“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
– Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion)
Gee, Richard, tell us how you really feel.
As the world’s best known and most gleefully antagonistic atheist, Richard Dawkins doesn’t pull punches. But is he, in the words of the immortal bard Donald Trump, “telling it like it is?”
Not really. Dawkins himself has admitted that the infamous quote above doesn’t reflect a wholly honest assessment of the God of the Bible, and, in fact, was crafted first and foremost as a comedic bit of hyperbole to get a laugh at public addresses. Which it does. Quite effectively.
But still. It is a little bit accurate, isn’t it? I mean, God did command the Israelites to kill a whole mess of Canaanites, whose primary offense was pitching their tents on the wrong piece of Middle Eastern dirt at the wrong time. They were, in the words of our English Bibles, “devoted to destruction” or “devoted to the Lord.” Killed. Wiped out.
That seems to fit the definition of “genocide,” does it not? What are we supposed to think about that? How should we respond? “No, our God isn’t a genocidal bully, he’s a genocidal God of love!”
So we try to change the subject by appealing to Jesus. “Yes, but Jesus! Isn’t he a nice fellow? Look! Here he is holding a little lamb … and playing with children … and cross-stitching Bible verses onto tiny pillows…” Pay no attention to that Old Testament God behind the curtain! We’ve got a much nicer God today! An upgrade! God 2.0! And there is some truth to that, not in the sense that God has changed, but in the sense that Jesus is a clearer picture of who God is. What the Israelites saw from a distance the apostles saw face to face. So there’s that.
But still. All those Canaanites.
At some point we really have to look the OT God in the face and give some rational explanation for what we see. And that’s what I’m going to do. Or at least attempt to do. I’ve got 3 points, because pastors everywhere say that’s the right number of points to have. And here we go …
First, the good news: God’s OT record might not actually be as bad as we’ve been led to believe. No really. Hear me out. I owe this idea to my friend John Walton, a leading OT scholar and frequent guest on my podcast, who is writing a book on this very topic. Walton points out that the language we have in our English Bibles today – all that “devoting to destruction” – might actually be misleading. Misinterpreted. There’s a very tricky Hebrew word in question here – the word herem. To herem has typically been translated to the English phrases “devote to destruction” or “devote to the Lord.”
Based on extensive research into ancient near eastern thought and writing, Walton now believes a more nuanced reading of herem would be to “make ineligible for human use.” To mark something or someone as “off limits.” He gives the example of a demilitarized zone, like the strip of land in between North and South Korea. No one can enter that zone. It is not eligible for human use. It has been put under herem. So when a whole tribe of people was put under herem, Walton believes, rather than destroyed, they were ruled out for intermarrying or assimilation by the Israelites. No cohabiting. In other words, the command to herem wasn’t a command to kill, it was more accurately a command to “evict.”
This interpretation actually fits better with the language God himself uses in the OT to describe his intent with the inhabitants of Canaan. Rather than saying “I will destroy them,” God repeatedly tells Israel “I will drive them out.” Eviction was the intent. Not destruction.
Of course, not everyone is willing to be evicted. When a tribe or part of a tribe refused the eviction notice, a military action was required to clear the land for God’s purposes. But the ensuing deaths in those cases, Walton argues, were consequences of war, not genocide.
This doesn’t eliminate the fact that people were killed at the command of God, but it does dispense with the charge of outright genocide. So about that killing … how was that “okay?”
Here’s a question for you. A lot of people died in World War II. Some were killed by the bad guys (Nazis! Boo!), but others were killed by the good guys. By us. Even innocent civilians, during bombings of German and Japanese cities. Some people have argued that this killing was evil and should never have happened. But most historians – and ethicists – believe at least some of the civilian death was justified for the reason that it brought an end to a war which, had it dragged on, would have killed many, many more civilians.
In other words, there is, in some cases, a moral calculus to be done that can justify something we would normally decry – the death of civilians – if the outcome is the avoidance of death for many, many more. A terrorist is driving a car bomb toward a crowded market, and you can take him out with a drone strike that has a 20% chance of killing more than just the terrorist. Moral calculus. We hate it, but we realize it is a necessary part of facing down evil. World leaders, gathered around tables in darkened rooms, make these calculations everyday.
And then, for some reason, we deny the creator of the universe the right to make the same calculations. What was the state of the world when God birthed the nation of Israel? The world was estranged from Him, sinking in its own evil. Broken. What did God want to do? Save His world from evil. Bring it back to wholeness. What did that initially require? The establishment of a nation set apart for His purposes. A nation distinct from all those around it. To accomplish this plan required moral calculus. Actions that were not in the best interest of some (especially those who actively resisted), for the benefit of all.
Here’s the reality: Who do you trust more with this sort of moral calculus? A handful of fallen humans in a dark room staring at grainy video screens, or the all-knowing, all-seeing creator of the universe? I’m going with the creator of the universe every time. If He believes the decisions made during the occupation of Canaan were necessary for the good of all of us, I’m feeling like I should give him the benefit of the doubt. He is, after all, God. And I am not.
(Ironically, if there is no God, it’s still difficult to say the Israelites were wrong in what they did since displacing competing tribes in the ancient world was about as common as buying large tubs of cheeseballs at Costco is today. Either God commanded the invasion and justified it with his own divine moral calculus, or it was just another “day at the office” for the constantly warring tribes of the ancient near east.)
And point #3
“Okay – so maybe the killing wasn’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe (point #1), and perhaps there is some moral calculus that justifies the Israelites’ actions as being for the greater good (point #2). Still. God allowed – commanded actually – the killing of innocent people. I can’t get over that.”
A valid point. I don’t think any of us particularly like the idea of a “God of love” who occasionally turns on an innocent person and says, “You don’t deserve this, but –.”
But then we have to back up and ask a different question. Who is innocent?
No, really. Are you innocent? Am I innocent? Sometimes we completely forget the most basic of Christian teaching.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
All humanity has sinned. Who is innocent? No one. And what is the penalty for sin? What has humanity “earned” by rebelling against God?
“For the wages of sin is death.”
So who deserves the death penalty for their crimes? We all do. All of humanity. You. Me. Hitler. Mother Teresa. Billy Graham. Everyone. Now, you can say, “I don’t like that!” But you can’t say, “That’s not biblical!” You may in fact not like it, but it is in fact what the Bible teaches. We have all earned death.
So when plagues struck down Egyptians, or when Israelites struck down Canaanites, or when the ground opened up and swallowed Israelites, was God acting unjustly? Not at all. Those Egyptians, Canaanites and Israelites were, in fact, getting what they deserved. What they had earned.
Which leads to a much deeper, more theologically vital question: If a certain number of Egyptians, Canaanites and even Israelites died for their sins, why haven’t we all? Why haven’t we ALL gotten what we deserve?
And now we find ourselves face to face with the central attribute that ties together the God of both the Old and New Testaments – the fire-breathing OT God and the lamb-snuggling Jesus:
I have not died for my sins because of God’s great love for me. Out of his mercy (withholding of just punishment), I am granted a life I have not earned. Instead of paying the price for my own sins, God himself stepped in and paid the price. God died for my sins so I wouldn’t have to.
Suddenly we find a cohesive God across the entire Bible. A God whose justice demands payment for crime, but whose love and mercy steps in front of the firing squad and takes the bullet for us.
Is God a genocidal bully? Richard Dawkins’ God, perhaps. But Richard Dawkins has a very poor grasp of the God of the Old or New Testament. And that’s too bad, because I think Richard Dawkins would like the real God as much as the real God likes Richard Dawkins.
Want More Tricky Questions?
IS GOD SELFISH? (TRICKY QUESTION #1)
IS GOD CRUEL? (TRICKY QUESTION #2)
IS GOD “AN OLD MAN IN THE SKY?” (TRICKY QUESTION #3)
IS GOD LIKE SANTA CLAUS? (TRICKY QUESTION #4)
IS GOD A GENOCIDAL BULLY? (TRICKY QUESTION #5)
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i really enjoyed this. very good stuff.
ive always been taught, and noticed, that there must have been some time period when these people had their chance. after all, noah took 120 years to build the ark, all the while preaching the rains were coming. could it be that these tribes had their chance of knowledge? even though they sometimes brought more trouble to the israelites, egyptians were permitted to leave egypt with the israelites. rahab’s family was saved from the destruction of jericho. so its possible there might have been others that believed in the true God that were saved too, even if there wasnt a record of it.
it kinda connects to your #3, i suppose, to be going in this line of thinking. like im thinking, they were given a chance, and you’re saying they got what they deserved. im sure they knew enough to be worthy of their destruction, i guess you could say.
Isn’t there a “fullness of time” passage that indicates the evil of the Canaanites ripened, and then God acted? I could be wrong. It might have referred to a different group of people.
To piggy-back on Erika’s comment, God also told Saul to wipe out the Amalekites, so they join the ranks of “God’s victims.” But these were the people that sniped at Israel as they migrated toward the Promised Land, taking out their weakest. God turned around and gave them the next hundred years or more—all through the period of the judges—to repent and turn to Him. But they didn’t.
So the real question is, because God doesn’t discipline immediately for rebellion against Him, does that mean He forfeits His right to judge at all? It’s almost as if people want to use God’s mercy against Him.
yeah, thats the saddest of all. 🙁 probably the worst kind of abuse you could commit against anyone, but against God? unthinkable to me. 🙁
Meh. That’s a lot of work you put in to not much effect. Not trying to be a jerk, but I gotta say– the worst parts were when you said, “who you gonna trust with the moral calculous, fallen man or God?” That is the technical definition of begging the question. It is the moral calculous of God that is in question here. You can’t retreat into the assumption that is being questioned.
Not trying to be a smart ass. I appreciate the effort. I’ve been trying to deal with this thing myself for quite some time. You just get to a point where the morality of God (especially in these OT incidents) is just plain wrong. What is described in the Bible is plainly genocide. Just as OT slavery is plainly slavery. And both these things are wrong. Bible or no Bible.
I think we need a better theology. A more honest one, where even the authority of Scripture must be re-thought. Otherwise we are going to find ourselves normalizing genocide etc, It’s a sin against conscience. I think Job refused to do that. He didn’t claim to have a better answer for his friends, but he knew his friends were way off in their thinking. God’s morality was troubling for him and it’s troubling for me. But still love ya Phil.
No problem! Push back as hard as you want. I don’t think there’s any risk of “normalizing genocide,” though, because I don’t think what we find in the conquest of Canaan qualifies as genocide. (Poor english translations and ancient hyperbole have most likely conspired to exaggerate the accounts.) Even if we “de-historize” the OT, we’re still stuck with accounts from the NT like Ananias and Sapphira, which leave us with the clear conclusion that the God who gives life sometimes takes it away. He who creates also reserves the right to un-create when he deems it necessary for his higher purposes. And judgment day, of course, will bring a whole lot of “un-creation” and recreation.
What do you want, Watkins? A theology where God is capable of doing evil? Because that is the height of blasphemy.
More likely a theology where we understand the OT was written by men trying to understand God, and attributing things to God based on their perception. Doing theological gymnastics to try and make the story more palatable to a modern audience is dishonest. We have a different understanding of God today because we view God the through a lense of modern moral values that didn’t exist when the OT was written (yes, contrary to all we hear in church we as humans are progressively becoming more moral, not more corrupt).
Hey Phil, I feel like you will enjoy Dr. Michael Heiser’s work on this subject. You should check out his Naked Bible Podcast
This is one of the topics helped in the initiation of the deconstruction of my faith. While I can agree with you on the fact that some of the stories in the OT are similar to military conquests, but there are some stories that I do find completely reprehensible and a textbook definition of genocide, such as 1 Sam. 15:3 “Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.” Not only were they to wipe out all the inhabitants, but all of their livestock too. How nice, even the donkeys were evil. While a lot of the violence can be caught up in the definition of being a typical military conquest, there are some of the stories that are strikingly similar, or even worse, to what occurs under ISIS or the numerous massacres and war crimes that have occurred in the Eastern European countries.
The magic hand waving of saying that “it was a command from God so it must be good” actually scares me to death. That is the moral escape clause touted by most people. As the number of denominations in Christianity can attest to, God’s commands are fairly ambiguous. What is going to stop someone from using these stories as examples and try to commit the same atrocities today using the excuse that is what God commanded them to do? Could that person, in turn, be justified in their attempted conquest and genocide? Luckily, we have a lot of checks and balances now a days to prevent that, hopefully.
For me, I do not try to do theological apologetic gymnastics to try and explain away the atrocities of the OT. I have seen some impressive moral contortionists, especially with this election cycle. There is no conceivable way for me to explain it. Personally, I do not view the Bible is the infallible word of God. I don’t think it is historically or scientifically accurate. Rather it was written by the people of the time about their experience with what they perceived as God. These stories, in my opinion, are mostly embellished stories that is equivalent to chest pounding to make them appear strong, or they actually happened and the tribes of Israel of the time just were barbarians claiming land they believed to be theirs.
That’s fine, Mitch. I don’t expect this explanation to work for everyone. The accounts in the OT very obviously aren’t “examples” to be followed, but rather the history of God’s relationship with the nation-state of Israel. Obviously anyone could take any story and misapply it, whether a Christian, Buddhist or purely secular story, but that isn’t really the point here. There will always be crazy people who say “God (or my cat or a voice in my closet) told me to kill my friend Joe,” or “My cat told me to kill my friend Joe,” but we know they’re crazy. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the Bible knows those stories aren’t meant as examples. They are “descriptive,” not “prescriptive.”
That is true. They aren’t examples to be follow but rather a descriptive narrative of their experience. This has just been one of the numerous issues I have been dealing with. A majority of what I read or listen to about the violent parts of the OT just says it is God’s will and that it is the end of it. It was refreshing though to read about how a lot of the supposed geneocide could fall into the “de-militarized zone” category. That could make a lot more sense. Thanks for the article.
Thanks for the response by the way. I have just picked up your podcast recently and am enjoying it.
i totally understand you – i have a few friends who feel exactly the same.
i guess we have to trust that God had given those people all the same chances as everyone else. like, rahab in jericho? she was saved because she feared the Lord God! 🙂
i might be going out on a limb of my own here, but the stories of those tribes were never told in the Bible specifically, except that they were so much closer to the beginning, the stories of God’s way and truth were a lot closer to them, and they kinda still chose to do the wrong thing.
and, id also like to think that there may have been a few more “rahabs” in the tribes who were saved for fearing the Lord!
i just figure if God is fair with me, and will judge me fairly, He must have judged those tribes fairly too, and given them all the chances possible. He loved them too, after all. He couldnt just up and decide to kill them without giving them chance after chance…
I thoroughly enjoyed the article. It’s always great to learn more about the original language of God’s Word to better understand it, but I think a point is left unanswered. Yes, all of those who died at the hands of the Israelites deserved their deaths, just as you and I, but why did God extend His grace to you, to the Israelites and spare us from our just punishment? If we all deserve it just the same, why did God still pick out entire nations to release His wrath upon, but leaves us alone?
Hi Phil .I belong to the untouchable caste in India.Our people fed up with Hinduism want to embrace Christianity ,but the rising Hindu Nationalism headed by our prime minister Modi have made this unlawful .Iam not a Christian myself ,but why is lord Jesus not punishing Narendra Modi ,but heaping more accolades on him,by making him win elections so he can extend his hateful ideology to the rest of the country.I see Christian leaders talking to him and there is no outcry in the western world like there is about Syria or North Korea .Has Jesus forsaken us the untouchables .
God is an evil bastardizing monster who hates us all and likes watching people suffer. you say god isn’t a person so the same rules don’t apply but they do and here’s why: god created “morality” and since he did he has to follow it too when he did every real sin in the book so don’t say the same rules don’t apply god is evil he took everything away from me and i hate religion
God isn’t a bully, he’s a moral nihilist who claims he’s immune from morality because he made it. if God created morality then he has to follow it more than anyone else. God doesn’t care about humanity or the problems going on in the world. God is the evil one and Satan is fictional.
But, he was the one who decided “the wages of sin is death”. He was the one who decided we should all pay infinitely for the “crime” of two ignorant ancestors in a garden, who literally had no knowledge of good and evil, and so didn’t even know they were “sinning”. They were confused by the serpent. And we no longer see it as moral to punish all of a “tribe” or race or nation of people for the crime or sin of one leader or progenitor of that tribe, so why is it that God can call us all sinful even if we do nothing wrong just because of Adam and Eve? And to say we all deserve death doesn’t mean we all deserve say, our oldest son’s death, horrible diseases, boils, locusts eating our crops, fire from the sky, being turned into a pillar of salt, being torn apart by bears, etc.? The God of the Old Testament is a sadist, who seems to derive pleasure from inventing new ways to torture people to death all the time. He’s worse than Caligula. Since Revelation is the NT I wouldn’t say the whole NT is better, just that Jesus (as a man) is a better person than the God he wanted people to follow.
@Rachael, Adam and Eve weren’t merely “confused.” God had told them specifically not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and both of them turned their backs on that command. They chose to believe the serpent’s version of events, that God was lying to them about the tree and that eating from it would make them just like God, not separate them from Him. Eve claimed that she was “deceived,” but we don’t know if that was just an excuse, and in any case, it was definitely her choice to believe the serpent over the God who had given her life. Adam, on the other hand, didn’t even claim to have been deceived. The only excuse he could come up with was that it was all Eve’s fault!
You ask how God can say we’re all sinful “even if we do nothing wrong.” Are you really claiming that you’ve never done anything wrong or that there are people in this world who live their whole lives without ever doing anything wrong? We are all held accountable for our sin not just because Adam and Eve sinned but because all of us, in turn, are sinners! And, no, we don’t all deserve “boils, locusts eating our crops, fire from the sky, being turned into a pillar of salt,” etc., and notably, we don’t all receive those punishments. Those are punishments that God set aside for particular people who did particular things to deserve them. Most of us make it through life without any of those things happening to us, whether or not we choose to follow God. As the article points out, the wages of sin is death, and God would be justified in ending our earthly lives at any time. But He allows many if not most of us to live to old age. That’s mercy!
Your complaints are perfectly valid, and most of the people commenting here have failed to notice a simple thing: God did not decree death, and nor is it a punishment! What the Bible clearly states is that God is the Author of Life, that the WAGES of sin is death (when did anyone ever view their salary as punishment?). Indeed death is God’s enemy and Jesus came in order to destroy it!
Adam and Eve were warned – the fruit of the tree was poison to them. Further we see that God did not curse Adam at all – let alone with death. God is the source of all life, and if we cut ourselves off from him then what else is there but a loss of that life? Jesus came that we might have LIFE. And it was while we were yet sinners that Jesus died for us, crying forgiveness even for his murderers. God is not the moral monster – we are! The Old testament is full of hyperbole so we mustn’t confuse it with God’s will. God has made it absolutely clear that His WORD is Jesus (not the OT). “God is like Jesus, he has always been like Jesus, there was never a time when he was not like Jesus; we haven’t always known this but now we do” (Brian Zahnd).
@Dylan Kaiser you are spot on,God is the evil one and Satan is fictional.He does as he pleases,he controls us,makes us sin and then blames us for it.I am speaking from experience.He deliberately confuses us and he only loves the Jews,only they will enter heaven and inherit the earth.God is a liar,deceiver and all the evil stuff.He created a messed up world and we have to pay for it.
Phil, I am an expert in biblical Hebrew, specifically having researched the deeper meaning of words that are often mistranslated. If you have any questions about the meaning of difficult or surprising texts I would be happy to share some of this knowledge with you. Best, Steve