When apologists try to defend some of the major atrocities in the Old Testament, notably the genocide of the Canaanites as commanded by God, they justify them by stating God’s hatred for sin. It is because God hates sin that he is willing to crush, maim, and slaughter his human (and animal) creatures. We will argue here that this is a problematic justification and that we should seek a revisionist conception of the Old Testament God, especially if Christians want to continue holding to biblical inspiration.
Indeed, the Bible teaches that God hates sin, but just what does this hatred of sin make God look like? To many, it makes him look terrible and terrifying. The argument forwarded in this article is that the apologist’s attempt to place all the responsibility of God’s destruction of humans on human beings themselves because of their sin, and justify God’s wrathful and actions is an attempt to conveniently explain away every and all God’s actions that rightly penetrate our moral consciences. The apologist’s effort is a strained one to have the acts of a tribal, warrior God, Yahweh, be palatable and acceptable for Christians to affirm today.
It is unfortunate how apologists depict some victims of God’s vengeance in the Old Testament. The Canaanites, for example, are sweepingly likened to a cancer that must be excised from the surface of the Earth (1). Apologists think this because they take to heart the propagandist claims of the biblical writers. But as others have noted elsewhere, learning about the culture of the Canaanites from the Bible is essentially to learn it from their murderers, the Israelites (2). One would not be unjustified to suggest that the Canaanites might not be fairly and accurately portrayed by their murderers. The rationale for the Canaanite genocide is hardly unique and shares the same features as most other historical genocides, such as the triad of Divide (distinguishing between in- and out-groups), Demonization (accusing the out-group of promoting an injustice, inequality, or threat over against the in-group), and Destroy (finally imploring the in-group to redress alleged injustice, often with a divine or transcendent imprimatur) (3).
Further, let’s emphasize that God did not slaughter humans on one or two occasions. Instead, he did so regularly. Aware of this, the apologist would have one believe God hates sin so much that he was willing to commit multiple atrocities that would cause any moral human being to flinch. To sample just a few: God deluges the Earth drowning all of its creatures except for a few on a boat (Gen. 6-9), burns cities to a crisp by raining down on them sulfur and fire (Gen. 19:24), butchers the infants of Egypt (Ex. 11:1–12:36), drowns all of Israel’s pursuers in an ocean (Ex. 14:26-28), commands the Israelites to slaughter men, women, the elderly, children, and infants in the land of Canaan (Josh. 1), sends a plague to kill 24 000 people (Num. 25:9), and has his followers destroy “the men, and the women, and the little ones” (Deu. 2:33-34).
Morally outrageous events are found elsewhere too. Women survivors of war are to be taken as plunder and God instructs his followers to “kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him” (Num. 31). In warfare, if an enemy refused to surrender to the Israelites, God commanded his followers to have “all males put to the sword; “women, children, livestock, and whatever else is in the city — all its spoil” (Deut. 20:13). God commanded the Israelites to “go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour” (Ex. 32:27-29).
Not even animals were spared from God’s wrath. They were frequently sacrificed to God as a fellowship offering (Ex. 24:5). Moses, arguably not too unlike what an Aztec priest’s blood obsession would look like, took half of the blood of an animal sacrifice and pour it into bowls and splashed the rest on an altar (Ex. 24:6). God afflicted animals with boils (Ex. 9:8–9) and brought a terrible plague on livestock (Ex. 9:1–3). It was also permissible under conditions to break an animal’s neck (Ex. 13:13), as well as for a priest to “wring its head from its neck, not dividing it completely” (Lev. 5:8).
God commanded Moses to “take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun…”, an image not too dissimilar to what the Spanish colonists would have seen when they landed in the Aztec capital, Huitzilopochtli, and witnessed gruesome skull racks on which decapitated heads were planted. The Old Testament God demanded his followers sacrifice their firstborn to him (Ex. 13:2), also not too dissimilar to the Aztec priests who appeased the gods through sacrificing victims by cutting out their hearts.
Further, God hates sin so much that he is willing to crush his people. He ordered executions and sent a plague on his people because some of them committed harlotry with women in Moab (Num. 25, 31). He repeatedly threatened their destruction if they engaged in idolatry and disobedience (Deut. 6, 8, 11). At one point, he sent fiery serpents to bite the Israelites “and much people of Israel died” (Num. 21:6). These are just a taste of many such references.
At what point in the extensiveness of all God’s violence does the apologist admit that God’s hatred of sin is no longer an adequate justification? How many genocides does God have to perform? How many of his own people must he slaughter? How many dead infants would it take? Many apologists would answer never and rather believe that any and all of God’s violent acts are justified. But when one piles these violent acts up, what God do we end up with? We end up with a God who is tribal, consumed with war, and tempestuous. One moment he is on his own peoples’ side and the next crushes them. If this cannot get one to change his mind about the Old Testament God, it is likely proof of a staunch commitment to a particular interpretation of the Bible and an insulated worldview. This would explain the books released by conservative Christians trying to justify God’s violence.
This critique does not suggest one throws the Old Testament God in the dustbin. But this is to urge interpreters of the Bible to pursue and articulate a revisionist view of the problematic Old Testament God (4).
Christian scholars are attempting this. Thom Stark argues in his The Human Faces of God (2011) that we must read these problematic texts as “condemned texts” (4). He upholds the value and inspiration of scripture which demands that Christians take the many problematic texts seriously by grappling with them. Even the problematic texts are inspired and in their inspiration demand that we condemn them. These texts, as the product of both God and man, mirror one’s humanity and that this is where its value lies. The condemned texts demonstrate what and who we can be, capable of both significant good and evil. Peter Enns is an Old Testament scholar well aware of these challenges (5). His work engages the problematic texts of the Old Testament and how they should fit into the Christian’s view of the inspiration of the Bible and is worth accessing for Christians grappling with the Old Testament’s depiction of God.
1. Archer, Gleason. 1982. Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p. 121.
2. Stark, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It). Eugene: Wipf and Stock. Location. Location: 3351
3. Seibert, Eric. 2012. The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy. Washington: Fortress Press. p. 104.
4. Rauser, Randal. 2009. ““Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive”: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide.” Philosophia Christi 11:27–41.
5. Starke, Thom, 2011. Ibid. Location: 3330
6. Enns, Peter. 2005. Inspiration and incarnation. Ada: Baker Academic; Enns, Peter. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. New York: HarperCollins. p. 65.