Troubling portrayals of God in the Old Testament are stirring a great deal of discussion. Consider the titles and publication years of the following books:
- Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (2009)
- Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views of God and Canaanite Genocide (2010)
- Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (2011)
- God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, Racist? (2011)
- The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible (2011)
- Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (2011)
- The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (2012)
- Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (2012)
- Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (2013)
- Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem (2013)
- The Morality of God in the Old Testament (2013)
As you can see, several of the titles include the words war, violence, and even genocide. The Old Testament contains many troubling texts, but the most vexing relate to war and violence, specifically warfare initiated at God’s command. To give you a taste of troubling OT warfare texts read the following quotes. (Quotations from the ESV. Italics mine.)
OT Warfare Commands
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction.[a] You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Dt. 7:1-2)
But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction,[a] the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God. (Dt. 20:16-18)
And Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction[a] all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Sam. 15:1-3)
**The ESV footnote reads: “That is, set apart (devote) as an offering to the Lord (for destruction)”
The Hebrew term that encapsulates this type of warfare is herem. In herem warfare everything placed under the ban of judgment was set apart for destruction. And that means soldiers were not permitted to enrich themselves with the spoils of victory. (From an ancient inscription we know that Israel’s neighbor, Moab, also practiced herem warfare and it may have been practiced by other ancient Near Eastern cultures as well.)
The Moral Problem
Reflecting on the commands given above has deeply disturbed many ancient and modern Bible readers. Did the God of Israel really command Israel to show no mercy to the Canaanites? Did God command Israel to carry out genocide? Did he really command his people to kill Amalekite women and children? Modern warfare distinguishes combatants from noncombatants. Did God command Israel to target noncombatants? Think of the babies and children involved.
The Literal View
According to the literal view, we must be faithful to the words of Scripture even when it creates a problem for us. Therefore, the answer to the question, “Did God really command the wholesale slaughter of Canaanites and Amalekites?” is “Yes, God really commanded it.”
Literalists often justify the harshness of this view by appealing to the great wickedness of the people in the land. While this type of command would usually be considered evil, on these specific occasions, it was necessary because of the extreme wickedness of the inhabitants of Canaan.
Literalists often warn that if we go against this view we will be on a dangerous slippery slope. If we say this part of the Bible didn’t really happen, that will ultimately lead to the conclusion that other parts of the Bible didn’t really happen as well.
Five Objections to the Literal View
But many have serious objections to the literal view and here are a few:
- Theological & Moral: If God is all good, how could he have commanded an act that we, sinful humans, all acknowledge as morally reprehensible, namely the wholesale slaughter of a people group for the purpose of taking their land. Ask a group of children or teenagers, who have never read the Bible, if genocide is right even under special circumstances. Would any of them approve of genocide? I’ve worked with high school students for several years. During that time I’ve heard justifications for all kinds of things, but I’ve never heard a justification for genocide even under special circumstances. If one of them approved of genocide it would immediately raise concerns about their mental and moral well being. We categorically reject genocide and that’s the problem.
- Christological: Those who have latched onto the person of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the four Gospels have another problem to address: Jesus practiced and taught nonviolence. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matt. 5:38-39). And of course, he did not retaliate when he was arrested and executed. The view of God presented in these troubling accounts doesn’t mesh with the way Jesus is presented and Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God (Heb. 1:3). As Derek Flood states, “God does not look like a warrior king clothed in the blood of his enemies; God instead looks like Jesus, clothed in his own blood, shed for his enemies” (Disarming Scripture, Kindle, Loc. 1664).
- Psychological & Emotional: Perpetrators of violence tend to experience emotional and psychological stress because of the acts they have committed. That means in the warfare commands, God was commanding his people to not only kill others, but to suffer as a result of what they had done.
- Could be Used as Justification for Genocide: As stated by Peter Enns, “It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday” (The Bible Tells Me So, Kindle, Loc. 472).
- Has been Used as Justification for Genocide: These commands and the narratives describing Israel’s conquest have influenced people to carry out similar acts of aggression bringing untold suffering on many people. According to Flood,
For example, drawing from the deadly logic of Old Testament genocide accounts, Oliver Cromwell described Irish Catholics as modern day “Canaanites,” justifying their indiscriminate slaughter with these chilling words: “There are great occasions in which some men are called to great services in the doing of which they are excused from the common rule of morality.” Native Americans were likewise frequently cast in the role of the “Canaanites” and “Amalekites” in order to justify their slaughter. As Sylvester Johnson states, the result of this was that through war, starvation, and disease at least 95% of the 100 million Native Americans were wiped out. As recently as 1994, these same biblical texts were used to spur on the killing of around 800,000 Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide. Inciting his congregation to participate in the massacre, one pastor preached on 1 Samuel 15 where Saul is rejected by God for failing to wipe out the Amalekites: “If you don’t exterminate the Tutsis you’ll be rejected. If you don’t want to be rejected by God, then finish the job of killing the people God has rejected. No child, no wife, no old man should be left alive.” And the people said, “Amen.” (Disarming Scripture, Kindle, Loc. 202).
Four Alternatives to the Literal View
In light of the problems with the literal view, how else should these commands be handled? In what follows, I’ll list several Bible interpreters along with their answers to the question, “Did God command genocide?” followed by a brief explanation.
1. Marcion (AD 85–160): Absolutely not, and those parts of Scripture must be removed from Scripture.
One of the earliest attempts to address this problem was made by Marcion. In Marcion’s view, the God of the Old Testament was full of wrath and vengeance and therefore inferior to the God of the New Testament who was full of love and mercy. So Marcion’s solution was the most radical and the most simple—remove the Old Testament from Scripture. However, since much of the New Testament is dependent on the Old Testament, Marcion’s radical textual surgery continued until only edited versions of Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s letters remained in his Bible. Early church leaders decisively rejected Marcion’s solution.
2. Ambrose (340-397) and Augustine (354-430): Absolutely not, but those commands are Scripture. We must interpret these difficult passages allegorically to find the spiritual meaning.
In his classic autobiography Confessions, Augustine says that prior to becoming a Christian he used to attack the saints because of the absurd things they affirmed based on “the old writings of the Law and the Prophets.” Augustine found relief, however, listening to the famous preacher Ambrose. He writes, “I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying, as if he were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: ‘The letter kills, the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6). Those texts which, taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil” (6.4.6). If the divine warfare commands should be interpreted allegorical, what could they mean for people today? Perhaps, “With God’s help, remove evil from the land of your heart.” Or “declare war on the sin within.”
While this may seem to be a much too creative approach to biblical interpretation, in his book On Christian Doctrine, Augustine explained that his approach was governed by the following principle: proper Bible interpretation should always lead to keeping the greatest command – love for God and love for neighbor. He writes, “Anything in the divine writings that cannot be referred either to good, honest morals, or to the truth of the faith, you must know is said allegorically…. Those things … which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful, and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly allegorical, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity” (Cited in Sparks). In summary, a literal interpretation of difficult parts of the Old Testament kept Augustine from the Christian faith, but an allegorical interpretation moved Augustine closer to the Christian faith.
3. Eric Seibert et al.: Absolutely not, but those commands are Scripture. We must allow them to tell us what God is not like and what ancient Israel was like.
In Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, Seibert argues that the Bible doesn’t always depict God accurately and therefore we must distinguish the textual God from the actual God. How do we know what the actual God is like? From Jesus. As stated in the New Testament, Jesus is the perfect and ultimate representation of God (Jn. 12:45; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). According to Seibert, certain representations of God in the Bible do not mesh with the reality that we see in Christ. And we are obligated to reject those texts as inspired Scripture that represent God in an unChristlike way.
But what should we do with these rejected texts? Should we cut them out of our Bibles? No, we should keep them in our Bibles because, despite what they explicitly state, they teach us what God is not like. Their value lies in teaching us to confront and fight against inaccurate pictures of God.
While these texts have negative theological value, they have positive sociological value—teaching us about ancient Israel and the authors who wrote them. “The Old Testament’s depiction of God as a warrior should always be contextualized. It represents a culturally conditioned understanding of Israel’s views about God’s role in war” (Seibert, The Violence of Scripture, Kindle, Loc. 2805).
In Sacred Word, Broken Word, Kenton Sparks explains that just as we live in a good but broken world, Scripture is also good but broken. The authors of Scripture, writing from their limited and fallen perspectives, at times affirmed broken ideas—ideas in need of redemption—in Scripture. Herem warfare is one of those broken ideas that we should reject as coming from a good and gracious God. It is an idea that needs to be redeemed. In The Human Faces of God, Thom Stark asserts that the nefarious motivation behind the genocidal commands was the desire for “the acquisition of land and consolidation of power.” In other words, this is ancient Israelite political propaganda.
4. Paul Copan: Yes, God really gave those commands, but they contain nonliteral language.
In Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, Copan makes a case for understanding much of the Old Testament warfare language as warfare rhetoric. And ancient warfare rhetoric was not intended to be taken literally. Think of a basketball player telling one of his opponents, “We’re going to wipe you off the court today.” Or “we’re going to destroy you guys.” No one takes those statements literally. Likewise, we should not interpret ancient warfare language literally. Copan also refers to the frequent use of “driving out” language in the warfare commands. While destruction language is used, driving out language is far more common. And from a reading of the narrative as a whole and from archaeological evidence, driving out is more accurate to what literally occurred, not destruction. (See Copan’s book on the topic, Did God Really Command Genocide?)
I know I titled this post Four Alternatives, but a fifth view has recently been proposed.
5. Greg Boyd: Absolutely not. God was allowing his ancient people to view him as a warrior deity, but in light of Christ, we know that God is not like that.
God allowed his Son to look like a common criminal on a cross, but believers know that something more was going on in Christ’s crucifixion. Likewise, God accommodated to his people by allowing them to view him as many other ancient people viewed their gods—as a warrior. They projected this ancient view or “mask” onto God; God was not carrying out or commanding violence. Boyd finds lots of evidence in Scripture to show that violence attributed to God is actually carried out by secondary causes, such as natural phenomena, destroying angels, etc.
Boyd agrees with Seibert that we shouldn’t interpret these passages literally, but he disagrees with him because he believes these passages have theological value. They do tell us something accurate about God. God was willing to condescend to his people’s level by allowing them to view him in a certain way. (I must admit that I have not read Boyd’s massive book in two volumes, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but I have listened to his youtube interview on the topic, and read Roger Olson’s review of Boyd’s book.)
Those are the
four five alternative views to a literal interpretation for these most-difficult commands in the Old Testament.
In light of Christ, which view do you think makes the most sense?