THE BLOG
09/16/2014 12:54 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

The Bible's Violent God Isn't

When the two planes were flown into the World Trade Center buildings on Sept. 11, 2001, the Christian right was quick with a sound bite: "See! SEE!! This is what those warmongering Islamic Jihadists with their violent god are all about! America, with its nice Christian God, is so much better. Debate over."

It didn't take long for some pushback, for example by "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens: "Uh...awkward moment here, but...have you Christians ever actually read your own Bible? You know, the fist-pumping, high-fiving extermination of the Canaanites--men, women, and children--by the Israelites at God's command so they could move in?"

How can Christians condemn another religion as inherently violent when their own binding documents depict their God as extremely violent, one who commands genocide and for whom mass killing seems to be his preferred method of conflict resolution (think Noah and the flood)?

How can Christians claim to speak for God in condemning divinely sanctioned violence today when the Christian God did the very same thing in days of old?

This is what we call in the business a "theological problem" and it's been a problem long before 9-11 and the New Atheists. To put a fine point on it, Christians have struggled with a Bible that at one part portrays God as a fierce warlord and then in another part portrays Jesus blessing peacemakers and commanding prayer for one's enemies.

There's no escaping the fact that Christians who take the Bible as a God-given dependable, trustworthy, and accurate source of information about God have some thinking to do.

A blog post won't solve anything; however, I'd like to offer two related factors that I feel need to be front and center in Christian deliberations but that don't always make the cut.

First, there is little if any archaeological support for the Canaanite genocide, and in fact most of the evidence flatly contradicts the idea. Most of the towns that are destroyed according to the book of Joshua show no signs of destruction, and some towns were not even occupied at the time (including the towns the Israelites passed through east of the Jordan River on their way to Canaan).

These findings need to be taken seriously. They suggest that the stories of mass extermination in Canaan are exaggerated, and probably find their historical "hook" in various tribal skirmishes of a much earlier time.

Second is a theological point. The biblical writers depicted their national origins as a great military victory led by God at the head of the army, which we know is common rhetoric for tribal cultures at the time. For example, the famous "Mesha Inscription" from neighboring Moab uses the same rhetoric as the Old Testament.

If Christians take seriously the fact that the Israelites were an ancient people, they really should also expect them to write of their experiences of God using accepted cultural conventions of their time.

As one of my seminary professors would say, "God lets his children tell the story"-- meaning it is from their point of view, within their own mindset and limitations.

A modern (and hardly perfect!) analogy may help. Think of how young boys talk in the schoolyard about how great their fathers are. There are ways of telling the story--rules of the schoolyard--to make sure everyone knows they have the best dad around. I made sure my buddies knew how strong and athletic my father was, a true hero, and I really believed he was, even though looking back I was seeing my dad through my "cultural lenses."

I wasn't lying, and there was an element of "historical truth" in my story. But how I spoke was dictated by love and pride (the good kind) and the unspoken "cultural expectations" of the schoolyard.

I never mentioned the many things my father did that were also "heroic" but not quite as exciting--like coming to all my little league games or doing the dishes. Had I talked like that, it would have fallen on deaf ears. But as I got older and moved passed the schoolyard culture, I gained a different perspective of my father, one that stays with me as a father myself. My view of my father did not remain static.

Likewise, the Bible is not static when talking about God. Rather, we see dynamic movement in the Christian Bible.

Not only do Christians have the Jesus factor to move us past tribal culture ("blessed are the peacemakers," "love and pray for your enemies," etc.), within the Old Testament we already see some back and forth that calls tribal thinking into question. For example, in the book of Jonah God extends mercy to the horrid superpower Assyrians even though in the book of Nahum they are destroyed by God and all who hear of it will cheer.

Christians deliberating over the difficult problem of Canaanite genocide need to factor in how Israel's writers were storytellers, whose ways of thinking about God and themselves reflect their cultural setting. And so, these stories, though part of sacred Word, are not the final word on what God is like.

For many Christians, looking at Canaanite genocide from this point of view can be troubling: it implies that the Bible "gets it wrong." But from my point of view, far more troubling is perpetuating the notion that the God of the universe painted a target on the backs of Canaanites.

Tune in next week for another post by Peter Enns author of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

Also, remember to join Peter Enns in a Reddit AMA this Wednesday, September 17th at 3pm EST in the Christianity subreddit.