#BadGod and the Conquest of Canaan

This week’s hashtag game for my favorite podcast “The Moonshine Jesus Show” is #BadGod (with extra points if you can double hashtag it with #BadDog). As I’ve been contemplating possible entries for the game, I felt inspired to talk a little bit about one of my biggest struggles with the Bible, in particular with the Old Testament. I think primarily (though certainly not exclusively) about the book of Joshua and the descriptions of the conquest of Canaan. Since the very first time I read those ancient words, I felt conflicted. How could the God that I’ve come to know in Jesus Christ be a God who, not only allows, but orders his people to slaughter thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children for the sheer purpose of gaining land for themselves? I don’t know how to reconcile that. So, about a month ago I posted this quote on my Facebook page:

“If the bible be true, God commanded his chosen people to destroy men simply for the crime of defending their native land. They were not allowed to spare trembling and white-haired age, nor dimpled babes clasped in the mothers’ arms. They were ordered to kill women, and to pierce, with the sword of war, the unborn child. ‘Our heavenly Father’ commanded the Hebrews to kill the men and women, the fathers, sons and brothers, but to preserve the girls alive. Why were not the maidens also killed? Why were they spared? Read the thirty-first chapter of Numbers, and you will find that the maidens were given to the soldiers and the priests. Is there, in all the history of war, a more infamous thing than this? Is it possible that God permitted the violets of modesty, that grow and shed their perfume in the maiden’s heart, to be trampled beneath the brutal feet of lust? If this was the order of God, what, under the same circumstances, would have been the command of a devil? When, in this age of the world, a woman, a wife, a mother, reads this record, she should, with scorn and loathing, throw the book away. A general, who now should make such an order, giving over to massacre and rapine a conquered people, would be held in execration by the whole civilized world. Yet, if the bible be true, the supreme and infinite God was once a savage.”
― Robert G. Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses

And I commented to my friends, “I have to admit that I feel a bit this way when I read much of the Old Testament, too. How do other believers reconcile this?” The responses, while many, were not remarkably helpful to me. They left me with more questions than answers…questions like these:

1. Did God really order his people to slaughter other people?

2. If God did order his people to slaughter other people, what would stop God from doing the same today?

3. If God did that same things today, how would Christians know for sure that the slaughter was “from God”?

4. If the above are true, how can we criticize the radical Islamists who kill people in the name of their god?

5. How do we reconcile all of that with Jesus’ words about “loving your enemies” and “turning the other cheek?”

6. If we believe that God is a perpetrator of violence and nothing happens outside of God’s will, does that mean that God not only sent Jesus to die but actually killed Jesus?

Now, maybe I am taking all of this too far. That is entirely possible. But that is precisely what critics of Christianity are going to do. And I for one want to be able to answer those questions. So, what do we do with the holy wars in the Bible? How can we condone violence in the name of God in the Old Testament and still proclaim that “Blessed are the peacemakers?” I don’t feel comfortable simply dismissing it. So, tell me, “How do you reconcile this?”

My hope is to take the responses I get and formulate a follow-up piece with responses to some of these struggles.

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8 thoughts on “#BadGod and the Conquest of Canaan

  1. I reconcile this 1 of 2 ways:
    One, because the bible was written by man, it is his own flawed and twisted ideas that come forth, not God’s. The God I believe in is above all this stupid crap. He is about love and and life, and the beauty we find in both. Period. The second way for me to reconcile this – and I am not yet prepared in my journey of faith to do this – is to conclude that there is no God, for the same reason. He would never permit, let alone command this kind of stupid crap.

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    • Carmen, thank you for your response. I think you have aptly described two of the three main positions on this subject…with the third being one that believes God actually approves of violence done in God’s name. I will admit that I lean toward the first option you mentioned, but I still struggle with it…partly because it stands against the Biblical-literalism that I was raised in and partly because of the theology of God’s sovereignty that my Reformed tradition espouses.

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  2. I too struggled with this issue.
    But, as I grew up in a country where there are very few Bible literalist, I reckon my struggle wasn’t as massive as other people’s.
    Eventually I’ve found a synthesis of my idea of taking the Bible seriously here http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/07/god-lets-his-children-tell-the-story-an-angle-on-gods-violence-in-the-old-testament/
    Also I’d note that underneath the purity laws and ethnic cleansing there’s still a general Weltanschauung in the Bible (especially before the monarchy period, and in the society the prophets wanted during that period) which is closely similar to the kingship of God announced and showed by Jesus.
    Hope this helps.

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  3. I have come to believe that though God never changes, human understanding of God, has grown and evolved over time as our collective understanding of our world has grown and evolved over time. I don’t believe that the Bible was word-for-word inspired by God, but that God inspired people to write about their understanding of God’s working in their lives and the lives of their people. The
    Bible has withstood the test of time because God continues to speak through those written words when people are open to the Spirit’s guidance. If taken literally, that the writers of Joshua had as full an understanding of God as the gospel writers did, there is no way to reconcile the picture of God in Joshua and Judges with the picture of God in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
    Christ fulfilled many OT scriptures, but one of the reasons that he was rejected by most of the Jewish leaders of his day was that the picture of God that he was presenting was so different from the Triumphalist Warrior God of many parts of the OT that they held as inspired scripture. If we Christians truly believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of who God really is, then we must read the rest of the Bible (even Paul) through the lense of his life and teaching and allow Jesus to critique and correct what I consider to be the misunderstandings of God’s character in the tales of God as Vengeful Tribal Champion found in Joshua and Judges. We are still growing and evolving in our understanding of God in that we finally see all the scriptures that normalize slavery and racism as not being a full reflection of God. Many of us are continuing to re-evaluate our understanding of the scriptures related to gender and sexuality as well. We must realize that our human minds will never fully comprehend God this side of heaven and if we think that we have completely figured God out, then we are surely wrong.

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    • Thank you, Laura! You have some excellent thoughts here. It is certainly true that we do not understand God’s ways. I also agree that as Christians we must read the Bible through the lense of Christ, yet isn’t even our picture of Jesus is colored by human interpretation since the gospels were written by people? What then do we take to be truth?

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  4. I don’t know whether this is of any help, but my perspective on this kind of passage changed a bit when I read that the archaeology of ancient Palestine shows that there was no abrupt and overwhelming change in the habits (particularly eating habits) of the occupants of settlements in the area in any potentially relevant historical period. In other words, whatever God may have commanded, in the eyes of the later chroniclers of the Israelites (or even those of the time), they didn’t actually do.
    If I were to add to this a view of the sovereignty and power of God from the historical Reformed tradition (from which I do not come), I could argue that what God really wanted, God got – and that was not genocide.
    What I actually think is that there’s a trajectory which moves through the Hebrew Scriptures in the direction of non-violence, culminating in Jesus. Mankind does not tend to learn lessons quickly…

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