The Genocidal God of the Old Testament

angry-god

by Brian Ingalls

In recent times, atheists have specifically rejected the Scriptures on the basis of God’s perceived lack of character. In the book, The God Delusion, for instance, Richard Dawkins claims the God of the Bible is immoral, stating, “The Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds.”[1]

To be sure, some of the commands given by God in the Old Testament are harsh in their treatment of others. They sometimes command the destruction of entire peoples, including the women and children. How can this be reconciled with the idea that God is love, or that God forgives? It has led Dawkins and others to characterize the God of the Old Testament as genocidal.

Nevertheless, it remains apparent that an Almighty Creator would certainly have the ability, and the right, to exercise some level of authority over that which He has created. In fact, any God who can create such a vast and complex reality as this universe, certainly may also behave in ways that human beings might occasionally struggle to comprehend. The apostle Paul alluded to this in Romans: “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? (Romans 9:20, NASB).[2]

The mere fact the Bible records events that are difficult to come to terms with, does not exclude them from being true. Neither does it exclude human beings from misinterpreting those events. Perhaps however, a better understanding of God’s behavior in the Old Testament could bring the picture of the Creator into clearer, more realistic focus. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness.”[3] This brief article argues that the harsh stories of war and judgment in the Old Testament, may be the clue to what that “more” is. God’s judgements are certainly terrible, but such judgments remain an understandable action by the eternal, holy, and loving Creator of the Bible.  The inspiration of the Scriptures cannot be rejected on this basis.

Another Look at History

In order to make any assessment on the character of God in the Old Testament, it is helpful first to examine the ancient context. The Scriptures invoke two main images, that of God driving out the nations, and that of God destroying the nations, sometimes including women, children, and animals. Christian apologists, such as Paul Copan, have emphasized that “the conquest of Canaan was far less widespread and harsh than many people assume.”[4] Their effort is to downplay the genocide. Two points stand out as central to this argument. The first is that the Old Testament Scriptures purposefully overstate the number and categories of people killed, and the second is that the traditional view of a dramatic, large-scale ethnic cleansing is not supported by the record in Scripture.   The Old Testament does indeed seem to occasionally overstate the results of a battle, using the same custom of hyperbole found in written records during the same time period. After pointing out the practice of exaggeration by other ancient military accounts, Joshua Butler notes, “The Old Testament itself makes clear it is using hyperbole…we only have to go a little farther in the story to find the same enemies (that were supposedly wiped out) are still very much alive, still very powerful, and still causing problems.”[5] Copan argues the vocabulary used by typical military accounts during the time period is more akin to reading a figure of speech. “The sweeping words ‘all,’ ‘young and old,’ and ‘men and women’ were stock expressions for totality, even if women and children weren’t present.”[6] As will be shown, this is difficult to apply to every instance in the Old Testament, however.

Secondly, it is argued that there was no large-scale destruction in Palestine. Instead, Israel gradually pushed out the occupants of Canaan. One scholar notes, “The reports of battles in the book of Joshua make no claim that these cities were possessed upon Israel’s entry into Canaan…Joshua’s campaigns in Cisjordan may well have been only raids or responses to those who resisted Israel’s growing presence.”[7] Butler adds, “This is not an overnight ejection but a gradual eviction.”[8] In fact, both Joshua 13:1 and Judges 2:3 specifically describe the Canaanites as a significant presence in the land even after Joshua’s campaigns had long come to an end.

These efforts to mitigate the severity of the conquest of Canaan, however, ultimately fail to address the primary problem that God Himself appears to command genocidal actions at least some of the time. Dawkins notes “his orders, for example in Deuteronomy 20, are ruthlessly explicit.”[9] It is likewise hard to explain the scene of Moses and his commanders when Moses asks, “Have you spared all the women?” (Numbers 31:15), and proceeds to order the killing of all the male children along with most of the women, sparing only the virgins.

“All this is terrifying stuff,” writes Dinesh D’Souza, “Gore Vidal calls it Bronze Age morality, and whether or not we agree with this characterization, it seems a morality utterly unsuited to our way of thinking.”[10] It thus becomes a question of why God would even occasionally command such destruction.

Another Look at God’s Motivations

The Bible makes two significant claims about the people in Canaan. The first is that they were practicing idolatry and behaviors that had provoked God to action. “It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you” (Deuteronomy 9:5). The second is that God had been patient for centuries, indicating to Abraham in Genesis 15, that the Israelites would have to wait 400 years to possess the land because “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). Even when the Israelites began their march into Canaan, there was clearly no surprise among the Canaanites. In Jericho, Rahab and her family turned to God precisely because they had, “heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan” (Joshua 2:10).

Thus, God is pictured in the Scripture itself as a Creator sitting in judgment on His creation after a great deal of patience, and with adequate warning. D’Souza adds, “human sacrifice…was widely practiced by the Canaanite nations. When this is understood, God’s judgment of the Canaanites is reasonable.”[11] Yet, despite placing the focus on the sinful practices of the Canaanites, and the patience of God, questions nevertheless remain.

Dawkins writes, “One cannot help marveling at the extraordinarily draconian view taken of the sin of flirting with rival gods.”[12] For him, and many others, the punishment of God simply does not fit the crime. Whether God waited patiently, or whether the destruction was limited, is irrelevant. It is the fact death was prescribed at all. He asks, “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them?”[13]

This reveals a key point. If a US President wanted to forgive someone for murder, they have the power to do so. Surely, there have been friends and associates that some presidents, and others in authority, have pardoned simply because they wanted to. Society, however, generally condemns such favoritism because it is viewed as unjust. It is notable that the Bible extols the justice of God who is likewise in a position of authority to pardon or condemn. “For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice” (Deuteronomy 32:4). It prompts D’Souza to say, “God can no more stop being just than he could stop being benevolent.”[14] Thus, whether human beings see the value or not, whether human beings agree or not, God’s justice is clearly at play.

Another Look at God

In fact, the criticism against the Old Testament applies equally well to any of God’s commands for judgment. As one scholar said, “The horrors of Gehenna will be no less than those of Jericho.”[15] It should be observed then, that most critics who condemn God for commanding the death penalty to an entire city in the Old Testament, are just as offended by God judging the earth in general.

Nevertheless, to be fair, by definition God is in a unique position to implement justice. He is not in the same situation as an individual human being. As such, His behavior cannot be accurately compared to individual human beings. To do so is akin to accusing a jury of murder for sentencing someone to death. Positions of authority don’t merely allow, but often require, actions that would be unlawful for an individual. God is not acting as an individual citizen of the earth, but as the Creator with the unique responsibility for all humans, for all time.

With the entire human race as His responsibility, it is certainly within God’s purview to execute judgment and enforce laws for the sake of others, just as any government would. Failure to do so would cause God to be unjust and unloving toward those He could have ultimately saved or helped through His enforcement of His laws. Just as any “good” government would be willing to protect society by war if necessary, God must also, if He is loving and good and just, be expected to take drastic actions necessary to protect humanity from whatever may ultimately destroy it. And even “just” wars are horrific.

A final observation takes note that the Old Testament does not present the Israelites as taking God’s law into their own hands. On the contrary, the Israelites are pictured as obeying the orders of God in the same way an army obeys the order of its government. As a result, the Bible serves as a source for human morality, not because humans are to emulate God, but because humans are to be under God’s authority. Morality is derived from Scripture with the idea that God is on the throne, and that all humanity has a higher authority to which it ultimately must answer.

Thus, when it came to Canaan, the Scripture describes that God had waited for centuries and allowed years of warning before executing judgment. Then by virtue of His position as an eternal God, and made necessary by His love of mankind and the requirement for justice, He was spurred to action against the Canaanites. The judgments against sin, while harsh, do not logically negate the inspiration of the Scriptures.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London, England: Bantam Press, 2006), 247.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references come from the New American Standard Bible, 1995.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (HarperCollins Publishers Inc.: New York, NY, 1940), 33.

 [4] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 2011), 170.

[5] Joshua Ryan Butler, The Skeletons In God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, The Surprise of Judgment, The Hope of Holy War (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN, 2014) 229.

 [6] Copan, Is God a Monster? 177.

[7] James K Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2012), loc. 10593, Kindle.

 [8] Butler, Skeletons in God’s Closet, 232.

[9] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 247

[10] Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About God: A Reasonable Defense of God in a World Filled with Suffering (Tyndale House Publishers: Carol Stream, IL, 2013), 203.

[11] Ibid., 216.

[12] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 246.

 [13] Ibid., 253.

[14] D’Souza, What’s Great About God, 231.

[15] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001), 37.

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Butler, Joshua Ryan. The Skeletons In God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, The Surprise of Judgment, The Hope of Holy War. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN, 2014.

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 2011.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. London, England: Bantam Press, 2006.

D’Souza, Dinesh. What’s So Great About God: A Reasonable Defense of God in a World Filled with Suffering. Tyndale House Publishers: Carol Stream, IL, 2013.

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Historical Books. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001.

Hoffmeier, James K and Dennis R. Magary. Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2012, Kindle.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. HarperCollins Publishers Inc.: New York, NY, 1940.

Advertisements

Tornadoes in Joplin, and a Loving God

I have friends in Joplin, Missouri, but I’m one of the lucky ones. My friends survived. Two of them lost their home. Another was at his church on Sunday night, and the church was close to the path of the EF5 twister which ravaged a city of 50,000, but it missed them by a few blocks.  Unfortunately, one friend of mine did lose her grandfather in the storm, and some friends of friends were killed as well.  One died while heroically trying to save someone else.  Stories and memories that will live on with us.

Facebook helped many of us keep tabs on each other and when cell phones occasionally worked, we contacted each other that way, too. It’s not my first experience with feeling close to an EF5. I received my last tetanus shot on the sidewalk in Greensburg, Kansas courtesy of a friendly lady from the Red Cross. I believe Greensburg was the last EF5 to hit before this year although I might be wrong. I’ve read that generally those monsters develop and touch down about once every four years. With four EF5 tornadoes this year alone, we’re definitely above the average. The crazy weather combined with all the other disasters and unrest around the world has people talking about Bible Prophecy, but sometimes the questions are more personal.

Why would God allow a high school senior returning from a graduation ceremony to get sucked out of the sunroof of his SUV where he was riding with his father? Why didn’t God miraculously keep him from being hurt like God kept others safe? Why didn’t God at least let the family find him after it happened?  It took days to discover his body in a pond.  Another 15-month old was found at a morgue.  Many other bodies took weeks to identify and families had to wait those weeks to officially discover a loved one’s fate.  Quite often, the happy miraculous ending we would hope for, didn’t happen.
Continue reading

The Rapture: Taking it Literally?

The Christian belief in “The Rapture,” made famous by the Left Behind series and various doomsday predictions, comes from two Scriptures in the Bible which speak about the resurrection of the dead.  In neither place is it specifically called “the Rapture” although you can find the Latin word for “rapture” in there if you use the Latin Vulgate Bible.  In fact, the Latin is where we get the term, and the term simply applies to the event described in I Corinthians 15:51-52 and I Thessalonians 4:15-17.   And since saying “The Rapture” is easier than saying “The-Event-Described-In-1st-Corinthians-15-51-52-and-I-Thessalonians-4-15-17”  or T.E.D.I.1.C.1.15.52.A.I.T.4.15.17 for short…

Most of us just say “the Rapture.”

Anyway, the Rapture is basically a simple concept.  In both places, the Bible (Paul was the writer) is talking about what happens to believers in Jesus who are still alive when the resurrection happens.  Obviously, God’s not going to strike them all dead so He could raise them up at that moment.  Instead of that morbid method, the Bible says we will be “caught up” to Jesus in the air (I Thessalonians 4) and changed “in the blink of an eye” into immortality (I Corinthians 15).  Part of the reason Paul wrote about it in I Thessalonians was to give people hope.  It is a rather exciting thought to consider. And assuming you believe in God and Jesus in the first place, it makes sense.  I mean, if Jesus returned and raised the dead into eternity, it’s only natural to ask what would happen to those who are still alive at the time. The Rapture is the answer for that question.

But we still manage to have huge arguments over it.  Those debates are generally over whether to take it seriously in the first place, or if you believe in a resurrection, the argument is over when exactly the Rapture part of it happens.

THE “WHEN” ARGUMENTS

The “Left Behind” books and movies took a very common position on the WHEN part, Continue reading

We’re All Going To Die and I’m Having Tea

Issues, issues everywhere and not a drop to drink!  Ok, not exactly true, I’m guzzling sugar free iced tea right now… But where to start?  Hell or the imminent second coming of Christ?  Let’s start with hell!

These days the idea of hell seems a non-starter with most.  In fact, as a society we are in the midst of concluding that the idea of a God who sends people to hell is simply dangerous. Unfortunately, the “Church” has not always helped.  Instead of actually following the teachings or example of Christ (Christians right?), the “Church” has sometimes burned people at the stake.  It’s a past that contributes to a dangerous image, one that is often exploited today by those who oppose Christianity.  That’s to be expected of course.  It’s just a fact of life that when some of those who claim to follow Jesus do such horrible and anti-Jesus things, Christianity itself gets associated with evil.

It has come to the point in our culture, that make no mistake, basic Christian beliefs are being looked upon with suspicion.  No longer are heinous acts of the Dark Ages being blamed on a corrupt church or power-hungry leaders, now it’s the Bible itself, the traditional religion itself.  Maybe it’s imbedded in our belief system?  Seems silly to most Christians who regularly give to help the poor, or work in the soup kitchens and slums of the world.  But nevertheless, despite our actions we are being painted as something more sinister, even by those who call themselves believers.  As Rob Bell said in his book “Love Wins” :

“Inquisitions, persecutions, trials, book burnings, blacklisting – when religious people become violent, it is because they have been shaped by their God, who is violent.” (For you Kindle users, that’s at 88% through the book, chapter 7)
 
Don’t miss the logical conclusion of such reasoning.  Continue reading

Osama Bin Laden is Dead: Hooray?

Today in America, or on my Facebook at least, Christians are torn. The natural reaction for a human being when a mortal enemy is destroyed is celebration. A sense of victory. Relief.  But should we join in the celebration?   The western world may rejoice in the death of Osama Bin Laden, but we are not of this world.  Should believers in Jesus feel guilty for feeling good about the death of someone?  It is difficult not to “feel” something.  But what should I do with those feelings?

Questions like these are part of being a Christian.  Following Christ is not a matter of eating, drinking, wearing certain kinds of clothing, repeating particular phrases at church, voting a particular way, or any of those outward, surface things.  I have my own opinions on what food is worth eating, what drinks are worth drinking,  and what kinds of clothes look good.  I have favorite phrases I use, and I have plenty of opinions on political things.

But that’s not what following Christ is about.  The Bible says when it comes to following Jesus, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” -Galatians 5:6

It’s faith in Jesus, trust in Jesus, expressing itself in our lives through putting God ahead of ourselves, and putting others ahead of ourselves.  See, that’s the Biblical definition of love, and the example of love when Jesus made Himself nothing, took the form of a servant and obeyed the Father by dying on a cross for the sins of everyone else.  Everyone.  Even Osama’s if he would only have taken hold of that forgiveness.

So for a believer and follower of Jesus, because we are to love God by putting Him first, and because He lives in us through the Spirit that He gave us, we should honor God with our reaction to the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Therefore we should be thoughtful with how we conduct ourselves and careful to guard our hearts.  God did say:

‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. -Ezekiel 33:11

And in another place:

Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him. -Proverbs 24:17-18

I think it is worth noticing that the above verse instructed us to conduct ourselves humbly so that God would continue to pour out His wrath on our enemies.  In fact, desiring wrath on mortal enemies is found in several places in the Bible where it is not condemned by God.

In Revelation 6:10, martyrs asked God how long before he “avenged” their deaths. In Revelation 18:20 it says to rejoice when Babylon the Great is destroyed for she killed God’s people.  And regardless of what someone interprets “Babylon the Great” to be, the end result is destruction that involves people.

In the Psalms, David often appealed for his enemies to be destroyed or put to shame by God.  He would write things like“Rise up, O LORD, confront them, bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword.” -Psalm 17:13  

In that Psalm, as in Revelation, and other places in the Bible, it was God who received the praise for His justice in destroying the wicked.  It seems that God accepts that praise, even though as He said in Ezekiel, he takes no pleasure Himself in the death of the wicked.  He would rather that they repent.

Thus, it follows that Proverbs would warn us not to gloat over the death of our enemies because God does not destroy the wicked to feed our desire for power and pride.  God brings justice, but at the same time, He sacrificed His Son for the likes of Osama Bin Laden as well. Anyone can be forgiven if they turn to God as we all know. And a sobering reminder for us is found in Luke 13:1-5. If not for Jesus, we all face judgment.

      Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

      Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”-Luke 13:1-5

In many ways, the death of Osama Bin Laden is merely the natural result of his own actions.  Jesus said that those who choose to live by the sword, will die by the sword.  But I believe that Osama’s death at the hands of his enemies was also an act of justice by a Holy God, avenging the death of thousands of people.  I praise the Lord for His justice and His judgment on our enemies.  But it is also a sobering reminder which makes me grateful for the grace of God through Christ which is available for all, that all might be forgiven and receive eternal life, if they will call upon the name of the Lord.

An Eternity of Torment?

Franklin Graham said it recently during an interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, “There IS a hell”  Graham said as he tried to explain how he came to believe in Jesus in answer to O’Donnell’s question on whether or not Graham had given up everything to follow Jesus.  In his round-about answer, Graham warned that people would go to a literal hell if they rejected God.   The idea of hell and/or eternal punishment is a traditional  doctrine of Christianity, one that has fallen out of favor in today’s culture.  In fact, the very thought of it, is an obstacle to many in considering the Christian faith.  For them, hell makes the whole story a bit too unreasonable.  Is it? 

Continue reading

Hope in the Midst of Crisis

Some of the “prophetic” words of Jesus sound eerily similar to the daily news coming from around the world these days, which gives many of us a pause. Yet we shouldn’t pause too long because He also had words of encouragement and a message of hope. In a moment, I’ll get to what Jesus said precisely, but for now, I think it’s worth noting that the entire Christian belief system is built on a hope, an assurance from God, that He will provide during the toughest of times.

Some interpret the Bible, or insist philosophically, that God should rescue us from these tough times in the first place. Isn’t that what a loving God would do? And if He doesn’t, He’s either not loving, or not real. It’s the same argument used by one of thieves crucified next to Jesus. In one moment, that guy was hurling insults at Jesus, and in the next, he was demanding Jesus prove Himself by rescuing them all from death. Continue reading