The hunt for heretics
The Old Testament is full of violence. Does that mean God himself is violent?
JOHN DICKSON: The sprawling plain of the West Bank. Home to Jericho, one of the world’s oldest archaeological ruins. It provides proof, some say, that the God of the Old Testament is violent, and even genocidal.
Jericho was the first city to fall when the ancient Israelites invaded the land of Canaan, three-and-a-half thousand years ago. “Be strong and courageous,” said the LORD. “Take the Land!”
What happened here is disturbing. But was it “genocide”?
“When you take this land,” God warned the Israelites, “don’t for a moment think it’s because you are a righteous people. No – it’s because these Canaanite towns have become unspeakably evil.” Israel, in other words, was to act as an instrument of divine justice.
We are talking serious evil – including child sacrifice.
It’s strange that the account puts it like this, because, in the ancient world, you didn’t need a moral justification for going to war. If you were able to take your enemy’s land, you were clear to do so. But the Bible repeatedly says this has nothing to do with a land-grab or racial purification. It was divine judgment. Now that is still disturbing, but it mustn’t be confused with genocide.
IAIN PROVAN: In terms of the conquest of Canaan, it is made very, very clear that this is not about the Israelites simply desiring somebody else’s land and ethnically cleansing the people groups there. That, in fact, this is about the justice of God coming on a corrupt culture – a culture that has been corrupt for a very long time, hundreds of years, in fact. So, from their point of view, this is about God’s universal justice-bringing. It’s not about the gods supporting a particular king in wiping out another people group.
JOHN DICKSON: The point is driven home in the opening pages of the account.
It’s very odd. The opening story of the Old Testament’s main military record says that Joshua – Israel’s general – has a vision of an angelic figure called, “the commander of the armies of the Lord”. Joshua asks, naturally enough, “Are you for us or them?” The figure replies, “Neither”.
We turn the page, and before we hear anything about military action, we’re told about a Canaanite woman living by the city wall who already knows God. Rahab is a pagan prostitute, and she asks to be spared.
ACTOR (RAHAB, JOSHUA 2:8-10): We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan. When we heard of this, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in the heaven above and on the earth below.
Now, swear to me, that because I have shown kindness to you, you will show kindness to my family. Give me a sign that you will spare the lives of my father and my mother; my brothers and sisters.
JOHN DICKSON: She was given a sign, and she was spared.
The military violence of the rest of the book of Joshua is real and awful. I remember reading it to my son years ago and skipping over a few of the darker pages. But I know of no other military record from the ancient world that works so hard to tell readers that God has no favourites in this battle and his first desire is to have mercy on enemies like Rahab.
It’s also remarkable that the ambitions of Israel stopped here. Unlike all surrounding cultures, Israel, even at the height of its power, never tried to conquer beyond these borders. This was a one-off.
But some Old Testament stories have no redeeming features.
According to the book of Judges, a Levite, a religious leader, is traveling with his concubine. They spend the night at Gibeah, a village that once stood on this hill, north of Jerusalem.
The townsfolk beat on the door of the house in the middle of the night, demanding “entertainment”. The Levite throws the girl to the mob. They do their worst, and leave her for dead.
It gets worse. The Levite picks her up, throws her on his donkey. And when she doesn’t wake up, he gets out his knife and, well, he sends her body parts to the twelve regions of Israel as a rallying cry against the people of Gibeah.
The Israelite armies gather on the hill of Mizpah over there, and civil war breaks out, with thousands more being killed. The whole story is sickening in its violence.
But what’s a story like this doing in the Bible?
As any reader of the book of Judges will discover, it’s not there as a moral example – quite the opposite. This, and many stories like it, are designed to show us just how bad God’s own people had become in this period.
I don’t know any other national history that so freely tells us about the decadence, violence, and injustice of its own people, sometimes its own heroes. Exposing religious hypocrisy might feel like a very modern thing, but actually, it begins in the Jewish scriptures, or Old Testament. Story after story reminds us that sometimes the chosen people are the worst of the lot.
IAIN PROVAN: I think biblical narrative is notably anti-heroic. In the ancient world, the fundamental genres were myth and so on, and of course if the kings and the warriors are also godlike then what you get is the kind of myths you later get in Greece, where it’s all about Achilles and all of those guys and it’s about glory and honour and that kind of warrior ideal. The biblical story is unique in the ancient world because it’s fundamentally a story about ordinary people, and it’s told within normal frames of time and history and so on and we recognise these characters as being exactly like us. So, think of King David, one of the great heroes, the promise that God makes to David entirely crucial to the whole story, and yet the story does not shrink from telling you that David had a very dark side and that his behaviour caused enormous pain and difficulty and suffering, not least to his own family.
JOHN DICKSON: No one denies there are difficult, confronting parts of the Old Testament. But understanding them is more complex than we often think. Charges of genocide and vindictiveness are simplistic. And one thing is clear above everything else: as the prostitute Rahab discovered, the door of divine mercy always remains open.