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.