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A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: What about Old Testament genocide?

October 3, 2015

A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Chapter 5 – Justice for all: the violence of Joshua and the Love of God

The fifth chapter of John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible tackles the difficult topic of the ‘genocide’ of the Old Testament. This is a difficult and misunderstood topic. I believe that many Christian apologists and speakers handle this topic poorly, yet Dickson generally does a good job by providing a helpful, though brief introduction to the topic

The nature of the violence

Dickson helpfully introduces the topic by outlining the correct (the biblical) way of understanding the violence found in books like Joshua. Dickson speaks of the violence as ‘judgement’ (pp 91-94). He successfully refutes the suggestion by fierce critics of Christianity that the Old Testament violence is xenophobic, “God is not driving out the Canaanites because they are Canaanites, but because they are wicked’ (p.92). He also points out that non-Israelites, like Rahab, are saved from the judgement. He also helpfully shows that the Israelites were not ‘righteous believers’ slaying the ‘sinful unbelievers’ like many other holy wars in history. The Bible makes clear that the Israelites were ‘stiff necked’ people’ and disobedient.

Dickson’s historical training is clear when he writes about the context in which this conquest literature was written. It is interesting that the Jews required the pretext of ‘judgement’ to conquer other nations which stood somewhat contrary to other ancient cultures which required no justification to take someone else’s land (p.93). This suggests that perhaps our objections to this passage are a reflection of the values of our modern culture?

Yet there are a couple of areas in which Dickson’s treatment could have been strengthened.

  • One of the major objections to the conquest narratives is the killing of everyone – including children. Dickson overlooks this point and offers no real explanation for why children (and in some cases even livestock) needed to be wiped out.
  • Also, why does the judgement need to be violent? Dickson doesn’t explain this in great detail. He alludes to the ‘refraction’ in Jesus (p.95), but this point needed greater explanation and he could have drawn upon some of the principles in which he had outlined in the previous chapter.
  • This chapter was short (7 pages shorter than the previous chapter), so it seemed that there might have been space to explain these objections further.

As an aside. I have done some of my own thinking (and speaking) on this topic. So to explore some of these issues a little further, I’ve included a couple of presentations I’ve done on this tricky topic.

Overall Dickson provides a very useful introduction to this topic which would be very helpful for the ‘doubter’. This chapter also raises some ideas which more committed opponents of Christianity and critics of the Old Testament violence must engage in order to properly understand the biblical message.


From → Comment

  1. I guess what I fail to understand here is why the need for physical violence, and no after-life, up until a certain point, but then the sudden introduction of Jesus and an ‘afterlife’. Did the people who died on OT time not get an afterlife? Given that God would know that heaven was coming eventually, what would be his motivation for holding off?

    I can’t quite buy that any god will allow heinous violence because he hadn’t yet come up with heaven.

    Also, I don’t agree that even if God was real and even if God the author of life that he would have the right to punish people with death for not worshipping him. I am the the father of two children, I don’t have the right to punish them with death if they don’t worship me. Why should a god get such a right? The problem is that god has (apparently) given us free will and independence. If he wanted robots that worshipped without question, he could have done so. If it’s his desire that we worship by free will, he’d know in advance who would worship and who wouldn’t. Allowing people to be born only to kill them because he doesn’t like their lack of worship seems a bit sadistic to me.

    I also think ‘we killed children because earth was physical and society was a group’ is a bit of a cop out. The children *are* in fact innocent, regardless of what their society has done.

    Also, there *is* justice and punishment in the atheist world. You spoke about it when you talked about putting a person in a cell.

    Yes, it’s the case the Jimmy Saville got away with his crimes. But wanting an ultimate judgement mean there *is* an ultimate justice. That argument is not much more than wishful thinking.

    • Hey Donovan,

      Thanks so much for responding (and also watching my video the whole way through – I really appreciate that).

      In terms of why there is violence and no afterlife in the OT, I think is due to a couple of factors:

      – the OT was a shadow of the future reality
      – God has progressively revealed his purposes.

      So it wasn’t that he hadn’t ‘come up with the idea of heaven’, it just hadn’t been fully revealed – and part of the full revelation was by revealing a copy/shadow first to show how he consistently works in the world and also to magnify the nature of the later revelation.

      I agree you haven’t the right to ‘kill’ your children, but you didn’t quite create them in the same way as God has created his creatures. I suppose the copyright illustration works better – if you have copyright and they reject you as the holder of the copyright, then surely you have some right to exact justice?

      Your comments about the ‘innocence’ of the children betrays a misunderstanding of my point and the nature of the base unit of ancient societies. In the Ancient World, as I mentioned, there is not really the concept of an ‘individual’, instead ‘we’ are a collective. This is more consistent with Eastern thinking and not our individualistic Western thinking. So when you want to punish a ‘people’, it is everyone not just individuals. This is a difficult point to grasp, but we need to take this point seriously.

      Where is the justice in the atheist universe with Jimmy Saville? I used that precisely to demonstrate that there is no ultimate justice. As Dawkins says, there is no rhyme or reason, no good, evil or justice! I agree it’s wishful thinking to say that wanting it to be true doesn’t make it true. But what I was trying to demonstrate was that there is (and cannot) be justice in the atheist universe. Hence if atheism is true, then we just need to grow up and accept that the universe is unfair and that’s too bad!! (which I feel fails to properly account for our experience of wanting justice in the end, don’t you think?)

      I really appreciate your comments and thanks for taking the time to respond and to watch my video!!

      Talk soon,


  2. Can I be honest, Rob? This was….awful. And worse than that, it was wicked.

    You cannot at the same time claim that Canaanite children were selected for death because of their parents’ nationality AND that the genocides of the bible were not xenophobic.

    Justice cannot exist where individuals who have done no wrong are punished simply because they happen to belong to a particular group. It can work if you are more concerned with rule by terror than justice. It was very popular with the Nazis. But it is not and by definition never can be justice. Throwing in technical-sounding phrases like “the base unit” cannot alter that fact.

    Also, your “base unit” defence is not even born out by other biblical stories where God is persuaded to treat individuals, such as Noah or Lot, as exactly that: people who in justice can and should be distinguished from the group they belong to.

    And what about those 613 mitzvot you wrote about earlier? Where is there the least textual authority anywhere in the OT for the notion that wrong-doing should bring punishment on anyone apart from the individual wrong-doer? If individuals are nothing and Yahweh cannot see anything smaller than a collective, why did he set out rules governing individual behaviour **and specifying punishments for individuals**. Why is the punishment not to be meted out to the whole family? Or the village?

    Your “plot twist” and “Jesus” analogy made no sense. The plot twist doesn’t change anything *except our interpretations* which were wrong. Then in the “reveal” of the plot twist we re-assess the same facts and realise we drew completely the wrong inferences. But you are not saying that. You are saying, yes, there was mass slaughter. Yes, defenceless men, women and children were killed. Yes, that was what God wanted, in fact demanded. We haven’t got any of that wrong, or misunderstood it, or misinterpreted it. But now it’s changed because of Jesus. That’s not a re-interpretation. That’s just a change in the rules of the game. And who invented the game and made the rules? And why did he need to change them? Why didn’t he just make good rules in the first place?

    It can be justified to lock somebody up – but only because they as an individual deserve punishment! Nobody says that it is right to imprison a person who’s done nothing wrong. The question is: “Can it ever be right to slaughter innocent, defenceless children?” You do not establish that it is right by referring to the fact that we often punish malevolent villains!

    Your argument is a perfect illustration of why God is absolutely useless as a grounding for morality. If it was justice 4,000 years ago to kill a child for what it’s parents were or have done then it is justice to do the same today. Your argument is that morality changes according to what God wants to achieve by it. You have fallen onto the “morality is whatever God decrees” horn of the Euthyphro dilemma. More than that, according to you, what God decrees doesn’t even stay constant and if that were right, morality could have no objectivity at all.

    Horrible, horrible, horrible.

    • Frances,

      I have been meaning to reply to this for some time and have been thinking through some of the comments that you’ve made. I’ve responded to some of this in my other comment.

      A lot of your critique stems from the same problem MrOzAtheist’s critique. The base unit of society does matter – we need to be careful about judging a collective society from an individualistic perspective. If there was someone reading this from a collectivist perspective, then they would have a different view. I think it’s hard to get into the mindset of the collective, but consider how certain Middle Eastern countries view the attack on them from ‘the West’ or from UK or Australia. I think it was the film, ‘Three Kings’ where an American was captured by an Iraqi and the Iraqi said to them, ‘you bombed us’ and the American said, ‘I didn’t send those bombs’, but at this point the individual was lost to the collective in the mind of the Iraqi.

      Yes, there were individuals chosen from within the nation, but consider Achan’s sin in Judges and God’s anger burned against the nation. Similarly with Abraham and Sodom, if one righteous man were found, then God’s anger would relent from the city and so forth.

      Certainly there were decrees for individuals in the law, but this misses the point somewhat. The laws were for how ‘God’s people’ as a nation should live in the land. The covenant and the law wasn’t cut with individuals, but the nation. The law acknowledges that there are individuals, but the ‘base unit’ of society was the collective.

      In terms of your moral repulsion of the Canaanite violence, I have a couple of responses.

      1. As I said before in the eyes of the collective, they have done wrong – so they are not innocent (this is contented, as we’ve discussed, but this is the point of disagreement).

      2. I appreciate your moral revulsion, but this is where I struggle to empathise with the atheist perspective because once you dispense with a moral authority you just have indifference (as Dawkins points out correctly). I’ve written on this before (and I know we’ve discussed this before, and I’m still not sure I completely understand your position), but I just can’t see how you can have moral revulsion at anything from an atheistic perspective other than personal sensibilities. If atoms and energy are affected by another group of matter and energy so what?! I feel that the atheistic critique based on moral outrage loses the grounds on which it tries to critique.

      3. On a completely different tack, I’m intrigued what you make of abortion. I find that many atheists are very critical of the Old Testament genocides (which to them is complete fiction anyway) but are unconcerned and even advocate for what I would consider a modern genocide in the form of legal abortion. I realise it’s a little tangential, but I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on that.

      Anyway, I do apologise for taking so long to write about this and I always appreciate your penetrating and useful critiques. I feel I learn as a result.

      Hope you’re going well and look forward to hearing from you soon


  3. You’re under no obligation to answer me, Rob, but I’m going to ask you to anyway. I think you’ve said in the past that you find the moral argument for God’s existence compelling and that you consider one of the flaws of secular morality to be that it would be subject to change due to cultural shifts.

    But here you have God endorsing a moral stance which is based on a particular zeitgeist. God punished a whole people because *at the time* society perceived punishment as attaching to the “base unit” which was the group, not thea iondiviudual. If that is what you th ink, then hiow is morality from God any better than the supposedly shifting morailty of society?

    And you talk about our longing fopr justice and for people to be held to account. But if justice is to be doled out by a being who thinks that babies and children should suffer the death penalty because of things done by their parents, then I for one would far rather that there shoiuld be no justice at all than justice administered from such a monster.

    • Thanks for the comments Frances (nice to hear from you – happy new year!). I have really been pondering this concept quite a lot lately and I think I have really appreciated the challenge of your argument. How can a form of morality be truly ‘objective’ if it changes?

      I think this is an excellent question and I’m not entirely sure I have the full answer. I have been meaning to get back to your original comment (which I’ll answer separately).

      Yes, you’re right, I do find the moral argument compelling to an extent. I suppose I see it more as a weakness of secular moral systems than I do as an argument for God (in my mind it’s a secondary argument, but that would take more time to explain).

      I suppose in terms of answering your question I’d suggest that at one level morality according to the Bible hasn’t shifted, but it’s like a shadow and a reality, we comprehend a ‘type’ of morality pointing us in the direction of the true manifestation of that. Hence the moral principle underlying the act is the same, yet the way it is manifested is different.

      Perhaps consider it like the way we treat children and adults differently for the same crime. Is it morally subjective to treat people differently according to their circumstances? I’d suggest that treating people differently can still be ‘objective’ (based on the same underlying principle).

      That may not be entirely satisfactory, but it might go some way towards the start of an answer. As I said, I have had to really think hard about this recently.

      On another point – I noticed the Henley-on-Thames believers-skeptics meet up which I believe you and Ed are a part of? It looks like an excellent initiative and I’d love to be able to attend. The next talk by Tom Price seems excellent. I’ve met Tom and he is a really nice guy. I trust you’ll ask him really hard questions!! (just an inside note, he doesn’t really know much about the ontological argument ;-).

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