Greg Boyd, Horrific Passages

From Greg Boyd’s blog, a post about his forthcoming book:

While most of the Bible exhibits a “God-breathed” quality, reflecting a magnificently beautiful God that is consistent with God’s definitive revelation on the cross, we must honestly acknowledge that some depictions of God in Scripture are simply horrific. They are included in what is sometimes called “the dark side of the Bible.” To give just a small sampling, we find God portrayed as doing things such as:

* …causing parents to cannibalize their own children (Lev. 26:29; Jer. 19:9; Lam. 2:20; Ezek. 5:10)

* …causing pregnant women to having their wombs ripped open and their children dashed on the ground (Hos. 13: 16)

* …refusing to allow any compassion to keep him from smashing parents and children together (Jer. 13:16)

* …commanding the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman, child, infant and even animals – “everything that breathes” – though they are not to harm trees, for “trees are not your enemy” (though babies are?) (e.g. Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-20)

* …telling Israelite men that, while everyone else in a region is to be mercilessly slaughtered, they may spare women they find attractive and marry them. However, if they later “find no delight in her,” they may turn them out on the street (Deut. 21:10-14)

* …commanding parents and others to stone to death children who are stubborn or who strike a parent (Ex. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18-21)

In my forthcoming book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I have an entire chapter of material such this. It is not easy reading! Now, out of obedience to Christ, who consistently spoke of the Hebrew Bible as divinely inspired, and in solidarity with the historic orthodox Church, I feel obliged to confess all Scripture, including horrific material such as this, is “God-breathed” (theopneustos, 2 Tim. 3:16). At the same time, I believe it is also vitally important that we remain ruthlessly honest with ourselves and others and God about this material. How else can we describe material such as this as anything other than horrific, macabre, grotesque, and even revolting? If a portrait of God commanding people to slaughter babies and causing mothers to eat them doesn’t qualify as revolting, what would? If you found material like this in any other ancient or modern text, would you hesitate for a moment from labeling it as macabre, revolting, or some such phrase? If we are honest, we cannot deny it. So how does horrific material like what I just reviewed suddenly become less revolting by virtue of being found in our sacred text rather than someone else’s?

… I know it sounds impious to describe any of God’s inspired Word to be horrific or revolting, but I am actually in good company in speaking this way. No less an authority than John Calvin was willing to describe some of the portraits of God in the OT as “utterly barbaric,” “crude” and “savage” as he affirmed that God had to condescend to give such brute laws because his people’s hearts were so “hard,” “incorrigible” and “depraved.”[1] So too, Calvin admits that God’s command to destroy “everything that breathes” in Jericho “would have been savagery” (immanis) and would have been “a deed of atrocious and barbaric ferocity” (quad atrociter et barbara saevitia) were it not God who commanded it.[2] Elsewhere Calvin describes some of God’s commands and actions as “harsh,” “savage” and “barbaric’” (durum, immane, barbarum) as well as  “savage and fierce” (saevi et atroces), as involving “execrable savagery” (detestabilis immanitas), and as constituting a “barbaric atrocity” (barbara atrocitas).[3] I appreciate Calvin’s candor!

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  • phil_style

    This will be an interesting book.
    Much has been written in recent years about these horror texts, and rightly so. I, for one, am more inclined to see them as exposing the evil that humans have carried out and then subsequently tried to place in the hands of God.

    I also suspect that the crucifixion of Christ was another such event. An innocent, Killed by humans, but blamed on God.

  • Richard

    Definitely a book I’ll borrow from our library. I appreciate the language of “confessing” the text instead of offering an “apologetic.”

  • MatthewS

    Scot, are you going to do a series on this book? I see a lot of discussion around this issue. It’s not always easy to know how to speak about these passages (or even how to think about them).

  • scotmcknight

    MatthewS, yes, I suspect I will.

  • Mike DeLong

    I look forward to discussion on this topic. I have found very little in the way of a satisfying explanation for these “horrific” passages.

  • Kaleb

    For me I don’t think I could ever be convinced that these deeds were God breathed… our egos are just to big not to justify our actions; in God’s name seems to still be one of the most popular ways.

    If they are true commands I honestly don’t know how we could come to see God personality as anything other than bipolar? Jesus being God says turn the other cheek, no eye for an eye, forgive beyond measure, bless, ect… These can not be the same God who does not change can they? If they are God breathed we can still justify these actions today.

  • Regarding the conquering of Canaan, I think that total extermination of the nations was necessary for the survival and growth of Israel as Israel. The fierce tribalism of the time would have precluded any type of “melting-pot” scenario where all the grateful nations were subsumed into a paternalistic and benevolent Israel. It was kill or be killed, as I understand it. In order for Israel to live, the other nations had to die. In fact, because the other nations did, in fact, survive the conquest, Israel was led away over and over into idolatrous worship, so that they could not be the Israel God intended/demanded they be. Thus, exile. And because the people were expelled from the land, the curses of the covenant between YHWH and Abram from Genesis 15 went into effect, and now God had to die for the sins of Abraham’s offspring. Thus, the cross, where God’s only son becomes one of Abraham’s sons and dies for the sins of, not simply Abraham’s offspring, but all people, including those idolatrous nations that led Israel away to begin with. I have to believe that somehow, someway, the Gospel was, is, or will be proclaimed to those nations, too.

  • Seth

    If you want a bit of a precursor to what this book is going to entail, I highly recommend listening to Boyd’s “God’s Shadow Activity” lessons. They are available on Podcasts or here:

    It will also answer some of the questions posed on this comment thread. After hearing them and having him reference this book, I’ve been (im)patiently waiting!

    God Bless!

  • Andy,

    What you’ve offered is an explanation.
    But think about this: what’s the primary sin that the Canaanites performed that supposedly pushed God over the edge? Child sacrifice…something that God says he never even contemplated.

    So the penalty for killing your own children is to have a bunch of foreigners come in and kill your children?

    It’s not a matter of “what does the text say,” but “what does the text tell us about God?”
    In the case of these texts, they tell us something very specific if we read them in the somewhat flat way you’ve laid out here.

    Boyd is attempting to honor the texts as Scripture (contra Eric Siebert, who basically says they never happened) while simultaneously not excusing their horrific nature (contra Paul Copan, who says they happened but they weren’t nearly as bad as you might think). As far as I can tell, Greg is doing something that no one has tried before…while also laying out a new way of doing “Crucicentric theology”.

    This is going to be extremely controversial and it’s likely going to open up cans of worms amongst the evangelical gatekeepers…but everything that’s worthwhile does that anyway.
    Looking forward to it!

  • Megan

    Wow. I greatly appreciate fellow Christians tackling topics like this. I have a dear friend from my college years that earned her degree in Bible. During her masters program she lost her faith, and a big reason for it was trying to understand the “God of the OT” and passages like these. Looking forward to more posts on this topic.

  • phil_style

    @andy Holt Regarding the conquering of Canaan, I think that total extermination of the nations was necessary for the survival and growth of Israel as Israel. The fierce tribalism of the time would have precluded any type of “melting-pot” scenario where all the grateful nations were subsumed into a paternalistic and benevolent Israel.

    Fortunately, nations WERE able to live by side for periods in the ANE world. Archaeology shows that ideas and trade freely flowed between regions for long periods of time. YEs there was war, but there was also economic and cultural integration that went on. The idea that “Israel” (or any other people group) would not have survived except without the complete annihilation of everyone else’s babies is difficult to swallow (putting it mildly)…..

  • Adam

    I get annoyed when people combine the “commands” and the “environments” into single ideas. Lev 26:29 is an environment and not a command. It’s a description of how humans will respond when God removes his presence. Duet 7:1-2 is a command, God telling Israel to do something.

    Passages like Duet 7 are hard to deal with but they are very few. Passages like Lev 26 are statements of who we humans are without God.

    Boyd’s statements of “…causing parents to cannibalize their own children” is the same as saying God causes juries to acquit murderers. It’s a really poor use of language. The language itself comes from a worldview that God causes everything. So, God causes rain, God causes Pharaohs, God causes Philistines, God causes famine, and on and on. From this worldview it is right to say God causes cannibalism, because God has created an environment where humans will act like cannibals. In the ancient worldview and language, the human actors are not exempt from their actions and it is wrong for them to be cannibals, God is merely known as the primary actor. His removal of blessing has let humans be their worst.

    But that statement doesn’t mean the same thing in our worldview. We don’t believe God is the cause of everything. We believe in a human free will. To us, “God causing” sounds like God is making puppets of us and making us humans do things against our will. Our belief is that we humans are good and righteous and we would never resort to cannibalism on our own. Therefore it is God acting on us to make cannibalism happen.

    I think we should not be sloppy in how we use the “god causing” phrases. Let’s keep a separation between God’s actual commands and other statements.

  • Luke, I agree that I’ve only offered one of presumably many explanations. I wasn’t trying to justify the actions, simply stating why they may have been historically necessary.

    Phil, the difference here is that Israel was moving into territory already occupied by other nations. That tends to complicate things a bit, particularly when tribes, territory, and gods all go together.

    I’d like to add that I’m also mortified by these texts and that I really, really struggle with this stuff. I wasn’t trying to justify these texts/actions with my comment, but simply stating what helps me understand the bigger picture.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Two places that I have seen some of these discussed previously are Phyllis Tribble’s “Texts of Terror,” and a discussion of that book in Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton’s “Truth is Stranger Than it Used To Be.”

    Walsh and Middleton address Trible’s texts as texts that cannot be assimilated or reduced to the Jewish or Christian story and so leave uncomfortable points out there for us to deal with human sinfulness.

  • Joe Canner

    Adam #12, I don’t read Lev. 26 the way you do. Vss. 27-28 basically says “If you continue to rebel, this is what I will do to you…” This pattern is repeated six times betwen verses 14 and 39. It seems quite clear that these are punishments (or the results of punishment) and not just predictions about the slide into apostasy. I would agree that verse 29 is not a *command* to cannibalism, but it *is* the result of a God-ordained punishment.

  • Adam

    @Joe #15

    ” I would agree that verse 29 is not a *command* to cannibalism, but it *is* the result of a God-ordained punishment.”

    Exactly. In the ANE worldview EVERYTHING is the result of God-ordained something. Victory in battle is the result of God-ordained blessing. Defeat in battle is the result of God-ordained wrath. Rain, sun, child deformities, blindness, famine, EVERYTHING is ordained by God. We have to be careful with these passages because we don’t see life in the same way. Our modern reading of this says that “humans would rather not be cannibals but because God did this we have no choice”.

    The ancient view is that humans can’t be good without God’s intervention. The modern view and subsequent reading of the passage says that we’re fine as long as God doesn’t meddle with us. Because of these different worldviews and the confusion they cause we should keep commands to specific commands and not lump more vague passages into the same group as the commands.

  • How much of our difficulty in understanding God as revealed in OT writings comes from our imposing our present worldview and meanings on the text instead of holding back on our judgments and reactions until we can understand it better as the people of the time would have written and read it. If we can’t find that out, then shouldn’t we keep searching, and, in the meantime, perhaps we should not react to these poorly understood (by us) passages in a way that the world does? Perhaps we err because we elevate our opinion about our present understanding too much. Isn’t that the same point that scholars make about forcing Genesis 1 to be literal 6 x 24 hour days in the same time frame as we see today? Isn’t that a little like the “sun revolves around us” problem? How much of the consternation about the God of the OT starts with an over-presumption of our own present knowledge? But a conversation about what we don’t know would be much shorter.

  • Damien

    I can’t wait to read this book, as I always have a hard time with some of these passages and I know several people who’ve walked away from the faith because (in their words) they couldn’t believe in a God who is both loving and would order such things.

    I’m myself quite conflicted about such things. On the one hand, I’m pained when I read about people being massacred and it sounds a bit too much like something that would nowadays land you in the Hague. I think the “official line” is evangelicalism often fails to do justice to the fact that these are very, very violent passages and that we can’t glibly say “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” as if we were not concerned that people would be killed.

    On the other hand, the picture of God as a judge who visits punishment upon humans is so pervasive in Scripture that it needs to be part of our theology. There’s obviously the flood (whether it was local or even mythical, the story still depicts God as the one who is ethically justified in destroying virtually all of mankind for their sins!). But it’s not just an OT phenomenon, as the deaths of Ananias & Sapphira or Herod in Acts show. This is actually what excites me about Boyd’s book since I know that he already talked about these instances in another article and thus will not retreat to a quasi-Marcionite position.

    I’m always reluctant to say this, because it’s too often used as a conversation-stopper, but we always have to be careful not to go too far and start judging God. There is a certain way in which acts that we are not allowed to do (I say this as a pacifist) can be permissible for God. Peter couldn’t have taken his sword and chopped off Ananias’s head, but God was certainly free to judge him. That’s not to say that children being killed doesn’t bother me a lot. It does and I often wish these passages were not there.

  • Andrew

    Thus the major crux with evangelical Christianity’s overt focus on the Bible as the penultimate ‘Source of Truth’ and not a recognition that it was composed over a tremendous period of time by different authors with different agendas and that not all of it is ‘God-breathed’ at all (I always found it ironic that people justified scripture’s inerrancy by citing scripture).
    Jesus cited OT stories to make a point among religious Jews but his reversal on divorce (because your “hearts were hardened” ie that was not God) and his flagrant breaking of Levitical purity laws showed that he clearly didn’t see all of the OT as God-written or mandated, which actually fits the Jewish framework as Jews had widely different interpretations of what parts of the Bible truly came from God and what could be circumvented/interpreted away to the point of irrelevancy.
    Thus now we have some people stretching the bounds of rational thought to try to justify morally reprehensible biblical passages so that their Biblical framework house of cards doesn’t come tumbling down, or they just go the Reformed route of “God is God, he can do whatever he wants . . we can’t fully understand” which to me is a rather immature cop-out of a position to take.
    Or one can take the Bible for what it is, a human-composed document reflecting the ideas of the men writing them. Many of the ideas expressed are holy and righteous; others show a Bronze-age tribal mentality best left to the Bronze Age.

  • Bev Mitchell

    As theo (17) says, there is, believe it or not, a lot we don’t know. Boyd (elsewhere) makes the point that we get it backwards when we think our problem is not knowing enough about God while knowing a whole lot about how the world works. He thinks we should reverse this and realize that we know plenty about God (through the Incarnation, life of Christ, Calvary and the Resurrection). It’s how the world works (how creation works) where we know so very little while thinking we know so very much.

    We all await Boyd’s new book and will be wanting to read it with Scott if we can. In the meantime, check out “Is God to Blame.” I know it’s very old, about ten years old in fact, but nevertheless…….. An e-version is available and it provides a great summary of where Boyd is coming from, and Adam (12), it’s definitely not from the direction of “God is in meticulous control”.

  • Tim

    Often the Bible is an inspired account of how messed up we are and how sick our ideas of God are. God’s true identity and character is revealed in Jesus. Thus, not everything that is biblical is Christ like. To get the Story straight we must read through the eyes of the Risen, Forgiving Crucified One

  • Marcus C

    I gotta say, I can’t stand to watch the new History Channel mini-series “The Bible” because of the way it romanticizes and sugar-coats the OT… pretty much the same way the OT has been sugar-coated all my life growing up in the church. The reality is, the OT Israelites had waaaay more in common with modern day Taliban than with Western Christians IMO.

  • MatthewS

    #22, Marcus, it’s hard to escape that feeling sometimes, but do you think it could also be said that the OT Israelites had more in common with the victims of the holocaust or with say, Syrian citizens who are under attack than today’s Western Christians as well?

    There is real substance to your comment. I’m just partly thinking how it’s less than fair to isolate and frame details anachronistically. Just as a silly example, if a lead actor lights up a cigarette in a movie today, it is occurring in a very different culture and climate than for those who did the same thing 30 years ago. If kids of today were to judge movie heroes of yesterday only from today’s cultural lens, they would not be seeing the whole picture. There is no moral equivalence between lighting up vs. wiping out villages, I’m just getting at the anachronistic element there.

  • norma hill

    It seems to me that the two core questions here are (1) what does “God breathed” actually mean? and (2) what human beings actually wrote these texts and why?

    God has always worked in and through his human creatures “as they are” to bring them toward something higher and better. When their understandings were (are?) primitive, they understood Him in a primitive way, and so they recorded.

  • Marcus C

    #23, MatthewS wrote ” it’s hard to escape that feeling sometimes, but do you think it could also be said that the OT Israelites had more in common with the victims of the holocaust or with say, Syrian citizens who are under attack than today’s Western Christians as well?”

    Did the victims of the holocaust stone to death people accused of adultery, treat woman as property, slaughter children and infants, etc… ? I think the Taliban really are the closest modern equivalent to the OT Israelites…