When the Bible Sanctions Violence, Must We?

Today’s post is the second of three by Dr. Eric Seibert, Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College (post one is here). Much of Seibert’s work is centered on addressing the problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament, especially his violence. He is the author of Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress 2009) and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress 2012). Seibert is also a licensed minister in the Brethren in Christ Church and formerly the Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Initiative at Messiah College. He is currently working on his fourth book, Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus (Cascade).

It is a truism to say the Bible contains a lot of violence. That much is obvious. Yet not all violence is regarded the same way in the pages of Scripture. Sometimes, the Bible makes it unmistakably clear that certain acts of violence are wrong.

No one who reads the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, for example, is going to conclude that this passage is meant to encourage murder! Nor are people likely to read the story of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his deadly dealings with Uriah and conclude that we should “go and do likewise.” In fact, in this instance the narrator explicitly tells us that “the thing David had done displeased the LORD,” (2 Samuel 11:27, NRSV). Most of us would concur!

Stories like these, though troubling in terms of what they reveal about human sinfulness and our capacity to hurt others, are not problematic in terms of what they say about violence. In both cases, these narratives clearly demonstrate that the use of violence is bad and undesirable.

But what are we to do with passages of Scripture that sanction violence and portray it as something good? How should we regard what one might call “virtuous” violence in the text?

Examples of “virtuous” violence abound in the Old Testament and are embedded in some of its most beloved stories: the flood narrative (Genesis 6-8), the story of the ten plagues, culminating in the death of every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 12), the drowning of the entire Egyptian army (Exodus 14-15), the “conquest” of Canaan (Josh 6-11), Jael’s slaying of Sisera (Judges 4), and David’s slaying of Goliath (1 Samuel 17), to cite just a few notable examples.

In each of these passages—and many others like them—lethal violence is condoned and sometimes even celebrated.  Passages like these create significant problems for Christian readers.

Should we regard Jael as the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24, NRSV) because she drove a tent peg through Sisera’s skull? As we read about dead Egyptians washing up on shore, should we join voices with the Israelites and praise God for throwing “horse and rider” into the sea (Exodus 14:30-15:21)? Should we approve of Israelites killing Canaanites, massacring Midianites, annihilating Amalekites—including women and children—because they Bible says they did so with divine approval and blessing?

Or, to reduce these questions to the title of this post, “When the Bible sanctions violence, must we?”

My answer to that question is an unequivocal “No!” We should not, and we must not! It is extremely dangerous to endorse violent texts like these. Tragically, this kind of approval has often led to future acts of violence against others (as noted briefly in my previous post).

As Christians, we have a moral obligation to critique the assumption that violence is somehow “virtuous,” in spite of what the Bible suggests on numerous occasions.

Violence is not a virtue. It is not a fruit of the spirit or a mark of discipleship. It is a behavior we attempt to avoid and restrain. Even Christians who believe violence can be justified in certain situations, such as protecting the life of an innocent person, must surely object to some of the violence that is approved in the Old Testament. There are no moral grounds for slaughtering babies, infants, or toddlers. Yet the Bible justifies their extermination on more than one occasion.

Surely, those of us who follow the prince of Peace, the God of Life, must raise our voices in protest and object. We must say, “This is not right!” Such violence is never justifiable and should never be condoned.

In my next post, I’ll talk a little bit about how I think we should go about confronting the problem of “virtuous” violence in Scripture. But for now, I’ll simply end with a question. I believe we should critique positive portrayals of violence in the Bible. Do you?

  • http://shiracoffee.tumblr.com Shira

    Good grief, yes! I’m not a Christian, but this is the most encouraging stance I’ve seen in some time.

  • WR

    Interesting post. I certainly agree that there is tension between what we are told is the fruit of the Spirit and violence-sanctioning OT texts, and that is difficult. Perhaps you are going here in post three, but what should we do with final judgment texts? If we are going to critique violence in scripture recording past events (which we should, in certain ways), we must also face texts describing a violent God in judgment events portrayed as still future.

    • http://activefaith.wordpress.com Stephen Enjaian

      WR, I concur with your comments and would like to extend your argument in a slightly different direction. There are numerous statements in the New Testament quoting or alluding to accounts of the kind of violence that Dr. Seibert criticizes. Several of those statements specifically reference in a positive way the accounts that he mentions here. Examples include Stephen’s sermon (Acts 7), Hebrews 11 and II Peter 2-3.

      My question to Dr. Seibert is this: if you think that we should critique Biblical examples of what you call “virtuous violence,” then why is there not a single instance of such a critique in the New Testament?

      • peteenns

        That is, of course, a pertinent and obvious question to ask Stephen, and I think we can all safely assume it will nto catch him by surprise. He may or may not address it in part 3, but his answer to that question can be found readily enough in his books.

        • http://activefaith.wordpress.com Stephen Enjaian

          Perhaps you’re right. Still, Dr. Seibert is urging us to join him in condemning some parts of the Bible, presumably not God’s genuine Word, in light of other parts, which presumably are divinely given. (I’m just guessing about his view of Scripture since he hasn’t stated it plainly in these posts).

          Other than a few vague references, it’s not clear from his posts what his benchmark is for his critique of Scripture, or how it’s consistent with passages such as those that I cited. I would also like to hear how he reconciles his treatment of the Torah with that of Jesus, as in Luke 24:25-46, as I pointed out in one of my comments to his first post.

          I don’t think that we can adequately answer his final question here until he fills in those and other gaps.

        • http://activefaith.wordpress.com Stephen Enjaian

          Perhaps you’re right. Still, Dr. Seibert is urging us to join him in rejecting some parts of the Bible, presumably not God’s genuine Word, in light of other parts, which presumably are divinely given. (I’m just guessing about his view of Scripture since he hasn’t stated it plainly in these posts). Other than a few vague references, it’s not clear what his benchmark is for his critique of Scripture, or how it’s consistent with passages such as those that I cited. I would also like to hear how he reconciles his treatment of the Torah with that of Jesus, as in Luke 24:25-46, as I pointed out in one of my comments to his first post.

          I don’t think that we can adequately answer his final question here until he fills in those and other gaps.

  • J.L. Schafer

    After skimming the long comment thread for Part 1, I can see how difficult it is for evangelicals (including myself) who have been steeped in the biblicist tradition to stomach this style of critical reading of the Old Testament. It feels disrespectful. It feels wrong. It seems that we would be appealing to our own beliefs and values to exercise veto-power over the “plain reading” of the text, and the thought of doing this creates so much cognitive dissonance.
    But don’t we already employ this kind of critical reading for other parts of the Old Testament? For example, Ecclesiastes? None of us really thinks that “Everything is meaningless!” is a correct take-away message.

    • peteenns

      Some days I do, J.L. :-)

  • Don Johnson

    I can agree with asking the question, but just raising the question is not providing any sort of answer.

  • http://dpitch40.blogspot.com David Pitchford

    I agree that simply passively accepting “troubling” texts like these with no dissonance is a wrong approach and, as Seibert says, can lead to some very bad theologies. Simply resolving this dissonance by favoring pacifistic verses over violent ones, however, seems overly simplistic and dismissive of the later–similar to the “picking and choosing” that many evangelicals do, as I commented in the last post.

  • asusek

    I hope in the next post, there will be some interaction with how we ought to view the horrors of the cross. I’m not sure there is a deeper atrocity than that. So these other examples, as troubling as they are, seem secondary concerns to me in terms of reconciling the Bible with God-appointed violence. If we can in any way call the God-appointed death of His innocent Son good…

    • Bob

      I’d encourage you to look at how the orthodox church approach the question of God’s violence with regards to the atonement.


      • peteenns

        Bob, do you want to summarize the orthodox view for us? I think many would appreciate it.

        • http://www.nature.com Agnikan

          Here’s a not-too-rare (and probably quite common) Orthodox view ( http://www.stnectariospress.com/parish/river_of_fire.htm ) on God’s wrath, as contrasted with a common “Western” view. And I quote:

          “The “God” of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the disobedience of men, who desires in His destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless He receives an infinite satisfaction for His offended pride.
          What is the Western dogma of salvation? Did not God [i.e., The Father] kill God [i.e., Jesus Christ] in order to satisfy His pride, which the Westerners euphemistically call justice? And is it not by this infinite satisfaction that He deigns to accept the salvation of some of us?
          What is salvation for Western theology? Is it not salvation from the wrath of God?
          Do you see, then, that Western theology teaches that our real danger and our real enemy is our Creator and God? Salvation, for Westerners, is to be saved from the hands of God!
          How can one love such a God? How can we have faith in someone we detest? Faith in its deeper essence is a product of love, therefore, it would be our desire that one who threatens us not even exist, especially when this threat is eternal.
          God is a loving fire, and He is a loving fire for all: good or bad. There is, however, a great difference in the way people receive this loving fire of God. Saint Basil says that “the sword of fire was placed at the gate of paradise to guard the approach to the tree of life; it was terrible and burning toward infidels, but kindly accessible toward the faithful, bringing to them the light of day.” The same loving fire brings the day to those who respond to love with love, and burns those who respond to love with hatred.
          Paradise and hell are one and the same River of God, a loving fire which embraces and covers all with the same beneficial will, without any difference or discrimination. The same vivifying water is life eternal for the faithful and death eternal for the infidels; for the first it is their element of life, for the second it is the instrument of their eternal suffocation; paradise for the one is hell for the other. Do not consider this strange. The son who loves his father will feel happy in his father’s arms, but if he does not love him, his father’s loving embrace will be a torment to him. This also is why when we love the man who hates us, it is likened to pouring lighted coals and hot embers on his head.”

  • Randy

    Some people need to study hermeneutics. (Common sense will help, too.) The Old Testament is a different dispensation than we are in today. We live in the dispensation of grace. As a result, God deals differently than He did in the Old Testament. There are five dispensations that are in the Old Testament. You have Innocence, Human Government, Conscience, Patriarchal, and the dispensation of the Law. The Law even continues for a little while into the New Testament. The book of Acts is the transitional book changing from law to grace. The law showed man just how sinful he was. The law presented no mercy to the lawbreaker. Although there are times of mercy and grace, for the most part the law condemned the sinner. God was demonstrating to sinful man just how corrupt and depraved man really is. God is more gracious and merciful than He was back then. I know God never changes, but He does deal differently with man in regards to sin and man’s responsibility to that sin. But be that as it may, since He is the Potter and we are the clay, what right do we have to question God in anything? If He wants to wipe out the whole world, which He did at one time, i.e. the flood, it would be none of our business. But, I’m glad I live in the dispensation of grace, where God deals in mercy and grace. Where sin did abound, grace did much more abound. That’s the Bible, right there.

    • Bob

      So you see no problem in believing that a God that hates violence and revenge and asks us to love those who persecute us, a God that loves mercy and compassion, at one time revelled in the blood spilt from infants, because he dealt with people differently then?

      • Bob

        Look, it’s God displaying his eternal goodness and great love for his creation: http://www.thebricktestament.com/genesis/god_drowns_everyone/20_gn07_22-23.html

        • Randy

          Again, it’s His creation, not yours or mine. Another point I would like to bring out is that those the nations with the infants that I assume you’re referring to, well, God said in His Word in Genesis 15: 16 to Abraham that those nation’s iniquities were not yet full. For those of us who study the Bible, that means God gave those nations plenty of time to repent and get right with Him. But they waxed worse and God sent the children of Israel into Canaan Land to exact His judgment upon those nations, which did include infants. That’s God business, not mine. Actually, I really don’t think you have a problem with vengeance upon people, whether it is by other people or by God. My personal opinion is that in reality you have a problem with the authority of the Word of God.

          • Dean

            Randy, your first post was fine (though snarky), but I feel compelled to point out the psychosis of fundamentalism in your follow up. This cannot be the first time someone has pointed this out to you, someone can have a problem is with YOUR interpretation of the Word of God without challenging the authority of the Bible. That’s sort of a baseline for having a discussion on what the Bible says don’t you think? Has it occurred to you that you might be the one reading it wrong? I’m so fatigued from reading comments like this, if we wanted a Pope, Pope Randy or the Paper Pope, we’d all might as well just stayed Catholics! Let me make this perfectly clear, just because you think the Bible says one particular thing does not give it any added authority. For you to even make argument is patently absurd, this discussion is precisely about what the Bible says, if the original poster didn’t believe in the “authority of the Word of God” then why exactly are we having this discussion in the first place? We should just be citing Sam Harris or Wikipedia, who cares!

          • Randy

            To Dean: My interpretation of the Word of God is to let the Bible say what it means and mean what it says, which is called literal interpretation; which is how to interpret the Bible in the first place, basic hermeneutics for those who don’t know. I have met a lot like you that say “Well, that is YOUR interpretation.” What they are really saying is “I don’t like what the Bible says here, so I’m going to claim that that is your interpretation.” Again, authority of the Word of God being challenged. Same approach in the garden of Eden when Satan confronted Eve and posed the first question in the Bible. And guess what it was questioning? The authority of the Word of God, “Yea, hath God said…”.

          • Keih Dager

            Gosh Dean… Can’t we try to get along? You wrote about Randy’s reply being “snarky”. Opinions were solicited. Randy wrote with a rational and a Biblical reply. I read nothing “snarky” until I got to your ridicule and criticism of him. Bottom line… humanity has always existed within a hierarchy of spiritual order, with God at the top . It’s similar to working in the military or a corporation. Shit rolls downhill. Sometimes God appears as the top commander or CEO. Sometimes he works among us as in the TV show “undercover boss”. The concept that a convert to Christianity can be spiritually born- again as brothers or sisters in-Christ did not exist in old testament times. A secular comparison would be like leaving employment with a Fortune 500 firm to work for a family owned business, then marrying the owner’s daughter or son. Old forms of corporate interactions and professional image building are replaced with a personal relationship of trust and competency within the family.

          • Richard Crane

            Randy, there wasn’t a reply button to your next post, but you talked about literal interpretation and letting the Bible say what it says…..


            You also appealed in a previous post to dispensations. I don’t know how to break it to you, but Dispensationalism is a theological framework, extraneous to the text, for interpreting the Bible as a whole. Now, it may or may not be a good theological framework, but the idea of dispensations is not something you can derive from a literal reading of the text…..unless you assume those C.I. Scofield notes are also part of the inspired biblical text.
            To divide the Bible into dispensations in which God deals with humanity in a dramatically different way is read into the text, not something that is explicitly stated in the text. Yes, of course, we have a transition as we move into the Old Testament (the core conviction that Jesus Christ brings to a kind of summation and fulfillment and completion the meaning of God’s covenant relationship with Israel), but the idea of 7 distinct dispensations is inconsistent with your stated method.

          • Mary

            “My interpretation of the Word of God is to let the Bible say what it means and mean what it says, which is called literal interpretation”

            Except that nobody actually does that, including you. You can have 100 different literalists, and most likely they will not agree on much. This is because the bible does not and cannot ever agree with itself. Everyone uses some sort of interpretive framework to try and make sense out of it.

            “Actually, I really don’t think you have a problem with vengeance upon people, whether it is by other people or by God. My personal opinion is that in reality you have a problem with the authority of the Word of God.”

            This is a common tactic to use when people can’t come up with a good answer. Something must be wrong with the person asking! Seriously it is very rude to assume that Dean does not genuinely care about vengeance and violence in the bible. It sounds to me that you are the one who doesn’t give a damn.

          • Erica Billings

            You sound like John Piper, Randy.

    • Shaun

      Randy, I am glad you approach your perspective with humility, and not the recurring omniscient attitude one finds in stereotypical dispensationalists .

    • http://anselm-ministries.us Chuck Sigler

      I have studied hermeneutics; in seminary and afterwards. I believe in the authority of the Word of God. See my previous posts in the first section of Dr. Seibert’s blog post. But I also strongly disagree with your following statements that seem to lead to a conclusion that if someone doesn’t take a literal, dispensational understanding of Scripture, that they have challenged the authority of the Word of God.

      “The Old Testament is a different dispensation than we are today;” and “My interpretation of the Word of God is to let the bible say what it means and mean what it says, which is called literal interpretation; which is how to interpret the Bible in the first place. Basic hermeneutic for those who don’t know.”

      I do not hold to a pure, literalist reading of Scripture as the only valid understanding of Scripture as the authoritative Word of God; and I do not believe that a dispensational theology is the only acceptable way to interpret Scripture.

      If you grant that a hermeneutical method that is NOT dispensational or literalist can still be an authoritative view of the Word of God, then Dr. Seibert’s points—“It is extremely dangerous to endorse violent texts. . . . we have a moral obligation to critique the assumption that violence is somehow ‘virtuous’ . . . . There are no moral grounds for slaughtering babies, infants, or toddlers”—are valid questions to raise; even to those who believe in the authority of Scripture. Indeed, I think they should be asked, and can be raised without ignoring the authority of Scripture and without requiring a dispensational or literalist hermeneutic of Scripture.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    This seems like begging the question.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    The only reason this issue presents Christians with any problem is that most of them have a deeply flawed concept of revelation. They assume that revelation is a book filled with messages (sometimes coded) from God. The problem goes away if we adopt a big picture view of revelation: revelation is a person, Jesus of Nazareth, in whom God definitively revealed himself, revealed his identity–Who He is, and what that means for who we are. What came before is the historical process by which the world was prepared for that culminating self revelation of God–the progress from “paganism” through various stages of development to a Creator monotheism that prepared for Jesus’ revelation of God as Trinity. This “revelational process took place in history, not simply in a Book. The early Christian writings that we call the New Testament are the written traditions of early Church about that culminating self revelation of God in Jesus.

  • Keith Dager

    Yes, I agree with you. God adjusts his relationship with humanity based on how we have matured in both intellectual and emotional I.Q. We don’t give our kids car keys when they’re 8 years old to let them drive. God did not give Moses Einstein’s theory of relativity or the U.S. Constitution. God interacted with ancient man at their level of human development. My question however, is seeing Christianity not just as our personal relationship with a loving God, but how we fit into God’s larger battle against Satan and evil. Seeing it through the latter, then would “virtuous violence” be justified by the saying “If you’re not with us, then you’re against us?” In human wars, there is always tragic “collateral damage”. It seems God had a running battle with Satan that predated creation in Genesis. What if all creation in Genesis, including man, was simply a battle strategy in God’s war against Satan and evil? What if humanity on earth is to God and Satan what David and Goliath were to their respective armies… a substitute for full scale battle and its costly consequences? With such enormous consequences to the divine realm, how can we as God’s volunteer army contradict his will if he wants us to “vanquish” enemies (like the Canaanites of Jericho or the Egyptian army ) who stand in the way of his victory? We humans do not sit on God’s “Joint Chiefs Of Staff” in his “Divine Department of Defense”. Since we can not even know God’s strategy against Satan, what right do we have we to change it? God knows the unintended consequence of mercy on the victims of “virtuous violence” in the Bible’s stories. A different decision, showing mercy, might offer too great an advantage to Satan in the long run, in ways we humans could never imagine. To make an earthy comparison, America concluded the Korean war with a stalemate on the 48th parallel. That allowed an insane regime to become a global nuclear menace today. What if north Korea triggers global nuclear Armageddon? The answer to opposing “virtuous violence” is found in Jesus. That implies however, that the status of God’s battle with Satan has changed. Really? Human nature has not changed even with our knowledge of science and democratic governments that makes us far more sophisticated than the ancients. Evil, brutality, suffering and death still is found in abundance in earth, so God has not yet vanquished Satan. If humanity is no longer needs to serve as righteous warriors (or cannon fodder) in the divine battle between God and Satan, then what purpose do we serve for all the effort God went to to create us in his image?

    • Mary

      Interesting theory, but that still doesn’t portray God in a good light. So we have a Creator-God whose sole purpose is to use his creation as pawns in a cosmic chess-game with Satan? Of course you couch it in terms of a war of good vs. evil, but it still amounts to the same thing.

      According to most of Christian theology. Satan is more powerful than God. How does that make any sense? God is supposed to be omnipotent yet he cannot do anything about Satan without our help?

      The doctrine of atonement doesn’t make sense either. “The wages of sin is death”, so Jesus died for us. Nice, but exactly who made the rule? God did, of course. He could have just as easily decided that death is not an appropriate penalty for humanity’s mistakes. In fact, he could have decided to forgive Adam and Eve on the spot.

      Now if you say that Satan is the one who required this “death penalty” then you are saying that Satan is more powerful than God. How does a fallen angel become more powerful than God?

      “If humanity is no longer needs to serve as righteous warriors (or cannon fodder) in the divine battle between God and Satan, then what purpose do we serve for all the effort God went to to create us in his image?”

      I think our purpose is obvious. To learn to love our fellow man. Isn’t this what Jesus’ taught?

      • Keih Dager

        Hello Mary. I’m in agreement with you that Jesus and then Paul radically changed man’s relationship with God. Randy mentioned he’s glad to be born in God’s Grace Administration. Me too. I’m a Brian McClaren/Miroslav Volf type of Christian. Dr. Enns asked however: “I believe we should critique positive portrayals of violence in the Bible. Do you?” I answered yes, but gthat becomes a two way street. What if “Old Testament” violence (genocide as an offering to God) that properly offends our modern senses might have been what God really wanted… and for good reasons we can;t comprehend? If that is accepted as even possible, then the question is how Christians have both mercy and love along with obedience to God’s will and the spine and muscle to defend the weak, the ill, the meek who otherwise are ground up by brutal humans as a sacrifice to their egos. When is aggression justified, even if the target are people whose rage may be understandable but their threat risks death and potential extinction to a Christian community ?

        • Mary

          “When is aggression justified, even if the target are people whose rage may be understandable but their threat risks death and potential extinction to a Christian community ”

          You lost me there, Keith. Please give me an example.

        • Dean

          Keih, I am not completely understanding your posts, but just let me say this. If Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, then I proffer that a better case can be made for Christian pacifism than any other position with respect to how to respond to violence in this world. I’m not saying I’m a pacifist, but my reading of the Bible, particularly the gospels, indicate to me that it is probably the most supportable position. As for whether pacifism could lead to the “extinction” of a Christian community, well, let me ask you this: When in history was the Church more vulnerable to extinction than it has ever been in history, how did Christians respond, and what was the result? Have you really read any Brian McLaren?

  • pete head


  • Jim V

    “Violence is not a virtue. It is not a fruit of the spirit or a mark of discipleship. It is a behavior we attempt to avoid and restrain. Even Christians who believe violence can be justified in certain situations, such as protecting the life of an innocent person, must surely object to some of the violence that is approved in the Old Testament. There are no moral grounds for slaughtering babies, infants, or toddlers. Yet the Bible justifies their extermination on more than one occasion.”

    I’m not sure I read where the Bible says that violence is a “virtue.” Even when commanded by God to wipe out another ANE tribal group, the OT doesn’t have God saying that the Israelites will be more “virtuous” for doing it. I think we need to take step back and look at historical reality, here. Name one ANE group (Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Moabites, etc.) who didn’t conduct warfare this way. I don’t think you can. This was the way war was conducted back then. You killed the women and children as well as the old to wipe out the group so they wouldn’t rise up in the future and come back for revenge. ANE history, aside from any reference to the Bible or the Israelites in general, is replete with one group slaughtering whole villages for this very reason. It is also replete with survivors of these slaughters rising up and rebelling against their previously victorious enemies even after a generation or so of the defeated group has passed. The constant back and forth between the Assyrians and Babylonians (Akkadians) is a prime example. Whether God ordered these slaughters or not, there were reasons why ANE societies conducted war in this manner – they weren’t as stupid as we make them out to be. They believed that wholesale slaughter brought on quick surrender by the other side and tamped down any attempt by later generations to restore the glory of [fill in the blank of your favorite ANE society].

    Another thing we need to keep in mind – when there is a war, children and women die. I don’t care how “clean” that war is supposed to be, children and women will die. So, even if in the Bible God said to the Israelites – go make war and get the land, and that was all – they most likely would have interpreted it to be “go make war, and kill everyone so that they don’t rise up later and slay you.” Yet, even today, every time we take action that leads to war – we are going to slaughter the innocent. Pick your favorite politician – Obama, Bush, Clinton, LBJ, Kennedy, FDR, Eisenhower, Lincoln, etc., etc., etc. – they all knew that war meant death for women and children, no matter how careful you try to be.

    Now, while we may still have problems with all of these verses, and I’m not pretending we don’t, I’m not sure we can expect the Bible (or God) to command a method of war so alien to the ANE times that it would probably not be understood. You might as well ask why God just doesn’t convert everyone in the first place and be done with all the violence at all. I don’t read the Bible as a utopia creating instruction book, and perhaps that is what it has been read as in too many cases.

    • http://dpitch40.blogspot.com David P

      Weren’t the Israelites supposed to be God’s chosen possession, set apart to be His? Weren’t many of the Mosaic laws meant to set them apart in ethics and worship from other ANE nations? Could their methods of warfare not also have (hypothetically) been different?

      • jason

        >>I’m not sure I read where the Bible says that violence is a “virtue.”<<

        Perhaps not a "virtue" per se, but the bible does describe the genocide of the inhabitants of the land as "a whole burnt offering to Yahweh" (Deut. 13:15-16) – i.e., genocide as an act of worship.

        • Randy

          Jason, the Bible does not say this. I don’t know where you got that, but nowhere in these verses does it claim to be a whole burnt offering to God. The idolatrous cities were to be burnt with fire and all the spoil in the cities were to be gathered in the street and burnt, but it does not say as a burnt offering unto God. You are reading into the phrase in verse 16 where it says “for the LORD thy God”. To understand what that is talking about, I’ll use an illustration. My wife tells me to take the trash (that is burnable) outside and burn it for her. Now, I’m not burning the trash as a burnt offering to her, just for her because she asked me to do it.

          • jason

            Most modern translations (NRSV, NIV, etc.) interpret the hebrew term kalil (not sure how to post in hebrew font) in this cultic sense, hence “whole burnt offering to Yahweh”.

          • Randy

            Well, most modern translations are wrong. Stick with the true Word of God, the King James Bible.

          • peteenns

            Randy, Jason is more “literal” here. Herem warfare is an act of devotion to God, both in the OT and from what we know of others (i.e., Moabites).

          • Taylor

            “…I’m not burning the trash as a burnt offering to her, just for her because she asked me to do it.”

            Randy, are you implying that the 613 commandments in the Torah are simply a case of God issuing commands ad hoc to see if the Israelites obey?

          • Mary


            What makes the KJV the “true word of God?” I simply do not understand the fanatical devotion to a certain translation by some people. Don’t you think more modern translations by scholars who actually look at the original languages would be more accurate?

      • Jim V

        Yes, they were according to the OT. However, it also says that they were selected for such for reasons other than that they were better than the rest. While their ethics and worship set them apart, really it only set them apart in the fact that they worshipped a single God that was above all others (and, presumably created all others). I don’t think it set up what we would call today a utopia, nor was meant to. I think they were primarily there just to keep them separate and identifiable for a future purpose. Could their warfare methods have been different? Of course, but again, that begs the question – why didn’t God just convert the whole lot rather than just Abraham and lineage (if you believe in a literal Abraham, which I doubt most here do). It just doesn’t seem like God is that interested in changing cultures in the OT, just keeping one separated (and if they misbehaved, then the normal conquesting and violence of the world would be allowed to be visited upon them). I only get the idea that the world is going to get changed from a behavioral perspective after the death and resurrection of Christ described in the NT.

    • Mary

      Jim, the issue is not how they conducted warfare. The issue is that they shouldn’t have been engaging in warfare at all. They were stealing other people’s lands (another commandment broken).

      • Jim V

        Mary – I don’t think most people see the big problem with the Israelites conquest of Cannan as the fact that they were stealing peoples’ land. It’s the violence – yep, definitely the violence. None of the tribes that held the land in Palestine was an original landholder. People groups migrated in and out of the ANE Palestinian area for centuries – and conquered the previous tenants. Again, you are ascribing an evil to the Israelites as if they were doing something unusual. They weren’t.

        • Mary

          Your “logic” escapes me. Just because the Iraelites were not doing anything unusual that doesn’t mean it was right. You are saying that God gave these people the ten commandments and then told them to break them? And you can’t conquer other people’s lands without violence.

          If you are saying that this was part of their culteral climate, that may be true. But I cannot believe that a good God could possibly have condoned it.

  • JB

    I view the OT as more of a history of the Jewish people than as an instruction book for the rest of us on how to conduct our lives. (don’t misunderstand this as saying that the OT is of no spiritual benefit) If you look at it from this perspective, its plain that the Jews were giving divine justification for the conflicts that they had entered into, and the bad things that happen in war. This is no different than the justification for the crusades or even what the radical islamists do today.

    • Mary


  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com Chris

    It seems far less problematic if much of the slaughter didn’t actually occur (which is certainly how much of the OT looks these days). Seeing as how other portions of the OT are critiques of other cultures, the stories of violence and conquest may be nothing but this. For example, culture X has lax sexual practices and also eats babies. Instead of killing them, the Israelites project judgment onto them via writing *about* their deaths.

    That still has a few problems, but it’s not as easy to dismiss the Hebrew people — or their portrayal of God — as violent and capricious if this is the case.

  • arty

    I’ve always thought of these incidents in terms of the scene in the NT, where Jesus referenced the “hardness of your hearts” in light of questions about divorce. I think Keith has it right, that God meets us where we are. In light of that, I don’t think its quite right to refer to OT violence with the word “virtue.” Permitted, maybe, positively promote as good? No.

  • Keih Dager

    I heard Dennis Prager on his radio show say that the correct translation of the commandment “Thou shalt not KILL is really “Thou shalt not MURDER”, which is quite a different context. Can you scholars conform or deny that? Bombing enemy cities and killing many non-combatants is certainly “killing”. Is it also “murder” and therefore a sin against God? It is not virtuous to end the capacity of a truly evil and brutal regime, as an example… Hitler, so the evil-doer can not inflict far greater harm, suffering, pain and death on many more innocents than those who might die from our bombing Germany to defeat Hitler?

    • Mary

      I think the main issue here is about innocent people being attacked and slaughtered for their land, which is what happened when the Israelites stole the “promised land” from the previous inhabitants. That in no way is comparable to fighting Hitler. In fact their actions resemble Hitler’s actions in trying to take over other countries. Killing people for their land IS MURDER.

      One thing that hasn’t been addressed is that the Israelites did not in fact murder all of the inhabitants of the lands that they conquered. They often kidnapped their women and forced them to marry or become slaves to the very same people who were responsible for the wholesale slaughter of their families and friends. That makes it rape.

  • Don Johnson

    I have heard that the Hebrew word means more than murder and less than killing, so it is murder+ and killing-. The culture defines how words carve up reality. Obviously, the Isrealites killed sometimes, so the prohibition was not to not kill. The + on the murder aspect is that one is not to do something that we would call irresponsility that ends in death, we are not to do that also, in addition to murder.

  • Keith Dager

    Thank you to Don Johnson re ” culture defines how words carve up reality”. BTW, any chance you’re my favorite “Miami Vice” actor, the “God of Pastels and stubby beards” who taught there are no fashion sins? God bless you if you are! As to all these youngsters like David Beckham who copy that look without giving you credit… shame on them! But there I go… getting too moralistic for this thread.

    • Keith Dager

      At the time God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to God (Genesis 22), human sacrifice to pagan gods was common. We know God was just testing Abraham. God produced a lamb at the last moment and instructed Abraham to substitute it for Isaac as a sacrifice. So Abraham did not execute his son, but he came very close. What is the purpose of this story in relation to our topic? Is is simply that God demands total submission and obedience to His will without questions or objections, like a slave with no free will? Was it instead that a righteous man will hold nothing back from God as love and service to his will? (That’s a nuance from the first point, but an important one that covers free will.) Or was God saying that human life is more important than any sacrifice to God, including doing God’s will. In any case the ancient custom of human sacrifice was replaced with animal sacrifice, a good message as ancient man slowly advanced in sophistication and understanding of God’s purpose for us. Yet to many, this story just has God changing his mind for his own purpose. At its core, the story illustrates that killing in God’s name is permitted when God instructs it, so not all killing is a sin. What would Ann Landers of Abraham’s time have to say? How about: “Too many people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” ~ Ann Landers; Perhaps Christians objecting to the price of killing have not examined the value of it to God’s purpose. Very un-pc in today’s world. Don’t flame me. Just tossing this idea out for your reaction!

      • Mary

        All these things you mention are rationalizations. You have no proof that God actually commanded these things. The bible is a book about God, not by God. There have been, and even are now, those who co-opt God’s name to justify their bad behavior.

        Remember this is the same rational that extremist Muslims use. And they worship the same God that we do.

        • Taylor

          I wouldn’t go that far, Mary. Muslims worship a god who, according the Qur’an, is the greatest of deceivers (3:54). Unless you believe that the God revealed in Jesus is the greatest of deceivers.

          • Mary


            I figured someone would take issue with this. I am not saying Jesus was a deceiver. I am simply pointing out that they go by the same standards that we do in the OT. It is part of their heritage as well. If we condemn them for violence done in God’s name, then we have to apply the same standard to ourselves as well.

        • http://anselm-ministries.us Chuck Sigler

          Mary, if you believe that the bible is simply a book about God, and not actually a book by God, there is no way to give you satisfactory “proof” that God actually commanded these things. If the bible is a book “about God” and not “by” Him, then it cannot be understood to contain the very Words of God. And then, perhaps what Keith has given as an understanding of Genesis 22 can be called rationalization. But if someone starts with the assumption that the bible is the very Word of God, they can have the interpretation that Keith gives, and not simply be giving a rationalization of the text. Here is an excerpt from a commentary by Kenneth Mathews on the passage Keith discussed that essentially gives the view Keith did:

          Nevertheless, the test has a double meaning, for the outcome of the matter reveals as much about God as it does about Abraham. Throughout the Abraham narrative, we learn about the Lord’s gracious election and preservation of Israel’s father. This episode, however, appears discordant with what we know of Israel’s deity. Legal texts condemn child sacrifice (Deut 12:31; 18:10), especially the practice associated with the worship of Molech (Lev 18:21; 20:2–5). Later the practice appears in the Southern Kingdom (2 Kgs 16:3; 21:6) but is eliminated by Josiah (2 Kgs 23:10) and condemned by the prophets (e.g., Jer 7:31–32; Ezek 16:20–21). The conflict between orthodox Yahwism and the Akedah, however, is only apparent; the author alerts the reader that the story is a “test” (v. 1), and thus it must be evaluated provisionally. This divine request for human sacrifice is unique in Israel’s experience; the special circumstance of Abraham’s role as the father of the covenant requires a test without parallel. The rabbis argued that the testing of Abraham was not devious since God tests only those who can withstand, that is, the righteous (Ps 11:5). Similarly, God’s integrity is not questioned for his trying of Israel, and the test of Abraham is on the same level, for it is a prototype of later Israel’s trials (Gen. Rab. Genesis Rabbah, ed. J. Neusner; 55.1–3). Christian tradition, however, focuses on the fulfillment of the promises (Heb 11:17–19; Jas 2:21–23) since Isaac alone could fulfill the promises, as God himself stated (21:12), making it certain that the boy would somehow survive. Hence, the issue lay with the Lord, not Abraham, for he left it to God to resolve the theological and moral problems he himself created. (Kenneth Mathews, “The New American Commentary, Genesis 11:27-50:26”)

          The Christian doctrine asserting that the bible is by God, and not merely about God is called the doctrine of plenary divine inspiration (believing that God himself actively worked through the process of inspiration and had his hand on the outcome of what Scripture would say). “Scripture is not only man’s word, but also, and equally, God’s word, spoken through man’s lips or written with man’s pen. (J. I. Packer, “The Origin of the Bible”).
          If someone (like me) believes that what the Scripture says, God says, they would agree with John Calvin: “The Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there were the living words of God heard.” So facing texts that give approval for child sacrifice, genocide, etc., is an important undertaking; one that presents a believer in the plenary divine inspiration of the Bible with a bit of a balancing act that can appear as rationalization when it isn’t. I think the interpretative, hermeneutical issue was put well by Sinclair Ferguson, who said: “Scripture erroneously interpreted is no longer God’s Word—as Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness underlines (Matt. 4:1ff; John 10:34).” I think the questions being raised in these blog posts a needed challenge to believers in the Bible as God’s Word to carefully and prayerfully walk that tightrope on interpretation.

          • Mary

            My main disagreement is that there is no evidence for considering the bible as the inerrant Word of God. In fact all of the evidence points away from that. The fact that there are uncomfortable issues regarding the morality of God is pretty conclusive to me. Combine that with the fact that the bible is not scientifically or historically accurate. The teachings of the different authors are not compatable at all. What I believe is that the bible points to the Divine, rather than containing the Divine. I believe the same thing about other non-Christian holy books as well.
            Certainly people are free to disagree but my concern is how many people use the bible as a literal weapon against others, whether it be verbal or actual physical violence. That is why it is important to not rationalize away bad behavior in the bible. It is very tempting to use these verses as an excuse to play God.
            How can we consider ourselves morally superior to the extremist Muslims when in fact our bible teaches the same hatred, bigotry and violence? Even the same laws? The only difference between us and them is that we as a society have grown beyond such barbaric behavior.
            The Muslims didn’t come up with things like Sharia Law, requiring their daughtors marry their rapists, slavery, and killing anyone who is considered a heretic by themselves! THESE THINGS ARE IN THE BIBLE.
            While I cannot condemn all of Christianity I am very concerned because I consider that the factions who try to rationalize away these problems in the bible as being potentially dangerous.

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  • James

    It is a pretty bald statement to make: the Bible endorses violence so we should oppose it. It’s a little like critiquing a famous but complex novel by noting a bad word and declaring, this novel stinks. Isn’t it better to wrestle with plot, characters, and details and honestly attempt to figure out how the bad word may not only fit but add value? And if a character does something to grate on our sensibilities, do we throw out the book in disgust? Again, we work with it, wrestle it to the ground, render it dry–until we’re satisfied we’ve mastered the content as best we can. The Bible is worth giving it our best shot.

    • Mary

      You have a point, however there is a world of difference between a book read for entertainment and a book that can be used to justify violent acts in the present. A novel does not claim to be written by God.

      • James

        Maybe divine authorship mixes somehow with human authorship. You’re right, the Bible is a pretty special book.

  • Larry E

    The understanding that I’m getting from this article is to make a distinction from what the GOD of the old covenant did or allowed by HIS divine retribution or judgement on wickedness/evil/sin, compared to what the GOD of JESUS CHRIST allowed. But there is no difference….HE is the same GOD. Violence in all actuality is allowed in perspective. The way and purpose of GOD is often scrutinize by some who wants to rationale the GOD of mercy, grace , peace and love away from the GOD who warrants danger of retribution for sin. This takes a very wise balance to understand that we shouldn’t condone violence out of malice or spite, but to also know that violence is sometimes necessary in perspective. Like the soldiers of war whom GOD allowed to free the people from oppressors of tyrants all through out the ages. Even in the old covenant where GOD prophetically gave orders to remove kings and kingdoms from there places because of their wickedness, and in the new covenant where Annias and Sapphira met a violent death because of their disobedience, we see a GOD who is stern as well as loving. We can be stern and loving to our children, but GOD should only be the loving GOD and not the GOD of wrath is unrealistic. We are the ones conflicted and wondering about how we are to portray GOD. But just because we don’t understand how to convey to a world a GOD of wrath against evil and the GOD of love just remember why we preach the gospel ( Good News )………And that is to tell the world that they are made the righteousness of GOD for a covering in JESUS CHRIST. A covering from the violent perishing wrath to come.

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  • John C

    We do not read the scriptures in the same way we would an academic textbook for example, ie topically, literally, etc for they speak to unseen, inward, trans-formative spiritual processes since God is Spirit. The only ‘killing’ that God is doing in the OT is the death of everything in us that opposes Him and which frees us UP.

    It’s not ‘firstly’ an historical accounting but eternal spiritual truths conveyed through inspired textual writings. The stories described may or may not have actually ‘happened’ in history, in the natural realm but that doesn’t make them any less ‘true’ since all truth ultimately originates from the unseen, spiritual realm. Jesus, the Word Himself started nearly every ‘story’ He ever told about all of mankind with ‘a certain man’ this or that but we know that never actually happened, He was telling stories through the use of metaphoric, allegorical language to convey heavenly truths. It should not be surprising to us then, that if the Word Himself (John 1:1) preferred metaphoric story telling, to find that the OT is also written in that very same way.

    The old sage, concerning what the scriptures are really all about, offers up the following: ‘Every man within himself has Moses and the Israelites, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Patriarchs and the Kingdom of Heaven and Hell. Thus the events described in the Bible and looked upon by the pious as beings things of a past history, are actually descriptions of eternal processes taking place in the constitution of man himself’. (Jacob Boehme, 1575-1624).


  • Keith Dager

    Let’s say the book of Joshua reflects the true nature of historical behavior if not facts. Tribes competed against tribes for land, resources and women since cave man times. The Jews prevailed over the Canaanites and took their land of milk and honey. If they had not done so and were still wandering the desert today, would we all be blogging about Beyoncé’s lip-sync instead of the Bible?

  • Keith Dager

    God created the universe and then humanity in his image with some intention, some need to fulfill, and a strategy. The Bible doesn’t explain God’s celestial problems or strategy other than revealing the preexistence of Satan and evil which God opposes. Human ego wants to make us the end-all and be-all of God’s act of creation. God however, has a purpose for mankind. I suspect that God’s purpose for us is likely more important than mankind itself. God does not want his creation to fight among ourselves, but to do his will. Sometimes that means to oppose evil with the necessary force that stops evil. All humans will die. When death is painful or early because of God’s battle with Satan and evil, it is a tragedy God will deal with as part of his strategy to fight Satan.

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  • swclough

    This argument only works if you hold to a very low view of Scripture. If we see the Scripture as divinely inspired, then we have to wrestle through what the Bible says because we learn who God is primarily from what God has done. Using the author’s premise, we are no different from Thomas Jefferson who cut out the sections of the gospels he did not want.

    While wrestling through the events of the Old Testament is not an easy thing, the whole thrust of the Bible is that sin emerged when man decided that he had the ability to make moral judgments regarding ultimate right and wrong and “be like God.” Although the argument seems palatable at first because of how difficult some of these passage are, the author’s ultimate argument is no different from the offer in the garden. Let’s evaluate God and discard everything we do not think is acceptable and keep what we agree with. It is not credibly intellectually to treat the Bible that way. It either is inspired, or it is not.

    • Rafael

      Or it’s Inspired(and True) but contains interpolations. Problem solved.

  • Rafael

    When a minority of text contradicts a Majority by alot, it is an interpolation, and not the original, these violent/Anti-YHWH text come either in 1 passage or a verse or 2 and are not appearing in The Most Authentic text such as The Genesis, Matthew, John, Hosea, Zechariah, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Pauls letters, etc.

    They are therefore obvious interpolations, as it’s so small that you cannot even form a story with it, God is Love however is the Majority and what The Bible is about.

    For example Eye for eye was an Interpolation that was refuted by YHWH(The Father and The Son and The Holy Spirit) Himself in Matthew 5(You have heard), as that Eye for an eye is in Exodus, is partly a copy of Deuteronomy(Deuteronomy contains more complete laws) and Deuteronomy lacks the “eye for eye” it is therefore unbiblical.

    YHWH(The Father and The Son(Jesus Christ) and The Holy Spirit) said,

    Matthew 7:12 – “In everything, therefore, [a]treat people the same way you want [b]them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

    Matthew 22:34-40 – “34 But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35 One of them, [a]a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and [b]foremost commandment.39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.””

  • Seraphim

    With all due respect, this point of view strikes me as just as much of an “easy answer” as does Piper’s “God can kill whomever He wants.” I don’t side with Piper. This is an issue I am wrestling with. Most of the “horrible commands” in Torah I can understand (with help from serious Jewish and Christian scholarship) as improvements and corrections on other, worse, Ancient Near Eastern practices. Passages where God actually commands violence are more difficult.

    But first, I want to say that we can’t put all violence in one basket. The extermination of the Canaanites is of a different category than the flood story. God is a God who judges. We cannot erase this fact from Scripture, because it not only permeates the Old Testament, it also permeates the New and the words of Jesus Christ Himself. To toss all passages about judgment is irresponsible. The flood story is a reconfiguration of other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories, and it emphasizes certain fundamental truths about God and creation. It establishes a pattern of recreation and new covenant which will define the trajectory of Israel’s story. And it shows God’s judgment as coming in response to sin rather than human noisiness.

    Concerning books like Joshua and Judges, this is certainly more difficult. But your solution was unsatisfying. You said that you don’t toss those books, that you still considered them useful, but your solution fell completely flat. What are they? Just examples of what not to do? Are they in any way different than other Ancient Near Eastern literature, then? It seems to me, that we have two responsibilities, as faithful Christians who desire to acknowledge Christ as the supreme self-disclosure of God and also acknowledge Scripture as the story of God’s work in the world through and for His People.

    First, we must be critical with these Old Testament texts. We cannot just say “well, it’s God, so yeah.” Christ has revealed God to us. He revealed God to us as a cruciform God. The way of life He proposes to His followers is centered around that cruciformity. “Be holy as I am holy” becomes “Be crucified as I am crucified.” Old Testament texts which seem to drive in the opposite direction must be seriously thought through.

    But second, and this is where I part from you, we must appropriate these Old Testament texts. We cannot simply dismiss them, and to say that they are useful as examples of what “God isn’t like” is silly. They are Scripture. They have something to do with God and God’s story in the world. How do we read them in the light of Christ? Many of the Fathers suggested (without denying the literal) that we must focus on the allegorical. I don’t entirely reject this approach, but it alone is unsatisfactory.

    My preferred method at this point (in a very early stage of thought) is to understand these texts as documenting Israel’s understanding of God at a very early point in her history. As time went on, and Israel lived and died in covenant with the Mighty One of Jacob, she came to understand Him more deeply. This process was accelerated by the direct revelations given to the Israelite Prophets. So, with respect to the conquest of Canaan, we have a trajectory in Israel’s story- you are out of the Desert, come to this Land, make it a New Eden through obedience to my instruction, and I will dwell with you. That’s the substantial core of the story, and at present, this is what I appropriate to the Christian story.

    One must deal with the more troubling elements like the actual slaughter of the Canaanites. There are a few factors that I take into consideration as I think through these issues. (1) We cannot totally dismiss the concept of divine judgment. It’s only part of the story, but to wipe it out entirely seems irresponsible to me. (2) We should recognize that not all Canaanites were killed. According to Joshua, only three cities were burned. The process was likely that of entrance, initial skirmishes, and then gradual diffusion until the conquests of King David. (3) We understand that there was mercy shown to some Canaanites (Rahab, who is cited in the New Testament) and that some foreigners were incorporated into the people of God (Ruth.) Some scholars even suggest this inclusivity as a major theme of these books.

    So, this doesn’t eliminate all the problems. We still have the killing of women and children. We still have haram warfare. But I think these suggestions lead to a critical reappropriation and reconfiguration into the Christian story. And I find that alone much more satisfying than a pure dismissal.

    • melissia

      “The flood story is a reconfiguration of other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories, and it emphasizes certain fundamental truths about God and creation. ”

      Namely, that the God of those who take the bible literally kills children with the same zeal and vindictiveness that he kills everyone else. Thus He is unjust. And unworthy.

      But not everyone must take the bible literally, and say that it is all true and infallible. The bible after all may have been inspired by god, but it was written by humans, translated and mistranslated and mistranslated again by Men (and usually also men in the lower case as well). The message of God is holy, as are the living beings of this Earth. The scriptures, which are dead in the eyes of the Lord, are not.