What the Bible Gets Wrong … About God? Part 1

I was looking for a snappy lead for this post and thought about stringing together a series of verses in which God clearly condemns the taking of human life (Genesis 9, for example). So I Googled the phrase, “bible verses about killing.”

Oops.

Top webpage titles for this search include:

  • “Evil Bible Home Page”
  • “The 9 Most Badass Bible Verses”
  • “The Dark Bible: Atrocities”
  • “An Atheist’s Favourite Bible Verses”

None of these is a pro-Christian website, obviously. And at first blush they seem over the top – but then, after reading some of these verses, I’m not so sure.

Joshua 6: 20-21:

When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

Joshua 7: 24-26:

Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger.

Joshua 11: 18-20:

Joshua waged war against all these kings for a long time. Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace with the Israelites, who took them all in battle. For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses.

I Samuel 2:30-33:

“Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, no one in your family line will ever reach old age. Every one of you that I do not cut off from serving at my altar I will spare only to destroy your sight and sap your strength, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life.

I Samuel 15: 2-3:

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 all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

We have a tendency as Christians to brush aside or downplay passages like these from the Old Testament, but they are not so easily dismissed. They glorify actions we would – and should – condemn if undertaken by anyone today, regardless of the motivation they claimed.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say this: the title of the “Evil Bible Home Page” is closer to dealing with the reality of these passages than most of us are. Yes, the actions described here are evil.

It is evil to order or carry out the massacre of anyone, especially children. It is evil to kill a man’s children for his crime. It is evil to punish all of a man’s descendants for his sons’ wrongs. We would never ascribe the attributes of God to any person who did these things, even if they claimed to be doing so on God’s orders. Our values of justice, goodness and mercy insist on calling such horrific behavior evil.

Yet there in the Bible is God himself, described as ordering such attacks, breaking his promises, killing the innocent along with the guilty. That is not something to brush off or dismiss, especially if you believe in an inerrant, historically accurate scripture.

To their credit, many Christians who subscribe to the belief of a strictly inerrant Bible have indeed attempted to address these difficult passages in which God orders genocide. Unfortunately, their arguments aren’t satisfactory.

Wesley Morriston, who uses the genocide passages to make a case against biblical inerrancy, quotes some of these inerrantist scholars in his paper, “Did God Command Genocide?” for Philosopha Christi. He cites Paul Copan’s argument that God had a “morally sufficient reason” in ordering the elimination of the Canaanites, namely their culture’s “incorrigible wickedness,” but Copan delivers a much more troubling argument later:

[I]f God exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should have a status no higher than any human being. Thus, he has no right to take life as he determines. Yet we should press home the monumental difference between God and ordinary human beings. If God is the author of life, he is not obligated to give us seventy or eight years of life. … That being the case, he can take the lives of the Canaanites … according to his good purposes and morally sufficient reasons. What then of “innocent women and children”? Keep in mind that when God destroyed Sodom, he was willing to spare the city if there were even ten innocent persons. Not even ten could be found. Given the moral depravity of the Canaanites, the women were far from innocent.

As I said, this is a troubling argument. One, Copan doesn’t even try to make a case for the children’s guilt, leaving that question hanging over the text. Two, he ignores, or overlooks, the question of moral luck. However depraved these Canaanites are, they are no different than their culture, against which there is no viable alternative. They have drawn the short straw of being born on the wrong side of the Jordan River in the wrong century and living their lives in accordance with the norms of a culture in which, so far as we know, God has not chosen to reveal himself. And since God is in charge of such things, he is essentially punishing them for living their lives where he put them. Three, Copan falls back on the argument that God, being God, can do whatever he likes. His “good purposes” overwhelm all other discussion.

Assuming no moral person would describe such slaughter as “good,” we must then, under Copan’s argument, reconsider the meaning of the very concept of goodness. If God is inherently good, and if his actions in the text are accurately described, then “goodness” and “evil” lose all meaning. We have no measure by which to judge God except pure sovereignty. No love. No grace. No mercy. Because those terms, as we understand them, do not apply to the God of Joshua and 1 Samuel. And if God’s definition of those words is so different from ours, it renders them meaningless in any human context, forcing us to dismiss or reinterpret a whole different set of scriptures in our effort to preserve the “accuracy” of this one.

Or, as Roger Olson puts it:

I … presuppose that God cannot be evil; that goodness and being belong inextricably together or else there is no ground for basic trust. …  “[G]oodness” attributed to God cannot be totally different from every understanding of goodness (and love) we know of.”

Finally, there’s the question of “usefulness,” to quote 2 Timothy 3:16. If “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful,” to what use can we put these passages?

Historically, their use has been appalling, as pointed out by Rannfrid I. Thelle in a 2007 article for Studia Theologica. While most Christians and Jews have merely struggled with the implications of the text, there have been some who have found more practical uses, including the extermination of Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries, the establishment of South African apartheid of the early 20th century and the justification alternately by Palestinian Christians and Jews to solidify their respective claims, sometimes violently, to the land in which these stories were initially set.

As Thelle writes:

In addition to being a question of hermeneutics, theology and interpretation, we are formulating an ethical challenge because atrocities have been justified on the basis of these textual traditions, and oppressive, violent ideologies have been developed, inspired by the biblical texts of conquest.

If 2 Tim. 3:16 is truly correct, then these texts present a significant problem:

Either they are accurate, rendering meaningless our definitions of goodness, love and mercy, or they are in some important way false, in which case their “usefulness” has largely been found by those seeking to turn their fictional violence into reality. Further, the second option would also mean the Bible’s own description of God’s thoughts and actions is, in some places, wrong, which opens a whole new set of questions.

It’s tempting to look for a third way, but it’s hard to see how one could exist. Either these stories happened the way they are described, or they did not, and each possibility raises potentially troubling questions about how we view the nature of God and how he interacts with us and with his word.

In future posts, I’ll look closer at which option is more likely and how embracing it can actually help rescue these texts and make them relevant to us, perhaps for the first time.

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6 comments on “What the Bible Gets Wrong … About God? Part 1

  1. I’ve also thought about the possibility that, in a created and governed universe, “good,” “natural,” and “evil” are all terms that are relative to the nature of God, rather than traits he possesses. I thought it was super interesting that you touched on that.

    I think you may be polarizing the issue a bit, though. I think it’s possible that God does work through “human” atrocities like war, even in ways that make us a bit uncomfortable because it’s often going to look from our perspective like choosing sides, without necessitating the conclusion that he “sets them up.”

    One thing is obvious if we are to explain any of human history: God came to grips beforehand with the fact that humanity was going to screw everything up; including the whole “No Killing” thing. I think it’s equally obvious that God doesn’t have to approve of a circumstance or action to “work it together” for eventual good.

    We seem readier to accept this in some situations than in others; in the ideas that the persecution of Christians led to the spread of the Gospel, or that all the hardships Paul (the apostle) went through ultimately allowed him a stronger testimony, or the idea that individual testimony is often effective, in part, because of what a life looked like without Christ. Do we think God brushed off the actions of the first-century religious establishment, or his child’s suffering, or a life that sets itself up against him? Of course not, but we still say he “uses” or “works through” those circumstances.
    Why would we not expect this to happen on larger scale also? In World War II, for example, do we not generally hold that, war having been brought upon the world, a greater good was served in fighting and winning that war? Would we not consider some of the engineering and social advancements “blessings” that came as a result of various wars throughout history?

    Given that at various times (due to humanity’s failings) there is a war on, and that someone is definitely going to lose, I have to think that God would rather work through those circumstances than wash his hands of the whole situation because we (humanity) are doing something he can’t stand. It isn’t hard to see that many of these situations are going to look as if God preferred from the beginning that some individuals or nations would live and prosper while others died, but I believe it’s equally easy to realize that this isn’t necessarily the case.

    For this reason, I think there may be some validity to the idea that some of these accounts are revisionist (in that God’s purposes were not necessarily tied to the slaughter of other nations), But I do not think that necessitates historical inaccuracy (in that it’s entirely possible that God’s purposes did involve Israel’s survival and, sometimes, victory).

    Thinking in this way, we can look at Israel’s history of war the same way we look at our own. We see that there are some wars that are clearly brought upon us and some that were unnecessarily instigated. We see that some are fought (largely) on moral grounds to defend us from real evil, and some had much less clear, important or honest motives. We also see that we are not always real great at telling one from another, even in hindsight, but that doesn’t stop us from having a general sense of how the events went or correctly identifying some of the outcomes. For example, nobody’s going to suddenly come to the conclusion that the South was victorious in the Civil War, or that the racial implications of a Union victory were a step backward for civil rights.

    I think there’s room in the Old Testament to understand that its writers did not have a complete picture of God’s overall redemptive plan, and therefore may have wrongly attributed God’s motives. However, I don’t think that necessitates the conclusion that God wasn’t at work in any of the circumstances attributed to his working.

    • william says:

      when i was a new christian,with no theology,i saw angels,many demons,i wont explain,,,seldom do i have these experiences now,,,most people dont have them,maybe.we dont know of the battle between angels demons,heaven earth shall pass away,for a new heaven earth,deuteronomy ch4 ch5,GOD spoke from sky,to eyewitnesses,the whole nation israel,exodus ch12:37,eyewitnesses,more v38,,,,human history outside the BIBLE,and the jewish talmud,are revisionist,we have not enough evidence,to criticize a creator,that speaks,let there b light,2chronicles ch6v18,GOD is bigger than the highest heavens,we r not capable,of judging a being bigger than 155 billion lightyears wide GOD,ephesians ch4v10,google universe 156 billion lightyears wide.ELSHADDAI is BIG enough to answer my prayers,,,which unbelieving astronomer biologist can defend me in court against GOD if i burn forever

  2. Matthew says:

    Another interesting question to ask of people who want to defend the God of these passages is: “can God do evil?” or “can God sin”? It all reduces to the Euthyprho dilemma, but it’s still interesting to see how people answer the question.

    > If God is inherently good, and if his actions in the text are accurately described, then “goodness” and “evil” lose all meaning.

    Yes. Yes yes yes. I make a similar argument all the time (lots of times outside of theology). The words that people use really mean something, and they have to mean something, or we can’t talk or even think about things. If “good” means “evil”, we’re in a bit of a fix. And I think this is the best way to approach Euthyphro.

    As you’ve observed, the bite for the Bible believer comes in the self-referential (and therefore self-defeating) “usefulness” doctrine. At some point, I think trying to harmonize a mountain of contradictions gets exhausting, and it makes more sense to give that up and suppose that the Bible events (and the Koran events, and the Bhagvad Gita events) were experienced and storified by people a lot like the people we’ve got around today, and consequently they probably got a few things — maybe a lot of things — wrong.

  3. treegestalt says:

    One, these stories are generally not factually historical; they are what later people believed happened but sometimes the writers were more bloodthirsty than the actual perps.

    Two, people don’t usually ‘understand God’ so much as they fit what God tells them, as best they can, into worldviews they’ve already adopted. God is patient; if a little kid asks “Why is the sky blue” he won’t get the same answer as when he’s grown up & become a physicist — (& neither will the physicist’s answer tell him, ‘How come that color looks the way it does to us?’)

    ‘gods’, back when these stories get written, are partisan. They belong to one tribe or another; they fight for that tribe; a “God” who was too much ‘a wuss’ just wouldn’t have made it in the patron diety business.

    No human beings were lastingly harmed in the production of these stories. If some human being kills us, we resent it, and consider they’ve done us an inconvenience — but no human being knows the long term effect of anything we do or suffer. We try to treat each other well on a short term basis because that’s what keeps us together long enough for any sort of interaction, and because it’s the best we know. But we want God to give us His best, even though we know that can’t always be what we like at the moment.

  4. Vic Christian says:

    So – either God is evil (your definition) or the Bible is incorrect. I guess I know what to do with your article and website.

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