I like to on occasion write about personal experiences and observations at college and elsewhere in our Christian circles. This time I hope to expose a common Christian double standard when it comes to the problem of biblical violence. The problem of biblical violence isn’t a secret to anyone, and if it is to the Christian then he clearly hasn’t actually read the Bible. My point here is not to attack the inspiration or the authority of the Bible, views I do fully hold to myself. I also know that Christians should build each other up but as someone who holds evidence in high regard, I wish to shine light on some biblical difficulties and Christian inconsistencies. I shall do this by considering the views of a college lecturer as well as a Christian apologetic site GotQuestions (GQ).
Christian Conceptions of Joshua.
I can’t exactly recall all my lecturer’s points on the slide but I definitely remember him defining Joshua as being a “humble” leader. The rest of the traits presented to the class were derivatives of passion (for fervently undertaking tasks he believed God had given him), obedience (to the commands that he believed God gave him) and self-confidence (in leading his warriors to fulfil the bloodthirsty commands he believed that God had given him). Essentially, what was presented was only the good stuff. Moreover, consider GotQuestions, a widely read conservative, Young Earth apologetic website. According to GQ, Joshua is said to be a good leader (which one would have a hard time disagreeing with, more on this below) and a well-deserved example of faithfulness. Apparently Joshua “is often held up as a model for leadership and a source of practical application on how to be an effective leader.” We are also told that “Joshua would be considered one of the greatest generals in human history.” GQ then subsequently waters this down a bit by instead claiming that “Joshua is considered one of the Bible’s greatest military leaders…” Obviously GQ thinks that because a leader is mentioned in the Bible (in the parts that are most problematic, by the way) he must automatically be one of the “greatest” in world history. Although Joshua, given the historicity of the conquest narratives, was a great leader he would hardly compare to the monoliths of Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, and Hannibal Barca, among many others of whom he wouldn’t come close in terms of “greatness.” GQ also implicates God in genocide, as we shall see below.
But Surely that’s Not the Whole Story?
Joshua essentially commits genocide. In the name of his god, Yahweh, he goes from town to town indiscriminately slaughtering men, women and children “with the edge of the sword” (Josh. 6:21). Moses promises Joshua that God will massacre kings and kingdoms for him too (Due 3:21). Elsewhere we find that whoever disobeys Joshua must be killed (Josh. 1:18). Joshua is said to destroy “all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword” (Josh. 6:21). Joshua punishes several with an incredibly painful, barbaric, inhumane death for bringing trouble, “And all of Israel stoned them with stones, and burned them with fire” (Josh. 7:25). On another day Joshua fells some 12 000 men and women (Josh. 8:25). Moreover, Joshua hangs the king of Ai on a tree until evening (Josh. 8:29), orders his captains to put their feet upon the necks of these kings. This Joshua clearly believed was God’s bidding and thus it shall also be done “to all of your enemies,” after which he kills all the kings and hangs them on trees (Josh. 10:24-26). This can’t be ignored if we want to sketch a portrait of Joshua as being a leader. This is, however, clearly ignored by Christians at GQ as well as some Christian lecturers. A fact that I’d argue is quite inconsistent.
Sure, we can agree that Joshua was a great war leader. Given this fact if we wanted to ask someone to provide insight on how to go about invading territories, striking terror into the hearts of enemies and civilians, and doing this in the name of a deity, then we’d do well to ask Joshua. But this context is so often omitted and I can understand why this is so. How are Christians, apologists or pastors, meant to go about incorporating God’s revelation (in some of the most violent Old Testament books) in their teaching and/or proselytizing? Since this proves such a challenge then it is understandable as to why they omit the violent parts and emphasize the nice parts, or just ignore the book altogether. But as a convinced Christian myself I find this problematic because fellow believers aren’t being taught what is actually in their Bible. They often receive stories and teachings with gaping omissions on uncomfortable topics. And when this Christian someday encounters a critic then what does he say? Well, he can’t exactly say much because he doesn’t know what to say. Moreover, concerning GQ we are told that Joshua is “often held up as a model for leadership and a source of practical application on how to be an effective leader.” One would need to define “practical” and also emphasize that definition within a context of Joshua’s life. It would be worrisome if GQ was focusing on his conquests and the raping of the lands as a practical application. Alternatively, if GQ meant practical application in the context of faith then we could grant them that. But that could also prove troublesome since what was it that Joshua exactly had that faith in? To me it is quite simple. He believed, wholeheartedly, that God wanted him to exterminate his enemies in conquest of the land. Of course, I disagree with Joshua. I don’t think God commanded him to do this, instead he, alongside his fellow Israelite warriors, used divine approval to justify these genocidal acts.
Challenging the Lecturer… a Little.
So, of course this is at the forefront of my mind as our lecturer was teaching the class. When the moment was ripe I provided a simple, yet respectful, challenge on consistency:
“I’m quite interested in what you had up on the slide earlier… the slide where you outlined several leadership traits that you believe Joshua espoused. But, to be honest to the text, we also have to admit that Joshua also went from town to town indiscriminately massacring whole populations. A fact that one would not get from reading the slide. Instead, the slide said that Joshua was a humble, obedient leader to God…
I continued: “But as far as I know Christians wouldn’t say the same thing about other ancient war lords and warriors, perhaps like the Vikings. The Vikings were merciless in their conquering of lands and populations. I believe this is what we also have with Joshua. So where is the consistency? How would you answer this challenge?”
The lecturer was very open and receptive to answering my question but, having interacted with many opinions and views on the problem of biblical violence, he came well short in my mind. However, I accepted his answer because I didn’t wish to undermine his authority in the classroom and in front of the students.
One of the answers that I do recall was because of “purpose.” Essentially, what I took from this claim was that God commanded it and that made it okay (I hope not to misrepresent my lecturer here). No, a good God cannot command genocide. A good God wouldn’t command genocide. And a good God wouldn’t do so by asking humans to slaughter each other in the most horrific ways imaginable. And if God really did command that then we shouldn’t want anything to do with that God just as we wouldn’t want anything to do with Hitler. I am not avoiding that God has the right over human life since he created it, as opposed to Hitler who obviously doesn’t, but God would be all too similar to Adolf Hitler. How cruel it would be for God, by making us in his image, to install in us such disdain for moral abominations such as mass murder but then to go and command it. And this genocide didn’t just happen in one village (which would be bad enough) but, given the biblical traditions, they went from village to village pulling unarmed men, women and children from their dwellings and massacring them in the streets. But I was left thinking, what about the Vikings? Surely they also had a purpose. Their purpose was the same as the Israelites… conquering land and indiscriminately slaying anyone who got in their way.
The lecturer also, rightly in my mind, noted that just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean God sanctioned it. I would also argue that there are events in the Bible that God never sanctioned but was actually pulled into, such as being the conquests. At the end the lecturer did note me for providing a “good point” by challenging Christians on their consistency. However, I do look at the problem of biblical violence elsewhere for any interested reader.
The point being is that biblical violence is a thorn for the Christian, and Christians have been throughout many, many centuries attempting to tackle it. I don’t think it would be wise to ignore it and pretend that it isn’t there. If someone wishes to teach the leadership capacities of Joshua, for example, that would not only include his humility and perseverance, but it would also entail that he was a ruthless war lord. And surely a war lord that would have long since had me fleeing for the hills.