Violence & The Bible

Most nights, when we’re putting our sons to bed, we have Oliver read his Bible Storybook to Elijah. It’s a good Bible for their age and stage of life. When I was preparing for the subject that we’re getting into today, violence in the Old Testament, I was curious how his kid-friendly Bible worded some of the stories.

But it doesn’t address them.

There’s just this massive gap between Joshua and Daniel. How they’ve chosen to “deal” with violence in the Old Testament is to just NOT deal with it. It says very quickly, in one sentence, that “God helped the Hebrews win their battles and took them to the Promised Land.”

The end… For the kids. But what about us? Maybe you’ve been working through the Bible in a Year, or you’re reading random passages, and you get to some of these stories and wonder: What is going on? I didn’t know that THAT was in here! If we don’t know any better, it can leave us feeling like God is very unpleasant.

The Old Testament is full of TV-MA content that makes HBO’s Game of Thrones look tame. We read stories of cannibalism, incest, witchcraft, and human sacrifices. There are bloody deaths, decapitations, and fingers, feet, and hands being cut off. That’s not including scenes of eyes gouged out, impalements, and suicides.

This is all in the Bible!

Is God a Bloodthirsty Maniac?

There’s a quote I’m going to share with you that you might find offensive. My point isn’t to offend you. I have chosen to share it because it captures what people from outside the Christian Church perceive about the violence in the Old Testament.

Atheist Richard Dawkins writes his best-selling book, The God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction. Jealous and proud of it. A petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak of vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, genocidal bully.”

There are people, and perhaps you’re one of them, who agree with Dawkins’ assessment of God based on the violence in the Old Testament.

Is God really like that?

How (NOT) To Read The Bible

This is the sixth and final part of our study, “How (Not) to Read The Bible,” based on Dan Kimball’s book. I recommend getting this book if you want to go deeper and broader into the subject material we’ve been going through.

Of course, the series is based on the Bible too.

How do we explain or understand the stories where it looks like God is committing killing entire groups of people, including women and children? 

There IS violence in the Bible. No one can argue otherwise. But I hope to dispel this criticism that we have a bloodthirsty maniac as God. We have to understand these violent stories and the context of the more extensive storyline of the Bible.

Two Inadequate Explanations for Biblical Violence

You’ve probably heard one of two explanations for Old Testament violence:

  1. No-apology approach. This approach states that God can do whatever he wants, including genocide, and that he owes none of us an apology. 
  2. Bible-is-wrong approach. This says that the Bible has these stories, but whoever wrote them was mistaken. (i.e., God didn’t really say those things or didn’t want that to happen.)

Both of these explanations are inadequate and theologically weak. The former would be an act of sin against himself. The latter is entirely subjective, stating there’s no objective way to discern when God does or doesn’t mean what’s said.

Three Questions to Ask When Reading About Violence (in the Old Testament).

Is it humans doing the violence, or is God commanding the violence?

Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean God’s backing it. There are a lot of people who do horrible, terrible things. Think of Cain, who kills his brother Abel. God didn’t tell him to do that, and he was furious after it happened. Moses murders a couple of Egyptian slave drivers and almost screws up his life. David had Uriah killed.

The list goes on and on.

When we come to passages in the Old Testament about violence, ask yourself, is this a human doing this? Is it somebody going against God’s will? Was it God who commanded the violence? That’s the first question. 

Is this violence about God making a way when God sends Israel into battle with the various cities going to the Promised Land or in the Promised Land?

God gives groups, such as the Canaanites or Jericho, an opportunity to join the Israelites first. Think about Rahab in Jericho. God spares her, and she’s brought into the family. She’s even in Jesus’s bloodline. God’s first thing is an ask, Do you want to join us? And what we see repeatedly is that, for the most part, people say no. That’s when the conflict happens.

Interestingly, when we read a command from the Israelites to “destroy” a group, their enemies were actually (and only) driven out of a geographic area. Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement. It was typical in literature 1,000s of years ago, including the biblical texts.

There are at least half a dozen examples I found and studied in which that kind of vernacular, such as “completely destroy” or “exterminate,” was used. And then, a verse or a chapter later, there’s text telling us where the survivors went.

So they weren’t exterminated because some people went on to live elsewhere. We need to be careful when we’re reading the Bible about the hyperbole that is going on. What actually happened? That’s the second question.

What kind of warning has God-given, and what kind of patience has God exhibited?

There’s a problem when people are living unapologetically evil. It’s not just that they rejected God. In the case of the Ninevites, historical records show that they bragged about live dismemberment. They had parades in which survivors were required to carry their friends’ heads on elevated poles. They pulled out the tongues and genitals of live victims and burned young children to death.

At some point, God says enough is enough.

What occurred in Ninevah were what we would label significant human rights violations. They’re acts that would start wars today. Even the most anti-war person would struggle if they knew that infants and toddlers were being burned to death in a national religious ceremony.

A question you might have now that you didn’t have a few minutes ago: Why did God wait so long to do something? If it was that heinous, why not get in there and do something about it sooner?

We get the answers all over the place, but it’s very explicit in Ezekiel 18:23, which says, “‘Do you think that I like seeing wicked people die?’ Says the Sovereign Lord? ‘Of course not. I want them to turn from their evil ways.'”

The Ninevites were inexplicably evil, but even so, God didn’t get pleasure out of seeing them die. God always gave these people warnings first. Often, he warned them for multiple generations. 

There Are No Simple Explanations

Suppose we just cherry-pick a few violent verses of the Bible and ignore God’s character. In that case, we understand how Dawkins arrived at his conclusion. 

But that is a very uninformed reading of the Bible that ignores other evidence that contradicts his statement. It essentially says, “God must be like this because I read this passage about God.”

Whereas when we read the Bible, from beginning to end, we see that it is a lot more complicated than that. People are complex, and so is God. We should consider God’s character anytime we read about violence in the Old Testament. 

If God never interjected into our lives to right wrongs, what kind of God would that God be? How could God be good if God never brought about justice when all people and systems have failed people?

We won’t find all the answers to our questions about God, violence, and the Old Testament, but there are some answers. We still have questions like why wasn’t there another way? In God’s infinite wisdom, wasn’t there a better way? There are some explanations. By asking these hard questions, we get a better picture of God.