Is God a Monster?
This week we have seen the arrest of General Ratko Mladic, otherwise known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ who has been held responsible for masterminding the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were put to death. They invented the word ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe the things he did – a systematic attempt to exterminate another race in an attempt to cleanse a piece of disputed land from their presence. To make it even worse, there are images of Mladic being blessed by the priests of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Was this not only a genocide but one for which religious motivations were found? Was this terrible crime carried out in the name of Jesus Christ? In the Balkans, religion soaks all the ethnic tensions and rivalries in high octane fuel. Churchmen and imams are not afraid to call on the name of God to whip up a murderous nationalistic fervour.
But lest we feel a bit smug hearing about this, they aren’t the only ones to use God to justify clearing out land. The conquest and destruction of the peoples who inhabited the land on which we stand today was often justified as a Christianisation of pagan space.
The idea of a Holy War is one that mostly appals us. We can see how terrible and how bloody its consequences can be. But what if the Bible itself were to contain episodes of genocide and ethnic cleansing and to claim that God himself had commanded it? What if the Old Testament was shot through with stories of God-ordained violence? Wouldn’t we be justified in thinking that the Bible was a barbaric book and its God a monster?
Certainly, this is what leading atheist Richard Dawkins thinks he has discovered in the pages of the Bible. In his best selling book The God Delusion he writes:
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, blood-thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniac, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Hasn’t Dawkins got a point? Isn’t the God of Israel involved in promoting the kind of barbaric act that would lead him to share the dock at the Hague with Ratko Mladic?
Have a look, for example, at Deuteronomy 20:16-18:
But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them-- the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites-- just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.
It’s grim stuff.
I don’t pretend that an adequate response can be given in this short forum here (for a fuller response see here). But there are a number of points we might put forward.
First among these is to note the patience and justice of God. The conquest of Canaan was not the theft of one people’s land by another: it was the judgement of God on the peoples of Canaan for their corruption, barbarity and injustice over many generations: their ‘abhorrent practices’. The suggestion that they practiced child sacrifice to the god Molech has apparently been confirmed by archaeological evidence of skeletal remains at religious sites. But notice how in Genesis 15, God tells Abraham that the delay in clearing the land is because the sin of the Amorites has ‘not reached its full measure’. It would take four more centuries before this was the case. The wrath of God against these peoples was not especially swift, or capricious. It was rather patient.
Second, note that the conquest was not a matter of ethnic cleansing, nor was it motivated by feelings of racial superiority on the part of Israel. The stories of Israel’s conquest of the promised land most certainly do not invite them to think of themselves as a superior race. The mysterious encounter with the captain of the Lord’s army in Joshua 5 not very exactly reassuring, is it?
Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?"
"Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come."
If the Israelites are to conquer the Canaanites, it is not because they are exempt from the same possibility of being judged by the Lord of all creation. Indeed, that is what happens in the rest of the Old Testament: what we read is of Israel’s own capture by other military forces – the Assyrians and the Babylonians to name but two – and we are led to understand that this too is judgement of God upon them for their corruption and injustice and oppression and rebellion. In fact, the Old Testament is always hardest of all upon the people of God.
The story of Rahab the Canaanite prostitute shows that racial purity is not the issue, here, either. Rahab’s collusion with the invaders is rewarded – and in fact, she becomes part of the ancestry of King David’s royal line, to show us that faith in God, even the faith of Canaanite prostitute, trumps the so-called ‘right’ gene pool every time. The ideology of ethnic purity is a 20th century invention which we do well not to project onto ancient peoples.
Third, the language for the wars of the Canaanite invasion are always quite specific and restrained. There is not in fact the suggestion of a bloodthirsty killing spree. The Israelites are given specific instructions as they go – as we in fact read in Deuteronomy 20. This was not an expansionist war, or the building of an empire. The Israelites did not make a king who might have visions of empire for themselves for many years after this.
My fourth point is this: when the Bible describes a town or city being attacked it may be speaking only of a military garrison – and not a city with non-combatants in it. There is no archaeological evidence of civilian population at Jericho, for example, or at Ai, the city attacked in Joshua 8. The language of ‘all’, or of ‘men, women and children’ can be understood as a stock phrase that just means ‘everybody who was there.’ Evangelical scholar Paul Copan claims that Jericho was a small settlement of probably a 100 fewer soldiers (though I haven’t been able to cross-check this claim). He also reminds us that the Hebrew word ‘eleph’ (commonly translated, “thousand”) can also mean “unit” or “squad” without specifying the exact number. So Jos 8:25, for example, may in fact be far less shocking than it first seems. In general, we ought to understand that the conquest of Canaan was far less
Fifth, we ought to take into account the exaggerated language of military victory. This isn’t deliberately deceptive language but the conventional way in which you would speak of warfare in Ancient times. For example, in Joshua 10:40 we read: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.”
Does this mean in fact that all the Canaanites were obliterated? Not quite. It is like me telling you about a football match and saying that ‘we totally smashed them’. It is an acceptable exaggeration. How do we know? Because the book of Joshua itself later refers to the nations that ‘remain among you’; and the opening of the next book, the book of Judges actually tells us that they hadn’t completely taken possession of the land, nor completely driven out the local inhabitants. We see this too in Deuteronomy 7, where they are told to ‘utterly destroy’ the inhabitants of the land, but also ‘not intermarry with them’. It would seem that one command if taken literally would make the other redundant, right? The chief concern was with destroying the false worship and idolatry of the Canaanites and not with them as a race.
Sixth, the wars of conquest in the Old Testament are NOT offered as a model for such wars in the present day. Unfortunately, they have been used in this way. But that the Bible has been misused in this way is not the Bible's fault. Like the rest of the Old Testament, it needs to be read through the lens of the New Testament. It is part of the history of God's interaction with people that leads up to and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It always ways in fact the case that the promises that Israel had received through Abraham were given to him for the blessing of the whole world. The Bible never a story of ethnic or tribal superiority. The conquest of Canaan was a specific and unrepeatable part of God's plan not just to benefit the children of Israel but to redeem the whole world – including Canaanites (like Rahab).
I don't pretend that this is a comprehensive response to a thorny question. But it is, I think, a plausible beginning.