Children and Virgins as Spoils of War and the Character of God

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that, if the temperature broke here in Philly, I would follow up with a post that looks at some passages that will help us feel the full weight of the issue of Canaanite genocide in the Old Testament.  Well, it won’t get out of the the 80s today, so, here you go.

First, let me say again that I appreciate the discussion thus far, pro and con. It’s a tough issue that can certainly benefit from collective thinking.

I can’t help but remark, though, that I am a bit stunned by those who do not seem the slightest bit concerned about God ordering the Israelites to cleanse the land from Canaanite impurity.

I continue to encourage those of you still hanging with the discussion, even if you are uncomfortable with some solutions, to at least admit that this is a theological problem. You won’t be the first. As I mentioned yesterday, some of the earliest Christian theologians saw right away the need to work through it.

Anyway, here is the point of today’s post:

First, until you are clear on what the motive is for God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites, you will not feel the true weight of the theological dilemma.

Second, if you are willing to accept Canaanite genocide as compatible with God’s character, to be consistent, you must also accept as compatible with God’s character other troubling issues that come up in those very same passages.

On the first point,

let’s be clear on the motive for why God wants the Canaanites annihilated. Look at Deut 7:1-7 and Deut 20:10-20. These are key marching order passages for what God wants the Israelites to do as they enter the land.

Note that in both passages, the reason given for showing “no mercy” (7:2) is not that the Canaanites are particularly bad people, far worse than any other nation (however true that might be). They are wiped out not because they deserve it more.  The motive given in the texts is that any intermingling with the Canaanites runs the risk of turning “away your children from following me, to serve other gods” (7:4).

glimpse at Armenian genocide, 1915

That is the reason. God wants the inhabitants of Canaan–including women and children–annihilated, so that there is no chance God’s people will be led astray (20:18-19).

This is no abstract matter of “sinfulness deserves punishment.” That is true, but that is not what is happening in these passages, and referring to Gen 15:16 does not make it so. There God says, rather cryptically, that the possession of the land by Abraham’s ancestors must wait 400 years after the exodus, “for the iniquity of the Amorites [Canaanites] is not yet complete.”

Whatever iniquity is building up for the Canaanites, surely its relevance to Canaanite genocide cannot be understood apart from the clear motives given in such places as Deuteronomy 7 and 20. Iniquity is not the reason for the extermination. All nations are iniquitous. The reason is that the iniquity will lead Israel into idolatry.

The Canaanites are wiped out because they occupy the land Yahweh means to give Israel, and sharing the land with Canaanites and their abhorrent religious practices runs the risk of luring the chosen people into spiritual adultery.

If we fail to take seriously the motive for the genocide, we will not be able to grasp or address the theological problem. Conversely, we cannot assign a false motive, even if it seems to make the theological problem a bit more manageable.

Let’s move on to the second point.

We see in Deut 20:10-20 that towns outside of Canaan are treated differently than Canaanite towns. Terms of peace are offered, which would enslave the population. If they refuse, the slavery option is off the table, and the Israelites are to kill the men but keep the women and children as slaves. They are “booty” and “spoil” that the victors are to “enjoy” (vv. 10-14).

Those who have no problem defending divinely commanded genocide as consistant with God’s character also need to incorporate forced enslavement into their argument.

If God’s sovereignty, righteousness, justice, and holiness justify the one, they must also justify the other.

Moving along, in Numbers 31, the Israelites go to war against the Midianites. The Israelites “killed every male” (v. 7) and “took the women of Midian and their little ones captive” along with livestock and property as “booty” (v. 9).

So far so bad, but there’s more (vv. 13-18). Moses was angry because the soldiers allowed the women to live. Yes, that is in keeping with God’s command to enslave non-Canaanite women, but these Midianite women lured the Israelite males into having sex and worshipping Baal (see chapter 25). So, Moses commands that every woman who slept with an Israelite male be put to death.

Killing the seductress women, OK…let’s let that pass. But who else is executed?  Every Midianite male “little one” (v. 17). Should this not make us a bit uncomfortable? Killing the male children presumably serves two purposes: to eradicate the Midianite line and eliminate any future military threat.

Of course, this is part and parcel of tribal cultures, but…why is God so comfortable participating in that culture instead of transforming it? What the Israelites do here is uncomfortably close to ethnic cleansing. 

Midianite women led captive

The only ones who are spared are the young virgin girls, whom the Israelites are to divide evenly between the soldiers and the other Israelites  (v. 18). Like the animals and property, the virgins are property to be divvied up.

There are 32,000 virgins in all. Of those 32,000, half went to the Israelites in general and the other half went to those who had actually been part of the battle.

From the soldier’s share, 32 were “Yahweh’s tribute” (v. 40), which in v. 41 is described as “the offering for Yahweh” given to Eleazar the priest, which could very well mean they became cultic slaves to help with the priestly duties, though that is not clear. Every 50th virgin from the other Israelites (320 in all) was given to the Levites in charge of the tabernacle, again perhaps to serve as slaves there.

Without giving ourselves up to wild speculation, what exactly do soldiers typically do with captive virgin women? And arguing that God would never allow “something like that” rings a bit hollow in light of what God does allow, which includes killing children and considering humans a spoil of war.

What complicates matter further is that treatment of virgins as property is not just a concession to war; it is part of the Law of Moses (Exod 22:16-17).

There are other factors we can throw into the mix, like: God hardening the hearts of the Canaanites so that they would fight and thus be “utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated”  (Judg 11:20). But, this is already complicated enough.


I want to make very clear that, despite what some might think, my aim here is not to undermine the Bible or shipwreck anyone’s faith. My aim is to understand the Bible, to account for why it says what it says, which requires looking some things square in the eye.

There will be disagreement, of course, on how this issue should be handled, but there should be no hesitation in stating plainly that we have a theological problem worthy of attention.


reviewing two reviews of “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” (3)
preeeetty sure my version of Christianity is right and yours is wrong
Canaanite genocide: it’s OK because it wasn’t THAT bad (was it?)
Here’s something new: Genesis is in “crisis” and if you don’t see that you’re “syncretistic”
  • Michael Thomson

    I don’t have any solutions that make any more sense than what has been discussed…but every solutions seems equally fraught with difficulty. If the solution is hermeneutical…say…we chose to read the higher ethic of love in both Old and New Testaments as transcending the early history of Israel’s tribal culture…that is nice, but it also marginalizes a lot of Biblical voices. Further, aside form being warm and fuzzy arbitrary, the seriousness of evil can be trivialized in a theology that is about love alone. If one chooses a Christological key, we have a circular problem…that these very human scriptures are our testimony about Christ and their human side cannot be trusted. At very least every believe needs to assert the problem as you are stating it afresh…and hopefully, we are too far into the narrative of Christian history to accept a marcionite (and rather anti-semitic) reading. I can live with the tension…and see within the mixed bag of scripture the voice of God and the voice of man…but untangling that thread will always be tentative…just as every theology cannot be the final articulation of all things true of God. My 2 cents.

  • Don Johnson

    I admit that as in Apollo XIII, “Houston, we have a problem.” But I assess this very similar to Willaim Webb. The way I word it is: “Just as God works with individuals where they are at and leads them step by step to be more and more in the Kingdom as they let God do so, so does God lead Israel and societies in general.”

    One can perhaps more easily see this with more recent events. Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was and out and out racist; this is not too surprising when one realizes that essentially every white person in the US was racist, but he was LESS racist than others and that was a crucial distinction. Similarly, Israel under Torah was LESS cruel than others in their dealings with other groups; that is, essentially everyone was cruel, but God imposed SOME restrictions on the cruelty of Israel.

    This might not be the most satisfying answer, but it is the one I work with today in the absence of a better one.

    • John

      Webb’s “redemptive movement hermeneutic” is helpful….for me, it’s kind of the only hope to save large chunks of the OT (and by implication, God) from the charge of being barbaric and cruel. Some statements in the NT do pose problems to this however (i.e. Paul calls the law “holy, righteous, and good,” etc.). Jesus’ attitude towards the Law (sometimes sharpening it, sometimes almost completely overturning it, all while Matthew wants us to believe that he “came not to abolish”…) muddies the waters even more! Not an easy subject to untangle…

  • John W. Morehead

    Thank you for raising a very difficult issue, and hoping that evangelicals will acknowledge it for what it is, before seeking to resolve it. I have been involved in a similar discussion in various forums with evangelicals over this issue as it relates to similar violent and genocidal passages in the Qur’an. On the one hand evangelicals are quick to point to violent passages in Muslim scripture and its justification for acts of terror, and yet on the other hand the far more numerous passages in the Bible are either not recognized, or easily glossed over with simplistic theological and apologetic answers. In one recent exchange, an evangelical academic with a background in Old Testament was incredulous that given the complexities of this issue that I would have the expectation that rank and file evangelicals should be willing to wrestle with them. Perhaps I’m naive, or overly optimistic, but I do think there is a place for recognizing the problems with such passages in order to deepen our theological and biblical understanding. Beyond this we bring our faith into the public square, and in a post-9/11 environment such questions inform our opinions on current events and religious others. Before one can deal with a problem the problem must be acknowledged. Thanks for helping readers take the first step.

  • Stephen Newport

    “Christian theologians saw right away the need to [rationalize] it”

  • Mike Blyth

    For me, the issue that is hardest to explain is how God could command his people to do this as his agents. Even if we accept that got can kill anyone he wants at any time, and that he owes no one any explanation, that is different from commanding actual people to carry out what otherwise looks like dreadful sin. How do we respond today to people who kill because God has commanded it? What makes their situation any different than that of Moses? After all, they may be just as certain, if not more so, that they are simply obeying God as the ultimate authority.

  • Ronald Taska

    Here is my current way of understanding this problem until I learn more:
    1. Most of the Old Testament presents fictional stories not historical facts.
    2. The authors of these stories were explaining their understanding of God, but our understanding of God, just like our understanding of medicine, science, and everything else, has progressed a lot during the past 2,000 years or more.

    • Daniel O

      I agree with this point, and it is my current way of understanding the OT. As far as we know the books of Joshua, Leviticus, Exodus, Genesis, Deuteronomy and Numbers were written in it’s current form during the exile. One character trait that we find in those books is the “show of power” mostly done by God, but, in hindsight a valid interpretation is that the writers were trying to create a common history that was perhaps more glorious than it was. It is not uncommon even in modern history to view this trait, the American Revolution for example, when I lived in the US we were hardly taught the role of the French during the war, and we never heard the burning down of the White House in 1814. So I would ask the question, did these events happen? and if they did, was God’s command given before, or written down after?

    • Bev Mitchell

      Your point 2 partly works for me, at least until we know more. As to how much some Christian thinking has progressed since the slaughter of the Canaanites, willingness to shoot hellfire missiles at Afghan and Pakistani wedding parties does suggest we may not want to pat ourselves on the back too soon. It would be interesting to read a selection of Christian opinions on God’s will regarding our current target selection practices. 

      Pete has rightly brought up an exceedingly important point, not just for better understanding of Scripture but also for hopefully better current practices. People who consider themselves Bible believing Christians usually act in ways that reflect their understanding of Scripture. Those who choose to act out some parts of the Old Testament urgently need a better understanding of it

      • Tim Dedeaux

        “Willingness to shoot hellfire missiles at Afghan and Pakistani wedding parties does suggest we may not want to pat ourselves on the back too soon”

        To be fair, President Obama and the media at large have done a really good job of keeping that particular atrocity under wraps until recently. Even now that the election is over, nobody wants to call him on it.

        The failing I’ve seen in (Evangelical) Christians is not that they favor it, or support President Obama, but that they just don’t seem to care. They don’t care about dead Pakistani and Yemeni children, they don’t care about world hunger, they don’t care about animal cruelty.

        Oh, they’ll get worked up like crazy about gay marriage, sure. But the rest? Feh, let ‘em dangle.

        • kirsten

          Oh my gosh, AMEN to your last paragraph. Makes me crazy. Gay marriage and who is president is ranted and raved over, but huge social issues that are actually harming human beings are completely ignored. Craziness.

  • Tim

    I have a question on your post I was hoping you could quickly comment on.

    I’m in agreement with your main points; however, the bit on Genesis 15:16 just doesn’t settle well with me.

    Try as I might, I have a hard time seeing this passage in any other light than the author specifically indicating that God is withholding his hand in taking the land from the Amorites (Canaanites) until their sin reaches such a full measure as to warrant it. This was likely done for etiological effect in large part I’m sure, to explain the long gap between Abraham and the fulfillment of the promise for his decedents to take possession of the land.

    But it also seems to play into notions of tribal justice. The people communally weren’t deemed wicked enough yet to warrant the full measure of God’s judgment, so the taking of their land was delayed.

    Or do you have another take on this?

    • Matt

      I agree that you cannot throw out the Genesis passage. Nor can we throw out God’s general attitude towards idolatry and their practices. I think one thing missing here is a view of the supernatural. If we are more advanced now than then in the sense that we do not believe in spiritual beings(besides God I suppose), then this becomes a man-centered tragedy commanded by God(the supreme spiritual being).

      If on the other hand, we recognize that there is a spiritual aspect even to nations(divided up according to the sons of God, says Moses. Also the “prince of Persia”) which we only see a very small part of. Taking this into account, these weren’t just people killing people thinking God told them to. Also if the record is historically correct, as I think it is, you may have had a different attitude when this command comes from a God who is literally hovering over you by visible cloud and fire at night and feeding you with manna every day. A God who in your hearing boomed his voice down from the smoking mountain. A God who caused an earthquake to swallow up those who thought they heard God just like Moses. A God who parted the sea after all the other miracles in Egypt. Remember, the story is, these people witnessed all these things PERSONALLY. In fact, over and over Yahweh tells Israel to tell their kids the stories, because they will not be witnessing the same things but they need to remember them. Joshua also encounters a sword wielding angel(who many believe to be the Word of God-pre Jesus-including me) upon entry to Canaan.

      To me, this conversation needs to keep these things in mind. If we utterly disbelieve those miracles and signs, then I can understand a higher level of offense at God’s command. For me, I can barely believe that we are so sure that the world is now as it always has been.

      • Matt

        One of the things which helps me thing about this is alien invasion movies(of which mankind is so fond of) Shall we disbelieve completely in the possibility of advanced life beyond our view in the universe? Add to that many of the very strange things we actually have seen, witnesses and videos, etc. Even if you are skeptical about it, recognize that there is a lot going on outside our view. Imagine if a giant spaceship from heaven-oops I meant “outer space.” Or did I mean “heaven-ship.” moving on, imagine that it came down and did some crazy high-tech, laser ,holographic, anti gravity, whatever stuff in order to control the movement of little primitive(and violent) ant-like human creatures which these aliens had purposes for. Purposes which were only partially understandable and revealed to the humans, as they involved intergalactic crimes and planetary land disputes, of which the humans were not privy to. Yet the earth was intended to be given to the humans and not to be under the criminal aliens’ control. They fed them, communicated with them, even showed a few special little humans what the alien temple looked like so he could copy it with a tent structure(ex 24:9). I’ll stop there since I’m sure you get the point. It is not hard to imagine on that scale. Now realize that was only an analogy of what really is taking place around us. Just because God does not always reveal Himself in the same way all the time doesn’t mean He didn’t do it that way before. By the way, I think we as a species fears alien invasion because we know deep down that the day of the Lord is coming one day for judgment of the human race. Only thing is, in the movies we always win, in reality, the beings from heaven win(led by Jesus- a human being ironically)

        Or we can just believe that we’re the masters of the universe, because we have kuerig coffee makers and don’t spank kids like they did. your choice.

      • Fanegrin

        The Word says that The Word does not change.

        So…you may think it changes, but The Word itself says it does not. Should we take God’s Word for it or let you speak for him?

  • Mark Chenoweth

    It seems to me that the fact that there isn’t archaeological evidence for the conquest MUST tell us something about what the final redactor/author was doing here. Or maybe the redactor that actually wrote this down wasn’t very interested in whether this happened at all. Maybe the question just didn’t exist in his mind.

    Either way, there would have had to have been SOME recognition on the part of the oral tradition or written tradition that what was going on here wasn’t literal history.

    So how does acknowledging that help us deal with the problem of violence? Well, as Enns mentioned in his first post on this, these stories may not be trying to give us a completely accurate picture of what God is like, just like they’re not trying to give us a completely accurate picture of history. We are probably more interested in that than the original audience/writer/storyteller was.

    I think God ALLOWED men to portray him in this way to get them through until his Son could come and be the final revelation. This is the picture of God that unfortunately made the most sense in their culture. The Hebrew culture may have not known what to do with a more accurate picture of God. What I’m saying doesn’t really contradict what anyone else has said on here, I’m just sort of adding.

    That being said, Origen’s commentary on Joshua is a beautiful commentary that is very instructive on how to best fight the passions and live an ascetic life pleasing to God. I don’t think it SOLVES the problem at all, but I think it does develop a consistent hermeneutic on how a Christian can pray the psalms (our enemies NOW are the flesh/demons/Satan) and read certain OT stories and have them be spiritually enriching to us. I also don’t think allegory was used to simply interpret problematic passages. But this is another subject altogether. A good overview of Origen’s commentary. I don’t agree with everything Constantinou says BTW.

  • Keith Dager

    from Los Angeles:

    Hello Peter. I appreciate you discussing this aspect of Joshua. It does not shake my faith, which is built on the Gospel, but the Old Testament often challenges my insight to God. The book of Kent Sparks’s that you helped edit references that Jesus came to redeem both broken man and broken Scripture. Thank goodness for the later as well as the former!

    To my surprise, a Crawford Christian radio broadcast program (KBRT) I listen to in my car (in Los Angeles) yesterday discussed this matter. The speaker* proposed basically two things: 1) Accept what were normal practices in Joshua’s time. Victory meant spoils. Failure meant genocide or enslavement. View the offensive Scripture from their eyes, their times, not ours. We immediately react to the repulsive horror and brutality but to them, it was their reality, no more shocking than flies buzz around one’s head when eating putrid meat for dinner. Brutality, genocide and enslavement to the ancients was their normal. For Joshua, war would have been a total disaster if the Jews failed in battle. We have no stomach for their normal. They, no doubt, would freak out about things strange to them in our modern world… democracy, women’s’ rights, or man in space. 2) So what then was the intent of this scripture for the people during the time it was created, if it was not instructions to rape, murder and enslave (normal practices in ancient times)? Is there a message obvious thee Jews of Joshua’s time? Are we being blind to it because of modern sensitivities to the holocaust? The intent of the writer of this story is probably to opine about Man’s ego in opposition to God’s will.

    The radio commentator referenced the 12 spies… that 10 reported back that the Canaanites were GIANTS, that the Jews were as small as like grasshoppers in comparison. Oh! and the defense walls of Jericho reached to the clouds!. The two spies who formed the “Occupy Jericho” clique told the truth that the Canaanites feared the Jews and were vulnerable to an invasion. The other ten spies were either anti-war activists, or maybe developed some romances among the Canaanites on their spy mission. In other words, ten of the twelve spies lied about the size of their enemy, suggesting the Jews were better off ignoring God’s will that that instructed them to attack the Canaanites for their land. Easier to find an alternate solution that won’t cost so much effort and pain. God punished the ten spies who lied about giants out of convenience, kindness or cowardice. God held the Jews in the desert until those ten died. Those two were allowed to join the battle to fulfill God’s will, something about blowing horns outside the walls of Jericho until the residents inside pleaded for death to end the miserable sound. (There a sidewalk musician who often plays the sax outside my office window, so I can sympathize with the Canaanites.)

    When Jesus later said that a rich man has the same chance of entering heaven as a camel going through the eye of a needle, was his focus on wealth being a sin, or man’s ego? I mention this as a comparable mistake in interpreting scripture. I understand that the gate merchants used to enter Jerusalem was narrow, and referred to as “the eye of a needle”. Camels indeed went through it, but one by one, not with ease, and not over-loaded with goods. So was the Joshua scripture shocking to the ancient Jews because it called for genocide and enslavement, or shocking to them because it called for them to attack even Giants when God called them to do so. I am not being an apologist for the terrors and sins throughout history justified by wrongful thinking when referencing this scripture.

    As final comment, Islam is a religion that needs to redeem some ancient scripture in the Koran (Quran) that calls for conversion or genocide, brutality, submission of women, all practices common in ancient societies but unacceptable in our modern world. I do not know the Koran or claim to understand Islam and its divisions. There are certainly liberal Muslims who relate their scripture to the modern world so their faith works for the good of people an does not harm non-believers. There clearly are also many dangerous fundamentalist Muslims who believe original Quran scripture must be followed as written. This incites Qutbism (propagating aggressive jihad for conquests to advance Islam) and acts of shameful sins that stain a benevolent interpretation of the Quran. Muslim zealots quoting their ancient scripture to justify violent aggression parallels what you and I find unacceptable in John Piper quoting Joshua scripture …I should say what Jesus deemed as broken scripture when he said “Love your enemies.”

    Keith H. Dager

    * The radio speaker was probably Pastor Lance Sparks

  • Jonathan

    The redemptive-movement hermeneutic does give a measure of relief. It is true that God meets people where they are at. I’m speechless when I hear Christian friends try to argue that the Old Testament reflects modern scientific ideas. The problem with the redemptive-movement hermeneutic with the question at hand is that it does not resolve the ethical knot. It’s one thing for God to reveal six days of creation and another for him to command the total offering-destruction of a nation. There is also the matter of corporal punishment in the OT…But yes, I do agree that RMH relieves some of the tension for Christians today (I.E., at this point in redemptive history).

    The category of “mythic history” (or fictional history…I don’t like that term) doesn’t help matters either. Most who would argue for this category also maintain that it is in some sense “historical.” If there is still a sense in which it is historical, then the ethical knot remains.

    Viewing the matter as an intrusion of the last day and as a type of the coming judgment is one interesting approach. It doesn’t resolve the problem in some areas…but at least it preaches the gospel.

    On an unrelated note, this is why it is extremely unhelpful to equate the OT Law with God’s eternal moral will. It is better to say that it is the historically and covenantally conditioned expression of that moral will. This is an area where I am continually disappointed by most Reformed Covenantal theologians.

  • Pam

    My 2 ¢
    I see the need to know and understand the Bible if claiming to believe it, although difficult. Many Christians are an inch deep and very Bible illiterate. Even myself, who has been studying for years, cannot say I understand it all the time.
    The genocide issue, when put properly into the story, explains the sin prone condition of human beings, specifically to leave their Creator God. He was trying to return the people back to himself and keep them faithful, reduce known seductions and temptations. This PEOPLE was needing to be different, unique and belonging to God so the world could see what it’s like to know and relate to God. Today, we have the activity of the Holy Spirit among us. Things were VERY different back then and I think it’s near impossible to compare to genocide today. Two things come to mind: If I was God I would have turned my back on the whole lot, and God must really love people to keep trying to get their attention back.
    Harsh realities, I think. Freedom of choice and the call of God.

  • Keith Johnston

    It occurs to me that one of the reasons that dispensationalists do not care what Israel does to non-Jews in Palestine is because they use these verses as justification. Not sure what John Piper’s position on the Palestinian question is, but it may be “kill every man, woman, child, pet, their vegetable garden, etc.”

    • Mike Holmes

      you wanna be careful with that, especially since his positions and statements on those issues are frequently stated. Piper’s not a dispensationalist, and also does not believe the current Israel is any more entitled to that land over the Palestinians and specifically claims that current Israel, has no divine or Biblical claim to the land. Go after him on his views for this current issue, but don’t bring in another issue that you were too lazy to look up. I’ve got my issues with Piper too, but don’t give him an extra vice

    • Mark Chenoweth

      MMmm…I was going to respond and completely disagree with you but the more I thought about it, the more I can see the connection. I wouldn’t go as far to say that dispensationalists “dont care what Israel does to non-Jews.” Most of them basically take Charles Krauthammer’s neocon views and try to mesh them with dispensationalism but Krauthammer’s views are fairly complex. I think his views are completely wrong regarding foreign policy, but nevertheless, intelligent.

  • James

    In the preface of his recent book, How God Became King, N T Wright summarizes several critical tools used to get at the story they (in his case, the Gospel writers) are trying to tell: source, form and redaction criticism. For his purposes, Wright opts for “composition criticism” as a personal tool of choice. He explains, “We actually have Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (we could add Pentateuch, Historical Books, etc.). It makes good sense to ask of them, as it does of a Jane Austen novel or a Shakespeare play: What story was the author telling, and how did he or she go about it?” Using this method for getting at the story of Joshua, for example, saves us a lot of headaches. Rather than torturing our minds with thoughts of divine cruelty and genocide, we examine, for one thing, the motives (as Peter suggests) behind the actions and little by little we gain a better grasp of the storyline. If God has called out a people for his name, led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land, he’ll not sit idly by and watch them prostitute themselves to the gods of the lands they now possess as gift, according to the Abrahamic Promise–with all the OT and NT nuances it contains. Composition criticism is a fruitful method (among others) bearing real truth. It doesn’t answer all our ethical questions arising from the old world setting of the story, yet we should assume that a loving, yes, inclusive God is and always has been present in our world, sometimes hiddenly, sometimes openly, both stealthfully and bombastically, bringing the convoluted story of humanity to a glorious conclusion–in the words of Wright–”to establish (God’s) kingdom on earth as in heaven.” This, I believe, is the underlying story of the Bible we need to take to heart.

  • Joshua Rutter

    If I may, I’ll through this question into the mess of questions… Who first shed blood? God or man? Why would God not be the one to take away life? Why would he give it then take it away? What does it mean when Jesus says “God is not the God of the dead, but the living?” Why would God allow His only Son to die? What is sin? What are sin’s effects.
    I mention these because I believe that there are more basic questions we have to answere and build off of to begin talking about “why would God order genocide”. Here are a couple more… Who are the “Sons of God” and who were the Nephilim? Who were “the heroes of old, men of renown.” Why did God flood the earth killing everything but those in the Ark? Was there perhaps a scientific (genetic reason) God was so concerned about keeping his people pure (set apart, not mixed), not only a spiritual one? He also showed this concern in the way they dressed, tended crops and raised live-stalk, was it only as symbolism, that they belonged to Him they did these things? What do we do with Genesis 9:4-6? Who were Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, and who were the descendants of Anak? In regards to the spies sent in, why did they say the land devours those who are in it? Who again are the Nephilim they saw there? Keith Dager thanks for posting that about the KBRT show… interesting ideas though not complete really and it seems like he had to do some speculating, for those men not only showed cowardice, but turned the whole community against, God and Moses directions to go forward.
    Ok more questions…
    Why did David later go after the descendants of Anak (Goliath and his brothers) with such a vengeance?
    As to justice of God what about in Revelation where the Saints cry out from the altar for Jesus to do justice on those who persecuted them?
    I have more questions too, but this is plenty for now. I think God reveals himself slowly to men. Typecasting/for-shadowing is prevalent throughout the Old Testament, and is spoken of in the new. “The tabernacle was only a shadow of things to come.”
    Is the key issue here the fact that we must wrestle with God’s holiness (and by proxy Christ’s) as well as His justice? More specifically that it doesn’t square with our notions of how it should look?
    Lord help us understand not just Your word but You and Your character, not as it’s tought to us by men but that You would show us by Your Spirit of truth and give us the widsom and strength to not only hear Your Word (Jesus) but to be doers of Your word..

    • Matt

      I agree with you that the supernatural view from the Bible seems to be missing largely from the convo. Think about that Revelation passage. The Saints, in Heaven with God(better than being on earth), are in the presence of Jesus, no more sin, no more pain, set free! But they are still not fully satisfied. They want the final punitive justice of God to take place and human history to end(with another giant bloodbath at the hands of King Jesus BTW), so they can leave Heaven(GASP) and be resurrected on the new Earth without all the previous problems, anakim, demons, caananites, sin, etc. Thats a mindblower, most Christians seem to think heaven is it!

      As for the typology-it goes deep. The canaanites had to be removed from the land so that God’s people could live in the cities and towns, bit by bit. likewise in the Spirit, Satan is defeated at the cross by Jesus(identical name as Joshua the leader in the campaign) and yet 2000 years later the darkness is still being pushed back and the word is getting out: the war is won! King Jesus is coming! Should Jesus leave a few of His spiritual or human enemies behind in the New Earth? I don’t see it happening.

      This is Orthodox Biblical Christianity folks.

    • Matt

      oh oh, I just saw another type here. Jesus(or Joshua if you like), who is now and forever a human being and King of our race, is sent by the Father (for He only does what He sees the Father doing) on a final cleansing of the earth to make way for the new people He has chosen to live there. All rebels to His authority will be destroyed to make way for His kingdom. So we have Father God sending a human being named Joshua(Jesus) at the head of an army to destroy the idolatrous occupants of the promised land(the new earth). That is what the second coming looks like in general. OK I’ll shut up and y’all can tell me how I’m wrong.

  • Nate W.

    Like so many others, I have squirmed under the brutality of these passages and have tried to content myself with a line of reasoning like Piper’s. Ultimately though, my conceptions of God as arbitrarily self-righteous (God did it, so it’s just and holy!) have been left in favor of a unified God who Is defined by unconditional self-giving death in the love of Christ.

    As I’ve sought to view the Old testament through the Love of God manifested in Christ, I’ve come to understand the violence of the OT in a new light. In short, I have come to a point of understanding that within all of History the Word of God (made visible in The incarnation/life/death/resurrection of Christ) has remained the same. That is, in the same way that Christ gave himself up that we might know peace in Him, God has been giving himself up, voluntarily holding back his divine essence in the realm of creation and human experience that his creation might know Him. The very act of creating that which is temporal and finite demands that a pocket of “not” be carved out of the eternal and infinite. At its essence, creation is an act in which God fractures himself to create a space in which an “other” might exist.

    Going from there I reasoned that the love of God would demand restoration of his divine character, but to do so via coercion would itself violate the unity of his own all encompassing love. To restore all into unity with Himself, all must freely choose him.

    Further, Love requires the freedom to choose between known alternatives. For God, to be “Known” by an other, the other must experience,”not God,” which is of course the absence of all that is God—Hell itself.

    I’d never really thought of Hell like this before. As i ruminated on this I realized that I’ve tended to think of Hell as a torment that we are subjected to, but that from this perspective hell is more of an experience that we subject ourselves to. To fail to believe the Word of God, (basicly, that we are loved unconditionally and self sacrificially for all eternity) is to live believing that we need to be “more.”. It is to feel the anxiety and shame of not being enough. Even this though is not the greatest depth of hell. To see in perfect clarity that I have treated OTHERS as if THEY are not enough, as if THEY are undeserving of love, is to burn in the deepest depths of shame.

    So, then, for an other (“not God”) to know God, he must first know His absence—and His absence is most fully felt in the oppression of others.

    In thinking about things this way in able to see (though dimly and with no small distortion) how the wrath of God and the Love of God are ultimately unified. I am able to at least begin to understand that God does not will our oppression of others, but allows us to work freely within the space of his self-sacrificial absence and even actively “gives us over” to our ambitions so that the ultimate bankruptcy of violence and oppression may be fully and finally shown in Christ.

    All this is still very little comfort to those who were oppressed and violated. I would never be so bold as to say that all the victims deserved what they got and am offended when other’s do. I don’t have any explanation to reason away their suffering, but instead I choose to bank on the language of the kingdom: The last shall be first. The slaves will be set free. The oppressed will be liberated. I trust the souls of the innocent and oppressed to God in faith that they will be comforted and held for eternity.

    I humbly submit this long post and hope that it is helpful to some. Please be gracious and take it with a grain of salt. I would never claim to speak Truly about God, but aspire to humbly put my words out there for the benefit of all for whom it might bring to light to a new facet of God’s glory.

    • Jason

      I like your post Nate. I see a lot of wisdom in some of the things that you said.


      • Bev Mitchell

        Thanks for this Nate. A more open theistic approach that sees God as allowing opposition to exist, and allowing a good degree of self-actualization of creation, including humans, is the only solution I can currently live with as well. It does boil down to having a theodicy that makes sense rather than covering our eyes and ears and whispering “mystery”.

    • Matt

      very similar to C.S. Lewis’ “the Great Divorce” book on Hell. A helpful way of understanding what makes hell “hell”: separation from God, the source of all life and light. I personally still understand it to be also receiving punishment from God, based on my reading of the Bible.

  • Marshall

    [let's delete that other one and do this with better formatting, please?]

    “Of course, this is part and parcel of tribal cultures…”

    Ethnic cleansing is exactly what it is, and you are maybe downplaying too much that this really is a part of human nature. Humans have been exterminating other humans since even before we sapiens came up via Egypt and entered Eurasia through the Levant, driving out neanderthalenis and erectus. And the Real God is the God of the Real World, so he is responsible and it is actually very progressive for the Torah to give us some stories about it. It’s just the problem of theodicy again. That fierce competition of tribes/cultures is what has made the human world what it is today, for better or worse. Personally I go with Liebnitz: although the world ain’t always pretty, I’m willing to assume that this is the best of all possible worlds that get the job done. Crucicentric, that is.

    Maybe the question, or one question, is why it was necessary for God to have a Chosen People at all? Clearly Abraham’s descendants weren’t Chosen because they were better behaved, more obedient and gracious, more a blessing to their neighbors. I suppose it’s that Jerusalem gets us to Jesus, and Jesus gets us to the Kingdom.

    • Marshall

      I should add, none of this is to excuse warlike or oppressive behavior on our part. We have the opportunity to live in the Kingdom, according to Kingdom rules, and that’s what we should be doing. That’s what the Israelites should have been doing when they entered Canaan, being a blessing to the Canaanites; but they misunderstood God’s desire, being unable to separate themselves from their sinful nature. We have advantages; we can do better.

  • Ryan

    But, can’t this argument extend to war of any kind – I mean, is this not basically an extended defence of pacifism in general? I mean, why did Bonhoeffer become involved in the Valkyrie plot? Why was war against the Nazi regime justified – because the alternatives were ethically too horrible to contemplate.

    I’m not going to suggest that ethical conduct in war is a particularly easy subject… but surely the reason for the complete annihilation was that God seemed to believe that the Canaanite system of belief was far more pervasive than we do? In fact, its survival was tantamount to Israel’s destruction.

    I suppose we could try and argue that the Canaanites weren’t the threat that they are made out to be, hence the action was unjust – but that’s a really tricky call to make from our vantage point.

    And, what about the child sacrifice practised by the Canaanites themselves? Why does that topic never seem to come up in this context? Maybe the Canaanite eradication WAS in fact a cauterisation that prevented untold future suffering. It’s tough to argue otherwise.

    • Pam

      This, I believe.

    • Matt

      perhaps their iniquity may have been complete (Gen 15:16). Also they were sacrificing to real demons their babies which probably came as a result of sexual sins committed in worship to other demons(asherah?-not sure if she was caananite off the top of my head). Seems to me killing babies and sexual sins have always gone together as a pair. The one allows the continuation of the other. In this way, we have not advanced very far in 2012 from the ANE tribes.

      Also the laws about treatment of slaves, concubines and multiple wives was in historical context God’s mercy and love for those people, since in the historical mindset a slave woman for instance would have ZERO rights or protection. Same for rape victims being bought or married off. It tells us an important thing about God, that He will speak to us in our hardness of heart laws which will do the most good immediately though they may not be his ultimate and final moral will. Matt 19:8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. “

      • Mary

        Like so many others you are making rationalizations and glossing over the very real ethical problems presented in the OT. Your argument is basically that God had his reasons, end of story. Only it is not.

        If God wanted the Canaanites destroyed because they might lead the Isrealites into sin then how does that ethos translate into the modern day? Are we supposed to kill anyone who isn’t a Christian? Jesus taught that we should live in harmony with each other.

        Your idea about the Caananites consorting with demons and is pretty far-fetched. It is a common tactic for people to demonize (no pun intended) their enemies.

        As for your interpretation of how slaves and women had rights under the old law, you have apparently not read the Bible closely enough. Rape victims were put to death :

        Deuteronomy 22: 23-2 “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out of the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbors wife.”

        Or forced to marry their rapists.:

        “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.” (Deuteronomy 22: 23-24)

        It was permissable to beat their slaves also:

        ” When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.” (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

        As far as human sacrifice is concerned, how can you claim that God was offended by this when he condoned the sacrifice of a young virgin girl?

        “At that time the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he went throughout the land of Gilead and Manasseh, including Mizpah in Gilead, and led an army against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. He said, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the LORD the first thing coming out of my house to greet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering…When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter – his only child – ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. “My daughter!” he cried out. “My heart is breaking! What a tragedy that you came out to greet me. For I have made a vow to the LORD and cannot take it back.” And she said, “Father, you have made a promise to the LORD…When she returned home, her father kept his vow, and she died a virgin” (Judges 11-29-40)

        I am sorry to burst your bubble about this, but the Isrealites had a lot of the same brutal laws as the “pagans”

        If you look honestly at the OT you have to either believe in an evil God or else you have to admit that these laws and actions could not have been the will of God. Why did Jesus challenge all the old laws if they came from God?

  • Paul

    Hi Peter. Great post. Disturbing when it is all so clearly laid out.
    Greg Boyd has a book coming out soon that deals with God’s apparent warrior tendencies in the OT. He makes the point that it is part of the incarnational aspect of God’s dealing with humans. He stoops to deal with us in a context that at the level of human culture and development then people could understan. he does this with the goal of refining us in the process so that eventually with Jesus ‘arrival we are ready forthe real Him. He draws the analogy of the Movie Mrs Macphee who, at the beginning of the film, appears to the unruly kids as an ugly hag. She is severe with them and allows them to live with the consequences of their selfish behaviour (when they pretend to be sick they get the real symptoms). Slowly she brings more discipline and obedience into their lives and as they improve she becomes more beautiful and sympathetic. On day one they could not have related to her as she really is (the gorgeous Emma Thompson!).

  • Jo

    Wow! Is it a great discussion! True, there is no archeological evidence for many Bible stories. This does not stop the historicity from being there and being taken as told – what happened then and there for reasons suggested. The narrative of the Bible and the issues it raises are important for us to
    GRAPPLE with!!!! All this makes me THANKFUL for the Gospel of Jesus Christ who led on towards the FULL understanding of God and humanity and the need for SAVING GRACE from the wars, pillage and desttruction – for whatever ‘good’ reson – and I believe, Christians MUST grapple with and continue to present a a Gospel that says Jesus, God’s revelation after millenia of dealings with people, has shown us the way! Simplistic? Maybe, but after all is said and done – One Saviour, a Jew, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God with us and who fulfilled the Scriptures….

  • Janet Oberholtzer

    When people find out that I’m questioning religion/faith/christianity, they tell me to READ THE BIBLE! And then I have to tell them that reading (and studying) the Bible, especially passages like the ones discussed in this and your recent posts, is exactly what is causing my questions.

    • peteenns

      Richard Dawkins likes to say that, when asked by aspiring atheists what they should read to help them on the way, he says, “The Bible.” He is right, though the problem is more a factor of an inerrantist preconception that the Bible itself.

    • Mark Chenoweth


      I know what you’re going through, so here has what has helped me.

      Never start your day reading about these problem areas without first praying and doing some spiritual reading (do whatever works for you, something that doesn’t cause you to doubt, maybe pray some of the more theologically New Testament friendly psalms, ones that don’t portray the Warrior God, and find a good spiritual reading (The Imitation of Christ, for instance).

      Secondly, make sure you’re always seeing the big picture. So for example, I’m reading Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” right now, which is a book by an excellent scholar that strengthens your faith in the historical reliability of the gospel accounts. Again, if Jesus DID make divine claims, and rose from the dead, SOMEHOW, this has all has to make sense.

      THEN, focus in on the areas that cause you difficulty. Reading Peter Enns or Sparks by without any supplemental material that argues POSITIVELY for a reasonable Christian worldview may tend to make you focus on the problems without seeing the big picture. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details.

      This way of doing things has helped me. Hopefully it could be helpful to you as well. I dunno

  • Steve Meidahl

    Is there any reason why a loving God’s bloody extermination of His Son is not equally chilling…He at least seemed like a halfway decent sort, which the Canaanites certainly could never claim…connect the Canaanites to the cross…its a better storyline…

  • Norman


    Now that you have begun stridently bursting the bubble on an inerrantist view of scripture it seems to me you have laid out a formidable task for yourself. That task is to reconstitute an approach to studying the bible that allows it to be comprehensible to the average lay person. Part of the problem has always been that those who literalize the scripture have an easier road to coalesce the faithful around simple ideas. Your approach requires a level of sophistication concerning the scriptures that almost puts it beyond the typical or average layman. I’m curious at how you size up this task in front of you and other scholars that want to follow your lead.

    I figured out a long time ago that Genesis 1 was not the best area to burst the historical bubble of the Literalist but it was the stories of Genesis 10 instead. If a literalist does their math then the flood occurred somewhere around 2500-2900BC. Immediately after that we have the implication that all of the ANE was populated by the three sons of Noah since that period of time. Almost no rational person can deal with the evidence that all the peoples of the ANE much less the entire world came from those three offspring of Noah considering the time constraints. (I said rational people) Therefore the construction of Genesis and populating of the 70 Nations is built upon a theological precept entirely and even and especially the authors would have understood that their construct was a fabrication intended to make specific points about the relationship with Israel and her neighbors. We see even the book of Daniel picking up on Genesis 10 to continue those theological themes as late as the 2nd or third century BC. It seems that huge segments of their literature were political constructs when examined from an evenhanded perspective. This pits their intent against or acquired inearantist intent.

    Pete I don’t envy you in the work you have cut out for you but I suspect that your work in the future will be much more ground breaking and interesting than the typical scholars out there that aren’t ready to tackle Pandora’s Box yet. I’m hoping that others will join you and not withdraw to the secular research areas where they feel protected from the evangelicals but let their ideas and research hit the fan of evangelical inerrancy head on in the layman’s world.

  • Jeff Martin

    I would have to agree with Paul’s assessment of God being like Nanny Mcphee, except the part about Emma Thompson being gorgeous. I do think that there is more to the OT than just a bunch of propaganda stories being thrown out there, though I appreciate people bringing it up because it is definitely in there. For instance it seems to be in Judges someone has it out for the Ephraimites and Benjamites. Seems like it was a sympathizer to the Davidic rule who was arguing why it was better to have David as king rather than Saul or Sheba, a Benjamite (2 Sam 20:1).

    But still even in propaganda if the historical figure did not do the things that were being promoted and being more importantly led by God to do, then who would listen to Josiah anyways to follow God. He was not just promoting himself as king but also the Law. It is like all those politicians today who talk about wanting to be like Reagan. If Reagan really did not do those things then no one would listen to those politicians now.

  • Jon hughes

    This kind of thinking opens up a can of worms. How are we to understand hell/Gehenna itself, as taught by Jesus in the New Testament?

    Are we to sit in judgment on that too, or do we simply believe it? (In other words, this isn’t just an Old Testament problem.)

    Even calling it ‘genocide’ borrows from Richard Dawkins’ approach, and frames the discussion in an unhelpful way. Chris Wright has some good things to say on the subject in his book, “The God I Don’t Understand”.

    Surely Genesis 15:16 is more significant than is suggested in the post.

  • Rory Tyer

    The thing I like to continually remind people is that faith in Christ is not built on finding easy answers, or perhaps any concrete answers, to these questions about God’s character in the OT. Many Christians flinch upon first encountering these difficulties because the word “faith” has become, for them, a sort of catch-all that includes conclusions on various matters biblical, theological, political, philosophical; and this loads the word down with more, I think, than the NT authors meant when they spoke of faith in Christ. That is founded on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, all in accordance with God’s plan as (somehow!) revealed in the OT. The Christian faith contains a great deal of wiggle room (and also room for lament, and misunderstanding, and frustration) and is strong enough to thrive and grow even in the midst of these difficult questions.

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  • Chuck Paul

    It seems to me that God was trying to preserve a people for himself just like a father would want to protect his child. Is it so hard to realize this is who God is, a father? He created man and man went his own way. All throughout history God has been trying to reach out to bring man back to Himself. Is it so heretical to believe that God has no control on His creation except to destroy it when it is beyond redemption. I often read the Bible as the most accurate reflection of who God is but take it with a grain of salt as just man’s attempt to explain the unexplainable in the best way he can at his current development. I lean away from literalism forthroug there are far too many mistakes in interpretation today. It cannot be that the New Testament, written in Greek culture, could understand the Hebrew mind of the Old Testament. So many translations up till today try to explain it in our own language and culture and biases. Take the Trinity for example. It is obviously not in keeping with the first commandment yet it was propagated during a time of disagreement between Eastern and Western Christians of the time. Josephuswrote “The History of the Jews” which is his recitation of the Torah in his words and I find a lot clearer understanding of the times though his writings.

  • Stephen

    Good points, Pete. Sad, but good.

    One minor thing to add for now, you note that some of the biblical passages in question explain the extermination of Canaanites because “because they occupy the land Yahweh means to give Israel, and sharing the land with Canaanites and their abhorrent religious practices runs the risk of luring the chosen people into spiritual adultery.”

    I’m sure you know this and were just trying to reproduce what seems to be biblical representations of Canaanite religion in various places, but the traditional classification of Canaanite religion as “abhorrent,” “debased,” and so on is problematic.

    First, some of the explanation/justification passages don’t even claim this about Canaanite religion. For example, the passage you choose (Deut 7) doesn’t say anything about Canaanite practices being abhorrent and thus why God doesn’t want Israel “seduced” into them, but simply identifies the issue as Canaanite religion involving worship of other gods and Israelites potentially following suit.

    Second, the “evidence” we have for such “debased,” “abhorrent,” “abominable,” “orgiastic” and so on characterizations of Canaanite religion come from certain polemical biblical depictions that evangelicals (heck, many broader non-evangelical biblical scholars) have tended to take at face value, even writing histories of Canaanite religion that emphasize its “debased” and “abhorrent” character as some “orgiastic” and the like religion that thus fundamentally differs from Israelite religion. We actually have no other evidence of this. Furthermore, as a good historian knows, when reading polemic against the “close other” (i.e., people in close proximity who are actually quite similar) one should be suspicious of such strong moralizing differentiating claims. This is similar to the point Christian Smith made in his post recently about the “narcissism of small differences.”

    Again, I know you know this…but thought I would bring it up since an iteration of the common evangelical justification of the Canaanite genocide involves claims about how the Canaanites truly had more abhorrent, debased, and so on religious practices and daily lives than others.

    • peteenns

      Glad you raised this, Stephen. There are only so many angles I can address in a blog post, which I know you get. My argument granted the “strong” interpretation of Canaanite religious practices for the sake of argument.

  • Doctor Science

    I think you’d get a lot out of reading The Velveteen Rabbi’s latest post, which is on these selfsame verses.

    In Jewish tradition, especially the Reconstructionist/Renewal movement of which VR is a part, there’s great emphasis on wrestling with G*d as Jacob did to become Israel. Jews, of course, absolutely dismiss the idea that the meaning of Scripture can be “self-evident”. It is meant to be studied, argued about, wrestled with. Even, as VR says in her title, redeemed.

    Rabbi Arthur Segal notes in a d’var Torah on Matot-Masei that this week’s portion contains instructions about the “cities of refuge” to which accidental murderers could flee in order to prevent the vicious cycle of blood feuds. He points out that we can come away from this week’s Torah portion either “remembering to do genocide to our enemies,” or choosing to relinquish vengeance.

  • Jorge


    Help me understand your position a little more. So, given these passages, how do you propose we handle them? If I’m reading you correctly, I hear you saying something like this: “These passages are clearly not compatible with the ethics of Jesus therefore we need to see them as non-inspired and truly not endorsed in any sense by God. These passages need to be seen for what they are: humans seeking God’s endorsement for their actions. God did not command such things; the authors of the problem passages are saying God sanctioned something when in fact he did not.” Is that what you’re saying?

    If that’s the case, then how can you be sure the ethics of Jesus accurately and truthfully represent the character of God given that it is also found in the same Scriptures? How can we know that the author of the gospels aren’t putting words in Jesus’ mouth, saying things that God did not say in order to bolster their own human ethic of love? Would they have a motive to do this? I can imagine one. Perhaps their motive to pursue this ethic is due to the fact that the Romans are in charge and are pretty powerful. Since they have no army the best course to follow is a peaceful, loving one. So how can we know they didn’t slap God’s endorsement on this ethic without really hearing from God (just as you claim some of the OT writers did)?

    Can the Scriptures be trusted at all? If so, how?

    • peteenns

      I wouldn’t quite put the first paragraph this way, Jorge. The issue is not simply the ethics of Jesus, but also the Iron Age tribal setting of much of the Old Testament that generates the problem. Also, I understand what you are saying by “humans seeking God’s endorsement for their actions” but that is not what I am after. I would put it that Israelites are expressing their understanding of God on the language of their culture.

      You ask in the second paragraph how we can be sure that “the ethics of Jesus accurately and truthfully represent the character of God given that it is also found in the same Scriptures.” The simple answer is that we can’t be sure of this in any way other than how we can be sure of anything else in the gospel–by faith, which is not to minimize the issue but to put it in its most pressing existential context. I also don’t doubt that the Greco-Roman (not to mention 2nd Temple Jewish) context affected how and what Jesus and the biblical writers said.

      • Jorge

        Thanks for the response Pete.

        I think I get your point that the Scriptures were not written in a vacuum; they were written in a context by people who lived in a different culture and to some great and inevitable extent, had much in common with their times. Granted.

        What I’m trying to understand is given your presentation of the culture-bound limitations of Scripture, in what sense do you see the Scriptures as God’s word? Where is the voice of God in the Bible and how do you then determine what is from God and what is not from God?

        This is really the crux of the issue for me in trying to come to terms with your view.

        You like Jesus and his ethic, but you shun the OT’s diverse presentation of God’s ethic. When I asked how you know Jesus’ ethic is the right/true one, you tell me it’s ultimately a faith decision. OK. Then, why not look at the Old and New testament presentations of God’s ethic, and harmonize them – by faith. Might they both, though obviously written in a context, actually and truthfully reveal the character of God? Many Christians throughout history have wrestled with this, yet have accepted them both as true because they trust the Scriptures to be not solely a product of human effort but divine inspiration as well.

        That’s my position. And I think it’s the position of many thoughtful evangelical and non-evangelical Christians. I’m hoping you might devote a series of posts explaining how you view the Scriptures as inspired by God.

        The impression I’m getting from your posts is that God had nothing to do with the Bible. I know this impression must be wrong, but you haven’t shown me anything to dispel that yet.

        • peteenns

          Jorge, I appreciate your point and I know where you are coming from, but the problem with your question as I see it is that you are pitting against each other the cultural bound limitations of the Bible and the Bible as voice of God. What I am trying to say, and as hard and it might be to wrap our arms around it, is that God somehow speaks in and through limited cultural means.

          I think what you really mean by “where is the voice of God?” is “in what sense can a Bible like this be authoritative,” but that is an entirely different question that, I feel, is best discussed once we can come to terms with how the Bible behaves.

          I think, though, you are underestimating how “many Christians throughout history have wrestled with this.” Many have had to allegorize it while many others have found in the “authoritative word of God” justification for their own genocide, such as when the Spanish massacred the population of the West Indies, or Europeans the Native Americans. They went to passages like Deuteronomy 20, exchanged “Canaanites” for whatever “godless” population of the land they wanted, and went on the attack.

          That, along with Jesus’ teaching, is why we must find better ways not simply to “accept them as true” but to know what to do with them.

          If you want to know how I view Inspiration, my book Inspiration and Incarnation is a place to start.

          • Jorge


            What you accuse me of doing, i.e., “you are pitting against each other the cultural bound limitations of the Bible and the Bible as voice of God,” is actually what I think (thought?) you are doing! I agree that “somehow God speaks in and through limited cultural means,” but in my view, by virtue of it being *God* who is truly speaking through human beings in Scripture (albiet with limited cultural perspectives) what he says is true/trustworthy. The cultural boundness of the authors of Scripture doesn’t bother me in the least – it’s inevitable for God meets people in time and space, not in a cultural or timeless vacuum. But because God stands behind it (which is the view I take, namely that “all Scriptures are God-breathed”) I trust it *by faith* to be trustworthy.

            So since you seem to agree that it is an error to pit the “cultural bound limitations of the Bible [with] the Bible as voice of God,” what I have yet to hear from you is how you see these problem passages as the voice of God. Given everything that you’ve said so far, as I’ve stated before, it appears that you believe God *wasn’t* behind these problem passages. If you do, I’d like to hear how.

            I agree that “we must find better ways not simply to “accept them as true” but to know what to do with them.” Absolutely! But surely you know that “accepting something as true” in Scripture isn’t tantamount to acting irresponsibly. I’m all for good exegesis and application. That people have abused texts and used them to justify atrocities or bad behavior doesn’t then render the texts untrustworthy or false. You know this. How many spouses have tried to find justification for leaving their spouse based on Jesus’ love ethic? People can get very creative when they want something. Does that mean we disregard these passages? No, rather, we challenge people to interpret it them correctly, in context (and all this entails), and in light of the overall teaching of Scripture.

            Thanks again for your responses. Again, I hope you do get around someday to presenting a positive case for the divine inspiration of Scripture and what that entails. I think it would help balance what you’ve been saying so far.

          • peteenns

            Jorge, If you go to my “articles” link, there are two near the top that may flesh this out for you more: :Preliminary Observations…” and “Bible in Context.”

            I wonder precisely what you mean by “true” and “trustworthy” and how dividing virgins amongst soldiers fits into your definition.

          • Jorge


            Thanks for the direction to your articles; I’ll be reading them shortly.
            Going back to your original post, you stated that “the motive for why God wants the Canaanites annihilated” is “not that the Canaanites are particularly bad people, far worse than any other nation,” but that he doesn’t want his people to be led astray (i.e., fall into idolatry). “Iniquity is not the reason for the extermination. All nations are iniquitous.”

            You cite Deut. 7:1-7 and 20:10-20 to support your assertion that the *only* motive God gives for wanting the Canaanites annihilated is that the Israelites will commit idolatry if any Canaanites are left in the land. And I agree with you that the reason given *in these passages* is idolatry, but what about the reasons given in Deut. 9:5 and 18:12?

            Deut 9:5 says “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the *wickedness* of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD you God swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

            Deut 18:12 says “For whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.”

            Why can’t I take all these passages and conclude the following for why God wants the Canaanites annihilated?:

            (1) Because God’s people will adopt Canaanite practices & commit idolatry. (Why is idolatry such a big deal to God anyway? Well, see the next point).
            (2) Because of the Canaanite’s wickedness and abominations (i.e., their iniquity!).
            (3) Because God is keeping his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

            So the reason for God’s command to wipe out the Canaanites “cannot be understood apart from the clear motives given in such places as” Deut. 9 and 18 as well as the passages you cited. These are the reasons given in Deuteronomy.

            And what I mean by saying that the Bible is true and trustworthy in this case is that I believe it truly was God who ordered the extermination of the Canaanites, as the Scripture states. This extermination isn’t just a case of the Canaanites being in the wrong place at the wrong time; according to the passages I’ve cited above, and Gen. 15:16 (your dismissal of it not withstanding), their sins brought about God’s judgment (an important theme in Scripture as well).

            About the virgins being divided among the Israelite soldiers, I agree that this makes me uncomfortable. It does so because I’m looking at these events as a Christian, after God’s ultimate revelation of himself in Christ. God does not call us Christians to act this way. But I believe he did command this at a point in time to his covenant people. God dealt with Israel in their context. And by faith I trust that God knows why he did it and I know that ultimately the judge of the universe is right in all he does. This seems to me to be the clear teaching of Scripture, when taken as a whole.

            Just being honest about why I believe what I believe. Thanks again for the interaction. You’ve helped me spend more time thinking about a significant and difficult subject.

          • peteenns


            Thanks for your thoughts and honesty.

            The Assyrians were world renown for their horrendous cruelty to others along with the standard ancient practices of things like idolatry and child sacrifice. The Canaanites were not top on the “abomination” list. So, the question is what the characteristic that separated the Canaanites and made theme the brunt of slaughter rather than the other nations? Land. If the Edomites had been living west of the Jodran River, they would have been the object of God’s wrath and their abominations would have been singled out, too.

            The second to last paragraph is not really a way forward, I think, but more a restatement of the problem. It raises some pretty serious philosophical/theological questions about God, the relationship between the Testaments, etc.

            I’m not trying to change what you think, Jorge. I know what you believe you hold deeply. This isn’t really about the Canaanites but (1) what is the Bible, and (2) what do we do with it.

  • Mark

    Probably a bit too late for the discussion, but just wondering how looking at the events of Joshua might impact back on the Deuteronomy commands – just a couple of thoughts…

    1. In Joshua 9-10 there are statements of the “total annihilation” of entire towns, but also comments on “survivors”, this suggests (assuming the text is coherent) that maybe the “total annihilation” language is not meant to be pressed literally – it may be more a statement of total victory rather than an exact description of the fate of every Canaanite. If this is the case in Joshua then couldn’t it also be the case in Deuteronomy? It would mean that the command did not necessarily mean Israel had to wipe out every single Canaanite. (I think this is at least a good push back against the term “genocide” even if it doesn’t solve every problem)

    2. Doesn’t the inclusion of Rahab and the Gibeonites also have something to say about the command (and also the exclusion of Achan)? Perhaps it indicates that it was at least possible for the Canaanites to “defect” to the Israelites. This would fit with the reason for the command in Deuteronomy. If the reason is that Israel will fall into idolatry then presumably if the idolatry ceased, the reason for the command ceased. Some commentators point out that there isn’t much indication of fighting around Shechem – so perhaps this was an area where something of this sort happened.

    Those area a couple of thoughts. I think that anything which helps to work out exactly what the text of Joshua is claiming happened is useful – there seems to be a lot of hyperbolic language being used. I also think that remembering the end of the whole story is important – there will be a final end to evil (and here I do think Kline’s idea that the ethic of the end is “intruding” into history is interesting), including all who remain opposed to the “Joshua” of the NT. That is the ultimate perspective. But I don’t think it solves everything – I guess another question is how much has to be solved, and how much do we have to live with discomfort/difficulty in our readings of Scripture.

  • Glenda Smith

    God as God knows the end from the beginning, AND the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. You think God is cruel for this? Do you see what is happening in our day among the Islamists? The theology of Islam is NOTHING like the Theology of the Judeo/Christian God. God, the Living and True God of Israel and Christians is the ONE who sets the agenda of what is right and what is wrong. The difference between what God told Israel to do and what Mohammed told Muslims to do is that God is God and Mohammed was a mortal, a wicked, deceived mortal. Disobeying God, is what got us the Islam we have today; the Israelite s did not do what God told them to do and now we are paying for it. When you are tortured, or you family, into bowing to Islam’s god, or for NOT denying YOUR God, like Pastor Narkdahanan in Iran, you will not think God was cruel for His commands to kill these people. No man can judge the Living and True God without impunity.

    • peteenns

      Glenda, I hear your passion but we are not talking about Islam today. Also, read my post again. You missed part of it. God also told the Israelites to divide the virgin women among themselves. Does that not bother you….just a little bit?

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  • Aaron

    I’m arriving upon this discussion late, but I couldn’t help but comment.
    I realize before I write this that it will be shot down (by the original author and most who’ve posted comments) as being from one of those conservative “fundamentalist” Christians that just blindly accepts (without doubt or question) anything and everything the Bible says. And to that I must plead guilty.

    First however, let me say how much I appreciate Biblical scholars and theologians, those who have studied hard the scriptures and history. Without them we wouldn’t have the understanding we have today. However, there comes a point where man’s understanding and knowledge ceases. There are some things that we simply do not have the ability to understand and/or explain. Certainly this is at least true for certain questions and topics. This topic is one of those or surely comes close.

    I know that there will be disagreement over whether this topic falls into that category. Obviously the author believes that is does not, evidenced by the time and effort of thought he has devoted to it. And it is clear that there are many who agree with him, evidenced by the number of those who have commented here-in. For many “smart” people the very fact that a subject is unexplainable is the very reason they feel compelled to devote significant time and effort dwelling upon it. That, to some, is intelligence in its highest form.
    But if one feels they are able and wants to spend their life pursuing answers to these “hard to understand” questions, why not try and tackle the REALLY hard questions. The roots, the origins, the “mothers”, if you will, to all the “hard” questions. Questions like, Where did God come from? Or maybe a little easier one like, Why did God create man? You are probably saying I’m missing the point of this discussion entirely, and that it is simply the written scripture that is trying to be understood and reconciled here. You may be saying, the question “Why did God create man” has no bearing and nothing to do with this subject. But I believe they are inseparably connected. Though I do not presume to fully understand why God created man, I do have my belief…and I would assume that everyone who calls themselves a Christian would have their belief and an answer to why God created man. But things like “God’s Character” as questioned in this piece by Mr. Enns cannot be discussed, much less answered outside of why God created man. It is the key to every question we have. If an answer could be summed up to address why God created man it would have to be for Him to bring Glory to Himself. Everything in all creation is here for one singular purpose, and that is to bring Glory to God. We are His creation made for His pleasure.

    I can understand why someone would have the questions that Peter Enns raises. By default as humans in a fallen world we have many questions that seem hard or impossible to understand. And some of these hard issues can cause the Bible to appear hard, harsh, cruel and sometimes inconsistent, certainly according to OUR belief system…OUR sense of justice, mercy and compassion. But just because we have questions doesn’t mean there’s a “problem”. WE may have a problem, but God doesn’t. And though Mr. Enns has convinced himself, as he tries to explain in his last paragraphs, that he isn’t trying to “Undermine the Bible or shipwreck anyone’s faith”, by the mere fact that he is claiming that there is a “problem” in God’s word clearly puts him on the side of human intellect rather than the infallibility of God’s Word. It’s almost as if there is something noble in the ability to find “problems” or inconsistencies in God’s word. When things in life become difficult, when things seem not to fit within our box of understanding we begin to ask questions, this is normal. But it is pride that tells us we can always find the answers if we think hard enough…if we study long enough. Some things must be taken by faith…the same faith that Mr. Enns says he is trying not to shipwreck (but is doing a very good job of whether he’s aware of it or not).

    I hope I am not being misunderstood, I enjoy deep intellectual and theological discussions as much as anyone here, but one must determine what the purpose of the discussion is before they invest the time to have it. What is the purpose of Mr. Enns piece and the subsequent discussion. What is hoped to be accomplished in it. After reading it and all the posts it seems to me that there is a desire by the author and most of the writers to simply raise more questions! Some seem to be attempting to “justify” God’s actions and commands with their own view of right, wrong, good and evil. To do this one must assume and believe that “their” view is correct and infallible. But how do any of us come to our (or what we believe to be our) view of what is right, wrong, good and evil? Does our “infallible” view not originate from the same God who’s Character is under discussion here. Does it not come from the same Bible that is being said to have a “theological problem”? One cannot claim to have a standard by which he makes his judgments, then turn around and use that standard to suggest that there is a problem with that standard. That is what the Bible calls a double minded man, unstable in all his ways. In his increased knowledge he has become a fool.

    This brings me to the main point I would like to make. Who are we to question God’s Character! By what standard would we use to question it? Is it not the very Word of God that you are now questioning? If we believe God is sovereign, why would we even consider questioning His Word (if we really believe it is HIS Word). What a bag of foolishness we open when we leave the Faith of the Bible being God’s infallible Word.
    By the very fact that God does something makes it right and just. By the mere fact that He does anything makes it consistent. Just because we may not have the ability to wrap our limited human brains around it doesn’t make it wrong, unjust, contradictory or inconsistent. That is simply where FAITH comes in and pride is removed.

    The enemy is subtle, and always appeals to our pride. It is the easiest way for us to be deceived. He would have us believe that we can understand more than we can. Just like he did with Adam and Eve in the garden. I am not implying that anyone here is involved in deliberate deception. I am simply saying that we must be on guard, because when we delve into subjects such as these Satan is there waiting and wanting to deceive us. It is in tough times and hard to understand matters that Satan works to cause unbelief to form and leaves us to doubt the infallibility of the Bible.

    • Mary

      I don’t think he is questioning God’s character, he is questioning the characters of the people WHO CLAIMED to speak and act in God’s name. There is A HUGE DIFFERENCE. Do you think God would set down standards of how to treat each other such as in the ten commandments and then TELL US TO BREAK THEM at his whim? Do you think a good God would command his followers to murder, rape, enslave and commit human sacrifice in order to entertain himself??? (Man was created for God after all. according to you.) I think YOU ARE THE ONE SELLING GOD SHORT.

      • T Adams

        You are looking at their actions all wrong, when we obey GOD, it’s called, HIM USING US FOR HIS JUDGEMENT. He can use an Angel, a storm, an earthquake, a King, a homeless person or whatever to bid his justice. EVERY ACTION THAT TAKES PLACE IN THE BIBLE AFTER THE WORDS, “GOD SAID” is all on GOD. He is judging a people., whether we like it or not.

  • Susan Burns

    We know the Cananites were not totally exterminated because of haplogroup studies.

  • max benser

    I like Jessica Frame from USA!
    She is only 18 Jears old, and she talking about Genocide in Number 31:17.18.
    Jessica Frame: “Numbers is my favorite horrible passage, I think”
    She is an Atheist, Goldwoman! Young Woman, she fighting against people in School, Home…
    She is simple to say,… intelligent and human young Woman!


    • T Adams

      AND A SINNER DESERVING WHAT EVERY ONE DESERVE, DEATH BY A HOLY GOD. I’M INCLUDED IN THE EVERYONE. SO YOU WILL JUST RECEIVE WHAT YOU DESERVE. But I know, you think you are a good person. You think that you are fair and loving. But we do this for our on benefit, our own selfish reason. (The Bible states that our heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, who can know it.) We are here to glorify GOD not our selves. But that impossible for you to understand, because you do not believe in GOD. Praying for you and the 18 y/o “Woman”.

  • max benser

    Most criminal book of the World!
    Book of Cruelty and Violence, Racism, Hate, Wars, Genocide, Killing, Vandalism, Rape!!!
    Book of Psychopats!!!


    • T Adams

      The next time you look in the mirror and see your reflection, ask yourself, why did I make it into the egg and my mother and not one of the other million of sperm cells. I guess you think it was by chance. You won the being birth lottery. 1 in a 1,000,000. Just because you don’t believe does not make it untrue. Why don’t you research it first and then make a decision. Research if there is a GOD before you make a decision. PROVE THE BIBLE WRONG.

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  • John

    So you have given us Pipers answer, but what is yours?

  • Chad Woodburn

    Well, I guess that means that you (Peter Enns) would have to consider me as being consistent because I wholeheartedly “accept as compatible with God’s character” the other issues that come up in those very same passages which you consider “troubling.”

    And I believe that the prophecies of the future Messianic Empire (Millennial Kingdom) state that those same kinds of “troubling” events will take place there too: the saints will take captive their captors making them their slaves, the little ones of Babylon will have their skulls shattered on the rocks and blessed are those who will do it, and the enemies of the saints will be slaughtered and the saints will tread their dead bodies down like mire in the streets.

    I’d also argue that Leviticus 18:25 identifies “iniquity as [one of] the reason[s] for the extermination”: “the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.”
    You will never be able to “understand the Bible, to account for why it says what it says,” until you stop arguing against it and accept what it says with your whole heart. For you the fact that some of these things are a “part of the Law of Moses (Exod 22:16-17)” is a complication. For Paul, it was not a complication, instead he said, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).

    So I would ask you the question found in Psalm 50:16-17: “What right have you to tell of My statutes and to take My covenant in your mouth? For you … cast My words behind you.” And God’s warning to you is, “I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes” (v. 21). I fear for you and for those who follow you.

    • T Adams

      The whole message in all this was that all are sinners, all, you and I and the rest of the world deserve what the Midianites and Canaanites or anyone else received as their fate from GOD. Death is what we all deserve. Instead of looking at the killings or “genocides that took place in the Bible”; our terms towards GOD ways, you and I are bless not to be included in these numbers because of our sins are as vile to GOD as their. The BIBLE states that if you transgress one of GOD’s laws you are guilty of them all. Annihilation is what we all deserve from a HOLY RIGHTEOUS GOD. But he bestowed his grace and mercy towards us and we are not consumed. To understand this, we must understand first that GOD is HOLY and can’t stand the sight of us. We are not look upon by GOD as levels of sinners but as sinners. Fall on your knees and thank GOD he gave you and I a chance to seek him and find him before it’s to late. To find His salvation plan through the blood of His Son, Jesus the Christ. There is no other way out of this predicament we find ourselves in. WE MUST BELIEVE THIS , that he gave us a way out or perish. Get over your quips against a sovereign Holy, GOD, and repent and believe on JESUS THE CHRIST. If not, you to will die in your sins.
      And as it states in the BOOK OF ROMANS 9:20, ” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” or in the BOOK OF JOB, 38; read the chapter.