And Brief (and let’s hope final, but If I know me probably not) Comment on God’s Violence in the Old Testament

I’ve been writing some posts lately, beginning here, about God’s violence in the Old Testament, especially toward the Canaanites. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse (pardon the violent metaphor), and I am certainly not pressing the issue because I am bored and don’t know what to do with myself.

I am taking the time to talk about God’s violence in the Old Testament because it is a window onto a large and perennially central theological topic that can be expressed as follows:

What is the Bible, anyway, and what are we supposed to do with it?

To put it another way,

What do we have a right to expect of the Bible as the Word of God?

Or yet another way,

Does the Bible give us unerring, brute factual information, or are we seeing something more complex and subtle there? 

These strike me as important questions to ask, though in my experience, for many they are rarely raised deliberately. Topics like God’s violence force us the articulate what we mean by “Bible.”

Further, however tempting it might be, these questions cannot be settled in the abstract, a safe distance from how the Bible itself behaves. You gotta deal with texts, because dealing with texts is what raises the issue in the first place.

How God acts in the Old Testament is a rather obvious point of entry to look more closely at what the Bible is. Other points of entry are things like (1) the similarities between the Old Testament and the literature of other ancient peoples, (2) the diverse voices found in the Old Testament, and (3) the unexpected ways in which the New Testament authors transpose the Old in view of the Christ—-all three which are topics I address in Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

But, back to my point: God’s violence is a laboratory (to switch metaphors) for working out what it means to call the Bible the Word of God.

O.K., so, with respect to God’s violence in the Old Testament, here is my point for today: it’s a hard topic to avoid.

God as a warrior who kills a lot, or threatens to kill if disobeyed, is a dominant theme of the Old Testament, not tucked away in a few verses of Deuteronomy and Joshua.

I’ve been plowing through through the prophets in English over the past few weeks. (Commercial break: I’ve been using The Jewish Study Bible so I can read with fresh eyes. Plus the introductory essays and study notes are a refreshing change from some of the more apologetic tendencies that beset conservative Protestant study Bibles.)

You catch a lot by reading through large doses of Scripture at a time. Throughout the prophets, mixed in with a words of hope and deliverance for Israel, you can’t help but notice that God is extremely angry.

He is angry with the nations largely because they are enemies of Israel and they worship false gods. God is also angry now and then because their rulers are arrogant and unjust, but definitely God is mad more often than not because of how they treat his people and lure them into worshiping false gods.

Quite often God seems just as angry with the Israelites, mainly for two reasons: (1) forsaking the covenant, which typically can be reduced to worshipping foreign gods and so not trusting the true God, and/or (2) unjust treatment of the poor and oppressed on the part of the political and religious leaders.

So, God’s anger “burns” against the nations and Israel. We could pause here and parse this out a bit more, but let’s keep moving. The issue I am interested in is not that God is angry, but that moves quickly to violence to deal with it.

His solution regarding the nations is either to kill a lot of them through warfare or divine pestilence, thereby either beating them into submission under Yahweh’s rule via Israel’s king or wiping them off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again.

You certainly see an occasional word from a prophet that holds out some hope for a nation here or there, but without question, the dominant theme is that God will avenge himself and his honor will be upheld, and the world will know it by how he blows away the [insert nation here].

God seems like a warlord, whose preferred method of righting wrongs and protecting his honor is through death and destruction of his enemies (who are clearly not limited to the Canaanites).

As for Israel, there is no question that the prophets speak freely of God restoring the fortunes of Israel one day–namely by bringing them back to the Promised Land after exile in Babylon. But, all that follows God teaching them a lesson by having the Assyrians and Babylonians invade the land, destroy a lot of things, kill a lot of Israelites, and then cart the upper-crust away to captivity in a foreign land.

The Assyrians and Babylonians, dominant superpowers, killing war machines, are said to be God’s instruments of vengeance upon his own people. Falling by the sword, famine, and pestilence–a common divine trifecta in the Old Testament–is how God will make his point to Israel, that he is a “jealous God” (Second Commandment) and will tolerate no rival. Harsh physical punishment is how gets the message across.

This is nothing earth-shattering in terms of information, but I wonder how easily we pass over these scenes without stopping to think about the kind of God that is portrayed there. Violence toward human beings, which began in the flood story and extends through Israel’s story and the prophets, is not an occasional event but a character trait, a preferred means of conflict resolution.

The question we’ve been asking in these posts is this:

Do these episodes of violence tell us what God is like or is the picture of God in the Old Testament mediated for us through ancient tribal culture the Israelites and their neighbors participated in?

A follow-up question is how the gospel affects, one way or the other, how we answer this question.

This is a true theological problem that is hard to avoid if you are reading the Old Testament and want to take it seriously.


  • Daniel F. Wells

    Thanks for the post, Pete. I know its tough for professing Christians to try to save face to unchurched folk and explain how the OT God perhaps isn’t as violent or horrific as he comes across. But the OT violence is only half the problem. Plenty of skeptics I know (and read) dislike Jesus and some NT stuff just as much as violence in the OT. They don’t like Jesus’ remarks about hating one’s family, bringing a sword but not peace, hell, or Jesus coming back in Rev 19 and killing unbelievers with a sword coming out of his mouth.

    I’m not critiquing any point you are trying to make (or fail to make), but the violent OT is just a slice of the skeptic’s pie.

  • asusek

    A hard theological problem in the New Testament too. The imagery you highlight sounds a good bit similar to the imagery I read in Revelation. I’d be curious to hear your take on why God would choose to again endorse such violent imagery post-cross in this “revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1)”. But even more than that, there’s the whole crucifixion-of-the-innocent thing going on in the New Testament. If “harsh physical punishment” is in some way a problem when it comes to God, do I have to change my understanding of what’s happening at the cross…like take divine intention out of it…or view it as mythic metaphor for the life of self-sacrifice??

    • peteenns

      Aaron (and similarly Daniel above), yes, the issue does not go away in the NT, although I see some distinctions between God commanding the demise of peoples and nations and the call of the gospel to make disciples of all nations. But, especially with Revelation, second temple Judaism was not all that distant from us vs. them nationalistic thinking of the Israelites–which is not to pass judgement. There is a reason Jesus had to make such a point of taking down those walls.

      Having said that, I am not suggesting that there is no legitimate manifestation of God’s wrath. The question as I see it is why the posture toward non-Israelites Jesus talked about was not enacted hundreds of years earlier. The reason, in my opinion only, is the culture.

      • gingoro

        What kinds of legitimate manifestations of God’s wrath do you think should be exhibited and do you see any examples in scripture?

        For me at least if God is not angry about some of the abuse that I both saw and experienced in mission boarding school then I would find it hard and probably impossible to worship such a God.

        • peteenns

          That is a great point, Dave. As I said elsewhere I am not trying to make a case of whether God can ever be angry or not–because I think he can and is–but focusing on the reasons why God is angry with the nations especially in the OT and the theological problems that raises.

      • Nate Johnson

        Hi Pete,
        When you say in reference to the time-elapse between judgment in the OT and the openess toward non-Israelites that Jesus brought, that it was “the culture” are you working with an either/or approach to history, a real open theism, i.e., God must wait upon social enlightenment to act? If so, that seems to gut from Scripture a mysterious involvement of God in the particular unfolding of history. Surely I’ve misunderstood you. Also, I posted moments agao, but it said you’re posting too fast and now I don’t see it. If this duplicates, I apoogize.

        • peteenns

          No, I don’t think God must wait for social enlightenment, but that how God is expressed by humans reflects the cultural moment.

  • John Hobbins

    Hi Pete,
    Thank you for touching on extremely important topics. A few thoughts come immediately to mind.

    (1) The anger of God is a theme that Abraham Heschel treated masterfully in his still unsurpassed classic on “The Prophets.” The relevant chapters are required reading on the subject; for brief introductions, go here:
    (2) The violence of God and the violence of man are related, intertwined topics that are treated with sensitivity by Peter Craigie in “Violence in the Old Testament.” In the course of a long series on war and peace, I quote Craigie at some length here:
    (3) You seem to be moving toward a theology that replaces the affirmation of a God who is thoroughly involved in all dimensions of human life, including war and peace, crime and punishment, retribution and forgiveness, toward a soteriology and eschatology along the lines of Lennon’s great “Imagine” (1971). I could be mistaken, you seem to be groping toward a post-Jewish and post-Christian worldview. If that is where you are headed, you might want to motivate that trajectory very carefully. I say that because the way you frame the issues, even if they are in terms of questions, seems to point in that direction.

    • peteenns

      There is a lot of required reading, John. And I hope you are kidding on #3.

      • Robyn Bray

        John may be right. My 22 year old son who recenty decided he is an atheist, spouts Richard Dawkins and company endlessly and some of this sounds familiar.

        I see there are questions NOBODY seems to be asking these days.
        (1) Does God have a right to judge and punish where he sees extreme, unrepentant evil? Even death might be merciful to innocents if God lifts them to himself from a culture where they have no hope of escaping horrible abuse and becoming like the culture they are part of. In a society that practices both abortion and capital punishment (though we are not omnicient), do we have the right to judge an omnicient God for deciding to take drastic action to influence the course of human history?

        (2) Are we considering this in the context of eternity (where any innocents who die will be safe in Heaven) or do we believe there is only this life?

        (3) If we do “grant” God this authority, does that mean we have the same authority? Many on both sides of this issue (those who condemn and those who defend God) seem to think if God can judge and “wipe out” a people, so can we. “Well, God killed women and children, so it is ok for the US to kill babies, if necessary, in Afghanistan, if it influences people to cooperate with our agenda.”

        (4) Is it possible God knew things about these people or circumstances we do not know? Unless we can HONESTLY say NO ONE is ever so evil as to deserve death (think Hitler), do we mere humans have the right to assume we know enough to judge God in these matters?

        Most of these discussions seem based on totally temporal terms with no afterlife. They assume a God who is no more knowledgeable than we. They assume that whatever power or authority we “grant” God is equally ours, so God must be judged as we would judge a limited man, not as an omnicient diety.

        They also seem to assume these other “gods” were not malevolent spirits, but simply constructs of the imagination. Even if this is so, their influence drove people to human sacrifice, pointless slaughter, drugged orgies, castration, “cutting,” and throwing their babies into the fire.

        Atheists are arguing the ancient pagans did not do these things. If they did, God was right to want the Hebrews to not be like them. If they did not, that is just one more thing in the Bible that’s not so. By the time we eliminate God’s omnicience, widsom and mercy, and doubt the pagans were living brutal lives due to their demon worship, there’s really not much left to believe in as far as the Bible is concerned.

        • peteenns

          Robyn, thanks for sharing this comment. Clearly this is not an abstract issue for you (nor for me). One of the reasons I am writing about this is to face the issue of violence in the OT but without needing to draw the conclusions Dawkins and others are drawing.

          A couple of thoughts concerning your comments. First, it is my experience that thoughtful people eventually outgrow Dawkins’s hyperbolic language and misinformed ideas. On your #1, one of my posts in this series looks at the issue of why God does what he does to the Canaanites. Moral evil is not the crucial issue, as all the nations were morally evil. All four of your points are part of the conversation, I think, but in my opinion they are adding hypotheticals to what the biblical texts say happened and why–things like the perspective on eternity, gods are demons, etc. These are some of the things that less sympathetic people might point to and say “it looks like you are looking for ways to justify the text that the text does not address.” Just throwing that out there for consideration.

          • Robyn Bray

            My son says that to me often, Peter. The Bible doesn’t give us every detail, so my defense of God is not likely to sway soneone who would prefer not to believe. Someone who has some personal experience of God, but has doubts because of a need for intellectual honesty, however, might find strength to give God a little credit instead of surrendering to the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens in a tme of physical illness or emotional trauma. I wish my son had been around Christans willing and able to meet him at the point of his need before thngs went so far.

            Personally, I’m not sure a defense based on text alone will ever be sufficient, any more than a bare bones news story would answer all the questions about our generation for futue generations.

            Without the Holy Spirit, the text is dead and will remain so.

  • Scott Barber

    This is a helpful post because it describes the issue at hand very clearly. Thank you!
    Peter, have you found the study of patristic exegesis valuable in adressing these problems in interpreting the OT?

    • peteenns

      Yes, to a extent of adding dimensions to the mix, not in terms of solving the issue (not that you meant that).

  • Kyle

    I think it’s true that the authors obtained greater knowledge of God’s will and nature as the narrative progresses. This seems hard to deny. I think God did all He could to get the Israelites to understand Him given their context and limitations, which needs to be factored into the way we read the Old Testament.

  • Jon hughes

    I agree that this is also a New Testament issue. Herod gave not glory to God and was eaten up with worms and died. Believers died who didn’t take the Lord’s Supper in the right manner. And then there’s Ananias and Saphira…

    God is holy and Sovereign; and it’s his prerogative to judge people/peoples as and when it pleases him – even his own people! Consider the *Israelites* who were judged and died during the wilderness wanderings.

    The other important factor is the many O.T. passages which speak of the requirement for Israel to look after the foreigner in their midst, remembering that they too were foreigners in Egypt.

    It seems to me that consistency would require the same approach to the N.T. that Pete is taking with the O.T. – something that Thom Stark (for example) does. This is simply not an option for a Bible-believing Christian.

  • John Hobbins

    Pete, at the very least, I would say that you leave yourself open to misinterpretation. Here’s an honest question. a US President, Abraham Lincoln, presided over the most devastating war and one of the most violent periods of American history. In a comment on the carnage – a comment inscribed nonetheless in a horizon of hope – he affirmed that “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” It seems to me that this willingness to connect violence with the will of God and nonetheless inscribe violence in a horizon of hope without minimizing its horror is constitutive of a biblical, Jewish, and Christian worldview. If we are no longer able to do so, we are, effectively speaking, post-Jews and post-Christians. Would you concur with that?

    • peteenns

      I don’t know John. Maybe it is true, but you are the first to interpret what I am doing in this way.

      I don’t concur with your example. Actually, for Lincoln to appeal to biblical language to explain the carnage of the Civil War as God’s will strikes me as an example of “civil religion” as in Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly.

  • John Hobbins

    @Kyle: I’m wondering what you think of this reuse of your train of thought: “I think God did all He could to get the Americans to understand Him given their context and limitations, which needs to be factored into the way we read American history, not to mention world history, in which the United States has been the key protagonist since World War I.”

    The blood spilled on every continent, the fire we rain from heaven, the amount of human misery we have perpetrated in the name of just causes – and they *are* just: the struggles against fascism, communism, and terrorism – are such enormities that anything we read about in the Old Testament is small potatoes in comparison. Our current president receives the Nobel peace prize almost before he begins his tenure and speaks and then goes on to act in the fierce tradition of “just” wars.

    The facts are these: the demonstrative acts of violence which characterized ancient tribal warfare were relatively respectful to human life in aggregate compared to the demonstrative acts of violence which have characterized and continue to characterized modern industrial, now high tech, warfare.

    From the fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo to the forced death marches and migrations in the aftermath of WW II, from the use of napalm to the targeted killing of men, women, and children by drone; again, the amount of violence perpetrated by both sides in New England in King Philip’s war – the outcome of that war set the stage for everything that came after, including the birth of the United States; again, the fratricidal Civil War – we, not only our enemies, continue to show ourselves more than willing to use overwhelming violence, both domestically and internationally, to reduce our foes to a shadow of their former selves.

    I see no progression in this narrative. The angel of history Walter Benjamin evokes in his famous theses continues to preside over a flux of incredible violence.

    At some point reading the Bible has to be about the fusion of two horizons. A virtuous reader, furthermore, will apply the famous dictum mercilessly: “Know thyself.”

    I accept the necessity of waging war and responding with superior violence in the name of just causes, the preservation of liberty, and the emancipation of peoples. At the same time, I weep no less than God did, according to an ancient midrash, at the sight of “my people” the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea.

    • peteenns

      I don’t disagree with you here, John–at least in the main. But, your last sentence is key: addressing Gods violence responsibly is a midrashic exercise, as the rabbis understood, not to mention the allegorizing of the early church.

    • Alex O

      It’s too bad just wars are beset by large amounts of human brokenness. We go to fight Hitler to emancipate people from the tyranny of the third reich, yet we are not yet ready to dismantle segregation and give African Americans equal rights. In Korean history, many anti-communists often executed whole families on the spot just for being accused of or related to having a family member be a communist. The communists did the same to those accused of being reactionaries.

  • Ronald Taska

    I agree that it is a helpful post as are the comments. Almost every disaster that happens today gets interpreted by some religious leader as being a punishment from God for a wide variety of acts/sins, such as the “sin” of promoting gay rights. So, the horror of 9/11 becomes God’s punishment for a rally promoting gay rights. This claim about punishment for sin seemed even more pronounced with Old Testament authors. I think this is just the way that these authors understood things and we no longer understand things this way. Like with a lot of science and medicine, early ideas need to get clarified and revised. The problem is that the contention of an inerrant Bible makes it impossible to revise.

  • gingoro

    I see God’s dealings with mankind as a journey or trajectory. At some points in time God is reputed to say something which is only a part and often a very small part of the whole eventual understanding. IMO I doubt that we are there as of yet.

    I am reminded of the story, likely a myth about the first RC missionaries to the Vikungs of northern Europe. First the monks told the people that God did not want them to kill and rape on Sunday. After that was effective and the killing stopped on Sundays, the monks said that since Saturday was the day prior to Sunday, that it should be a time of preparation and so God did not want them to kill and rape on Saturday. And so on and on.

    But IMO there are times when God sees a people as not redeemable and so orders their destruction and punishment. Although I hold a reformed theological position I do not accept meticulous providence as the high calvinists do. As I see it God has self limited the ways in which he is willing to manipulate mankind.

    • peteenns

      I am very open to speaking of this issue in terms of journey and trajectory, Dave.

  • John Hobbins

    Lincoln articulated religious – and Old Testament – ideas in the public square. He interpreted history on the basis of typological exegesis. I’m not familiar with Gorman’s theses but if you and Gorman are suggesting that Lincoln’s example of civil religion is something to eschew, that we know better and serve God better by positing a disconnect between God and violence – that is what I am hearing, correct me if I am wrong – I am fully convinced that Lincoln is a better and more helpful example of a public theologian than what passes for common sense among many members of the academy today.

    • peteenns

      It would seem we disagree.

  • John Hobbins

    For those unfamiliar with my online style, I mean everything I say but I also push the envelope very purposefully.

    I am convinced that the typical takes on war and peace, both in practice and theory, which university professors espouse in the early 21st century reek of a lack of self-knowledge, personal and collective, not to mention rank hypocrisy. In this context, it is the honesty of the biblical texts which is striking. Psalm 137 for example is an essential element in the canon, now more than ever. Though I recommend Bialik’s reprise of it, in light of the pogroms which energized Zionism in the early decades of the last century.

    • peteenns

      Do you really think the concerns are raised by out-of-touch academics, John? Maybe your experiences are coloring things here. I’m sure you know many people who aren’t academic who have problems with God’s violence. Sounds like a jab more than pushing the envelope.

  • Andy

    Hi Pete,

    I appreciate you exploring these difficult topics.
    I started some questions in a previous post round this topic….
    If we use cultural accomodation as a way of understanding the violence in the OT….
    Where does that leave us with these topics…How do you keep from going down the slope…?

    Israel’s special place in God’s history – Is this just cultural pride and arrogance?
    Violent images in the atonement – Is this just tribal cultural accomodation?
    What about Anannias and Saphira?

    I would also be very interested to hear your perspective on hell….
    I believe the placement (beneath the earth) of hell in NT understanding was an ‘incidental cultural handle’ for the ‘abstract concept’ but do you believe it goes deeper than this…?

    • peteenns

      All of those issues are important and relevant–and topics for series of their own. But, let me say that the “slope” always goes both ways. If we don’t read the Canaanite issue as cultural accommodation, where will that lead (although, we know where that leads, since the church is no stranger to mass killings on the basis of God’s commands of violence in the OT.

      • Jon hughes


        I think most believers can understand the Conquest of Canaan as a unique event, and in its proper context. However, the example of Ananias and Saphira speaks of God holiness, and divine prerogative to judge, *this* side of the cross.

        The God of the Old Testament is the same God as that of the New. Whatever ‘difficulties’ we may have with Him apply to both testaments.

        • peteenns

          I want to do more reading on Acts. I have heard rumblings from others who deal with Acts that Luke’s rhetoric needs to be taken into account.

      • Jeff Martin

        Dr. Enns,

        It would be helpful for you to flesh out the catch phrase “cultural accomodation”. That could mean a wide range of things in reference to the holy wars, many of which do not even touch on the rightness of what happened.

        Also I think most people see the wiping out of the Canaanites as a unique thing. It would take a great leap of logic to compare that with what is happening today.

        For instance – God is not looking to take a piece of real estate anytime soon at this point in history. The progressive nature of revelation (nanny McPhee style) and waiting for the ripe time in history, the Roman rule over the known world answers somewhat the reason why God would have not included the Gentiles earlier. Another thing to notice is that God never commanded anyone to go over to another country and wipe it out completely and then go back to one’s own country to let them suffer. (Though WW I can be justified, the punishment the ALlies laid on Germany was not justified)

        The Land of Canaan was going through a re-birth process and for those Canaanites who acknowledged the obvious hand of God against them they were allowed to repent – Rahab and her family

      • Joy

        If I could “like” this post, I would. The slippery slope does go both ways, and non-Christians see that slope.

  • jared

    I have a question. I wonder if at least some of our problems arises out of traditional Reformed worldviews. (I know this might seem like an assault since you are from a Reformed background, but it’s not. I’m really interested in your opinion). What if the open theist position is closer to how God operates? That doesn’t solve all of our problems nor does it negate the incarnational view that God is communicating through the lens of ANE culture in context. What if God learned through the experience of the incarnation. What if he literally changed the game plan as opposed to having it all already scripted? Perhaps the antropomorphic traits used to describe God such as “grieving” or the examples in the OT that appear to be changing his mind on something are more than narrative devices (though they certainly could be limited to that)? What if God really did say ‘this isn’t working,’ and change how he was going to deal with humans? I know that all my Reformed brothers/sisters are sharing a collective shudder right now, but we ought to at least entertain all angles for the sake of intellectual honesty, right?

    • peteenns

      I’m all for entertaining all sorts of options, and I also have no problem critiquing Reformed theology or any other theology.

  • David

    This series of posts has been thought-provoking, for sure. In one of the previous posts (can’t remember which one), a commenter brought up Michael Heiser’s approach to the OT holy wars. I would also like to bring that up as something worth pursuing in the context of this discussion. Heiser’s thoughts on the matter can be found in the draft of his upcoming book, “The Myth that is True,” chapters 16 and (especially) 17. While I understand that this might not be the whole answer to the violence dilemma, I do think it really helps to provide a broader coherency to the OT story as a whole, and the place of the holy wars within that story. Would be curious of your thoughts after reading Heiser’s work.

    • peteenns

      Can’t promise I will read Mike’s book anytime soon, but if you have feel free to give a brief synopsis.

  • J.

    I have always been taught that the violence in the old testement was in part a way for God to show his power and might so that the people of the recieving end would see that God was the true God and the way, not their false idols. As to the flood that God loved us to much to let what ever was going on to continue. When the “Choosen” people felt it, that they had stepped away from God and were suffering the effects of that because God could not protect them since he had been cast aside. Of course one must believe in the devil and all his fallen buddies. ( which I do ) I also come from a different way of looking at the Bible. That being said it has always bothered me that a just and loving God can sometimes look and act in a not so just and loving way. Take Job he was a guy who loved and trusted God, but got caught in the middle between God and Saten. It seems crazy that there could be a purpose for it. Yet I have been taught that Jobs faithfulness can give us hope. He stayed true and was rewarded greatly. We are to look at that story and see that we will be rewarded by God even if it means death here on earth. It does take a bit of faith to accept it all though, that I do not deny. This article that I have linked will give you more of an idea of where I come from as my journey is much like the auther eccept I went to the E. C. C. Before making my way back home.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Great post and discussion. It is, IMHO, next to impossible to think about theodicy without recognizing the opposition God faces at practically every turn, probably including opposition to his creating and sustaining work. It’s not just rebellion or evil in people that lead to the horror we see in our world, now and in the past. According to Scripture, there is serious spiritual opposition to God’s goals and to his children’s walk.

    Inseparably linked to this is deterministic thinking, or rather, the degree that we can free ourselves from it. Allowing ourselves to consider the possibility of libertarian freedom among all of God’s creatures should be very helpful. With this adjustment in thinking, rebellion in our material reality and in spiritual reality at least can logically be accounted for. 

    Greg Boyd has made some progress here in his well documented (scripturally)
     “Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy” IVP 2001. Or the shorter version “Is God to Blame: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering” IVP 2003, which apparently does not require any great concession to open theism (I’ve only read the first one.)

  • Norman

    Again Pete you choose some of the most daunting issues to tackle today and you don’t seem to be letting up. I have a feeling you’re really working things out for a provocative book somewhere down the line. It should be a dossey.

    One of the interesting aspects of Revelation that I perceive and it also permeated OT literature as well is the idea of a messianic King who would rule as a warrior wielding a sword, but it turns out to be the “word” or the message that becomes the battle instrument and not physical instruments. The battle belongs to the Lord and it is concerned it seems with cosmic/spiritual imagery and not about what can be accomplished with physical armies. Rev 19 comes to mind and 20 also where the Nations are destroyed with the breath of the word including Gog and Magog which seems to represent Nations from the 4 winds of the world known and unknown. (I see that as a prophetic proclamation against any nation that might rise up against the teaching of Christ).

    I see the same language in 4 Ezra which is a contemporary of Revelation and so it seems that with the coming of messiah that the concept of a warrior God is appropriated into spiritual warfare. Even though the language is graphic and fits the mold of the ANE concepts it might be the case that the early Christians were interpreting it differently and turning the OT concepts on their ear. At least it makes me take notice that there has been a dramatic paradigm shift and perhaps it is not unexpected for future generations to continue to explore this spiritual battle and leave the old mindsets behind as we are transformed by the teaching of messiah.

  • Ronald Taska

    We might add to the discussion scriptures where God orders the killing of homosexuals, those women who are not virgins on their wedding night, and those who work on the Sabbath. Surely, these have to be views of an ancient author which need substantial moderation just like the views of religious leaders, contending that God caused Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 or the recent shooting in Colorado for the punishment of certain sins (usually the sins are the promotion of homosexuality or abortions), need moderation. Could the Old Testament authors just plain be wrong? Do we have to do lots of mental gymnastics to make them right about everything they wrote? What disaster happens if we just view them as having had ancient views which were wrong sort of like we used to think using leeches to suck blood from patients was therapeutic, but now we know better?

  • Jorge


    You said, “I wonder how easily we pass over these scenes without stopping to think about the kind of God that is portrayed there.”

    In isolation from all the other character traits of God we find in Scripture, these “violent” passage do pose a problem for us in the 21st century (our context). But when we also see that the OT reveals God to be a holy God, the creator of all things, one who is sovereign over his creation, one who is merciful and compassionate, one who loves and one who is just, then these passages might start to make more sense. Also, as you clearly point out, God was dealing with his people in history – their time and place – so our *problem* might be more a product of our current context. And the last time I checked, our culture isn’t too enamored with the idea of a holy God who executes judgment and commands people to live a certain way. The idea of love is culturally “in” today, the rest is repulsive to many.

    What about Jesus’ view of the OT and the God that is portrayed in it? Isn’t this fair game in the discussion, since Jesus himself is presented as the ultimate manifestation of God? We like his ethics, but what about his views of the OT? Does Jesus have a problem with the OT like some Christians do today? What can we learn from Jesus’ view?

    The contrast you paint in your final question seems to me to be unnecessary. Why can’t these OT passages of God’s “violence” (aka, his holy & righteous wrath – can we even acknowledge this anymore?), be a true yet partial revelation of what God is like (I say partial because this is but one part of how God is portrayed in the OT – limiting our view of God solely to these “problem passages” is a distortion), mediated through the ancient tribal culture of the Israelites and their neighbors? I don’t agree with the way you framed the question.

    Also, I don’t understand why you aren’t factoring Deut. 9:5 and 18:12 in your argument? These texts clearly state that the Canaanite’s sin was indeed “a” factor in their being driven out of the land. The author isn’t making the case that the Canaanites are the worst compared to the Assyrians, etc., but pointing out that they were evil is enough for the author. God decided to execute his judgment on them and use the Israelites as his instrument. I think the OT makes a case that God, being God, is totally free to do just that.

    I don’t think Jesus would have a problem with that.

    • peteenns


      I appreciate your point, but you are largely repeating the same series of comments without really addressing my responses or things I have addressed in my posts. The one new factor you are adding here concerns Jesus’ view of the OT, and you seem to be suggesting that Jesus’ view of the OT is a simple matter of agreement, but in truth that issue is as vexing as any.

      I wonder, too, how you address the archaeological evidence that calls the Canaanite conquest into serious question. That is no small matter that most all biblical scholars across the theological spectrum recognize are a problem, and undercuts most of the points you are making. Also, Doug Earl and Dan Hawk are to examples of commentators that have done some very helpful work on what the book of Joshua as a whole is trying to “do” theologically for the postexilic audience that brought Joshua to its final form. That also shifts the discussion.

  • John Hobbins

    An illuminating thread. I appreciate the honesty of Ronald Taska’s words: “This claim about punishment for sin seemed even more pronounced with Old Testament authors. I think this is just the way that these authors understood things and we no longer understand things this way. Like with a lot of science and medicine, early ideas need to get clarified and revised. The problem is that the contention of an inerrant Bible makes it impossible to revise.”

    That goes to the heart of the issue. It is true that, for many academics certainly, and for plenty of others, the notion of a God who punishes is no longer acceptable. To put it in the sharpest of terms, we expect the state to exercise coercion and to deal out punishment in line with priorities and criteria arrived at via a (more, usually less) democratic process, but we balk at the notion of a God who forgives and withholds forgiveness according to principles we do not consent to. We struggle mightily as parents, employers, and spouses with form and function of punishment and the identification of wrongdoing, so much so that awareness of the fact that forgiving and withholding forgiveness – when, how, and why – define the quality of relationships, is often absent. Though we are fully conscious of the fact that the state and the workplace and the home are about a delicate balance between law and gospel, we give the name of God to that ideal which is “pure gospel,” an all-forgiving, all-accepting ground of being.

    A first-order problem with such a notion of God and in particular, with the notion of a God who does not punish, is that it expects God to conform to a wish projection. A second-order problem is that it is tantamount to saying that the Bible fundamentally misrepresents who God is. I would ask Pete and others on this thread to be clear on these matters. It is one thing to ask questions. It is another to point to answers by means of questions.

    Let me put it this way. Does it misrepresent who God is to say with Scripture that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for the sins of its inhabitants, that God threw horse and rider into the sea and delivered a nation of slaves by acting as a man of war? Does it misrepresent who God is to say that he takes one nation and allows it to displace another? Do we take God’s name in vain if we say that he punishes his own people by the sword, famine, plague, and exile; by fratricidal war, such that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether?

    If we answer “yes” to any of the above questions, we say in effect that the Scripture is fundamentally untruthful.

    • peteenns


      Here is the problem I see with your comment, apart from wanting to connect (again) a dismissal of God’s violence in the OT with academic arrogance: You post the matter as one of “fundamentally misrepresent[ing] who God is.” That is a perspective to take,I suppose, but I do not recognize your view that this is the bottom-line and apparently unavoidable way that gets to the heart of the issue. One could (and should) respond that all contextual expressions of God (is there any other kind?) will bear that mark. The fact that the was written over a several hundred year period (at most) within what I call for convenience sake a “tribal culture” can explain why God is represented the way he is.

      Now, where I have no intention of going with this is to say that God cannot be angry, wants to play nice, does not punish (though that is a conclusion you seem to have drawn about my position.) I would rather say, as an alternate to you point of view, that the character of God as just, fair, and committed in the righting of wrongs, is expressed in the OT largely (not exclusively) in imagery of divine warfare. I am aware that this raises corollary issues of revelation, inspiration, the nature of Scripture, etc., but those issues are here regardless; in my view, they do not go away with any proposed way forward, including your own.

      • Bev Mitchell

        While we are critiquing questions, it seems to me the most basic question is “Are there any truly human elements in Scripture?” A closely related question is “Are there any truly human elements in our interpretations of Scripture?”  I’m guessing that most would have no problem answering yes to the second question while many appear to have great difficulty imagining the first to be possible.

        Pete, Kent Sparks and others are saying, based on considerable evidence from various fields, that there really are truly human elements found in the pages of Scripture (as in of human origin). Based on this conclusion, they have begun asking the essential next question “What is from God and what is of human origin in Scripture?” And this is not simply, “Which passages are from God and which from humans?” – this would be a very destructive and unproductive oversimplification.

        Those of us who are convinced that Scripture contains much from God that we desperately need, and yet can see the evidence of solo human activity there as well, are most grateful that Creed believing scholars have stepped up to begin wrestling with all of this. We have tried the inerrancy approach, the pat answer approach, the head in the sand approach, the authoritarian approach and all the other approaches based more on fear than on faith. It’s time to join the discussion of how to sort out this whole human/God origin of Scripture question.

        Claims of Scriptural inerrancy quickly become appeals to inerrancy of particular interpretations. We have had enough of this.

  • Phil Cary


    In one sense what you’re saying in this post is hardly new. We all knew already that God’s judgments in the Bible are often executed by violence. But the responses in these comments help underline what really is often overlooked, which you have put front and center. God’s judgments in the OT are not moralistic; they are not an impartial judgment on people’s moral faults (of the Canaanites or anyone else). They are the result of God taking sides in the bloody politics of the Ancient Near East.

    Strikingly, the OT does not see this as a problem; on the contrary, it follows from God’s covenant obligations. As God’s covenant partner, Israel has the right to expect God to fight their enemies. On the other hand, God also has the right to punish Israel for covenant disloyalty–sometimes by using Israel’s enemies against them. Those two points, taken together, explain most of the violence in the OT.

    So I’m thinking: what we have yet to reckon with fully is that the judgment of God in the OT is not moralistic; it is not the sentence of an impartial moral judge but the act of an angry covenant partner. You can take the anger as symbolic rather than literal, as the church fathers do, but the difficult point remains: the judgment is not directed against moral faults in general but concerns covenant loyalties, which are those of feudal vassalage, where the lord has the obligation to fight for his vassals but also the right to punish their disloyalty.

    Here’s my sense of the historical situation we’re in. We’ve inherited the moralistic interpretation of OT judgment from the church fathers. The rhetoric of a divine warrior fighting for his people was not lost on them–it was quite familiar from pagan sources, and they were about as uncomfortable with it as we are. So they worked hard to interpret OT judgments instead as punishment for moral faults. There was plenty of material on the sins of Israel and the nations to support their interpretation. But the result was a view of OT that downplayed both the ancient near eastern understanding of covenant and its specific application to God’s election of his chosen people Israel.

    This is the greatest deficit in the church father’s reading of Scripture: they de-centered Israel from the Bible’s story. Interestingly, this is a deficit that continues in much of higher criticism (the “higher anti-Semitism,” as Jewish scholars like Jon Levenson keep reminding us). The theological way forward, it seems to me, is to deepen our understanding of the biblical notion of election, re-centering it once again on Israel.

    For at the center of Israel itself is Jesus Christ, the king OF THE JEWS (as Pilate himself recognized in his backhanded way). So it’s good news for us Gentiles that the Jews are the chosen people, and that we are blessed only through them–blessed, that is, through those who are other than ourselves. And that would be my hint at an answer to your final question, about how the Gospel affects all this.

    • peteenns

      Very helpful, Phil. You get what I am getting at, albeit in a popular venue. And yes, “de-centering’ Israel is a problem which is only exacerbated today, which is why the New Perspective is so helpful. But, as you know, putting Israel back in the center, so to speak, might re-raise some of the theological issues that led to things like allegorizing.

  • John Hobbins

    Thanks for the conversation, Pete. Sorry to be so hard to please.

    If I remember correctly, this series of yours began with a smackdown of, at the very least, intemperate language by a well known contemporary preacher. I thought you were right to draw attention to the issues that language raised.

    My chief reason for commenting here is to suggest that I struggle no less with your language choices.

    I believe as much as you do that the fusion of horizons interpretation requires is a challenging task. But I struggle with your avoidance of categories like crime and punishment and your apparent unwillingness to answer any of the questions I just posed in the affirmative.

    You are certainly right that I need to explain with more care why I believe that so much of what passes for self-evident truth among many early 21st century academics is an expression of vices typical of that social location. Point taken. In the same way, I think you need to explain with much more care why you consider much of the God-language we find in the Bible to be an expression of vices you associate with “tribal culture.”

    For the rest, our main disagreement seems to be the following. Whereas you seem intent on re-emphasizing that all language about God is culturally conditioned and in some sense misrepresents who God is, I am intent on emphasizing the flip side of that affirmation: precisely in culturally conditioned language God speaks the truth to us and reveals himself to us in dependable ways. As an evangelical scholar, I believe it is my calling to flesh that affirmation out as carefully as possible.

  • James

    If we provide an overview of the violence of God in the OT we should do equal justice to his mercy and grace–not just make passing references. Salvation and judgment are twin oars that direct the grand purposes of God. Redemption is the final end in view, not annihilation of what God himself has made. God decimates the nations and he decimates his own people but he also reinstates his people and their City so that all the nations, now chastened, may stream back into Zion bearing gifts. Thus the whole world becomes a fitting temple for God to dwell forever among his people–Jew and Gentile–and that’s just the Old Testament storyline (amid all the diversity). So let’s get the big picture right before we break it down in its constituent parts. We’ll never understand the character of God until we do.

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  • Patrick

    This view ignores some data, IMO.

    1) The narrative indicates God had no option BUT to execute the flood judgment. For Him not to have done so would have meant no fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. As it was, God had 8 people that were not nephilim at that point. Had that “meany god” not done so, there would be no Christ.

    I would add that all the dead of the flood will be thanking Yahweh for eternity for their temporary demise as well if the restoration of all things does include even unbelievers. They’ll be quite thankful Yahweh removed them as threats to Christ’s reality.

    2) The same may be said for all the violence against the foes of Israel, many of whom were nephilim (all in Joshua were). Yahweh had the option of seeing Israel dead or their enemy. Israel dead equals no Christ.

    God is a God of love and He’d allow THAT? Forget it.

    The situation was akin to one of us walking up on an evil man preparing to rape then murder an innocent girl. We have to use force to stop it as distasteful as that would be or we have no virtue. Are we then “meany people”?

    3) Jesus didn’t take one passage to enlighten us about how He disagreed with the portrayal of Himself or His Father pre Incarnation. That’s strong evidence the narrative was valid and accurate. Yahweh had no alternative to the violence except becoming a liar and a loser .

    4) Do a study on BC human sacrifice online. There is ample evidence of how violent and venal humanity was BC. The human record it seems to me adds validity to the bible narrative, man was not exactly malleable towards our creator and forced His hand oftentimes:

  • Patrick

    Late addition! If the OT view of Yahweh is filtered through the violence of ANE mentality, how is it Jesus emerged from the same mentality? 2cd temple Judaism history is not exactly a pretty picture.

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  • jacob z

    It seems clear to me that who God is is being mediated through Israel’s culture and forms. The question is how much. You are pushing for more cultural accommodation than usual, Pete, and while I tend to agree, it’s difficult to adjust.
    Honestly, the only thing that I feel like I can hang my hat on as solid ground in these very difficult questions is the cross. God sacrificing his son as a means of ending the violence is the undisputed paradigm for interpreting God’s character, violence, the OT, etc.
    Now how to work that out…

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  • John Warren

    “Does the Bible give us unerring, brute factual information, or are we seeing something more complex and subtle there?” Both/and. Embrace the tension.

  • Dante Aligheri

    I too have trouble understanding these verses. However, I think some biblical writers themselves had problems with these, and they offer answers. First off, I would suggest that the Bible – and in fact most human religions – only perceive God’s actions through the natural world and, for the Hebrews, through History. The Bible as we have it clearly believes that the LORD has no rival and has complete control even over the Leviathan. Hence, Isaiah can say, “God creates both Good and Evil” – brings life and death equally. Even Hinduism has a similar concept wherein from Brahman’s point of view morality has no meaning. Ancient polytheism could attribute Evil to the vagaries of various gods who were unpredictable and born out of senseless chaos themselves. The cosmos has no transcendent meaning for them. Now, this will not cut it for Abrahamic monotheists as God has no origin in chaos but created order. God has no rival and is therefore responsible for everything. I think what the Bible is trying to say is that everything that happens – both good and evil – fall under God’s authority and are, at least indirectly, caused by Him (i.e., the Sparrow analogy). This is a simple theological conclusion if God is the only true power in the Heavens. Later, of course, the Devil will challenge this autonomy for the causation of Evil. Even here, though, Jews will submit the Devil as under God’s watch and powerless without Him. Consequently, I have no problem then with God executing judgment since we are all judged at some point. The Hebrew answer to Evil is literally saying that God’s ways are unfathomable, like in Job or similar to Hinduism. All we can do is trust. I also have little problem with the death of Uzziah since God’s presence literally causes death – like radiation from a nuclear bomb. We cannot stand in His presence and live. The only problems I do have with Hebrew Scriptures is where God does not execute judgment Himself but where He orders people to do it for Him. Unlike God, the Israelites had no authority over their fellow man – no “rights” to kill them, and not even God could change that ontological fact of the natural law. Here I consider, like Ibn Ezra, the Law to be provisional – that is, a concession to the hard hearts of the Israelites following their national Fall at the Golden Calf episode. I also feel that maybe Josephus and the later rabbinic writers might have preserved some truths about moral restrictions on herem warfare – i.e., the Israelites had to offer peace first before being refused, had to leave one side of city open for noncombatants to escape, had to allow refugees to flee the battlefield. There was a book on Jewish ethics in warfare, but I forget the name of it.

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