This marks the first post of a new multi-part series in which we will examine the morally problematic biblical texts within which God commands moral atrocities such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Given the significance and severity of this issue this series will look at a number of responses Christian apologists have forwarded in order to make sense of these texts. Moreover, the divinely commanded violence in the books of Joshua, Deuteronomy, and 1 Samuel have been a focus point in my Old Testament Studies this semester so I will be releasing assignment papers on this blog touching on the topic as we go.
I want to emphasize that this is an honest series as I wish to openly dialogue of the issues that we as Christians hoping to take the Bible seriously and authoritatively face. I have reasoned to my own positions over the last few years and will try to make these known as we go along, though I have done so elsewhere. I trust that this process will be insightful even though we might disagree on certain matters.
Nonetheless, it would be safe to say that for many people, Christians most notably, the violence of the Bible, particularly the conquest narratives of Joshua, present a stumbling block to faith. We are not only confronted with problematic texts but texts in which God is the instigator and perpetrator of the violence in question. I saw this most vividly illustrated in my Old Testament class that consists of mostly fellow Christian believers. Several of my classmates were applying critical thinking to biblical violence commanded by God for the very first time, and a number would even apply a great deal of cognitive dissonance by skirting over these problematic texts by appealing to Jesus and some of his more loving teachings ascribed to him in the New Testament. They do not do so in the sense of making a theologically significant point relating to the subject at hand (for example, along the lines of, say, a Christocentric view of scripture, or how we ought to view the morally problematic Old Testament texts in the light of the New Testament) but rather because it’s far easier and less confrontational to focus on the niceties within scripture as presented and emulated by Jesus.
Nonetheless, it was quite apparent that several fellow students were in some visible discomfort as our lecturer inquired of their personal views pertaining to some of the blood soaked texts of Joshua and 1 Samuel within which the God they believe in commanded his people to kill entire populations groups so that they could inherit the Promised Land. The emotional response was understandable, and no doubt similar responses extend beyond the classroom to the many Christians regularly attending churches, small groups, conferences, and meet ups.
I had a chance to reflect too. When the lecturer asked me the same question (along the lines of: “How does these texts we’ve looked at in this lesson sit with you personally?”) I brought forth the issue pertaining to God’s nature and greatest conceivable being theology (see this essay for more on this). I think much more is at stake for us Christians than many of us realize. Why? Because one way of disinvesting an entire religion of its truth is to point out the logical incoherence of the God at its very center. Genocide is a moral evil. And if it can be established that God is somehow evil in his nature then it would necessarily clash with any concept of him being a morally perfect and ultimately good, holy, and just being that we Christians believe that he is. We are then no doubt confronted with a serious problem (a possible defeater) for God cannot be both wholly good and moral, and evil and amoral. If successful such a God would go down as just another manmade fiction, no more true than Zues or Thor or Wotan. So obviously much is at stake. However, in attempt to avoid repeating what I’ve said already, I’d encourage readers engage my short linked essay.
The other issue I tried to flesh out in the short time I could was that I don’t actually believe the conquest narratives are entirely historically accurate, and that this fact has helped shape my views and beliefs. My view is that although there was likely some violent skirmishes between Israel and the hill tribes of Canaan it is very unlikely that the biblical accounts of Joshua are reporting accurate history, especially when making reference to towns and cities that we know either did not exist at the time of the conquests or do not fit biblical descriptions. Much rigorous archaeological and historical inquiry suggests this to be the case, it is by far the overwhelming consensus in biblical studies, and it must be considered when we attempt to make sense of these texts as Christians.
This series will be examining these questions in some more depth. Not only will I try to flesh out how we ought to understand the nature of God presented in these texts but I will also wish to examine avenues of how we can still hold these morally and historically problematic texts as God inspired scripture. After all, I believe that God inspired the biblical texts, and we need to allow them to speak for themselves.