This post is a continuation of my previous two posts. Together they are an excerpt from one chapter of my new book, Making Sense of the Bible (HarperOne, 2014). The book covers a wide range of topics related to how the Bible came to be written, why certain books made it into the Bible, and what is meant by saying the Bible is inspired. I also write about 15 specific questions I’m often asked by Christians about the Bible including one chapter devoted to “The Violence of God in the Old Testament” from which this and the previous two posts were excerpted. In this post I’ll build upon the last post by offering a second way of coming to terms with the violence attributed to God in the Old Testament.
Read part one in this series - God's Violence in the Old Testament: The Problem
Read part two in this series - God's Violence in the Old Testament: Possible Solutions.
A second possible way of making sense of the violence of the Old Testament, particularly related to war, is to recognize that Moses, Joshua, and David were Israel’s heroes. They were warrior-saints. These stories were written down long after their time to inspire others to courage and absolute commitment to God.
An analogy would be the story of William Wallace of Scotland. Wallace died in 1305, but to this day he is a legendary hero in Scotland. He fought against the English in the wars for Scottish independence. Every Scottish child is taught about William Wallace. Memorials to him are found throughout the country. Sir Walter Scott expanded the legend with his writings. And Wallace’s story was told in the 1995 Oscar-winning film Braveheart, with Mel Gibson playing the part of Wallace. Only the English criticized Wallace’s methods in war, accusing him of killing civilians. In Scotland he’s remembered for his heroism.
Here’s what I’m suggesting: Perhaps the stories of the conquest of Canaan were to ancient Israelites what the stories of William Wallace are to the Scots. Written long after the time of these heroes, they were meant to demonstrate courage, resolve, and faith and to inspire later generations still struggling against their own enemies. These stories were written from the theological perspective of the ancient Near East, where gods sent heroes into battle and fought alongside them. No one reads Sir Walter Scott’s book on William Wallace to find a model of ethics of war. They read it to be inspired by a national hero. The same was true of the Book of Joshua.
There’s a lot more about this topic that should be said; entire books have been devoted to addressing the issue of violence in the Bible. My goal is to point you toward some possible ways of making sense of this violence without justifying it. The answers that make the most sense to me require that we recognize the humanity of the Bible’s authors, their intent in writing, and the culture that shaped them. This approach also invites us to question those parts of Scripture where God is portrayed in a way inconsistent with Jesus’s life and message. Where a particular teaching in Scripture is at odds with what Jesus said, we are right to consider that the passage may reflect the culture, the worldview, or the perspectives of the human author of Scripture rather than the timeless heart, character, and will of God.
It would be easy to decide never to read difficult sections of Scripture like Joshua, but that would be a tragic mistake. There are a great many ways in which God speaks through these biblical texts. There are a handful of passages in Joshua that are moving and powerful, including its dramatic conclusion, when Joshua calls the Israelites to “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
But perhaps the most important reason for reading Joshua is to remind us of how easy it is for people of faith to invoke God’s name in pursuit of violence, bloodshed, and war. The Crusaders marched into battle in Jerusalem in the name of Christ. Colonists from the Old World arrived in the New World, Bibles and weapons in hand, to claim America for Christ. Nazi belt buckles proclaimed, “Gott Mit Uns”—God is with us—as they sought the extermination of Jews and other “undesirables.” “Christian” nations have often gone to war invoking God in their efforts. When America marches to war, patriotism and faith are quickly melded so that to be a good Christian is to support the war effort. At times those war efforts might have been morally justified (if one holds to the theory of just war), but at times they were “pre-emptive wars” that did not meet the criteria of the just war. Regardless of whether the war effort was morally justified or not, our troops marched off to battle to the tune of “God Bless America.” If this is the case today, it should not surprise us that people who lived 3,500 years ago also invoked God as they marched off to war.
If every word of the Bible was chosen by God, then our conclusion must be that, at least in the Old Testament period, God was a violent God, burning people alive, stoning them to death for anything that brought him offense, killing tens of thousands for the sin of their king, and commanding his own people to wipe out entire cities and peoples.
But if we take the Bible’s humanity seriously, we find the possibility that the violence of Scripture is a reflection of the values and the theological and moral vision of some of its human authors, not of the God they sought to serve. I’ve repeatedly suggested that we judge all other words of Scripture in the light of God’s definitive Word, Jesus Christ. He taught that his followers were to love their neighbors, turn the other cheek, forgive those who wrong them, and pray for those who persecute them. This Word stands in direct opposition to the encouragement of slaughter in the name of God.
Ultimately the violence-affirming passages of the Old Testament serve as a reminder of how easily we might still be led to invoke God’s name as a justification of violence in our world. To the degree that we see Jesus as the definitive Word of God and that we listen carefully to his words, we are able to free ourselves from this tragic dimension of our human condition.