The motive behind this series is to keep Christians in check; in other words, to keep an eye on them. What I find is that often Christians claim things that are false, misrepresent facts, or they tend to claim too much in hope of evidentially grounding the Christian faith. As a Christian myself I will be analyzing what I find. Also bear in mind that I am a convinced Christian myself because I think there is good evidence for  God’s existence and  Jesus’ deity and resurrection; so skeptics of Christianity (and fellow believers) should keep that in mind when reading this content.
Also note that what I argue below here is reflective of my own views concerning the genocide within the Bible, and I fully understand that many Christians, and readers, will disagree with me concerning the below content.
See Article 1 in the Series – The Bible & Science, and the New Testament.
See Article 3 in the Series – On the Uncritical Nature of Christians & Half Truths.
Point 15 has the author defending against the charge that “The God of the Bible is immoral.” This is one of the biggest concerns that us Christians have when it comes to criticism of the God in which we believe in; namely the violence God seems to commit and command within the Bible. It is also a challenge that any thinking Christian, at least the one who knows the basics of his religion and Bible, will come across. It can also sow doubt in the lives of Christians and cause some to even walk away from the faith. In this way I find it important to examine it here, although this will be representing my view of the matter which is very definitely not the only one that exists among Christian thinkers. I encourage further engagement by readers beyond my own views.
Nonetheless, the author says that “This statement [that God is immoral] is occasionally made by certain vocal atheists who seem to have an ax to grind against the God who made them.” This is false. The atheists, or any critic really, who make this charge are often correct although they undoubtedly skew much of the data. By skew I mean they look to blame things from within the Bible on God when God has nothing to do with those things. For example, one psalmist wishes for his enemies infants to be dashed on rocks as revenge for what they had done to Israel. Many critics would think that God is condoning this act when he actually isn’t. That is one example of “skewing” or looking to blame things on God that aren’t his doing.
However, as I’ve said already, the critic is actually correct in some ways; the way the God of the Bible is depicted on occasions is quite atrocious, to put it mildly (more on this in a minute). So I hardly think that all atheists “have an ax to grind against the God who made them” when they point this out; rather such atheists are simply, and rightly, pointing out the moral atrocities committed in the Bible. I also accept that many atheists are intellectually biased and want to blame everything on, as the author puts it, “the God who made them,” but to say that is always the case (which is what the author seems to suggest) can be a little bit insulting.
Then he says that “It seems incredibly presumptuous of fallible man to think they know better than God. The charge comes about mainly in regard to God’s command to the Jews to take over the land of Canaan and kill the inhabitants, in which the Jews became the responsible agent to execute specific justice against an immoral indigenous society.”
This is very much of the crux of the matter: how could a loving God command genocide? As I’ve argued in one of my exegetical assignments for Old Testament Studies, God’s Marauders, I don’t believe God actually commanded this. Rather, the biblical authors, and the characters in the conquest events themselves, used divine justification for their actions. This fits well within an Ancient Near Eastern context in which battles between armies of different tribes, nations and groups were seen as battles between deities (see 2 Kings 3:27). Thus, it is very clear that the conquest narratives in Judges and Joshua mandate genocide, the indiscriminate killing of whole populations. Christian Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains as much, “This notion, well entrenched in Israel, is a way whereby raw military violence and the will of YHWH are intimately linked, wherein the will of YHWH is seen to justify and authorize and legitimate acts of extermination. The rhetoric mandates nothing less than genocide” (1). Prominent Christian biblical Professor Peter Enns explicates that “God commanded the Israelites to go from town to town and exterminate the current residents – men, women, children, and animals -and move in. If we read this anywhere else, we would call it genocide” (2).
I argued that this is problematic, theologically, for Christians who believe that an all loving God really commanded this; a God that is routinely defined to be the greatest conceivable being. Being such an entity requires moral perfection without blemish. Brueggemann realizes this and writes that “There is no question more troubling for theological interpretation of the Old Testament than the undercurrent of violence that moves through a good bit of the text” (3). Stark claims that this is hard to swallow since “a loving God could not have commanded genocide” (4).
This is problematic in two ways. One is the wholesale slaughter of Canaanite populations. We only need to see it in our mind’s eye; men, women, children, and infants being dragged from their homes by Israelite thugs and marauders only to have their throats being slit in the street. Being there we would have undoubtedly seen mothers screaming as they witnessed their husbands and sons being culled in front of them by bloodied swords and daggers. And once that is done, and everyone lies dead, the village would be reduced to ash and Joshua, and his army of thugs, would move on to the next village. The motive? Simply because Israel wanted the land in which these people had made their home for hundreds of years, and they had to somehow get rid of its current occupants. This will remain the case no matter how Christians try to explain it away, whether that is due to the sins of these Canaanite people or whatever else. That’s problem one, namely that any committing of genocide is a moral atrocity, and an atrocity that an all loving God commands.
Problem two, as Christian scholar Randal Rauser pointed out in his 2009 exegesis of the conquest narratives (7), is the impact on the Israelite soldiers themselves. For example, as Randal showed, medical studies have shed light on the fact that war often turns good people into moral monsters. After being exposed to the violence that war brings, the slaughter of human beings, many soldiers will soon find no issue in repeating such evil acts. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such stories from wars where soldiers have raped women and children, murdered non-threatening innocents simply for the fun and enjoyment of it, taken the law into their own hands, and so on and so forth. One particularly memorable case is the conquistadors’ invasion of the West Indies where the soldiers had not only invaded, but took enjoyment in throwing babies into rivers, and smashing their heads against crags. As one writer in his work The Devastation on the Indies noted, the soldiers were “roaring with laughter as the babies fell into the water.” As Randal remarked in his piece, “war turns soldiers into victims at best and psychopaths at worst” (8). There is, in fact, biblical evidence of this. Consider Menahem who, just prior to becoming king, ripped open pregnant women in battle (2 Kings 15:16). Or consider how the Israelites punished Adoni-bezek by severing his thumbs and big toes (Judg. 1:6). And then there is the psalmist who wishes that the heads of Babylonian babies be dashed against the rocks (Ps. 137:9).
This is a very short summary of Randal’s paper that probably doesn’t do justice, but it gets the point across. Simply put, war destroys people and scars the minds of men. Even William Lane Craig who controversially defends God’s commanding of genocide notes this, “Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing” (5). Rauser also urges us to imagine the “type of effect would the bludgeoning of babies, children, women and the elderly have had upon the Israelites? Imagine the psychological agony of an Israelite soldier divinely commanded to hack up a Canaanite toddler one day only to bounce his Israelite toddler on his knee the next. It is hardly surprising then that the Israelites evince the subsequent brutalizing effect of war” (9)
So, why is this problematic? Firstly, because we find an all loving, and all good, God commanding his children to commit indiscriminate genocide simply because the people were in a land that Israel wanted. Secondly, because the genocidal commands that God allegedly gives to his people ends up destroying his very own people. In other words, God is commanding his people to do something that he knows will end up destroying many of them (mentally and emotionally) just as it destroys the victims (physically). I believe that an all loving God would never knowingly command such a thing, and as soon as he does then he can no longer be said to be all loving and all good. And if God is not all loving then he is not morally perfect, and therefore he would be less than God.
I also think that by putting the conquest narratives within the ancient context goes a long way in explaining why we find this in the Bible. For example, wars in the ancient world were very common and often unavoidable. Back then life was primitive and often survival would depend on the size of one’s army, city walls, and how well one could wield the shield and sword. And since the Bible is itself a product of the ancient world that produced it, it is hardly surprising that we find such content within its pages. The Bible is not some otherworldly book that God dropped out of heaven like some manual. Rather, it is a product of a fallen world, written by fallen men, although it is to those very men who God revealed himself to.
Finally, I also want to make several quick comments on the author’s propagation that because the Canaanites were “an immoral indigenous society” that this somehow opens the door for “justice” through genocide. True, the Canaanites were morally evil in several ways including child sacrifice, bestiality and so on. However, this is hardly warrant for justice through genocide. Why?
Because the real motive was not the sins of the Canaanite people. Rather that is just the theological justification used to open the door for a mass invasion; in other words, the Israelites were garnering divine justification for their conquests. However, the real motivation was the land, and the Canaanites happened to find themselves within the land that they Israelites wanted. This is further a problematic proposal since the Canaanites are hardly unique in terms of sinning, especially sinning in the ways that the Bible says that they did. Israel sinned (and there is even good biblical warrant that primitive Israel condoned child sacrifice itself; see Micah and Exodus), the other surrounding nations sinned, and we still sin; but it wasn’t the surrounding nations that Israel wanted; rather it was Canaan. And that is why we find the biblical authors dressing the Canaanites up in such a way as to make them seem like moral abominations worthy of judgment. Simply put, it is propaganda. Thirdly, the Israelites were essentially undertaking human sacrifice themselves in their merciless slaughtering of the Canaanites. So one should caution in making the argument that because the Canaanites performed child sacrifice to their false gods that this somehow opens the door for the Canaanites themselves to be sacrificed by the Israelites; the conquest narratives also give clear instructions for the Israelites to kill everything that breathes (which included children) (Josh. 6:22, 24). According to Susan Niditch “the war demanded by God always including the annihilation of men, women, and children, other times including also the killing of domestic animals, the wanton destruction of whole cities, and the reduction of all cultural artifacts to rubble” (6). So, essentially one making this argument says that part of the reason for punishing the Canaanites is that they sacrificed their children. However, the punishment against the Canaanites includes sacrificing their children.
Thus, I think the author’s conclusion hardly follows that critics are being “incredibly presumptuous” for pointing out that God is said to have commanded genocide. I also certainly belief that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isa. 55:9) and that we can’t ever expect to understand everything, or even most, of what he chooses to do. But I am absolutely certain that we all know that genocide is a moral atrocity (for both the victims and the mental state of those who perpetuate it), and that we find God allegedly commanding it within the Bible causes Christians concern.
1. Brueggemann, W. 2003. Introduction to the Old Testament. p. 148
2. Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So.
3. Brueggemann, W. 2003. Ibid. p. 147.
4. Stark, T. 2011. The Human Face of God. Location: 4407
5. Craig, W. Slaughter of the Canaanites. Available.
6. Niditch, S. 1993. War in the Hebrew Bible. p. 8.
7. Randal, R. 2009. Let Nothing That Breathes Remain Alive. Available.
8. Randal, R. 2009. Ibid. p. 36.
9. Randal, R. 2009. Ibid. p. 36.