Dangerous Encouragement

John Collins, professor at Yale Divinity School, is right. “When it became clear that the terrorists of September 11, 2001, saw or imagined their grievances in religious terms, any reader of the Bible should have had a flash of recognition.” This comes from John J. Collins’s short book, Does the Bible Justify Violence? , which itself is rooted in his SBL Presidential address in 2002. What he means is that there are instances of sacred violence in our Scriptures as well. To be sure, as he puts it so well, “terrorist hermeneutics can be seen as a case of the devil citing Scripture for his purpose” but we all are to concede that the devil need not work hard to find his scriptures.

Is our ignoring of violence texts in the Bible a tacit confession that we don’t want to deal with them, that we don’t have categories that make sense, that we disagree with them, or that we would like to talk about them but are afraid? How do you explain herem warfare in Israel and in the New Testament? Is the non violent approach a tacit denial of the theme of violence in the Bible?

At the heart of our problem is what is called “herem” warfare, which refers to Israel’s (and other cultures in the Ancient Near East) belief that the enemy was to be devoted to total destruction or, in other words, total annihilation. There are historical factors are work, including belief in sacrifice, the wrath of God, the need for that God to be propitiated by sacrifice, and a commitment so deep that annihilation of the enemy was required. Collins contends this is not just about monotheism, but a nation’s (Israel’s) sense of election by that one God, YHWH. Here are some principal texts:

1Sam. 15:3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ”

Num. 21:1    When the Canaanite king of Ara,a who lived in the Negev,b heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them.  2 Then Israel made this vow to the LORD: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy b their cities.”  3 The LORD listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.

One of Collins’ conclusions: “Ethnic cleansing is the way to ensure cultic purity” (9). The major impulse for ethnic cleansing, annihilation of the enemy or of herem warfare appears to be the “precautionary measure against false worship” (9). Again, the Bible teaches this in Deut 7:1-6:

Deut. 7:1    When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you—  2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons,  4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.  5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

God is one; God has elected Israel; Israel has been given the land. Therefore , annihilate the enemy. This emerges in perhaps the most social-justice-conscious text in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy. The compassion on the enemy taught in this text is not extended to the Canaanites and Philistines.

How to resolve this ethically? Collins’ intent is not just to explore this question but he does in passing:

1. Most critical scholars do not think this stuff is historically descriptive or accurate about ancient Israel; instead it is later fiction. But Collins stands up for the Bible in this regard: even if it isn’t historical (and he doesn’t think it is), it is still in the Bible and becomes a “dangerous encouragement” for terrorism. In the sacred text one can find justification for violence as divine commandment and action. That’s the problem.

2. The problem is not just ancient; from cultures around Israel and Israel and later Judaism and the folks at Qumran and even the book of Revelation. One can’t dismiss this stuff as barbaric and primitive and ancient; it is not just early texts in the Bible but beginning to end. And many have applied the ideas to later times: Puritans and the Boers of South Africa and the liberated tribes of South Africa against the Boers, and David Koresh and the USA’s violence against terrorists and al Qaida and Islamic terrorists… it goes on and on.

3. To be sure, some of the violence in ancient texts is moved to the future in apocalyptic literature. That merely postpones the violence, but it still justifies it.

4. The patristics allegorized the texts to sins in the life of the church and in Christians. Luke Timothy Johnson appeals to this procedure in Origen. Collins: “hardly viable” because we’ve still got texts in our sacred text where there is divine commendation and even commandment to slaughter humans.

5. Some appeal to diversity in the Bible, and by this he means divergent ethical standpoints on war and violence. Some appeal to the higher levels of thought in Moses or in the prophets, or see the gospel story finding completion in a Jesus who conquers as the lamb and through the cross and through non-violence — but Collins stops this one short by saying the canon ends in Revelation, one of the bloodiest and most violent books in the whole Bible. Violence is there; it is not incidental; it is connected to God. His is an approach to face the fact of sacred violence.

6. Surely the Bible depicts human nature, in all its glories and tragedies and sicknesses. What Collins is getting at is that the Bible’s descriptions are not prescriptions; their presence does not justify that the true God was at work in commanding such things; he does not explore accommodation that appeals to many of us when it comes to dealing with violence (and other topics). His conclusion: The Bible “is no infallible guide on ethical matters” (32). This is quite the statement because it comes with no explanatory apparatus of how he himself is sitting in moral judgment on matters like violence. In this essay he assumes a moral posture that violence like this is either totally wrong or the last resort (just war theory of some sort), but he does not offer his reasons for any position he is taking.

7. And Collins appeals to the problem of certitude. Certitude itself leads to violence and perhaps what good biblical study proves is that certitude is not the right approach.

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  • donsands

    “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: …A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

  • Josh

    How is he “standing up for the Bible” if he doesn’t think that these passages are “historical”?

  • 1. I’m not convinced that certitude necessarily leads to violence. Certitude could also lead to compassion; to gentleness; to patience. Whether or not certitude leads to violence seems, to me, to depend on other factors.

    2. I’m also not convinced that Revelation is actually violent and/or bloody – it uses violent symbolism, but symbols are used for certain purposes, and the question is not whether the symbols are violent but how they are used. Entire armies being killed by the sword coming from the rider’s mouth, for instance, is a violent image that possibly refers to something not violent at all – unless the mere concept of conquest, or of a truth that in some sense is someday universally seen as true, is itself violent. In that case claims that Jesus’ resurrection is a historical event would be, in some sense, violent, since they suggest a reality to which people must accustom or adjust their thinking whether or not they believe it to be the case.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Correction: Having grown up in SA during the apartheid years, and being familiar with the nationalistic/ethnicist theologies of both sides of that conflict, the example at # 2 is somewhat incorrect. There were (and are!) a few extremists that believe in the total annihilation theory. But the majority of even racially motivated theologians/philosophers saw things differently: On the “Boer” side, the Africans were heathen which they, as superior people, had to civilize (Baas – skap). This happened in various degrees – from a very genteel approach, to oppression. But the apartheid state wanted to create separate, self-sustaining homelands for these tribes, not annihilate them. It was oppression, but of the “master” against the “servant”, not of the “Believer” against the “pagan”. The prime enemy till the early 20th century was not the African, but the “Imperialist Englishman”. After this struggle died down, the oppression of the African tribes was then cast in terms of the struggle against Communism during the Cold War, especially as the ANC and other liberation movements strongly identified with the SA Communist Party. This enabled the old Nationalists, and their theologians, to recast the battle, and the prime justification of oppression / apartheid as a struggle against “godless Communists”.

    For the liberation theologians on the other side, the struggle was defined in terms of identifying the oppressor with class-warfare. It was a re-statement of class warfare theologies in terms of ethnicity.

    History will judge, of course, but one needs to see the conflicts for what they were. This does justice to those who suffered in those conflicts. To understand the monstrous things done, one needs to cast their causes and theologies for what they were.

    Annihilationist theologies seem to have been more common on this continent, and possibly Australia?

  • scotmcknight

    Klasie, I didn’t want to suggest in #2 that it all comes down to “annihilation” but to the use of violence texts to justify violence.

  • T

    Here’s question I would ask in response to the author: is there any difference on the issue of whether the bible justifies violence for Christians as opposed to Jews? In other words, does the inclusion of the so called “new” covenant make any difference regarding what “the bible” justifies when it comes to violence?

    I think the answer is a resounding yes. I frequently make the same point to distinguish Islam from Christianity. Of course there the scriptures are different, but the important point is the difference between Jesus and Mohammed when it comes to their use of violence, as well as their teachings regarding it. In a nutshell, the story of Jesus (the gospel) is itself a strong critique against the use of violence–even by one who has a divine right to rule–while the story of Mohammed or even Moses is the opposite.

  • Sam

    In addition to the points made in comment #1, here are mine
    1. We are trying to get the Bible to answer ethical questions. I do not think the Bible is written from a fixed ethical viewpoint or from enlightenments timeless truths. The Bible is story where the way God relates to people changes from age to age.
    2. We also tend to read the Bible from a view of there being only a final judgment which is in the future. We do not see judgment happening in history, unlike Jewish thought.

  • Sam

    I meant to say comment #3.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Scot @ 5 – thanks. It is just that one comes across so many interpretations, some of them speaking out of amazing ignorance (I’m not leveling that at you), that it helps to lay out the full picture. In the SA context, I would suggest that for the most, the politics led to the theology, and not the other way round. Basically, if you are doing something untoward, you’ll find a “noble” justification thereof.

  • Alan K

    Is it fair of Collins to one-up the cross by referring to the violent imagery of Revelation? Is not the whole point that the violence has been done to the lamb, and that in suffering the violence the lamb has overcome? If anything, it is the vision of the Apocalypse that defeats salvation histories that require ethic cleansing.

  • Alan K

    Um, that should be “ethnic cleansing” instead of “ethic cleansing.” Sorry.

  • Tom F.

    I think our ignoring of these texts is definitely an admission of our inability to make sense of them.

    Of course, not all ignore. Some just bite the bullet and say that if God orders this sort of destruction, than it must be right because God ordered it. This was John Piper’s approach in a recent CT/Out of Ur blog post. I think the price is higher than these sort of folks are willing to admit; this sort of move makes any coherent sense of God’s character impossible. (Or by prooftext: “God’s ways are not our ways”).

    I think the biggest point of conflict is between Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies and this sort of divine annihilation. One can interpret a lot of correction/punishment and perhaps even violence as being ultimately motivated by love. However, its hard to see how this sort of enemy-love could work in the “harem” passages. Is Jesus asking us to do something that even God won’t do? That’s how it seems to me at times. I don’t say this from a place of angry accusation of God, but of frustration with not being able to understand how the gracious, enemy-loving Christ who I follow could be related to the God of these other passages.

  • MikeW

    I struggle with some instances of the OT’s wrathful descriptions of God, but I think, contrary to what people like Collins intend, using modern ethical nomenclature for ancient and OT events – terms like “ethnic cleansing” or using the word “violence” monolythically – is misleading and anachronistic. There was a different theological and ethical world operative in the OT (one now superceded in Christ).

    Using the term “ethnic cleansing,” for example, is not a fair description of what was happening in those instances, because ethnicity was determinative of one’s covenantal identity in ways that are no longer true now that Christ has brought down the divinding wall between the nations. For example, you did have to submit to God *in Israel* to be within the covenant. Or put differently, Israel’s national life was the fulcrum upon which the destiny of the nations hinged. I would go so far as to say that “ethnicity” is not a word that can be used univocally, without an acknowledgment that the OT redemptive-historical context gives a significantly altered meaning than the modern, post-colonial one we all assume today.

    Even the way the word “violence” is often used is problematic because it is used in such a a way that liberal democratic values are priviledged, such that any notion of hierarchy or superiority is ruled out. But violence against evil is not the same as violence against the innocent. More-over, violence in the hands of God is not the same as violence in the hands of Christians. I think the Bible is correct in its differentiating these instances by having different terms to distinguish them (e.g. justice, wrath, oppression, etc.)

    I’m not saying this line of thinking solves all problems. I’m saying confusing what time we live in, confuses all the questions.

  • AndyM

    all of us in our fallen state deserve the full wrath of God, and God would be justified in having any of us executed for our rebellion and sin against Him.

    Any justifications for violence coming from the new testament?

  • Tim


    I’d love to hear your thoughts on Point#6 above. Are, for instance, the passages regarding “sacred violence” such as the herem passages in the OT reflective of God’s divine nature and will, or are these reflections of human participation in the Biblical narrative? And if Collins does not satisfactorily set a course forward for navigating these issues that avoids subjugating Scripture’s authority to instruct on moral matters to one’s own understanding instead, then would you perhaps have anything to offer that could address such a dilemma?

  • Marcus C

    “1Sam. 15:3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, [b]children and infants[/b], cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

    God is love?

  • AndyM

    @Marcus (16): God is also just.
    We should more wonder why God’s patience is as long as it is in withholding completely deserved punishment from any one of us.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, I wish I had a good solid compelling answer to the herem passages. I don’t.

  • Tom F.

    Mike W.- Well, but I would push back on this idea that people had to become Israelite in order to be okay with God. What of Jonah’s depiction of God saying that he is the God of the Assyrians well? What of Isaiah’s visions of Egypt worshiping the true God alongside Israel? Surely a chastened Egypt, but a distinctive people and ethnicity still? What of the original promise to Abraham that suggested that Israel would be a blessing to all nations? How is it a blessing to a people group to be wiped out?

    Andy M.- I understand that perspective, but I’m also really frustrated by it in many ways. How do you square it with Jesus’ command to love our enemies? Jesus specifically links this command to the very character of God. How is God’s enemy-love, as described by Jesus, evidenced in the complete destruction of a people?

  • Marcus C

    @AndyM #17

    What about the infants that God commanded to be murdered? Did they “deserve punishment” too?

  • RJS


    “We should more wonder why God’s patience is as long as it is in withholding completely deserved punishment from any one of us.”

    I find this to be a something of a cop-out, inconsistent with the whole sweep of scripture. I know that it is a pretty standard Calvinist solution – but I must admit, I find it the least compelling piece of Calvinist theology largely because it seems to me a theological conclusion forced on to the narrative of scripture.

    I don’t have a solid, compelling answer to these passages – but I tend to think that they have roots in the failure of Israel to stand firm in the face of temptation to worship other Gods.

  • AndyM

    At that point in the arc of history God needed to carve out a space for his people to live, being his people, worshipping only him. doing so required removing the people who were there who would be a source of idol worship in addition to the natural tendency of people to worship, and providing a space where the people of God could live.

    @Marcus: what i know regarding how God deals with infants who die before they can consciously assent to belief in God, is that God deals justly. I don’t know if they are in heaven or what happens to them. I don’t think anyone does with certainty. What I do know is that if there is to be a judge of the heart of an indvidual, a chooser as to who will believe and who wont, I believe that God is the best chooser and the best judge.

    @RJS (21): looking at our current society, with the ongoing holocaust of the unborn, with the gas chambers of the nazis still within the living memory of some, with the murders of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot still relatively recent, the persecution and murder of christians in some countries, to me it is amazing that God doesn’t call time on us all. It speaks of great patience and love on God’s part that we so seldom get punished in an open way by God.
    When i read the OT, I see God calling his people to repent again and again, and only reluctantly punishing them. God is faithful when we aren’t. God would be just in punishing, but for his own reasons chooses not to as rapidly as we might. That we don’t know the reasons isn’t to say that God’s goodness and justice (and love and mercy) are in question when he called for the killing of entire nations.

  • Tim

    Scot @18 – Thank you for the upfront answer. Life wouldn’t be what it is without challenges right 🙂 What I see here is an honest attempt at engaging with a very difficult issue and I certainly appreciate and respect that.

  • MikeW

    Tim F. Thanks for the push back. I think there are different things happening in the diverse variety of examples you cite. (Although, I don’t think I would draw your same conclusion from Jonah.) And, yes, one of them is that in rare instances an individual was allowed to remain within their culture and worship YHWH. Also, God’s promise to Abraham was not only to bless the nations through him but also to judge them (Gen. 12). All of which is to re-affirm that Israel’s ethnicity was part and parcel of the means by which God was present in the world and was that by which he worked to redeem the world in Christ.

    This meant that prior to the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy, other cultures were required to submit to Israel, which could mean different things depending on the circumstances of that engagement.

  • Marcus C

    @AndyM #22
    “looking at our current society, with the ongoing holocaust of the unborn, with the gas chambers of the nazis still within the living memory of some, with the murders of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot still relatively recent, the persecution and murder of christians in some countries, to me it is amazing that God doesn’t call time on us all. It speaks of great patience and love on God’s part that we so seldom get punished in an open way by God.”

    How do you know God didn’t command Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc… to commit herem? After all, the victims (even the infants) “deserved punishment” right?

    I’m sorry, I’ve been really struggling with these genocide scriptures lately. These scriptures seem so at odds with the loving God I’ve experienced in my life…

  • AndyM
  • #2 ” One can’t dismiss this stuff as barbaric and primitive and ancient; it is not just early texts in the Bible but beginning to end. ” I find this deeply troubling. How does one read the New Testament and conclude that it does not stand as a universal critique of the use of violence?

    #4. Prehaps the reason the Patristics did not labour over the obvious contradictions of a God who comands “show them no mercy” and the God revealed in Christ; is for two reasons.

    (1) There alreay was movement in the inter-testament period to reinterpret violent images of YHWH. For a variety of reasons, in Jewish writings of this period we find an increased emphasis on the absolute transcendence and perfection of God. As a corollary to this, we find scribes and scholars increasingly exploring ways of distancing God from activities that were now deemed “beneath” God, including violence. Many activities that were once ascribed directly to God were now ascribed to good and evil intermediary angels. Toward the same end, we find scribes of this period sometimes emending Scripture in ways that distance God from dubious activity, with the author of Jubilees going so far as to transform several scriptural references to God into references to a Satan-like figure named Mastema.

    (2) The Patristics, saw Jesus as the truest picture of who God is. Once you see Christ as the fullness of the Deity(Col 2:9), any contradictions really do require some creative allegorizing to utilize. It’s no wonder why you do see such horible ‘spiritualizing’ of the violent texts.

    As a side note I personally beleive that to hold the revelation of the Old Testament above or amalgamate with the Christological revelation is hermeneutically irresponsible. Jesus said of his own revelation, “”I have testimony weightier than that of John the Baptist” (John 5:36) Let Jesus be your lens for approaching such troubling texts as the ‘divine warrior’ passages.

    #5. It is curious that Collins does not share the view that John’s use of warfare imagery in Revelation as an ultimate critique of the use of violence. Now, there’s no denying that the book of Revelation is full of violent imagery. But the literal interpretation of this imagery not only contradicts the Jesus of the Gospels and the non-violent teaching of rest of the NT, it also ignores the genre and historical context of this book. Not only this, but the literalistic approach to Revelation fails to pay close attention to how John uses Old Testament and apocalyptic symbolism.

  • Marcus C

    Sorry that article didn’t help at all in justifying to me the murder of children and infants. In fact, I thought it seemed like something Joseph Goebbels could have written during WWII.

  • Marcus C… I would really commend to you some of the stuff Greg Boyd is putting out. When his book “Cruxifiction of the Warrior God” comes out you should buy it.

    Check this out for now: http://reknew.org/2012/10/a-cruciform-magic-eye/

  • Tom F.

    Mike W.- It seems a leap from “judge” to “dissolve all other nations into Israel”. Are there passages that I’m not thinking of that suggest that sort of leap?

    Even granting your “submit to Israel”, submit does not mean abject surrender of cultural identity, no? For example, the Levitical laws make it clear that there would be foreigners (“sojourners”) among the Israelites, and these people were to be recognized and not coercively assimilated into Israelite culture. Also, perhaps it was practically impossible to remain Egyptian at that time and worship YHWH; but it is a big leap to say that this means that God’s intention in ideal circumstances is that all people’s would have become Israelite.

    Israel’s function is priestly. That is, mediating. A central role, absolutely. But in order to be priestly, in order to mediate, there has to be others to mediate too.

    The interesting thing about OT apocalyptic (say, Isaiah 19), is that it provides a window into what God intends, and God does not appear to intend that Egypt become a part of Israel. Egypt will worship alongside of Israel. Many passages in the OT do emphasize Israel as first, and perhaps that the nations will even serve Israel from time to time. But that implies that these nations will still exist as distinct nations.

    And what of temple worship? Famously, the outer court of the temple was open to all, Jews and Gentiles alike. Are you saying that Gentiles that worshiped in this area could not be right with God?

    “All of which is to re-affirm that Israel’s ethnicity was part and parcel of the means by which God was present in the world and was that by which he worked to redeem the world in Christ.”

    I think I can mostly grant this statement. So long as “present through” does not mean “exclusively available too”. The redeemed world is not redeemed as Israel. The world is redeemed by means of Israel in Christ. And of course, NT apocalyptic in Revelation affirms again that nations will remain distinctive even as all have their primary identity as worshipers of the Lamb who was slain.

  • Here is a different take on Herem and Old Testament violence.


  • phil_style

    @AndyM, #22 – “At that point in the arc of history God needed to carve out a space for his people to live, being his people, worshiping only him. doing so required removing the people who were there who would be a source of idol worship in addition to the natural tendency of people to worship”

    That’s a pretty lame excuse on God’s behalf. Killing thousands for some living space… Oder sollte ich Lebensraum sagen? … where have I heard that before.

  • RJS


    We are not talking about human actions such as Nazi death chambers, Pol Pot, or abortion (“the ongoing holocaust of the unborn”) or just punishment for them. We are talking about God commanding a holocaust of the infants, the unborn, the old, the infirm, the toddler, the virgin.

    God is merciful and reluctant to punish “his” people yet commands them to wipe out other entire peoples down to the last babe in the womb and newborn infant.

    I do think the view you suggest is a cop-out that doesn’t do justice to the whole sweep of scripture. It does not even do justice to the entirety of the Old Testament. It isn’t a new view – I’ve heard it many times, in much greater detail than you give here.

  • RJS


    The first part of you comment gets at a point I was making in the last bit of my first reply.

    At that point in the arc of history God needed to carve out a space for his people to live, being his people, worshipping only him. doing so required removing the people who were there who would be a source of idol worship in addition to the natural tendency of people to worship, and providing a space where the people of God could live.

    I think this is part of the sweep of the narrative. But, I’d take out the “at that point in the arc of history God needed” piece of the comment. The people of God rebel continually – from Adam through to today, they (we) rebel when there is no outside influence and when there is an outside influence.

  • Alan K

    Marcus C,

    You’re raising great questions that go to the heart of what we believe the Scriptures to be and in what manner do they become the Word of God. If Jesus Christ is the true Word of God then the church has to entertain the possibility that perhaps Israel did not always quite understand what the LORD was like to the extent that even their sacred texts evince a god that is more like a localized tribal deity. Pretty gracious of God to put up with and work amid such a colossal misunderstanding and false witness.

  • MikeW

    Tim F., Thanks for dialogue.

    I’m not saying “submit” always means “dissolve all other nations into Israel” or an “abject surrender of cultural identity.” I think your reading that into what I’m saying. As I said at the end of my last post, “submission” varies in its meaning depending on the circumstances. As to your question about judgment: actually, the word in Gen 12 concerning what will happen to those who repudiate Abraham is “curse.” But again, that will mean various things depending on the circumstances, and sometimes, apparently, it means destroy.

    I want to challenge your use of phrases like being “right with God” or people in the OT being “okay with God” in this context. That kind of a binary judgment is not usually/always how the historical narratives work, it seems to me. And it is the historical narratives that we are dealing with when we question e.g. how YHWH could be so destructive to the Canaanites. Apocalyptic literature, by nature and in contrast, envisions a promised future, after the great day of judgment, with more conclusive assertions about who’s in and who’s not – some nations fall under Gods curses and are wiped off the earth(!), and others are, as you said, brought into covenant with God without becoming Israelite. The striking thing for us today, I think, is that God desired to use Israel as the means by which he blesses and judges (i.e. curses) the nations and so redeems creation. (Of course, we now know that was the vocation Jesus took up and accomplished.) But that context (Israel and the means of blessing and curse) is the one in which I think we have to understand these “herem” passages of annihilation.

    Again, not that it solves all the problems, but I find it very helpful to put these questions within the framework of theology espoused in the historical narratives.

  • MikeW

    Sorry, second to last sentence should read: “Israel AS the means of blessing and curse”

  • AndyM

    God is just. we might not know why or how, but I don’t think i’d be brave enough to impugn the justice and rightness of the actions God commands.

  • phil_style

    AndyM – The problem with simply passing off any particular aspect of God’s supposed behaviour with “he is just” makes a nonsense of the word “justice”.

    If we want to hold the line that there is some mysterious explanation for God’s apparent unjust (downright evil) behaviour then why do we feel compelled to provide excuses on his behalf to try and rationalise it somehow (the Canaanite were all evil, Israel needed some place to live)? Either God’s type of justice is so mysterious, hidden and/or foreign to us, or it is similar to ours and is demonstrated to be so.

    If we observe behaviour that fits into the normal use of the word “unjust” then we are well within our linguistic rights to apply the term.

    Let’s consider that a face-value reading of Joshua shows us that this God who had in the preceding 40 years apparently turned the Nile to blood, dumped an entire Egyptian army in the sea & brought forth water from rocks decided not to use that same miraculous power to cause new land to rise up out of the sea [or any other peaceful solution], but instead decided that the best way to continue the Israelite journey was to order and aid them them to obliterate an entire other people group [including their children] by way of military violence… We cannot ignore that suggestion that this God does seem to be very arbitrarily unjust indeed.

  • Tom F.

    Mike W., –

    Okay, what you are saying now seems much more reasonable. I guess I thought that you meant “Israel is God’s primary messanger = that’s why its okay that other nations might be obliterated”. I still don’t understand how what you are saying makes understanding the “harem” passages any easier. You still end up with a God who not merely judges/curses (which could be corrective or disciplinary) and a God who obliterates. What did the Caananite infants do that warranted obliteration?

  • Paul D.

    Archaeology and critical biblical studies have settled the matter: the numerous violent conquests and genocides committed by the Israelites at God’s command in the Bible never actually happened historically.

    Even if a die-hard Calvinist wants, for reasons I cannot fathom, to excuse such unimaginable suffering and devastation, there is no longer any reason to. There are many hermeneutical approaches one may still take to the Bible, but “this literally happened so we need to find a way to get God off the hook” is no longer a valid one.

  • phil_style

    @Paul D, #41 Agreed.

    The questionable “historicity” of the narratives means that we need to find a hermeneutical approach too; because the “narratives” are something other than simple fact recollection.

    My preference is a Girardian reading of Joshua… surprise, surprise.

  • MikeW

    Ok. Great.

    The difference I think it makes is helping get us within the framework of the text. So I think the answer to your question about babies, from the narrators point of view, is that that they were future idolaters who would pollute the sacred land and willfully obstruct God’s redemption of Israel and consequentially of all creation.

    Of course after Christ there is no longer a valid justification for that kind of violence. But the fact that you would put the question (about babies guilt) that way suggests that you are probably not reading those narratives privileging the theological and ethical world of the text over our time and world. That moment in redemptive history has its own justifications that are different than our Jesus shaped ones.

  • Tom F.

    Mike W.- Granted, I am likely not privileging the ethical world of (this) text. But it’s not like one has to resort to modernistic or secularized ethics to find dissonant ethical worlds. Dissonant ethical worlds (on the topic of divine violence) exist in the pages of scripture. There is certainly a need to let the ethical world of the text shape our interpretation. But at the systematic level, we attempt to integrate and make sense of ALL of scripture, and I feel that these texts are too easily rescued by appealing to their differing ethical worlds. The ultimate question we have to answer is what these passages say about God, and we have do so (orthodoxically) by affirming that this God in these passages is the same we find in other passages with an intense heart for the orphan, whom these infants presumably are after their mothers and fathers have been killed. After Marcion, we are not allowed to say that this God in the OT is different than the NT God.

    Ironically, I wonder if reading these texts as having a different ethical world doesn’t do them a disservice. These texts do not present themselves as having one ethical view among many. They insist that there is one view, and they pull towards being either accepted or rejected. At the end of the day, whether or not it really happened, the Caananites in the story are not asked to try and understand the Israelite’s ethical world. In the text, they explicitly are presumed to be judged and not worthy of having any voice. It seems a bit much to ask modern readers to have more charity and to attempt to take the text on its own terms when the text itself explicitly models a view that denies any possibility whatsoever of redemption, communication, or understanding between God/Israelites and the Caananites.

    In short, the text suggests that ethical worlds (between Israelite and Caananite) are utterly incompatible and discussion is pointless. Why should moderns be critiqued for taking the same view (between modern assumptions and the text of scripture)?

  • MikeW

    Tom F. (sorry, btw, I realized that I’ve called you Tim)

    Regarding your first point: I think the systematic theological quest is important too, but I think prioritizing it is a mistake. The Scripture itself is organized by a narrative in which God relates to his people in various ways through diverse covenants. Appealing to that diversity (regardless of whether it makes certain things easier or not) doesn’t lead one to postulate different Gods. It affirms that the only way we have of knowing God is as a time-bound God, not timelessly. (Of course, I’m not saying God is by nature constrained by time.) E.g. God was once poised to abide uniquely in, and militarily defend the land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem, but is no longer. Is that dissonance? I don’t believe it is.

    More to the point on the topic of “divine violence,” I don’t think I would go so far as to say there’s dissonance in the Scriptures here: God always promises to destroy evil and evil’s servants. How that plays out depends upon where you stand in the story. Of course I’m with you in that putting infants in that category makes me uncomfortable, and yet (reluctantly, I have to admit) within that time and place it was not without reason or explanation. I mean, what do you make of passages like Matt 11:20-24?

    In my mind, the priority for understanding God is to grasp Christ as the culmination of a progressively unfolding plot line – which to my way of thinking is more important than a synthesized portrayal of a time-less God which the bible doesn’t or only sparingly offer us. Jesus and the Spirit is our access to God, a God bound to us by love in our own time and place. So I try to read the Bible with that incarnational hermeneutic.

    As for your last point: we shouldn’t read the Pentateuch that way because we’re not Israelites on the brink of the Promised Land. That question makes it seem like your asking for every part of Scripture to give you a universally and immediately applicable moral. I don’t know about for “the modern reader” in general, but it is not asking too much of a Christian to read these passages in the time-sensitive way I’m suggesting.

    I don’t know how much longer our dialogue will go on for, but I appreciate your push back and challenges. Your questions and counter-points are helpful to me. Thanks.

  • Jeff Y

    MikeW – I esp. appreciate your view in paragraphs 3 & 4 (progressive nature of rev; and not making every part of Scripture immediately & universally applicable).

  • Probably the most important idea for dealing with these texts is the narrative idea that there is a developing plan at work. Things have changed and continue to change. In his book Ideas That Changed the World, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto identifies the ancient Hebrews as the source of the idea of a loving God. If this is the case. then these texts are best understood as God working within a human culture which was markedly barbaric and violent to bring forth this understanding as well as salvation for mankind. It’s kind of like if my family were imprisoned and condemned to death by an oppressive regime and as part of what needed to happen for us to escape, I instructed my children to engage in dishonest behavior, perhaps even stealing or taking out a guard so we could escape. Would I then be wrong to teach them the value of honesty, non-violence, etc. outside of those specific circumstances? I think that Christians struggle with this particularly because we want to view life and God’s work as static, which it clearly is not.

    Years ago I was reading these violent stories in the OT and finally had to stop and ask God, basically, WTHeck? In prayer, clear as anything, I was told, “I work it all out.” Which is a whole other can of worms. But on several occasions when I have shared this I have had people tell me that they asked the same question of God and were told the exact same thing – in just those words, in fact. So I think we need to also be aware that God’s concerns don’t align perfectly with our concerns because unlike us, God does have the power to work everything out – even for the babes in arms.

    Of course, there are issues of just how historical these events were and how accurate accounts that God commanded such violence. But even taking the stories at face value, the fact that the violence is attributed to commands from God is actually very valuable. In order to really justify violence biblically, we’d need not just the example of biblical violence or a claim to a pattern we could follow. We’d need a specific, direct command from God himself. Which is quite the claim for anyone to be making.

  • Tom F.

    Mike W.- Good points. I think the conversation has helpfully illuminated some fundamental differences. Thanks for sticking with it.

    I have some thoughts on Matthew 11 as well as other instance of destruction by God, but I’d like to focus on the broader issues here. I will grant that a good case can be made for a God who obliterates evil-doers. I also think this actually intensifies the problem in light of passages like the sermon on the mount (Matt 5:45) and God’s attitude towards his enemies in a passage like Romans 5. But I will basically grant your point in order to focus elsewhere.

    The progressive revelation approach is certainly helpful, as is the “diverse covenants” approach. However, I am finding that this approach is less and less satisfying to me.

    What I am trying to say (somewhat unsucessfully), is that the narratives of scripture do not present themselves as a particular understanding of God at a particular time. As in these stories of divine violence, many of the individual narratives of scripture present themselves as THE narrative about God. I understand the hermeneutic approach that tries to understand the whole narrative of scripture in order to place these individual narratives in relation to THE narrative. And that is well and good, but what I am trying to say is that this approach (getting all the little narratives in reference to the big narrative) is something that the little narratives would actually resist having happen, especially if it meant softening or downplaying their emphases (in this case, the absolute rightness of the complete destruction of the Caananites).

    Put another way, what would it mean to be in the story, and to tell the Israelites, “You see things this way because you are Israelites on the brink of the Promised Land, and a time-sensitive approach will later on show that you are relating to God in a way only appropriate to this time and place.” What do you imagine their response to be? The Israelites in the story are hearing from a God who is direct, clear, and unambiguous about what needs to happen.

    Would they be open to hearing that in other times and places, God does not require the death of the infants of idolaters? What would it mean that they had to kill infants, but God’s people in other contexts might not have too? Would it raise doubts that they are really hearing from God? What would it mean to the Caananite infants?

    I don’t get any sense that the Israelites in the story (whom are presumably who we are to identify with?) would be open to the sort of narrative approach you are talking about. Their own discernment process in the story does not involve looking at the narrative or arc of what God has done. The story presents an idea that God speaks in a very UN-contextual way, by straightforward voice, and that obedience to that voice is simple.

    That is what I am trying to say when I say that this little narrative itself is somewhat resistant to the approach you are talking about. There is a discernment process within the text, and that process does not really seem to involve hermeneutics at all. What is emphasized is raw obedience. And so, understanding this story in the context of the larger narrative of scripture I think is something that this story would actually pull against.

    These stories do not want to be interpreted; they want to be obeyed. The choices are stark, and the way is clear. And that is why I think a narrative approach, while extremely helpful with many other problems in scripture, is far less helpful here. These stories themselves resist any approach that implies that interpretation requires any more than simply hearing directly from God. Like a solar powered device that advertises “No batteries required”, these sort of stories where God commands directly seem to advertise “No narrative required”.

    Thanks again,

  • MikeW


    I think we might have bigger theological differences about how we understand divine judgment and condemnation that are showing themselves in the way we read these texts. I would guess that’s where the dialogue would go from here.

    Regarding your points: I don’t understand any of the Pentateuch the way you describe these texts – as enjoining irrational, unthinking compliance. I think each of the historical books are comprised of narratives that are held together by poetics or discourse that evidences a (often subtle) playing on larger themes on every page – and more to your question – themes to which the Israelites themselves agreed to submit their lives and moral imaginations (although they often don’t).

    So I don’t imagine Moses would need any persuading that killing children of idolaters is a situational command that relates to the unique task of possessing a specific, sacred, territory. I think that’s fairly uncontroversial – Israel wasn’t allowed to attack idolaters at will.

    I have appreciated the dialogue. I will look forward to your response but I will probably be bowing out here. Thanks again.