26th February 2011
[One day I will like to explore this issue more. Last year I taught a course on the Bible and violence and I know I raised more questions for the students than provided solutions! Originally posted 07/2008]
One of the biggest moral and theological challenges modern readers face when reading the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is the brutal violence found within its pages. And if the graphic descriptions of violence perpetrated by humans upon other humans was not enough (see Judges 19-21 for one startling example), you have the thornier issue of violence attributed to and commanded by God. Perhaps the biggest and most troublesome example in this regard is the Canaanite genocide – Yahweh commanding Israel to “utterly destroy” all of the inhabitants – men, women, and children – of the promised land.
Prior to the conquest, Yahweh set out his expectations to Moses and the children of Israel as follows:
In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess (Num 33:50-53).
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you — the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you — and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy (Deut 7:1-2).
But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God (Deut 20:16-18).
Then, when the Israelites encountered the Canaanite king of Arad on the way to the promised land, they prayed to Yahweh and he “listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah” (Num 21:1-3). The Israelites later killed off a few other towns on their journey, Moses later reporting, “we utterly destroyed them… in each city utterly destroying men, women, and children (Deut 3:6).
Perhaps the most (in)famous example is the destruction of Jericho, where
they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys (Josh 6:21).
How do we respond to such texts?
Now, I recognize there are significant historical issues with these texts. Most (many?) critical scholars maintain that there was not really much of a conquest of Canaan, if at all. John Van Seters, for example, comments “the invasion of the land of Canaan by Israel under Joshua was an invention of [the Deuteronomistic Historian]. The conquest narrative is a good example of ancient historiography but it cannot pass for historical by any modern criteria of historical evaluation.” Even the biblical text, when read carefully, admits that the conquest was not quite as successful as the early chapters of Joshua suggest (see Josh 13:1‑7; 18:3; cf. Exod 23:29-30; Judg 1). That being said, even if there is little histiorical value in these texts (note I am not necessarily saying this), the biblical text still presents Yahweh as commanding the Canaanite genocide, and this picture fits into the larger ideological portrayal of Yahweh as warrior found throughout the Hebrew Bible.
So the question remains, How do we respond to such texts? How do we respond to such texts in a post-holocaust world? How do we respond in a world where terms such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are heard all too often in the news?
The so-called “new atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, among others) have responded to these and other biblical texts by rejecting Yahweh as a petty, jealous, violent deity. Dawkins comments:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (Dawkins, The God Delusion [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], 51; thanks to Randal Rauser for this citation).
He further contends:
What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh-and even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us (The God Delusion, 248; cited in Copan).
While rejecting Yahweh may be a solution for some, I would argue that it really isn’t an option for Christians who want to adhere to the biblical canon. But what do we do with these texts? Paul Copan, professor of theology and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, has recently published an article in Philosophia Christi that addresses this thorny problem. In his article, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” (available from the Evangelical Philosophical Society website here), Copan attempts to counter the claims of the new atheists, among others. Copan rehearses most of the typical responses Christians have given in the past, though I am not sure how satisfied I am by his answers.
Time permitting, I am planning on following up this post with at least one more where I will engage Copan’s article and provide some ways to understand this portrayal of Yahweh. That being said, I can’t say I am fully satisfied with my own answers (perhaps this is one of those issues where we should never be satisfied with any answers!).
What are your thoughts?