Category Archives: 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.

Violence in the Old Testament Part 2: My Journey

Violence in the Old Testament Part 2: My Journey

Before I begin sharing responses to objections about “Violence in the Old Testament,” I think that it is appropriate for me to talk about why this topic is important to me. Besides the obvious fact that as a Christian I believe the Old Testament (OT) is the Word of God, my own background caused me to confront tough questions about the OT quite early in life.
I grew up in a church tradition that taught the OT had been done away with in Christ. Paul’s comments in Colossians 2:11-14¬†were often interpreted to mean that “the handwriting of requirements that was against us” and nailed to the cross, were none other than the OT Scriptures! Although my church taught from the OT, we considered ourselves a NT church and drew all of our doctrine and practice from the NT. I was left with a strong sense that the God of the OT was a wrathful and vengeful God. Somehow that all changed when Jesus came to earth and revealed God to be a God of love and grace. I even remember as a young man teaching this idea from the pulpit with no one correcting me afterwards.

Born Again “Again”

The change for me came in Bible College. I had several excellent OT professors who really opened up my eyes to the fact that the God of the OT was the same gracious and loving God that I had encountered in the NT. I recall one particular class on Genesis where we were discussing the meaning of God’s covenant with Abram and how the basic meaning behind a covenant was God’s desire for a relationship. When I left that class my best friend remarked to me that he felt like he had been “born again” again! I began to see that there were reasons for God’s judgments and that before God sent judgment, He always gave people the opportunity to repent. We will examine the significance of this in a future article. My point here is that, at the heart of it all, I discovered the OT portrayed a God who was patient and longsuffering toward sinners, not desiring to bring judgment, but desiring a relationship with them. How I came to this conclusion will be part of the responses found in the coming articles of this series.
One of the advantages of the OT is that it is longer than the NT and covers a lengthier period of time. This extra material provides the opportunity for discovering more facets of the personality of an infinite God. I found it provided a better understanding of Him than I ever dreamed possible. This is why I fell in love with studying the OT and have continued to have a passion for teaching it. As a result, I am always disappointed at the reactions of Bible believers who ignore the OT and only want to study the NT, or who think the OT is no longer relevant for Christians. I understand this feeling, after all, I had been raised to have a similar reaction to the OT, and the particular church tradition I was raised in is not the only one that gives the God of the OT a bad press! But having spent years studying and teaching the OT my view has completely changed and my disappointment stems from the fact that now I know what others are missing! This is what provides a secondary motivation for this series of articles. Not only do I desire to demonstrate that there are reasonable answers to the objections offered by atheists and skeptics, but I desire to encourage more Christians to get to know the OT and the God revealed in its pages.
A few years ago I had a student who told me that before she came to Bible College, she avoided the OT. When she signed up for my class on the Book of Judges she confessed that she was fearful of how it might conflict with her belief in a loving God. Not only did a study of the Book of Judges allay her fears, but over the next two years she proceeded to take my classes on Genesis, Joshua, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings, books often considered to be among the most violent in the OT! When she graduated her view of a loving and gracious God was unchanged, and her confidence that He could be found not only in the NT but in the OT as well, had grown by leaps and bounds.
If you have been afraid of the OT I encourage you to spend some time really studying it deeply. As Christians we do not need to be afraid or ashamed of what God has revealed in His Word. In the articles that follow, we will look at the theme of “Violence in the Old Testament,” and we will see that there are good and reasonable responses for those who object to this portion of the Bible. I hope you will continue to read along and post any relevant comments that are related to our discussion. Please also feel free to share your own journey with the God of the OT.

 

 

Violence in the Old Testament Part 1: The Problem

John Martin - 1852
John Martin – 1852

Violence in the Old Testament Part 1: The Problem

What is someone who believes in the Bible to make of all the violence in the Old Testament? Only 6 chapters into the book of Genesis, God is already planning on destroying the world with a flood. A few chapters later, God rains down fire and brimstone on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24). In the next book of the Bible God sends plagues on the Egyptians and kills their firstborn (Exod. 5-12). Furthermore, He leads His people out of Egypt for the purpose of giving them a land that belongs to others (the Canaanite peoples) and He commands Moses and Joshua to “utterly destroy” them (Deut. 7:1-2).
Violence in the Old Testament is also confronted in its characters. A man named Shechem rapes Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. In retaliation, Jacob’s sons deceive Shechem and his father who convince the whole town to be circumcised. While the men are recovering, Jacob’s sons slaughter all the males and plunder the city (Gen. 34). Such stories can be multiplied. For example, the book of Judges is filled with stories of violence. Ehud slays an obese Moabite king with trickery (Judg. 3:21-22), Jael drives a tent peg through the skull of the Canaanite commander Sisera (Judg. 4:21), Jephthah offers up his only daughter as a sacrifice (Judg. 11:39), and a Levite’s concubine is gang raped by the men of Gibeah. The Levite responds by chopping her body into 12 parts and sending them throughout the tribes of Israel (Judg. 19), which precipitates a civil war leading to more atrocities such as the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin, and the kidnapping of women to marry the few remaining males of the tribe (Judg. 20-21).
These stories disturb our moral sensibilities (as they should). Frequently the bible-believer is embarrassed by them and would rather act as if they don’t exist. Many Christians simply focus on the New Testament. The Old Testament is like the elephant in the room that we pretend is not there, or we try to find some way to apologize for it, much like we would for an awkward relative.
Old__New_Testament_God11-300x196

The Ghost of Marcion

One historical solution, thankfully rejected by the Church, was to label the Old Testament and its “god” as inferior to the God of the New Testament. The 2nd century heretic Marcion took this view and rejected all of the Old Testament. Writing over 50 years ago Bernhard Anderson recognized a similar problem within the Church that continues to this day when he wrote, “Meanwhile the ghost of Marcion lingers on, appearing more in indifference to or ignorance about the Old Testament than in vehement theological debate” (The Old Testament and the Christian Faith, p. 5) But it is important for the Church to wake up from its indifference to the Old Testament, because the Bible is coming under attack from the so-called “new atheists.” These new atheists, including names which have become familiar to many such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchins, are forcing Christians (and Jews) to take a hard look at their Scriptures. Fortunately, there are voices within the Church who are responding to these criticisms with reasonable, well-argued responses. (See e.g., the debate between Christians and Atheists in: Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham).
My desire in this series of articles on Violence in the Old Testament, is to examine some of the objections raised by the new atheists and unbelievers that you and I might come into contact with. I’m not a philosophical theologian (most of us aren’t!), or a giant intellect. My interest in this topic is motivated by several factors: 1) I believe the Old Testament is the Word of God and as such, I need to have good reasons for believing that; 2) as a student and teacher, the Old Testament has greatly impacted my life for good and I think it’s important to share some of that journey and experience; 3) I hope to kindle a desire among Christians who read these articles to take their study of the Old Testament more seriously, and to not be afraid of its contents; 4) I hope any non-believers who read these articles will approach the subject with an open mind, and I welcome them to offer their comments as long as it is done in a kind, non-combative way which seeks to advance understanding. I promise I will respond with a similar spirit.
At this point I am not sure how long I will extend this series but my desire is to take it in small bite-sized chunks, dealing with different problems and responses in each article. Part of it depends on the interest generated by you the reader and whether you find the discussion helpful. I welcome all comments and questions, as well as any insight that others may wish to contribute, but again I ask that the comments and questions be made in a spirit of goodwill with a view toward advancing knowledge and understanding. I do not pretend that I will be able to answer every difficulty presented by the violence in the Old Testament, nor do I think that there is one answer that will solve every objection. This is a complex and serious issue which requires various responses. Before delving into the problem and various responses, in my next article, I will give a little more personal background as to why this subject is important to me. Following that, we will begin to look at the problems raised by Violence in the Old Testament.