God Behaving Badly 4

God Behaving Badly 4 May 27, 2011

Is the Bible racist? Richard Dawkins thinks so, and the big reasons given in this general accusation are these: some 19th Century Christians justified new world slavery by appealing to the Bible; and YHWH commands Israelites to kill all the Canaanites. But “racism” is about “race” and most ancient Semite people are of the same race, but … but … but if we understand racism as prejudice based on nationality or ethnicity, then find texts in the Bible that can be taken as racist. David Lamb, in his excellent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, examines with this question: Racist or Hospitable?

Any attitude that denigrates any human on the basis of ethnicity or race is contrary to God’s creation of all humans as divine images. This insults God. David contends the geneaologies show that all humans derive from one family — that is a biblical perception of all humans.

Can this theme in the Bible be adequately explained by appealing to election, to wickedness and to God’s holiness that leads to judgment? This stuff is in all our Bibles: What do you do with the material?

Further, he agrees with Bill Webb that the biblical material, while not what we believe today, struck redemptive moves in the ancient world.

Fine, but what about the genocide texts? Here are two texts, the first from Joshua 10:40 and the second from Josh 11:14-15:

So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.

14 The Israelites carried off for themselves all the plunder and livestock of these cities, but all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed. 15 As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses.

This is the central kind of text that needs explanation. Genocide, of course, is not simply an OT practice but something tragically occurring as we speak. Some observations by David Lamb:

1. The ancient context was one of annihilation of one’s enemies’ armies and sometimes entire villages and families.

2. The Bible shares hyperbolic language in descriptions of such actions. Though it states they killed “all” the texts clearly show they didn’t kill all; they killed some. The damage was not as severe as it appears.

3. Joshua’s victory over the Canaanites was less excessive than the typical descriptions in the ancient world.

4. The big issue is Israel’s need and battle for a homeland.

For me, these are tough issues. David explores some more themes:

1. God promises the Land to Israel.
2. The destruction is seen as after God’s patience and rooted in the sins and wickedness of the Canaanites. E.g., Deut 18:9-14.

3. There is an abundance of hostility and an absence of hospitality.
4. God punishes his own people, showing that YHWH is not racist.
5. Every Canaanite who was hospitable was shown mercy: Rahab, Gibeonites, man from Bethel, Amalekites, Kenites…
6. Though God punishes, yet God loves.
7. God demands loving the sojourner, and think of Ruth, Daniel, Jonah…
8. Naaman the Syrian, a military and violent man, was healed by YHWH.
9. Jesus has foreign grandmothers.

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  • “Racism” is a concept with an incredibly wide variation in it’s definition. So to claim that someone is racist, is in fact a claim that always needs some unpacking.

    Racism, for me, in it’s simplest form is the assumption that
    all members of a certain cultural or ethnic group share common traits, and therefore ANY individual from that group MUST by definition have that trait and should be treated as if they do. Within this definition, “racism” can be about positive AND negative traits, but it’s STILL racism. For example; all white people are good athletes is a racist attitude, and it becomes a racist behavior when we treat every white individual as though they are a good athlete, by virtue of their race, before, or even in spite of knowing better.

  • Tim

    We all agree of course that the “genocide” wasn’t total with respect to Canaan. Other passages in the OT make that clear. But the herem ideology certainly appears to elevate the ideal of such total devastation. So I don’t know that “hyperbole” is the best word to describe what is really going on.

    But let’s grant the assumption for the sake of argument that the language of “ALL” was intentionally hyperbolic with respect toe the various herem passages, what of the passages that command infanticide then?

    1 Samuel 15:2-3

    “Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy[a] all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

    So what is the hyperbole here with respect to the children and infants? How do you read this David? Scot? Also, what is the reason given for such harsh judgement? Pervasive wickedness? Perhaps they presented a danger to Israel in corrupting them with “idolatrous” practices?

    The reason is actually given in the passage, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.” It looks like the justification to slaughter infants and children is simply old fashioned revenge. Of course, from an ANE herem point of view this all makes sense. From a point of view that attributes such commands to a perfect Heavenly Father, it is just morally revolting.

  • Joel Scandrett

    Scott, I remember Gordon Hugenberger drawing a very clear distinction in OT between holy war (haram, I think) and normal warfare. There were very clear criteria, in his view, for what constituted the former and it very seldom occurred. It doesn’t let God “off the hook,” of course, but casual readers shouldn’t think that it’s the norm.

  • Travis Greene

    These passages are the most troubling to me in the whole Bible. I find the redemptive movement hermeneutic helpful, and the fact that the passages are, even in the Bible’s own account, hyperbolic. Judges makes that clear. And Joshua, for all its violence, is subtly anti-militaristic (Yahweh is the warrior who wins the battles, etc.). And archeologically, there are severe doubts about the whole narrative. But still.

    I don’t think there is a real “solution,” other than to acknowledge a few things:

    1. Regardless of the historicity and ethics of the Canaanite conquest, scripturally it was a one-time deal and not to be used to justify other conquests.
    2. As Dawkins & co don’t seem to realize, just because events are described in the Bible doesn’t mean they are commended. That doesn’t help with these particular passages, but there is frequently a naivete (from believers and the new atheists) that assumes all narrated events in the Bible are didactic or moralistic.
    3. Christians have struggled with these passages for a long time, not on the basis of a modern, post-Holocaust/colonialism perspective but on the basis of the Christian ethics of the New Testament. So this isn’t “now we know racism is bad” versus ancient savagery, but a movement within Scripture that critiques or overrides earlier parts of the story. (See Jesus’ “You have heard this, but I say…”) Hence Origen and others proposing allegorical readings of Joshua. I don’t think that’s the route to take, but I do think we need to be open to creative ways of maintaining Joshua as Scripture while letting the NT have the last word.

  • Tim


    What are your thoughts on the purported Yahweh-commanded slaughter I referred to in #2 above?

  • Since the Canaanite genocide is problematic in various ways, I discuss the issue in chapter 2 (Angry, pages 39-41), chapter 4 (Racism, pages 76-80) and chapter 5 (Violence, pages 100-101). My thoughts about the Canaanites don’t fully satisfy me, but they help me as I try to struggle with the topic. I really like what Christopher Wright says about the Canaanites in The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan, 2008).

  • DRT

    First off, David Lamb, I was not a fan of your style in the beginning of the book since you tend to allow the reader to make a decision and I was looking for you to be more decisive. But with this chapter I have come to appreciate that you are providing perspectives that I do find helpful, thanks.

    Travis#4 makes a good point in my view. Despite my distaste for the apparent genocide, these things are not the teaching of the OT, rather they are a recording of an event. God is not saying that we are supposed to continue to do such things, the text recounts a single point, not a truism to apply in the future.

    I am also struck by the thought that the obvious conclusion is that it must be that it could not have happened any other way. For history to unfold to Jesus having the impact he had, there may have been no other way for god to make this all happen. It may be more of a reflection of our fallen nature that it had to happen this way than reflecting the nature of god.

    Having said all of that, my thoughts still seem like rationalizations to me.

  • DRT

    …another thought, the more I study this subject the more I think that much of the old testament is simply the recording of the events with a worldview that everything is attributable to god in one way or another. We see it today every time someone says “god willing” or similar. But then it was even more ingrained in the worldview.

    Having said that, it does not mean that god did not do/ordain/motivate the things attributed to god, it just means that having the perspective of Jesus is more important than ever.

  • Dana Ames

    I, too, think that what I’ve read of C. Wright on the topic “covers all the bases,” so to speak; I would have only minor disagreements with him on a couple of things. I like that even after his thorough examination he admits there are things that still bother him.

    He does mention “the editor of Joshua.” That phrase in itself might not go down so well with those who hold to “inerrancy”. This is one example among many that such a doctrine might actually make it more difficult to apprehend the *meaning* of scripture, of what God actually wants us to know.

    We forget that the OT is a Jewish book written by Jews as their own history, and commentary on their own history. I believe God can get across what he wants us to know about who he is and the narrative of what he’s up to using the Jews’ (at times decidedly, unobjective and probably less than factual) opinions and biases about themselves, including their affirmation that their God always won his battles, and the likelihood that they “stretched the truth” in order to make that claim. This in no way needs to be seen as undermining the authority of scripture. Truth is not always the same thing as factual accuracy of the tiniest detail.

    Hermeneutics yet again.

    “If you get the message, you might refuse it; but if you get the meaning, hey, don’t ever lose it – if you get the meaning, oh, of it all…” -Noel Paul Stookey


  • Mark Z.

    DRT: That’s a possibility. It’s kind of a fork in the eye of Scriptural inerrancy, which might upset some people.

    The church’s answers to this problem seem to fall into a few categories:

    0. Look, an eagle! That is, plain old misdirection. “Naaman the Syrian, a military and violent man, was healed by YHWH.” Whoop-de-f***ing-do. This shows up in every apologetic treatment of the subject, and comes off as either desperate flailing or the editor forgetting his Ritalin.

    1. It never happened. There was no genocide, no mass human sacrifice, no oppression of women, no slavery. Instead, Israel was the Camelot of the Near East, a place where kings stood up for justice and a woman could walk from one end to the other naked, alone, and carrying a sack of gold.

    1.5. It happened but it wasn’t really that bad. They only slaughtered some of the Canaanites. Women were treated as property, but as valuable property.

    2. Israel did this stuff but not because God commanded it. Rather, the Israelites were in the habit of attributing everything to God, including their wars and their legal system.

    3. Israel did this, with God’s consent, because God was adapting to what the Israelites could accept. I believe Paul Copan makes this argument in a few places.

    4. God commanded this, and therefore it was right. The traditional position of Calvinists, and, in a different way, of dispensationalists.

    5. God commanded it, and it was not exactly right, but justified by necessity/the exceptional wickedness of the Canaanites/the tribe-oriented mindset of that time and place/some other unique historical circumstance that makes this situation somehow not representative of God’s character. This appears to be the core of Lamb’s argument (with a side order of #1.5).

    6. God commanded it, but it was still wrong. God was wrong to command it and Israel was wrong to obey.

    Did I miss anything?

  • Tim


    “Travis#4 makes a good point in my view. Despite my distaste for the apparent genocide, these things are not the teaching of the OT, rather they are a recording of an event. God is not saying that we are supposed to continue to do such things, the text recounts a single point, not a truism to apply in the future.”

    My point in #2 is relavent to this. This is something Yahweh is purported to command, and by almost anyone’s standards today would be considered just pure, unadulterated evil – that is by anyone not committed to rationalizing it for appologetic purposes. Any God who commanded 1 Samuel 15:2-3 is not worthy of worship in my view – and certainly would be fit the description Dawkins, Hitchens, and others give for the God of the OT.

  • DRT

    Mark Z.#10, your zero cracks me up. My 15 year old daughter does that to me all the time. Look, Jesus !

    Tim@11, You are certainly right in that the conclusion follows. I sense that most people are very very torn in this and are reluctant to ever say those words no matter how much they may think them. This is where it gets to be difficult to collaborate with many people because such things are not something they want to even acknowledge to themselves. This is where that utopian *trusting* environment would be cool, kind of like an experimenting zone where god cannot see their thoughts so they will not be condemned to gehenna for not believing for a second.

  • Travis Greene


    Okay, that might win for most troubling passage. Especially since Saul is punished for being insufficiently genocidal. One possible (though in my view still insufficient) explanation is that herem warfare eliminates the incentive for plunder, so there is less war overall. Or something.

  • Israel was permitted to plunder in non-herem warfare, which was the norm. Plunder was permitted in herem because the spoil was to be devoted sacrifically to the deity.

  • Sorry, plunder was prohibited in herem warfare, not “permitted.” Typo.

  • Tim


    I agree completely of course. Interesting thing about 1 Samuel 15 though, is that it seems to be taking the typical herem passages we see so much of in Joshua and toning down the sacrificial aspect and instead stressing the obedience aspect.

    1 Samuel 15:22-23

    “But Samuel replied: ‘Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.’”

    Contrast this with Joshua 6:15-24

    “On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city! The city and all that is in it are to be devoted[a] to the LORD…Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the LORD’s house.”

    One wonders if the source material for the Joshua herem passages predates the Samuel passage. The events in Joshua, to whatever degree the accounts reflect some real remembrance of history, would certainly predate the account of Saul given in 1 Samuel. Alternatively, the Deuteronomistic redactor may have tweaked the 1 Samuel 15 passage to for theological purposes.

    Of course, this is all speculative, but the nature of how herem is expressed in 1 Samuel 15 does innovate somewhat over the standard sacrificial devotion approach found in Joshua.

  • mike

    What about the flood? God killed millions? of “innocent” children. God will do this again according to the book of Revelation, right? These OT passages are normative. God justifiably kills whomever he wants. It is righteous, holy and good. I like to think God takes the babies to heaven. I don’t really like this view but I think it’s the truth.

  • Tim, nice observation. Susan Niditch discusses the different herem ideologies in War in the Hebrew Bible. She argues that after human sacrifice fell into disrepute in the seventh century, the Deuteronomist switched emphasis from the ban as sacrifice to the ban as just punishment for sin.

  • Paul D.

    @Mark #10

    I think No. 2 is the most honest option on your list, although I can’t say I’ve ever heard any Christians use it in person. Usually they go for 0, 4 or 5.

    Personally, I think 2 is basically correct, with the proviso that most of these events did not occur historically as portrayed in the Bible.

  • gingoro

    Another way of looking at this issue is that God intended to destroy the religious practices that these people followed. In order to do that enough of the adults were killed that their society was no longer viable in any sense including economically. Since there was no social safety net it is possible that the most humane action was to kill all the members of that pagan society. In some sense this is similar to the practice of some churches in the 4rd world to tolerate existing cases where a man had multiple wives before coming to Christ. To divorce the 2nd and later wives was to sentence them and their children to a very marginal borderline existence.

    I’m not saying that I think this explanation is adequate but that it helps somewhat.
    Dave W

  • Mark Z.

    gingoro/Dave W #20:

    Since there was no social safety net it is possible that the most humane action was to kill all the members of that pagan society.

    Oh. Well, then. Killing an entire tribe of people, that’s wrong. But if you want to wipe out their religion, and killing them happens to be the easiest way to do that, then that’s a different story. I’m sure it was a great comfort to them that they were being killed for having the wrong religion, and not for some less worthy reason.

    In some sense this is similar to the practice of some churches in the 4rd world to tolerate existing cases where a man had multiple wives before coming to Christ. To divorce the 2nd and later wives was to sentence them and their children to a very marginal borderline existence.

    That’s not similar at all. That’s the exact opposite: when enforcing doctrinal purity would threaten the survival of some members of the community, they compromise on doctrinal purity. Because the sabbath is for man, etc.

    The Israelite solution would be to just kill the additional wives and their children.

  • gingoro

    I was talking about what would happen to the 2nd wives and children being similar to what would have happened to the remnants of the tribe if sufficient of them were killed off to destroy the pagan religion. In both cases likely death and disease would follow.

    My statement in no way claimed an adequate defense of God and Israel’s actions. I don’t think there is any adequate defense for these occurrences.
    Dave W

  • bugawa

    “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

    President Kennedy

  • bugawa

    A body of ideas or beliefs that is held by the forces of Ignorance (lack of knowledge to the contrary plus lack of skills in being open, paradoxical and having experienced that our ideas change all the time), Fear (of punishment by a higher power supernatural or real such as a person or an institution) and Desire (for rewards for holding and defending such beliefs either in this life or an imagined after life), such a body of beliefs is anti-life, is detrimental to intellectual and biological life because; 1- it leads to the suppression of other views and thus kills creativity, truth and the flourishing of human intellect, 2- may leads to the use of violent physical force against those who hold different or contrary views as by religious fanatics, 3- leads to bad thinking habits (that are very hard to get rid off later in life) starting from children who are indoctrinated at a fragile and accepting age to the absolute truth of such beliefs.

  • scotmcknight

    And bugawa you prop it up by quoting a Roman Catholic President?!

  • bugawa

    Prop what up? You keep removing what I write and then you say prop “it” up. Where is “it”? You have removed it so that no one can see it!!!

  • bugawa

    Here one of the comments that were removed:

    Here is the simple translation of what every believer should be, think and act: I’m an adult living in the 21st century, but I just have to do what a 2000 years old Bronze Age text says is right. I should not think for myself, as the book had it all thought for me, and I am obliged to hate and miss no opportunity to harm and even kill those who make fun of the book and its author and consider deluded those who do not follow its dictions in regard to morality, women, the law, sexual preferences and all sorts of other matters including even those that have been verified by science to be false such as the fairy tale of Adam and Eve.

  • bugawa

    Here is the original comment that the administrator insists on removing without saying to his readers why;

    Honestly, I am only trying to help you find the true light for which the scientists and philosophers of the renaissance have fought so hard to spread. I am trying to help in exposing the dark sides of our myth ridden minds. And what do you do? You obliterate my comment again and again. Are you afraid of the candle I am trying to bring in? Why do you twist logic and reason to find some sense in these dead books? Leave these books dead; they might be good subjects for historians but not for modern people who want to live a decent and honest life. Why don’t you let others see?

    Anyway, here is the comment which has been erased so many times so that no one would see it!
    You have gone into so much pain to accommodate your modern and democratic rationality with so much ancient Jewish rubbish of myths and superstitions. Get a life and be free! I really can’t believe how enslaved some people are to such obsolete books! Those were barbaric times and those Jewish tribes were just expressing barbaric minds; how can you try to find justification for it?!
    Why don’t you just breathe free of all this?

  • Andrew Watson

    Its not a matter of “being free” in Jesus Christ I am free. This particular issue of violence in the Old testament is not the key tenant of the Christian faith.
    They key tenant of Christianity is Having a Relationship with God Through his Divine Son. We deal with this issue in this way because we want to understand who God and believe that this books, as difficult as they may be at times are part of his divine revelation to us.

  • Andrew Watson

    I think you have a very open disregard for Christians and their beliefs with which colors everything you think and say, at least here on this forum. You seem to be arguing more against radical Islam than Modern Christianity.

  • Andrew Watson

    I think you have described atheism to a tee.