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.”
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.