4 Responses to the Problem of Violence in the Bible
by John Dickson
Does the Bible actually endorse violence on a dramatic scale? Religion and violence is a difficult topic, especially at the moment with the rise of Islamic terrorism. But violent extremism isn’t solely a problem in Islam. Many thoughtful skeptics of Christianity ask, Doesn’t your Bible — especially the Old Testament book of Joshua — endorse violence on a dramatic scale? Some might say there’s no difference between what the Bible prescribes and other forms of violent religious fundamentalism.
In his bestselling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins articulates well his horror at what he reads: “The ethnic cleansing begun in the time of Moses is brought to bloody fruition in the book of Joshua, a text remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so.” Elsewhere he writes, “The god of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
I have a good deal of respect for Richard Dawkins. And he is right to say that there are some terribly violent bits in the book of Joshua. I want to suggest, however, that a careful reading of the book of Joshua shows that what is going on in these pages has nothing to do with ethnic cleansing. The stories recounted do contain violence — and that is difficult — but not xenophobic violence.
Here are four things I’d like to point out to those — Christians included — who have a real problem with instances of violence in the Bible:
1. Just because it’s in the Bible does not mean it’s endorsed.
Many of the stories cited by Dawkins as examples of violent horror are not endorsed in the Bible at all. The incidents throughout the book of Judges, such as Jephthah’s killing of his own daughter just to keep a promise or of the cutting up of a women into 12 bits (both ridiculed by Dawkins) are in the book of Judges precisely to show us how low Israel had sunk. They are not moral examples to us.
2. You can’t separate the story from its explanation.
If you come in half way through a conversation, you are likely to miss out on context and meaning. Likewise, we need to be patient with a story like Joshua in order to understand what’s going on. So, what is going on? Dawkins reads it as ethnic cleansing. I understand why. It does appear similar to some of what we see in the modern world. However, the book of Joshua itself bends over backwards to tell us that it is nothing of the sort.
The first story of Joshua is about the salvation of a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab and her family. Why is this the opening story? Clearly, the narrator wants to emphasize that this war has nothing to do with ethnicity. God’s longing is to save the Canaanites, not judge them. We are also meant to wonder — since it is the opening story — how many other Rahabs there were in the history of the conquest whom we’re not told about.
The next major story in the book has the same point: Joshua is met by an angel — “the commander of the Lord’s army” — and when he asks the angel which side he is on, the angel replies, “Neither!” This serves as a repudiation of the normal understanding of tribal conflict.
So, what is the rationale of the conquest of Canaan if it has nothing to do with race or God playing favorites? Deuteronomy 9 makes two things clear…
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