Skip to main content

TBTMSSeveral days ago over at OnFaith, John Dickson posted “4 Responses to the Problem of Violence in the Bible.”

I respect Dickson and his work a lot. I also think his thoughts in this piece are constructive and will be helpful to many readers.

Dickson’s post responds specifically to Richard Dawkins’s charge that the Canaanite extermination in the book of Joshua is “xenophobic violence.” Dickson agrees that these texts are indeed violent, but not about ethnic cleansing. He supports this response with 4 points:

  1. Just because there is violence in the Old Testament does not mean it is endorsed.
  2. Violent acts must be understood according to the interpretation of those acts by the biblical writers.
  3. The conquest of Canaan was only a momentary necessity in history.
  4. The story of the Canaanite conquest must be read “though the lens” of the New Testament.

I understand these approaches and how in combination especially they will help some readers move forward–and perhaps give Dawkins a thing or two to think about.

I want to push back a bit, though, because Dickson leaves some issues hanging that have occupied my thinking and that of others in recent years–issues that I feel need to be on the table if we are to articulate this difficult issue more convincingly.

On the first point, it is certainly true that not all violence in the Old testament is endorsed, but appealing to the Jephthah narrative in Judges (or any narrative in Judges) is off base for the very reason Dickson gives: these stories were written to indicate how low the Israelites had sunk (and how desperately they needed a king to rule over them).

But there are many other examples of violence–and particularly heinous violence–in the Bible, especially in Israel’s main narrative, from Genesis through Nehemiah, that are either commanded by God, carried out by God, allowed by God, or pass by without comment: a flood to wipe out life on earth (Genesis 6-8); Canaanite extermination (the main focus of Dickson’s post); taking captive those who do not surrender–men, women, children (Deuteronomy 20); sparing virgin woman and girls to be divided among the Israelite victors (Numbers 31); calling upon the Assyrians and Babylonians to plunder, pillage, kill, and taken captive the Israelites for their disobedience.

Appealing to the Jephthah story does not address the problems raised by these other texts.

Dicksons’s second point is the longest, and that is because it is the most involved. Here, too, his observation is valid and worth noting: biblical stories of violence are generally also interpreted for us by the biblical writers.

Specifically, Dickson’s point pertains to the conquest of Canaan, and he reminds us that the narrative must be read as a whole. If we do that, we will see that the charge of ethnic cleansing needs to be tempered by such factors as the sparing of the Canaanite harlot Rahab or the wickedness of the Canaanites (they deserved it).

But Dickson overstates when he claims that the Rahab story shows that the conquest of Canaan has has “nothing to do with ethnicity.” It certainly does have to do with ethnicity, as the foundational anti-Canaan narrative makes clear in Genesis 9: the sin of Noah’s son Ham leads to Noah’s cursing of the line of one and only one of Ham’s sons, Canaan. God has his sights on a people group.

Rahab is inded spared, but this is only one example. There are no others (despite Dickson’s musing about the possibility). Rahab’s “conversion” (as some think, though she is really only cowering in fear) is juxtaposed to the sin of Achan, the Israelite who disobeyed God’s command to keep none of the plunder from Jericho, all of which was to be handed over to God.

The Rahab episode does not minimize or ameliorate the command of God to purify the land of Canaan of it’s current occupants. It is not as if God is saying, “I didn’t really mean all that rhetoric about wiping out the Canaanites. I am pulling back on my command to wipe them out because I’m not all that worked up about ethnicity.”

The story of Rahab and Achan is together a hyperbolic warning to the Israelites not to be like Achan. If they are, they will be annihilated like the Canaanites, which is what happens to Achan and his family.

I would also suggest that we see in this narrative a shame element to motivate the Israelites of later generations to obedience: “even a Canaanite whore knows better.”

Dickson also seems to dismiss the propagandistic dimension of these narratives, and so simply accepts the narrative explanation as is. I understand the courtesy of respecting biblical (or any) writers to make their case, but the Israelites were also ancient writers who portrayed their enemies in black and white, not various hues.

Reading the texts as propagandistic is not to suggest that the Israelites produced a “sneaky justification for violence,” as Dickson puts it, but, ironically, to respect the literature as a product of a particular time and place, and therefore to understand it.

Further, this question of genre is not finished until a frank discussion of the many historical problems in the biblical account are put on the table. This would shift the discussion of “violence in the Old Testament” significantly.

Dickson’s third point is often raised: holy was was Israel’s calling, but only for only a time. But I still cannot see how this is supposed to help us process what we read.

This holy war was not made up of strategic, minimally necessary, strikes to get the horrible job done. The story of the defeat of the 5 kings in Joshua 10:16-27, for example, is gruesome, resulting in the 5 defeated kings being killed and hung on trees until evening. The same goes for dividing the Moabite virgin woman and girls among the Israelites (Numbers 31).

One also might wonder why holy war (which is a rather sanitizing way of putting it) was necessary at all to the God of creation. Was gaining a plot of land that important? Were the Canaanites really deserving of death more than anyone else in the ancient world?

A far simpler and less problematic explanation is that these are stories that the ancient Israelites told which reflects their genuine but ancient faith in God within the conceptual parameters of their historical context. These stories were recorded as we read them at a much later time in Israel’s monarchy, or later, to enhance Israel’s national narrative.

I understand this explanation does not sit well with everyone, but it does make sense when these stories are viewed against their ancient environment, and biblical scholars routinely make the point. Objection to this point of view is generally motivated by theological concerns.

Fourth, Dickson’s urging that we “must” read these stories “though the lens of the New Testament” is also true, but may say more than Dickson intends.

Dickson claims that Jesus’s admonition to love our enemies tells us that we cannot use the narratives of the conquest of Canaan as justification for violence. To be sure. But several questions remain such as:

Why the change of heart on God’s part? Why is killing to gain a land such a high priority in the Old Testament only to have the urgency inexplicably fade away? Why, after all that effort, is keeping the land such a low priority in the New Testament?  Why did God not remain true to his plan and instead tell Jesus, as the true Davidic heir, to raise an army as in days of old and take the throne?

I suppose these questions can be chalked it up to the mystery of God, so let’s move on. But for me, such a change of strategy on God’s part borders on caprice. I would much rather appeal to divine mystery for why God allows in the Bible stories that reflect the violent rhetoric of ancient tribal peoples.

I didn’t mean to prolong my responses here, and, again, Dickson’s piece is genuinely constructive and its limited purpose is to counter the unnuanced views of Richard Dawkins and others like him.

But I continue to think that a true accounting of why the Bible says what it says about the conquest of Canaan (and other violent acts) will not be addressed adequately in this manner, only delayed.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.