The Challenge of God’s Violence in the Old Testament.

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In his work renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann explains that there is a “troublesome question” that continues to cause significant discomfort for Christians seeking to take the Bible seriously, namely “What shall we do with all the violence and bloody war that is done in the Old Testament in the name of Yahweh?” (Breuggemann, 2009: 13). The difficulties this poses, says scholar Terrence Fretheim, is the moral and theological question inherent to biblical violence “often associated with the activity of God” (Fretheim, 2004: 21). With remarkable frequency “God is the subject of violent verbs: From the flood, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to the command to sacrifice Isaac, to the plagues, to all the children killed on Passover night…” Like Breuggemann, Fretheim similarly asks “What will we make of this divine violence?”

Violent texts of the Bible in which God commands human beings to commit acts that offend our moral sensibilities have been frequently employed in the arsenal of religious skeptics as well as within counter arguments and rhetoric. One can understand why, and though we can’t (nor do I intend to) settle such questions fully in this short forum article, what I do seek to illumine is as to why this portrayal of God presents us with a difficulty, hence the need to take the question seriously.

On a first note I believe the real contention and difficulty pertains to the nature of God. As Susan Niditch illumined in some clarity, in the biblical scriptures it is not only that we find human violence meted out against other human beings but violence (as she defines as encompassing both psychological and physical harm) commanded by Yahweh himself (Niditch, 1993). God not only commands his people to commit acts of genocide against entire populations (the command for the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites and hill tribes of Canaan in Joshua, for example) but is also actively involved in events that bring about great suffering and pain. The biblical authors make sure that the reader knows that God’s violent judgements don’t occur in a void, but are often the response to sins and evils committed by human beings themselves. Nonetheless, it can be difficult to marry such apparent extremes in God’s nature: one of impartial, all encompassing, and unmerited love (which many Christians associate with the ethic of Jesus in the New Testament), and one of extreme judgement and violence (which many Christians associate with the God of the Old Testament).

The other issue biblical violence brings to fruition is what philosophers refer to as God as being ontologically the “greatest conceivable being.” God must necessarily be the greatest conceivable being, and any being that could be conceived of greater than God would, in essence, take God’s place, and therefore be God. However, one of the “great making” properties of such a being must be moral perfection. This fact illustrates deficiencies in certain concepts of God human beings have come up with. For example, the God of Islam (Allah) is fully partial. The Koran says that Allah does not love unbelievers (surah 3:31-32; 43-45), sinners (2:277), the unjust (3:57), or the proud (4:36). Such a being, in my judgement, cannot be morally perfect for a morally perfect being would be all-loving. We need only imagine the moral flaws within the parent whose love is partial and fully conditional upon his or her child doing well at certain things such as school or sport. Imagine the father saying to his son, “You will only have my love if you play first team rugby. If you fail your are no child of mine!” Any moral person would be appalled at such a condition which would no doubt affect the development and psyche of the child. Thus, a God that is all-loving is a greater being than a God who isn’t, and thus the former cannot rightly be said to be God. Now, though this presents an obstacle for an Islamic concept of God, so it does too for a Christian concept when we consider biblical violence.

Just as one ought to be appalled with a God who is partial and whose love must be earned, one ought feel likewise about a God that not only commands genocide but also actively brings about it (i.e. the slaughter of Egyptian infants in Exodus, or in the Genesis flood myth suggesting God drowned many people). The real question, and one that has been entertained frequently by exegetes and defenders of the faith alike, is whether or not a morally perfect being could ever command or actively partake in such things. Often I find Christians to be inconsistent on this matter, often criticizing other religions and their gods for being morally flawed in some way but then defending the moral monster that numerous biblical authors make their concept of God out to be. Nonetheless, commentators are split on the issue. Evangelical scholars such as Peter Enns, Thom Starke, and Randal Rauser have argued that God did not, nor could have, actually commanded such violence, and, personally, I find Rauser to persuasively argue the point in his paper Let Nothing That Breathes Remain Alive for Philosophia Christi. The argument that Rauser seeks to defend can be formulated in a syllogism as follows (Rauser, 2009: 29):

(1) God is the most perfect being there could be.
(2) Yahweh is God.
(3) Yahweh ordered people to commit genocide
(4) Genocide is always a moral atrocity. In addition, it seems very plausible to accept
(5) A perfect being would not order people to commit a moral atrocity.
(6) Therefore, a perfect being would not order people to commit genocide. (4, 5)
(7) Therefore, Yahweh did not order people to commit genocide. (1, 2, 6)

Readers seeking to learn more of Rauser’s reasoning or apply criticism to it should access his article online here. Nonetheless, I have tried to articulate some of my own views in a paper I penned in 2016 entitled ‘God’s Marauders: Interpreting the Conquest Narratives.’ Furthermore, it would only be fair to suggest alternative voices, for example, other notable Christian scholars and defenders such as William Lane Craig and Frank Turek have sought to defend God’s right to command genocide and the killings of human beings as a result of punishment for sin and so on. This is often a two pronged approach as they not only go on the defensive but the offensive. The former being the attempt at providing a model suggesting the compatibility of a loving and just God with many of his harrowing commands, and the latter being a direct counter challenge to the philosophical underpinnings of an opponent’s position (usually the one making the charge from the evil nature of the biblical God and the Bible such as the naturalist. Craig and Turek would, rightly in my mind, argue as to on what grounds could an atheist-naturalist claim anything to be objectively morally evil, including the moral atrocities of the Bible?).

Given the buckets of spilt ink seeking to make sense of these biblical narratives it well suggests the challenge biblical violence and violence commanded by God presents to the Christian religion and our modern moral sensibilities. The issue, I think, at the end of the day pertains to whether or not the Christian God can be shown to be morally flawed. If a skeptic could successfully demonstrate this to be the case then it would impact the entire theological system. For one it would likely provide a logical defeater of the Christian religion for inherent in it is a logically inconsistent concept of God. It’s no doubt an important topic that Christians will need to continue wrestling with.

References.

Brueggemann, W. 2009. Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Pub

Fretheim, T. 2004. God and Violence in the Old Testament. Word & World. 24(1): 18-28

Rauser, R. 2009. “Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive”: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide. PhilosoPhia Christi. 11(1): 27-41

Bishop, J. 2016. God’s Marauders. Available.

Niditch, S. 1993. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. New York: Oxford University Press.

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11 responses to “The Challenge of God’s Violence in the Old Testament.

  1. If any of my views are unreasonable, please point them out.
    “Genocide is always a moral atrocity. In addition, it seems very plausible to accept”
    From what I understand, objective morality is defined by God, therefore God might define the genocides commanded by him are morally good. Although this is paradoxical and unlikely since Jesus emphasized love and grace in the new testament, and one of the ten commandments is “we shall not kill”. So his morals might be seemingly unfair to us (or morally wrong to humans subjectively), since there are double standards.
    I don’t know what to conclude of this, but I think a disbelief in Christianity is reasonable.

    • I would like to read through Copan’s book again. As well as his subsequent one ‘Did God Command Genocide?’ It’s probably the best front for their side.

  2. I often struggled with this too but I prayed hard about it and what came to me from God was a full understanding of the story of God. It was the people who forced God’s hand. Remember God created the World as a perfect paradise. We chose to sin, we chose to not to listen and ruined it. He then gave us a small amount of rules. The people didn’t accept just those rules. He then gave Moses the law. Another example of God changing things for his people is, God wanted to be a King to his people but then they wanted their own King, so God allowed that. God continued to go along with what the people wanted, which deviated away from his original paradise plan. He knew eventually he would send his only son to redeem us but he had no trouble occasionally doing what his children on Earth asked even if he didn’t agree it.

    He chose his people who were constantly under attack. He asked them to commit genocide because that was the nature of the Middle East, it still is that way to this day. It was God’s people vs. Everyone Else. They would have done the same thing to the Israelite’s but God chose to watch over them, he chose them. Many Pagan Cultures used the same strategy in War. God was adjusting things to fit the culture we created. He was watching out for them knowing they would be attacked. It was an attack them before they attack you mentality. Remember these people were doing evil in God’s eyes, he doesn’t harm the good.

    God created the Universe, and humans committed atrocities every day, but we shake our fists at the Lord if he dares to strike unholy people who are harming good people. It’s kind of silly really. How many innocents die every day from the War in the Middle East currently?

    There is actually a line from a show called “Supernatural” I watch, when a villain questions the star of the show Dean about God, he said something along the lines of, “It’s his Universe, it’s his rules”.

    I think that sums it up well. God is not the problem here. I trust God because it’s his Universe that he created because he loved us. We have been bad Children to the most loving, forgiving Father imaginable. He gave us free will because he loved us. The answer to the question of the violent God in the Old Testament is simple, read the beginning. That was his vision, paradise, no war, no sin, no death just him and his children. It was only after our sins that things changed. And how does he reward us for our bad behavior? Accept Christ and you get eternal life. Wow, what an amazing God.

    I hope this long comment helped some,

    God Bless
    -Chris

    • Life including human life makes use of god. To make use of god we have genders and we also have colour. Let me stick with gender because I’m trying to write about that. With gender we have Godlike and Godless. If you are godlike (within humans this is the male) when you go against who you are expect some level of violence or negative reaction. And the problem with religion is that most of those who are written about have no idea who they are and subsquently violence follows them around like their own shadow.

      And as I’ve said many times on here, when you start to notice the violence, ease off religion as religion pushes god away from the godlike. Be aware who you are because if we do not understand ourselves we will have a poor relationship and understanding with the godless, who by and large are women.

  3. On what basis can one assume that one’s moral decisions are objective?

    Moral behavior is something humans recognize in other humans. And in like fashion larger brained animals often recognize the difference between empathy and aggression, and often choose the former over the latter in many social species.

    Why do humans recognize and value some types of behavior over others? Because we know how we would like to be treated, and we see and hear from others the same pleas as to how they would like to be treated. So to completely ignore such intimate and common knowledge that is both internal and external, is to proceed in the direction of becoming either a psychopath or sociopath, despised and hated by friends and foes alike.

    Moral decision making also appears to be a sub category of all decision making and involves input of more than one kind. See here. https://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-moral-question.html

  4. Imagine the pool-side chat in heaven, “We killed everyone in the city as God commanded, or thought we had… Then I spotted a heap of blankets rustling nearby and yanked them aside, and there saw a trembling young girl and her pregnant mom. You should have seen the look on their faces as I raised my sword and… Hey waiter, can I get another Bloody Mary? Boy, I just love this place! You can take that semi-arid ‘promised land’ we slayed our neighbors to obtain, and shove it.”

    “In the cities He gives you leave alive nothing that breathes… utterly destroy them… show them no mercy… or Yahweh will destroy you utterly… we… utterly destroyed the men… women, and the little ones of every city.” Deut.

    “Thus saith the LORD… Slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” 1 Samuel 15:3

    “A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed. You are My war-club… with you I shatter old man and youth. young man and virgin.” Jeremiah 48:10; 51:20,22

    “The spirit of the LORD shall come up from the wilderness, and… Samaria shall become desolate… they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.” Hosea

    “You shall fear (no other gods) only Yahweh… for He is a jealous God. Otherwise His anger will be kindled against you and He will wipe you off the face of the earth… In the cities He gives you leave alive nothing that breathes… utterly destroy them… show them no mercy… or Yahweh will destroy you utterly… The Lord delivered them before us… we…. utterly destroyed the men… women, and the little ones of every city… If your brother, son, daughter, wife, or your friend who is your own soul, entice you away secretly, saying, ‘Let us go serve other gods’… you shall kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death… so that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of his anger… These curses shall come on you… because you would not obey the Lord… you shall eat the offspring of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters… The Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you… I [the Lord] will make mine arrows drunk with blood.” (Deuteronomy 2:34; 5:9; 6:13,15; 7:2,4; 13:6-9, 17; 20:16,17; 28:45,47,53,63 32:42)

    “Let me alone that my wrath may wax hot against them.” (Exodus 31:10; see also Numbers 16:46)

    “The Lord shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them.” (Psalm 21:9)

    “The children of Israel stoned Achan and his daughters… burned them with fire… raised over them a heap of stones. And the Lord turned from the fierceness of His anger… The Lord hardened their hearts to meet Israel in battle in order that He might destroy them utterly, that they might receive no mercy.” (Joshua 7:24-26; 11:20)

    “He made Israel to sin to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger with their vanities.” (1 Kings 16:26; see also: Ex. 32:10; Num. 11:1,16:46, 32:13-14; Judges 3:8, 2:20; 1 Kings 14:9,15:30, 16:2, 16:7, 16:13; 2 Kings 13:3; 2 Samuel 24:1; 2 Chron. 34:25; Psalm 18:7 & Jer. 44:6; Nahum 1:2)

    “Fathers will eat their sons, and sons will eat their fathers; for I [the Lord] will execute judgment on you… I will draw my sword from its scabbard and cut off from you both the righteous and the wicked… my sword will be unsheathed against everyone from south to north… My fury will mount up in my anger, and in my zeal and blazing wrath I declare. (Ezekiel 5:10; 21:3-4; 38:18-19)

    “I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the Lord: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them… I shall make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh in the siege… A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed. You are My war-club… with you I shatter old man and youth… young man and virgin.” (Jeremiah 13:14; 19:9; 48:10; 51:20,22)

    Conservative Christian scholar Kenneth Kitchen goes on about how, “The Hebrew force defeated the opposition; captured their towns, killed rulers and less mobile inhabitants…” “Less mobile inhabitants” is Kitchen’s euphemism for the handicapped, sick, widows, elderly, pregnant women and young children. Of course if the Canaanites were as “wicked” as biblical authors lead us to believe, then one would expect a high number of “less mobile inhabitants” were left behind to be mopped up by the swords of advancing Israelites. How moral is it to imagine what a wondrously divine slaughter it was back then, but how disgusting it is today when ISIS indulges in similar slaughters, claiming more land in the name of Allah?

  5. A related question is why an all powerful Being employs the same blunt means as all other nations and their gods, that of human invasion/conquest by the sword? Couldn’t such a Being devise alternate methods? Methods that didn’t involve forcing his own chosen people to murder strangers en masse? Methods that didn’t involve cursing those who refused to bloody their swords?

    “I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the Lord: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them… I shall make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh in the siege… A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed. You are My war-club… with you I shatter old man and youth… young man and virgin.” (Jeremiah 13:14; 19:9; 48:10; 51:20,22)

    How about methods that only targeted specific individuals among the Canaanites? How about methods that did not involve invasions and conquests by the sword and enslavement?

    A God of infinite power and imagination that also possessed complete knowledge of each mortal and finite individual would know what could and would influence them the most, and could do so to get them to move off the land or even adopt changes in their “evil” practices without having to make his chosen people act like all other nations, and invade and slaughter others.

    Same with the Israelite God having his chosen people enslave others just as other nations did them–even to the extent of giving his people a law that allowed masters to threaten slaves with beatings within an inch of their lives if they dared to disobey. Same old same old.

    Israelite tales mirror the same bronze-age alpha male perception of a “high national deity” as held by other ancient peoples.

    Another example is the Flood story–a story whose earliest version comes from clay tablets in ancient Sumeria which then appeared in a new guise in Babylonia, then the next oldest version of the story is discovered westward and northward in the land of the Hittites before it finally appeared further west, in Israelite writings. The deity/deities of the Flood story in each case employ as blunt a means of carrying out its will as any bronze-age alpha-male primate.

    “I don’t know who the worst sinners are on this planet, but I am quite sure that if a High Intelligence wanted to exterminate them, It would find a very precise method of locating each one separately. Carelessly murdering millions of innocent children and harmless old ladies and dogs and cats in the process is absolutely and ineluctably to state that your idea of God is of a cosmic imbecile… Accepting the Warren Commission Report, even Lee Harvey Oswald only hit one bystander (the governor). The early Old Testament ‘God’ appears not only as crazy as Oswald but clumsier, stupider and generally less civilized. King Kong is as convincing a portrait of God as that given in the Old Testament.”
    –Robert Anton Wilson

    The Israelite God was so wise, powerful and compassionate he couldn’t come up with anything better than flooding the whole earth to kill the people He was after? That’s like burning down the barn to kill some rats, using a sledgehammer to debug a rosebush, or using a guillotine to remove a mole on someone’s neck.

    “‘Bible believers’ are constantly telling us how wicked the people were who lived in the days before Noah’s Flood. In Biblical plays and movies you can practically feel the evil oozing out of them. By Jupiter, you can almost see it! But could they have done any wicked thing that hasn’t been done by folks after the Flood? Conversely, if you examine the worst corner of the globe at its sorriest moment in history you will still find, by any reasonable standard of decency, a fair number of decent people. And, don’t forget the children! Die-hard Bible believers answer curtly that the children were part of the cancer that had to be cut out! Their poor limited God had no choice, I suppose. He couldn’t let pre-Flooders corrupt the purity of post-Flood generations. The fact that Noah got stinking drunk after the Flood and was shamed by one of his own sons whom he subsequently cursed, only points toward how much worse things would have been had Noah rescued a single pre-Flood baby by stowing it away aboard the ark. I shudder to think what might have happened had that rescued child’s progeny one day wandered into Sodom and Gomorrah, thereby staining the reputation of those two cities.” –Dave Matson, “On Taking the Bible and Noah’s Flood Literally”

    “I would like to ask if there is a Christian in the world who would not be overjoyed to find that every passage in the Bible that supported slavery, polygamy, and wars of extermination, was an interpolation… He says: `Honor thy father and mother,’ and yet this God, in the person of Christ, offered honors, and glory, and happiness an hundred fold to any who would desert their father, and mother for him. Thou shalt not kill, yet God killed the first-born of Egypt, and he commanded Joshua to kill all his enemies, not sparing old or young, man, woman or child, even an unborn child… According to the Bible, God gave orders to kill children and to rip open the bodies of pregnant women. The pestilences were sent by God. The frightful famine, during which the dying child with pallid lips sucked the withered bosom of his dead mother, was sent by God. God drowned an entire world with the exception of eight persons. Imagine how such acts would have stained the reputation of the devil!… Why did God fill the world with his own children, knowing that he would have to destroy them? And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?”
    –Ingersoll

  6. One suspects that tales of Yahweh were “colored in” by ancient Israelites who were eager to interpret invading armies, or deadly acts of nature (such as famine or disease), as acts that were instituted by Yahweh. Faced with horrors the ancients interpreted them by imagining that their tribal or national god was communicating His “displeasure, anger and/or jealousy.” Even when the ancient Israelites were the aggressors, committing atrocities on surrounding peoples they claimed they were merely obtaining more land because Yahweh was “giving them” such land, and imagined Yahweh was “pleased” with such behavior and had “blessed” them with victory. They gave Yahweh the “praise” when their conquests were successful, but whenever things took a turn for the worse they tried all the harder to standardize and centralize worship to try and quell what they imagined was Yahweh’s “displeasure.” Such “coloring in” was commonplace. After Babylon was plundered by Assyria the next king of Babylon interpreted the invasion as a punishment sent by Babylon’s own high god to teach his people a lesson:

    “[The citizens of Babylon] had oppressed the weak, and handed the weak into the power of the strong. Inside the city there was tyranny, receiving of bribes, people plundering each other’s things, sons cursing fathers in the street, slaves cursing masters, they put an end to offerings [to the gods], they laid hands on the property of the temple of the gods, and sold silver, gold and precious stones… Marduk [the high god of Babylon] grew angry and devised evil to overwhelm the land and destroy the peoples”–c.f., W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford U Press 1960), p. 5.

    At other times ancient Near Easterners were dumbfounded when their high henotheistic god seemed to have let them down during times of suffering. Their gods remained silent, leaving people with nothing but lamentations. Think of Job, or the Psalmists’ cries for Yahweh to not keep his face hidden, or lamentations. And compare this…

    A Hittite Plague Prayer Offered by the King

    Hattian Storm-god, my lord, and ye, Hattian gods, my lords! A plague ye have let into the land. The Hatti land has been cruelly afflicted by the plague. For twenty years now men have been dying. As for me, the agony of my heart and the anguish of my soul I can no longer endure. When I celebrated festivals, I worshiped all the gods. I never preferred one temple to another. The matter of the plague I have laid before all the gods in prayer, making vows to them (and saying) “Hearken to me, ye gods, my lords! Drive ye forth the plague from the Hatti land! The reason for which people are dying–either let it be established by an omen, or let me see it in a dream, or let a prophet declare it!” But the gods did not hearken to me and the plague got no better in the Hatti land. The Hatti land was cruelly afflicted. Hattian Storm-god, my lord, (and) ye gods, my lords! It is only too true that man is sinful. My father sinned and transgressed against the word of the Hattian Storm-god, my lord. But I have not sinned in any respect. It is only too true, however, that the father’s sin falls upon the son. Because I have confessed my father’s sin, let the soul of the Hattian Storm-god, my lord, and (those) of the gods, my lords, be again pacified! Take pity on me and drive the plague out of the Hatti land! Suffer not to die the few who are still left to offer sacrificial loaves and libations! http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=5&Issue=5&ArticleID=10

  7. Pingback: New Blog Series! Examining Historical-Theological Implications of Biblical Genocide [Part 1]. | James Bishop's Theological Rationalism·

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