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Yahweh – a Moral Monster?

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?


14 Responses to “Yahweh – a Moral Monster?”

  1. Simon Holloway Says:

    My thoughts are that you should probably read The God Delusion. You have quoted it twice and both times you have relied on somebody else’s citation. It’s not a long read, but it is a good one. Granted that he has a habit of demolishing straw men, but he does raise some very good points in the process, not the least amongst which is the fact that proof is always the responsibility of the believer and never the cynic. That statement regarding historicity (the one that you did not say) is a case in point. I would suggest that the references to genocide are instances of wish-fulfilment, and that such a thing never really occurred. Dawkins would probably suggest the same (as he contends in regards to most elements of Biblical historicity) but he cannot have things both ways. That is to say, you can’t both have a vicious and petty god who condones genocide, and a genocide that never existed. Really all that you have is a rather vicious and petty people, fantasising about such activity, and I’m not sure which is worse.

  2. Iyov Says:

    So which is worse, the “Lord of Hosts” Jewish God who promises the Land to the Israelites, or the Christian God who promises eternal torment for most of mankind?

  3. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Thanks for your comments, guys.

    Simon… I have Dawkins on order. I just didn’t want to delay the post (and my use of Dawkins was as more of a foil, rather than a serious engagement with his thesis).

    And Iyov, you are certainly correct. That is one of the points I want to make in a further post. It is not just a problem with the “Old Testament God”, but it continues in the NT with the apocalyptic imagery in Revelation as well as the images of hell, etc. found in the rest of the NT.

  4. Shaun Tabatt Says:

    Tyler,

    In a post available here, Greg Boyd references some forthcoming work from Dr. Jerome Creach, Professor of Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Creach’s view is that herem is not meant to be taken literally. Do you think this is a reasonable solution to the problem? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

  5. Wieland Willker Says:

    Important question!
    I see this problem, too and I think it cannot be solved.

    When my children ask about it, and they do, I tell them that what we read there just isn’t the God we know from Jesus, it cannot be true, these probably are just human stories, inventions.
    Note also Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. I refuse to accept that.
    Why then is it in the Bible? I don’t know. I think we have to admit this, that we just don’t know it.

  6. Theology for the Masses » The God of Genocide Says:

    [...] this end, I came across an article via the Codex that I plan on reading tomorrow (for it is 2:11AM and early evening naps should be avoided, no [...]

  7. Hundie Jo [dot] Com » Blog Archive » The God of Genocide Says:

    [...] that article, I recommend you also read the one which referenced it over at the Codex entitled Yahweh – a Moral Monster?, which begins a discussion on the Canaanite [...]

  8. Matthew Lanser Says:

    T. Williams –

    This issue has always been a point of difficulty for myself. It seems that I may either reject the notion of God as warrior altogether, or always have issue with it yet without resolution, or accept it as is presented within the canon. My faith would guard me from the first of these due to my doctrine of scripture. There is a part of me that never feels settled with saying that I have problems with this issue and yet can move no further than that.

    However, as I look at the book of Job, the figure, Job is not given a reason as to why those things have happened to him. Rather he realizes that he has over-stepped his bounds and no explanation is ever given to the reader (aside from the beginning narrative). Qohelet makes it quite clear that we as humans are unable to understand the deeds of God, therefore, one ought to accept one’s lot and take joy in it all the while, fearing God. In the letter to the Romans, Paul, when discussing the issue of God’s election, states (as one of my Calvinistic professors was fond of saying) “But who are you O man, to answer back to God?”

    Granted, in these instances, no acceptable conclusion (in our eyes) is offered, however, I wonder if that is where it must end. If we cannot accept that there are some things that we cannot understand and simply leave at that, will we arrive at a position that is supported by scripture or will we then be forcing our notion of what is right and what is wrong upon God, the Creator?

  9. Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Bandstra Hebrew Handbook Giveaway! Says:

    [...] Yahweh – a Moral Monster? [...]

  10. Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Yahweh – A Moral Monster? Not According to Copan Says:

    [...] Yahweh – a Moral Monster? [...]

  11. rochelle Says:

    Forgive me for intruding, but I do think when reading (or commenting on) the MT, one must set the texts within their larger cultural context. The point of complete destruction being elimination of sure-to-follow retribution.

    Even the Romans, for instance, assumed either you were an oathed friend (with ceremonies designed to guarantee compliance from both sides) or a hostile enemy. There were a lot of hostile enemies around and total destruction was not exactly a new concept at the time of the writing of the Biblical texts.

    There are, after all, still groups around that take this point of view: join us or die.

  12. John Anderson Says:

    A little late to the party, but two suggestions:

    1) Check out my most recent RBL review of Eric Seibert’s book Disturbing Divine Behavior. It will give you some detail into another attempt to wrestle with this topic that is, in my view, inadequate.

    2) You may know already that Copan now has a book out, Is God a Moral Monster (Baker, 2011). I’ve posted a small bit of my thoughts on my blog about this book; it is, in my view, quite disappointing, and his arguments are often weak and tautological. It seems you share my apprehension at accepting his arguments, but I am curious as to your thoughts on both the review of Seibert and my thoughts on Copan.

  13. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Hey Jon, thanks for the comments. I actually used Seibert as a text in a course I taught last spring. While I thought he raised some good questions, etc., I was ultimately unsatisfied with his way of approaching the topic. I will have to check out your review.

    I have Copan’s book on my desk now; not sure when I will get to reading it, but it’s on my list!

  14. John Anderson Says:

    I have been unable to finish reading Copan. I am THAT disappointed with it.