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Christian Jihad

Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses [1], Philip Jenkins, HarperOne, 320 pages

[2]Is it true that the Bible teaches peace and the Koran war? Only if you approach the books selectively, taking the gentlest of Jesus’ teachings and setting them against the harshest of Muhammad’s. Philip Jenkins’s challenging new book Laying Down the Sword shows that the Bible contains incitements not just to violence but also to genocide. He argues that Christians and Jews should struggle to make sense of these violent texts as a central element of their tradition, rather than hurry past them or ignore them altogether.

The most painful passages come in the books of Joshua and Judges, which Jenkins describes as an “orgy of militarism, enslavement, and race war.” The Israelites, emerging from the desert after their escape from Egypt, attack Canaanite cities, whose people are described by the biblical narrator as very wicked. God commands the Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants—men, women, children, and animals alike, until nothing is left alive. Likewise in the Book of Samuel, King Saul eventually loses God’s favor not for his bloodthirstiness in war but for his restraint—he fails to annihilate his enemies. The prophet Samuel denounces him for sparing some of the Amalekites, takes up a sword, and personally hacks the captive King Agag to pieces. To make matters worse, says Jenkins, God sometimes deliberately “hardens the hearts” of other peoples, using them to chastise the sinful Hebrews. Then He raises up Judges, righteous Israelites, to smite and destroy them in turn. It’s almost as if He wanted the highest possible body count.

Jenkins offers a useful thought experiment, asking readers to view these stories through the eyes of the Canaanites themselves. To them, the Israelites would seem as terrifying as the Janjaweed militia of Darfur in our own day, or as the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda, whose leader, Joseph Kony, has justified the mass torture and killing of men, women, and children in God’s name.

For centuries Jews and Christians have struggled to come to terms with these stories. One option was always to take them at face value and act accordingly. Crusaders in the Middle Ages, militant Christians on both sides during the wars of religion that followed the Reformation, and extremist Zionists in Israel today have taken the stories as evidence that killing your enemy without mercy is exactly what God wants. Sometimes, in their view, we must accept that God’s purposes are inscrutable but nevertheless just and righteous.

Similarly, the genocidal passages settled the consciences of European empire-builders between 1500 and 1900. They attributed “Canaanite” wickedness to their American, African, and Asian enemies, then exterminated them, noting that in doing so they had emulated God’s chosen conqueror, Joshua. One of the difficulties of becoming Christian for Native Americans and Africans since then has been God’s apparent willingness to victimize people like themselves en masse.

Another common approach has been to overlook or exclude these genocidal texts. In the Revised Common Lectionary, published in 1994 and now used by a wide array of Protestant and Catholic churches in America, the biblical readings recommended for every Sunday of the year carefully omit all the warlike texts while emphasizing the most benevolent themes in the Old Testament that prefigure Jesus’ message of peace, love, and social justice. “Modern preachers,” notes Jenkins, “regularly proclaim the confrontational and challenging character of the Old Testament, by which they mean the social radicalism of Amos, or the withering critiques of war and injustice in prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Yet few indeed are the sermons that explore the injunction to leave nothing that breathes, or condemn those who fail to kill the last victim.” He speculates about what would happen if a typical suburban minister were compelled, one Sunday, to preach on the text from Deuteronomy 7: “You must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”

Early figures in Christian history approached the genocidal passages in different ways. Marcion, leader of a highly influential Christian movement of the second century AD, argued that the God of the Old Testament, capricious, brutal, and violent, was the antithesis of the God of Jesus in the New Testament. His own proposed version of the Bible omitted the Old Testament completely. So, a century later, did that of Mani, founder of the Manicheans, who thought of divine history as a great battle between light and darkness and denied that the New Testament fulfilled prophecies made in the Old.

Arguing against the Marcionites and the Manicheans, some of the Church Fathers, including Origen and Augustine, denied that the genocidal passages should be taken literally. In Origen’s view they should be read metaphorically or spiritually so that the Canaanites or Amalekites were not actual groups of people, deserving of death, but the tendency to sin in every human heart, against which we should make perpetual war. At one point in the book of Joshua, for example, five kings hide in a cave until the Israelites find and kill them. To Origen this story meant not that the Israelites were murderers but that the five senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste) are always at work in the “cave” of the human mind, always offering temptation, but that a truly religious man, with the help of Jesus, will overcome them.

Not until the Enlightenment did significant numbers of European intellectuals begin to use the genocidal passages to argue against religion itself. Some, like Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and a hero of the American Revolution, regarded the God disclosed by these passages as so morally inferior that no civilized people should accept him. In The Age of Reason he described the Old Testament as “a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.” Paine became a radiant figure for skeptics through the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent heirs include our own era’s leading atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

Scholars of historical criticism offered yet another approach to the Bible. Starting in Germany and gradually coming to dominate the academic study of scripture, they recognized that the canonical books of the Old Testament were written in different times and places by different authors with different intentions. By now, biblical scholars are largely in agreement about the existence of four main traditions woven together in the Old Testament: the Yahwistic, the Elohistic, the Priestly, and the Deuteronomic. They have also shown that the familiar order of the Old Testament books is not the order in which they were written. On the contrary, Joshua and Deuteronomy, whose historical passages deal with events in about the 12th century BC, were almost certainly written 500 or 600 years later, at about the same time as the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos, whose peaceful and universalistic message appears to contradict them. In other words, the genocidal actions were attributed by much later writers, to men who had lived as remote from them in time as Christopher Columbus is from us.

Jenkins believes that these much later writers attributed to Joshua actions that never happened. Their motive was to exhort their own contemporaries to live up to the rigors of monotheism and not to let their attention be drawn away by the multitude of other gods, from the surrounding empires and societies, competing for their loyalty. He admits that praising their forefathers for genocide implies that they were familiar with the concept, but takes consolation from the fact that the pitiless massacres in question almost certainly did not take place.

Scholarly evidence now supports the idea that the Hebrews coexisted with many other peoples in the Canaan of the 12th century B.C. Archaeologists in particular cast doubt on the claim that a new group of marauders came out of the desert and annihilated pre-existing cities and peoples; the evidence of such massacres simply is not there. What really happened, Jenkins argues, is that the Deuteronomic writers, concerned about dangerous political and religious conditions, were “telling a story and at every possible stage heightening the degree of contrast and separation between Israel and those other nations,” not for the sake of historical accuracy but to send a spiritual message to their own people. “Israel had to kill its inner Canaanite,” so “perhaps the later commentators, Jewish and Christian, were not that misguided in seeing the massacres in allegorical terms.”

What does all this imply for practicing Christians today? In Jenkins’ view, ministers and worshipers should face up to the genocidal texts because they are an integral part of the Bible, whose Old and New Testaments, he believes, depend on one another. He invokes the authority of Martin Luther, who reminded the excitable first generation of Protestant Bible readers not to take any passage out of context, always to think of the overall meaning of a book, and to be attentive to the setting and specifics of a passage. Deuteronomy 7, for example, can then be understood not as a claim that it’s right for Christians to massacre their enemies but as “a call to absolute dedication.” If we continue to ignore or deny these texts rather than face up to them in their proper context, we will be taken by surprise when another fanatic uses them to justify murder.

[3]That’s asking a lot of ordinary Christians because only sustained study in the historical-critical method can lead them to understand and share his conclusions. Jenkins must know he’s aiming far higher than most congregations are willing to stretch. As I reached the last chapter of Laying Down the Sword, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand this book is a wonderful example of the kind of rigorous work Christians must do if they are to retain intellectual credibility—Jenkins is doing just what Mark Noll asked for in his 1995 manifesto The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. He’s also right to show the unreasonableness of thinking that Islam is essentially a religion of violence and war and Christianity a religion of peace. On the other hand it’s hard to escape the feeling that he is making excuses for the biblical authors. Perhaps it is true that they used the language of genocide only figuratively, but in doing so they gave warrants to people who not only committed actual genocide but claimed God’s blessing for it into the bargain.

Let me end with another paradox about which I would have liked to hear Jenkins’s thoughts. He encourages us to look at historical events from the vantage point of the weaker party, and he tells us that we need to reincorporate the genocidal passages into our understanding and worship. That got me thinking about another biblical genocide—Noah’s flood. We are all familiar with pictures of the animals lining up two-by-two and parading into the ark; these plucky survivors have become a staple subject for greeting-card artists, songwriters, cartoonists, even environmentalists. What we are not used to thinking about is the fact that God Himself in this story is committing genocide, killing everyone in the world except for the members of a single family. It’s a horrifying tale but one that our culture treats as colorful and uplifting, a prelude to the first rainbow. I’ve never heard a sermon on it as an act of divine rage and apocalyptic destruction. Perhaps that just confirms Jenkins’ general point that we should be a lot more self-aware and self-critical when we think about our religion and a lot slower to condemn the violent tendencies in the religions of others.

Patrick Allitt is a professor of history at Emory University and author of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History [4] and Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985 [5].

83 Comments (Open | Close)

83 Comments To "Christian Jihad"

#1 Comment By Kirt Higdon On February 7, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

Most Christians (at least in the Catholic Church) do not take the flood story as being literal history. It was used by the sacred authors as a parable of God’s justice and mercy and yes it was probably based on other flood legends (such as that in Gilgamesh) which in turn were based on actual severe, but not world destroying, floods. What’s the problem?

#2 Comment By Martin V On February 11, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

One inescapable lesson here:

The belief in the “inerrancy” of “the Bible” is obviously and for all intents and purposes false.

And so is the definite article, or the singular. What we term “The Bible” is a varying bunch of texts, in all manner of editions, with many precursory texts from other mythological sources, many authors, many centuries, many frauds, forgeries and sectarian versions and translations.

In a word: it’s unbelievable.

Is it any wonder religions are now “cafeteria religions”?
Take what you like, leave the rest untouched.

Problem is, some pious folks do like the genocidal stuff, and run with it. Rwanda, anyone? Straight from the pulpit: Halleluja!

#3 Comment By Corioli On February 12, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

The tales in the book of Joshua should be read in context of what was acceptable at the time of writing. (The book for crying out loud was written almost three thousand years ago.

All peoples in that era cnoquered and killed all who got in their way. They also justified it bu claiming their cult got told them to do so.

Do you think the Caananites were peaceful folk who never made war on anyone?

Also in later books of the Bible (“old testament”) wrestle with these same questions about lawful and unlawful violence.

Before Jesus there were the Jewish (Hebrew) prophets who dreamed of a world of peace and justice.

This article is very shallow and more than a bit anti-Jewish.

#4 Comment By Haymoon On February 13, 2012 @ 4:17 am

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
– Steven Weinberg

#5 Comment By Don P On February 13, 2012 @ 7:39 am

It seems curious that a professor would write of “European empire-builders between 1500 and 1900. They attributed “Canaanite” wickedness to their American, African, and Asian enemies, then exterminated them, noting that in doing so they had emulated God’s chosen conqueror, Joshua.”
1. Slaughter, perhaps, and perhaps often: but “extermination”? Most empire builders wanted to capture healthy labour forces and tax or otherwise exploit them alive, not dead.
2. Various “exterminations” have been reliably attributed to Greeks, Romans, Huns, Islamic imperialists, Mongols and Aztecs, none citing the Old Testament as either a motive or an excuse.

#6 Comment By Henry On February 13, 2012 @ 7:53 am

If you had published a similar piece on the Koran, with a picture of the Koran dripping blood, you would have death threats from muslim fundamentalists right now. That illustrates one difference from Christians, Jews, and muslims.

#7 Comment By Shalom Freedman On February 13, 2012 @ 8:01 am

Allit sneaks in here an absolutely false statement about ‘Zionists’, So far as I know no one in the public sphere in Israel, and I have lived in Israel for over thirty years has advocated wanton wholesale killing of others. It sounds to me like Mr. Allit is one of those delegitimizers of Israel who totally distorts its internal reality in order to undermine it.

#8 Comment By Luke Lea On February 13, 2012 @ 9:29 am

Mohammad seems to have taken his inspiration from Moses, the difference being that for Mohammad we are the Canaanites and the whole world is the promised land.

#9 Comment By CDK On February 13, 2012 @ 10:26 am

I suspect that the dilemmas that so powerfully affect us, Marcion, Origen, and almost anybody with a pulse were not unknown to the author of the stories in question. The biblical author could have gone another way, but didn’t. Why? The Flood story is the test case for all of the others, for it represents a complete erasing of the world’s existence (as the Genesis makes clear)–not just a genocide of men. How could a God who created heaven and earth with “man in his image”, be indifferent to its destruction, particularly its total destruction? What would drive a creative God who obviously delights in his creation to undo it? Even if the biblical author were just fine with genocide, this would still be a problem for him. Such a God would be so unpredictable that no man or nation could rely on Him. Of course, this just mirrors His problem with man–man, being free, cannot be governed or steered into being good. The very fact that free beings freely chose to be incredibly evil must have seemed a repudiation of the very act of creating itself. God, after seeing one good man, decided to spare this creation after all. I prefer to think it was not just the world that was being redeemed here.

There is no example of “innocents” being slaughtered in the Bible, if one is talking about innocent *nations*. No nation listed in the Old Testament could truly be called innocent in any sense we would recognize, though much of their criminality was made necessary by want and persecution. Contrary to the above impression, genocide is not God’s standard treatment even for Israel’s enemies, with one great exception: those whom it is not safe even to enslave. The Amalekites were basically Old Testament Nazis who lived within a hundred or so miles of every Jew in a world without diaspora to retreat to. Kill or be killed is an ugly fact of political life that even we accept, however silently–that’s what having nuclear weapons means.

I personally am not convinced that we could do better than God were we in His shoes–we would create a world of automatons and simulacra or go through endless attempts to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Or smash it all in a fit of rage. After all, when you’re God, what really holds you back except yourself? What would we do if we truly did not fear punishment or shame for our acts? I wonder.

#10 Comment By Richard Brangane On February 13, 2012 @ 10:51 am

Instead of scholarly anguish and hair-splitting, the lesson should be applied where it really matters today: to the slow strangulation of the Palestinians by Israel. The Israeli settler community is the tail that wags the not-so-reluctant Israeli dog, and the settlers are in their own view justified by these biblical passages of conquest — did not God give Israel all of this land? The fighting back by the Palestinians to hold onto whatever they can of their own land, road rights and water is used to justify unending political stasis and territorial encroachment. A biblical massacre updated for the 21st century when news, TV, cellphones and videos preclude outright slaughter in favor of gradual displacement bankrolled by the American government.

#11 Comment By BMerker On February 13, 2012 @ 10:56 am

“taking the gentlest of Jesus’ teachings and setting them against the harshest of Muhammad’s! – what nonsense! The genocidal passages of the Bible are in the Old Testament, of pre-Christian Jewish origin, while Jesus’ teachings are in the New Testament, on which specifically Chistian teachings are based.

#12 Comment By Corioli On February 13, 2012 @ 11:31 am

Merker, Jesus was a Jew who knew the history of his people.

He preached what he preached because he learned it from his Hebrew prophets and his Rabbis.

There is very little that Jesus preached that is not already in the Hebrew Bible.

Go and study.

#13 Comment By Lee Jones On February 13, 2012 @ 11:37 am

Why can’t the events have happened, truly, and God be just?

The word “jihad” has meant “holy war” to me. That is, those who go to war based upon a the command of their gods.

I read the passages regarding mass genocide, and it seems to me it is a contest between the God of Israel and the God of Canaan. If there is a group of people who actually, truly believe they are going to war for their God (in other words, a “holy war”), then it is a conflict between two gods.

In a war between gods, it seems internally consistent for one group of followers to annihilate the other. From a bystander’s perspective, it is genocide. From the perspective of the follower fighting a holy war, it is deicide.

#14 Comment By jorgen On February 13, 2012 @ 11:54 am

Who cares what the Bible and the Koran says. What matters is that there are no atheist or Christian terrorists, but apparently no shortage on Islamist terrorists.

#15 Comment By smokin joe On February 13, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

Lot’s of ox goring here. It is my considered belief that the ancient lore of Canaan and the surrounding environs produced many traditions that borrowed and recycled for time out of mind. The Jewish people were created out of a diversity of traditions that were perhaps shared by other language groups and cultures who , for political reasons that I can only speculate about, came together at about the period of the Babylon Captivity as the revealed word of the newly constructed Deity. Subsequent transfer of this tradition to “us” in all our own diverse interpretations only serves to illustrate the process. Chopped , channeled or turbo charged – it is accepted as a literal, if not sacred, construct that no amount of evidence seems to dismay in it’s effect on the faithful.

#16 Comment By mcphersongp On February 13, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

The gods people invent tell us a lot about them. Vindictive people create vindictive gods.

Gods themselves are hard enough to believe in.
Gods that send messages to people saying it’s all right to commit murder , simply incredible.

There are numerous, disgusting incitements to violence in the so-called sacred texts. I think the one that epitomizes this sort of religious nonsense the best is the story of Abraham and Isaac, shared by the three biggies.

In this story we are invited to admire a father for his willingness to sacrifice the life of his child. He is doing this according to the dictates of a voice he says comes from god.

To this day, Abraham or Ibrahim is revered as a great leader whom god was only testing.
Not one of the great religions would face up to the truth of the story: If this was a test, Abraham failed.

Inventing deities in order to comfort us in a meaningless existencce begins harmlessly enough.

It ends in crusades, 9/11, the holocaust.

#17 Comment By Brightman On February 13, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

The question of whether genocides and other atrocities were carried out in accordance with God’s will makes me laugh. There is no God involved at all, folks. It is influential humans – almost certainly men in every case – perhaps mystifying the masses by claiming to have heard “God” speak to them, who ordered the exterminations and other horrors. These things, if they happened, were the work of mankind, no less than they would be today. How nice and expedient – and ridiculous – to still, today!, get sidetracked into an argument over whether “God” really authorized them. Hogwash. And dangerous hogwash, at that.

#18 Comment By jack.arnon On February 13, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

mcphersongp:

“The gods people invent tell us a lot about them. Vindictive people create vindictive gods.”

This is a ridiculous.

The Jews were no more vindictive than any other ancient people.

The Aztec invented gods that demanded sacrifice what does that make them?

Were and are the Buddhist any more peaceable than other people because of the god they invented?

The Hebrew bile no more demanded genocide than did other ancient gods.

When the Romans wiped out the Carthagenians did they do so because their gods demanded it.

MC you don’t know zilch about history.

Also your equating 9/11 to the holocaust is an historical travesty.

#19 Comment By Andrew On February 13, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

It would help if Jenkins actually understood the allegorical tradition that was the common property of Pagan, Jews, and Chrstians in late antiquity. It was not an attempt to pretend that the literal meaning of the text was not what it was or that there was some hidden code in the text. Origen, for instance, was well aware that the authors of the more sanguinary books of the Old Testament were barbarous warmongers making up bloody fables. He simply believed that the proper Christian use of these ancient myths was to transform them into spiritual allegories. Jews like Philo did the same thing. The Platonists did the same with Homer. Fundamentalist morons today may really believe God kept exterminating the Amalekites, but fundamentalism is a modern movement, and fundamentalists are a form of social gangrene.

#20 Comment By Corioli On February 13, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

“All this study served also to bolster Origen’s theological claim that only in Christianity does Jewish tradition attain its proper fulfillment. Jews who fail to convert to Christ are in a tragic dead end, abandoned by God (though with a prospect of eschatological restoration). Thus, while Origen can correct the crude anti-Judaism of earlier and later theologians, the negative impact of his own account proved all the more dangerous for the future, in that it is so thoroughly argued, on a broad textual basis. A catena of his remarks seems to form an oppressive anti-Jewish vision, though it is questionable, perhaps, to take these out of their specific exegetical contexts so as to combine them in a system.”

[6]

Sorry, Andrew, Origen in his own way laid the foundation for spread of Christian antisemitism that treated Jews as if they were a Tribe ot be extirpated: first through conversion and then through physical annihilation.

The line doesn’t go from the book of Joshua to the Holocaust, it goes from Origin and other Christian “fathers” to the Holocaust.

#21 Comment By Timray On February 13, 2012 @ 11:11 pm

what does one expect from this period of human existence? i have no trouble with any of it because if we are honest….depredation was everywhere and still is. to compare it to the current Jihad is ridiculous. look at the war with the Christians and Muslims both sides hell bent for leather….same thing. as far as Christianity being the only end all and Judaism a dead end let’s remember the final judge is God not the theology of man…my Father has many mansions to me means you probably will be surprised who is in the hereafter…..no i am not bothered by the Old Testament

#22 Comment By Don P On February 14, 2012 @ 7:08 am

CDK wrote Feb. 13: “There is no example of “innocents” being slaughtered in the Bible, ” Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem children under age two might be untrue but the story is certainly in the Bible (Matthew chap. 2) and was commemorated in the Christian church calendar for many centuries.

#23 Comment By Doug Forbes On February 15, 2012 @ 7:29 am

This is why only Mormons should hold political office. The Book of Mormon unlike the Bible and Koran, does not contain passages that depict God as supporting genocide.

#24 Comment By Mie S On February 15, 2012 @ 10:28 am

Doug,
How can you possibly say that? Not all Christians believe utterly in all the Bible says and commands, for example, and neither do all Jews or Muslims. And what about agnostics, atheists, and members of faiths without official texts? To say nothing of the Separation of Church and State?

#25 Comment By Bert On February 15, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

You all are frightening. Seeing as religion is mythology…who cares.

#26 Comment By Kenneth Brownell On February 18, 2012 @ 12:39 am

Jenkins is right that Christians and Jews as much as Muslims have to honestly face up to the violent passages of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot plead the case for an orthodox Jewish approach, but as an orthodox Protestant there can be no doubt that in Joshua, Judges and 1 Samuel God commanded that his judgement be executed on the Canaanites. By definition this was just as God cannot be unjust or command anything unjust. The Bible makes clear that the sin of the Canaanites deserved this. However the Bible also seems to indicate that in some cases and perhaps most the people fled and that after the possession of the land by Israel Canaanites remained. Even so, by the time we get to Jesus and the new covenant there is no suggestion that Christianity can be advanced by means of violence. What needs to be reckoned with the the progressive nature of God’s revelation as his plan of redemption it is unfolded in history. So I think we can say that Christianity as such as it is finally revealed in the New Testament is a religion of peace. Nevertheless Christians in their apologetics as well as their systematic theology still have a lot of uncomfortable explaining to do as well as assuaging their own unease.

#27 Comment By Egypt Steve On February 19, 2012 @ 7:47 am

“Even so, by the time we get to Jesus and the new covenant there is no suggestion that Christianity can be advanced by means of violence.” — Kenneth Brownell

“I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” — Jesus Christ

That’s a suggestion, is it not?

#28 Comment By Peter On February 19, 2012 @ 8:46 am

Let’s cut to the chase, the Old Testament is a thoroughly human creation, full of the biases, ignorance, and agendas of the innumerable people who wrote it. I have no idea if God exists, but surely if he does, and he had a hand in this barbarism, then I want no part of him. As to the New Testament, how can anyone attest to its veracity? We will never know what the original version contained because we are certain that the scribes made innumerable errors, some small, others significant. If a God truly wanted his message to be known, he’d paint it across the sky for all to see it. The use of ancient scripture for this purpose was an utterly ridiculous means of communicating his pronouncements. So many lives have been shortened, so many arguments have been sparked, and so much time has been wasted trying in vain to discern what is expected of us humans. Again, God may or may not exist but his existence cannot possibly be determined by humans. I am leery of both the atheist and the theist.

#29 Comment By David Tomlin On February 19, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

There is nothing easier than for a person to convince himself that God is telling him to do what he already wants to do.

#30 Comment By Mary Lou On February 27, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

I agree that we shouldn’t ignore the violent passages in the Bible. However, I think it’s important to understand why they are there and why Christians no longer live according to them.

God created humanity to be in relationship with him. Real love must be given freely, not coerced. However, in giving humanity the option to love him, they also had the option to NOT love him and that is the option they chose. In making that choice, sin entered the world and humanity was cut off from God.

God therefore implemented a plan to reconnect with humanity. He chose the nation of Israel as the vehicle through which he would do that. If the Israel were ever destroyed, the plan of salvation would be lost. Therefore, God had to protect Israel to protect that plan.

The pagan nations presented a two-fold threat to Israel. They could destroy them physically and, even if they didn’t do that, they could destroy them spiritually by leading them away from God. We’re talking about people who worshipped the false god Moloch by throwing their babies in the fire. Then there were the Ninevehites who liked to pile the skulls of their enemies at the front gate. We’re not talking about nice people here!

God always warned people that, if they didn’t give up their sinful ways, he would intervene and stop them. He gave warning after warning, usually through generations across the decades, and always made it clear what the result would be if they refused to stop committing evil. When the didn’t, then he would act on those threats. But he gave them a choice. if they chose the wrong option, they paid for it.

It’s a lot like this: Let’s say that Osama bin Laden was told that, if he stopped his killing ways, then he would be forgiven and all would be well. However, he was warned that, if he kept plotting and carrying out attacks resulting in the death of innocent people, he would be tracked down and imprisoned and even killed. If he did the former, it would be great. If he didn’t, then was it wrong to carry out the threat against him and stop his evil?

That’s the situation in the Bible. People can say, “Oh, but what about the children?” However, God knows what a child will grow up to be and if that child was going to represent a threat against Israel, as an adult, then he/she would not be allowed to live.

Finally, God sent Jesus Christ through the nation of Israel to implement the plan of salvation. This means that he no longer had to protect Israel from its enemies. Therefore, the wars and destruction of the Old Testament are in the past. They are no longer applicable for Christians today. The so-called Old Covenant of the Old Testament was replaced by the New Covenant of the New Testament. We are to follow Christ’s command to love our enemies. However, that said, we are allowed to protect ourselves and others in the face of evil if need be.

There are a number of good sites (The Christian Thinktank, Stand to Reason) and authors (Paul Copan) who have addressed these issues in great detail. I recommend them to those who want further reading.

#31 Comment By Mary Lou On February 27, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

To Egypt Steve re: Christ’s statement that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword:

It is imperative that we look at verses within their context. If you isolate one and remove it from its context, you can read anything you want into it and make it say anything you want it to mean. An individual verse has to be understood in relation to the chapter its in and the chapter has to be understood within the context of its book and the book has to be understood in relation to the remainder of Scripture. Many people misunderstand and misuse the Bible by taking verses out of context just like the one above.

That verse is found in a lengthy chapter dealing with good and evil. Christ makes it clear that the peace he brings is peace between God and those who choose to follow him. Those who remain in sin will remain estranged from him. He goes on to say that there will be members of a family who will be on opposite sides of that coin.

The word “sword” is used of the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17 and Heb. 4:12). That is the sword that Jesus brings and wields. It will divide families when some follow Christ and some don’t. Therefore, it is not speaking of anybody taking a literal sword and killing people with it.

#32 Comment By Sidney Freedman On March 3, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

I have read these columns with some dismay. People being what they are need to maintain stories designed for the minds of children. It seems that everyone to “prove” the benign superiority of his faith system quotes superior positive verses from their scripture. These verses plainly say what mean but embarrased believers must imterpret them away from taking them as evidence that the writers were prejudiced and ignorant of the preexisting cultural motivated belief systems in opposition. These are not religious but are rather political statements masked as revealed truths.

One is supposed to believe that a god created man without a shred of evidence to confirm it. It is akin to a witness at a trial quoting his own words as authority for his conclusions. Its true because I believe it to be “ would not be credible testimony anywhere but in religion.

Imagine people quoting what God orJesus said verbaitim when there was no one at hand to record and verify the statements. Anyone claiming to have heard God speak today would be sent to an asylum, yet we persist in believeing as fact these preposterous children’s fables!

We know that there is no need for Divine intervention to expain the emergence of life forms. But people still seem to need to hang on desperately to their pacifiers.

That posture would not be detrimentel in itself but religion has turned man against man in an age when the consequences of unrestrained conflicting belief systems would make past atrocities look like innocence manifest..In fact these stories are just that- the, immaturities and nonsense of childlike make believe.

Those who talk of the bestiality experienced from Hitlerite and Stalinest regimes hasten to proclaim them as godless and aethist.They do not understand that these and kindred belief systems got their imagery and logic from religion and were themselves religions..

#33 Comment By Mark Francis Hargreaves On June 9, 2012 @ 6:09 am

Speaking as a Roman Catholic Priest and Benedictine Monk, I want to say how amazingly helpful this review is.

The Bible is the Word of God, sure, but it is the Word of God clothed in the Word (and the works) of Man. (Even that one sentence would have been anathema to the Church before the mid-20th century) And Man, left to himself, is quite capable of committing genocide, or terrorist acts, in the name of religion, while thinking that he is doing something holy. Even some of the Nazis thought like this. It is unfortunately easier to be violent than it is to dialogue. It is easier to have a definite philosophy of condemnation than to steer the saner and wholesome waters in the middle of the stream. It is comforting to feel simply that I am right and everybody else is wrong. But this is not the truth. Unfortunately, most human institutions , and especially but not exclusively religious ones, end up in some form of dogmatism, in some form of violence of words, if not of works.

We need to rethink the whole thing, including the possibility of disentangling where is God, and where is humanity, in the “Noah’s Flood event. Who is this God, that can (apparently) thus condemn? Or is it a condemnation? We have lost the use of allegory, relegating it to the “simplistic minds” of our medieval counterparts. But were they really wrong? Is there something we can recover? What about the symbolical meaning of the stories, beyond the historical references?

We have a long, long way to go with interpretation. It is useless to talk about “New Evangelisation” when we are still carrying the baggages and the scars of the old ways.

Almost as the reversal of Pentecost, the Church today has lost the ability to speak meaningfully in a way that “each one can understand in his own language” (Acts 2) We have all the words in the world, beautiful discourses, and all the languages, but no one is listening, because we are carrying the baggage of historical mutual condemnations, on the one hand, and the accusations of corruption on the other. The world, rightly, doesn’t want that kind of religion, or that kind of a God.

How can we build a world in which a Christian can sit down with a Muslim, and with a Jew, and with anyone else of good will, and start again?