The Wars of the Lord

or God’s Genocides

What do we do with the hard texts of the Bible, like the ones where God tells the Israelites to kill everyone in a certain town, or of a certain people group, including women and children?  The biblical record denotes that the Israelites were to wipe out the Canaanites as they entered the Promised Land, and do it in obedience to God.

We could ignore them, or pretend they aren’t in there…  Or focus on other texts.  But eventually, we come across them.

For example:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.  If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.  If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.  When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the man in it.  As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.  And you may use the plunder Yahweh your God gives you from your enemies.  This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

However, in the cities of the nations that Yahweh your God is giving you for your inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  You shall devote them to utter destruction… just as Yahweh your God has commanded.  You must kill them all, or else they may teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, causing you to sin against Yahweh your God.”

–      Deut 20:10-18

is this obedience?

Let’s get this straight.  They had to wipe out entire peoples because otherwise they would  ‘do the abhorrent things they do for their gods’?  Like kill an entire town, including the men, women and children?  Like ‘use the plunder’ including women and children, which in the ancient world meant forced marriage, rape, and slavery?

Is there actually anything worse the other gods could ask their people to do?

How do we deal with texts like this that portray God as commanding atrocities that today we immediately denounce anyone doing?  Is it OK because it was a long time ago?  Is it OK because Israel was special?

Spiritual Wars
The church father Origen approached it this way:
“As for the command given to the Jews to slay their enemies, it may be answered that anyone who looks carefully into the meaning of the passage will find that it is impossible to interpret it literally.”

It’s impossible to take it literally, he says.  So then what do we do with it?

Origen chooses the path of allegory:

“In his Homily on Joshua, Origen reiterates this position. Referring to the genocidal narratives in the book of Joshua, he stipulates that “unless those carnal wars were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches” (Hom. Ios. 15.1).” (quoted from The Human Faces of God).

So it’s really not about actual historical wars, but about the spiritual battles we all face in removing evil from our own lives.  It’s an interesting approach, but probably one that will not satisfy most biblical readers.

Surgerical Procedure
Some, defending a position of inerrancy – that the Bible always communicates history, theology, science and culture 100% accurately – take this approach:

“Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient’s body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society.”  So says Gleason Archer, apologist and biblical inerrantist.

In other words, the women and even children (and infants!) were not fit to live.  They embodied some sort of evil.  Perhaps allowing these children to live would have resulted in the Israelites following other gods, even if the children were raised in Israelite households.  To me that might say more about the Israelite parenting than anything else.

But if these people were so evil, why did God not give them a chance to repent, ala Jonah and the Ninevites?  They were also enemies of Israel.  So certainly God elsewhere allows people the chance to repent of their ways without immediate retribution.

Shortcut to Heaven?
William Lane Craig notes that it’s actually better for the children to die than be raised in these pagan households, because children who die ‘automatically go to heaven’.  So the Israelites were doing these children a favor by running them through with the sword.    Seriously?  If that were his actual position, why would Craig not be behind a wholesale implementation of abortion?  Why let any child live and take the chance it might not go to heaven?  Abortion should be the first option, not the last.  Yet no doubt Craig is a strong pro-life advocate, who in actuality doesn’t really believe what he is saying, but is grasping – like all of us – to understand these difficult texts.

The reality is that if a text like the above was in the Koran, we would immediately denounce it as evil and unjustifiable.  When such things happen today, we are horrified and speak out against it, even if the person was doing it as a Christian ‘in the name of God’.  We would say they were misled.   Yet when it is in our own Scriptures, we hesitate to denounce it as such.  A quandary indeed.

I will raise some other possibilities in my next post, but for now am wondering your thoughts:

Are you satisfied with any of these approaches?  Do you have another suggestion?

Post your thoughts below.

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18 thoughts on “The Wars of the Lord

  1. Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic however
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  2. Bryan,

    Hey there Israel traveling friend!

    I must say I almost didnt respond to your posts here. I am very impressed with how articulate you are – I can feel your beliefs in the very words.

    HOWEVER, ;0)

    I guess I would like clarification from you. Are you saying that the Wars of the OT are not true? That they actually didn’t happen? Or, are you saying they “could be” spiritualized? I understand they are ‘musings’ but I wasnt entirely sure where you seemed to land.

    That being said, I respectfully disagree with your (apparent) conclusions.

    Just because we cannot fully understand (we are not capable) why God does something, or orders His people to do an act we don’t agree with, does not mean that God didn’t in fact give the order. If I were to follow that process forward, then I could reasonably reject anything God says if it goes against my moral grain – right? We dont get to pick and choose what to believe and not believe from His Word. It is either His Word or it isn’t.

    I agree with and like what Mike Lubbers says above. There is so much of history that isnt included in the bible, so much we just dont know about God. Mike is right – we dont know that God didn’t give those pagan nations thousands of times to get it right – in fact, Genesis 15:16 even sort of suggests that saying the “iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete”. God was giving them every opportunity it seems.

    So it comes down to two things (in my limited knowledge), either I will choose to believe the bible, even the parts that I dont “get” and “trust” in Him – (Who am I to question the Potter?? – Romans 9:21).

    I DO think God loves it when we mull this stuff over, wrestle with it, chew (ha-gah) on it, but in the end choose to land on the fact that even if it is tough to believe, I choose His Word. God is infinite, we are finite – how could we possibly get it all?

    I had/have a difficult time reading those sections of scripture also. I really do – it just doesnt seem to be fair. But for me it ultimately came down to the fact that I KNOW that Justice is the character of God. He would never act outside of His character – EVER. So if it wasn’t ‘just’ for Him to ‘kill off’ all those people, it would have never happened – yet it did. So what led Him to do it must have been ‘just’!

    Maybe the test is ours -???? Maybe the test is – lets see if Liz, and Bryan and Gaynor and Mike will still believe my Word, even when it’s hard?? Will they still believe ME? Will they still follow Me – even if they don’t understand, or if it doesn’t seem reasonable?

    I draw my hard line in the sand – I may not understand the entire bible (frankly – I dont think we are meant to – not every little thing), but I still ‘buy it” or buy into it. It cant be considered God’s Word if only parts of it are correct.

    Respectfully – Liz

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    1. Hi Liz,
      Thanks for dropping by! There are no easy answers to the above discussion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I sympathize with much of what you are saying.

      I also agree that God would never act outside his character. So when it appears that he is – I think it’s OK to ask – did God actually act that way, or is that how the later Israelites in power framed the narrative to justify their actions? I would prefer to protect God and his character over a text which we know was written by human beings. I worship God, not the Bible, though I trust that in the Bible I meet and find God himself.

      This is not actually all that different than a Jewish approach in which a midrash will include the things God should have said. I don’t have all the answers, but am wrestling with God and the text as I think we are called to.

      There is much wisdom in your thoughts, and again – thanks for sharing them!

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  3. http://www.gregboyd.org/?s=Herem

    I learned quite a bit on this topic from Greg Boyd’s blog (above) as he reviews some books worth considering on the topic. I’ll copy a few main points…

    “When you read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ (as we must) it becomes evident that, while all Scripture is inspired, not all Scripture reveals God’s character with equal clarity. It’s true God reluctantly participates in the bloody barbarism of the cultures he’s trying to slowly win over, but God’s true character is revealed when (for example) he mercifully protects Cain, the murderer, from being murdered and when he puts strong constraints around ancient, unbridled, retaliation practices. So too, in contrast to the barbaric Conquest narratives, we see God’s true heart in Old Testament characters who display Christ-like characteristics. For example, we find Elisha doing warfare God’s way when Elisha leads a supernaturally blinded Syrian army with whom Israel was at war (and that had been dispatched specifically to kill Elisha! See 2 Kg 6:12-14) into the court of the Samaritan King. When all expected Elisha to give the order to slaughter the captives, he instead told the king to throw them a banquet (2 Kg 6:22-23). That’s doing battle God’s way. And in contrast to the use of violence which always — always! — leads to more violence, this act of mercy brought an end to the fighting between Syria and Israel (2 Kg 6:23). God’s ideal will is for his people to fight like Elisha, not Joshua.”

    The difficulty of examining these war passages is compounded by the failure to overlook specific passages where God asks his people to place their trust in his rather “unique” methods of warfare (driving people away with hornets and ritualistic parades). While one cannot dodge the fact that a plain reading of Scripture seems to promote a type of “ethnic cleansing” at times, what do we make of the nonsensical passages like Deut. 7:1-4?

    1 When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and
    when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.

    Why include a prohibition against marriage if there is nothing left of the 7 wicked nations but corpses? Israel cannot be faithful to the first command [to destroy them totally] without making the second look ridiculous.

    Even if this second instruction serves as a demonstration of the consequences for what will happen in the face of disobedience, the following verse provides the extent of the action to be taken by Israel…

    5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.

    I think that herem (to devote/dedicate to destruction) is not meant to be a wholesale slaughter of the people of Canaan, but is rather directed at the worship practices of the people west of the Jordan river. Walter Brueggemann masterfully examines the root of “Canaanite” to reveal not an ethnically different people, but a pejorative term that indicates the wealthy/elite/landed/controllers-of-the-economy. It is precisely this system that God opposes because it takes advantage of the weak, and uses religion to legitimize itself. (A system still “worshiped” today.) He (Brueggemann & others) argue that Israel is destined to bring an “exodus-style” liberation to the underclass within the promised land. When they refuse and become a virtual Egypt themselves, God drives (notice– not completely destroys) them away into exile.

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    1. Interesting stuff from Boyd and Brueggemann… I certainly haven’t covered all the possibilities yet, and some are certainly dismayed at the possibility mentioned in the third post. Hopefully more posts to come. Thanks for reading and responding!

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  4. Or, … maybe they (or their power-hungry leaders) made up the stuff about how God told us to do x, y, and z to get the people to do things they would ordinarily find repellent.

    Or, this is the usual revisionist history to boost morale, legitimize past war crimes and maintain the new dominance.

    Or, more specifically, as one of my Calvin profs barely hinted at, maybe all this stuff about violently defeating their enemies was an attempt to glorify (in a war-glorifying world) what was actually a gradual immigration involving a somewhat boring and dishonorable out-reproducing of the natives, cultural and genetic assimilation and religious syncretism.

    Each of these should sound painfully familiar.

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  5. Great discussion. Thought-provoking. Don’t have much to add…just absorbing it all in and contemplating the God I adore.

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  6. I think that these are great questions that are raised and by no means is there a clear, all inclusive answer.

    The first point that comes to mind is the question: Is the Bible always the word of God, or is it a reflection of the writer’s view of God? Or, is it somewhere in the middle?

    Clearly, Christians and Jews do not take every aspect of the Bible literally, even the most conservative Christians do not think that Jesus really is a lamp that sits on a table or that he literally is a word. We all pick and choose what parts of the Bible we take literally and what parts we view as metaphor that speak a larger truth.

    With that said, I think these difficult passages need to be viewed from the vantage point of “What is the larger truth that is affirmed through our lives and the rest of the Bible?” For example, we could gain some truths from the above passage:

    1. When you go to war, God wants you to first seek peace, don’t kill first and ask questions later.
    2. If you go to war and have to kill, kill the men and spare the women/children/cattle.
    3. God was giving the Israelite people a new identity and land.

    First we need to look at the greater truth and then we need to look at the culture of how things happened. Most times, when groups attacked, they did not offer peace or spare individuals. Instead, they would just take over and take what they wanted. However, this is a step forward for humans to start attempting peace.

    Often times as 21st century readers, we don’t understand that there is a human evolution going on through the Bible. In the same way that a baby slowly learns what it means to be human, the entire race of humans is growing up and improving on each generation. What one generation needs another may not. As a result, it was a step forward for the Jews to offer peace and not just kill first. This is similar to how offering animals for sacrifice instead of humans was a revolutionary step forward when the Jews began the temple system and could know where they stood with God.

    Lastly, this point leads into the idea that human history is not stagnant. We should not be so pompous to believe that we will never deal with what our ancestors dealt with, but we should see the Bible as moving somewhere. What the Jews of the Hebrew Testament grew through, we can learn from them and don’t need to repeat.

    In the same way, we would not return to the first century temple system or the medieval church/state system. Instead human history has gone from killing humans in sacrifice and direct pillage, killing animals and offering peace before war, to a temple system that had aspirations of being the established kingdom, to the church replacing Rome and having waves of positive and negative papal leadership, to kings and colonization, to attempts at democracy and separation of spiritual and political leadership.

    When we read these passages, we need to seek what truths they teach us that we see in the Bible and our lives, what are the cultural nuances, and how did it help move humanity forward in the progressive building of life?

    With that said, it will be a starting point in the on-going journey of spiritual growth. We seek to put into words something that is beyond words, that is fully present for us to engage with to help our generation move forward in the human experiment.

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    1. Thanks for these thoughts, Joe.

      I agree with your first point, and I will expand on that idea in my next post – how do we discern when an author’s point of view is actually a word from God? However, I think we can all agree that the conquest accounts are not meant to be understood as merely symbolic or allegorical. They are problematic, period.

      The second point you mention about what we can learn: “2. If you go to war and have to kill, kill the men and spare the women/children/cattle.” That was only the case for cities outside of the Promised Land. Those inside were to be totally eradicated, or “destroy everything that breathes”. So yes, God did command, at least according to the text, that women and children be killed, and there are other texts that note “running through pregnant women with the sword”.

      We can chalk that up to culture, but it sounds an awful lot like what every other ancient power did in the name of their gods.

      I agree we need to look at the larger narrative of the Bible, and where human history is going, and moreover, where God is leading. And I think you’re exactly right when you say, “we can learn from them and don’t need to repeat [what they did].”

      I also think we can learn from these texts, and have to do our best to understand them, rather than ignore them, or simply say, ‘God is mysterious’ (even though He is!). 🙂

      By the way – how do you have time for this? Congrats on being a dad!

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      1. Thanks for your comments.

        L. was sleeping and I needed a theological outlet for a bit. One can only change so many diapers before one needs to think beyond the poop of the bum and move to the poop of the world.

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  7. I like that we can ask these questions honestly, because these are truly hard sections of Scripture to look at. I think we need to be careful about how we handle this as well. We also need to remember that “our thoughts” and “God’s thoughts” are much, much different, and when we say God couldn’t have really wanted this, too often we are saying, “I wouldn’t have done that… if I was God.” Of course, “I wouldn’t have done that…” is often our response to events of the past, but I like how Mark Driscoll (can I quote him here?) once addressed a conference in regards to the Pharisee’s treatment of Jesus, “No you would have done worse, and so would I.” In our view of what God should do, we like to think that God would do what we would according to our sensitivities and what is acceptable to our “modern” culture.

    I like Craig, but I’ve always cringed at any argument for age of accountability, because we have no evidence of this in Scripture. Furthermore, the logical conclusion, while jumped to far too quickly, is hard to argue against. Origin, a early church father (like many early church fathers prone to errors) argues for an allegorical reading of the verse. But what is his evidence for it? Is there textual arguments for it, or just a distaste for the “unpleasant”.

    Bryan, your conclusion from Archer’s statement based on inerrancy, while predictable, is sloppy. Sorry my friend, but I speak straight. You “jump the shark” immediately to an extreme logical position that need not be. What we don’t know is how often God had called these people to repentance. Could it have been once, twice, a hundred times? Does God need to recall it? Is not Romans 1 clear they should have known, and thus repented? Did not individuals, like Rahab, at hearing of what God did in Egypt, worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

    “But if these people were so evil, why did God not give them a chance to repent, ala Jonah and the Ninevites? They were also enemies of Israel. So certainly God elsewhere allows people the chance to repent of their ways without immediate retribution.” And certainly God elsewhere seemingly provides no chance to repent with immediate retribution. What about the men, who in trying to prevent the ark from falling and touching the ground, die instantly upon touching the ark? What about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5? That seems to be instant death without a chance to repent. And that’s New Testament, new covenant, Jesus time! Of course, verse 11 provides a good answer, because unlike God who would learn pretty quickly, too often we are slow, stubborn learners and need harsh examples. No one ever seems to answer me on this example. Oh well, love wins in the end I guess … I hope … nevermind, I need to keep perpetuating a myth about how my mega church started …

    Finally, no, just reading a story like this in the Koran, isolated would not instantly cause me to denounce it as evil and unjustified. I like to take things in context of the whole writing. I know, context is a lost art form today, but shouldn’t be. As for things happening today, the covenant Jesus has with us does not call for such actions (genocide), nor does he deal with national sin, but rather the individual first (again, something rejected by the all too influenced by Marx rather than Jesus). Furthermore, revelation is complete so I don’t think we should be getting any direct calls from God regarding genocide. And still more, the next great slaughter in the name of God will be lead by a warrior with a tattoo on his leg saying “King of King’s and Lord of Lord’s”. That’s of course if anyone still believes that God is love, and God is also wrath … but that’s not nice and doesn’t satisfy our inner child and make us cuddle everyone, so that’s probably the parts that aren’t inspired.

    Of course, if only parts of the Bible are inspired, and the rest are errors written by racists, genocidal maniacs, well intentioned people who just got it wrong, misogynists like Paul, etc, than what parts are inspired and authoritative. I guess we could ask Thomas Jefferson and his razor …

    In the end, this is very hard to deal with, and causes much angst. I still struggle with more real life examples, like how can a loving, just God allow for someone who claims to be a believer, lie, cheat, mislead, and be abhorrent, and find support from “believing” friends, while the flawed believer who struggles to pursue and love God gets treated like an outcast, sinner, and pariah? And no, I’m not talking about Jim Tressel either. But in either case, I seek out God, I pray, we talk, I go back to is word, and usually my struggle, my lack of faith, my issue, is a result that I’m not God, and nor should I ever desire to be, because I’d do much worse …

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    1. Wow – thanks for putting time into your response. Or at least a lot of words. I think this is longer than my post.

      As for the ‘next great slaughter in the name of God’ – well… I have a hard time believing that Jesus is going to show up and start killing people. The same Jesus who eschewed violence? That’s like looking forward to Ghandi kicking some rear end. I would feel duped if Jesus is going to change his M.O., and further, you’re referring to an apocalyptic text that was using symbolic and figurative language to communicate that God reigns, not Rome, that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. The ‘sword’ he refers to in the letter to Pergamum is not an actual sword – it is response to the reality that the local Roman representative had ius gladii, or the ‘right of the sword’, meaning the power to make decisions independent of Rome’s approval, on behalf of Rome. The text is remarking that Jesus is the one who has ultimate authority, not Rome – not that Jesus is actually going to show up sword-wielding. The idea of a sword coming out of someone’s mouth is clearly metaphorical (see Isaiah 49:2).

      As per your other thoughts, hopefully I’ll address some of that in my next post.

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