Imagine that you found a stone one day that gave you magical powers to create your own little creatures, your own little gnomes. You create a few of them and allow them to multiply on your vast 40,000 acre wooded property. You think excitedly about all the things you can share with them. You make contact with them and at first they love and acknowledge you as the source of their life. However, much to your horror, before long, your little people have turned into a bunch of crazies. They form into tribes and begin fighting and killing each other. Even worse, they have begun to believe that there are other “owners” of the forest that they have to placate by sacrificing other gnomes. You know this is ridiculous. You are the only Owner of the forest. This is your property, your woods. But you just can’t get through to them. They’ve become blind.
Meanwhile, the sacrifices continue. In addition, they are now burning down huge chunks of your forest in bizarre worship rituals to these other “owners” who don’t exist. No amount of reasoning is able to make them understand. Meanwhile, the sacrifices continue. There are a few groups in particular who are responsible for influencing many others to worship these false owners. These groups are standing in your way of establishing your peace plan. Do you think you would be justified in taking out a few of the more difficult groups responsible for such cruelty and disregard for life and nature? Most would say yes.
When speaking of the actions of God as recorded in the OT, it requires that first–we understand–we are the gnomes. We have been given life by the Owner of this world. And anytime we worship someone or something other than the True Owner, it cuts Him. We are not living in truth. It is actually an injustice, not only to God, but to ourselves when we give power to gods who don’t exist, or make gods out of things and sacrifice the innocent in order to satisfy our desire to live our own way.
The Maker of the universe reserves the right to take out a tribe or an individual here and there. As a friend of mine once said: “We either get that or we don’t.” We either accept that the wars in the OT were done to move his plan of salvation forward or we believe that he is a sadistic killer. Christians believe the former. Atheists believe the latter.
Truthfully, at one time, I had difficulty with this issue of violence in the OT, but in time, I came to see beyond the initial emotional reaction. When analyzing difficult things in the Christian faith we always have to push past any emotion that may get in the way of us seeing the big picture with reason.
As I moved further along, I began to see why it had happen.
Evil/land for the Israelites
The truth is this—many of these ancient tribes, in particular the Canaanites, were mired in evil. They were practicing things like cultic prostitution, bestiality, and incest. Even worse, they sacrificed children as part of a religious offering. These peoples attacked by the Israelites at God’s command were thoroughly corrupt and absolutely unrepentant.
As the Bible explains it, we can see that such things are offensive to God and seem to affect him personally:
“You shall not do so to the Lord your God; for every abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deut. 12:31)
It is common for atheists to claim that there is insufficient evidence for child sacrifice in the land of Canaan. (Modern day Israel) But the fact is that there is much evidence for human sacrifice in many other areas around the Mediterranean and these various Mediterranean tribes were connected through trade. They shared many religious ideas.
There are many things that atheists, particularly in the 19th century, doubted about the OT because there was “no evidence.” But much evidence has since come to light through archaeology, as I’ve pointed out earlier. So, it would seem unwise to doubt the existence of human sacrifice in ancient Canaan because there is currently not enough evidence to make one feel comfortable.
Many ancient accounts corroborate the Bible. Several ancient writers mention child sacrifice among the Phoenicians.
One Greek author wrote:
”Out of reverence for Kronos the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, whenever they seek to obtain some great favor, vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity, if they are especially eager to gain success. There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing, until the body slips quietly into the brazier.” 1
Some scholars of that once great civilization, however, believe that such writings were just “propaganda” written by the enemies of Carthage. But the fact remains that 20,000 burial urns containing children have been found in modern Tunisia (ancient Carthage). The children buried there were dedicated to two “gods”, one of them being Ba’al, the same false god mentioned in the Bible.
“…Carthage was particularly notorious, branded as a serial killer of children for at least 600 years in a site now known as the Tophet, a Hebrew word meaning “roaster” or “place of burning. Most Western scholars believe the practice was organized around the worship of two deities.”2
So we have the witness of the Bible, other ancient sources and archaeological evidence of child sacrifice to the “god” Ba’al. And, we know that the biblical Canaanites are the ancestors of the Phoenicians.
What would it be like to witness little children being burnt to death? It’s interesting to note that when we read about sick crimes committed against children in the news we tend to have very similar reactions as the Bible says God has. People whose consciences are not deadened are naturally appalled by violence against children.
Suppose there was a group of people deep in Appalachia somewhere, a leftover remnant from an ancient pagan culture which sacrificed children. What should be done about that? What if they wouldn’t be swayed by negotiation or appeal to law? What if they were stubborn and they hunkered down and refused to be taken alive? Meanwhile the smoke from the sacrifices continued. Would they not have to be taken? Wouldn’t justice demand intervention?
I believe that most would be sickened and severely traumatized by seeing things like this and would demand it be stopped.
I eventually started to think about these things in more depth and I would think to myself– I have no idea what it was like back then. How can I possibly make a judgment about God’s dealings with them, when I wasn’t there? How can I who live nearly 4,000 years later in the comfortable confines of suburban America know how bad this was?
Skeptics often call the sack of the Canaanites a “genocide”, implying there was a racial element to it, but this is a modern interpretation. It was a moral judgment, not a racial one. It was akin to the Allies invasion of Europe in WWII. And, when the Israelites became corrupted God used the Assyrians and Babylonians as judgment on them. God plays no favorites.
The Bible is more than just a collection of strange rules and stories of ancient battles. It is a record of “salvation history,” that is, a centuries-long preparation for the coming of the Messiah. This means that certain things would have to be in place for this God-man to come.
And even many secular scholars have noted that the spread of Christianity seems to have happened at the perfect time in world history. There was a universal language in Greek. The Romans had built an expansive system of roads stretching for thousands of miles which facilitated the spread of Christianity. It was a time of peace in this area of the world, the nexus between East and West. But for all of this to be in place, history would have to play out in a certain way.
Maybe if the Canaanites hadn’t been weakened, the Greeks would never have flourished, with their development of philosophy, which provided the philosophical preparation for Christianity. None of us can know how things would have gone if God didn’t do what he did in the OT.
How do we know what the world might have been like if these ancient corrupt tribes flourished and became more influential in the region?
History is often determined by very small events. In a certain way, these people in the OT were threatening us, by threatening the flow of history. If these tribes were not “pruned”, they could’ve impeded not only the nation of Israel, but the rise of the Greeks and Romans.
The Israelites didn’t even take all of them out and still, that remnant negatively influenced the faith of Israel. So what might the earth look like if these practices were allowed to thrive?
But what about the killing of the women and children in these tribes?
When I watch a program on female serial killers, or when I watch the 6 o’ clock news, I see that women too are capable of great violence. Children are as well, as we see by the cases of even young kids who kill.
Many in the modern world honestly believe that children are born good. But that is not true. Children are born cute but with the tendency to do great evil if not led to the good. We have to remember that the God of the Bible is described as outside of Time. We see only the child. But God can see the child as an adult continuing the injustice by throwing innocent children into the sacrificial fire.
When we read about these events we immediately think of the cuteness of kids. We transpose the actions of the Israelites into our modern viewpoint and we picture them bursting into a Kindergarten class to slash little innocent kids to death while they are having snack-time. This is not the way it was. These kids were used to seeing people being hacked to death. They would have been used to seeing other kids sacrificed. And they were destined to practice the same things as they grew up.
However, many biblical scholars believe that the call to kill “all men, women and children…everything that lives, etc…” is hyperbolic language that also is seen in the writings of other cultures in describing their battles. So even despite the Bible’s description, which we in the modern world can equate with a genocide, it’s seems that God did not intend to completely wipe them out. We know that they were given plenty of time to get their act together, to repent, years in fact. Many of them were driven out before the Israelites got there. And, there is precedent for God not killing the innocent (Gen 18). So it’s more than likely that the target of the Israelites were the hardened warriors themselves, not children.
But, even if some were killed along with the guilty, God can take care of the innocent. He is the author of life. All life belongs to him. This whole issue can be made easier by not reducing it to the punitive, OT view alone, but seeing it in light of the fullness of revelation with Christ, that is, with an eternal view.
The Bible tells us that these many of these ancient people were killed yes, that is, taken out of their bodily existence, but it doesn’t say that they were sent to hell. And from a Christian perspective, bodily death, no matter how violent, is not the worst thing, eternal death is. Their punishment was to set an example so to speak. “For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead that, though condemned in the flesh in human estimation, they might live in the spirit in the estimation of God.” (1 Peter 4:6)
Any of these ancient people who were ignorant of the wrongness of their deeds would be judged accordingly.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sheds light on this ignorance of good/evil:
“If….the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. (CCC 1793)
And the NT says: “God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent…” (Acts 17:30)
We don’t understand why God has chosen to work through sinful humans, slowly over the course of thousands of years. This method allows all sorts of evil to crop up. But how do we know that any women and children, in these or any other cultures, didn’t wake up, seemingly a few moments later to meet Christ, showing them the meaning of life and inviting them into the bliss of heaven? How do we know they didn’t say: “Oh, Lord thank you for taking me out of that hell-hole and bringing me here! It’s so beautiful!” They would completely understand why it had to happen that way and they wouldn’t be bothered in the least by the method of their death. They would understand as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4—that all the pain and terror in the world is nothing but a light, momentary affliction as compared with the eternal glory to be revealed.
We always have to consider these events in their context. This was a nasty world. We have to remember that these ancient people only understood strength and power. Success on the battlefield was to be feared. What better way to prove your power than to show that power over life and death itself?
The people of this land knew all about the battle successes of the Israelites. Just like today, word travelled, if a little slower. Moses’ pagan father-in-law, Jethro, sums it up well: “Now I know that the Lord is a deity great beyond any other…” (Ex 18:11)
God is saying—“Look, I Am who I say I am. I do have the power to take someone out. I really am the one to be worshipped.”
Another fundamentalist mistake that many make is by focusing only on the negative behavior of people in the Bible and avoiding the countless examples of virtue, which is the whole point—to contrast the evil with the virtuous behavior.
It’s common for atheists to say things like—“The Bible condones slavery, child murder, rape, etc, etc…” This is not only reductionist but irrational as well. Anyone who reads the Bible and thinks that the Bible is condoning these things is missing the point entirely.
The Bible is not saying that we are supposed to do what was done 3,000 years ago. The Israelites were a work in progress. It is a description of how the invisible God interacted with primitive humans to begin the process of redemption. God tolerated things. It is not logical to pull passages from 1100 BC and apply identical standards to the fullness of the revelation of Christ. Salvation history has progressed.
In the Bible, we don’t get our morals from these ancient battles, from individuals who commit grave sins, or from God striking down some dude who stubbornly rebelled. We get them from the unified message of the Bible which is trying to show the world that there is a purpose to life. It is teaching us that God is calling us to become holy. The presence of these events doesn’t negate this aim. It doesn’t mean that it should be written off as hypocritical any more than a husband and father should be written off for defending his family from attack.
We can read the laws in Leviticus and think—“This is ridiculous!” But that’s because we are not reading it within its ancient context. The fact is that “an eye for an eye” is there to dampen the human revenge instinct, which is–You kill my son, I’ll kill your whole family. These laws are an improvement over the other law codes of the time.
When we read of something such as animal sacrifice, we might think –“What in the world is this all about? I love animals, how can I believe in a God who wants animals to be killed?” But they were already ensconced in this kind of primitive religious environment. God simply met them where they were and gave a focus to it that would culminate in the sacrifice of God Himself, the true Lamb of God. God never wanted animal sacrifice. That was a way of teaching them, of hammering home the message that these animals were not gods (as the Egyptians saw them). What God wanted was always “mercy, not sacrifice.”
So, he’s doing it using ritual and law codes, bringing it into their lives and into a form that they can understand. But this had to happen slowly. To suddenly inject “forgive your enemies” into this ancient warring mindset would have been overwhelming. They were not yet ready for that. They had to have basic laws first. With sinful humans, moral change takes time to assimilate. We can see this with after the American Civil War. The law changed. Slavery was banned, but the hearts and minds of many were not yet ready to change. It still took a mostly Christian based people over 100 years to accept blacks.
This fact shows another paradox—What looks like a violent book that has nothing to do with morality actually has given the world the notion of charity and the elevated goal of holiness.
It is ahead of its time. There is a deliberate effort within the Bible to foster mercy and concern for others. There is a constant call to look upon others with dignity despite the fact that there are still whippings for punishment.
We see God calling them to truth and honesty in all of their dealings, to treat all with respect, especially foreigners and the poor, orphans and widows and even the animals that work for them. There is a call to sacrifice the first crop to God in order to avoid exploiting the earth. This limits man’s greed and fosters respect for the gifts of creation. Certainly, this has to be seen as superior to the “strong over the weak” mentality of the ancient pagans.
And the laws are not just for societal order, they are pushing them towards an ideal—towards actually desiring to do good, in the heart, and not just feeling the burden of having to do good because of the “rules.” When a person actually begins to desire the good, the change is interior. They become free of entanglements such as hatred, jealousy, greed, and lust. They become happier. And when people are happier, and find interior peace, society flourishes and finds external peace.
Despite the sinful characters in the Bible, despite some disturbing things, like the smack-down of the Canaanites, and some other people, the Israelites brought a more elevated ethic than the world has ever seen.
Ironically, some of the same people who can’t believe in God because of these things, look up to communist dictators who had millions of innocent people abducted from their homes and families and either imprisoned without trial, or tortured and murdered. The Israelites put these people to the sword, yes, but it was quick. The Communists tortured and killed people simply for disagreeing with their politics, not for sacrificing children to a false god.
In another strange irony, some of the same people who claim the Bible is a terrible example of morality for children, have no problem letting their kids play violent video games and watch graphically life-like, violent movies, both of which do more to desensitize a young person to violence in their formative years than reading violent stories from the Bible.
Atheists believe that humans are in charge on earth. They don’t believe that humans need policing (even with the long history of man’s inhumanity to man). Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion cites certain studies regarding human moral dilemmas. For example, in one moral question, there are five people on a train that is heading for derailment. The only way for them to be saved is to be diverted onto another track. However, there is a man working on that track. Most people polled believe it’s morally allowable to take out the one to save the five. That one person is considered “collateral damage.” (In contrast, Catholic morality says we can never do evil for a good. Human morality is always based upon convenience and mere numbers.)
What Dawkins shows though, is that he and other atheists are willing to give the being that they believe is in charge of the earth, humans, the same leeway a Christian is willing to give the Being they believe is charge of the earth, the God of the Bible.
The bottom line is this–If human beings, with their universally flawed nature, and their record of atrocities throughout history, can “morally” decide that five lives are more important than one, how much more should a God who is responsible for the existence of the universe and all life, be “allowed” to take out one to save five?
These ancient accounts of battles in the Bible are made much more difficult by those under the influence of moral relativism who cannot distinguish between moral intention.
Let’s consider this example next:
Imagine yourself as a European Jew in a Nazi death camp in 1944. Would you be glad that the Allies had landed to hopefully free you and millions of innocent victims of the horrors all around you, even though you knew that to do so would require a lot of violence? The Allies could also be considered mass murderers if we are not distinguishing between the intentions of the Nazi’s vs. the intention of the Allies. Can we believe in them and what they did as being right? I hope we would all answer yes. They did what they had to do and restored peace back to Europe and much of the world.
God is loving and gentle, but also fierce when evil abounds. Many people have a hard time seeing this paradox. Reading about God’s anger in the OT for a lot of people simply means that he is an angry God and cannot be anything more. I once heard an inspiring story about a Navy Seal who was killed in Iraq. His wife explained how unique he was. She talked about the fact that as a soldier, he could be fierce and yet, at home he was also very gentle and loving with her and the kids. She recounted the time that there was an intruder in their home and she saw him, for the first time, enter into that warrior mode. He was like a medieval knight—fierce, yet chivalrous. This may be the best example to describe this paradox of who God is. He is both gentle and fierce.
Another example of OT violence often cited is from 2 Kings 2. A bunch of kids were making fun of God’s prophet Elisha, calling him “baldhead”. God takes them all out by having them mauled by bears. This is, on the surface, a difficult passage. Many argue—What kind of good God kills innocent little kids for calling someone “bald”?
First of all, many scholars believe this to be a morality tale told to teach children of the importance of respect for God’s prophets.3
Is that really any scarier than some of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales which, like The Juniper Tree, involve the beheading of a child? Is it any more disturbing than the video games in which the child himself does the virtual killing and beheading?
Secondly, even if it did really happen, it’s still justified. Elisha was God’s prophet and these troublemaker youths were not innocent little six year olds. Just as in English a word can have many different layers of meaning, so in the original Hebrew. For instance, the word ‘guys’ in our language can denote anyone from a young boy to a 90 year old man, and is often even used amongst girls—“Hey, you guys…” The Hebrew word used here to describe these kids can mean anyone from a youth to a young man in his 20’s. The word is also used elsewhere in the Bible to describe men in the army. So these kids were probably more like a mob of teenage street thugs.
Judging from the number of kids (42) and what they say to Elisha, we can see that this situation is more threatening than a cursory reading would reveal. In saying: “Go on up, baldhead” these dudes were, in essence, tempting God to take Elisha up to heaven as God had taken Elijah before him. They were mocking God by mocking and threatening his innocent prophet.
Do we who live thousands of years later know what the intentions of this mob might have been? In the past few years in the city near me, there have been several instances of teenagers beating an innocent person to death just for the heck of it. So these 42 were more than capable of slaying Elisha. And again, Elisha is a part of God’s family. As we saw, it is morally justifiable to make an example of those who have evil intentions to harm an innocent person, a member of the family.
The Bible is filled with stuff like this which only makes sense with an adequate knowledge of the cultural nuances of the time period, more insights into the meaning of the original language and even a little common sense sometimes.
God does not kill people for sport. The Israelites were God’s special children charged with taking his revelation to the other peoples of the world. If you were trying to get your children to learn to speak and walk and a gang of people came along to kidnap or murder them wouldn’t you defend them? Anyone who I’ve ever known would say, “Uh, yeah”.
Yet, for many people today, unfortunately, often the rights of the people involved get all mixed up in a haze of relativism. They will ascribe the same rights to the perps, citing childhood pain, problems of abuse or neglect. These, of course are unfortunate and nothing to be scoffed at. They may have been victims of a cruel upbringing, but in that moment they are perps, trying to harm the innocent. We are not morally obliged to give them a therapy session. We aren’t going to kneel down and pray for them, despite charitable prayer in other peaceful, reflective moments. In this moment we would react and protect the loved one. And once again, God is showing his power over life to a people who only understood force.
There are many other examples of violence that could be given. Each one has to be understood in its complete context.
Finally, we have to remember, God is apart from his Creation. Many people feel that if the God of the Bible is supposed to be a role model, how can he act like this? And he is a role model, but he is not only a role model. He is also parent. He cannot be judged according to the laws that he sets down just as any parent can’t be judged by their own rules. There are things that may seem unfair and mean to a child but that’s because he doesn’t know the full story. Yes, parents need to be good role models, constantly aware of their actions because their kids are always watching. But they also have their sovereignty and their ultimate authority. Sometimes they will do things that their kids neither understand nor agree with. But kids don’t have the wisdom or foresight to see the reasons behind their parent’s actions. Someday they will when they become fully grown.
So what about all the evidence we have that what this God wants to do for us is light years beyond anything any of us could ever imagine?
According to Christian revelation, God was willing to show up and endure the earth’s brutality personally, showing us in a very real, definitive and graphic manner how much he is willing to go through for us—that is, how much he loves us. Christ endured a much more painful, cruel and violent death than those put to death by the Israelites.
We may still struggle with the violence in the OT, but we can come to see that it’s reasonable to trust in God due to all that’s happened since those ancient times.
Many people read the OT and think—“It’s so violent. How could I believe in this? I don’t like it. I like peace.” God does too. But the only way we will get it is to change our hearts. He wants peace and says this is how you get it. If you, Israel, if you pagan nations follow my law you will have peace. If not you will have war and conflict. And that’s what we see in the OT and all throughout history. The OT can be complicated in its details but the basic message is really simple—Follow these commandments, surrender your life to Love and Truth and there will be peace. If not, there won’t.
Writing songs about peace and putting bumper stickers on your car that read—PEACE—is all well and good, but the only real way to peace is for each person to seek the truth at all costs, inside of themselves and in the world. This means destroying pride within, not thinking ourselves better than others, putting ourselves out for others, forgiving hurts, and curbing our greed and lust for money, land, possessions and pleasure.
The crux is this– It’s not reasonable to let some battles against a few corrupt tribes from thousands of years ago stop one from accepting the promise of a joyful life after death made by a very truthful man.