Every Known Theistic Approach to Old Testament “Texts of Terror”
The phrase “texts of terror” usually refers to stories in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible that describe God as commanding his people to slaughter groups of men, women and children and “show them no mercy” (to quote on such command).
Here I will lay out all the theistic approaches to interpreting these texts I am aware of. Every “other” approach I know about seems to me to fall under one of these—as a version of it. You may be aware of others. Feel free to post them here.
As you can see, in my opinion, all have serious problems. This is almost certainly a question that will have to wait for answer until paradise or the eschaton.
1. Marcionism: Rejection of the Old Testament as uninspired. (Partial Marcionism would reject parts of the Old Testament as uninspired including texts of terror.)
*Problem: Jesus revered the Hebrew Bible as inspired by God as did the apostles. Christian tradition almost unanimously declares this heresy.
2. Allegorical interpretation: The texts of terror are inspired but ought not to be interpreted literally; they communicate something other than what they seem “on the surface” to communicate (e.g., put every sin in yourself to death).
*Problem: Opens a can of worms (or Pandora’s box) of unwelcome possibilities of interpretation.
3. Literal interpretation: Yahweh God really did command his people in these cases literally to slaughter without mercy men, women and children.
*Problems: Does not deal with the issue of Jesus’ seemingly wholly different approach to God’s character and will concerning violence (without resorting to one of the approaches below). Also makes it impossible to say with absolute confidence that contemporary “holy wars” (including genocide) are not God’s will.
4. Literal interpretation but: God did literally command the people of God to slaughter men, women and children in the past, but later changed his mind. God changes throughout salvation history; he changed from being a “warrior God” to being a peace-loving God.
*Problem: Requires discarding doctrine of divine immutability even with regard to God’s moral and ethical will.
5. Non-literal interpretation: God did command his people to wage war against certain groups but used hyperbole (or the writers used hyperbole); “men, women, children, cattle, sheep” (etc.) is a figure of speech for completely eliminating the society and culture.
*Problems: Comes close to allegorical interpretation and there is no record of God’s people sparing (e.g., adopting) the children.
6. Progressive revelation interpretation: “Inspiration” does not mean dictation or that every story in the Bible is to be taken at “face value.” God accommodated revelation to the people’s ability to understand him and people came to understand God’s revelation more clearly over time. As God incarnate, Jesus is the clearest revelation of God’s character and will. At times God’s people misunderstood his command and recorded their own beliefs about God and his commands as revelation from God. God’s revelation of his own character and will becomes clearer throughout Scripture with the later (clearer) parts relativizing the earlier (less clear) parts.
*Problems: Requires a very flexible view of divine inspiration of Scripture (and rejection of inerrancy if not infallibility). Is also subject to accusations of implicit Marcionism.
7. Liberal interpretation: Portions of the Old Testament (and perhaps also of the New) are culturally conditioned such that they cannot be believed by modern people. The touchstone of biblical interpretation is the modern worldview and modern ethical sensibilities. (In other words, yes, the people of God did slaughter men, women, and children, but God did not command it.)
*Problem: Sets up a temporal and conditioned cultural norm (“modern”) over Scripture itself and possibly even over Jesus himself. Leads to phenomena such as the “Jefferson Bible” (whether literally, physically or not).
8. A narrative interpretation (not necessarily all narrative approaches agree with this): God included these texts of terror in the canon as a warning to his people about how far it is possible to misunderstand God’s will. To what extent they describe actual, historical events is undecideable at this temporal remove and is unimportant.
*Problem: Implicitly, logically, falls back on either “7” or “8” above.
9. Paradoxical interpretation: No attempt at harmonization should be exercised; we ought simply to accept at face value the texts of terror and Jesus’ teachings about God’s love and will (e.g., for peace) and not attempt to diminish either of them or reconcile them. (This is a version of “3” above but attempts to explain it hermeneutically and theologically.)
*Problem: For inquiring minds leads inevitably to belief in a “hidden God” (Luther) behind Jesus who willed (and possibly still wills) extreme violence such as genocidal holy war.