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: One, God will give success to Israel’s conquest “not because of your righteousness.” And two, God was ousting the Canaanites “on account of the wickedness of these nations.” This is not ethnic cleansing or favoritism. It is God’s holy and just judgment. Israel is merely the tool — an obstinate tool — in God’s temporal judgment.
Of course, skeptical readers of the Bible won’t believe this. They will say this is just a sneaky justification for violence. However, it is inconsistent to accept the fact of the conquest in the Bible and not accept the Bible’s own explanation of what it’s about. Moreover, we need to remember that no one in the ancient world needed a moral justification for taking over someone else’s land. There is no reason the Bible, if it were a simple ancient near eastern text, should have in its pages recorded that Israel was sinful and was only given success because God was bringing his judgment on Canaan.
3. Israel fulfilled its calling — and then stopped conquering.
This one is quite strange. Israel was never urged to expand its borders. The conquest was a particular moment in history — a particular action for a particular time and place. And it is not repeated. Unlike most conquering nations in ancient times, there is no evidence Israel tried to expand into other places. They knew they had a role to play in bringing judgment on Canaan. After that, their calling for ‘holy war’ was complete.
4. You must read the narrative through the lens of the New Testament.
This is the most important response to the problem of Old Testament violence. Christians are forbidden to read Joshua as a justification for modern war, for Jesus said to love your enemies (Matthew 5:44) and turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). That doesn’t mean wars are never justified — they can be, on other grounds. My point here is that we cannot achieve God’s kingdom ends through violence.
This is not picking and choosing which bits of the Bible we like and don’t like. It is how Christians have always read the Bible as two testaments. Like a ‘prism’ that causes light to refract into the full spectrum, the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus transforms many things — including circumcision, food laws, and holy war. For Christians, the only holy war the Bible endorses is the spiritual one Paul mentions in Ephesians 6: the fight against error and sin.
This is quite different from the teaching of the Quran as there is no ‘new’ testament for Muslims. The judgment once brought upon Canaan by Israel is now suspended until the Day of Judgment. Never can a Christian claim, as Israel did, to be a tool of God’s judgment in the world, unless it is bringing justice into the world through welfare programs.
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I know this doesn’t answer all the problems people have with the Bible — far from it. Over the years, I have been comfortable allowing that there are some real issues in the Bible that we can’t fully resolve. In all fields of inquiry, a robust theory may still hold together despite inconsistencies. I acknowledge that there are some things in the Old Testament that appear inconsistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ. But when you come across an inconsistency in a robust theory — whether historical or scientific — it does not bring the whole thing down. You keep studying, keep imagining scenarios and, hopefully, eventually find an explanation.
We can admit that parts of the Old Testament trouble us, but there are enough indications on other grounds — historical, philosophical, existential — for us to keep believing that the God of the Old Testament and the God revealed in Jesus are one. He is real, just, and loving
Lead images courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing.