Is the Bible Violent? Genocide in the Old Testament.

In a Video that went viral, a group took the Bible disguised it as the Quran and read passages out of it to see how people reacted.  They were disgusted with the language of the “Quran” but then told it was from the Bible.  How do we deal with passages that promote violence?  Is there more going on than what is on the surface?

I. The Problem

Richard Dawkins infamously said, “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; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”  Mr. Dawkins makes these statements based on certain events in the Old Testament.  We see the stories of war and violence carry a prominent role in the books of Joshua and Judges.  Those wars are depicted in a gruesome light by moral standards today.  Deuteronomy 20:16-17 says, “However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you,” [emphasis mine].  “There is hardly a single narrative that is not concerned with violence of some sort:  battles, as well as individual killings; kidnappings; threats; even human sacrifice; and the list goes on.”[1] 

As one reads the graphic details of these accounts, one has to question how a loving God can let these apparent atrocities happen.  This was a practice known in ancient Israel as herem.  During the conquest of Canaan the Israelites practiced this idea of herem during warfare.  Herem is defined as something which is off limits, either because it was cursed and devoted to destruction or because it was devoted to a deity and holy.[2]

Niditch, an Old Testament scholar asks, “What sort of people might adhere to such an ethic of violence and apparent cruelty?  Surely the ban seems counter to fundamental underlying biblical values.”[3]  She too is raising the objection Mr. Dawkins raises.  Many people do not have a problem with these bloody details because they “spiritualize” the war and tend to describe it as “victory of those totally committed to God.”[4]  However, this trend is morally irresponsible to the text, and one has to understand the text for what it says.[5] At the same time God is the foundation for morality in the Old Testament.[6]  So how is one to reconcile this apparent conflict?

The ancient Israelites also worried about the ethical implications of total destruction, but they seemed to rationalize the practice in various ways.[7]  So, an astute reader should ask some questions when coming to the text such as:  Is there a reason that God can let and sometimes even sanction these practices to happen?  What are the reasons for such ferocity in warfare?  How can the modern reader, like the ancient Israelites, rationalize these practices?[8]

No two holy wars are identical.  This, of course, makes the herem difficult to study, but holy war was fought for different reasons and thus can be grouped into different categories.[9]  The practice of herem was not uniform in every instance in which it was employed.[10]  The narratives speak of sometimes everyone being destroyed (Joshua 6) and at other times just the men were destroyed (Numbers 31).  Sometimes God gets all the plunder (Joshua 6) and at other times the Israelites distribute the spoils among themselves[11] (Joshua 8). 

One of the reasons that the wars were not the same is because the herem or ban, as it is sometimes called, was geographic in nature and not implemented on all the wars that were fought by the Israelites.  Deuteronomy 20:10-15 states how the Israelites were to offer peace to those outside of Canaan and if the enemy accepted, they would become the Israelites slaves, and if they rejected the Israelites were to kill the men and take the women, children, livestock, and inanimate objects as booty.  However, when it came to the land of Canaan, the herem was always to be employed.  Terms of peace could not be offered to Canaanite cities because they were already devoted to destruction and one can not redeem what is already devoted.[12]  The Gibeonites are a good example of this.  In Joshua 9, the Gibeonites had heard all that God had done to Egypt and to the kings Sihon and Og and did not want the same fate as them.  They decided to pretend they were from a distant country and asked for a treaty with Israel.  If Israel would have known the Gibeonites lived in Canaan they would not have entered a treaty with them but would have gone to war with them.  However, the Gibeonites deceived them and said they were from a distant country, so Israel made a treaty with them.  The Gibeonites were relying on the fact that the Israelites would only make a treaty with a nation that was not in the land of Canaan.[13]


[1]Jo Ann Hackett, “Violence and Women’s Lives in the Book of Judges,”  Interpretation, 58 2004, 356.

[2]Christianus Brekelmans, “Herem,” Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament( Peabody, Massachusetts:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 474.

[3]Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 28-29.

[4]Peter C Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing, 1978), 10-11.  cf , Terrace E. Freitheim, “‘I Was Only a Little Angry’ Divine Violence in the Prophets,”  Interpretation, 58 2004, 366.

[5]Richard G Bowman and Richard W. Swanson, “Samson and the Son of God or Dead Heroes and Dead Goats:  Ethical Readings of Narrative Violence in Judges and Matthew,” Semeia, 77 1992, 60.  cf. Reuven Firestone, “Conceptions of Holy War in the Biblical and Qur’anic Tradition,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 24 Spring 1996, 100.

[6]Bruce C Birch, Let Justice Roll Down:  The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville, Kentucky:  John Knox Press, 1991), 37.

[7]Niditch, 21.

[8]Another question that should be asked is:  how can war be fought when the 6th commandment says, “Thou shall not kill,” Exodus 20:13.  Craigie answers this question saying that the commandment forbids the murder of a fellow Hebrew but does not forbid war or capital punishment (58).

[9]Gerhard Von Rad, Holy War in Ancient Israel Trans. By Marva J. Dawn, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1958), 52.  His work on Holy War in the Old Testament as been foundational to the study of war in the Old Testament and has shaped how we look at and study Israelite warfare today.

[10]Norman K. Gottwald, “‘Holy War’ in Deuteronomy:  Analysis and Critique,”  Review and Expositor, 61 Fall 1964, 299.

[12]Gottwald, 297.  cf. Firestone, 105.

[13]J.P.U. Lilley, “Understanding the Herem,” Tyndale Bulletin (1993):  176.

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