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The Bible repeatedly claims that God caused the death or injury of thousands of people, including those who had done nothing wrong but were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have suggested that rejoicing in such carnage is a human failing rather than an expression of divine wisdom. And it is striking that so many religious people manage to read these passages with an easy conscience.

We humans have a remarkable ability to distance ourselves emotionally from tragedy and cruelty, as long as it’s not happening to anyone we personally care about. I remember singing a jubilant song in Sunday school about Joshua and the battle of Jericho – “and the walls came tumbling down.” I identified with the Hebrew soldiers who gave a mighty shout that pulverized the walls of Jericho. But I did not think about what happened next, as the invaders stabbed and speared the city’s inhabitants.

Here’s another example: In Genesis 7:11-24, God becomes angry about human sinfulness and decides to kill every living thing that walks, runs, or slithers on the Earth, except for Noah’s family and two animals of each species.

As a child, I was captivated by the picturesque imagery of Noah’s ark, with cheerful little beasties marching up the gangplank two by two. Perhaps like me you sang that happy little ditty: “The animals went in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo.” Catchy songs can make it easier to “heartblink” evil, temporarily immobilizing our own moral instincts.

If I had reflected more deeply I might have considered what it would have been like if my dog had been caught in that flood, bewildered, terrified, struggling to stay afloat through exhausting hours or even days, and finally drowning. I might have imagined that tragic scene being multiplied by millions of living creatures who had done nothing to deserve such a fate. I would have realized that it made no sense to punish animals for human misbehavior and that this passage could not possibly have reflected the will of any God worthy of worship.

Some studies seem to show that as a general rule religion doesn’t make people more moral. Certainly churches try to teach us to be good. But if spiritual communities teach both adults and children to overlook troubling aspects of Bible stories, it is teaching them to dull their own moral faculties.

Churches should urge people to read the Bible with their moral instincts fully functional. If they see something that doesn’t make sense, intellectually or ethically, they should be encouraged to bring it up and talk about it. But that would mean abandoning Biblical literalism, the doctrine that every bit of the Bible is literally true.

It is not literally true that a perfect deity would destroy the innocent with the guilty. Congregations and clergy need to say so, clearly and courageously.

Roger Christan Schriner

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I once thought Bible passages portraying God as commanding (and committing) mass murder could mostly be found in its first few books. Mark Johnston’s Saving God, however, makes a more troubling case:

“Yahweh’s thoroughness in inciting and supporting mass killing is consistent, and extraordinary” (p. 58). The idea that God “is a very dangerous person to mess with . . . is a central theme of the prophetic literature of the Bible. That will be denied, but only by those who have skipped over, or forgotten, the rather demented reiteration of the theme” (p. 60).

I found this comment disturbing, but I have to admit that he’s right. So does Johnson believe that God is a mass murderer? I don’t think so. As I read him, he does not see the Bible as a perfect record of God’s messages to humanity. Instead, Scripture shows how people’s understanding of deity changed down through the centuries. At first Yahweh is portrayed as a “jealous” war god. Later prophets spoke of a god of love.

For Johnson, it’s important to recognize how frightening God seemed to the early Hebrews. As Psalms 111:9-10 puts it, “… Holy and terrible is his name! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Those who play down God’s ferocity “underestimate the dramatic character of Yahweh’s transformation, his second life as the advocate of justice and compassion” (p. 63).

In Sunday School, many of us were taught that God is love. That’s one reason the passages I have been discussing seem alien and even reprehensible.

Roger Christan Schriner

I have been emphasizing the first five books of the Bible because they contain so many disturbing passages that claim to express God’s will. But such questionable verses can be found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (which became the Christian Old Testament).

There are troubling passages in the New Testament as well, but perhaps not as many. If that is so, it’s partly because the Hebrew Scriptures focus more on the history of Israel. In most of the historical sections God is either smiting Israel’s foes out of love for his chosen people, or using Israel’s enemies to punish them for disobedience. Here are a couple of examples which are distressing enough that you may just want to skip past them:

Zechariah 14:2: “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women ravished …” The text goes on to say that God will then turn around and attack those who have invaded Israel.

Hosea 13:16: “Samaria shall bear her guilt because she has rebelled against her God; … their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.”

I apologize for presenting such grisly material, but if we want to know whether every verse of the Bible is literally true, we need to know what’s in that book.

What shall we make of the way God seems to see-saw back and forth between boundless love for the Israelites and blistering rage against them? Does this love-hate relationship really reflect the behavior of a perfect being?

Here’s another interpretation which seems more likely: Sometimes the Israelites won battles and wars, and sometimes they lost. Humans often explain victories and defeats by saying that great forces controlled the outcome – fate, karma, gods, demons. So when they won a war – or today, after a team wins the Superbowl – God was with them. When they got clobbered, God was punishing them for their sins. This sort of thinking reflects human ignorance, not divine inspiration.

Roger Christan Schriner

Steven Pinker, a distinguished professor of psychology, has written a critically acclaimed book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker claims that despite modern media’s emphasis on war and mayhem, over the long run violence has actually decreased. He begins by discussing violence in ancient days, and on p. 10 he talks about the Bible:

“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.”

All of this is easy to prove. But then Pinker claims, more controversially, that in the Bible “Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.” “Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.”

Pinker mentions “atrocitologist” Matthew White who estimates that mass killings which “are specifically enumerated in the Bible” amount to roughly 1.2 million deaths, not counting those who died when God drowned every person on Earth except Noah and his family. White says that would add another 20 million!

How do you react to Pinker’s charges? Is he overdrawing this gory picture? Is the Bible’s picture of God inconsistent? Is there a contradiction between passages that show God as terrifying and aggressive and those that depict deity as loving and merciful? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner

I should warn my readers that some verses in today’s post are rather grisly. But as I’ve said before, one reason these passages sound so disturbing is that they clash with core Judeo-Christian values.

We’ll be considering excerpts from stories of the Hebrew conquest of Canaan. It’s interesting to ask whether God would want anyone to march into someone else’s country and wipe out its inhabitants. Some would say “absolutely not,” while others would maintain that violent conquest is OK under certain circumstances. In this blog I just want to focus on what virtually all of us will agree does not sound like God’s will. For example:

“So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (Joshua 10:40).

“Then we turned and went up the way to Bashan; and Og the king of Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not fear him; for I have given him and all his people and his land into your hand . . . So the Lord our God gave into our hand Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people; and we smote him until no survivor was left to him. And we took . . . sixty cities . . . And we utterly destroyed them, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, destroying every city, men, women, and children” (Deuteronomy 3: 1-6).

Take a moment to let that soak in: “. . . utterly destroyed all that breathed” “destroying every city, men, women, and children.”

Deuteronomy 20:10-11 sounds merciful by comparison: “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.”

I doubt that Jesus would have agreed with this interpretation of “making peace!” If the city does not agree to enslavement, the Israelites are to kill every man. “. . . but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 20:12-14).

This is extremely unsettling. It implies that after wiping out all the men, the Hebrews are allowed to sexually enjoy the widows and daughters of those they had killed. In the book of Numbers God’s prophet Moses spells out a similar policy quite explicitly. Moses tells the people, “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17-18).

It’s hard to face the full implications of this passage. After the conquest, young virgins were sexually exploited by the men who murdered their fathers, mothers, and brothers. One can imagine God confronting Moses about these brutal orders, roaring in a thunderous voice : “What the !!$**$??! are you doing here, Moses? This is just despicable!” But as far as I know Moses was never rebuked for this policy.

At one point we read that virgins were left alive only in faraway cities. By contrast, “. . . in the cities of these peoples that your Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes . . . as the Lord your God has commanded. . . .” (Deuteronomy 20:16).

Not all of these passages say that God gave genocidal orders, but several do. These verses cannot be reconciled with the Hebrew prophetic tradition, nor with teachings of Jesus such as his focus on the value of children. (See, for example, Mark 10:13-14, where Jesus says of little children, “to such belongs the kingdom of God.”)

And notice what’s missing: There is never the slightest suggestion of a positive alternative to conquest. Rather than miraculously delivering city after city into the hands of the invaders, why wouldn’t God have worked a finer miracle, making an uninhabited desert region bloom into a paradise and ordering the Hebrews to migrate there instead of into Canaan? That way they would have inherited a Promised Land without causing untold pain and devastation to those who were there first.

Regardless of whether dramatic and obvious miracles occur, I doubt that the conquest of Canaan was sponsored by deity. Instead, I suspect that some of those who wrote the early books of the Bible were still thinking in terms of a fierce tribal war-God instead of a universal deity who loved every person on Earth. Other writers had a different understanding, as we can see in Joel 2:13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

Roger Christan Schriner