Well, you have responded tremendously to my request in the post The Parts We Don’t Like, where I ask for sources that examine the seemingly genocidal aspects of the Old Testament. In this post I will offer some thoughts on several of your suggested sources.
This post will be very long – about 2900 words. I will close with a look at some of the earliest Christian apologists. It is interesting to me what they thought and why.
Cross Vision - How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of the Old Testament Violence, by Greg Boyd (his website is here). From reviews of the book at Amazon:
· In conclusion, Boyd's proposal is based on the idea that God is completely nonviolent.
God most certainly is violent. How do we understand the flood? How do we understand the battles into which God commanded Israel – even if these were not genocidal (as will be examined further)? They were still violent.
This sentence could be resolved if one substitutes the word “aggression” for “violence.” God is completely not aggressive. Aggression is the unwarranted act of initiating violence. Violence is justified only in defense of or in punishment for aggressive acts against person or property.
I believe it is correct to say that God does not act in aggression; I don’t believe it can be said that God does not commit violence. Whose person or property is it? Therefore, who is justified in defending it?
Returning to comments from the review of Boyd’s book:
· I once again found myself disagreeing with the central idea ... that God withdraws from Jesus on the cross, and therefore, in the violent portions of the OT, God is withdrawing Himself from the people and nations who experience/suffer violence. While Greg is absolutely right that "something else is going on" in those violent texts, I do not think that the "something else" is that God is withdrawing from Jesus or from other people.
Is it so that God withdrew from Jesus on the cross? The entire purpose of Jesus was the cross – this is why He was sent. It is difficult to then say that God withdrew. Did God turn into a passive actor regarding either Jesus or these Old Testament antagonists?
With this said, this last point rings true (within the context of what is to follow from the further sources below):
· In Cross Vision, Boyd shows an alternative view. Boyd breaks down various passages, different events and how God accommodated the warped views of ancient near east cultures and slowly molded the Israelites to be different.
At any time, God certainly could have given us a Garden of Eden. But wait – He did that once, and we know how things went thereafter. In some ways (with important differences), Israel acted in manners similar to actions consistent with the culture around them. Can we expect 5,000 years of cultural evolution overnight? We look through the wrong end of the telescope when we wish such things.
The Unseen Realm, by Michael S. Heiser
Heiser demonstrates that Joshua was only required to "devote to complete destruction, leaving none alive" areas dominated by these giants.
Who were these giants? Per the reviewer, this was complete destruction of “The fallen sons of God [who wished] to prevent the birth of the Seed who will crush the head of the Serpent. As such, they attempt to pollute the human family.” This refers to what is known as the Nephilim:
Genesis 6:1 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
The word Nephilim is not used in the King James version of this same passage. It is thereafter referred to in Numbers 13 – in the NIV, but not the King James. In any case, a question is raised (and I don’t plan to chase this down today): If these Nephilim existed before the flood, how were they existent after the flood?
William Lane Craig on Old Testament Atrocities (video). Craig offers many points on this topic; I offer these without comment, and without implying that I agree with each point. However, each is worthy of consideration in this discussion. The points, summarized as follows:
First point: Craig first wonders why atheists are hung up on the slaughter of the Canaanites or any such things. As we are just the results of random atoms smashing together randomly, there is nothing objective about morality. So why get worked up about it? Our cousins the baboons kill each other, bees kill each other. We don’t think of these as moral evils. “The universe doesn’t care.” So why should you?
Second point: The Canaanites were not innocent: practicing child sacrifice, temple prostitution, etc. The Amalekites killed Israelites who were unable to defend themselves – the elderly and disabled. If these are to be considered innocent victims, then who can complain about any aspect of moral behavior?
Third point: the Canaanites knew that the Israelites were coming back to their promised land. They had four hundred years of warnings to leave. When the Israelites were in Egypt, God kept them there for four hundred years, because the iniquity of the Canaanites was not yet complete.
Fourth point: Israelites were not to harm any Canaanite who allied with them (e.g. Rahab)
Fifth point: per the Old Testament, there are no records of women and children killed in the campaign against the Canaanites. It still leaves the issue that God commanded them to do so (this point will be addressed via other sources, below).
Other points raised: the handful of “genocide” accounts is just that, a handful. This compared to the numerous acts of compassion by God as recorded in the Old Testament; if these episodes are nothing more than a tribe falsely claiming “God is on our side” or an exaggeration in such episodes, it goes to the question of Biblical inerrancy, not a question of salvation.
In the same video, Paul Copan makes similar points, but adds that there are some exaggerations in conquest accounts, so why not here? From Joshua 10:40, we are told that Joshua slaughtered all the land, leaving no survivor. Is there no one left? But there were many left.
The Israelites are commanded to utterly destroy the Canaanites, while at the same time commanded that they do not intermarry with them. Isn’t this contradictory? In fact, God was after removing Canaanite religion from the land, not more. There are references to Canaanites even in the New Testament.
What of the Amalekites? Saul loses his kingship because he hasn’t wiped out every last Amalekite. It takes Samuel to kill the (supposed) last – the king. Yet even after this episode, there are references to Amalekites. Is this just exaggerated language?
There is text of God commanding the slaughter of all, and there is text that there were survivors. Which text should be taken literally? Is there more interpretation or understanding required to reconcile these points?
His final point, taken from a survivor of the slaughters in Yugoslavia: seeing the evil and carnage perpetrated on innocents, this survivor could not imagine God not being angry. We wonder why we don’t see examples of God punishing evil on this earth in our time, then we cringe when we see God punishing evil in the Old Testament. God punishes because God is love.
Dr. Paul Copan - Is God a Moral Monster? (video):
Copan begins by addressing the problem of evil. On what basis is anything considered evil? Richard Dawkins states that there is nothing of good and evil in the universe, yet decries the Old Testament God as evil. But on what basis?
He makes the points raised earlier – some of this conquest language should not – even cannot – be taken literally. After God saying these will be utterly destroyed, the Canaanites were not utterly destroyed. Was it merely because the Israelites failed at following God’s command, or is there something more to the language and the time?
From a book review of Copan’s book:
Further, in the few cases where total destruction actually can be responsibly inferred from the text (Jericho and Ai are examples), archaeology informs us that these were small military garrison cities with few non-combatants.
This idea will be further developed later. In this same review, it is offered why celebrity atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris refuse to go deep into this topic. It is because they treat the soundbite as sufficient scholarship.
Richard Hess: Did God Command Joshua and Israel to Commit Genocide? (video):
The reason God commanded total destruction was that otherwise the Canaanites would teach Israel all that they do which is unholy (we see what happens to Israel in later generations when others teach them to worship other gods).
The command was to destroy all that was in the cities, but what did “city” mean in those times? The word translated as “city” refers to the walled fort or citadel, usually at the high point of the larger geographic area. These contained the king’s palace, stores for the grains and taxes, houses of worship for their gods, houses for the elites. The masses didn’t live here: they lived in outside of the wall – consistent with agricultural society. The cities represent the military and the leadership.
The word “destroy” means to give back to God that which was taken from Him. The site of Jericho has been excavated many times. The walls have not been found. Hess believes this is because of the quite small size of the “city.” After all, it was small enough to circle it seven times in one day and still fight a decisive battle. Other cities in the Old Testament are described as “great cities”; not Jericho.
The text says all were destroyed. The Hebrew word used was used seven times in total (think of other destructive events). It was also used to describe the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a stereotypical phrase. It does not translate “all men and women.” It translates “from men to women.” Hess believes it means: if they were there, they were killed; but not necessarily that all listed (men, women, donkeys) were physically there, in the walled city.
Further, there was almost as much text written about the salvation of Rahab as there was the destruction of Jericho. Perhaps this points to both the relative importance of the battle and the relative importance of the lesson to be learned.
What do we understand of the broader, non-combatant, population when knowing that war is coming between two armies? The usual, and most likely, action, is that they run to the hills for cover until the battle is over. Nowhere in the text is there any command to destroy anything outside of the cities – outside of the walled fort, if you will.
With all of this taken into account, Hess summarizes a) that the Israelites did what they were commanded to do, b) how and why Canaanites remained in all areas even after this supposed genocide, c) there was neither a command for, nor did Israelites commit, genocide; it wasn’t merely a case of the Israelites failed to achieve God’s command.
The following posts are written by Glenn Miller:
I will not summarize these as they are so detailed that I am not comfortable to summarize these other than a very high level. In other words, if you want more than what I have offered here in these earlier examinations, these would be good reads.
Finally, the earliest church fathers, from a book review of Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide, by Christian Hofreiter:
…the first Christians, at least as represented by the New Testament, do not seem to have been troubled much by the problems these genocidal texts raise. Nor, going farther back, do the writers of the Old Testament.
He notes that Marcion addressed these in the second century – he addressed these by removing these stories from the Bible. He was labeled a heretic. Continuing:
For Origen, those difficult Old Testament texts could be spiritualized and read allegorically in light of Jesus’s message. When read this way, those texts have to do with eradicating sin in our lives, not historical acts of extreme violence.
Augustine would offer that “a God-commanded genocide must not be an atrocity.” This seems not a satisfactory conclusion. As has been noted above – and if you accept anything like these interpretations – the more current understandings of these events would not fit the definition of genocide as we understand the term.
Pope Benedict XVI would offer that Augustine was influenced by Ambrose:
The great difficulty with the Old Testament, because of its lack of rhetorical beauty and of lofty philosophy, was resolved in Saint Ambrose’s preaching through his typological interpretation of the Old Testament: Augustine realized that the whole of the Old Testament was a journey toward Jesus Christ. Thus, he found the key to understanding the beauty and even the philosophical depth of the Old Testament and grasped the whole unity of the mystery of Christ in history as well as the synthesis between philosophy, rationality, and faith in the Logos, in Christ, the Eternal Word who was made flesh.
From an essay by Dr. Matthew Ramage, discussing traditional Catholic teaching and the views of Pope Benedict. In his 2006 Regensburg address, Benedict would offer “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God.” In defending this statement, Benedict will offer that the Bible says what it says – we cannot just dismiss these problematic passages; yet, these passages seem to conflict with what we can understand about God’s nature through reason.
…here is the key according to Pope Benedict—the Catholic has to interpret the entire Old Testament as a gradual progression towards Jesus Christ…
This, it seems clear to me, must be so.
Indeed, according to Pope Benedict, problematic passages in the Old Testament are “valid insofar as they are part of the history leading up to Christ.” Now if he had commanded violence, then we’d be in trouble.
But I am not in trouble if I substitute the idea of “aggression” for the term “violence,” as examined earlier in this post.
Benedict offers a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree:
“It follows straightaway that neither the criterion of inspiration nor that of infallibility can be applied mechanically. It is quite impossible to pick out one single sentence [of the Bible] and say, right, you find this sentence in God’s great book, so it must simply be true in itself.”
Nothing in the Bible can be taken in a vacuum. One reason that I try to limit theological debate at this site is that the Bible is perhaps the most hyperlinked book known to man – and this for a book written entirely before the internet. (You tell me how this is possible solely through human hands.)
There are individual verses in the Bible that can support the widest range of theological beliefs – for example, even those who claim that Jesus is not God (Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses) can point to Scripture in support.
There are close to 64,000 hyperlinks. The only way to make sense of it is through the frame that it all points to Jesus – who is both God and the Son of God – and His crucifixion and resurrection. It all points to this and must be read through this.
We read of the flood, an action far more devastating and complete than any examined above. We know that all sin and are condemned, with only God’s mercy and love saving those He will. This condemnation is eternal.
We know that God is love, yet what does this mean? As I wrote in a comment:
I love my children. There are times I have to discipline them. It is even possible to conceive of a time when I might have to separate myself from them - or separate them from me. Call it banishment or whatever.
I do this out of love - love for my children and love for my community. My desire for them is that they grow to be God-fearing, healthy, productive contributors to society - this is best for them and best for the community. To achieve this, some of what I do might not seem like "love" to them in any superficial understanding of the term.
As the saying goes, they will understand once they have children.
I thank you all for the sources you have provided.
I am 100% certain that nothing I have written here will change minds, and it isn’t my intent. I am working on my understanding, and if by doing so others find this work helpful then I am grateful. While I have certainly gained understanding, I am still a babe on this topic.
What is clear – like so much of Scripture: this subject is much more complex than the superficial treatment given to it by many – Christians and atheists alike.