God Commanding Violence?
At Christmas, we remember the birth of one described as the ‘prince of peace’. We read in the gospels how he taught us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies, before demonstrating this in an amazing display of love by dying on the cross. Elsewhere in the Bible, however, we come across passages that portray God in a rather different way: either commanding or carrying out acts of violence. How do we read and understand these passages as part of the revelation of the God of love? This is a difficult question, and one that has bothered Christians from the early church to the present day. The events of 9/11 and subsequent acts of terror linked to religious causes have magnified this issue for both Christians and non-Christians. As a result, we need to have some response to the question, both to strengthen our own faith and as an answer to the questions of others.
The very basic response to the question of how we read these passages is that we need to read and understand them better as part of the Bible and its message. While there is no ‘silver bullet’ that removes the problem completely, there are ways to make better sense of each difficult passage as we look at them. As an example, we will look briefly at the conquest of Canaan as one particularly difficult set of passages where God seems to command extreme violence. We will look at two ways to read it better: by paying attention to genre and to wider biblical context.
The Bible is full of different types or genres of material: laws, stories, poetry, prophecy and so on. To understand a passage properly, we need to know how to read and understand its genre.
The conquest is commanded primarily in Deuteronomy, which has the style of a sermon. It exhorts the Israelites to do whatever is necessary to carry out the first commandment - to show total loyalty to God in the land that he is giving to them. As part of this, Deuteronomy uses high-powered rhetorical images to motivate the Israelites. The Canaanites who dwell in the land are portrayed as a great danger to Israel’s relationship with God due to their idolatrous worship practices in the land. Therefore, Israel must remove that danger by destroying the Canaanites (and particularly their worship) from the land. Conversely, if Israel give in to this danger and follow the Canaanites’ idolatry, then Israel will also be destroyed from the land. In Deuteronomy this kind of ‘destruction’ refers to being removed from the land as a people group, rather than the killing of every man, woman and child. As an example, Deuteronomy 7:1-2 seems to suggest that the Canaanites should all be wiped out, but verse 3 commands the Israelites not to marry Canaanites. If verses 1-2 are understood literally, there is no need for verse 3. (There is no danger of marrying corpses!)
The conquest is portrayed primarily in Joshua chapters 1-12. This includes material that has been described as ‘ancient war journal’ in style. One characteristic of this material is that it uses hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point). When we read about the total slaughter of the Canaanites, this is probably an exaggerated way of describing highly successful military campaigns. This exaggeration is not deceitful, because the initial readers would have known what it meant. (For example, imagine that I was describing a football game and said, “We slaughtered them!” Hopefully you would understand me to be describing an emphatic victory (say 5-0), rather than the killing of the members of the other team.) As an example, passages like Joshua 10:40 seem to suggest that the Canaanites were completely wiped out. However, in Joshua 13:1 God tells Joshua that much of the land remains to be taken. (This implies that there are still a lot of Canaanites left.)
In summary, both Deuteronomy and Joshua use powerful imagery as part of their style. Their focus is not the killing of individuals, but rather that Israel should trust and obey the LORD their God in all matters in the land. Reading either book without realising this could lead to an over-literalistic misreading, similar to misunderstanding my football story as a literal bloodbath and calling the police!
To understand a biblical passage correctly, we need to read it in wider context. This includes reading and understanding it within the wider Bible. If we look at the conquest in wider biblical context, we notice a number of things that can help us to understand it better.
The conquest is a one-off event in a very specific situation (the entry into the Promised Land). These commands are not a general principle of how the people of God are to behave towards others. Therefore, these passages should never be understood as a justification for Christians to attack or mistreat others. (Sadly, these passages have been misused this way through the ages.)
This one-off event is part of the wider Old Testament story of God’s relationship with Israel. As God’s chosen people Israel are special, and the story is focussed on them, not on the Canaanites. However, the ultimate purpose of God choosing Israel is not just about Israel. This choosing starts with the promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) which ends with the promise that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’. We see this fulfilled ultimately in the New Testament as Jesus, the descendant of Abraham, dies for the world and rises again to bring salvation to all.
Furthermore, because Israel are chosen and the Canaanites are not, this does not mean that Israel can do whatever they like, or that the Canaanites are doomed whatever they do. Throughout the Bible, we see that God acts with both justice and mercy. If Israel act like the Canaanites, they will be treated like the Canaanites and be destroyed from the land. God warns them of this in Deuteronomy 8:19-20, and this takes place centuries later in the exile to Babylon. In 2 Kings 21 God announces the exile, because King Manasseh and his people have acted worse than the Amorites (aka Canaanites) did (verses 11-15).
However, while God shows justice, he shows mercy even more. Israel did not deserve the land in the first place, even if the Canaanites had acted wickedly (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). They did not deserve to return to the land after the exile (Ezekiel 36:22-32). This is all due to God’s mercy to a continually sinful people. This mercy is not just for Israel, but also for the Canaanites. In the book of Joshua, we see two groups of Canaanites who want to side with Israel’s God: Rahab and the Gibeonites (Joshua 2 & 9). Both are accepted even though, like Israel, they do not deserve it. In other words, any Canaanite in the conquest who turns to God is accepted. In the conquest, as in the rest of the Bible, God holds out both justice and mercy. Under God’s justice, every human being (Israelites, Canaanites and us) deserves destruction. Yet, under God’s mercy, every human being who seeks him (Israelites, Canaanites and us) is spared that destruction.
We have seen briefly how reading the conquest passages carefully can help us to understand them better. It does not remove the problem totally, but it can help us to read them as part of scripture. Paying attention to matters such as genre and context can help with other difficult passages, and are important for understanding all passages, not just the difficult ones.
If you are interested in finding out more about understanding biblical passages better, there are various things that you could do. There are a number of books that deal with difficult passages. If you want to learn more in general about how to read the Bible better, I will be teaching an evening class: ‘Deeper into Scripture’ starting on 21 January 2020. You are warmly invited to attend.
[A couple of accessible books that deal with the wider issue of God and violence (including the conquest) are Chris Wright The God I Don’t Understand, and Helen Paynter God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today? A couple of more detailed books on the conquest are Walton & Walton The Lost World of the Conquest, and Copan & Flannagan Did God Really Command Genocide? I have also written a couple of articles on the conquest, which are available in the related article links.]