How should we read the violent texts of the Old Testament?

The violent texts in the Old Testament create challenges for all readers of these texts, whether Jewish, Christian, or unbelieving. Charlie Trimm, who is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biola University, has written a very helpful short book on the different ways we might engage with the texts, The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation.

I had the chance to ask him about the issue and his book.

IP: The question of violence in the Old Testament, particularly associated with the conquest of the Promised Land, is perhaps one of the most vexing for our reading of Scripture. Why do you think this is so important? Is it primarily an interpretive and theological challenge for Christians, or an apologetic one in relation to those antagonistic to Christian faith?

CT: I think that the reason that this issue is so broadly problematic for readers of the Old Testament is that it relates to something that is pretty close to a moral universal in today’s world: genocide is bad. Not only do most people agree on condemning genocide, they also view it as perhaps the worst thing one could do. Hitler is routinely used as the parade example of an evil person, mostly because it is commonly accepted that he was horribly evil. Therefore, when readers of Deuteronomy and Joshua see that the kind and compassionate God of Exodus is commanding something that looks like genocide, it is predictably disturbing for them.

As far as the demographics, I think that this problem is shared between both readers of faith who have serious questions about the God that they serve as well as those who are antagonistic to the Christian faith and use this story as a key example of why they do not serve such a deity.

IP: Despite being a concise book, it is brimming with footnotes and references—the literature seems vast! How did you go about tackling the challenge of the range of commentary on the question?

CT: I’ve been interested in this question for a long time, so I’ve had time to read through lots of material. This book started out life as a paper for my students to read, then turned into a presentation at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, and then it was accepted into an edited book looking at the narrative literature of the Old Testament. That project eventually was cancelled.

However, I received some feedback from a presentation I gave on the material that I should take the material and turn it into a short book, which is what I did. I added the first three chapters to the book (which were largely based on other things I had published), updated the bibliography on the four views, and it turned out to be pretty well-rounded short book.

The other answer to this question is just that from the perspective of personality I enjoy digging through the literature and tracking down sources. Much of my work, such as my reference book on warfare in the ancient Near East (Fighting for the King and the Gods), is driven by a desire to work through a large amount of material myself and provide readers with a guide to the literature.

IP: You begin your study with an exploration of warfare in the ancient Near East, and written evidence of it. How does that context help us to read the biblical accounts well?

CT: This helps broadly with reminding us that we cannot just map our ideas about warfare onto the ancient world. For example, the divine realm plays a much more significant role in warfare in the ancient Near East than moderns. The most helpful contribution from warfare texts for the Canaanite discussion is the constant presence of hyperbole when kings talked about their victories.

IP: I think you offer an incredibly helpful taxonomy of approaches to the issue, delineating four main approaches to the question. Why did you settle on the headings you chose? Is this an original classification, or was it something you found in the literature. 

CT: Scholars have proposed a variety of ways of organizing this material, so my categories are not new in an absolute sense. As I say in a footnote when I introduce my categories, the work of Randal Rauser and Christian Hofreiter were most helpful to me in formulating my categories.

I could have multiplied these categories further (and several scholars would have been happier to have their own category!), but I wanted to keep it simple for the reader and the connections between the authors in each category were sufficiently noticeable to keep them in the same category even with their many differences.

IP: The first approach is to dismiss Scripture as an ethical or valuable revelation of God—and a rejection of the God of the Christian tradition. Would it be fair to say that this raises philosophical questions, about our source of our moral values, rather than textual questions per se?

CT: Yes, this is certainly fair to say. It is an easy solution to the Canaanite problem, but the changes from a Christian worldview are so vast that it raises a whole new set of questions. This is one reason why I did not spend much time on this view: the main input from this view is merely to reject the biblical text, which brings us into many areas of conversation that are quite distant from the Canaanite problem itself.

IP: The second approach, in which we critique and set aside certain parts of Scripture in the light of other parts, seems to be growing in popularity as a approach, and has much in common with a Sachkritik way of reading the New Testament, where certain texts are critiqued against the salvation expounded in other parts. What are the problems with this way of reading?

CT: These ways of reading Scripture are certainly becoming more popular! However, they are not new either. The major problem that the Christian tradition has had with such ways of reading is their approach to Scripture. In particular, for a variety of reasons these readers reject certain portions of the biblical text, moving authority from the biblical text to the interpreter.

If we move the point of discussion to some of the reasons why such readers reject portions of the Old Testament, the Christian tradition also finds these reasons lacking. For example, in response to those who argue that Jesus taught us to see God as pacifistic and hence that we should reject the violent images of God in the Old Testament, many Christians would argue that such a vision of Jesus is selective and ignores parts of the revelation of Jesus.

IP: The third and fourth approaches—to question whether the violence depicted is really what it seems, and to recognise that God’s ways are, at times, inscrutable—both offer promise, but neither is without its issues. Can elements of these be held together, or are they in tension with one another?

CT: Elements of the third and fourth approaches can certainly be held together, as many scholars do. In general the way to do this is to appeal to categories like metaphor and hyperbole as ways to mitigate the severity of the Canaanite problem, but recognize that these means of reading do not solve the problem of itself. The work of William Webb and Gordon Oeste is a good example of this dynamic.

While I go a somewhat different direction than Webb and Oeste, I myself follow a combination of view three and four. However, other scholars follow either view three or view four more closely.

IP: You end your study by refusing to offer simple solutions to this vexing problem, inviting the reader to wrestle him or herself with the issues. Do you feel that, as a believing scholar, you have come to a satisfactory view yourself?

CT: I’m not sure that I would use the word satisfactory. As I said in the previous answer, I hold a particular view that I think, given the options, best answers the question. But I remain somewhat unsettled about the topic. This is why I end the book with strategies like lament and trust. If we demand that we must perfectly understand all things about God before we trust God, then we have placed the bar of trust very high.

So I prefer to engage in a relationship of trusting questioning with God, where I might not be happy with all things about God, but I remain a follower of God who trusts him with some things that I don’t fully understand.

IP: That sounds like a great place to end! Thanks very much for your time.

Charlie Trimm is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biola University, a director at Every Voice: A Center for Kingdom Diversity in Christian Theological Education, and the author of several books, including Understanding Old Testament Theology (co-authored with Brittany Kim) and Fighting for the King and the Gods.

Note: I previously posted some extracts from Philip Jenson’s very helpful Grove booklet The Problem of War in the Old Testament

How can the warlike God of the Old Testament be the same divinity as that revealed in the New Testament, the God of love incarnate in Jesus Christ?…

I would like to argue that the OT approach to war is deliberately complex, ambivalent, conditional and incomplete. I shall attempt to show this by looking at four key texts about war, drawn from different parts of the Bible and from different kinds of writing (Ex 15; Deut 20; 1 Sam 17; Jer 21). These will introduce broader discussions of the biblical material…

Although scholars have tried to set out a standard pattern for how war was to be waged, the variation in practice is striking. Deuteronomy may well be setting out an ideal rather than a reality… Looking back, the failure of Israel to observe its laws was very evident, leading as it did to complete defeat and exile. Hence there was value in explaining this by putting matters in a clear and extreme way…

War is to be avoided if at all possible, for Christ comes as prince of peace, but it may be a necessity in the fallen world in which we continue to live.

See also the recent booklet Reading Joshua by John Goldingay.

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56 thoughts on “How should we read the violent texts of the Old Testament?”

  1. I have personally found the OT herem narratives to be disturbing, largely because of the genocidal tones – “Show them no mercy” as one “Four Views” book is titled! I haven’t really been able to deal with the topic in depth, so I suppose my attitude is one of trust.

    I do tentatively suggest that one way of dealing with these texts is to consider their sitz in leben. My understanding is that they are post-exilic, and perhaps functioned as a menacing threat against the ‘am ha’aretz (people of the land – i.e. those who had not been deported) and essentially contested their claim to the land. The message is: “Nice bit of land you’ve got there, shame if anything were to happen to it…”!

    It’s not a fully worked out and evidenced view, but for now it’s the only way I can make sense of the texts and reconcile them to the God of mercy who revealed himself in Christ

    • To call them post-exilic is to call their authors a bunch of pious liars. Hebraic culture was not given to the style of Greek rhetoric which freely puts words into the mouths of others according to what authors *thought* they said. We must not read scripture through Greek eyes. That is difficult given our cultural heritage, but it is to make God a pious liar.

      The Canaanites had the option of fleeing their land. Only those who stood and fought were to be killed. In practice this is no different from any ancient battle, in which the men on the losing side were killed, except that the women and children were to be killed too, not enslaved. Look what the failure to do that led to: kings of Israel who sacrificed their own children to Molech. God knew exactly what he was commanding agaisnt the Canaanites, and he had even given them abundant chances to turn from their degeneracy, for he delayed the Exodus until the sin of the Canaanites “had reached full measure”. Read of those sins in Leviticus 18, a list which is followed by : “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.”

      I found this essay helpful: We don’t hate sin so we don’t understand what happened to the Canaanites by Clay Jones:

      • Anton – agreed that if it really was post-exilic then this makes the whole of Scripture a pack-of-lies and therefore it gives zero information about God’s character and man’s salvation.

        But you just gave me a great idea. I like my next door neighbour’s garden and I could use his house for guests. I’ll give him two options: either he flees his property or else I take it by force. I’m sure that God would be quite happy with this, because it’s quite clear that he’s committing adultery by having an affair with the blonde chain smoker from number 5.

          • Anton – yes – that’s the basic message that Charlie Chaplin gave at the end of his movie M. Verdoux: “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!” No analogy at all!

          • Anton – your question isn’t connected with anything that I’ve contributed to this discussion. But I’d invite you to read the OT Scriptures – much of which is directed towards answering your question quite emphatically and clearly.

            This doesn’t give us (the ‘good guys’) as a tribe the right to exterminate the ‘bad guys’ (the other tribe who seem to enjoy depravity) on the grounds that ‘oh God told us to’.

          • …. while Samuel, Kings, Chronicles seems to deal with the Israelites `a whoring after other gods’ (to use a phrase from Judges 2:17), it seems to become explicit in the prophets that a major manifestation of this (the tribe a whoring after other gods) was adultery by a large proportion of the individuals in the tribe. The two things seem to be more or less equivalent.

          • You are conflating spiritual and physical adultery, of course, the former being “whoring after other gods”. Tell me how a nation can honour its father and mother? As for whether the question is relevant in the context of our continuing present exchange, you don’t get to decide that unilaterally.

          • Anton – it might help the exchange if you could indicate how your questions are relevant to the exchange.

            I’m beginning to see it – are you taking the view that God’s commandments to us individually somehow get over-ruled by commandments he gives at the tribal level? At the Nurenberg trials, the ‘I was only following orders’ defence was considered inadmissible, so this view would have to be nuanced somewhat.

            As I indicated, Scripture doesn’t seem to see much of a distinction between ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ adultery; while Samuel, Kings and Chronicles write about ‘spiritual’ adultery, the prophets express the same thing in the ‘hung like a donkey, emissions of a horse’ passages. There isn’t cause-to-effect here; the whole degeneracy was one package. You can find the same sort of things with whatever explicit commandment you want – for example the one you brought up of honouring one’s father and mother. There’s lots of evidence to indicate that when they turned away from God and went a whoring after other gods, the commandments of God (adultery, murder, honouring one’s father and mother, coveting, etc …) all went out of the window – a cursory reading of Scripture seems to make it clear that honouring God as Father seems strongly connected with honouring one’s earthly father and mother.

            If you see such a difference between the tribal and the personal, then I wonder how you react to God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (personal – not tribal). Do you consider Jephthah to be a murderer because he killed his own daughter in cold blood? If not, why not?

            The point here is that I don’t think you can draw a distinction between ‘personal’ and ‘tribal’. God requires Israel as a tribe to do unsavoury things; God requires individuals to show their obedience by being prepared to do unsavoury things in ways that would appear to be in stark contradiction to His commandments.

  2. For me, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about people who did not know Christ: we are reading back a Christian view into a pre-Christian situation. Similarly, we are 21st century Christians with views about war that have been worked out over many years, but our stance is relatively recent. We forget that many nations, including our own, were going to war against each other and against enemies as a normal activity (cf the intro to the David and Bathsheba story). Glory and honour came through war (same with the Anglo-Saxons). This only slowly changed with the arrival of Christianity, maybe.

    • So you are saying they didn’t know Yahweh?

      Or that Yahweh only contained 1 (or 2) person’s of the Trinity?

      Or that Jesus only became “Christ” after his conception/birth/crucifixion/resurrection? So they had Yahweh but we have Yahweh+?

  3. The problem goes back to the conversation Abraham had with Sodom in Genesis 18. Does God, the Judge of all the earth, have the right to terminate the life of the wicked?

    The Pentateuch make no bones about the fact that God did claim that right, not only in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, but also of the nations in the promised land whose iniquity had matured to the point that he would do the same with them (Gen 15:16-21, Lev 18:24-25).

    Is this really a concept difficult to grasp intellectually? The term ‘genocide’ is inappropriate because it evokes the indiscriminate slaughtering of the innocent (e.g. the Jewish Holocaust) by human beings more wicked than the victims.

    Eventually Israel – initially the agent of God’s wrath on the Canaanites – became the object of his wrath, when he used, first, the Assyrians and ~140 years later the Babylonians as human agents to mete his wrath upon them. ‘Wrath’ here refers to the premature ending of mortal life, not the final judgement when the dead are raised and come before his throne. The NT suggests that then the people of Sodom and Assyrian Nineveh (Matt 10:15, 12:41) will be judged more lightly than the people of God.

    This is not merely an OT issue. Revelation – expanding on what the OT prophets foresaw – indicates that there will come a time when God is so disgusted with the moral depravity of earth’s inhabitants that he will personally – not through human agents but by natural and supernatural means – kill a third of mankind (Rev 9:15). Compare Isa 13:12f.

    That is why my book is also important.

    • It’s precisely the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent children that bothers me. Herod did something similar and we all agree he was a monster. The people of Israel do it with the people of Canaan and that’s ok because YHWH commanded it….?

      • Yes, it is troublesome, but in answer to your question and framing it in a different way: It is not for us to judge God. If he commands something, then we must do it, whether we see the reason for it or not and whether it seems good or not. Eve and Adam made the mistake of not obeying. So did Saul. In the course of maturing spiritually we must seek to reach the point where our conviction that God is good, entirely good, is so deeply held that there ceases to be an ethical tension.

        If one were to try to understand why the children were slaughtered along with the adults, we can be sure that it was not because God was the divine equivalent of Herod. Any attempt to rationalise may seem anathema, but what would have become of the children with the entire adult population liquidated? Having no one to look after them they would have simply starved to death.

        How innocent are children anyway, when they are brought up in a civilisation as corrupt as ours? They are being sexualised and indoctrinated in trans and gay rights from the age of six. Only this afternoon I was walking along the street and a child of about that age unthinkingly cried to her friend, “Oh my God,” just the way adults do. The judgement, when it comes, will be on the civilisation that corrupts first and foremost. It will be swept away. Geoff was right near the bottom of this page to refer to the Deluge. The whole earth had to be cleansed at that time. Then it was by water; this time it will be by fire.

        As I said, ultimately there is no OT/NT dichotomy. We are instructed to turn the other cheek, and repay evil with good, but before Jesus returns, 2.7 billion inhabitants will lose their lives, and when he comes, many of the survivors will also perish. Luke 19:27 alludes to that moment in history. “As for these enemies of mine who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” Jesus will not then turn the other cheek.

        How many today look forward to his return even in the Church, let alone in the world? Who really wants him to reign over them?

        • There are two approaches to ethical reasoning: 1. A determined course of action is good (or bad) simply because God commands (forbids it); 2. God commands (forbids) a determined course of action because it is good (bad) for his human children. Of course, these two approaches can be reconciled, but unless we believe that 2 is in some sense right, we make God totally arbitrary…..After all, if 1 is right, perhaps Peter Sutcliffe (and others who have claimed to have carried out violent atrocities under divine instruction) was actually right…

  4. The slaughter of the Canaanites was ethnic cleansing, plain and simple.

    God didn’t order it. The authors, writing a foundation narrative, attributed it to God.

    The same God who said, “Let the children come to me,” did not order the slaughter of innocent children and babies in Canaan.

    It’s sickening, and I’m not discussing it further. Just expressing my view straight.

    • It is a bit odd to make that comment, and then refuse to discuss.

      You are, in effect, taking option 1 or 2 in the book. As the interview points out, there are major problems with either position.

    • Susannah.
      1 Not sure which God, you believe?
      2 What are His attributes?
      3 Is God of the Old Testament, God of the New, the same God? Why and how do you know?
      4 What are His Names?
      5 What are the longitudinal canonical themes of genres, laws, justice, blessings and curses, prophets, wisdom, redemption, rebellion, sin, death, worship, sacrificial systems/festivals and history of redemption, in history, to name but a few.?
      6 Are you a universalist?
      7 Are you a pluralist? a synchronist?
      Sure, there’s nothing to discuss, is there? Perhaps, it can be interpreted that you’ve got nothing to contribute. Your mind is set, is closed?

      • Perhaps, the nomenclature, thinking Anglicans, is a ploy of set-in-stone, closed mindset. Or, as one truly thinking Anglican put it, it is evidence , the outworking of “chronological snobbery”. CS Lewis.

  5. A few thoughts should be borne in mind here. In the first place, one of the major differences between the testaments is that the covenant people of the OT (unlike the New) are drawn from a nation; moreover a nation (see for example Exodus 10:5-6) called ‘out of all the nations’ as a ‘treasured possession and ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ The Mosaic covenant however stipulated obedience the the God of the covenan[5].
    Granted the covenant nation had “some difficultuies ” in maintaining obedience, nevertheless, any people amalgamated into a nation, no matter how holy, no matter how virtuous will inevitably encounter opposition, possibly hostility and even violence from other nations. I say “inevitably” because we already see others in this post who view this issue under a pietistic cloud; seemingly oblivious to the state of play in the contemporary world . Military might and political violence and military might were a hallmark of both testamental periods. Jesus said: ” when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed, such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom [Mark 13:7-8].”
    Ah you say! But what about the violence reported to be authorised by God?
    Now before we get into that issue, we need to ask ourselves the question: what is the source of these reports . The short answer is, it is *within the covenant documents themselves* that the information is provided! There is little if any external , scientific “objective” material on which to base a “balanced judgement”. The canon of the OT was not drawn up by a team of international experts , but from within the ambit of historic Judaism !
    When Susannah Clark blows a gasket over these controversial issues, I wonder if she aware of the possibility of a glaring contradiction in her approach? Ultimately, it is from the same general source (the OT) that our understanding of who Jesus Christ is and the nature of his divine purposes are made manifest. Presumably Susannah would *judge* appropriate prophetic passages to be worthy of our approbation. On the other hand are we to eliminate from Scripture such controversial issues as what we think is unjustified violence ( or any violence?) or, for that matter, as some seem to suggest, the imprecatory Psalms? Now if as Susannah opines: “The same God who said “Let the children come to me , did not order the slaughter of innocent children and in Canaan. What does she make of “the same God ” who declared “You snakes! you brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell” [Matthew 23:33]?

    • Colin – well, we know from Scripture that this all happened because Ham shouted ‘oh look at that willy!’ when Noah went on a serious bender and fell asleep in a drunken stupor without any clothes on. That was when Canaan got cursed.

      There isn’t a glaring contradiction in her approach on this particular issue – there is a clear inconsistency within Scripture – there is a commandment ‘do not kill’. Then, when the Israelites eventually cross the Jordan led by Joshua, they are instructed by God, in some cases, to annihilate absolutely everything – and this includes man, woman and child – and God seems to get quite annoyed with them – and punishes them – when they do not do this.

        • Kyle – well, it looks as if they had been commanded to annihilate everything in sight (which includes women and children) and it’s difficult to see how this isn’t ethnic cleansing (and how it can be regarded as legitimate collateral damage of a military operation).

          • Only if they stood and fought. They were free to flee. Israel was not commanded to round them up or hunt them down and kill them.

          • Anton – yes – that makes everything that the Israelites did to them all right then, doesn’t it? Juliusz Schauder remained in Lwow and was murdered by the Nazis; Stefan Banach didn’t reach a good end (not clear if his death was lung cancer – or what the Nazis had been doing to him – but certainly what the Nazis did to him didn’t help). Tarski was smart enough to get out of Poland in August 1939 and ended up in the maths department at Berkeley California (in the U.S. of A.), where he lived to a ripe old age. If only Schauder and Banach had had the good sense to flee, as Tarski did, when they had the chance …….

          • If it is what God commanded then yes it is all right. And if it is in the Bible as such then then yes it is what God commanded. Disbelieve that and you have nothing other than your own prejudices for what to accept and reject in the Bible. That attitude is why the Mind of Anglicans survey made by the organisation Christian Research in 2002 found that just 51% of some 1800 respondents to a questionnaire sent to 4000 Anglican parish clergy “believed without question” that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, 56% his uniqueness, 66% his resurrection, 77% the Trinity and 77% his atoning death. The apostle Paul said that if Christ was not resurrected then Christian faith is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14), but I suppose that verse can be rejected too.

      • Is there really a contradiction Jock?
        The refrain and he died, ran throughout the generations in until Noah, when evil and rebellion reached its totality, resulting in God’s judgement over all creation, humanity, except those who were saved in the precursor to the ark of the Covenant. More much more could be said here. Some theologians see the flood as a type of God’s de-creation.
        How about the Exodus, God’s curses/plagues and the death of all first born males, including the Hebrews, at Passover, unless they sheltered under the blood of the lamb.
        It is a spiritual battle that belongs to the Lord, manifest in the outworking in humanity.
        The God who fights for his people is a Biblical theme and against false gods and worship.
        A key to the representative fight between Goliath and David the anointed shepherd King was that the loser would become servants, in surrender to the gods of the Philistines, or to the Name of the Lord God of Israel, in whose Name David came.
        Not only that the battles are but shadows of God’s end time judgement.
        God employs the evil in the human heart to defeat evil. It is not a contradiction. King David had blood on his hands, so was not permitted by God to build a Temple. He also counted his army in defiance of God and in reliance on his own kingship, not God’s.
        Jesus defeat the enemies of God by the blood on his hands. While we were God’s enemies. Christ died for us, in our stead.
        Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but that is how it is manifested in the physical realm.
        Ephesian 6:12

        • “ King David had blood on his hands, so was not permitted by God to build a Temple. Jesus defeat the enemies of God by the blood on his hands.”

          That’s neat and nicely worded. Thanks

  6. This discussion reminds me of (1) Peter Craigie’s little book The Problem of War in the OT from my Wheaton days, and (2) Lawson Younger’s monograph on war narratives in the ANE which is on my to-read list this year.

    I will opine that I tend to follow the idea espoused by Knierim (OT) and Caird (NT) that the task of biblical theology is to bring the different theological traditions into dialogue with one another, and to see which tradition has the better argument to make. Hence, I tend to follow the Sachkritik view mentioned above.

      • I think you are right. It’s the compare and contrast approach that both Knierim and Caird use that is my primary focus. Whether compare and contrast is a gateway to a Sachkritik approach is another question entirely.

        Apologies for the poorly crafted response.

        • Yes indeed. The first suggests that there are contextual reasons for tension. The second approach actually claims that the text is faulty, in every sense of the word. It claims that we can, as modern readers, discern the gospel from within the text, and then use that understanding to discount other parts of the text. It asserts that we know better than the writers what God’s bigger intention actually is.

          • Ian – I confess I haven’t read any of these theories, but I do see strong clues as to how an uneducated Christian, familiar with the guiding principles given by Jesus in the New Testament, can figure out the mind of God.

            One clue (for example) is the parable of the good Samaritan – and for anybody obsessed with the tribal aspect here, the Samaritan was clearly of the wrong tribe, while the pious people who passed by were of the correct tribe.

            Another clue – as Colin Hamer rightly points out down below, they seemed to be awfully worried that if they permitted the other peoples to continue living in the land, the Israelites might find the worship and the gods of the Canaanites awfully attractive (the OT writers often seem to be much more concerned with the lure of false gods than with any concern that other tribes will be bigger and stronger than them and beat them to a pulp).

            We know, from much of the New Testament writings, that a Christian is bullet-proof from wrong ideas from other religions. For example, there are two churches next to each other, less than three miles from where I live – the Catholic parish church and a large Jehovah’s Witness establishment – and it has never once occurred to me to darken the doors of either of them, because I deem them both to be wholly false. I don’t for one minute believe that the Holy Spirit worked in completely different ways then and now – and we are told that, as Christians who have been brought into the number of the Saviour’s family, we have the Spirit dwelling within us – the worship and the gods of the Canaanites are simply not attractive to a heart and mind devoted to the one true God.

            We know very well (of course) that for society in general, those who have not committed themselves to Christ, the influence of those around them can be very strong and lead them into temptation; that is why society in general (those who are not in Him) need ‘role models’ and that sort of thing.

            So if we take seriously the words of Our Lord, when he says ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, he answers the question ‘who is my neighbour’, when He tells us what life in Him is really all about, we can develop a pretty clear idea.

  7. May I take the liberty of recommending 2 other works :
    “Joshua” ‘ The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary’ – J Gordon McConville and Stephen N Williams (2010) Publisher Wm B Eerdmans
    “Holy War in the Bible” ‘Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem’ – Edited by Heath A Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan – Publisher IVP Academic [US] 2013

    Thoroughgoing and probably not bedtime reading!

  8. This is, to say the least, a very difficult issue. It is often one of the main issues the ‘new’ atheists (though all quite old or dead now) raise as an objection either to Scripture or the God of Scripture. I dont know the answer but Suzanne’s response above is hardly uncommon – many theologians and Biblical scholars now argue that any apparent action by the God of the OT must be viewed in the light of the clearer revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus, who was clearly non-violent during His earthly ministry, and indeed told His followers to be non-violent. On the face of it there appears to be a contradiction there, but perhaps that is because reality isnt being taken into account. Not least that ultimately those who are not ‘saved’ on the last day will be destroyed by God (where is ‘meek and mild’ Jesus then?).

    As I understand it the Caananites were given 400 years to repent and change and stop their awful behaviours, but didnt do so. As such every generation kept repeating their ancestors’ evil, generation after generation, literally for centuries. Perhaps that is why when the time was up and judgement was finally about to fall, no mercy was shown by the Judge, and why ALL generations were to be removed?

    From our point of view, it all obviously seems extreme, but then given the history and God’s full understanding (which we dont have), including ensuring the continuation of the Jewish race which the Caananites threatened, so that the Messiah could be born, perhaps we have to conclude it was justified.

    I also wonder what was going on ‘behind the scenes’ with the demonic hords that had such effect on that people. It seems to me judgement did not just fall on the humans involved.

    On the other hand, even writers such as Paul Copan accept that the Biblical text is full of hyperbole and therefore exaggerated ‘war mongering’ language, especially for the ‘winning’ side. But Im not convinced that is sufficient to dismiss what appears to be the commands of Yahweh. Isnt it Paul who says our God is a ‘terrible’ God? And if anyone experienced the grace and mercy of this God it was him.

    That’s my own thoughts.


    • Hello Peter,
      Is or isn’t Jesus, God incarnate, God of the Old Testament, the precreation Trinity?
      It is interesting that Glen Scriveners book, The Air We Breathe, looks at objections raised, such as the crusades, the Inquisition, also the Holocaust and more, but doesn’t consider the OT and when we abhor war, it is because when when of Jesus disciples cut an ear off an opponent Jesus told him to sheath it.
      But that to me is somewhat simplistic and ignores the context of Jesus journey to the cross.
      There is a continuity and discontinuity there continues to be a world wide warfare, but the ” armour of God” is to put on all that Christ is for us, with only the sword of the Spirit, the word of God.
      It is also noticed that there don’t seem to discussions over * just* wars any more.
      What do we do with the evil in our own hearts, yet evil that doesn’t act it out.

    • Peter – my own tentative inclinations are as follows. Let us start with Dinah and the Schechemites, where a hard response may have been reasonable, but what Levi and Simeon did was really beyond measure. We see the basic characteristics (and their failings) of the patriarchs shown in their descendants – and the priestly cast were descended from Levi.

      I believe that all the authors of Scripture were absolutely sincere, they presented the truth as they saw it; what we see narrated actually happened; when they tell us that God sanctioned something, they really believed this. The writing and preserving of Scripture seems to have been, by and large, entrusted to the priests.

      God’s purpose of the Israel and the Israelites is expressed in Galatians 3:16, the once-for-all event, where the church played an integral role in sending Jesus to his crucifixion (John 11:49-53); the Pharisees (and people of that mentality) seemed to have the whip hand.

      I wonder if Caiaphas had read the story of Jephthah, who murdered his daughter, when he reached the conclusion that it was better for one man to die for the people – and what fuelled his understanding of what he said in John 11:50.

      When we read Scripture, I think we have to bear in mind who was doing the writing and – when it was written by the priests – what God intended to communicate to us about these people.

      • Jock,
        Sincerity in not the test of truth, not the test of scripture.
        The undercurrent, undertow to your point is that
        1 the writer were sincerely wrong
        2 that God, who is true, truth, true to to his word, played no part in the authorship.
        3 Or if he did, he was sincerely wrong, and therefore divested himself of his Attributes.
        4 Was the author of Genesis 6:5, sincerely wrong?
        5 Just who is the LORD in that verse? Does it include Jesus, the LORD God incarnate?

        • Geoff – I do think that God wanted us to see what the priestly cast were like.

          Aren’t there some huge aspects of Scripture that bother you? For example – I believe that everything we’re presented in 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, 1st and 2nd Chronicles is a correct account – this all happened exactly as stated. But the emphasis seems to me all wrong (at least from a Christian point of view). We do get some hints of the moral depravity that God hated – when Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal, they cut themselves until the blood pours out, in order to invoke their god, but most of it doesn’t give us this sort of information.

          In general, there isn’t much mention at all of moral depravity (e.g. adultery, breaking the commandments and violating the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself). I think this isn’t mentioned because it isn’t in the head of the writers, for those who wrote these books, this isn’t important. What was important to them was to have a king on the throne who kept the temple in good order, precisely according to the instructions that God gave to Solomon for the building of the temple.

          Doesn’t this strike you as odd? Don’t you feel that the emphasis is in entirely the wrong place?

          It isn’t until we get to the prophets that we get the full picture – that burning incense in the high places (which causes great consternation of the writers of Kings and Chronicles) was a symptom of a very deep malaise which they don’t really elaborate on; we need the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – to give us the ‘hung like a donkey, emissions of a horse’ passages and to give us a full picture of the personal depravity that reigned, adultery, fornication, lying, stealing, coveting one’s neighbour’s possessions, etc …..

          The history (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles) all makes good sense when I read it retrospectively, when I read it in the light of the prophets – but if I do a thought experiment and ask myself ‘well, how would it go if I weren’t reading into Kings and Chronicles the information I get from the prophets?’ then the perspective seems all wrong and the writers do seem (at least to me) to be concentrating on the wrong things.

          • Jock,
            You’ve not really answered the question I asked?
            What I see is that while you’ve taken up opposition to scholars who see no objection to gloss being added, enhancements, additions to the gospel writers, you are moving in the opposite direction, by seeking to diminish, subtract from scripture, scripture that Jesus read and did not seek to revise one jot or tittle, as uncorrectable.
            Once again, you are not addressing the historicity of the Passover, and death of all firstborn sons.
            And as it signposts the death of Jesus, God’s true firstborn Son, as the true Israel (son) in our stead, who took the curse of death on the cross. So that all believers become true sons, by adoption that is, primogeniture inheritors of God’s Kingdom, that Jesus as our, the, true elder brother, is pleased to share with us. Full exodus, total redemption, restoration to the City of God. And yes there is in that some, though by no means all, of the facets of salvation.
            It seems to me that neo- Marcionism lurks in many parts of the church. It certainly seems to have taken hold of disciples of people like Steve Chalke, ( an influence on Jayne Oxanne and other revisionists?) following his teaching, which to me is little more than reheating so called Higher or Historical/ Form criticism.
            That results in the conclusion that God of the Old is not the same God of the New.
            In the same category are some of the leaders of the Emerging church movement.
            And, it is suggested that that teaching
            can trigger the verbal ejaculatory denunciation that came from Susannah.

          • Geoff – if I didn’t answer your questions then it is because I don’t know the answer – and you should probably address them to somebody else. But on a specific point you raised:

            Yes – I believe in the historicity of the Passover, I believe that the plagues we are informed of in Scripture actually happened, I believe that God parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross – and then made the waters flow so that the Egyptian army was destroyed. I believe that these events recorded in Scripture actually happened in the way that Scripture tells us.

            Yes – I also believe that the Messiah was foretold and that the whole of the OT was a pointer towards the Messiah coming at the time He came and the place He came to.

            I also believe that there is an awful lot of OT Scripture that makes for strange reading. Isn’t there material in the OT that you find strange? I pointed to some features – the fact that the authors of Kings and Chronicles seemed to be soooo concentrated on dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for the temple, how the ceremonial law and Passover was observed – all important I agree – but missing the elephant in the room, which we find in the prophets, where the people had degenerated into adultery, fornication, theft, coveting, etc … etc… .

            I imagine if the writers of Chronicles were around today, they’d write something like ‘Elizabeth became queen when her father died and she reigned for over 70 years. She was a good queen. She ensured that the candelabra on the grand piano in Westminster Abbey was kept in the right place and that the Abbey wasn’t defiled by electric guitars or other punk rock music that one associates with the Prophets of Baal’ – and they’d completely omit anything of importance that happened during her reign.

    • Jesus told his followers to be nonviolent in how they built his kingdom, not in everything. A husband is to give his life for his wife (and family) as Jesus did for his bride, the church, and if another man violently attacks that man’s wife, that man ought to respond with violence. Nor would I have been a C.O. in World War 2 and I can find nothing in the New Testament telling me to be.

  9. David Cavanaugh bewails:”It’s precisely the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent children that bothers me”. Today’s response to this might be: make it civilised: simply “do the business” before they are born! I wonder what Jesus might make of our self-righteous posturising, this sense of moral superiority; reading into the OT our own pious opinions.
    Come to think of it, what record exists in the NT of what he *did*say about the appalling happenings in parts of the OT? Is there any NT evidence to suggest that he was so horrified by such events that he was driven by a desire to eliminate the “nasties” and re model the “divine script” to bring in the “instant blessing” that so many seem to associate with his coming”? Actually, we are told that he came “to fulfil the law and the prophets”; thereby highlighting his utmost, submissive respect towards the OT – “it is written” . Yes we are told he came to inaugurate, among other things, a kingdom of peace. But he also said “I have not come to bring peace but a sword. [Matt 10:34]” (compare with Luke12:51 – “division”). He came to call sinners to repentance and yet he was “one who is holy, blameless, pure, -yet- “set apart from sinners. [Hebrews 7:26]”
    To summarise: if we wish to eradicate from ,say, our imagination, our understanding or even literally, the contentious violence/war-based passages found in Scripture,
    then I suggest we ask ourselves the following questions: (1) Does my understanding match up with that of Jesus Christ? and (2) Does my understanding of *who he is” coalesce with that of his heavenly Father, not to mention his own self- understanding? Whatever the response, be careful or even avoid reading Revelation 19: 11 – 16! It speaks of a rider on a white horse. We are told that “with justice he judges and makes *war*. “He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is the Word of God.” Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations”. “He will rule them with an iron sceptre” “On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Surely this can’t be the Jesus we know so well??

    • Apologies David for misspelling your surname! Also the drift of my first paragraph was not directed towards you personally, but to modern society in general.
      Best wishes.

  10. Geoff – I’ll try to clarify – although I think I’ve probably put too much on this thread already. While I believe that what Scripture gives us is the truth, I also believe that much of it in the OT was written by people who had a wrong perspective in a severe and Pharisaical way.

    There is room for manoeuver here. For example, with the Canaanites – if we take seriously what Scripture tells us, that their sin had reached its full measure, then they may well have all been suffering from advanced syphilis, gonorrhoea, AIDS, you name it – and may well have been on the way out anyway, as a result of God’s punishment for their sins – and certainly not in a good condition to put up much of a fight. The priestly cast may very well have over-egged the pudding about how much the Israelites actually had to do in order to take possession of the land.

    I’ve tried to describe the impression I get from Samuel, Kings, Chronicles. If we read this out of context (i.e. if we read it without bearing in mind everything the prophets wrote), we’d get the impression that God was very angry because people were burning incense in the high places and weren’t taking seriously enough instructions about the temple in Jerusalem and the worship ordained by God. You would get the impression from Kings and Chronicles that it didn’t matter at all if a person wasn’t committing adultery, wasn’t stealing, was honouring his father and mother, was being very nice and kind and charming to all his neighbours, giving his children a loving home environment – all this would count for nothing if the person was offering incense to other gods in high places and not taking the temple and the instructions for worship of the one true God seriously enough.

    It’s only when we go to the prophets that we get a true picture of the moral degeneracy in that society at that time.

    So we know something about the writers and their perspective; while I believe that the events of Joshua actually happened, I get the impression that it was seen through the eyes of and written down by people who would have been particularly concerned by the style of worship that the Canaanites were engaged in (irrespective of questions of personal godliness among the Canaanite community) – and might not be so concerned about the basic morality expressed in the second table of the ten commandments.

    I recognise that my views here are not satisfactory and are somewhat confused.

    • Jock,
      If I understand your comments correctly, what you seem to be saying is that some of what we read in the OT is directly God’s mind on the matter and some is what the Israelites thought was God’s mind on the matter.

      I suppose one could regard both understandings as being in sense sense ‘inspired’ if you think that God has permitted the Israelites to tell their own story even if they have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Is this a correct assessment of your understanding?

      Question is -if so, how do you tell the difference?

      • Chris – yes – you’ve hit the nail on the head – that’s pretty much the way I think it was. Some of it is God’s mind on the matter; the rest is what the Israelites thought was God’s mind on the matter – and it was all ‘inspired’ in the sense that God wanted us to understand his mind and God also wanted us to see how the Israelites picked up the wrong end of the stick when telling their own story.

        Yes – I think this is more-or-less absolutely how I’ve come to see it, because there is quite a lot in the Old Testament that I simply can’t get my head around in any other way.

        Also – Caiaphas in John 11:50 – there must have been something that led him to think this way.

        What you ask, though, is the million dollar question – which I can’t really answer – except that there are certain things that do come across to me as dead wrong (e.g. Jephthah killing his own daughter).

        • I suppose that 1 Cor 7:12 might be an example of Paul speaking his own mind but not God’s yet the whole passage may in some sense be seen as ‘inspired’ as it was included in the NT.

          Here the delineation of thought is made clear.

        • I think many take that view Jock. The problem I see with it is, who is the judge as to which bits correctly recorded what God actually did say to the Israelites or their leaders and which bits are effectively the Israelites putting words into God’s mouth?

          I think you make an interesting point about the ‘prophetic’ writings but I dont feel qualified to comment. Perhaps Ian could?!

          Im not sure how relevant this is, but I find it interesting that although God seemed to have given Moses instructions on how to deal with divorce, we learn later, from Jesus, that the ONLY reason He gave those instructions was because of the male Israelites’ ‘hard hearts’. In other words it wasnt because God ‘actively wanted’ divorce, but he was accommodating man’s mindset at the time. This gives me some pause for thought when considering God’s commands in the OT.


  11. I am a bit late with this comment – but what has perhaps been missed is that it was not so much ethnic cleansing, or even getting rid of nations because of their wrong ethics, but as a cleansing the land of peoples who worshipped other gods – so as to try and prevent Israel doing what they always did, that is going with other gods. Which is the reason given in 2 Kings 17: 7-23 for their eventual exile from the land.

    It has been an interesting blog post, and I will buy the book.

    • Colin – yes, but the question is whether this makes what the Israelites did all right. God cleansing the land by casting the Canaanites out is one thing (there wouldn’t be a problem if He had done this through natural disaster – or self inflicted disease brought about by their own sins – and if the Israelites had simply walked in unopposed); whether it was OK to get the Israelites to participate by killing with the sword everything alive (including women, children) is quite a different matter.


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