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.
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.