Hard Questions for the Bible

Christopher Wright openly and honestly admits that those of us who adhere to a classic form of belief in God — God is good, holy, loving, sovereign — have a problem: evil. Evil is a problem for any thinking Christian — a serious problem. Simply put: if God is good, we have to ask why there is evil. If God is sovereign, we have to ask why there is evil. And if God is good we have to ask if God is sovereign.

This is the big question shaping Wright’s newest book, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. In fact, Wright says these problems are more acute for Christians than for any other view: polytheism can find the problems in the war of the gods, monism resolves the problems in seeing the problem as illusory — all matter is one, and atheists don’t have the same moral problem – it’s the world in which we live.

But the for the Christian who believes God is good and sovereign, the presence of evil — moral, personal, structural — is a problem. Wright tackles four questions in this book:

1. What about evil and suffering?
2. What about the Canaanites?
3. What about the cross?
4. What about the end of the world?

I want to look at one of these sections — the Canaanites. Simply put, how do we explain the God of the Old Testament stripping the Land clean of Canaanites? Of sanctioning genocide or ethnic cleansing? Of the use of violence — death — to accomplish the divine will?

Here’s how Wright approaches this problem:

1. The view that it is an Old Testament problem and the New Testament puts it right is inadequate: the OT shows a loving God (e.g., Exod 34:6-7), the NT has plenty about God’s wrath (read: Jesus’ warnings of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Book of Revelation), and the NT accepts the stories of the OT.

2. The view that Israelites “interpreted” the takeover of the Land as God’s will but they were mistaken — Wright finds this view inadequate, too. Problem? No one ever sees taking the Land as a colossal moral mistake.

3. The view that the conquest is an allegory of spiritual warfare is also inadequate.

These three views are inadequate, and I agree. What I also agree with Wright is this: there is no easy answer here. The honesty of this chp impresses me. “There are days I wish,” he says, “this narrative were not in the Bible at all.” (Many of us have days like this, esp if you are one who teaches the Bible or the OT as a life.) Wright’s approach is to examine this issue in the context of three biblical frameworks — frameworks that do not “explain away” but do “set in context.”

1. The framework of OT story: conquest is part of ancient near eastern culture and rhetoric of warfare. This is not a “holy” war but “Yahweh war.” Total war and total defeat are part of the rhetoric of the ancient near east. Wright also asks if God accommodated his will to the people (this expression best fits how I would read the text).

And, the conquest of Canaan is a unique and limited event. It is not a model of warfare.

2. The framework of God’s sovereign justice. God acts against injustice both with Canaan and with Israel, but it is an act of justice against degradation and injustice. Wright points to OT texts that speak of Canaan’s sinfulness (Lev 18:24-25; 20:22-24; Deut 9:5; 12:29-31). The violence here is not arbitrary. This act of judgment does not mean Israel was altogether righteous. And this act is part of God’s sovereign control of history — including other nations.

3. The framework of God’s plan of salvation. Every even fits into the big plan of peace, of ultimately blessing the nations, and the eventual praise of the nations.

Maybe you’re not satisfied yet; neither is Wright. But the one thing I like is how Wright approaches this most difficult of texts. There is nothing here like this: “God is holy; they’re sinful; they deserve to be slain.” Instead, there is a palpable dissatisfaction with our mind’s capacity to grasp the magnitude of sin, of God’s control of history, and of how God’s redemptive work is accomplished.

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  • Luke

    Thanks Scot,
    I’ve actually had this book on my wishlist for a while and didn’t know it had been released yet (unless you got an early copy or something). Here again I just don’t see Wright taking a view that I would normally see a Calvinist taking. Many (e.g. Piper) would explain it like “God is holy, they’re sinful, they deserve to be slain,” but seemingly Wright doesn’t do this.
    In any case, I’m glad he’s tackling these texts head on. I took a course in seminary that covered God’s goodness in the OT and it was life-changing. I think we covered almost every text I’ve ever heard to depict God as some type of arbitrary monster. I wasn’t always satisfied with the professor’s response (though I was about 80% of the time), but just seeing that he had the marbles to bring these up and wrestle with them in class was admirable, and it gave me the feeling that I don’t have to run away from stuff like this and explain it away (as is so often done). Chris Wright is the man, and I wish more scholars were like him.

  • James Petticrew

    Strange to read this because all last night I was thinking about theodicy. There has been a series of programmes on UK tv about the many assassination attempts on Hitler, over 40 apparently. He had some amazingly close shaves, fuses froze on a bomb on his plane, he cancelled a display where a suicide bomber was ready and of course saved by the table leg in the Wolf’s lair.
    It could seem like God protected him but yet to admit that is admit that God at the very least passively had a role in the holocaust and Nazi war crimes. If God is sovereign and loving why did he allow Hitler to live? or the Cannanites to suffer what we call ethnic cleansing.
    Some of the answers to these subjects I received in theological colleges here in the UK I found depressing. In Scotland the Calvinistic answer that its God’s Sovereign Will seems to me to create an Islamified God. I was drawn to Moltmann’s “Crucified God” and pastorally the concept has been a tremendous help and yet I need and I think Scripture shows a God who is more than simply empathetic.
    I accept the problem and hold on to what I know. That God has not ignored evil, he has in Jesus experienced it along side us and through the cross he has absorbed its pain and power, through the resurrection he has triumphed over it and by his return he will end it decisively. In the here and now I have decided all I can do is to believe the best of my crucified God and join him in waging war against evil and suffering in all its forms.

  • Greg Boyd ran a few posts on the issue of Ot warfare earlier this year. I’ve found his thinking very helpful. Unfortunately I am unable to provide links as there does not appear to be an archive link on his blog page.

  • Last year our community worked through Dawkin’s “The God delusion”. Our assignment was to allow his thoughts to lead us into asking the questions we’re afraid to ask. This was mine. I’m still wrestling deeply with it. Thanks for the resource recommendation.

  • Diane

    Hi James,
    This may put me in the “nut brigrade” but I do believe strongly that Hitler was protected (for a long time) by demonic power. I think we tend to underrate or simply dismiss that power in our intellectual culture.
    I have often wondered with some horror about the slaughter of the Canaanites too and thought, with some unease, that the OT writers got the “feed” wrong. Like Wright, I find none of the answers altogether satisfying, but one thing that has helped me is understanding the OT as a whole, not as a bunch of fragments: Israel too, when it strays and starts losing its moral compass, sacrificing children, etc, etc, suffers conquest that seems quite harsh for God’s chosen people. But God is just.

  • One thing that gives me hope is that breaking the silence over theodicy generally might give us the chance to finally come to some workable and satisfying answers. For too long the issue has been the domain of a few apologists and reliant heavily on old quick answers.
    Modern communication has really enabled the faith commmunity at large to discuss this very important question. I’m excited about where this discussion could lead.

  • James Petticrew

    Diane the issue of Hitler still focuses my thinking on evil and God’s power because while I don’t underestimate the power of the demonic it is pretty clear that following the mission of Jesus it is very much a broken power “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” Col 2:15 So at least passively God seems to have allowed Hitler to live and of course as a pastor this is even more of an issue for me when I have buried so many good people who have died from cancer etc.
    I just have to trust in his wisdom and in the light of Jesus that’s something I can do

  • Your Name

    This issue was the center of a debate between Bart Ehrman & NT Wright a while back on beliefnet. It basically came down to NT Wright taking Christopher Wright’s position which focuses on God’s righteousness/justice (that God is doing something about evil and the future time when it will be totally removed by an act of God’s grace) and God’s particular plan of salvation and Bart Ehrman not buying it because it still doesn’t explain how God can allow so much evil.
    I got the impression from Bart that if there wasn’t as much evil in terms of genocides, holocausts, etc., that the biblical approach would be more palpable.

  • Rick

    Good article by Paul Copan on these difficulties at the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He refers to positions of scholars such as Richard Hays, Chris Wright, and John Goldingay.
    In regards to the Canaanite situations, he Copan writes:
    “First, Israel would not have been justified to attack the Canaanites without Yahweh’s explicit command. Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason-the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture. Second, the language of Deuteronomy 7:2-5 assumes that, despite Yahweh’s command to bring punishment to the Canaanites, they would not be obliterated-hence the warnings not to make political alliances or intermarry with them. We see from this passage too that wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the Canaanites themselves.[67] Third, the “obliteration language” in Joshua (for example, “he left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed all who breathed” [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land: “For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you” (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the typical ANE’s literary conventions of warfare.[68)…..Fourth, the crux of the issue this: if God exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should have a status no higher than any human being. Thus, he has no right to take life as he determines. Yet we should press home the monumental difference between God and ordinary human beings. If God is the author of life, he is not obligated to give us seventy or eight years of life…..That being the case, he can take the lives of the Canaanites indirectly through Israel’s armies (or directly, as he did when Sodom was destroyed in Genesis 19) according to his good purposes and morally sufficient reasons. What then of “innocent women and children”? Keep in mind that when God destroyed Sodom, he was willing to spare the city if there were even ten innocent persons. Not even ten could be found. Given the moral depravity of the Canaanites, the women were far from innocent.
    “Goldingay, urges us to appreciate the tension between the ideal and the actual-between the high standards God desires from his covenant people and the reality of dealing with a sinful, stubborn people in a covenant-unfriendly ANE environment.”

  • Eileen

    Theodicy is too complicated for me – Augustine wrote (my emphasis) that we (Christians) have some part – obligation – in returning evil (good corrupted) back to it’s original position as good. I think when I get this one concept down in my own life I might be qualified to speak about a God who would ask for a genocide.

  • RJS

    Book not released yet – guess this means Wright’s book doesn’t make the Christmas list.
    There was a NOVA show on PBS recently: The Bible’s Buried Secrets. I watched it on-line a week or so ago. This show presented what seemed to me (and I am not an OT expert) a fairly balanced view. One of the experts was a real skeptic (Biblical narrative a very late invention) but the overall tone was much better. The show does not support a conservative evangelical reading, but did give me a line for thinking about the text in terms of the story of God working in his creation. If one takes the view that the God of the Bible is a fiction – the data leads to a purely human, natural interpretation. If one takes the view that God exists – the same data shows a God working in his creation to make himself known, to create a people of God, carrying beyond the topic of this show into the NT with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the formation of the inclusive church.
    This may seem off topic – but the overall view of the nature of scripture and the trajectory of history in God’s creation plays a big role in how we (ok – I) view the problems discussed in this post, especially the problem of the conquest of Canaan.
    As I said, I am no OT expert, I wonder what an expert might think of this show – anyone?

  • aha, I’ve found Greg Boyds blog posts: http://gregboyd.blogspot.com/2008/04/craigie-problem-of-war-in-old-testament.html
    He blogs about Peter Craigie’s book entitled “The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Wipf and Stock, 2002 [orig. 1978])”.
    RJA, As an aside “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” was televised this week here in the UK too, and I think it is still on cycle on one of the Discovery or Natgeo channels. I did not watch it though, too busy being entertained by Summer Heights High (which is the best series currently on UK TV).

  • andwils

    This is the “BIG ONE” for most if not all who struggle with faith in the Christian God. I’ve sorta come to this issue with the approach Scot lays out in “Blue Parakeet”. But instead of “God *spoke* to Moses, Joshua, etc in their day in their way”…God *acted within the context* of their day and their way. So for example, the cultural context of that day was one of tribalism, waring factions, territory control through war, he who has the land has control, etc. (obviously very simplified here) and God works within the context of this history to restore creation (This was not God’s ideal as stated within the text itself). As cultures have evolved and developed God has worked within that context to continue this restoration. For Example: Christ brings a new covanant of *love your enemy* and kingdom territory not being defined by geography, which required a different contextual history to even begin (more pluralistic society, broader world interaction, etc). Other examples would be slavery, women rights and current broader social justice concerns all of which would have been impossible conversations even just 200 years ago within that historical context. I admit this still does not resolve the tension and brings other troubling questions..
    Again, this is very simplified for blogging purposes. Love the conversation and others insight!

  • Clay Knick

    Thanks for this post. And the
    tips on new books!

  • Scot McKnight

    I begin a series of three posts tomorrow on books for Christmas presents. I’ve been to the annual meeting where the publishers all advertise and sell their new books … so I’ve got a list of books to mention.

  • I think all of the theologizing is just like Job’s friends! Using the Bible as conservatives do, and as it seems you do too, is limiting truth, God, ans everything else to the text. It is fundamentalist’s claims to truth all over again.
    The church has real problems today concerning its universiality. I do not believe that exlusivistic claim to faith can be affirmed today, if one wants to hold to the real world in the disciplines. The churuch has to admit that it is one among many faiths that attempt to attain to ultimate reality, but is still man’s attempt. There is no supernatural or special revleation anymore…

  • Scot McKnight

    I begin a series of three posts tomorrow on books for Christmas presents. I’ve been to the annual meeting where the publishers all advertise and sell their new books … so I’ve got a list of books to mention.

  • I’ve been doing (and will be doing) a lot of reading on this topic, and I’m sure I’ll add this book to my list.
    That said, I think “God is holy; they’re sinful; they deserve to be slain” is (at least in part) a valid response, and the only reason we don’t like it is because our society (including the modern American church) has lost our view of God’s holiness and what it really means.
    As for the Canaanites problem, I think the “story” approach is important. If you look at the storyline of the Bible, I think you can make a case that, for Jesus to be killed by the Romans and Jewish leaders simply for claiming to be exactly who he was, Israel needed to be placed exactly where it was. Giving the levant to Israel was necessary for making Israel a light to the nations and the womb of the Messiah. And the Canaanites were sinful and contagious and needed to be kept away from the chosen nation.

  • Does Wright mention anything about Israel maintaining national sovereignty and identity? I don’t mean to say that the purity of Israel explains all of the violence of the OT but it has to play a part. Salvation history is dependent upon Israel being the unique people of God, at least in how it was played out. Wars, slavery of other nations, slaughtering of women and children (and livestock) seem to happen so flagrantly if not considered in a context of national purity.
    I guess even then the question of why still lingers though. Why is the weight of sin so heavy? Why is the wrath of God so fierce? Does the fierceness apply universally to sin? Does the birth of Christ through the line of Abraham necessitate the demise and sinfulness of other nations? I can’t stop asking questions.

  • Scot,
    I have some friends who view God has not only accommodating to the ANE warring culture, but is “learning as He goes” so to speak. That in interacting with people in rebellion from God, God is in a process of working out his purposes with Israel. I know our good Calvinist friends cringe at this idea and I can’t say that it sits well with me. But the idea that “God is holy, the Canaanites are sinful, ‘nuke ‘em into oblivion’” does not seem right either. Perhaps the texts need to stand as written and this calls us to discernment rather than to a precise game plan.

  • Terri

    All of these discussions/explanations sound hollow (the purity of Israel, the holiness of God and the contagious sinfulness of the Canaanites, God was accommodating the culture, etc)when I think of an Israelite soldier walking into a hut/tent and killing a mother and her children because (according to the text) GOD TOLD THEM TO. Why could they not at least spare the children? Because of racial purity? Because a toddler was contagiously evil? YUCK! Really, how am I to wrap my head around that? Is there any explanation that is satisfying?
    I’m coming to terms with the idea that I may struggle at least with that specific aspect of the “theodicy” question indefinitely. (And I certainly don’t mean to imply that any previous commenters haven’t struggled with this or that any of you think the issues are in any way simplistic….)

  • I just want to say how much I appreciate the tone of Wright’s response. His title alone is so refreshing: “The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith.”
    Just the fact that he said “reflections” instead of “answers” makes me feel like the evangelical community has taken a huge step forward, away from the old “Battle for God,” “Battle for Truth,” “War of Ideas,” “Answers to All Your Questions” approach that I grew up with.
    I remember sitting in a theology class in which the professor insisted that the Problem of Evil wasn’t that big a deal for Christians….and I’ve had plenty of discussions with people who simply shrug their shoulders at the Canaanite issue and say, “They were evil. God is good. What’s your problem?”
    Knowing that other people really wrestle with the issue makes me feel a little less alone. I think that if books like this, (and “The Blue Parakeet,” I might add!), continue to make the rounds, people like me will stay in the evangelical fold after all. I think some of us were actually getting sick of answers.

  • Rick (#9) — thanks for publishing the Copan quote. It’s great I think that Copan notes how the language used in scripture of the conquest is not always “literal” (wow — a conservative evangelical accpeting a critical conclusion about the text!). I might push this further — if it is true that the conquest narratives are mostly post-exhilic, then perhaps we need to understand them at some level as identity shaping / encouragement devices for the exiles. In other words, not only is the language hyperbolic, the entire narrative is shaped for a very specific theological / pastoral purpose. This perspective helps with the big archeological problems concerning the conquest as well as to some extent with the theodicy problem.

  • Brian in NZ

    I am untrained in theology, and I may be totally naive, but I believe that God made the decision to give us free will, and for that to be effective, we had to have the option of choosing something other than His will. I am not saying that God created evil so that we could have an option, but we can choose to do his will or our own. It seems to me that the Bibles story of the fall is there to show how choices me make which are out of God’s will or direction ultimately lead to self-centered and harmful outcomes to ourselves or those around us.
    Based on that premise, it is not surprising to me that evil exists. It does not conflict with God’s sovereignty, because he has chosen to allow this consequence to occur to maintain his plan for free choice. Yes God could maintain full sovereignty and stop all evil from existing, but we would be robots, obeying out of necessity, not free will.

  • Your Name

    This at present is very important to me and my ability to know God’s love and to love Him and others with all that I am and have. To say this another way, the way I have understood passages like these in the Bible makes it harder for me to believe God is love. I can’t reconcile these passages, which do include some of Jesus’ words according to the gospel narratives, with God among us looking down from the cross and praying “Father forgive them …”. Is the cross or is it not the hinge point of history? Does it overide the cycle of obedience and blessing, disobedience and cursing? I can’t say I understand very much of it, but the book “The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?” by David Bentley Hart seems very important to me. I would really like to follow a blog through this book here.

  • Terri,
    Re: the Canaanite children, after pondering this for a good while, the best I’ve been able to come up with is this:
    God promised Israel that if they acted like the Canaanites, He would do to them what they did to the Canaanites. (Which he later did using the Assyrians and Babylonians.)
    Quite possibly the worst thing that can happen to a person short of hell is the sure knowledge that your children will not outlive you and it’s your fault. By including the children of the Canaanites in the purge, God told the Israelites their children would be part of the price they would pay for abandoning Him. It’s not the first time God took someone’s child to punish them.
    (We also have to keep in mind that God made us out of the kindness of His heart, keeps us alive out of the same, and owes no one another second of life — not even children. The people who wrote “we are the sheep of his pasture” were well aware of the many uses of leg o’ lamb.)

  • SamB

    #27 is mine.

  • Rebeccat

    This is the question which stopped me in my tracks many years ago when reading through the OT. I guess I had always read it in the past without any emotional reaction to it, but this time, for whatever reason, I had an emotional response to it. I had to stop at some crazy story about a woman driving a spike through the head of a man sleeping in her tent (too lazy to look it up right now). I prayed for a long time, demanding some explanation for from God. What I got finally was something like, “Don’t worry. I work it all out in the end.” And as cliche as it sounds, it really was a statement of both justice and redemption which I spent a very long time coming to terms with (so far as a simple human can).
    Over the years, I’ve actually come to evil as a fundamental part of this world. I don’t think that all which is evil will ultimately bring about good, but it does seem that evil and suffering may be necessary tools to change us and grow us. (Although I would in no ways claim that this is a complete explanation.) It’s pure speculation, and probably an already condemned heresy, but I have at times thought that the only rational explanation for God placing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, without any real safeguards was that He Adam eating from it was part of His plan. An atheist I know once argued that if the story were true, not only would God have had to have meant for Adam to eat it, but Adam probably would have known that this was the plan all along (owing to God not wanting to trick Adam and that Adam must have inquired about this forbidden tree during their walks together). It’s just a thought experiment, but one which I have found interesting. I think that for all the bible tells us, there are probably many things which God has chosen not to reveal. So in the end, all we really have is speculation and trust, I guess.

  • ScottC

    re: andwils (#13)
    I am not a specialist in the first century, but Jesus’ ideas seem radical in a first-century Jewish & Roman context just as much as in a 13th or 15th century B.C.E. Mesopotamian context (or in today’s North American context). It just doesn’t make sense to me that God would accommodate his teachings on war and political/national identity to the ancient Israelites but not to the first-century Jews….

  • Your Name

    Proverbs 3:18 says, Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her…
    Proverbs 1:7 says, The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge…
    The Tree of Life? At the beginning in the Garden of Eden, and also there was the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.
    In the beginning in the Garden of Eden, at the time of Creation, All was Good. Before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, they already knew the Good. They lived in Paradise, in communion with God. Before they ate of the forbidden fruit, they already knew Good. In eating of the fruit and disobeying God, they came to know Evil.
    Now, in this World as it is, we already know that which is Evil… We know pain, anger, loneliness, sadness, bitterness, rejection… suffering.
    Now our pursuit is the Knowledge of Good, the Knowledge of the LORD.
    I would venture to say the rest of the Bible explores how to come to this knowledge of Good and of the Lord. Ultimately, Jesus comes to bring the kingdom of God, that people may partake and do the will of God, rightly relating with others and with God — truly knowing God, and thus have the knowledge of Good.
    It is available, and we are to seek this kingdom and spread it to all the world as well, breaking chains, liberating, healing, and proclaiming good news to the poor. We are to fulfill our prayer for the healing of suffering, spreading knowledge of that which is Good, spreading the kingdom of God and the life of Jesus the Messiah.

  • Your Name

    I can’t help but think that we cannot get outside our boxes identification factors. All faiths define themselves as unique, otherwise, there would be no need to have the definitions or boundarires. Group identity is tied up to clan, tribe, race, or social standing (or any other human group identifier). Group identification is not wrong in and of itself, but unless we are reflective, we can defend the right of our identity over another’s. This is why genoicide, persecution,ethnic cleansing, etc. happens. Paul tried to circumvent the identification factors by appealing to Christ as above these identifiers. So, I believe that it is imperative to create “a new humanity” where all faiths are affirmed for what they are, human identification. No one religion, then would be the ultimate truth claims,but allow freedom of discussion for a comint to unity, at least a negotiation where it concerns contracts, treaties, etc. that are important to humanity’s good. This is diplomacy, international relations, and politics.

  • Mary

    Bummer – I’m Post #32
    Another question – can we believe in a God who suffers?
    And with the whole genocide thing… does God not reveal Himself in different ways?
    Is it possible for God to change His mind? – in His ultimate self revelation in Jesus?
    Or did the early Jews misinterpret the intent of the command and Law?
    I do not know.

  • What is scary about Israel as God’s “instrument” for judgment on the Canaanites is the adoption of that same mindset by early American settlers from Europe who were God’s “instrument” to punish the sins of the (pagan) Native Americans and the Boers in South Africa who claimed the land from the black Canaanite tribes. Hey, it’s in the Bible.

  • Jason

    Thank you Terri #21 for preserving the ugliness of this issue. Our futile attempts to “solve” the problem tend to mute how truly horrid is the notion that God would demand a complete genocide.
    ChrisB #28 – So slaughtering foreign children is an object lesson for the Israelites? Obey me, else your (Israelite) babies will also be slaughtered? Am I understanding you correctly? If so, let me quote Terri #21 – YUCK!

  • Thanks for this post Scot. I asked about this, as have others a few days back and your post gives me some things to begin pondering. I will have to add the book to my amazon wish list!

  • budcath

    I believe in God and I believe in Evil.
    I think Evil is a totally human thing, and that the Adam and Eve story is not literal and is an attempt of an ancient tribe to make sense of where we came from and why things are as they are.
    The original sin was selfishness, desire, self interest when it was known that this would separate one from the Good, or God’s will.
    We don’t know if there was already a history of bad blood between the Jews and Caananites and the Jews were finally able to overthrow them and say God told them to do it.
    God has not dealt kindly with the Jews over the millenia and that is what is refreshing about the Bible. It doesn’t whitewash the fact that if the Jews don’t live by God’s Law they are punished. Many times terribly.
    These type of questions about Evil’s origin aren’t able to be answered definitively by us humans. I realize to a biblical literalist all questions have been answered.

  • RJS

    In #1 The framework of OT story: conquest is part of ancient near eastern culture and rhetoric of warfare.
    Is it possible that the rhetoric of telling the story conforms to the ANE culture? So it is not that God accommodated his will to the people in the conquest – but that the telling of the story of the conquest by God’s people conformed to cultural norms? This gets then to what we view as the purpose of scripture and the nature of inspiration. A subject I grapple with constantly.
    By the way Joshua 6 – including v. 21:They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. was the subject of the sermon at church Sunday morning. Basic tack was to emphasize the framework of God’s plan of salvation. But – no claim to absolute answers and no attempt to brush this aspect of the story under the rug.

  • Scot McKnight

    No doubt, RJS, the rhetoric is half the point … or more. Wright emphasizes this. This is the way to describe a military victory …

  • Raj

    Read Numbers 31.
    verse 17, 18
    “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man”
    How can we reconcile this with our understanding of God? It is tough. May be the sinfulness of people be attributed for their destruction…but what about children (boys)?
    Since I haven’t read Wright’s book, I can’t comment on his framework explanations. But I wonder if he means that God worked through the prevailing cultural/historic mindset/context of the OT people, even then it is hard to digest killing of innocent boys? I simply don’t understand!!!

  • I find it interesting that the same scriptures that include the command to Abraham to commit a human sacrifice, and to Jushuah to commit genocide, and other things; are probably among the fundamental tools that have formed our present worldview in which these things are considered unquestionably evil. In the same way that the New Testament, which seems to condone slavery, was the carrier of the worldview that later got slavery abolished, both in the Roman world and in our modern era.

  • ‘Christopher Wright openly and honestly admits that those of us who adhere to a classic form of belief in God — God is good, holy, loving, sovereign — have a problem: evil. Evil is a problem for any thinking Christian — a serious problem. Simply put: if God is good, we have to ask why there is evil. If God is sovereign, we have to ask why there is evil.
    I found it interesting that by the end of the day (at least to this point) 42 people had taken the time to respond; many of them with well thought out comments. People think about these issues often, but seldom talk about them, and seldom try to see them in a new way.
    Perhaps it takes someone ‘with a bit of theological weight’ to ask the questions for others to feel safe enough to come out of the closet and wrestle with this stuff. Many are fearful of even thinking about it. It’s as though honest inquiry somehow opens a Pandora’s box that can ne’er be closed again. Maybe we feel that if an expert or theologian/academic poses the question(s) then it must be legit, or OK, or safe.
    As for me…I am glad McKnight had the courage to at bring this up. I am one of the folks John Frye talks about…really just trying to ‘get it’.

  • Drew Smith

    Hello Scot,
    I have never posted here before, but I have frequented your website. I am currently reading Finding Faith, Losing Faith and find it very informative and helpful. I too wrestle with many of the same issues you do. Please continue to look at the hard questions that we Christians face. I know that we do not help anyone by either denying that these questions are real or by giving unthoughtful answers to them. I just wanted to bring some encouragement to you. I hope this note finds you well. Also, If you have not read a book entitled God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship, then I would highly recommend that you do so. I don’t say this about many books, but this one actually saved portions of my faith. I know, that may be saying too much, but please do check it out if you haven’t. The author’s name is Kenton Sparks. Thank you and God bless you and your ministry.

  • mariam

    I have discussions with people struggling with their faith for whom these issues are central. They add up to a God they don’t trust. I, on the other think there is no point in a faith in a God you can trust. To me, by definition, faith in God means complete trust. This means I must also believe that God is loving and just. Probably the only bit of theology I share with the Calvinists is a belief in God’s sovereignty. I don’t believe God is learning as He goes along. I don’t believe things catch him by surprise. I do believe that the Bible reflects the understanding of those who wrote it of their relationship with God but I don’t think it defines God. God is much, much bigger, and his perspective is eternity, not our short temporal sufferings. So I would argue somewhat with Wright’s second point. I think it is quite possible that the Israelites did see their victories in terms of God’s judgement on their enemies, just as various groups throughout history have portrayed their victories in battle as a sign of being favoured by God. That is not necessarily how God sees it, and perhaps that is one of the things the Bible is trying to show us. There are plenty of times in history when righteousness has not won the battle. God sends his rain on the just and unjust.
    In regard to these difficult passages in the OT when God seems to condone genocide, what we mortals don’t think about is: what happens next? Children are slaughtered. How do we know that God has not taken them to himself the minute they die? People suffer. Jesus tells us in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man that there will be justice – a levelling of fortunes. God has all of eternity to make things right, to redeem evil and suffering and to comfort those who mourn. Our suffering in this life may be what is required to balance things in eternity. Our life here is but the blink of an eye and we can’t see the eternal horizon. God is good and he has a plan. We don’t know what it is, but we can trust in his loving justice and mercy

  • mariam

    Oops. I meant no point in a faith in a God you CAN’T trust. THis posting system has me nervous.

  • This time around I couldn’t possibly read through all the comments before posting my own. So if I’m repeating someone else’s thoughts, forgive me. But this is my response to such questions:
    Such narratives reveal as much about the underlying worldview of the recipients of God’s message(s), as they do about God himself. I think, like a good postmodernist, that all such messages are a combination of sender – message – and receiver. There is no special crystalline reception that exists – somehow miraculously – outside a worldview, merely because it is God who is speaking.
    So, all that is to say, I assume, in such passages, that the people in question heard *something* from God, but they then filtered it through their expectations/presuppositions. And, as others have pointed out, their ANE expectations told them that the gods who were powerful showed this by wiping out other people groups – thus effectively wiping out other gods. It was always a zero-sum game.
    Now, I know this kind of perspective can open up a real Pandora’s box. After all, if this is true, then how do we discern what parts of scripture are more human, or more God? True enough. That’s a tough question. I guess the answer is – as inadequate as this may sound – with fear and trembling.
    Besides, I don’t know about you all, but I much prefer this challenge to having to accept that our God really does condone, and in some instances, encourage, even demand, ethnic cleansing.

  • This is such an interesting post that I printed it off to digest it more carefully. My impression is that the weak link in all of this is the “God is sovereign” argument. From the rebellion of Satan to the rise of the AntiChrist, it seems that God really is NOT sovereign. I’m not sure I even know what “sovereign” really means. Does anyone have a concise definition? And biblical verses to back that up? Thanks. And good morning all!

  • angusj

    Thanks for tackling the tough questions.
    Here’s my take…
    I understand the Bible to be the Spirit inspired writings of many authors. It is not a perfect revelation of God and his relationship with his people, but it is still perfectly sufficient for faith. There is a progressive revelation of God throughout history, and these authors are simply expressing their limited understanding of God within their context. Spirit ‘inspiration’ does not mean that the writers of scripture always ‘get it right’, but simply that they reveal more of God and his plans for our redemption through their imperfect writings. Did God condone the Jewish invasion of Canaan? God evidently allowed it, but we can’t presume he condoned it even though the canonical writers believed God sanctioned it. “The Lord said …” is what the authors heard, but what the Lord really said may have been imperfectly understood.

  • While I, like others am somewhat dis-satisfied with the “God is good, they are evil” response, I still think it is vital that each instance of apparent divine instruction to violence is treated on its individual merits and doesn’t form some sort of rule of thumb about how God generally deals with humanity.
    Hence the more we know about the specific instructions and the historical context the more we can appreciate the moral justification or otherwise of these events.
    Some additional points spring to mind:
    1. Are these divine instructions the norm, or specific departures from God’s general approach to human interaction?
    2. There are biblical examples where God spares his intended wrath (Nineveh)? Why? What’s different here? Repentance?
    3. Are God’s violent instructions really wholesale? Were there escape clauses for the victims? Is it possible that there were worse alternatives to death (would women and children have survived outside the protection of their city walls anyway?)
    4. Are there modern comparisons where we feel that the destruction of entire cultural and political systems by force has been justified (Nazism perhaps)? What kind of system might have to exist for such destruction to be justified?
    My personal inclination is to rally against the being who would condone/command violence. But, with limited access to the ‘facts on the ground’ as it were, my reaction is speculative.

  • Mariam

    Mike Mangold #46,
    Good question! To me sovereignty means that God is in charge; He has a plan and the universe is unfolding according to God’s will. There are plenty of biblical verses that support the notion. (Just google “God’s sovereignty”) However, you are right that the Bible seems a bit contradictory on this point. When I was first a Christian it took me a while to get my head around the notion of God’s sovereignty. Like you, I thought it seemed from the Biblical account, that God was not in fact THAT sovereign. He seemed at various time to be surprised, disappointed, wrathful, undecided. He changed His mind. He railed, like a despairing lover at Israel’s faithlessness. He not only allowed suffering; He at times seemed to condone the suffering of innocents. If there was a God, it seemed He was sort of a bigger and better version of us – smarter, but not all-knowing (because of apparently being surprised at mere mortals), better, but not completely good (as witnessed by His readiness to cause suffering and condemn millions to eternal oblivion or torment), more powerful than us, but not all-powerful, as evidenced by his ongoing struggle with Satan and man’s willfulness (why should God have to struggle), a bigger perspective (but not infinitely big). But really, what sort of God is that? A god who says “Oops. Didn’t see that coming.” A god who has bad hair days? That is the god/gods of the pagans. The greatest commandment is for us the acceptance, the belief that God is not those gods. Our God is the One God. Our God is the Creator, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. The greatest command is that we love God, and love relies on trust. We cannot truly love a God who is untrustworthy – that sort of love becomes despair – a terrible decree. So God must be sovereign, otherwise He can’t be trusted. It seemed to me that I had a choice – I could believe in the complete trustworthiness of God – or I could believe in the complete, literal trustworthiness of the Bible. As Darren says, above, this opens up a Pandora’s box, because if the BIble defines our faith and it can’t always be trusted, then what? I agree this is a problem, and even thought I don’t believe in Biblical inerrancy, it is one that I struggle with – if only in finding common ground with other Christians. However, it isn’t as huge a problem as a God that can’t be trusted. I also find that when I read the Bible with that assumption – that God is sovereign and can be trusted I intepret Scripture differently. For example, when God asks Adam “Where are you? Why are you hiding? Why have you covered yourself?” it isn’t because He doesn’t know. It is because He knows that it is important for Adam to admit and recognize the mistake Adam has made, so that Adam learns. When He asks Abraham to sacrifice His son, it is not because He wants that sacrifice – it is because He does NOT want that sort of sacrifice and He wants Abraham to recognize that. He wants Abraham to believe in His trustworthiness. And if He allowed and continues to allow suffering, it is because it is necessary for our greater good. He is like a parent allowing their toddler to fall and get up again. He could always hold on to us, so that we never feel pain, but then we would never learn to walk, and we wouldn’t, as Adam didn’t, have enough information about the consequences of disobeying God’s laws, to freely and gratefully choose to make Him our Sovereign. Within God’s will there are infinite possibilities and within His infinite wisdom He has thought of and has a response for each of the choices we make that will eventually redeem all the evil that is done.

  • marcus

    I’m curious about a few comments made about the Bible. For instance, Mariam you stated that “I don’t believe in Biblical inerrancy”. But you seem to adhere to much of what the Bible says. Do you mean copying mistakes such as letters or numbers, or copying mistakes that have changed the actual messages found in the Bible? Also I guess there’s the idea that those writing it down, got some passages totally wrong. Which do you mean?
    The reason I’m asking is this. If you believe that some writers of the Bible got stories and concepts wrong, then how do you determine which passages are right and which are wrong? What basis for comparison do you use to determine that this part is great, but this over here is total nonsense?

  • RJS

    I think that you are asking the wrong question. None of the Bible is total nonsense – but we have to understand and interpret the context. We have to learn to ask the right questions of the right sections. We have to look for the trajectory of the story.
    The Bible is inerrant in that God did not err in giving us the Bible we have. But, I have come to believe that the typical conservative view of inerrancy is a flawed starting point. It makes scripture into something that it is not and never was intended to be. It often leads to errant theology and eschatology because it allows interpretation of isolated bits and pieces to dominate the whole .
    Rather than start with expectation of scripture we have to let the Bible tell us what it is. We should take the Bible seriously as the book that it is.

  • Dianne P

    A former pastor was fond of saying (about the Bible)
    “It’s all equally true; it’s not all equally important.”
    I guess the use of “important” can cast a wide shadow, but I think it touches on some of the conversation here about context. Why is this story here? What does it tell us? Such an approach certainly requires that we move away from a bible-as-manual approach.
    On a simplistic level, I think of the widespread practice of polygamy and taking of concubines. Today we believe in one man – one woman as part of God’s plan, but God certainly hung out with a lot of polygamous tribes of Israel – and apparently without a need for an immediate halt to the practice. Hmmmm…

  • Robert

    Dianne P
    However, God through Jesus corrects this in the NT but stating that marriage is between a man and a woman (as it was in the beginning). Simple enough to understand.

  • Scott M

    I stopped by for a visit and this post in particular caught my eye. I’m not sure I can truly articulate the way in which I interact with what we call the Old Testament, but I’ll make an effort. I will admit I don’t tend to spend a great deal of time wrestling with the hard questions. Instead, I tend to set them to one side as things I don’t really understand. But I’m learning to trust this strange God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. And those stories are a part of the narrative within which Jesus sits and the only narrative within which he begins to be comprehensible. So I do think it would probably be a mistake to either discount them or browse over them. I think they are important even if they are difficult.
    So, what are my half-formed thoughts? On one level, I think it shows just how much of a mess we have made of things. I see a God who, in the overflow of his community of love, created a world that is good populated by his image-bearers and he will not abort his creation or abrogate the eikonic nature of the beloved created. So he is always being present with his creation. We see that ultimately in the incarnation, but there are shadows throughout the OT. Yet being present is messy. We have filled the world with violence. Ultimately we see Jesus taking the worst violence that could be done onto himself. So I think part of the picture is just the reality that evil is messy and working through it is neither quick nor clean.
    I also wonder, sometimes, if part of the progress and history of the Jewish nation as a world power, a power meant to bless the nations, but operating in a modified form (and the modifications mostly toward at least less harm than was present in comparable systems), did not in some way help illustrate the ultimate futility of the way of power in the systems and structures the way we are most familiar with such systems and structures of power operating. At any rate, there seems to be some of that operating in the arc of the stories.
    And there is a part of me that trusts the judgment of God. Ultimately, if I did not, I would not be Christian. I note that the Israelites spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt because the wickedness of the people who then resided in the lands of Canaan was not yet full. We see that dynamic also in the story of Noah and in Sodom and Gomorrah. With Nineveh. With Israel. With Judah. And eventually in AD 70. It’s a recurrent theme. Judgment comes, sometimes through the powers of this world and sometimes by more direct means, but always presented as the judgment of God. And so a piece of me must trust that the judgment was both proper and necessary for the narrative within which I am finding myself to make sense.
    However, as someone who has worn a number of perspectives, has explored more, and who has always loved history, especially ancient history, and has often tried as hard as I could to see through the lens of different cultures, I have long been struck by something which I only saw mentioned once in the comment thread. It may have taken thousands of years, but it is the very narrative with the stories we are discussing that eventually altered human culture to the point that those very stories contained near its beginning would be widely perceived as inherently evil. That simply has not been the case through much of human history in otherwise widely divergent cultures. It’s not actually even true today in all cultures.
    That very fact reinforces my trust in the God who has been and is working to, as N.T. Wright is fond of saying, ‘set things to rights’. It’s certainly not been an instant change. Nor is it by any means perfect or complete today. Nevertheless, there exist today cultures deeply touched by this narrative which shape people in a way such that they view such stories of ‘slaughter’ and ‘genocide’ as inherently evil. That’s an amazing shift.

  • mariam

    Well, I’m a liberal Anglican (that probably explains things to you) but I take a “higher” view of scripture than most of my fellow parishioners, in that I do actually think God is really speaking to us through scripture, even in the difficult passages. I just think that we can’t always be sure what He is saying because of our limited understanding and our interpretation is therefore not something to beat someone over the head with. I also agree with Scott in that it may take centuries (millenia?) for us to be gradually pulled closer to what it is God wants us to learn from scripture (good to see you back Scott). I think that God is far beyond our grasp to truly understand but because He wants a relationship with us, He allows us to think of Him in ways we can understand, according to our culture and time. He allows Himself to be captured by our imagination. When we read scripture we are reading through a cultural, theological and personal lens. That lens will affect how we perceive the truth of scripture. For example, in the story of God asking Abraham to sacrific Isaac, someone who believes in a more literal interpretation may think the point is that we should be prepared to do whatever we think God is asking, even if it seems wrong. I think the point is that God was showing Abraham that his notion of making a human sacrifice of his son (which is what the pagans did) was wrong and that He was not that sort of God. Because I believe that, above all God is good and loving and can be trusted, when things are described in scripture where God seems to be acting “out of character” I think we must be missing the point in a literal reading and have to think harder about what God is trying to tell us.

  • Scott M

    Ah. Isaac and Abraham. Here I was perhaps helped that I did not grow up absorbing many of the renditions and explanations of this story I have sense heard. But this is not an OT story that ever bothered me. This one, I think, I got. Abraham was tested many times and this was really the last significant test. However, it wasn’t really a test of whether or not he was willing to give up everything, even the life of his son of promise, to God. No, it was a test of whether or not he learned to trust God. And he had. Isaac was the son of promise, the son through whom he would have many descendants, the son through whom the nations would be blessed. Abraham trusted the God he had come to know. Utterly. He believed that the promise would come through Isaac even if God had to raise him from the dead.
    Further, Isaac trusted both his father and God. A lot of portrayals show this scene oddly. We don’t know exactly how old Isaac was, but we do know several things. We know that Abraham was really old. And we know that Isaac was big enough and strong enough to carry the wood and the other supplies up the mountain by himself. Abraham didn’t force Isaac to do anything. He couldn’t have. Isaac participated in the drama freely.
    And, of course, that’s another part of the point. The story is a shadow of Christ. Abraham is a type for the Father and Isaac a type for the Son. Only there was no other lamb for Jesus. And God did raise him from the dead.
    There are many troubling OT stories. But the story of Isaac is not one of them. I think I get that one.

  • Scott M

    And I realize I wasn’t completely clear. Reading this story within the context of human sacrifice is not how it begs to be read. Rather this story subverts and deconstructs the whole narrative of human sacrifice. It took a long time to play out and the shadow had to be completed in Christ, but I would say it has been successful.

  • mariam

    When I was a child and heard this story read in school each year (at the time I was growing up in BC we started each public school day with a BIble reading and the Lord’s prayer) I remember being quite horrified and thinking God was really a very, very dreadful being. I wonder how many others of tender years this story turned against the OT God. It wasn’t until I was faced with making a decision to trust God with my own child that I really understood the story – at least what it meant to me. To me now it is meant to illustrate the very loving and trustworthy nature of God.

  • Scott M

    And as I was falling asleep last night, I realized that while the overt practice and narrative of human sacrifice is much less prevalent and powerful today than it once was, evil has not relented. It has regrouped and restructured this practice within the systems of the present era.
    Do we not today sacrifice people, even children, on the altar of the god Mammon? No. We don’t plunge the knife into their chest or draw it across their throat. It’s less direct, more antiseptic, but I think no less evil.
    This is part of what it means, I think, about how difficult it is to undo the damage done when the eikon of God chooses to worship — and thus tries to reshape himself or herself in the image of — other gods. Something for me to mull, at least.

  • marcus

    Thanks Mariam that was a great explanation. I think my opinion is the same as yours.

  • Clay Knick

    Zondervan says this book will be out at the
    end of the month, released on 12/19, in stores
    around 12/22 or so.

  • Mariam (#49): thanks (all tongues aside). That answer was so thoughtful I printed it up to show my wife and others.
    Scott (#59): bullseye! Not only the God Mammon, though, but also the God Convenience (per Mother Teresa).

  • Adim

    I’m asking for an explanation to Exodus chapter 4 verse 24.Thank you in anticipation of your understanding response. GOD BLESS YOU !!!