Anticonservative author Peter Enns wonders, “How can Christians condemn another religion as inherently violent when their own binding documents depict their God as extremely violent, one who commands genocide and for whom mass killing seems to be his preferred method of conflict resolution …. There’s no escaping the fact that Christians who take the Bible as a God-given dependable, trustworthy, and accurate source of information about God have some thinking to do.”1
Does Dr. Enns, and centuries of likeminded skeptics, have a point? Do questions like this pose a legitimate challenge to the believer’s faith? To be swayed by such argumentation one must first have a predisposition against the Bible and/or know very little about it. In fact, familiarity with scripture exposes the above accusation as a major overstatement that has targeted and distorted a tiny, cherry-picked fragment of the overall biblical story. Detractors are either unaware of key qualifying information, or they willfully ignore, deceptively omit, or stubbornly dismiss the rest of what the Bible teaches.
Say what you will, but the biblical record is honest and real. It has obviously not attempted to hide material that critics could use against it. The Bible does not present an idealized, glamorized, or romanticized version of history or its most notable characters. Supernaturalism aside, biblical narratives correspond to reality and cannot be properly understood apart from their own literary, historical, cultural, and religious environment. Before attacking the Christian faith and Almighty God himself, surely all pertinent information should be collected and scrutinized. Otherwise, the message of scripture is mischaracterized and misjudged.
The Sovereignty of God
How much arrogant superiority must one have to accuse the God of the Bible of arrogant superiority? Who among mere mortals is in the lofty position to challenge the actions of the omnipotent creator of the universe? If there is no God, upon whose moral standard does one judge a God who does not exist? “For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’” (Isa. 45:18).2
One could argue that if God gives life, he can take life (Job 1:21; Heb. 12:9). But what does this actually mean? From a biblical perspective, life does not really end but transitions from the temporary physical realm to the eternal spiritual realm (Eccl. 12:5-7). God cannot be charged with “murder” if he simply ushers people into the next life. Moreover, how can antitheists or antibiblicists be consistent if they reject the God of the Bible because he allows evil to exist, yet criticize him whenever he puts an end to it? And is a pro-abortionist justified in choosing to terminate physical life but God is not?
The People of Canaan
One gets the impression from the selective and embellished observations of critics that the Canaanites were innocent victims and the God-driven Israelites were malevolent and barbaric. But is there more to the story the uninformed are not being told? Would these same critics denounce the involvement of the Allied Forces in World Wars I and II? If not, apparently they have not gathered all the facts about Israel’s ancient foes.
What about the Canaanites who had violently stolen the land from previous settlers? (Num. 21:26-30). Characterized as fierce and menacing, these people were known for their aggression and warmongering (Gen. 14:1-12; Num. 13:31-33; 21:21-25, 33; Deut. 1:28, 44; Josh. 10:3-5; 11:1-5; 24:8-11; Judg. 1:7, 34; 5:19, 30; 6:1-6; 2 Kings 3:21-23). Adversarial interlopers are hardly innocent victims.3
What about the destructive influence of communities rife with wickedness? (Ex. 34:11-16; Num. 25:18; 31:16; Deut. 7:1-6; 9:5; 12:29-32; 18:9-14; 20:16-18). These people had drifted so far away from the divine standard of morality as to be guilty of all sorts of perverse evils—depravity, cruelty, brutality, even human sacrifice, including the torture and murder of children (Deut. 12:31; 18:9-10; 2 Kings 3:27; Jer. 19:5).4 “[F]or whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you” (Deut. 18:12). Is the preservation of righteousness an ignoble quest?
What about the Lord’s incredible longsuffering with the iniquity of these people? (Gen. 15:16; cf. 2 Pet. 3:9, 15). While the God of the Bible is merciful, he is also a God of justice (Gen. 18:25; Deut. 32:4; Isa. 30:18). “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live …” (Ezek. 33:11). The inevitable consequence of rejecting God’s goodness and forbearance is his righteous judgment (Rom. 2:4-9).
But what about the innocent children who died in these conquests? None of us possesses divine foreknowledge, and from a very limited human perspective we may be missing the bigger picture. Alternatives would include the prospect of tortured and sacrificed children (burned alive) in their own depraved cultures, and the likelihood of survivors growing up to be just as evil.
The providential victories of the Israelites were not because of their own virtue or superiority. Beyond the extreme wickedness of these Canaanite societies, there was a greater purpose to fulfill through the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut. 7:7-10; 9:4-6; cf. Gen. 26:3-4).
Israelite Ethics of War
The conquest narratives in the books of Joshua and Judges ought to be read through the moderating lens of Deuteronomy’s war ethics. Ancient near-eastern literature portrays military violence as morally acceptable and necessary to impose dominance and social order. Yet warfare regulations in the Hebrew scriptures are unparalleled in war texts of other nations.5
To fight against the people of God was to face annihilation. Nevertheless, enemies not yet meriting total destruction were to be given the opportunity to make peace (Deut. 20:10). Otherwise, combatants would be put to death while women and children spared (vv. 12-15). Compared to typical ravages of war, and in contrast to the ruthless societies surrounding them, the Israelites had strict laws for how captives were to be treated (Deut. 21:10-14; cf. 2 Kings 6:18-23).6 Unfortunately, “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle” (Josh. 11:19).7
Lest the Lord be accused of categorical favoritism, the same punishments were executed against Israelites who resisted the way of righteousness and chose the way of evil (Deut. 13:11-18; Judg. 2:11-23). Remember the atrocities inflicted by the Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Seleucids, et al.
Divinely sanctioned war occurs primarily during the conquest period but significantly declines through the historical narratives, defensive survival notwithstanding. By the time Jewish refugees return from Babylonian exile, there were no military strategies or campaigns.
A Higher Purpose
We need to take a step back and see how each account fits into the overall biblical narrative. Taken as a whole, the Bible’s story is of a loving and compassionate God seeking to redeem a lost and broken world, while maintaining his justice and holiness. The intention all along has been to bless all people of all nations of all time.8 But free moral agency rejecting the righteous ways of God, resulting in sin, corruption, and evil, persistently gets in the way.
If the Supreme Deity, as sovereign creator and sustainer of all, reserved a geographical territory as a national setting to bring forth the world’s redeemer,9 what fallible human being is justified in saying he had no right to do so? Through the centuries the Lord has patiently endured, made the tough calls, has been rejected and ridiculed, but his mercy endures forever.10
Undergirding the Old Testament’s turbulent history, God ultimately seeks the salvation of mankind through the preservation of the messianic seed-line.11 Israel’s chosen status and protection was the means through which the Savior was ushered into the arena of fallen humanity.12 When the Israelites sinned like other nations, they were punished. If God had ignored their sins or had completely annihilated them, all accountable persons of every generation would be lost without hope of redemption.
Many are quick to say, “If I were God, here’s how I would do it …” A better approach would be to appreciate our minuscule place in the universe and the creator’s infinitely broader perspective and insight (Isa. 55:8-9). When God is judged as a petty human being, the biblical message is twisted and misunderstood (cf. Hos. 11:9). To portray him as a cruel, vindictive, malicious tyrant, most of the biblical record has to be ignored, his justice and holiness misconstrued, and divine attributes like love, grace, and mercy overlooked.13
Here is a suggestion for those who are troubled by a select handful of Old Testament texts: read the New Testament, where God’s purpose is more fully revealed and understood in Christ Jesus.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Pete Enns, “The Bible’s Violent God Isn’t,” HuffPost (16 Nov. 2014), <Link>.
2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (2016).
3 See Jonathan M. Golden, Ancient Canaan and Israel: An Introduction (Oxford: University Press, 2009): 6-7.
4 See Keith Paterson, “Did The Canaanites Really Sacrifice Their Children?” Bible Reading Archaeology (13 May 2016), <Link>; also Joshua J. Mark, “Canaan,” Ancient History Encyclopedia (23 Oct. 2018), <Link>.
5 See Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence (NY: Oxford University, 1993).
6 See K. L. Moore, “Does the Bible Condone Sexual Assault?” Moore Perspective (7 May 2019), <Link>.
7 On the matter of the LORD hardening their hearts (Josh. 11:20; cf. Rom. 2:4-5), see K. L. Moore, “Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart” (6 Feb. 2015), <Link>.
8 Gen. 12:3; 18:17-19; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; 1 Kings 8:38-43; 1 Chron. 16:7-36; Isa. 9:2; 42:1-6; 49:6; Jer. 16:19-21; Jonah 1:1-2; Hab. 2:14; Zech. 8:20-23; Acts 3:25; et al. The canonical Psalms contain around 175 references to the universality of God’s reign; cf., e.g., 22:27-28; 33:5-12; 57:9; 66:7; 67:1-7; 72:11, 17; 82:8; 86:9; 96.1-13; 108:3; 117:1-2. “In the Psalms there are seventy-six references to the ‘nations’, even though the Psalms are part of the worship of Israel. And if you add references to ‘all the earth’ and ‘the peoples’ it is quite startling to see how much the Psalms teach us of God’s concern for all mankind” (Michael Griffiths, What on Earth Are You Doing? [Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1983]: 12).
9 Gen. 12:1-7; 13:14-17; 15:5-7; 22:17-18; 26:3-4; Ex. 3:7-8; 32:13; Deut. 1:8; 4:1; 16:20; Psa. 37:3-34; 46:7-11; 105:42-45; Isa. 2:1-4; 9:6; Mic. 4:1-5; Acts 3:24-26; 7:2-5, 17, 45; Gal. 4:4-7. Note, however, the land inheritance was conditional (Lev. 20:22, 24; Deut. 28:1-2, 15; Josh. 23:13-16; 1 Kings 9:6-7; 2 Chron. 20:7), and Abraham’s descendants did not remain faithful to the covenant with God (1 Kings 19:10; Jer. 31:32) and eventually lost the land (Josh. 23:13-16). See K. L. Moore, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth (Part 1),” Moore Perspective (22 April 2020), <Link>.
10 1 Chron. 16:34, 41; 2 Chron. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Psa. 106:1; 107:1; 118:1-4, 29: 136:1-26; 138:8; Jer. 33:11.
11 Gen. 3:1-13 records the entrance into the world of Satan’s power of sin and death, and v. 15 is the earliest reference to God’s plan to destroy Satan’s power. The “seed” promise began in Gen. 3:15, was carried through the OT (e.g. Gen. 22:18; 28:14) and fulfilled in Christ (Gal. 3:16). The serpent’s “seed” would be all who reject God’s will and become the devil’s progeny (John 8:44; Eph. 2:2-3; 1 John 3:10; cf. Matt. 12:30). The woman’s seed (Christ) became the offering for sin (Isa. 53:5, 10), whose suffering was the means through which the serpent’s head was struck, destroying the power of sin and death (Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8). See also Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:1-17; 20:2, 10; cf. Psa. 68:21; 91:13.
12 Gen. 22:18; 26:4; Isa. 7:14; 9:6; Matt. 1:1-23; Luke 24:27, 44-45; Acts 13:23; Gal. 3:16; 4:4-5; Heb. 2:9-18.
13 Ex. 15:13; 20:6; 33:19; 34:6-7; Num. 14:18-19; Deut. 5:10; 7:7-9; 13:17; 30:3; 2 Sam. 24:14; 1 Chron. 16:34, 41; 21:13; 2 Chron. 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Neh. 1:5; 9:17; Psa. 13:5; 17:7; 23:6; 25:6; 36:7; 40:10-11; 51:1; 63:3; 69:16; 103:4; 119:77, 156; 145:9; Isa. 30:18; 54:8, 10; 63:7, 9; Jer. 9:24; 16:5; 33:11; Lam. 3:22, 32; Dan. 9:4, 9, 18; Hos. 2:19-23; 6:6; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Mic. 7:18-20; Nah. 1:3; et al.
Related articles: Dave Miller's Violence in the OT vs. Quran?
Image credit: adapted from Michelangelo’s fresco (1511), https://exequy.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/yahweh/