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