Stone: “And Chemosh said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo from Israel!’ so I went by night and fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, taking it and slaying all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls and maid-servants, for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh.”
What we see in this text is that Mesha believed his god had urged him to go to war, and as an expression of devotion (or possibly as a means of justifying genocide), the people of the town were “devoted to destruction” (others translate this as “put to the ban”). The mention that a god had directed the king to go to war, and that the king was leading his people in battle on behalf of, at the will of, and with the help of a god seems to have been a common way of justifying war and rallying the people to fight.
So one possible resolution to the moral and theological dilemma raised by the texts we’ve been studying is that Moses, Joshua, and David were warriors living in times when violence was seen as part of God’s way of accomplishing his purposes. They attributed to God words, commands, and deeds that they believed God would have authorized or done. What I am suggesting is that Old Testament passages about violence and war thus tell us more about the people who wrote them and the times they were living in than about the God in whose name they claimed authority to do these things.
In my next post we’ll consider a second way of making sense of the Bible’s violent passages as I continue to post excerpts from my chapter on “The Violence of God in the Old Testament” from my book, Making Sense of the Bible.
Read part one in this series - God's Violence in the Old Testament: The Problem
Read part three in this series - God's Violence in the Old Testament, Part 3: Possible Solutions