What do we make of the atrocities of the Old Testament?

This is a slightly edited version of an excursus I wrote in this week’s notes for the Bible Survey Class I’ve been teaching at my church. Follow that link for more information on the class. Also, I’m well-aware that the second half of this is exactly the “angle” talked about in the venerable Pete Enns’ recent blog post. I wrote this before he posted that, but still, I wanted to put it up on the off-chance this articulation might be helpful to others.

In the books of Numbers and Joshua, God commands the Israelites to commit genocide on many different people, including their women and children. He also commands them to forcibly enslave others. And in still another story, he commands Moses to take the remaining virgins of this particular people of which they disobediently did not kill all, and divide them evenly among the soldiers and the “rest of the Israelites”. We can only imagine what for.

A few quick thoughts:

One, you can’t appeal to any standard of “iniquity” or sinfulness” or “all people deserve that kind of justice” because Yahweh says specifically–several times–what his reasoning for commanding this was. It was not because these people were evil. It was simply because they lived in the land that Yahweh wanted to give to the Israelites, and there was a fear their faith would woo the Israelites away.

Every Christian needs to figure out what they’re going to do with this. This is the main attack of our generation of atheists, and so each of us needs to figure out how we might sleep at night while worshipping the God of this Bible.

But first, there’s a temptation some times when it comes to this stuff to try and find the answer in studying the history/archaeology/cultural context for this post. This is certainly what I’ve done, and I’ve found a lot of help in that. But, whatever you might want to do with this history of the text, there has to be a way to appropriate these texts regardless of how much studying the reader has done. We can and should investigate the backgrounds of these books, but at the end of the day, the only truly satisfying answer should come from within the materials we have to work with here.

In other words, if our response is not something readily available to even the most un-educated among us, then it won’t be ultimately helpful in the ways it needs to be.

While there’s much more that can/should be said about this than what we can do in this post, here’s what I’ll say to try and help us: our interpretive framework and presupposition with which to approach these texts cannot first and foremost be a belief about the Bible itself. The primary filter we bring to this should not be a belief about the historicity or literalness of the Bible–one way or the other. Our interpretive filter must be Jesus himself.

Why? The Bible says that he is the clearest and truest revelation of the nature of God–not the Bible. As I’ve said in an earlier class, the Bible itself is not the revelation of God; it’s the place where the Holy Spirit reveals God to us within the text. Some writers have poetically articulated this by saying that God is revealed “behind” or “in-between” the letters of the Bible’s words and not “within” them. The words on the page are not God, no matter how “clearly” it seems to be making some claim as to his nature or his prerogative. Jesus is.

So what does this mean practically? Well, lots of people whose most important belief seems to be “the Bible is such-and-such kind of way” seem to inadvertantly prioritize the Bible over Jesus. They will twist and force our picture of Jesus to fit him into the harder parts of Scripture, rather than vice versa. They would rather greatly de-emphasize–and in some cases, completely toss out–clear parts of Jesus’ revelation of God in order to make him seem in line with this God of Numbers and Joshua.

And though those justifications may satisfy us intellectually for a time, I hope we all agree that these explanations still feel deeply hollow and unsatisfactory at a spiritual and worshipful level.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to choose Jesus over the Bible. And so, when you have to choose between God as revealed in Joshua, and God as revealed in Jesus, being a Christian means you have to choose Jesus. You must be at least willing–if necessary–to twist, reinterpret, change your perspective on, and, yes, maybe sometimes even toss some ideas out when anything goes against who God is as seen in Christ. The writers of the New Testament did this constantly. Many Christians will say that we’ll never have to make that choice, but the older I get, I personally have to question that.

The Bible is a human book. It itself is no more divine than a church building. But, it is the sovereignly chosen meeting place of God with His People, when used by the Holy Spirit to that end. So, in that way, it is still definitely sacred ground.

We also have to understand that in the whole sweep of redemptive history, the Israelites at this point still have only a fuzzy picture of who Yahweh is. He has not revealed very much about his nature yet at this point in the story. In these early books, we have hardly any statements referring to the afterlife, angelology, life after death, any sort of “heaven” idea, any idea of “holy writings”, what faith logs like without a temple our tabernacle, or even that Yahweh is the only God in existence (the Israelites, for most of their pre-exilic history, believed in the existence of other gods, they just believed there’s was superior)!

As an analogy, if you want as comprehensive and accurate of a picture of someone’s father as possible, would you rather talk to one of their children when that child is two, or 42?

The book of Joshua is when the Israelites are still two, using whatever words they can to describe their Daddy. The New Testament is, in a sense, God’s older children–with perspective, age, and wisdom–talking about this Father. And ultimately, in Jesus, we’re talking to the Father himself.

I hope these things begin a conversation and some thoughts that lead us to seeing God more clearly–as he is seen in Jesus–and not more confusedly as he is sometimes made in our silly attempts at resolving things that need not ever be brought together.


(You can download this article for free in various forms by viewing it on Scribd.)

[image credit: Marc Chagall “White Crucifixion”]

11 thoughts on “What do we make of the atrocities of the Old Testament?

  1. This would be one of the rare occasions I disagree with you. Genesis 15:16 indicates a reason for the genocide involves sin. Narratives are tricky in that if you are asking a different question than the author, then your answer will probably be wrong. I don’t believe the Joshua narratives are asking the question “How could God kill the Canaanites without being evil?”

    The alternative which you and Enns have grasped reduces Scripture to a temporal manifestation of God’s character except where you need it to talk about Jesus. Even that isn’t quite accurate as we have Jesus issuing some harsh statements, and unless you take an extreme view of Revelation, Jesus is eventually going to dole out judgement some day.

    So, while I appreciate the efforts Enns and you make to understand this difficult portion of Scripture, I believe instead of going for the easiest answer, you’re accepting an answer that causes great difficulties for bibliology, soteriology, and even theodicy.


  2. On a side note, if “conquest narrative” ends up panning out as a legitimate and convincing genre that hyperbolizes all destruction and overemphasizes (from a cultural point of view) divine commands, then I will issue an apology and change camps. Or, I may just change my mind someday based on logical deductions regarding hermeneutics. But in any case, at least for right now, I don’t believe the issue should fall on the side you’ve taken.


  3. You raise the deepest perplexities we Christians face–explaining the genocide and commanded atrocities of the Old Testament. My husband and I are reading through the One Year Bible and we have discussed this question at length. Of course, his conclusions are brilliant. Me, I’m the Old Testament scholar between us and I stay somewhat simplistic. But I do so totally agree that this is the universal argument atheists raise. And if they possess eloquence they can pummel the Bible to pieces. But I have answered them with my simplicity and forced them at least to carefully think about their “non-beliefs”, which is actually belief.
    I wish I better answers for them and several times have deferred to Deut. 29:29 “The LORD our God has secrets known to no one. We are not accountable for them, but we and our children are accountable forever for all that he has revealed to us, so that we may obey all the terms of these instructions. (Deuteronomy 29:29 NLT) I find them agreeable that there are questions that are unanswerable in our human existence. This statement alone allows them to at least consider the existence of God.
    I once heard a debate between Christopher Hitchens (such eloquent persuasion!) and Dinesh D’Souza (methodical destruction!). The whole debate just blew my mind. As Christians we can fearlessly defend out faith. But let us always keep in mind that no matter what, the power is in the pure gospel. People are sinners and need to turn to Christ for salvation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended with that and have faced a cross-eyed perplexed look that points to their deepest need. The pure gospel resonates with EVERYONE. Many have come back to me later and said they thought I was crazy but it made them think. Many turned to Christ and became vibrant Christians.
    Let us never forget the power of the gospel.
    See what I mean when I say I’m simplistic? Drives my brilliant, scholar husband crazy!


  4. I was promised an article about “what we were to make of this god portrayed in some of the worst books of the old T as Christians”. What I got was some hoops to jump through and some ramblings about how we should view this passage. What then is the esteemed blogger’s view on what we were, in conclusion, to make of this god portrayed in those books of the bible?


    • Uh…. What are we to make of this God? That he’s most clearly seen in Jesus? Sorry if that wasn’t clear, although I think I hit the Jesus thing pretty hard.

      (Man, why is Anon always so critical? He never returns my emails, but he’s always seems so disappointed in my posts. Well, at least Anon’s not cowardly and posts using his name rather than some hit-and-run commenting approach)

      Thanks for the comment!


  5. So then, in ultimate conclusion, what are we to make of him while we are clearly seeing him in Jesus?

    I am only posting anon because of the bonkers sign in thing here that seems to overlap with other sites that I post on. Those other sites are where I would rather remain anon. Get rid of that sign in box and magically I will become unanon. I imagine it is difficult to get rid of.


    • Ultimately, the point I was trying to make was this: Jesus is a clearer “revealing” of who God is than the Bible. He is the clearest picture of what the Old Testament is only hinting at. And further, I tried to (strongly) imply that God as revealed in Joshua stands in contrast to God ash he is revealed in Joshua. And so, my main encouragement here is that the God of the Bible is the God as seen in Jesus, and is only hinted at in Joshua.

      That was my only point. We need to choose God in Jesus over God in Joshua. That was all I was trying to say here. We are to make of God whatever we are to make of him in Jesus. Is there something more specific that’s need to be said? I guess I could have said that the God we see in Jesus is one in whom grace is his primary method of relating to sinners, who takes on violence on himself rather than being violent, who works for the good of the place in which he finds himself rather than trying to conquer new lands, whose speech and behavior was more dominated by love than anything else, who brought about change by means of service rather than war.

      To go beyond all that into even more practicalities and specific principles of interpretation was beyond this scope of this particular post (although I touch on that with the progressive revelation stuff).

      The only other element I could think to say here (and I didn’t want to get into this in the post) is that there is genuinely no evidence that any of the things that happened in Joshua actually happened in history. In fact, there’s lots of evidence that it didn’t happen the way it was outlined in Joshua. There’s every bit of evidence that the development of the Israelite people was one more akin to slow displacement of other people-groups through migration and population-growing, rather than war. To me, this post was the fruit of me thinking through the implications of THAT. If these things never happened, where do I draw a picture of who God is? Jesus. Not the book of Joshua.

      Was there anything more you were hoping I’d get into. I can’t for the life of me figure it out.

      And as far as the anon stuff goes, those boxes are there to prevent spam comments (you have no idea how many still get through anyway!). And either way, couldn’t you just sign your name or whatever in the bottom of the body of the comment? At the very least, are you someone I know? Do you lean more conservative on these issues? Are you a straight-up atheist? What do you actually think about all of this? I’m sorry that my first response was super-snarky. Your orignal comment seemed very sarcastic, so I responded in-kind. Putting some sort of identity marker on your comment would help give your words some kind of context so I can respond appropriately.

      But either way, thanks for the comment.


  6. Paul, bro, sorry I didn’t get back to you.

    Listen man, the old T in no way hints at anything even close to what god would look like through the “lens” of Jesus. Not. A Single. Hint. He’s a totally different big G.

    Why is that? Because he was, for all intents and purposes, a different god. Yes, he literally supposedly is the same god, as Christians worship the same god as the jews, ostensibly. But, as you say, christians think he morphed into mighty power nice god when J came on down. I wonder if they believe he might pull a might morphin power god move once again and go all genocide on us once again? Oh, wait, christians do believe that! Except instead of having the Israelies go all medieval on our behinds he’ll let satan et al. do it this time around instead of having his final battle on the moon or somewhere where it wouldn’t mess with the rest of us.

    Even so, I’m interested to hear what hints of god were provided in Joshua, if you have them handy. If not, np, good talking.

    “We need to choose God in Jesus over God in Joshua.”

    So god is really just who we choose him to be. Meh, better explanation than most people can conjure.

    “Is there something more specific that’s need to be said?”

    Sure bro, tell us all about how he’s a reformed god like you did. He is no longer a genocidal maniacal god, he’s totally teh goods now. At least, I think that’s what you’re trying to say. In any event, generally speaking in life, if you bother yourself to write things out long hand, you’ll start to see the nonsense in your position, if there is any, more often than if you don’t write it out.

    To be clear, I prefer my christianity with an all powerful, jealous, genocidal god who just so happens to put up with us sinners because his son was like “pops lay off bro” and he was like “ok, ok, but you gotta take one for em” then J was like “ok”. It’s how I was raised. So since I choose that god, that’s who he is right? Considering that he literally only demonstrably lives inside my brain, I think it’ll be fine if we go that route.

    “is that there is genuinely no evidence that any of the things that happened in Joshua actually happened in history”

    There’s also no evidence that any of the things recounted about the resurrection happened either bro, but you’re all up ins believin’ on it. Indeed, there is substantial evidence the contrary. The only credible historical (by a historian rather than a fan boi) account we have of the big J dying simply says he (or rather the king o da jews) was put to death. Strangely it doesn’t mention anything about his sproutin’ back up all god-like. Why is that? Because, historically speaking, it never happened.

    “To me, this post was the fruit of me thinking through the implications of THAT. If these things never happened, where do I draw a picture of who God is? Jesus. Not the book of Joshua.”

    Finally the purpose of this post comes out. Thanks bro. Maybe next time you’ll hook us up with some meat to go with the small potatoes without someone having to ask for it.

    Yeah I know you, we met back in the day. Haven’t seen you since the school house days. And I would sign my name but I have no way of knowing what other sites will use this same doodad to do their posts and link to all other posts made under that account.

    As to my beliefs right now, idk man, I hate to say a fair-weather christian, but I have a job now that requires that I learn the difference between having evidence to support what I say in official communications and in not having evidence to support what I say in those communications. Blatantly the most rational belief is to not believe, for the same reason as there is no reason to believe that there is no teapot orbiting mars. There is no “evidence” for the resurrection, and most of the bible, save for third hand testimony, written by fan bois who couldn’t quite get their stories straight, and then later edited by professional editors trying to tidy things up. Editors who had nothing better to do their entire lives but tidy things up. Considering how closely it matches many other folk-myths from back in that same day and before it and slightly after it, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is also folk-myth. It may well be the best folk-myth there ever has been, and that may well be a good thing for us as humans to have.

    But, on the other hand, whenever I take time out of my day to ask god to send a girl my way, he usually delivers in a week or less. If that ain’t deity-dominoes service I don’t know what deity-dominoes service is. And church can be a super good time. Raised non-denom, but with a hint of southern baptist thrown in, so I’m sure you’re familiar with those goings ons. And after all, like you say in other posts, those ol’ atheists can’t disprove a negative! So therefor, the resurrection totally happened! Wait, or something like that.

    And I’m sorry for the snark too man, it’s the nature of the interwebs. So impersonal. What I’m saying would sound a lot more animated irl.

    In any event, by the time we’re 80 Paul, mankind should have spread to Mars a tad, and then the apocalyptic “fiction” towards the end of the book will be quite irrelevant anyway, because even if the world ends, mankind goes on. That isn’t to say it isn’t good apocalyptic fiction, it is dam good apocalyptic fiction! Have you read some of the drivel that was written around the same time? Most of the apocalyptic writers back then didn’t even have the good sense to end with an Amen.


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