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