Reconciling 4Gs: God, Grace, Goodness, Genocide

As promised Sunday, here’s my consideration of the question about God’s justice in the Old Testament.  It’s not a definitive answer…but an attempt at framing the question in a cultural context

I’ll begin by referring you to a much longer article on this subject, because page one explains why this is an important subject.  It’s there we’re introduced to the assault on Christianity from the new and popular atheists, who all share a common belief that the God of the Bible is morally destitute, creepy, prone to fits of jealous rage and because of this, not worth believing in, even if He does exist.

These guys, for all their flaws, have given voice to one of the questions/problems Christians have as they seek to love God with all their mind:  “If God is loving, why is He so often killing people, or telling His people to kill people?”

The worst answer I read in doing a little research for this was:  A) God is good, therefore B) all His actions are good, therefore C) our outrage displays the flaws of our intellect, not the flaws in God’s goodness.

I know some readers who will agree unconditionally with that logic, but I’ll suggest that we usually use evidence to come to conclusions, rather than beginning with conclusions and then using them to deconstruct the evidence, or call into to question the intellect of the detective.  You can’t tell the detective his reasoning is completely broken, and then tell him that the faith to which God is inviting him is reasonable.

Instead, let’s consider these truths:

1. We see the ethical movement of God in “incremental steps” .  In other words, in contrast to the prevailing ethics of surrounding cultures, the God of the Bible is universal, not favoring a single tribe, but intent on bringing salvation (read: intimacy, peace, justice, mercy, hope) to all nations.  This will only be seen fully when God reigns fully, the hints of which are offered in Isaiah 2, where there’s an outbreak of universal peace!   However, “getting there from here doesn’t happen in a day” because the prevailing gods are capricious, demanding child sacrifices, invoking sexual orgies as part of ceremonial worship, and warring against each other for borders, supremacy, or favor from the people.  In the context of ancient near-eastern culture, the fact is that God of the Bible would have stood out in contrast to the others for His displayed elements of mercy, concern for the poor, widow, immigrant, and more.

2. The hyperbole is real.  God never intended the destruction of every living person in the promise land, as those exhortations were confined to cities.  Further, there’s compelling evidence that the cities were actually more than cities; they were military compounds, and as such, bastions of trouble which needed addressing.

3. The Canaanites deserved to die. The same article referenced above indicates that the Canaanites were that morally corrupt.  We’ve known regimes (Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler et. al) whose leaders needed to die, and to reiterate, it remains unclear, linguistically, and archeologically, whether or not “kill everyone” meant everyone or just those in power.

Still, the stories have given rise to the charge that God isn’t just, simply because our sensibilities are assaulted by the notions of what God is asking.  It’s important though, to realize that all of us are offended whenever people in power abuse such in order to oppress, abuse, murder.  We’re not just offended – we want justice.  Interesting then, that we should, without knowing all the cultural context or evidence of crimes, presume God to be the perpetrator of injustice in these cases, thus exonerating the dead as “victims”, even if they were perpetrators of the most horrific kinds of crimes.  It’s as if we have it in for God – as if we’re eager to indict Him rather than the Canaanites, when the evidence of history points in the exact opposite direction.  And in this sense, our fallen intellect, indeed, gets us into lots of trouble.  Paul calls it being “darkened in our understanding” in Romans 1, his way of saying that once we reject God, we have it in for God, and will go to great lengths to blame Him for everything.

Maybe this post (a departure from the norm on this site) will provoke some good discussion.  I only ask for respect in the dialogue.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Vicki

    This feels to me like you are stretching things a bit to make excuses for God. I felt that way during the sermon as well, when you likened God to a referee that has to be harsh at first so that players know where the line is.

    If “every” person is hyperbole, why exclude Rahab? And, in a similar genocide order (I Samuel 15), we are told that God is angry when it isn’t carried out fully. While it is true that we don’t know the crimes of the Canannites, do you really think the death penalty is appropriate for theft? (Achan’s crime) And before we liken them to Nazis, shouldn’t we remember who is invading whom?

    I’m not clear on point 1. Are you saying that God was trying to just be a little better than Baal&friends or that the Israelite understanding of God had not yet fully developed at the point when this was written?

    My personal views are much like the latter interpretation of point 1. I think the Bible is a record of how the Isrealites and early Christians sought after and understood God. These views shifted and evolved over time and we can see a general trend of them being pulled toward a broader and deeper view of God’s compassion. I don’t want to say that our current understanding is better, but it is very different. And, there are aspects of these different views where I am comfortable saying that our understanding is better. Our current understanding of whether or not God wants us to kill innocent children is a good example of something the early Israelites got dead wrong. (Though lest we think ourselves far more ethically evolved, we should also consider how little we grieve for the “collateral damage” of our own wars.)

    I understand that many conservatives don’t like this view of the Bible, though I’m actually a bit perplexed as to why. Even fundamentalists will talk about how the Jewish understanding of what the Messiah was supposed to look like was off. Why is this the only thing it is ok for them to be off about? I also don’t understand the fear that the Bible will cease to be meaningful if we start to let ourselves say things like “maybe God didn’t want the children killed.” The fact that we are still talking about these stories thousands of years later proves how meaningful they are. The varied and conflicting views of God found in the Bible deeply resonate with our own struggles to know and comprehend a God that is beyond all comprehension.

    I’m just wondering, do you think God really did order Genocide?

    • Lamont

      You use the words “innocent children.”
      Adams sin inhabits “innocent children.” Therefore… No such thing!
      Albeit an infant cannot willfully sin, the blood of Christ must atone for the sin in that child.

      “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
      and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Ps 51:5

      Interesting stuff!

      • Vicki

        When we talk about whether or not someone is innocent, we generally don’t mean to question whether or not they have ever done anything wrong. Rather, we are talking about whether or not they have committed a specific crime. I hold to the position that the children were innocent of oppressing/terrorizing/ or whatever the crimes of their parents were that are supposed to make us feel ok about this act of genocide.

      • Lamont

        “whatever the crimes of their parents were that are supposed to make us feel ok about this act of genocide.”

        Its not written for your pleasure. It’s written as a warning!
        God is going to judge!

        It’s a type and shadow of heaven. Where the evil doer will not partake of “The promised land” or “the ultimate Sabbath Rest!”

        God holds to the position that they (children) have Adam’s sin, therefore they are not innocent.
        That babies die at birth is evidence of the sin passed down from Adam.

        Rom 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

        Rom 5:14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam…

        To charge God w/Genocide is to place oneself as judge over God, which is the original sin.

  • Tim G

    My hat’s off to you for attempting to discuss this distressing and bewildering subject.

    One point very much resonated with me – “Interesting then, that we should, without knowing all the cultural context or evidence of crimes, presume God to be the perpetrator of injustice in these cases.”

    I’ve heard a similar caution regarding the oft-repeated judgment of God because of His sanctioned violence and harshness as evidenced in the “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” principle. Reversing that approach, it could be that God was limiting our own proclivity to “up” the response from something in proportion. So many cases even today where “I killed him because he was cheating at cards,” “he dissed me so I broke his nose,” “she fell in love with an unbeliever, so we killed her for our honor,” etc.

  • thefoutz

    This certainly is a topic that one has to struggle through at best.

    I’m prone to agree with Vicki about Achan; why did he and all his family have to die for the simple act of stealing?

    However, I mostly agree with you. The people who really raise these questions – atheists mostly – really don’t want to have any sort of intelligent dialogue about God. They’re just looking for ammo. I can’t see into their hearts, but it seems as if God has hardened their hearts and given them over to a depraved mind.

  • http://larryshallenberger.com Larry Shallenberger

    I’m currently working through the book, “Is God a Moral Monster?” He makes similar arguments as you are, including the use of hyperbolic language.

    I’d highly recommend it.

  • Lamont

    QUOTE: “Atheist know two things about God. 1. He doesn’t exist. 2. They hate Him!
    By Doug Wilson concerning his Debate with Christopher “I’ll drink to that” Hitchens.

    • Roy

      Lamont, if someone tells you they are an atheist they are telling you they do not believe in a God. For you to simply dismiss that and infer that what they actually mean is that they hate God is disrespectful. You imply that you know more about what they mean than they do.

      I could say a lot more about Doug Wilson but that would be off topic and probably not very kind.

      • Lamont

        Roy said:
        “Lamont, if someone tells you they are an atheist they are telling you they do not believe in a God.”

        That’s just a linguistic gimmick. Expressing a positive thesis in negative terms.
        The atheists I’m talking about in Richards article: “It’s there we’re introduced to the assault on Christianity from the new and popular atheists, who all share a common belief that the God of the Bible is morally destitute, creepy, prone to fits of jealous rage and because of this, not worth believing in, even if He does exist” would disagree with your definition i.e. Dawkins, Hitchens etc…

        “Atheism is the view that there is no God.” http://www.iep.utm.edu/atheism/

        ” ‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. ”
        http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/

        “Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God.” — Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2005)

        Roy Said: “For you to simply dismiss that and infer that what they actually mean is that they hate God is disrespectful.

        God Said: “slanderers, “HATERS OF GOD”, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,” Rom 1:30

        God is disrespectful to atheists? Take it up w/Him! I’m merely stating the truth!
        He also calls them fools! (We derive the word “moron” from the Greek word for fool.)

        Roy said: “You imply that you know more about what they mean than they do.”

        I know there’s more then one definition of atheism. Your Def is called “Weak Atheism.”(Dawkins would call them Wimps!)

        God said: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Rom 1: 19ff

        I know for a fact atheists know that God exists. For the Bible tells me so!

        God bless!

        BTW

        I’ve got issues w/Wilson as well! But not here! He’s right on the money!
        His debate w/Hitchens is probably the best Christian Theist debate (so far), because he’s presuppositional in his methodology. Unlike William Lane Craig’s unbiblical molinst
        Evidentialism.

      • Vicki

        Interestingly enough, C. S. Lewis said that he was once of that contradictory mindset. In general though, I think you are only going to find someone of a divided mind like that during a phase of struggle to come to one mind about what they believe.

  • Vicki

    Still wondering, am I the only one who doesn’t think God actually said to kill everyone?

    Personally, the arguments of “they deserved it” and “God was exaggerating” seem quite a stretch. I’m left with a choice: God is a monster or the people in the story (or maybe just the people recording the story) got the message wrong. The first option of a Hitler-esk God flies in the face of everything else I believe about him. The later option seem straight-forward and logical, but it requires accepting that the Bible might not be perfect in a literal, historical, fact-telling sense.

    I can’t help but think it idolatry to elevate the Bible, nay- one particular mode of interpreting the Bible, to that level of perfection. I believe God is more perfect than the Bible – not the other way around.

    • raincitypastor

      I think what you write is a possibility, certainly. It’s also possible that, linguistically, God was truly talking about a limited killing. I’m not certain I agree with you when you write, “I think you are only going to find someone of a divided mind like that during a phase of struggle to come to one mind about what they believe.” The truth is that we’re looking though a glass darkly, and because of this, there are often contradictory feelings. This, it seems to me, is honest faith, and yet, as I shared with someone today – when I’m willing to engage with my struggles and doubts rather than pretending they don’t exist, I find that the struggle leads to a deeper and more mature faith.

    • Trevor Eakes

      No you are most certainly not the only one who believes this. I actually quite enjoyed your reply and found your use of logic quite accurate. I think this argument becomes almost moot when one simply excepts that the bible is not by the powers of heaven endowed to be entirely and completely infallible, historically, and, in some cases, morally. First, anyone who reads through the old testament carefully could easily point out historical discrepancies in which the bible gives two different accounts of the same thing, contrary dates, or faulty estimations. Literary scholars can also identify well enough where liberal scribes have made insertions and, on the flip side, they have trouble with the exact meaning of certain words found in the bible. This is due to the fact that there is a vast cultural difference between the scripture and interpreter and the fact that Hebrew writing has no vowels. One can already see how this could be problematic.

      So instead of trying to find absurd arguments on how to go about justifying the actions in the bible one can simply adopt what you were just saying above. The Bible is not perfect. Gasp. Fortunately other parts of the bible are much better verified and morally perfect then others. When dealing with old testament writings the best and simplest way to fact check their morality is to compare it to the morality that Jesus presents, especially that of his sermon on the mount. If we find anything contradicting our Lords words (although not exact words as he spoke in Aramaic and our gospels are in Greek) in the old testament then one can either admit the Jesus was wrong, attempt to make up ridiculous exceptions to something so straight forward as love, or except that the account we have in the old testament is in the wrong. In fact even the people of the old testament had some sort of understanding of being loving even if the law is contrary to the act. For instance, no one would say that Boaz was in the wrong for how he treated Ruth even though she was a Moabite which the God strictly forbids Jews to marry in the Torah (even up to the 9th generation). So, in summary, I completely agree with you. If you would like more information then I suggest looking into something known as The Higher Criticism or the book “Who Wrote the Bible?: A Book for the People” by Washington Gladden.

  • Graham C.

    I’ve never been troubled by the “Exodus campaign.” Other stuff sure bothers me though. This may seem flippant, but God “kills” people all the time in the Bible, to what to us seems like trivial reasons: for trying to right a falling Ark of the Covenant, making fun of Elisha’s bald head, for being related to Job, lying about the price of real estate transaction, etc.
    There had to have been children that died in the flood, the ultimate genocide, earth’s entire population (sans Noah of course).
    What about today? I can’t think of a “good reason” why God would allow 16,000 children a day to die from malnutrtion.
    My point is that there are always going to be things in the Bible and in the present that don’t add up to us or anger our sense of justic. Yet the Bible says God is Holy, a God of Justice, and desires the salvation of all. And I think Richard’s hit it on the nose that we are MEANT to engage with these questions, struggle with God, towards the end of deeper faith. God can take it.

    PS Richard: You lost me with the “Ethical movements of God” and “incremental steps,”( I couldn’t find that quote in the link by the way). Can you expand? Perhaps in a seperate post? Thanks.

  • http://www.dogslikediggingholes.blogspot.com Chris G

    Yeah, I see your point Graham, I do believe that God’s vision extends beyond ours, and beyond physical death…and he may not be as concerned with the physical death as we are. I remember in Screwtape Letters when Wormwood gets giddy about the start of World War 2 because so many people will die…Screwtape corrects him and says that war and death bring about great opportunity for bravery, kindness, reconciliation, and generally getting your house in order.
    That being said, I don’t think God intends to confuse us by implying that we just don’t know what he knows. This is obviously true, and sort of what he says to Job, but I also think each case is each case…and that is where these discussions get tricky. “How could a loving God ask people to kill their own kids!!!” I have been asked…but the question is terribly inaccurate…he doesn’t, he just did once to Abram…the guy who waited 100 years to have a son…possibly he was putting the son before God? Who knows, but this isn’t God’s typical way of business…the only typical business God seems to be in is redemption of his creation. So how do we read these stories with this overarching theme? Case by case.

    • Roy

      I wonder, if I was a mother or a father in Egypt whose first born God killed because my King wouldn’t allow a group of slaves to go free, do you think I’d agree with your talk of “God’s typical way of business” being the “redemption of his creation”, Chris? Would you interpret the death of your first born (if you have children), killed because of something you had nothing to do with, part of God’s redemptive plan?

      • Lamont

        Anyone who acted by faith would not be destroyed.
        Same warning exists today.

        Ex 12:13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

      • http://www.dogslikediggingholes.blogspot.com Chris G

        Yeah, its a good point Roy. I don’t think any of this is easy at all, or trivial as GM rightly states in the next comment. But if we could look at an example today…I remember when Esther Park got up in front of the church and spoke about her cancer (I think this might have been before you started coming), and ultimately was grateful for it because of how much it flipped her world…and how much she realized it needed flipping. I bet you and I know LOTS of these stories…in the face of difficulty and tragedy it seems many people actually grow, and grow tremendously. I believe many Egyptians changed that day…of course its easy for me to say that, but I do ultimately believe its true…it may come across as trivial if we do not acknowledge the pain properly…but what people do, after tragedy strikes, seems to be part of that Redemptive process…sort of a forced dealing with what matters. I believe we all deal with this at some point, if not multiple points…but in any case once. The fact that catholics have the concept of last rites underscores that we all have to deal with our own temporal nature eventually.
        Jesus experience of the cross/resurrection is that ultimate picture that there can be life beyond tragedy…and maybe even better life.
        To get even crazier, God seems to call us into tragedy, to bear one another’s burdens, to walk alongside the poor, the widow, the sick etc. Perhaps when Jesus says in John 10, that he came to give us life to the full it meant, at least in part, experiencing all that life can offer. I have seen this in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, how incredibly hopeful and full many are in spite of absolutely terrible loss…again not acknowledging the loss itself is foolish at best but more likely probably cruel. But not acknowledging the tempering of human souls in light of difficulty would be to really miss an enormous part of the human experience.
        I also think that I do have to rely on God’s eternal perspective here, as I mentioned earlier, because otherwise death seems to be a trump card. In other words, maybe we can grow from difficulty, but that is hard to do if you are gone. In this case it seems all you can really say is that God only knows beyond the grave, and why his intentions must be relied on heavily during these times of loss…and his intentions must ultimately be relied on as you consider your own end. I suppose this is ultimately why faith is what it is.

  • GM

    Dimensionally Challenged

    We know in our own experience of some dimensions (length, depth, height, mass, time, temperature, …), but it seems to me that they’re incomplete and insufficient. God encompasses and surpasses all of them. God calls into being what was not, brings the dead back to life, changes water into wine, multiplies baked bread and broiled fish, parts waters, … I’m not aware of any physical “reality” explanation for any of these phenomena.

    When we come to stories such as those of Jericho, Aichan, Sodom, the children of Bethlehem in Herod’s day, we don’t get to look very deeply into the event, the context, the people and their stories, … or what was happening in the heart of God during that unfolding in time. We just get a description, with perhaps a bit of framing or explanatory commentary, told and/or written via the agency of a human being like us, by the inspiration of God. There’s much more than what we have available to us in our present state.

    No such limitations are in place for God. Psalm 139’s affirmation that all things are present tense, present presence, to God gives me pause. I shudder when I hear myself, or others, accuse God of wrongdoing, injustice, …, since we are constrained to work from this limited set of information, with these limited faculties for observation and perception. How would it be, to never not be present to every anguish encountered by each and every one of these lovingly fashioned and fully known children? Our assessment comes up short if it does not include that reality, in addition to whatever elements are available to us.

    In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has Screwtape pen that “they [humans] … tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. … It is obvious that to Him [God] human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.” I don’t think Lewis is in any way trivializing human suffering, advocating neglect of life, … I do think he brings insight into at least part of why it is hard for us to know how to rightly engage with the stories of death and destruction.

  • Trevor Eakes

    I think this argument becomes almost moot when one simply excepts that the bible is not by the powers of heaven endowed to be entirely and completely infallible, historically, and, in some cases, morally. First, anyone who reads through the old testament carefully could easily point out historical discrepancies in which the bible gives two different accounts of the same thing, contrary dates, or faulty estimations. Literary scholars can also identify well enough where liberal scribes have made insertions and, on the flip side, they have trouble with the exact meaning of certain words found in the bible. This is due to the fact that there is a vast cultural difference between the scripture and interpreter and the fact that Hebrew writing has no vowels. One can already see how this could be problematic.
    So instead of trying to find absurd arguments on how to go about justifying the actions in the bible one can simply adopt what you were just saying above. The Bible is not perfect. Gasp. Fortunately other parts of the bible are much better verified and morally perfect then others. When dealing with old testament writings the best and simplest way to fact check their morality is to compare it to the morality that Jesus presents, especially that of his sermon on the mount. If we find anything contradicting our Lords words (although not exact words as he spoke in Aramaic and our gospels are in Greek) in the old testament then one can either admit the Jesus was wrong, attempt to make up ridiculous exceptions to something so straight forward as love, or except that the account we have in the old testament is in the wrong. In fact even the people of the old testament had some sort of understanding of being loving even if the law is contrary to the act. For instance, no one would say that Boaz was in the wrong for how he treated Ruth even though she was a Moabite which the God strictly forbids Jews to marry in the Torah (even up to the 9th generation). So, in summary, I completely agree with you. If you would like more information then I suggest looking into something known as The Higher Criticism or the book “Who Wrote the Bible?: A Book for the People” by Washington Gladden.

  • Evan Miles

    The Cannanites did sacrifice their own babies by placing them on poles right? Is that correct?

    I heard that and once someone said to me “If you lived in a neighborhood today and people did that you might say ‘there is no God, God if you are there then how come you let these people live and keep killing more and more tiny babies’”?

    That got me thinking about how little I understand of this context where the Old Testament takes place.


Reconciling 4Gs: God, Grace, Goodness, Genocide

As promised Sunday, here’s my consideration of the question about God’s justice in the Old Testament.  It’s not a definitive answer…but an attempt at framing the question in a cultural context

I’ll begin by referring you to a much longer article on this subject, because page one explains why this is an important subject.  It’s there we’re introduced to the assault on Christianity from the new and popular atheists, who all share a common belief that the God of the Bible is morally destitute, creepy, prone to fits of jealous rage and because of this, not worth believing in, even if He does exist.

These guys, for all their flaws, have given voice to one of the questions/problems Christians have as they seek to love God with all their mind:  “If God is loving, why is He so often killing people, or telling His people to kill people?”

The worst answer I read in doing a little research for this was:  A) God is good, therefore B) all His actions are good, therefore C) our outrage displays the flaws of our intellect, not the flaws in God’s goodness.

I know some readers who will agree unconditionally with that logic, but I’ll suggest that we usually use evidence to come to conclusions, rather than beginning with conclusions and then using them to deconstruct the evidence, or call into to question the intellect of the detective.  You can’t tell the detective his reasoning is completely broken, and then tell him that the faith to which God is inviting him is reasonable.

Instead, let’s consider these truths:

1. We see the ethical movement of God in “incremental steps” .  In other words, in contrast to the prevailing ethics of surrounding cultures, the God of the Bible is universal, not favoring a single tribe, but intent on bringing salvation (read: intimacy, peace, justice, mercy, hope) to all nations.  This will only be seen fully when God reigns fully, the hints of which are offered in Isaiah 2, where there’s an outbreak of universal peace!   However, “getting there from here doesn’t happen in a day” because the prevailing gods are capricious, demanding child sacrifices, invoking sexual orgies as part of ceremonial worship, and warring against each other for borders, supremacy, or favor from the people.  In the context of ancient near-eastern culture, the fact is that God of the Bible would have stood out in contrast to the others for His displayed elements of mercy, concern for the poor, widow, immigrant, and more.

2. The hyperbole is real.  God never intended the destruction of every living person in the promise land, as those exhortations were confined to cities.  Further, there’s compelling evidence that the cities were actually more than cities; they were military compounds, and as such, bastions of trouble which needed addressing.

3. The Canaanites deserved to die. The same article referenced above indicates that the Canaanites were that morally corrupt.  We’ve known regimes (Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler et. al) whose leaders needed to die, and to reiterate, it remains unclear, linguistically, and archeologically, whether or not “kill everyone” meant everyone or just those in power.

Still, the stories have given rise to the charge that God isn’t just, simply because our sensibilities are assaulted by the notions of what God is asking.  It’s important though, to realize that all of us are offended whenever people in power abuse such in order to oppress, abuse, murder.  We’re not just offended – we want justice.  Interesting then, that we should, without knowing all the cultural context or evidence of crimes, presume God to be the perpetrator of injustice in these cases, thus exonerating the dead as “victims”, even if they were perpetrators of the most horrific kinds of crimes.  It’s as if we have it in for God – as if we’re eager to indict Him rather than the Canaanites, when the evidence of history points in the exact opposite direction.  And in this sense, our fallen intellect, indeed, gets us into lots of trouble.  Paul calls it being “darkened in our understanding” in Romans 1, his way of saying that once we reject God, we have it in for God, and will go to great lengths to blame Him for everything.

Maybe this post (a departure from the norm on this site) will provoke some good discussion.  I only ask for respect in the dialogue.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Vicki

    This feels to me like you are stretching things a bit to make excuses for God. I felt that way during the sermon as well, when you likened God to a referee that has to be harsh at first so that players know where the line is.

    If “every” person is hyperbole, why exclude Rahab? And, in a similar genocide order (I Samuel 15), we are told that God is angry when it isn’t carried out fully. While it is true that we don’t know the crimes of the Canannites, do you really think the death penalty is appropriate for theft? (Achan’s crime) And before we liken them to Nazis, shouldn’t we remember who is invading whom?

    I’m not clear on point 1. Are you saying that God was trying to just be a little better than Baal&friends or that the Israelite understanding of God had not yet fully developed at the point when this was written?

    My personal views are much like the latter interpretation of point 1. I think the Bible is a record of how the Isrealites and early Christians sought after and understood God. These views shifted and evolved over time and we can see a general trend of them being pulled toward a broader and deeper view of God’s compassion. I don’t want to say that our current understanding is better, but it is very different. And, there are aspects of these different views where I am comfortable saying that our understanding is better. Our current understanding of whether or not God wants us to kill innocent children is a good example of something the early Israelites got dead wrong. (Though lest we think ourselves far more ethically evolved, we should also consider how little we grieve for the “collateral damage” of our own wars.)

    I understand that many conservatives don’t like this view of the Bible, though I’m actually a bit perplexed as to why. Even fundamentalists will talk about how the Jewish understanding of what the Messiah was supposed to look like was off. Why is this the only thing it is ok for them to be off about? I also don’t understand the fear that the Bible will cease to be meaningful if we start to let ourselves say things like “maybe God didn’t want the children killed.” The fact that we are still talking about these stories thousands of years later proves how meaningful they are. The varied and conflicting views of God found in the Bible deeply resonate with our own struggles to know and comprehend a God that is beyond all comprehension.

    I’m just wondering, do you think God really did order Genocide?

    • Lamont

      You use the words “innocent children.”
      Adams sin inhabits “innocent children.” Therefore… No such thing!
      Albeit an infant cannot willfully sin, the blood of Christ must atone for the sin in that child.

      “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
      and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Ps 51:5

      Interesting stuff!

      • Vicki

        When we talk about whether or not someone is innocent, we generally don’t mean to question whether or not they have ever done anything wrong. Rather, we are talking about whether or not they have committed a specific crime. I hold to the position that the children were innocent of oppressing/terrorizing/ or whatever the crimes of their parents were that are supposed to make us feel ok about this act of genocide.

      • Lamont

        “whatever the crimes of their parents were that are supposed to make us feel ok about this act of genocide.”

        Its not written for your pleasure. It’s written as a warning!
        God is going to judge!

        It’s a type and shadow of heaven. Where the evil doer will not partake of “The promised land” or “the ultimate Sabbath Rest!”

        God holds to the position that they (children) have Adam’s sin, therefore they are not innocent.
        That babies die at birth is evidence of the sin passed down from Adam.

        Rom 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

        Rom 5:14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam…

        To charge God w/Genocide is to place oneself as judge over God, which is the original sin.

  • Tim G

    My hat’s off to you for attempting to discuss this distressing and bewildering subject.

    One point very much resonated with me – “Interesting then, that we should, without knowing all the cultural context or evidence of crimes, presume God to be the perpetrator of injustice in these cases.”

    I’ve heard a similar caution regarding the oft-repeated judgment of God because of His sanctioned violence and harshness as evidenced in the “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” principle. Reversing that approach, it could be that God was limiting our own proclivity to “up” the response from something in proportion. So many cases even today where “I killed him because he was cheating at cards,” “he dissed me so I broke his nose,” “she fell in love with an unbeliever, so we killed her for our honor,” etc.

  • thefoutz

    This certainly is a topic that one has to struggle through at best.

    I’m prone to agree with Vicki about Achan; why did he and all his family have to die for the simple act of stealing?

    However, I mostly agree with you. The people who really raise these questions – atheists mostly – really don’t want to have any sort of intelligent dialogue about God. They’re just looking for ammo. I can’t see into their hearts, but it seems as if God has hardened their hearts and given them over to a depraved mind.

  • http://larryshallenberger.com Larry Shallenberger

    I’m currently working through the book, “Is God a Moral Monster?” He makes similar arguments as you are, including the use of hyperbolic language.

    I’d highly recommend it.

  • Lamont

    QUOTE: “Atheist know two things about God. 1. He doesn’t exist. 2. They hate Him!
    By Doug Wilson concerning his Debate with Christopher “I’ll drink to that” Hitchens.

    • Roy

      Lamont, if someone tells you they are an atheist they are telling you they do not believe in a God. For you to simply dismiss that and infer that what they actually mean is that they hate God is disrespectful. You imply that you know more about what they mean than they do.

      I could say a lot more about Doug Wilson but that would be off topic and probably not very kind.

      • Vicki

        Interestingly enough, C. S. Lewis said that he was once of that contradictory mindset. In general though, I think you are only going to find someone of a divided mind like that during a phase of struggle to come to one mind about what they believe.

  • Vicki

    Still wondering, am I the only one who doesn’t think God actually said to kill everyone?

    Personally, the arguments of “they deserved it” and “God was exaggerating” seem quite a stretch. I’m left with a choice: God is a monster or the people in the story (or maybe just the people recording the story) got the message wrong. The first option of a Hitler-esk God flies in the face of everything else I believe about him. The later option seem straight-forward and logical, but it requires accepting that the Bible might not be perfect in a literal, historical, fact-telling sense.

    I can’t help but think it idolatry to elevate the Bible, nay- one particular mode of interpreting the Bible, to that level of perfection. I believe God is more perfect than the Bible – not the other way around.

    • raincitypastor

      I think what you write is a possibility, certainly. It’s also possible that, linguistically, God was truly talking about a limited killing. I’m not certain I agree with you when you write, “I think you are only going to find someone of a divided mind like that during a phase of struggle to come to one mind about what they believe.” The truth is that we’re looking though a glass darkly, and because of this, there are often contradictory feelings. This, it seems to me, is honest faith, and yet, as I shared with someone today – when I’m willing to engage with my struggles and doubts rather than pretending they don’t exist, I find that the struggle leads to a deeper and more mature faith.

    • Trevor Eakes

      No you are most certainly not the only one who believes this. I actually quite enjoyed your reply and found your use of logic quite accurate. I think this argument becomes almost moot when one simply excepts that the bible is not by the powers of heaven endowed to be entirely and completely infallible, historically, and, in some cases, morally. First, anyone who reads through the old testament carefully could easily point out historical discrepancies in which the bible gives two different accounts of the same thing, contrary dates, or faulty estimations. Literary scholars can also identify well enough where liberal scribes have made insertions and, on the flip side, they have trouble with the exact meaning of certain words found in the bible. This is due to the fact that there is a vast cultural difference between the scripture and interpreter and the fact that Hebrew writing has no vowels. One can already see how this could be problematic.

      So instead of trying to find absurd arguments on how to go about justifying the actions in the bible one can simply adopt what you were just saying above. The Bible is not perfect. Gasp. Fortunately other parts of the bible are much better verified and morally perfect then others. When dealing with old testament writings the best and simplest way to fact check their morality is to compare it to the morality that Jesus presents, especially that of his sermon on the mount. If we find anything contradicting our Lords words (although not exact words as he spoke in Aramaic and our gospels are in Greek) in the old testament then one can either admit the Jesus was wrong, attempt to make up ridiculous exceptions to something so straight forward as love, or except that the account we have in the old testament is in the wrong. In fact even the people of the old testament had some sort of understanding of being loving even if the law is contrary to the act. For instance, no one would say that Boaz was in the wrong for how he treated Ruth even though she was a Moabite which the God strictly forbids Jews to marry in the Torah (even up to the 9th generation). So, in summary, I completely agree with you. If you would like more information then I suggest looking into something known as The Higher Criticism or the book “Who Wrote the Bible?: A Book for the People” by Washington Gladden.

  • Graham C.

    I’ve never been troubled by the “Exodus campaign.” Other stuff sure bothers me though. This may seem flippant, but God “kills” people all the time in the Bible, to what to us seems like trivial reasons: for trying to right a falling Ark of the Covenant, making fun of Elisha’s bald head, for being related to Job, lying about the price of real estate transaction, etc.
    There had to have been children that died in the flood, the ultimate genocide, earth’s entire population (sans Noah of course).
    What about today? I can’t think of a “good reason” why God would allow 16,000 children a day to die from malnutrtion.
    My point is that there are always going to be things in the Bible and in the present that don’t add up to us or anger our sense of justic. Yet the Bible says God is Holy, a God of Justice, and desires the salvation of all. And I think Richard’s hit it on the nose that we are MEANT to engage with these questions, struggle with God, towards the end of deeper faith. God can take it.

    PS Richard: You lost me with the “Ethical movements of God” and “incremental steps,”( I couldn’t find that quote in the link by the way). Can you expand? Perhaps in a seperate post? Thanks.

  • http://www.dogslikediggingholes.blogspot.com Chris G

    Yeah, I see your point Graham, I do believe that God’s vision extends beyond ours, and beyond physical death…and he may not be as concerned with the physical death as we are. I remember in Screwtape Letters when Wormwood gets giddy about the start of World War 2 because so many people will die…Screwtape corrects him and says that war and death bring about great opportunity for bravery, kindness, reconciliation, and generally getting your house in order.
    That being said, I don’t think God intends to confuse us by implying that we just don’t know what he knows. This is obviously true, and sort of what he says to Job, but I also think each case is each case…and that is where these discussions get tricky. “How could a loving God ask people to kill their own kids!!!” I have been asked…but the question is terribly inaccurate…he doesn’t, he just did once to Abram…the guy who waited 100 years to have a son…possibly he was putting the son before God? Who knows, but this isn’t God’s typical way of business…the only typical business God seems to be in is redemption of his creation. So how do we read these stories with this overarching theme? Case by case.

    • Roy

      I wonder, if I was a mother or a father in Egypt whose first born God killed because my King wouldn’t allow a group of slaves to go free, do you think I’d agree with your talk of “God’s typical way of business” being the “redemption of his creation”, Chris? Would you interpret the death of your first born (if you have children), killed because of something you had nothing to do with, part of God’s redemptive plan?

      • Lamont

        Anyone who acted by faith would not be destroyed.
        Same warning exists today.

        Ex 12:13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

      • http://www.dogslikediggingholes.blogspot.com Chris G

        Yeah, its a good point Roy. I don’t think any of this is easy at all, or trivial as GM rightly states in the next comment. But if we could look at an example today…I remember when Esther Park got up in front of the church and spoke about her cancer (I think this might have been before you started coming), and ultimately was grateful for it because of how much it flipped her world…and how much she realized it needed flipping. I bet you and I know LOTS of these stories…in the face of difficulty and tragedy it seems many people actually grow, and grow tremendously. I believe many Egyptians changed that day…of course its easy for me to say that, but I do ultimately believe its true…it may come across as trivial if we do not acknowledge the pain properly…but what people do, after tragedy strikes, seems to be part of that Redemptive process…sort of a forced dealing with what matters. I believe we all deal with this at some point, if not multiple points…but in any case once. The fact that catholics have the concept of last rites underscores that we all have to deal with our own temporal nature eventually.
        Jesus experience of the cross/resurrection is that ultimate picture that there can be life beyond tragedy…and maybe even better life.
        To get even crazier, God seems to call us into tragedy, to bear one another’s burdens, to walk alongside the poor, the widow, the sick etc. Perhaps when Jesus says in John 10, that he came to give us life to the full it meant, at least in part, experiencing all that life can offer. I have seen this in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, how incredibly hopeful and full many are in spite of absolutely terrible loss…again not acknowledging the loss itself is foolish at best but more likely probably cruel. But not acknowledging the tempering of human souls in light of difficulty would be to really miss an enormous part of the human experience.
        I also think that I do have to rely on God’s eternal perspective here, as I mentioned earlier, because otherwise death seems to be a trump card. In other words, maybe we can grow from difficulty, but that is hard to do if you are gone. In this case it seems all you can really say is that God only knows beyond the grave, and why his intentions must be relied on heavily during these times of loss…and his intentions must ultimately be relied on as you consider your own end. I suppose this is ultimately why faith is what it is.

  • GM

    Dimensionally Challenged

    We know in our own experience of some dimensions (length, depth, height, mass, time, temperature, …), but it seems to me that they’re incomplete and insufficient. God encompasses and surpasses all of them. God calls into being what was not, brings the dead back to life, changes water into wine, multiplies baked bread and broiled fish, parts waters, … I’m not aware of any physical “reality” explanation for any of these phenomena.

    When we come to stories such as those of Jericho, Aichan, Sodom, the children of Bethlehem in Herod’s day, we don’t get to look very deeply into the event, the context, the people and their stories, … or what was happening in the heart of God during that unfolding in time. We just get a description, with perhaps a bit of framing or explanatory commentary, told and/or written via the agency of a human being like us, by the inspiration of God. There’s much more than what we have available to us in our present state.

    No such limitations are in place for God. Psalm 139’s affirmation that all things are present tense, present presence, to God gives me pause. I shudder when I hear myself, or others, accuse God of wrongdoing, injustice, …, since we are constrained to work from this limited set of information, with these limited faculties for observation and perception. How would it be, to never not be present to every anguish encountered by each and every one of these lovingly fashioned and fully known children? Our assessment comes up short if it does not include that reality, in addition to whatever elements are available to us.

    In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has Screwtape pen that “they [humans] … tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. … It is obvious that to Him [God] human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.” I don’t think Lewis is in any way trivializing human suffering, advocating neglect of life, … I do think he brings insight into at least part of why it is hard for us to know how to rightly engage with the stories of death and destruction.

  • Trevor Eakes

    I think this argument becomes almost moot when one simply excepts that the bible is not by the powers of heaven endowed to be entirely and completely infallible, historically, and, in some cases, morally. First, anyone who reads through the old testament carefully could easily point out historical discrepancies in which the bible gives two different accounts of the same thing, contrary dates, or faulty estimations. Literary scholars can also identify well enough where liberal scribes have made insertions and, on the flip side, they have trouble with the exact meaning of certain words found in the bible. This is due to the fact that there is a vast cultural difference between the scripture and interpreter and the fact that Hebrew writing has no vowels. One can already see how this could be problematic.
    So instead of trying to find absurd arguments on how to go about justifying the actions in the bible one can simply adopt what you were just saying above. The Bible is not perfect. Gasp. Fortunately other parts of the bible are much better verified and morally perfect then others. When dealing with old testament writings the best and simplest way to fact check their morality is to compare it to the morality that Jesus presents, especially that of his sermon on the mount. If we find anything contradicting our Lords words (although not exact words as he spoke in Aramaic and our gospels are in Greek) in the old testament then one can either admit the Jesus was wrong, attempt to make up ridiculous exceptions to something so straight forward as love, or except that the account we have in the old testament is in the wrong. In fact even the people of the old testament had some sort of understanding of being loving even if the law is contrary to the act. For instance, no one would say that Boaz was in the wrong for how he treated Ruth even though she was a Moabite which the God strictly forbids Jews to marry in the Torah (even up to the 9th generation). So, in summary, I completely agree with you. If you would like more information then I suggest looking into something known as The Higher Criticism or the book “Who Wrote the Bible?: A Book for the People” by Washington Gladden.

  • Evan Miles

    The Cannanites did sacrifice their own babies by placing them on poles right? Is that correct?

    I heard that and once someone said to me “If you lived in a neighborhood today and people did that you might say ‘there is no God, God if you are there then how come you let these people live and keep killing more and more tiny babies’”?

    That got me thinking about how little I understand of this context where the Old Testament takes place.


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