“Papa, if God wants to bring us peace and light, why did he help the Israelites destroy a city and kill people?”

Wiki: James Tissot, "The Taking of Jericho"
Wiki: James Tissot, “The Taking of Jericho”

I don’t always allow my daughter, who is seven, to read during church service. Technically, it’s Mass, as we are Roman Catholic. But I grew up in an Evangelical charismatic church, and sometimes it still feels funny to use the “M” word.

Mass is a one-hour period each week during which I want my daughter, who loves all things horses and Harry Potter, to concentrate on the components of worship: confession, creed, hymns, Scripture readings, homily, Eucharist. It’s a survivable sacrifice.

Yet whenever we attend one particular church, I let my daughter bring a Children’s Bible or sometimes one of Tommie dePaolo’s religion-themed books. I don’t let her read the real Bible yet. She is an amazing reader for her age, and although she’s quite the horse enthusiast, I’m not quite ready to explain to her certain passages in Ezekiel about equine issuance.

While the sanctuary of this church is beautiful, the acoustics are, unfortunately, godawful. Anyone who stands at the ambo (pulpit) produces words that bounce around the curved architectural features and invariably sound as foreign to my ears as Tamil. It’s like listening to folks order pizza during Pentecost. I sometimes tell my daughter to bring more than one book so that I can flip through dePaolo’s Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi during the homily.

During one recent Mass, my daughter repeatedly tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at a picture in her Children’s Bible. This was during the Presentation of the Gifts—that moment during the service when every adult’s attention is transfixed upon the offertory plate. There is a ridiculous pressure upon parishioners to keep the flow of that wicker basket constant—it reminds me of roller skating rinks, minus the unrequited middle school love pangs. Must. Keep. Eye. On. Basket!I batted away my daughter’s repeated calls for attention.

Listen, child, if I don’t put this 20-spot in the basket at just the right velocity, we might not ever make it out of Purgatory!

My daughter refused to be snubbed. Finally, I paid her heed. She was pointing at an illustration of the crumbling walls of Jericho. The bricks, the clouds of dust, it was all so cartoony innocent—all that was missing was Humpty Dumpty. And you could hardly tell that Yahweh was in a punitive mood that day—except apparently by the paraphrased text from the Book of Joshua: “The city was burnt to the ground. This was the first of Joshua’s victories in Canaan.”

My daughter asked in a voice just loud enough for everyone within a five-pew perimeter to hear, “Papa, if God wants to bring us peace and light, why did he help the Israelites destroy a city and kill people?”

That moment when your child exposes an entire congregation to the harsh realities of Theodicy. Man, kid, all we wanted to do was grab our wafers and wine and head home to watch the playoffs! Thanks a lot.

I whispered to her that we would discuss the question later in the car. I flipped back a few pages just out of curiosity and realized that the illustration of pre-collapse Jericho showed walls that were taller than the Empire State Building. Total horseshit—and I suppose Rahab made her living selling Lee Press-On Nails.

As I said, my daughter is a voracious reader. While the priest droned on in something resembling Basque or Slovenian, she made it all the way to the story of Jonah. Oh great, I thought, now I’ve got to explain how Tarshish was a six-hour jet plane ride across the Mediterranean from Nineveh—not to mention the fact that the Hebrew translation of “dag” is more accurately translated “fish.”

On the way home from Mass, my daughter and I discussed several possibilities about the story of Joshua and the city of Jericho. We narrowed it down quickly (perhaps too quickly) to the fact that God is in fact the God of light and peace we think God is. The problem—which isn’t so much “a problem,” but a way to understand the story (as I described hermeneutics to her)—is that the story then either didn’t happen at all, or happened sort of that way but later had some tall tales attached to it. We also admitted that it’s entirely possible that back in those days people believed God helps armies win battles—the way that people today think God helps athletes win Super Bowls.

We also talked about how Bible stories can have really important meanings even if they aren’t “history.” For example, Jonah and the Whale is a myth about a person listening to God and being willing to forgive people, even people who do not seem to deserve forgiving. My daughter also pointed out “a note of hermeneusticals” that living in a whale’s stomach—or a fish’s stomach, for that matter—would expose a human being to “some pretty mean acids.” Excellent point.

I grew up without the benefit of a parent who had studied the Bible in college. In my home, the Bible was unquestionably true, a word-for-word historical transcript of the Universe (never mind Evolution and Micronesia and those pesky New World Olmecs), not to mention a Joy of Cooking recipe book for living right. To believe otherwise was sacrilege and an invitation of satanic doubt. And of course we swore by the New International Version. Why? Well, because it was new, not to mention international—practically the American Express of Bibles!

That day, my child’s faith wasn’t destroyed by approaching the super-duper-hard questions of Theodicy with critical thinking and honest confrontation of the biblical text. For what it’s worth, on the way home, we also talked about the possibility that some of the stories might be true—definitely are true. Also, that we should leave the door open that it’s entirely possible miracles may have happened. Also-also, that we should respect people who do believe all of the stories in the Bible happened “just that way”—but that people who believe that way don’t have a right to control our own minds and lives. That’s called fundamentalism.

Most important of all, I made clear to my daughter that our conversation wasn’t an open-and-shut case. It was an important first conversation, with others surely to follow. For faith is a journey.

Later, when my daughter was being tucked into bed that night, she concluded, “What matters most is that we follow Jesus. And we don’t need the story of Jericho for that.”

Certainly an interesting thought—and another opportunity for conversation.

Arik Bjorn is a writer who lives in Columbia, South Carolina. His latest book is Why Bad Things Happen To Good Parrots. Arik’s educational background includes archaeology, ancient languages, and biblical studies. He has run the gamut of Christian experience, from Evangelical to Orthodox catechumen to live-in Episcopalian sexton to Roman Catholic. Follow Arik on Twitter @arikbjorn and on Facebook. And check out his website, Viking Word.


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26 responses to ““Papa, if God wants to bring us peace and light, why did he help the Israelites destroy a city and kill people?””

  1. Generally I agree, yet I sense a tinge of sarcasm and mockery of those who are Fundamentalists. . . Do not let your distaste of them, translate into hostility. They are good people, who may believe differently. Your daughter is correct, it does not matter. Christianity is big enough for liberal and conservative thought. If we are going to mock them, then it is appropriate for them to mock us? Instead we need to remember that they are still Christians and that we actually agree on a lot of issues. . .

  2. Casey, thank you for your thoughtful words. One of the things I always want to impart in conversations like these is that we are all embarked on spiritual journeys. We made a discovery that day, but that didn’t mean the journey was over–or that the discovery was “unmalleable.”

    I am proud that fear is not a part of these conversations I have with my daughter. My own childhood journey began much differently.

  3. Hopefully this article inspires other parents–other journeyers, in general–not to be afraid of wrestling with difficult theological issues. (Maybe not in the middle of a mass or service, but all the same. 🙂 )

  4. Rahab lied to her fellow citizens concerning the whereabouts of the spies and was rewarded by God.

    In John chapter 7, Jesus’ brothers asked him if he was going up to the Feast of Booths. In John 7:8 Jesus lied and said, “You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast…” ESV. But Jesus did go the Feast.

    How would you have answered the question of this article if one of you children had asked it at a young age?

  5. First of all you are not Jesus.

    Second of all Jesus said it wasn’t his time at the time he was asked. No lie.

  6. I understand his reason for lying, but it was still a lie. His brothers went away believing he wasn’t going when in fact he planned on going. That makes it a lie. If it’s ok for Jesus to lie but not me, then Jesus is a hypocrite.

    Rahab was commended by God for lying.

  7. Your conclusions are fallacious. Jesus wasn’t going at the time. No lie. No hypocrite.

    And God no where condoned Rehabs lying. There was positive outcome but nowhere does it say it was ok. In fact the bible is clear that we should not lie.

    I suggesting knowing and learning what scripture says so you don’t look ignorant about it.

    Also are you equating yourself with the rights of God?

  8. I understand Jesus wasn’t going to the feast at the time he was asked, but that’s not how he answered the question. He said he wasn’t going at all. Not then. Not later. He wanted to go to the feast in secret, so he lied to his bothers to keep it secret.

    Rahab was commended by God for her lie by being included in the book of Hebrews’ faith hall of fame in verse 11:31. If she had told the truth, she would not have been commended by being on this list. She was not counted with the disobedient. In faithful obedience, she took in the spies. In faithful obedience, she hid the spies. In faithful obedience she lied to her countrymen to protect the spies.

    What would your answer be if your child asked you, “Papa, if God wants to bring us peace and light, why did he help the Israelites destroy a city and kill people?”

    What would your answer be if your child asked you, “If God loves all the children of the world, why did he kill all of them in a big flood? Why would God kill all the kittens, puppies, and little babies?”

  9. No you are putting your intention onto Jesus. He never said he would never go. Try again.

    Once again it’s nit relevant that Rehab had a good result. God never blessed or called her lying good. Try again.

    I would tell my child that God is perfectly moral because God defines morality. And if according to his perfect plan he condones violence and killing he has a purpose that is moral even though for us it would be immoral.

    And people choose their path in life. People choose to reject and disobey God and just like we have laws and police and courts when we break the law, their are consequences to breaking Gods laws. And even we don’t understand it, even if we might disagree with it, it is perfectly moral because God cannot be anything but.

  10. That’s a rather abstract answer for a child. Your child asks why God would do something horrific like kill all the innocent babies in the world and you answer with some abstract comment about God being moral. If I were your child, I would be terrified that God would do something horrific to me and I wouldn’t even know what I did wrong. Couldn’t you just give a simple answer like, “The reason God killed all the babies is because…”? Shouldn’t you answer a child’s question about the horrific events in the Old Testament in such a way that it doesn’t leave the child terrified of God?

  11. I don’t see how my answer would terrify a child. Either way it’s the truth and children, like anyone, deserve the truth. And I would assure the child that he or she did not need to worry.

    I suspect however that it’s not a child that has problem with the truth of God, it’s you.

  12. Basically, your answer to why God killed all the babies in the world is that God kills children without warning and for no apparent reason. How is that reassuring?

    Would you teach children that they are sinful and bad from birth with no intrinsic goodness apart from Jesus living inside them?

  13. I would teach them the truth that humanity is marred by sin and therefore need Christ be forgiven and to reconciled with God.

    Gods reasons are reason enough.

  14. God’s reasons are reason enough, but what are those reasons? God has reasons for drowning all the animals and babies in worldwide flood but what are those reasons? God has reasons to order the unprovoked attack of a large city to kill all the animals and babies but what are those reasons? God has reasons to throw infants into a fiery Hell but what are those reasons? You make God sound like a narcissistic sadistic monster.