Category Archives: Violence in the Old Testament

The Deuteronomic History and Violence According to Fretheim

The Deuteronomic History and Violence According to Fretheim

Deuteronomic History is available at Amazon USA / UK
Deuteronomic History is available at Amazon USA / UK

I realize to some of my readers the title for this article may be perplexing. What is the Deuteronomic History, who is Fretheim, and why should I care? Let me begin by answering the next to last question first. Terence E. Fretheim is the Elva B. Lovell Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary and he is the author of many books on the Old Testament. Now that you have a brief introduction to Fretheim’s identity, I’ll let him explain what the Deuteronomic History is. “The deuteronomic (or deuteronomistic) history is a shorthand designation of fairly recent vintage for the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, with Deuteronomy often recognized as the introduction to them” (Fretheim, Deuteronomic History, p. 15). In my last article in the “Violence in the Old Testament Series” entitled “Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?,” I took issue with Fretheim’s interpretation of Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal. While doing some reading on 1&2 Kings for my next (long overdue!) article on Violence in the Old Testament, I pulled an old book off my shelf by Fretheim (the one you see to the right), and began to read a fuller explanation of his understanding of violence in the Old Testament, especially as it relates to the Deuteronomic History. I found some of Fretheim’s explanations very interesting and helpful. So to be fair to Fretheim, as well as to offer some helpful explanations about violence in the Old Testament, I wanted to share his insights with those who may not have read his book on the Deuteronomic History (thus my answer to the last question above).

Fretheim’s Views on Violence in the Deuteronomic History

Terence E. Fretheim
Terence E. Fretheim

At the end of his discussion on the destruction of Jericho in Joshua 6, Fretheim pauses to present his views on violence in the Deuteronomic History (his full discussion can be found on pp. 68-75). He begins by framing the issue, of which I will share one small quote that sums up the problem as he sees it: “A perceived theological sophistication leads us to object to the idea that this God, whom we define largely in terms of love and mercy, could be associated with (or even command!) such violence” (p. 69). Next, Fretheim enumerates 6 explanations sometimes given in defense of the violence found in the Old Testament. Due to space considerations, I will not list them here, but I am in agreement with Fretheim that the explanations are inadequate (see pp. 69-71 for more detail). Finally, Fretheim lists his 7 explanations for the violence recorded in the Deuteronomic History. The rest of this post will dwell on these 7 explanations.

1. His first statement is brief, so I will quote it in full. “God has chosen to be dependent on human beings in the achievement of goals in the world. Even where divine activity so fills the scene as it does in this text [meaning Joshua 6], the human element is not missing” (p. 71).

2. Fretheim’s second point builds on his first. He states, “God works in the world with what is available, i.e., with human beings as they are, with all their foibles and flaws, and within societal structures, however inadequate.” He continues, “God does not perfect these aspects of the world before working in and through them….Thus the results of such work will always be mixed, and less than what would have happened had God chosen to work alone. Hence, as an example, there will be violence associated with God’s work in the world because, to a greater or lesser degree, violence will be characteristic of those through whom the work is done” (p. 71).

These first two explanations are very similar to what I argued in a previous post in this series (The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8).

3. Next Fretheim argues that our perception of serving God is informed by the historical context we are in. Therefore he states, “It is very difficult to evaluate such perceptions because our context is not that of Israel’s” (p. 72). I believe this to be a very important point. Critics often argue against the violence in biblical stories from a 21st century perspective, often forgetting that had they lived in the context of ancient Israel their outlook would have been very different. We cannot expect God to work in 13th century Israel (or pick another century), the way he might choose to work in 21st century America or Western Europe.

4. Fretheim makes several significant points in this assertion. First he notes that, “Israel gave a twofold theological rationale for waging wars against the Canaanites the way they did” (p. 72). God did not want the false religious practices of the Canaanites to influence Israel (Deut. 7:1-5, 16) and second, Israel was to be God’s instruments of judgment because of the Canaanites wickedness (Deut. 9:4-5). Fretheim points out that, “Divine judgment in the OT was thought to be enacted within history, and not in some after-life. This made for a decisiveness of action that was not common in NT literature. Nevertheless, apocalyptic writing and the NT have an even more severe understanding of judgment; consigning the wicked to the eternal fires of hell. Thus, whether in the promised land or in heaven, utopia might be thought possible only by means of radical surgery” (pp. 72-73).

Fretheim’s insight about the Old Testament’s “this-worldly” viewpoint and thus the decisiveness of judgment is significant. But as he also points out, the New Testament is even more severe in describing judgment. This is important for all of those who argue that God, through Jesus, projects a less violent attitude. It seems to me that God’s character, whether we are speaking of mercy or judgment, is consistent in both testaments. Although it is true that the Old Testament emphasizes a physical judgment in this world, and the New focuses more on spiritual judgment (although not exclusively).

The other significant insight by Fretheim in this section is that, “Israel did not understand judgment in a narrow way” (p. 73). By this he means that the punishments visited on the Canaanites were also pronounced against Israel as well, and eventually carried out. He also notes that the Old Testament not only speaks of God giving Israel the land of Canaan and thus destroying, or driving out, the Canaanites, it also speaks of God doing the same thing for other nations (e.g., Deut. 2:5, 9, 12, 23). This is very significant, as it shows that God does not play favorites. God worked in other nations in similar ways to Israel, and if the Canaanites could be driven from the land because of their wickedness, so also could Israel.

5. Fretheim’s next point is that, “One simply has to recognize that with Israel’s world being the way it was, war (along with other trappings of government) was necessary for Israel’s survival” (p. 73). He does, however, argue that Israel may have been mistaken in respect to the severity of the wars against the Canaanites. Admittedly  the conquest of Canaan was an offensive war, at least in the initial stages, whereas most of Israel’s wars were defensive. However, I am not convinced that Israel was “mistaken” regarding the severity of the wars with the Canaanites given that Israel was following God’s commands. In this aspect then, I am in disagreement with Fretheim.

6.  The last two points that Fretheim makes I find particularly poignant. I quote him at length here. He writes, “That God would stoop to become involved in such realities as war is finally not a matter for despair, but of hope. For God to be absent from such aspects of the life of the world would be to give the world up to its own violence. But, God being involved in the evil of the world means that evil is not the last word. What a greater tragedy war would be if God were not involved, struggling in that human violence to bring about good ends….Moreover, because of the presence of evil in this world, for God to work toward redemptive goals inevitably involves conflict and violence; the forces of evil will not surrender voluntarily” (p. 74). Again, I argue a similar point (but with less elegance) in my post “The Pooh Principle.”

7. Fretheim’s final point relates to point number 6. He notes that by involving himself in the violence of war, “God takes the road of suffering and death. Through such involvement, God not only uses flawed human efforts, but also absorbs the effects of their sinfulness and thus suffers violence” (p. 74). To my way of thinking, this is similar to that much greater act of Jesus on the cross when God willingly absorbed the violence and hatred of this world in order to redeem it.

How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?

How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?

In this picture by James Tissot, Goliath is pictured as falling backward when he is hit by David's stone.
In this picture by James Tissot, Goliath is pictured as falling backward when he is hit by David’s stone.

One of the most popular biblical subjects for artists is the story of David and Goliath. In fact, many paintings (or drawings) focus in on the moment of how David killed Goliath. These renderings of this popular event either zoom in on the moment that David slings the stone in Goliath’s direction, or the moment when David stands over Goliath to remove his head. While we have to allow art to be art and recognize that not every artist is going for a literal representation of the actual story, I am often struck by how many artistic renderings get the basic facts wrong. Based on your recollection of the David and Goliath story, can you tell what is wrong with the paintings on the right?

What's wrong with this picture?
What’s wrong with this picture?

I would argue that these paintings get at least 3 things wrong. First, they either portray Goliath carrying his own shield and omit his armor-bearer (picture 1) who is said to be carrying his shield (1 Sam. 17:41) or they show no shield and armor-bearer at all (picture 2). Second, they show Goliath falling backwards, when the biblical narrator tells us that Goliath fell face down (1 Sam. 17:49). It’s actually surprising how many pictures show Goliath falling backwards when the story clearly says he fell face down! (Check it out on google.) I’ll talk more about this in a moment. Third, and here is where I expect to lose you…the pictures show Goliath being hit in the forehead instead of where David’s stone probably hit him. At this point you’re probably doing one of three things: You are either rereading my last statement to make sure you read it correctly; scrambling for your Bible to look up the verse that says Goliath was struck in the forehead (I’ll save you the trouble, it’s 1 Sam. 17:49–in fact, it says it twice!); or simply thinking that I’m crazy because you KNOW that the Bible says he was struck in the FOREHEAD. My real interest here is not simply to be controversial or to pose as an art critic, for which I am ill qualified, but to use these artistic renderings as a way of raising the important question of how David killed Goliath. Everyone who’s heard this story thinks they know. It’s quite simple right? David’s stone hit Goliath in the forehead which knocked him unconscious. David proceeded to hurry over and finish the task by cutting off Goliath’s head with his own sword (we know the stone didn’t kill him because 1 Sam. 17:51 says David killed Goliath by cutting off his head).

Although this most popular of Bible stories is always told this way, and even reads this way in our English translations, I want to introduce you to a position advocated by several biblical scholars that diverts from the norm. My interest in doing this is not simply to put forward some wild theory by a few “eccentric” scholars, but because I think this version of how David killed Goliath more accurately reflects the original text, and has a very significant theological point to make. So, if I haven’t lost you yet, please read the following arguments and then judge for yourself how you think David killed Goliath.

A Description of Goliath and His Armor ( 1 Sam. 17:4-7)

Me and friends at the Ashdod museum mixing it up with some Philistines. The figurines give an idea of Philistine armor, however, Goliath's armor was more extensive.
Me and friends at the Ashdod museum mixing it up with some Philistines. The figurines give an idea of Philistine armor, however, Goliath’s armor was more extensive.

The story of David and Goliath begins in a somewhat unusual way. The biblical narrator spends a great deal of time describing Goliath’s appearance. This is rare in biblical narrative. Just think about it. How many indepth descriptions do we have of Abraham, David, Hannah, Mary, Jesus, or Paul (to name only a few)? In spite of the fact that Goliath only appears in one chapter in 1&2 Samuel, 4 verses are dedicated to describing his appearance. One reason for this is to impress the reader with how intimidating Goliath looked. This description helps us to understand why Saul and the rest of the Israelite army responded in fear (1 Sam. 17:11). Besides Goliath’s height (9’9″ according to the Hebrew text; 6’9″ according to the Septuagint), the writer describes 3 pieces of his armor. Goliath wore a helmet of bronze, a coat of mail weighing 126 pounds (57.15 kg.), and bronze greaves on his legs. Two of the weapons he carried are also mentioned. These weapons included a bronze javelin (some would say that “scimitar” is a better translation), and a large spear with a shaft the size of a “weaver’s beam,” that included an iron tipped head weighing 15.1 pounds (6.85 kg.)!

Although Goliath’s height is impressive, as is the weight of his armor and spear tip, most people read over these verses and don’t think much more about them. However, the list of Goliath’s armor and weaponry plays a very significant part in the story that follows. In fact, 4 of the 5 items in 1 Samuel 17:5-7 are mentioned later and shown to be ineffective. For example, once Saul agreed to allow David to fight Goliath, we are told that he clothed him in his armor and gave him a bronze helmet (1 Sam. 17:38). These are the same items found in the description of Goliath’s armor (same Hebrew words). David rejected the armor and helmet because “he was not used to them” (NIV–1 Sam. 17:39). David’s rejection of Saul’s armor is significant for a number of reasons. First, it suggests that Saul, like Goliath, trusts in his weaponry and armor rather than in the Lord. Second, the brief glimpse of David in the king’s armor prefigures his royal destiny. Third, David’s rejection of Saul’s armor is evidence that his trust lies elsewhere. As far as the spear and javelin (scimitar) go, David also dismisses these items of Goliath’s arsenal as inconsequential (1 Sam. 17:45-47).

Goliath’s Greaves

A replica of greaves worn by Greek warriors.
A replica of greaves worn by Greek warriors.

In a very insightful study entitled: “A Farewell to Arms: Goliath’s Death as Rhetoric Against Faith in Arms (Bulletin for Biblical Research 23.1 (2013) 43-55), Gregory T. K. Wong points out that since 4 of the 5 items mentioned as part of Goliath’s arms are mentioned later in the story, one would expect that the fifth item might also be mentioned. The fifth item are the greaves (leg protectors). Can we find a passage in 1 Samuel 17 that also demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the greaves? Many years ago the daugther of an American Rabbi named Ariella Deem wrote an article entitled: “… And the Stone Sank into His Forehead”: A Note on 1 SAMUEL XVII 49 (Vetus testamentum, 28 no 3 Jl 1978, p 349-351). In this article Deem argues that the Hebrew word for “greaves” in 1 Samuel 17:6 is the same as the word for “forehead” in 1 Samuel 17:49. I can confirm that, except for a feminine ending in 1 Samuel 17:6, the words do look identical. This interpretation, then, suggests that David’s stone did not hit Goliath in the forehead, but in the greave, or knee area!

A carving from Medinet Habu in Egypt, showing a Philistine warrior in a helmut. Notice the helmet goes to the bridge of the nose.
It is doubtful that David killed Goliath by hitting him in the forehead. A carving from Medinet Habu in Egypt, shows a Philistine warrior in a helmet. Notice the helmet goes to the bridge of the nose.

While some would argue that the word (greave) in verse 6 comes from a different Hebrew root that doesn’t occur anywhere else in the Old Testament, there are a number of reasons why Deem’s argument is persuasive. First, as she points out, the story specifically states that Goliath wore a bronze helmet. We have pictures from antiquity of what Philistine helmets looked like and they cover the forehead (see the photo to the right). Some would argue that since the story says Goliath wore a bronze helmet that this would have been different from the typical Philistine headgear. Since the Philistines were a Greek people, it’s possible that Goliath’s helmet had a construction similar to that worn by ancient Greek peoples. If you google “greek helmets” as I have, you will be even more impressed with the protection offered to the wearer of one of these! Most of them, not only cover the forehead, but the nose as well. While a stone to this area might still knock a warrior unconscious, I don’t see anyway that the stone could become embedded in the forehead as v. 49 states. Second, recalling our pictures above, why is Goliath frequently shown falling backwards in artistic renditions of this story? It’s quite simple: if you got hit in the forehead with a stone travelling with great velocity, which direction would you fall? There are various estimates at the speed a stone will travel when released from a sling. Googling articles on using a sling suggested anywhere from 60 mph (97 km/h) to 100 mph (160 km.h) for the speed of a stone (click here for one example). If we take the low estimate one would still expect that being hit in the forehead by a stone at 60 mph would send a person reeling backwards. It’s difficult to believe they would fall “face down” as the biblical text states (v. 49). This observation has caused scholar J. P. Fokkelman to write, “We have all been brought up on the idea that Goliath was hit in the forehead. This, however, is unlikely. In the first place it is strange that he does not collapse, or fall backwards as a result of the impact of the projectile” (Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative, p. 32). Fokkelman continues by citing his agreement with Deem’s article.

A stpne slung from a sling travels at a velocity that can kill or incapacitate a victim.
A stone slung from a sling travels at a velocity that can kill or incapacitate a victim. David killed Goliath with the help of one of these.

But how can a “greave” be a “forehead”? Deem argues that the ancient Israelites had no word for “greave.” She reasons that since the curved shape of a greave had a similar shape to the helmet, that the Israelites simply adopted the word used for forehead. Fokkelman argues that “This Hebrew word means ‘front’ and thus is less specific than ‘forehead'” (p. 32). The point is that the biblical author carefully chose each word to describe Goliath’s armor and weapons, in order to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of each later in the story. What was perceived to be Goliath’s greatest strengths turned out to be his greatest weaknesses. The very armor that should have protected him, made him vulnerable! This contributes to the theological theme of the story so eloquently expressed by David when he states, “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands” (NKJV–1 Sam. 17:47).

The Valley of Elah. Photo taken from http://nw-connection.com/blog1/2014/09/06/the-eternal-war-between-israel-and-the-palestinians-part-i-in-series/
The Valley of Elah where David killed Goliath. Photo taken from http://nw-connection.com/blog1/2014/09/06/the-eternal-war-between-israel-and-the-palestinians-part-i-in-series

How David Killed Goliath

So how exactly did David kill Goliath? As Goliath approached wearing his heavy armor, David recognized a vulnerable place in the big man’s attire. Greaves must leave a space for the knee to bend in order for the wearer to walk. David carefully aimed his stone at the knee of Goliath. Here is the rest of what happened in Deem’s own words: “Thus the stone would hit the upper shin or knee and fall into the space which must be left to allow the knee to bend and enable the warrior to walk. It is exactly at this vulnerable space that David deliberately aims, thereby causing the stone to ‘sink’ into the greave, that is between the greave and the knee, so that the Philistine—who at the moment is awkwardly making his way towards David—will stumble forward and fall, ‘on his face'” (p. 350). While some scholars do not think that hitting Goliath in the knee would incapacitate him, I must disagree for two reasons. First, consider the weight of Goliath’s armor. Once on the ground, it would be very difficult to get back up with 126 pounds of armor weighing you down. Second, and most important, imagine a stone flying at your knee at 60 mph and embedding itself in your knee. I don’t think anyone is going anywhere if that happens! Goliath would be totally helpless, as the biblical narrative depicts him to be. This allows David the time to come over, pick up Goliath’s sword and cut his head off.

There is one more piece of evidence that further backs this interpretation. Deem’s and Wong have both written about an incident recorded in the ancient Jewish writing “The Testament of Judah.” The Testament of Judah is part of a book called “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” and is among what is known as the Pseudepigraphal writings (see link for definition). In this (fictional) story, Judah the son of Jacob kills a heavily armored Canaanite king by striking him in the greave (chopping off his feet is another translation). The point, as Wong shows (“Goliath’s Death and the Testament of Judah,” Biblica, 91 no 3 2010, p 425-432), is that this story has many similarities and clearly alludes to David’s killing of Goliath. Therefore, this suggests that there was an ancient Jewish tradition that David had struck Goliath in the greave. If this is so, it is further evidence that David killed Goliath by striking him in the knee with a stone and finished the job by cutting off his head. (click here for Goliath’s Death Part 2)

Note: Unfortunately, I was unable to find a copy of Deem’s or Wong’s articles available on the internet. Anyone who has access to professional journals through a library can look these articles up.

Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?

Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?

Elijah calls down fire from heaven
Elijah calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38). Image from http://michael2011.blogspot.com/

I am currently teaching through the Books of Kings and we have been looking at the ministry of Elijah. This portion of Scripture (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2) contains a number of stories that disturb believers and unbelievers alike. One of the major themes of these chapters is idolatry. A number of the stories focus on Elijah’s battle to re-establish the worship of Yahweh, Israel’s God, over the worship of Baal. A number of violent incidents are recorded in these chapters. After Elijah calls down fire from heaven, demonstrating that “the Lord, He is God,” he commands the people to seize the prophets of Baal and execute them (1 Kgs. 18:40). Another story within these chapters relates how an unnamed prophet rebukes Ahab for showing mercy to Ben-Hadad King of Syria, insisting that he should have killed him (1 Kgs. 20:38-43). Returning to Elijah, we read of him once again calling down fire from heaven, this time to incinerate two companies of 50 soldiers each (2 Kgs. 1:9-15). Perhaps the “icing on the cake” in terms of violence, concerns Elisha’s (the successor to Elijah) curse of the young boys who are mauled by two she-bears (2 Kgs. 2:23-24). Not only do these stories raise the ire of many atheists, but one can also find certain Bible commentators who seem embarrassed by these stories, even offering apologies! What then are we to make of these stories? Are they examples of a brutal, unjust God? Do they give us just one more reason to reject the Bible as advocating “religious fanaticism?” I will look at the objections raised by some as I examine each of these stories (including future posts), while offering responses for you the reader to consider.

The Execution of the Prophets of Baal

Although this picture is supposed to represent Elijah's execution of the prophets of Baal, there is at least one inaccuracy. The story says nothing about burning any cities. The blogger also comments on the laurel wreaths worn by the slain as a symbol of peace--another inaccuracy.
While this picture is supposed to represent Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal, Derek Murphy makes two mistakes in his interpretation of it. First, it is not a fort being burned in the background as Murphy alleges, it is Elijah’s altar. Second, Murphy comments on the laurel wreaths worn by the slain as a symbol of peace. The prophets of Baal are not depicted with laurel wreaths, nor are they positively represented as “peaceful” in the story in 1 Kings 18.

As noted above, following the contest on Mount Carmel, when Yahweh rains down fire from heaven, Elijah orders the execution of the 450 prophets of Baal. One blogger commenting, not only on the story, but on an artistic rendering of it reproduced here (on the left), writes, “Elijah, being the most holy and most loyal, simply did what any conservative religious person of faith would do when threatened with extinction in the face of other, more popular religious  movements: kill all trespassers. Israel was being punished by God because Israelites were worshipping Baal. Solution? Kill the priests of Baal. Burn their temples, destroy (or steal and put in Christian churches) their artifacts. This pattern is repeated throughout the history of the Jews and the Christians, who often did the same thing to Pagan counterparts” (Derek Murphy, read the whole article at http://www.holyblasphemy.net/elijah-kills-the-prophets-of-baal). There are several problems with Murphy’s objections. First, some of his comments are directed toward the artistic rendering of the account and do not accurately reflect what is written in the story (see my comments under the picture). It is one thing to take issue with the story, but basing an argument on artistic inaccuracies, or on a misinterpretaion of the picture itself, is no way to establish the validity of a position. Second, Murphy’s main point in the article seems to be that the motivation for slaughtering the prophets of Baal merely had to do with Baalism becoming more popular than worship of Yahweh. So when Christians and Jews feel that their religion is threatened, they respond by killing their opponents. However one interprets other events in history, such an argument distorts the context of this story. The issue is not “your religion’s becoming more popular than mine so I’ll kill you,” the issue is idolatry. I realize that to an atheist, idolatry is a poor excuse to execute people. I will deal with the rationale behind this later in this article.

A bronze statue of Baal discovered at Ugarit from the 14th-12th centuries B.C.
A bronze statue of Baal discovered at Ugarit from the 14th-12th centuries B.C. Baal was worshipped as the storm god who could rain down fire from heaven by hurling lightening bolts.

 

Several other responses are important to the objections raised by Murphy. First, the context of the story clearly shows that the initial aggressor (in terms of slaughtering prophets) is not Elijah, but Jezebel. 1 Kings 18:4 begins, “For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the Lord, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water” (NKJV). This “cutting off” (literal rendering) of the Lord’s prophets forced those who were left to be hidden. When Elijah appears on Mount Carmel, he is outnumbered 450-1. If the prophets of Asherah had shown up (1 Kgs. 18:19–which apparently they didn’t), Elijah would have been outnumbered 850-1. At this point in the story, the people are not on Elijah’s side (1 Kgs. 18:21); he is clearly alone. Elijah is not operating from a point of numerical strength! These observations are important because the Israelites, or their godly leaders, are often pictured by atheists as the bullies on the block who outnumber and outgun their opponents, when actually, the opposite is true (not only here, but in other stories as well). To be clear, I am not arguing, “I better kill you before you kill me” to justify the execution of the prophets of Baal, I am only establishing the proper context. Again, the motivation behind the execution is more than self-preservation (although I would be surprised if even atheists would not seek to defend themselves against an aggressor!).

fretheimWe should not be surprised when atheists attack stories like this when even some Bible commentators seem apologetic about Elijah’s actions. For example, Terence E. Fretheim seems to want to excuse God by blaming Elijah and his times for the execution of Baal’s prophets. He writes, “Yet human violence is in evidence here as well (v. 40). This should not be explained away, but neither should it be considered necessarily just, even if it is understood to obey the law (Deut. 13:1-5). Once again…God does not act alone; but God works in and through that which is available, with human beings as they are, with all of their flaws and foibles” (First and Second Kings, Westminister Bible Companion, pp. 106-107). Although I appreciate many of the insights from Fretheim’s books, I believe he has missed the mark here. He himself admits that the Law prescribes the death penalty for false prophets (see Deut. 13:1-11).

The Wisdom and the Folly is available at amazon.
The Wisdom and the Folly is available at amazon.

Dale Ralph Davis’s remarks are more on target. Here are a few comments that he makes on this passage. “This Kishon slaughter [the river where the execution took place] was not an act of personal revenge but of capital punishment in line with the Torah [the Books of Moses]….Remember Israel was a theocracy; what we call church and state functioned as one. And here Elijah simply carries out Israel’s constitution, the provisions of Yahweh’s covenant law, relating to solicitation to apostasy” (1 Kings, “The Wisdom and the Folly,” p. 241). Davis continues, “The problem is not with Elijah or the Old Testament but with us. We react the way we do because, in our subliminal view, apostasy is not that big a deal. We simply don’t understand Yahweh’s violence against rebellion in his people. He uses surgery not breath mints on cancer. The problem is not God’s lack of refinement but our lack of sanctification….The nasty episode at the Kishon testifies that we have little horror of sin and calls evangelical Christians in particular to repentance” (p. 242).

Idolatry is a serious matter
Idolatry is a serious matter

I am in agreement with Davis on many points, but particularly his statement that we (meaning many in our contemporary western society) don’t see apostasy as a big deal. Certainly this is Richard Dawkin’s point of view when he writes about God breaking into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god” which resembles “nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind” (“The God Delusion,” p. 243). Dawkin’s reaction demonstrates the naivete or the ignorance of the atheist who sees no harm in idolatry. In a previous post in this series entitled “The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5,” I examined in some detail the biblical concept that God is the Giver and Source of life. Since God is the source of life, any choice that excludes God is a choice for death (see the article for a more indepth treatment). This is why God is adamantly opposed to idolatry and the worship of false gods. Idolatry leads to death. Therefore, God seeks to protect people from idolatry by destroying those who, not only persist in idolatry themselves, but who also lead others into idolatry, such as the prophets that Elijah executed. Davis’s assertion that sin is no big deal to many today, is at the heart of the problem. Sin is tolerated, excused, denied, ignored, or glorified by many in our society, therefore, few are willing to hear the message that sin is dangerous and deadly. The title of an article by Clay Jones states the problem clearly: “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites” (Philosophia Christi, vol. 11, no. 1, 2009, pp. 53-72. Click on the link provided to read the entire article). Jones pinpoints the problem on the first page of this article when he writes, “Could it be that because our culture today commits these same Canaanite sins we are inoculated against the seriousness of these sins and so think God’s judgment unfair?” (p. 53).

Looking at the immediate context of the Elijah story, as well as the overall biblical context, brings clarity to the story of Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal. It also challenges our passivity or acceptance of idolatry in our own lives. This story is not the only one that speaks of fire from heaven. In our next post, I will look at 2 stories: the unnamed prophet who condemns Ahab for sparing his enemy (1 Kgs. 20:38-43), and Elijah’s destruction of two companies of soldiers by calling down fire from heaven (2 Kings 1).

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

This past summer I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Robert B. Chisholm Jr., department chair and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. The interview was primarily about his new commentary on 1&2 Samuel (you can see the entire interview here). However, I did take the opportunity to ask him about his views on Violence in the Old Testament. As part of my on-going series, I thought I would repost his comments on this topic. Bob’s comments particularly focus on the idea of justice and the biblical concept “you reap what you sow” (see my treatment of this idea here). I have reproduced Bob’s comments as they originally appeared in the interview. The only change I have made is to include Scripture references that were not part of the original interview so that the interested reader does not need to look them up. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read these comments, or if you’ve never read the entire interview, I hope you enjoy the following recap.

Here is my question followed by Bob’s answer.

I am currently writing a series of articles on my website entitled “Violence in the Old Testament.” This seems to be an important topic given the publications of books by the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Christians are often embarrassed about the violence in the Old Testament and many shy away from reading and studying it. I know this is a big topic but do you have any comments you’d like to share on this subject, especially as it relates to the books of 1&2 Samuel?

This is also a topic of great interest for me and I hope to do more writing on it in the days ahead. At the 2011 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I delivered a paper entitled: Fighting Yahweh’s Wars: Some Disturbing Acts of Violence in Judges-Samuel. It should be published soon; I’m still working on the logistics of where. I study six different episodes where God endorses violence. I am not as apologetic as some and prefer to give God the benefit of the doubt. It’s a messy fallen world filled with a lot of evil people and sometimes God rolls up his sleeves, so to speak, and enters into the fray as the just Warrior-King. Here’s the conclusion to my paper: A close reading of these six accounts reveals that in each case the act of violence involved the implementation of divine justice against the object. In two instances (Adoni-Bezek–Judg. 1:5-7, and Agag–1 Sam. 15:32-33) an individual was treated in a way that mirrored his crimes against others. In four cases a people group (the Amalekites–1 Sam. 15) or representatives of a people group (the Moabite king Eglon–Judg. 3:14-25, the Canaanite general Sisera–Judg. 4-5, the thirty Philistines murdered by Samson–Judg. 14:15-19) were, at least from Yahweh’s perspective, the objects of violent acts of justice in response to crimes committed or intended (in the case of Sisera) against Israel. In Goliath’s case (1 Sam. 17), David refused to view the Philistine’s taunt as simply a verbal assault against Israel’s army. Yahweh identifies with his people and so he was the ultimate target of the Philistine’s slander. Consequently, David’s victory over Goliath was an act of justice that vindicated Yahweh’s honor by punishing a blasphemer.

Though these violent acts are disturbing at an emotional level, they are, as acts of justice, gratifying at a deeper, more elemental level. Ultimately, it is not worth living in a world in which there is no justice. Such a place would be nothing more than a jungle in which superior strength breeds arrogance and evil, and the strong take what they want, dishing out pain and suffering with reckless abandon. But justice, to truly be justice, must be implemented fully and appropriately. To use a contemporary example, when the Harry Potter saga finally reaches its climax, Nagini, Bellatrix Lestrange, and, of course, Voldemort cannot just die; they must be killed the “right way” for justice to be satisfied and for some sense of moral equilibrium to be realized. Bellatrix cannot be pitied as long as the image of a dying Dobby persists in the mind’s eye.

So it is in the biblical story: Those who cut off the thumbs of others or make mothers childless eventually discover that what goes around comes around. Those who attack, oppress, and abuse Yahweh’s people eventually pay the price in “the right way.” Those who dare defy the living God and challenge him to step into the arena may end up a decapitated torso. And though the scene may make one want to vomit, in the end the image prompts a sigh of relief and more. As the psalmist declares: “The godly will rejoice when they see vengeance carried out; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then observers will say, ‘Yes indeed, the godly are rewarded! Yes indeed, there is a God who judges the earth!’” (Ps. 58:10-11) In conclusion I leave you with this scene: “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev. 19:11). Even so, come Lord Jesus!

For a list of some of Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s works click on the links here for Amazon USA / UK

The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8

The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8

Winnie-The-Pooh-psd58477I should make one thing clear from the start. When I use the word “pooh” I am not speaking of the cuddly bear that we all know and love from the childhood stories created by A. A. Milne, and later popularized in animated form by Walt Disney. No, rather than using the harsh sounding “poop” common in the American vernacular, I am using that gentler form of the word as expressed by my English friends. Poop is what Americans find in their children’s dirty diapers, pooh, on the other hand, is what the English find in their children’s dirty nappies. Although it may be an unpleasant subject to dwell on, pooh provides a good introduction and analogy for this installment of Violence in the Old Testament.

photo from http://www.disneybaby.com/blog/laugh-of-the-day-self-professed-worlds-best-father/
photo from http://www.disneybaby.com/blog/laugh-of-the-day-self-professed-worlds-best-father/

As a father, I could theoretically choose to never change a dirty nappy (diaper). I could let my young child go through its early life laying in the mess that it created. Of course, this would certainly raise objections by others, but first and foremost, it would suggest that I am not a very loving or caring father. On the other hand, as a loving father I would certainly choose to change my child’s nappy no matter how often he filled it with pooh. Neither the frequency nor the quantity would prevent me from performing the loving duty of a father. Furthermore, even though I didn’t make the pooh, and am in no way responsible for its production, yet I would still choose to remove it. Part of the hazards of the removal process may mean that I end up smelling like pooh, and even get some on me. This might cause people to misjudge me. Perhaps they will think I stink, or perhaps they will spot some pooh on me and assert that I am a filthy, unwashed, walking lump of bacteria. Nevertheless, as a loving father, I will persist in removing the pooh.

Although this analogy may have its limitations, and I hope that I will not be considered irreverent in using it, it is a somewhat light-hearted way of introducing a very serious topic. If we draw parallels to the story above, then God is the loving father and the pooh is sin. Just as a father chooses to change a dirty diaper, so God has chosen, in His love, to deal with our sin. God didn’t make the sin, nor is He responsible for its presence in our world, but He has chosen to deal with it and remove it. As a result, God takes the chance of smelling like sin, and even getting sin on Himself. Consequently, people may misjudge God and attribute things to Him that are not actually true. Allow me to explain how this analogy reveals an important biblical truth about God and sin.

War and Salvation History

salvation-historyLet me begin by noting that the story of the Bible presents a certain view of history. The story is all about God acting in history to bring salvation to a world lost in sin. German theologians have coined a certain phrase to express this idea: Heilsgeschichte, which simply means “salvation history.” Although God can and does work in miraculous ways through nature, according to the Bible, He has also chosen to work in and through human beings who are sinful and imperfect in order to save them. Therefore, if God is going to do anything in this world, He is going to do it in the context of a sinful environment.

One of humankind’s worse sins is War. War is a great evil and war, bloodshed, and enmity between people are all a result of sin. “War appears to be an ever present reality of historical existence, both ancient and modern” (Peter Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, p. 43). Therefore, if God is going to work in human history, then He must stand in some kind of relationship to war.

World-War-Two-Soldiers-TrainingAs an example, let’s look at World War II. For many years while Hitler took control of Europe, consigned Jews to concentration camps, and bombed Britain, America stayed neutral and did not enter the war. Many Europeans thought that it was immoral for America to allow Hitler to commit the atrocities he did without taking a stand against him. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American finally joined the war effort against Nazi Germany and Japan and together the allied forces defeated tyranny.

Someone standing aloof from history could make the judgment that it was immoral of America to idly stand by, as some Europeans did. On the other hand, another person might argue that war is always wrong and it was, therefore, immoral for America to enter the war. Atheists use similar arguments against God. God can be accused of letting people and nations get away with the worst crimes. What a terrible God who allows evil to run rampant in our world. However, as soon as God is pictured in the Scripture as a Warrior, He is accused by these same atheists of being a moral monster! The point is simple: God can no more idly stand by than America could during World War II. War is a fact of our existence; a terrible fact, yes, but anyone who gets involved in our world will not be untainted by it. Craigie therefore concludes: “We perceive, though not always clearly, that war is a form of evil human activity in which God participates actively for the purposes of both redemption and judgment; in this participation, God is the Warrior” (The Problem of War in the OT, p. 43).

The fact is, God’s participation in war makes God look bad. It can even make God look morally bankrupt, but God is willing to take that chance in order to save sinful human beings. Greg Boyd puts it this way: “God in his love, appears as ugly as our ugly hearts require him to be, and as beautiful as our redeemed hearts allow him to be” (Greg Boyd “How Do You Reconcile the wrath of God in the Old Testament with a Loving God?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5CkCGR9YI4). This same idea is asserted in Scripture. In 2 Samuel 22:26-27 (which parallels Ps. 18:25-26) David states, “With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful; with the blameless man You will show Yourself blameless; with the pure You will show Yourself pure; and with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd” (NKJV). A lot depends on one’s point of view!

What God and Nanny McPhee Have in Common

nanny-mcphee-returnsBoyd illustrates the above idea by referencing the movie “Nanny McPhee.” In the movie, a young father (Colin Firth), following the death of his wife, is at his wits end in dealing with his seven rebellious children. Nanny McPhee arrives in order to instill obedience and respect for authority. When the children first meet her she is the ugliest old hag imaginable. However, as the children learn respect and obedience, Nanny McPhee’s ugly features begin to disappear, until, by the end of the movie, she morphs into the lovely Emma Thompson! The point is that Nanny McPhee was never ugly, she was only perceived that way by the rebellious children. When the children have their, shall we call it “sin,” dealt with, they see Nanny McPhee for the beautiful, loving person she really is.

War, and other sin, can make God look pretty ugly because of His choice to participate in our world. This idea has Scriptural precedent. Isaiah says the following about the suffering servant: “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men…Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him…and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:2-6). The apostle Paul writes: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Indeed, these Scriptures affirm, that like the loving father who is willing to smell like pooh and even get some on him, our Savior was willing to take on our sin. It made Him look unattractive, it even caused people to misjudge Him, according to Isaiah, but He did it for love’s sake. It was our mess, but He took responsibility for cleaning it up.

Once we realize the tremendous love expressed through Christ’s death on the cross, just like Nanny McPhee, He no longer appears unattractive and revolting, but He becomes the most beautiful Being in all of Creation. It depends on our point of view. The atheists see an ugly God because their vision is clouded by their own rebellion, but if they were to submit to His cleansing power, their vision would be transformed and they would see the Lord in all of His beauty (Ps. 27:4).

The Moral Failure of Biblical Characters: Violence in the OT Part 7

The Moral Failure of Biblical Characters: Violence in the Old Testament Part 7

lotAnother area of the Old Testament that frequently comes under attack by the new atheists is the moral failure of biblical characters. For example, Dawkins calls attention to Lot’s drunken incest with his daughters (Gen. 19:32-36), Abraham’s lies about his wife Sarah (Gen. 12:11-15; 20:2), and Jephthah’s vow which results in offering his daughter as a burnt offering (Judg. 11:30-31, 35-40). To be honest, these stories, and others like them, disturb Christians as well as atheists. These actions by supposed “biblical heroes” are among the reasons that Christians are uncomfortable with the Old Testament. Why does the Old Testament include stories like these, and what response can Christians offer when confronted about them?

Moral Failure and False Assumptions

First, let’s begin by observing the false assumptions made by those who charge God and the Old Testament with promoting moral failure. This accusation of the new atheists gives the erroneous impression that because the Bible declares the moral failure of an individual, it must be countenancing that person’s behavior. This wrong assumption, and not the Old Testament stories themselves, is the real problem. I wonder if a similar accusation would be made about an author, whether writing a biography or novel, who included negative stories of moral failure and violence? Does that mean the author is condoning the bad behavior? We intuitively recognize that stories about violent or immoral behavior are not normally an author’s way of saying, “Here’s an example to pattern your life after!” The author does not tell the story so that we will imitate the behavior, but for some other purpose integral to the plot. The same is true with these kinds of stories in the Old Testament. They are not told so that we might imitate them, but so we might learn about the nature of sin and, hopefully, turn to God and not make the same mistakes. One Bible scholar refers to such stories as “negative example stories.”

Available from Amazon USA / UK
Available from Amazon USA / UK

He writes, “Negative example stories present a character in a negative light as an example to avoid” (Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Interpreting the Historical Books, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006, p. 34). Some (nonbiblical) books go to great lengths to portray the hero in a positive light and the villain in a bad light. This, of course, is a distortion of reality. One difference between the Bible and other literature is that it is honest in its portrayal of people. Whether hero or villain, good traits and bad are laid bare for all to see. In fact, the consistent testimony of Scripture is that everyone, even people of faith, have faults. The greatest saints can be guilty of the most despicable sins. The reason these stories are told reflects the overall plot of Scripture which is to declare, “Everyone is in need of a Savior.”

Moral Failure and the Importance of Context

This observation points to the next response, a response we have talked about before: context! Once again, the new atheists are guilty of lifting a story from its context and holding it up as an example of God’s and the Old Testament’s depravity. Let’s take a closer look at some of these stories in context and see if there is any credibility to the new atheists’ claims. For a test case we will examine the Book of Judges, which is (in)famous for its stories of brutality. In fact, it is the Book of Judges that records Jephthah’s sacrificing of his daughter (noted above), not to mention the gang rape of a Levite’s concubine by the men of Gibeah, probably one of the most horrifying stories in all of the Old Testament. If any stories could sustain the new atheists’ claims, it would certainly be these.

Rape of the Levite's concubine
Rape of the Levite’s concubine Judges 19:22-30

The Book of Judges is historically located following the events of the Conquest in the Book of Joshua (we have previously looked at the Conquest, see articles three and four of this series). The Book of Joshua ends with a commitment by the Israelites to follow their God Yahweh (Josh. 24:24). Although the people are far from perfect, they follow the Lord all the days of Joshua and the elders that outlive Joshua (Josh. 24:31; Judg. 2:7). Based on what we learned in lessons five and six of this series, we know that a choice for the Lord is a choice for life (e.g., Deut. 30:19-20). Therefore we are not surprised that, at this point in their history, Israel is blessed. Things change, however, at the beginning of the period of the Judges. We learn that Israel forsakes the Lord and begins to worship the gods of the Canaanites. Judges 2:11-19 is recognized as a summary statement of the book. These verses state that Israel falls into a pattern which consists of: 1) falling away from the Lord; 2) experiencing punishment (see article six in this series); 3) crying out to the Lord; 4) the Lord raising up a deliverer; and 5) the people falling back into sin after the death of the deliverer (judge) which starts the cycle all over again.

The pattern of spiritual and moral failure in Judges
The pattern of spiritual and moral failure in Judges

It is not enough, however, to say that Israel falls into a deadly cycle. This cycle is actually a downward spiraldownward_spiral that becomes worse with every generation of apostasy. Through this downward spiral, the Book of Judges comments on the powerful negative effects of sin if left unchecked generation after generation. This pattern is evidenced through the lives of the judges. As we follow this downward spiral through the book, the judges themselves begin to show symptoms of the same degenerative qualities that have infected the people of Israel. A number of Bible commentators note that this degeneration becomes particularly evident with Gideon. After a rough start, Gideon does well, but by the end of his judgeship, he has led the people back into idolatry (Judg. 8:26-27). The story of Gideon’s son Abimelech (Judg. 9) is an interlude in the story of the Judges showing how association with the Canaanites and their gods is adversely affecting Israel (just as God had warned–Deut. 7:1-4). By the time Jephthah and Samson arrive on the scene, they are as depraved as the people they are supposed to rescue. Jephthah’s offering of his daughter as a sacrifice is not told as an example of piety, but as an example of what happens when God’s people allow themselves to be affected by the idolatrous culture around them. It is not accidental that the enemies Jephthah fought against were the Ammonites (Judg. 11:6) and (apparently) the Moabites (Judg. 11:15-18). Child sacrifice was a feature of the worship of Milcom (sometimes called “Molech”) the god of the Ammonites (IVP Bible Background Commentary, pp. 132-133, 365). The Moabites were also known for practicing child sacrifice (2 Kgs. 3:26-27) and their chief god Chemosh is specifically mentioned by Jepthah (Judg. 11:24). Through Jephthah’s rash (and unprovoked) vow, the story makes a negative comment on him and other Israelites who have allowed themselves to become infected by the culture of their enemies. As Bible commentator Daniel I. Block states, “Far from being agents of spiritual change, the deliverers demonstrated repeatedly that they were a part of the problem rather than a solution” (Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary, p. 40).

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

Another way in which the Book of Judges describes this degeneration is through the increase of violence in Israelite society. This is particularly evident in the portrayal of women. The beginning of the Book of Judges depicts several strong independent women. One (Achsah) is a landowner confidently asserting her rights before her father (Judg. 1:13-15), another (Deborah) is a prophetess and Judge (Judg. 4:4-5) who inspires even the men to be courageous (Judg. 4:8), while a third (Jael) is a heroine aiding Israel in the defeat of a feared enemy (Judg. 5:24-27). By the end of the book, however, the image of the strong independent woman is replaced by the image of woman as victim. Women are raped, kidnapped, and treated as chattel (Judg. 19:25-29; 21:20-23). Far from condoning violence and the mistreatment of women, the Book of Judges graphically portrays what happens when a society abandons God so that everyone can do what is “right in their own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25).

Moral Failure Exemplified: The Canaanization of Israel

If readers are shocked at this kind of behavior, then the Book of Judges has achieved at least one of its purposes. Atheists and unbelievers are up in arms about these stories, as they should be, but what they fail to realize (or ignore) is that: “The theme of the book is the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of the settlement” (Block, p. 58). In other words, it is ironic that the atheists who want to protect the poor Canaanites from the wrath of Israel’s God, become indignant when faced with Canaanite-like actions! What we see at the end of the Book of Judges is not the way God has instructed His people to live. What we see are the effects of Canaanite culture on Israel! The atheists cannot have it both ways. If they want to defend the lifestyle of the Canaanites, then they must defend the rape of the Levite’s concubine as perfectly permissible; otherwise,  they must recognize the justice of God in seeking to eliminate such behavior. By the way, this is why Israel, as well as Canaan, gets a taste of God’s judgment in the Book of Judges. Once again, far from being xenophobic (as the new atheists insist), God shows Himself to be no respecter of persons.
In the end, we must marvel that the justice of God leaves anyone standing! This is a testimony to God’s incredible longsuffering and kindness, desiring all to repent and come to life. This is the other amazing message in the Book of Judges, and once again we see another Old Testament book whose stories are bathed in the context of God’s grace.

“You Reap What You Sow”: Violence in the Old Testament Part 6

“You Reap What You Sow”: Violence in the Old Testament Part 6

What-You-Sow-Is-What-You-ReapIn my last article I looked at the nature of God and sin as a reason for the need of judgment (I would encourage you to read or reread that article before continuing, as many of the ideas presented there are important for the discussion here). In this article I will provide a second reason for judgment. The easiest way to sum up this response is with the biblical teaching “You reap what you sow” (e.g., 1 Kgs. 2:32; Hos. 8:7; Gal. 6:8). Although many passages declare that God brings judgment on wicked human beings, the Bible also teaches that sinful people experience the consequences of their own choices, bringing judgment on themselves. Perhaps one of the clearest statements of this principle is found in Psalm 7:14-16: “Behold the wicked brings forth iniquity; Yes, he conceives trouble and brings forth falsehood. He made a pit and dug it out, and has fallen into the ditch which he made. His trouble shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down on his own crown” (NKJV).

Proverbs, Esther and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

Previously I noted that, since God is the Author and Giver of life, any choice that excludes God is a choice of death. If this logic is pursued, then it becomes clear that we bring judgment on ourselves by making the wrong choices. This idea is stated clearly throughout the Book of Proverbs. One of the best examples concerns the speech of Lady Wisdom in chapter 8. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom claims to have been with the Lord before the creation of the world, as well as present at creation (Prov.. 8:22-31). Everything said in these verses parallels what we previously established about God’s Word (see Part 5 of this series). It is not surprising then when Wisdom states, “For whoever finds me finds life, and obtains favor from the Lord; but he who sins against me wrongs his own soul; all those who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:35-36–italics are mine for emphasis).

Haman hanged on his own gallows. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
Haman hanged on his own gallows. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

Stories in the Old Testament frequently illustrate this theme. In fact, some of the acts of violence which are recorded are not acts sanctioned by God, and this violence results in the culprit(s) experiencing the principle: “You reap what you sow.” The story of Haman, recorded in the book of Esther, is an example of this. Haman hated a man named Mordecai, the uncle of Queen Esther, because Mordecai would not bow down before him and show him the proper respect he thought he deserved (Esth. 3:1-6). As a result, Haman planned to have Mordecai hung on the gallows he had constructed, as well as have the Jewish people massacred (Esth. 3:8-15; 5:14). In the end Haman’s plan was uncovered and he was hanged on his own gallows (Esth. 7:4-10).

The Flood and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

The Flood resembles the statement in Gen. 1:2
The Flood resembles the statement in Gen. 1:2

Although the story of the Flood is portrayed in Genesis as God’s judgment on His creation (Gen. 6:7), there is another sense in which humans bring judgment upon themselves. Last time we noticed that Genesis 1 teaches that the Word of God created structure and order out of what was “formlessness and void” (Gen. 1:2) resulting in a good creation (Gen. 1:31). We also noted that sin is a disregard of God’s Word which results in crossing over, or destruction of, the good boundaries He has put in place. The example of a house with walls, doors, and structural beams was used as an analogy to illustrate that order and structure are necessary for a quality existence. To commit sin is similar to knocking out the beams and walls that hold the structure in place. When enough damage is done, the roof caves in. The story of the Flood is told similarly.
Genesis 6:1-6 describes the growth of sin in God’s creation until it is said, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5–my emphasis). The description continues in verses 11-12 stating, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Gen. 6:11-12). In other words, all of the good order and structure that God had built into His original Creation had eroded away. Instead of the good quality of life that God had created, there was only violence and corruption. As a result of humans kicking out all of the God-given structure that God had put in place, the roof caved in on them and the ground gave way beneath them (Gen. 7:11). If this seems like stretching the language a bit, all one needs to do is check out the language of Genesis 7 (a good modern commentary such as Kenneth A. Mathews, “Genesis 1:-11:26” vol. 1 New American Commentary, p. 376 is also helpful). Genesis 7 purposely recalls the language of Creation in Genesis 1 using similar expressions found there (e.g., Gen. 7:14–”every beast after its kind, all cattle after their kind, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, etc. Compare Gen. 1:24-25). The difference is that the language of the Creation story occurs in reverse order in Genesis 7 until the world returns to the formlessness and void of Genesis 1:2. The message is clear: not only has God judged His creation, human beings through their sin, have “reaped what they had sown.”
This message comes through in another way in Genesis 6. After God tells Noah in verses 11-12 that the earth is “filled with violence” and “corrupt,” He pronounces judgment on it by saying in Genesis 6:13, “for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold I will corrupt (NKJV reads “destroy”) them with the earth.” In other words, God uses the same word to speak of destroying the earth that describes the sin of the people. There are two potential messages here: 1) God’s judgment is fair; Just as people “corrupted” the earth through sin, so He “corrupts” it in judgement; and 2) people have brought judgment down upon themselves. By using the same verb for judgment that describes peoples’ sin, the Bible is declaring, “You reap what you sow.”

When God Takes His Hand Off the Wheel

When God lets go, you reap what you sow!
When God lets go, you reap what you sow!

Another way of looking at this biblical teaching is by saying that God simply takes His hand off of the controls and allows people to experience the consequences of their actions. Again, this is much like a parent who has warned their child to no avail, and finally realizes that they will only learn by experiencing the consequences of their actions. Some will object that the consequences God allows are more severe than what a parent would allow. However, this objection fails to take into account two important factors: 1) the destructive nature of sin (which we established in the previous article leads to death); and 2) the matter of human freewill. Ultimately a parent is helpless if their child exercises free will by destroying their lives with drinking, drugs, or suicide. So it is not true that a parent would not allow their child to experience serious consequences. Sometimes they have no choice! Sin has its consequences and neither a parent or God can prevent those consequences when someone is determined to go in a deadly direction. As we previously established, departure from the God of life, results in death. If God stopped a person from making decisions that led to harmful consequences, then the atheist would complain that God is unfair for not allowing free will. If God allows free will, then He is considered a moral monster for allowing the choices that people freely make to destroy themselves and others. Either way, God cannot win!

Romans 1 and the Theme “You Reap What You Sow”

Romans 1 is an example of the principle we have been talking about. This passage is particularly important for what it teaches about the nature of free will and God’s wrath. In Romans 1:18 Paul’s discussion begins with the statement: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men….” When we hear the words “wrath of God” we immediately expect to read of God sending thunderbolts or other calamities to “let people have it” for disobeying Him. In fact, what Paul says, and this is repeated three times, is that “God gave them over” (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). In other words, those who don’t want to follow God and insist on going their own way are permitted to do so. This permissiveness of God is an expression of His wrath according to Paul! God simply allows people to do what they want to do and to reap the consequences for their actions. This is then a passive way in which God’s wrath is expressed. God actually does nothing. He takes His hand off and allows us to do what we want. Since what we want has nothing to do with God, the Giver of life, then our choice leads to death (Rom. 1:18-32). This is the same message then that was taught in the Old Testament and once again it can be summed up in the statement: “You reap what you sow.”
Even though this all sounds like bad news, we must not forget the context of grace in which even God’s judgments are set (see Part 4 of this series). The good news is that God has provided a way to escape the power of sin and death (e.g., Rom. 7:24-25). God gives us the freedom to choose, for love must involve freedom of choice. However, the story of Scripture is that whenever people have chosen the path that leads to death, God has always graciously provided a way back to the path of life. That remedy is the free gift of His Son Jesus (Rom. 6:23) and it is received when we repent. Repentance means we turn from the path of death we are on, and turn back to God and the path of life He has illumined for us by His Word.
Near the beginning of this article, I mentioned that a number of the acts of violence spoken of in Scripture are not sanctioned by God. Atheists often refer to such passages claiming that the Bible endorses violence. I will take a closer look at this idea in the next installment of “Violence in the Old Testament.”

The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5

The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5

Why does God judge?
Why is God’s judgment necessary?

In our last article I looked at the context of grace which surrounds stories of judgment such as the Conquest of Canaan. I ended the article with the following observation and questions: “Some will object and say that it is unreasonable for God to bring judgment on people who don’t want to follow Him. Why must they receive judgment? Why can’t God just ‘live and let live?'” To these questions I will add one other, “If the God of the Bible is so gracious why does He have to judge anyone?”

I want to explore three responses to this question. In this article we will look at two responses and follow up with a third response in the next article. The first two responses require that we look at what the Bible reveals about the nature of God and the nature of sin. Therefore we will examine these ideas first to lay the groundwork, and then move to the topic of God’s judgment.

God is Pro-Life

edenThe Old Testament opens in Genesis 1 with the story of Creation. This story affirms that God is the Author of all life. Out of the darkness and void of Genesis 1:2, God brings everything into existence. According to Genesis 1, God doesn’t skimp on any of the details for His Creation. By the time He is finished Genesis 1:31 tells us “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” The word “God” is used 35 times in the Creation story, which extends from Genesis 1:1-2:3. He is the only subject of the Creation story. This means that Creation and the giving of life is God’s idea and is brought into existence by His power alone. The Creation story teaches that God is the source of all life. We could say without any exaggeration that the Creation story teaches that God is “pro-life.”
exodus-3-14God’s personal name Yahweh is introduced in Genesis 2:4 (written as “the LORD” in English versions of the Bible). God’s personal name comes from the Hebrew word for “being.” When God reveals His name to Moses He defines Himself as, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod. 3:14). Actually, the meaning of God’s name can be translated in several ways, but the important point is that God’s name points to His eternal nature. He is the self-existent One. He is Life and Being and in need of no one or nothing for His existence. Revelation 4:8 describes Him as the One “Who was and is and is to come!” The New Testament reveals the same truth about Jesus. John begins his gospel with the words, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it abundantly” (John 10:10). This sounds very similar to the declaration of Genesis 1:31. Notice, that it has always been God’s intention to give His Creation life and to give it abundantly. God is not stingy when it comes to the gift of life! Further on in the Gospel of John Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25). Again Jesus declares to His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Clearly the Bible goes overboard to make this point: God is life. In His very essence He is life, He is the Giver of life, and His desire is to give life abundantly.
life-giverRecognition of this biblical truth is important for several reasons. First, if God is life and the Giver of life, then it follows that rejection of God is a choice that leads to death. A person cannot say “I want life, but I don’t want God.” It’s simply not an option. In rejecting God, a person is rejecting life itself and so, biblically speaking, it becomes an oxymoron to say “I want life, but I don’t want God.” Moses made this clear to the children of Israel long ago when he said, “…I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…” (Deut. 30:19-20). Not only does this passage state that choosing God is choosing life and blessing, it infers not to choose Him is death and cursing. Furthermore, notice that the exhortation is “choose life.” God’s desire is that we choose life. In my last article we noted the passage from Ezekiel where God says, “‘For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,’ says the Lord God. ‘Therefore turn and live!'” (Ezek. 18:32). The Bible could not be any clearer that God desires life for His Creation.

Sin’s Opposition to the Life-Giving Word

Bible-Verse-In-The-Beginning-Genesis-1-1-3-Let-There-Be-Light-HD-WallpaperGenesis 3 teaches that sin is a disruptive force in God’s good Creation. To understand this more completely, we need to return to Genesis 1 and examine the part that God’s Word plays in Creation. Genesis 1 teaches that God brought everything into existence by His Word. “Then God said…” is always the start of God’s creative acts (e.g., Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc.). This is why the Psalmist (Ps. 33:6), the apostle John (John 1:1-2), and the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 11:3), all insist that the world was created by the Word of God. Therefore Genesis 1 teaches us that the Word gives life. The Word is the agent through which all life comes into being. What does this Word do? It takes the “formlessness and void” of Genesis 1:2 and begins to construct a world in which life can flourish. The Word does this by bringing order out of chaos. The Word takes formlessness and creates structure, and fills the empty void with life and life-giving substances.

God divides the light from the darkness
God divides the light from the darkness

One of the ways the Word accomplishes this is through the process of “dividing.” We are told that God “divides” the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:4), the waters above the heavens from the waters below (Gen. 1:6-7), and the day from the night in order to create seasons (Gen. 1:14, 18). We are also told that, by His Word, God gathers the waters together so that dry land can appear (Gen. 1:9-10). Another way in which God, through His Word, brings order out of chaos is by bringing forth trees, fruit, and animals “according to their kind” (an expression which occurs 10 times in Genesis 1). The point of all this is to declare that the Word brings life by creating order and structure from the chaos.

Sin’s Destructive Nature

A house needs structure!

We can all appreciate this. If we are looking for a house to live in we don’t want a pile of rubble. We need structure. We want walls, doors, ceilings and windows. We want plumbing and electricity to be in its proper place. Genesis 1 teaches us that the Word of God is good because it brings order and structure into being and creates life out of what was once an uninhabitable place. The reason sin is so dangerous, according to the Bible, is that it is a crossing-over, or destruction of the good boundaries that God’s Word has set in place. It is not accidental that when the serpent tempts Eve, he begins with, “Has God indeed said…” (Gen. 3:1). In other words, the serpent attempts to get Eve to mistrust God’s Word. If Eve oversteps the boundaries put in place by the Word, then she steps into a dangerous world. God had warned Adam concerning the forbidden fruit, “In the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This statement is not a threat, “You better do what I tell you or else!,” it is a warning by the Lord of life. God knows that to step outside the protective boundaries He has set up, boundaries necessary to hold back the chaos (Gen. 1:2) and produce an abundant life (Gen. 1:31), is to step into a world of death. homewreckerThis is similar to walking into a beautiful home and one by one knocking out the support beams and walls because they seem too restrictive. Knock out enough supports, or a key support, and the whole house will fall in on our head. To enter the world of sin is to leave the safety and protection of the Lord of life behind and to enter a world where only death exists. This is so because anything apart from God (the source of all life), is death. Therefore to choose against God and against his Word is to choose death.

Live and Let Die

This is why it is impossible for God to take a “live and let live” attitude toward those who rebel against Him. The simple fact is, there is no life apart from God. The best that God can do for a person who constantly refuses Him is to have a “live and let die” attitude! Thank heaven that God cares too much to simply leave it at that without trying everything possible to turn His Creation back to Him.

Reasons for God’s Judgment

There are basically two reasons then for God’s judgment of the rebellious unbeliever. First, God desperately wants to give life to all of His Creation. Therefore He warns (and even sends) judgment in hopes that people will repent and come to life. We saw this principle in our last article as noted in Jeremiah 18:6-10 and the example of the Ninevites repentance in the book of Jonah. parentThis is similar to the parent who warns a child of harm or punishment if they don’t stop doing such ‘n such. Is the parent cruel? Is the parent trying to spoil the child’s fun? We know better. We can easily see that the parent acts in the child’s best interest so that the child can have a happy productive life. The parent’s warning is motivated by love. Better to be threatened with punishment, or even experience punishment, than to experience the consequences of something worse. Why do atheists find it so difficult to grasp this principle of God’s character when they would respond similarly toward the child they love?

Charles Manson
Charles Manson

The second reason for God’s judgment is that there are some who will never accept God and His correction and, therefore, for the good of His Creation they must be dealt with. This is similar to having a dangerous individual in our society who refuses to change. Perhaps they are a thief, a murderer, or a child-abuser. How long should we tolerate the behavior of a person who refuses to change but is a danger to society? At some point judgment must occur. No one wants to live in a society where there is no justice. God is incredibly long-suffering (even more so than us!), but God will not let sin go unchecked forever. In God’s judgment, He not only hopes for the repentance of the sinner, He seeks to protect the rest of His Creation from a destructive person (or people) who refuses to change and thus endangers everyone else.
Some will object by saying that God’s judgment seems much harsher than a parent’s punishment. I will deal with this idea more in a future article, but here I will note that this response doesn’t understand the gravity of sin. As we have seen, sin leads to death because it turns its back on the One who gives life. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). If God does not judge sin, then sin runs rampant over His Creation and death is the ultimate victor. But, as we have seen, God’s desire is to give life to His Creation. Thus Paul’s statement in Romans 6:23 does not end with the bad news of death; it continues, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).Romans6_23
In my next article I will examine a third response concerning the biblical teaching on judgment.

The Context of Grace: Violence in the Old Testament Part 4

The Context of Grace: Violence in the Old Testament Part 4

In my last article on Violence in the Old Testament, I noted that atheists ignore the context in which the stories of violence occur. This context is a context of grace. In particular we looked at the Conquest of Canaan, a bone of contention with nonbelievers, and we surveyed the immediate context of the Conquest found in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua and offered some responses for those who claim the Conquest is evidence of a genocidal, xenophobic god. In this article we will widen our scope by looking at the beginning of the Conquest story which has its roots in God’s promise to give Abram the Land of Canaan.

Genesis and the Context of Grace

Call of Abram
Call of Abram

The story of God’s promise to give Abram the Land of Canaan is birthed in a context of grace. According to Genesis 12:1, God calls Abram to go “to a land that I will show you,” and proceeds to make 7 promises to him (Gen. 12:2-3). These promises are underscored by one of the keywords of Genesis: “bless.” In fact some form of the word “bless” occurs 5 times in these two verses. God’s purpose in calling Abram is summed up by the well-known promise, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice that this promise does not exclude the Canaanites. The promise is not “all the families of the earth” except the Canaanites! Abram and his descendants are God’s chosen vessel(s) to bring blessing to every nation. In Genesis 13:14-17, God specifically promises Abram the Land of Canaan. This promise is reiterated in Genesis 15:18-21, clearly marking out the land and peoples involved.
The obvious question is, “Perhaps this context of grace is good news for the later Israelites, or other nations, but how can the promise to give Abram and his descendants the Land of Canaan be good news for the Canaanites?” I will seek to answer this below, but before doing so, there is another important detail that needs our attention. A few verses earlier in Genesis 15 God tells Abram that neither he nor his descendants will possess Canaan immediately. In fact 400 years will pass before Canaan becomes the possession of Abram’s descendants (15:13-16)!

Election Involves Rejection

"Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them" (Gen. 15:13)
“Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them” (Gen. 15:13)

There are three aspects of this declaration that are important for us to consider. First is the shocking revelation that Abram’s descendants will suffer affliction and slavery in a foreign land. I doubt that this sounded like “good news” to Abram. An important biblical truth evidenced here and seen throughout Scripture is that election involves rejection. Atheists misunderstand the biblical concept of election (and so do some Christians). They accuse the God of the Old Testament of being arbitrary and showing favoritism. God’s election is likened to the negative human fallibility of favoring certain people over others due to racial prejudice or some other superficial standard. God’s choices are considered fickle and capricious. Once again, this is to remove the idea of election from its context of grace. As Genesis 12:1-3 demonstrates, God chooses some in order to bless all. Furthermore, God’s chosen are not exempt from hardship, but often endure misunderstanding and rejection. Strangely, it is through the suffering of the elect, that God not only redeems them, but others. Joseph is one example in the Old Testament (among many others), while Jesus is the supreme example of this truth (the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53). Receiving the Land of Canaan then will not be an easy journey for Abram or his descendants.

Grace Waits!

Abram builds and altar
Abram builds and altar

Second, neither Abram or his descendants will be given the land immediately. God says there will be a 400 year waiting period! This waiting period demonstrates God’s justice and recognition that the land currently belongs to the Canaanites. He will not dispossess them without providing examples of how they should live, and warnings of coming judgment. The patriarchs, although far from perfect, become a living sermon to the Canaanites of the power and faithfulness of the God of Abram, as well as setting an example of worshipping the true God. Abram constantly sets up altars to the true God wherever he goes (e.g., Gen. 12:7, 8) and worships Him publicly (this is the meaning of the expression to “call on the name of the Lord” – e.g., Gen. 13:4). This same example is followed by Isaac (Gen. 26:25) and Jacob (Gen. 35:2-3, 7). Furthermore, God’s blessing on the patriarchs, as well as His protection of them (even when they don’t deserve it!), provides evidence that He is the true God and faithfully keeps His promises (Gen. 14:19-20; 21:22-23; 26:28-29; 31:29, 42; 35:6).
ten plaguesGod’s judgments are also intended to turn people from idolatry to worship of Himself. This is not only true in the book of Genesis, it is the major reason behind the ten plagues in Egypt (along with freeing the Israelites). The constant refrain found in the plague narrative is “then you/they will know that I am the Lord (Exod. 6:7; 7:5; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 16, 29; 10:2). Through the plagues all the false gods of Egypt are revealed for what they really are, and even Pharaoh’s court magicians realize the power of God (Exod. 8:19). The judgments were necessary because people do not easily give up well-entrenched beliefs and practices even if they are false. A visible demonstration of the power of the true God was actually a gracious revelation. It was the only way to break through centuries of false worship and belief and, according to Exodus 11:3, it made an impact on the people of Egypt. Furthermore, the plagues on Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea became another witness to Canaan and the surrounding nations that Israel’s God was the true God (Exod. 15:14-15). These events not only brought fear on the Canaanites, but as we saw last week, led to the repentance of some and the worship of the true God (Josh. 2:10-11; 9:24). Centuries later even the Philistines would recall these events and realize the power of Israel’s God (1 Sam. 4:7-8; 6:5-6). This brief survey clearly shows that the Canaanites had ample positive and negative witness for believing in Israel’s God. Therefore, when the Conquest began, they had been given plenty of time and witness.

The Context of Grace Involves Announcing Judgment in Advance

Third, the statement, “For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16), reveals the patience and mercy of God which is attested elsewhere in Scripture. The statement reveals that the Canaanites (referred to hear as “Amorites”) were already a wicked people. Yet in spite of that, God was not willing to simply hand over the land to Abram. God would wait. Although this statement is a warning of impending judgment, it is also a statement of amazing grace and reveals a consistent quality of God’s character evidenced throughout the Bible. The point I want to emphasize here is that God always announces judgment in advance and allows the opportunity for repentance. This characteristic is not evidence for the bullying, capricious god that the atheists like to portray, but rather of a patient God who would rather see repentance than destruction.

Jonah knew the context of grace and he was none to happy about it!
Jonah knew the context of grace and he was none to happy about it!

God’s statement in Genesis 15:16 has similarities with the words he sends Jonah to proclaim to the Ninevites: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). This statement sounds like judgment is inevitable but notice two things. First, God allots a certain period of time before judgement will fall. He does not bring it unannounced. Second, as the book reveals, the reason God waits is in hope that the people will respond in repentance, which they do! (Jonah 3:6-9). As a result, God reverses His decision to judge and shows mercy (Jonah 3:10). We learn in Jonah chapter 4 that this was the real reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He knew how gracious God was and he quotes the words revealed to Moses long ago about God’s merciful nature (Jonah 4:2; see Exod. 34:6). The problem with Jonah was that, unlike God, he was prejudice and he wanted this hated enemy of Israel destroyed. Therefore, he didn’t want to preach a word of judgment to them because he didn’t want them to have the opportunity to repent and be saved from destruction! This story clearly illustrates the same point as the Conquest of Canaan. God does not judge people because of prejudice, but because of sin. “The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” demonstrates that God’s judgment has nothing to do with ethnicity (as I established in the last article) but with sin. God’s reason for waiting 40 days or 400 years is for the purpose of giving people an opportunity to change and repent. The Canaanites who did repent (like Rahab) were saved, those who didn’t experienced a judgment that was long overdue.

A Look at the Wider Context of Grace

The potter's wheel
Jeremiah at the potter’s shop (Jer. 18:1-10)

 

This same truth is emphasized in two other prophetic texts that are important to mention. In Ezekiel 18:30-32 God pleads with Israel and says, “‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, everyone according to his ways,’ says the Lord God. ‘Repent and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin.'” God concludes by telling Israel He finds no pleasure in anyone’s death, but desires repentance so that they might live. Notice that, although the Lord proclaims judgment, it’s repentance that He really desires. The prophet Jeremiah relates this same principle and he does it in a way that reminds us of the story of Jonah. In Jeremiah 18 the prophet visits the house of a potter and learns an important lesson from the Lord. The verses that particularly concern us here are Jeremiah 18:6-10. God tells Jeremiah that when He speaks a word of judgment, if that nation repents He will “relent of the disaster” that He thought to bring upon it (Jer. 18:8). Similarly, if God speaks a word of blessing on a nation but the people turn from Him, He will relent concerning that word of blessing (Jer. 18:10). The New Testament also confirms that God delays judgment in hopes that people will repent. 2 Peter 3:9 states, “For the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” The Bible reveals a remarkable consistency in testifying to the redemptive nature behind God’s announcement and execution of judgment. Therefore the new atheists and other skeptics do a great injustice to the biblical message when they ignore the context of grace in which these words of judgment occur.
In conclusion, to be true to the biblical account, it is important to maintain the context of grace. At the heart of God’s selection of Abram (Abraham) and Israel is a desire to bless all nations. Through the positive example of worship of the true God and revelation of His will (by His Word), God seeks to draw all people to Himself. Warning of judgment, as well as the execution of judgment, is necessary when people refuse God’s gracious invitation by continuing in their sin. This is why even the Conquest of Canaan was both good news and bad news for the Canaanites. It was good news for people like Rahab, Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11 – whose name means, “Yahweh is my light”), and Araunah the Jebusite (2 Sam. 24), foreigners who served the living God and were incorporated into the people of Israel. But it was bad news for those who hardened their hearts and continued in their rebellious ways. Some will object and say that it is unreasonable for God to bring judgment on people who don’t want to follow Him. Why must they receive judgment? Why can’t God just “live and let live?” We will examine these questions in our next article on Violence in the Old Testament.

The Conquest of Canaan & Context: Violence in the Old Testament Part 3

The Conquest of Canaan & Context: Violence in the Old Testament Part 3

265The next group of articles on Violence in the Old Testament will be a bit like baking a cake. It takes more than one ingredient to bake a cake and, similarly, it takes more than one answer to respond to the charge of the immoral nature of God as reflected in the violence in the Old Testament. There is no particular order of importance to most of the articles, but I will begin with what I perceive to be one of the most serious errors made by the new atheists.
We are all familiar with the modern media taking the words or actions of someone out of context in order to create a sensational story. This is a chief complaint among celebrities and justifiably so. It often becomes difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. conspiracy-theories-death01Conspiracy theories are also in vogue, and it is interesting how many “facts” can be dug up (or misconstrued) to “prove” or “disprove” something. Though some people like a good gossip story whether it is true or not, if we are honest we must admit how unfair and unethical this practice is. Much the same tactic is used in criticizing the God of the Bible. As I mentioned in my last article, even the church can sometimes be guilty of giving God a bad press. Removing biblical statements and stories from their surrounding context is a favorite tool of the new atheists and those who parrot their position. Whether this is done intentionally or out of ignorance (and I suspect a little of both), it is bad scholarship.

The Conquest of Canaan

One of the most serious attacks by atheists concerns the Conquest of Canaan under Joshua. The new atheists wonder how a God who orders the extermination of a people can be considered good.

Tissot, The Taking of Jericho. Jericho was the first battle in the Conquest of Canaan.
Tissot, The Taking of Jericho. Jericho was the first battle in the Conquest of Canaan.

The God of the Old Testament is disparaged as a bloodthirsty genocidal xenophobic Being. We cannot deny that a command such as the one found in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 to “utterly destroy” the nations that dwell in Canaan, seems particularly harsh. So are the new atheists right? In future articles I will offer other explanations for the Conquest of Canaan, but in keeping with the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the importance of being faithful to the context.
Accusing God of ethnic cleansing is an example of how a passage is quoted without considering the context in which it occurs. This context is actually quite broad. It involves understanding the story that begins in Genesis and extends all the way through 2 Kings. This large block of material may seem quite excessive for considering this question, but in reality the “big picture” is necessary for a proper interpretation.

Mr. Darcy (Colin firth) in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice
Mr. Darcy (Colin firth) in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice

For example, Elizabeth Bennett’s rebuff of Mr. Darcy’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice is similar to that of the atheists toward God. Given the facts she has at her disposal, Mr. Darcy seems to be a loathsome human being, and, at the point of her rejection, we as readers are in agreement with her. However, the more Miss Bennett learns about the true Mr. Darcy, the more she admires and loves him, and so do we as readers! The point is, we have to read the whole story to come to appreciate and understand Mr. Darcy. The same is true for God and the Conquest of Canaan. For our purposes here, I will narrow the context to the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, in order to demonstrate how a knowledge of even the immediate context (not to mention the broader context) changes our perspective.

The Immediate Context of the Conquest of Canaan

The first thing we learn, only a few verses later (Deut. 7:7), is that God has not amassed some great war machine to fight the inhabitants of Canaan, but has actually chosen a very weak people. The biblical accounts are very consistent in testifying to the fact that Israel is constantly “out-manned” and “out-gunned” by the superior fighting forces of the Canaanite peoples (e.g., Num. 13:28; Deut. 1:28). In fact, the biblical context declares that the reason the Israelites did not immediately march to Canaan and begin the conquest was because of their fear of the might of the Canaanites.

The Israelites were not bullies in the Conquest of Canaan.
The Israelites were not bullies in the Conquest of Canaan.

While this argument doesn’t necessarily justify the slaughter of Canaanites, it does help provide the proper context for the story which insists that God did not prepare a master race of killers to destroy the Canaanites. This is important because, Israel is often pictured as the bully on the block intimidating the “90 lb.” weakling Canaanites. The Israelites are often vilified by atheists as being some merciless military machine wiping out the poor defenseless Canaanites. Biblically and historically (verified by archaeological finds), this is far from the truth.
Two chapters later, we read of God’s reason for destroying the Canaanites. Deuteronomy 9:4-6 emphasizes that it was the wickedness of the Canaanites that prompted this action. In fact, not only is the Canaanites’ wickedness emphasized, so is the unrighteousness of the Israelites! In other words, the conquest has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but with righteousness and sin. The Conquest of Canaan is not an attempt at genocide. God’s motive is not that He is prejudice against the Canaanites, but rather that He is judging the Canaanites for their sin. This is also evident based on several other observations. First, if God hated Canaanites because of their race, He would never have allowed Joshua and Israel to spare Rahab and her family (Josh. 6:22-25) or the Gibeonites (Josh. 9). Both stories emphasize that Canaanites who confessed faith in the God of Israel would be spared (Josh. 2:9-14; 9:24). Rahab and the Gibeonites are not only spared, they become a part of the nation of Israel. In fact, they become a very important part. Rahab becomes an ancestress of Israel’s greatest king (David) and also a link in the chain that leads to the Messiah (Matt. 1:5), while the Gibeonites become servants of the tabernacle, and later of the temple (Josh. 9:26-27).

The Commander of the Lord's army appears to Joshua before the Conquest of Canaan
The Commander of the Lord’s army appears to Joshua before the Conquest of Canaan

Second, the account of the Conquest of Canaan is told in a very unusual way which is uncharacteristic of ancient battle accounts. On the eve of the first battle (Jericho), Joshua is confronted by a mysterious figure called “the Commander of the Lord’s army” (Josh. 5:13-14). Joshua asks Him a very important question, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?” The response that we as readers might expect is, “I’m for you Joshua and all of Israel.” However, the response Joshua receives is “No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” In other words, God is not into playing favorites; He is true to Himself and His purposes. As we have seen from the passage in Deuteronomy 9:4-6, His purpose is to judge the sin of the Canaanites and give the land to Israel, but this does not mean that God has an “us against them” mentality. Archaeologists have never uncovered an ancient battle account of a victorious nation similar to this. The enemy is always put in the worst light possible, while the victorious nation sings of the virtue of its people, king, and god(s). No people in the ancient Near East would claim that their god(s) gave them victory even though they were unrighteous and stubborn! Furthermore, these accounts are always told from the point of view of the victorious king or people, but the account in Joshua allows us at times to see the Conquest through the eyes of the Canaanites (Josh. 2:8-13; 5:1). This creates some sympathy for the Canaanites, something other ancient battle accounts would never do for the enemy.

God is Not Genocidal or Xenophobic

Against this background, it cannot be claimed that God is commanding genocide, especially if by that term we are indicting God for being racially prejudice toward a particular people. The claim that God is xenophobic also cannot be sustained. Not only do Rahab and the Gibeonites show God’s welcoming of foreigners, but the Old Testament itself demonstrates time and again God’s compassion for the stranger and alien in Israel (e.g., Deut. 31:12; Josh. 8:33, among many other verses). The fact is that words like “genocide” and “xenophobic” are very hot politically incorrect terms in our society designed to invoke a negative emotional response when used. Not only does the Old Testament context not justify the use of these terms, it is unfair of the new atheists to use them for the purpose of creating a negative response in the heart of their readers.
Many other objections remain to be tackled. We will certainly return to the problem of the Conquest of Canaan, there are other responses that need to be made. The purpose here is to plead for the importance of context. If atheists are going to attack the God of the Old Testament by using the Old Testament, then, to be honest, they must take the context seriously. It will not do for anyone to lift a text out of the Scripture and create their own meaning for it. No one would do this with other literature and be considered a legitimate critic. Why should atheists not be held to the same standard of interpretation when it comes to the Bible? Furthermore, it is not only unfair to create one’s own meaning by removing a statement from its context, it is also manipulative to use inaccurate buzz words that create a negative emotional response clouding the judgment of the reader.
So far our cake has only one ingredient, in my next article I will look at other responses related to the Conquest of Canaan and Violence in the Old Testament.