Randy Thompson: The Bloody God and the Bleeding God

The War against Gibeon, Dore
The War against Gibeon, Dore

The Bloody God and the Bleeding God
by Randy Thompson, Forest Haven, Bradford, NH

I’ve been reading the Old Testament. It’s a great story, despite Leviticus’ by-laws and Numbers’ numbers. However, reading it is an unsettling experience. As I started to note the body count, it seemed to me that God was a lot like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, with her constant cry “Off with their heads!”

How do we get from the complete destruction of enemies in the Old Testament to loving our enemies in the New? How on earth do we get from the bloody God of the Old Testament to the bleeding God of the cross?

In case your memory needs refreshing, here is a sampling of passages that can keep you up at night:

“And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction. And the Lord heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah” [which means destruction] (Numbers 21:2-3). 

“. . . And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women and children. We left no survivors. . .” (Deuteronomy 2:33-34)

“Shout, for the Lord has given you the city [Jericho]. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live” (Joshua 6:16b-17).

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:2-3). 

This is not a complete list, but it well serves as a reminder of the violent, troubling Old Testament passages we try to blip over when we come to them.  The problem is, here, we’re dealing with real life and real death, not Alice’s dream of a bloody-minded but comic Queen of Hearts.

I realize, of course, that I am not alone in noticing God’s bloody hands in the Old Testament.  It’s there for all to see: Slaughtering opponents is part and parcel of entering God’s Old Testament real estate—rather like the buyer killing the seller at the closing. And, I know full well that I am not the first one to comment on this.

My difficulties with the slaughter passages were compounded by a series of articles published in Christianity Today within the past year. There, people brighter and more capable than I, attempted to make sense of God’s troubling tendency in the Old Testament to wipe out whole groups of people. From my perspective at least, they failed to do so.  This troubled me, and I sensed that there had to be a way of making sense of the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ and who saves sinners, and the God of the Torah, who kills them. So, I decided to take a whack at it.

Destruction of the Amorites, Dore
Destruction of the Amorites, Dore

William Blake, the visionary romantic poet, captured this divine dilemma in two poems, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.”  For Blake, the lamb is an image of Christ and is created by a God who is Jesus-like:

He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee

Yet, there is also in creation the tiger, dark, violent and dangerous:

Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Both the lamb and the tiger are God’s creations,  and both point to the character of the God who made them both. Both tiger and lamb find their source in the mystery that is God.  Seemingly, God’s tiger qualities and lamb qualities coexist in a Divine Shalom. But, from the outside looking in, we find God’s tiger qualities uncomfortable and frightening  and even violent. Blake’s question in “The Tyger” is our question as well:

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Blake, I think, suggests the answer to that question is “yes.”

So, how do we reconcile God’s murderous, tiger-like impulses with His lamb-like love revealed in Christ the Lamb of God?

Let’s begin with violence in general. From what I can make out, violence seems to be an integral part of life in ancient times, and wars between states and violence in general were religiously sanctioned.  One appealed to one’s gods for victory, and if your side won the war, your gods were the reason for the victory. You win because your gods were more powerful than the gods of your enemies.

Since God works within the context of human cultures, God worked within the violence integral to cultures of the Ancient Near East. For God to be God in that context, God would also need to be a God who fights—and conquers. A God who gets beat up by the other gods isn’t a god to be taken seriously. Such a God would not be worth worshiping or taking seriously in that age because there would be better god options available, namely the gods of the powerful and successful kingdoms who regularly beat up everyone else’s gods. Battles were not just bloody human affairs; they were battles between the gods as well. In this sense, all ancient wars were, in a sense, holy wars. Not only would human opponents of God need to be conquered, so would their gods. These gods can be destroyed only as their worshipers and servants are destroyed. From what I can make out, there is no god anywhere in any pantheon who is the god of  losing gracefully and surrendering.

The people of God would have had no reason to believe in, much less trust, a God who did not fight and conquer. That they existed at all, especially after the Exile, is a witness to their shared memory of a God who fights. Their existence depended on not being assimilated into the polytheistic fertility religions around them. They survived as the people of God because they depended on a zero tolerance policy in regard to this type of religion. Holy war was about the people of God’s survival as a religious, political, and cultural entity.

Further, when it came to violence, God had an equal opportunity attitude.  The Old Testament shows that God’s violence is both a means of conquest and a means of judgment of His own people. If Israel was God’s bloody means of judging the idolatry of the nations, then the Nations were God’s bloody means of judging His own people, as the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian invaders illustrate. One can say that God wages holy war against His own people, using the Assyrians and Babylonians as His unwitting proxies. God’s violence is for God’s purposes, not for the purposes of His people. God is not on the side of His people to accomplish their purposes. Rather, God’s people are on God’s side to accomplish His purposes.

However, once the people of God were established and purified—painfully—over the centuries, then violence no longer needed to be accommodated to God’s purposes. Those who return to the Promised Land after the Exile are a sadder, wiser and humbled people. The only major war after the Exile was the Maccabean War, which was a war of self-defense and survival. They were faced with obliteration as a nation, and they fought back. This was a different kind of war than what we find in the Conquest of the Promised Land. Though certain Messianic hopes kept the violence option alive, religious violence met its bloody end in the Zealot uprising of 68-70 A.D.

The uniqueness of God and the power of God were established in history. Once established as the God of Israel who keeps His promises and who is with His people in power, God no longer needs violence in order to reveal Himself. Now, he reveals Himself in weakness in His Son, and supremely so in His Son’s death.

The Close of the Crucifixion, Dore
The Close of the Crucifixion, Dore

The God who fights becomes the God who suffers. A God who suffers and who has never fought and conquered is a weak and insignificant God, worthy of our pity but not our worship. But, coming on the heels of Israel’s bloody history—a history of war, slaughter, conquest, judgment and God’s faithfulness to His promises—the fierce, bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament who reveals Himself in and through Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and who becomes enfleshed in Christ, who humbles himself and dies, is a God who is truly remarkable and beyond our comprehension, who is worthy both of our reverent fear and humble love.

If God caused suffering in the Old Testament, He redeems it in the New. God caused suffering, and then undergoes it, transforming it with his presence so that now there is hope in suffering, slaughter and death for those with the Gospel faith to see it.

On the cross, the God of Holy War identifies with the victims of Holy War.  God identifies there with those who perished because of His bloody, holy war justice. The Old Testament God of bloody justice is also the New Testament God who bleeds in Christ on the cross of judgment and rejection. At the cross, God meets those who were judged and slaughtered in God’s holy wars by a God who experienced the same judgment and the same slaughter. The God who dies is the God who kills; the God who raised His slaughtered Son from the dead is the God who loves.

This does not explain away the bloody=mindedness of the Old Testament, but it does make some sense of it. God’s OT violence sets the stage for this same God to make Himself known all over again in the baby in a peasant’s manger and in the suffering Messiah nailed to a cross. If God uses violence to execute His justice in the Old Testament,  He judges violence on the cross of His Son and bears Himself the violence of His own judgment. The One who gives life also gives violent death in judgment. The same One then takes violent death and uses it to create life anew.

It is because we meet God most intimately in the bleeding Lamb of God of the cross that I am content to trust that God, and choose to hope that the violent tiger God of the Old Testament will make sense when I meet that God. I am bold to hope this, because Paul the Apostles tells me that though I now see as in a glass dimly, someday I will see clearly, as Isaiah the prophet suggests:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. . .
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.

• Isaiah 11:6-9

Somehow, though, it wouldn’t surprise me at all that, when the time comes and we come before God seeking answers to our questions, we might find ourselves like Job in the presence of God:

Surely, I spoke of things I do not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust an ashes.

• Job 42:3, 5

When we meet the One who is both lamb and tiger, we will see the Wholeness of the One who is both.

121 thoughts on “Randy Thompson: The Bloody God and the Bleeding God

  1. I know how you feel. I think we get in trouble when we try to fit the whole shebang into some kind of air-tight logical framework or system of thought. It’s more like being guided by lightning during a thunderstorm at night. When the flashes of revelation come, we catch quick glimpses of reality through God’s eyes and then darkness falls again. The whole process seems chaotic, inconsistent, and completely beyond our control. I guess that’s what faith and courage are for.


  2. Three thousand years from now there will be scriptures about how god commanded the righteous Isisites to clear the land of Eraq of the heathen Shelites, Yazerdis and Krystians.

    And people will agree that that was sad but probably allegorical or, if it did happen, there was surely no way to avoid it and that it was all reconciled in the end by god’s wonderfulness.


  3. Various thoughts:

    For non old-timers, here are a few old links from iMonk touching on the same subject:

    Surd Evil, Serpents, and the Cosmic Battle
    Difficult Scriptures: The “Genocidal” God?
    Our Misogynist, Genocidal God, And Other Supposed Problems With The Bible

    All good stuff!

    Comments here combined with subjects touched on in previous posts are half-coalescing in my mind: something about Adam & Eve being called into ‘anti-evolution’, pulled up above the fray of animalness. This merges with the comments above mulling over universalism, hell, annihilation: what if annihilation was just the ‘normal animal destiny’? In this case it would not be seen as punishment, just the natural outcome of a human refusing to be anything other than animal? And eternal life would be the ‘reward’ for those who have risen towards God and away from pure animalness?

    (This is, I suspect a highly 21st century reading which would probably have been completely incomprehensible to a 1st century believer, and requires quite a bit of hard squinting when reading certain passages of scripture.)

    However, I haven’t quite managed to join the dots from these thoughts through the main topic of discussion here. Maybe in the process of guiding humanity progressively further away from onlyanimalness? I appreciate that violence continues to this day, as pointed about above, but the fact that it is hidden and/or outsourced does hint at the fact that we collectively aren’t happy with it, so that’s sort-of progress. Maybe.


  4. Very, very true.

    The hardest thing … or one of the hardest things … is not only that the world is full of bad things, but that if God is identified too closely with any of these things, it would seem there is no escape from them. The only thing worse than a totally impotent God is an all-powerful God who is malevolent.

    That said, I am on-board with the suggestion that God can and probably must chose to work in particular historical contexts. God must address actual people in actual circumstances, not because God is limited, but because we are limited; if God didn’t do step *into* our contexts, into the human drama, the price would be total unintelligibly. The one hope here is that God might both show up within our immediate reality, be mixed up in our lives and violence to some degree – but without ever being defined by this, and with the power to move us (individually, collectively) beyond it.


  5. I like this quote a lot. To me, it gets at Randy’s title of this article, “The Bloody God and the Bleeding God.” It seems like the “bloody” God, who tried to have people love Him via the Law (and maybe, to some extent, via force) ended up giving way to the “bleeding” God, who lays down His life to show His love for us. (I haven’t worked all that out, and there’s some weak stuff in that comment, but there it is.)


  6. Internet monk has been on a roll lately. Although too busy to comment, I’ve been enjoying following along.

    This article cuts to the heart of issues that trouble me deeply, and there are so many good comments above that I won’t even try to interface with them all.

    I will make one side-note: It makes tremendous sense to me to speak about how there are different pictures of God and how God works in the scripture (and human experience, and theology), images that woo and terrify – and some that offend. I have a bit of a problem with emotionally and intellectually flinging between different ideas and interpretations – an experience that would be exhilarating, if it were not at the same time so tied up with ultimate questions that it seems hazardous to be unable to answer with confidence.

    My response to this problem runs parallel to Randy’s here: I wind up clinging to particular ideas about God that seem to offer succor and use them as organizing or central principles that make some kind of sense of the other information … or simply stand at tension with it. I have to: while I enjoy the adventure of being lost at sea, ultimately one has to find a foothold *somewhere.* And if we hold that Jesus is the ultimate self-revelation of God to us, it makes sense that we begin there – the first of many forests.

    But that said, I would caution against couching this in terms having to choose between or reconcile the “Old Testament” (Jewish?) God and the “New Testament” (Christian?) God. The ‘genocide’ passages in the OT do not sum up the Old Testament’s picture of God, nor do the softer images in the NT sum up the NT’s view of God. One can only strike such drastic contrasts between the two by hand-picking the most variant sections of the two testaments. The tendency to read the OT, and Judaism, as tribal, violent, and primitive and the Jesus / the Christian tradition as a sharp break from history invokes categories that emerged in critical scholarship that are a little bit self serving, a little bit anti-Semitic, and historically less than careful. This has always made me uneasy – surely Paul and Jesus were acting and writing as Jews, and Judaism, running on just the OT, and has many important and humane reflections on G-d. Likewise, why is it that when religion does something we do not like, we say, “Oh, that’s just religion acting like it did Bronze Age, or that’s just ‘Phariseeism’, or whatever – as though Samson or Daniel or Jonah or the Pharisees were responsible for what Europe was doing in 1200 or 1600 AD. Marilynn Robinson has some essays where she pushed me even a bit further on this, urging a warmer reading of the OT and the degree to which the OT is so self-deprecating and self-reflective, and so replete with ideas and imagery that go beyond the starker images people like to point toward when looking for evidence of barbarism.


  7. I once read this quote in the comments section of iMonk, and never forgot it:

    “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”
    – Dorothy Sayers.


  8. Well, but here is the thing. Human history since cave paintings is a history of violence. And this is exactly why we can’t stand the thought of a God who resorts to violence to work his will. It would mean that he is, at best, stuck in the same cycles of violence that we are. At worst, he is impotent or at least not omnipotent. Because at the end of the day, we don’t really want a peaceful God, but we do want a good God, and – for reasons all too selfish – one who is in control.


  9. Actually, it’s incredibly boring. I enjoy conversations with people that disagree with me. i even have a podcast with an atheist friend of mine. But, you know, he actually has thoughtful things to say.


  10. Does it strike anyone as interesting that in scripture, the first recorded act of violence against a human – – Cain murdering Abel – – is done in a pre-law era? God says Abel’s blood cries up from the ground, but on what basis does he accuse Cain?

    Later in Genesis 6, God sees that Man’s thoughts are “only evil continually”, and yet again this is prior to God telling Man what is right and wrong – – with the SIGNIFICANT exception of one thing: he told them not to eat of the tree of “The Knowledge of Good and Evil”.

    How might that lead to a distorted sense of what God is up to? From our perspective, are the resulting genocides just a result of God’s temper tantrum? OR, from His perspective, are they a triage – – drastic acts of amputation to try and save what’s left of the patient, until a full cure can be effected?


  11. ‘It was wrong to do this,’ said the angel.
    ‘You should live like a flower,
    Holding malice like a puppy,
    Waging war like a lambkin.’

    ‘Not so,’ quoth the man
    Who had no fear of spirits;
    ‘It is only wrong for angels
    Who can live like the flowers,
    Holding malice like the puppies,
    Waging war like the lambkins.’

    Stephen Crane


  12. humanslug, I like this and it represents some of my more hopeful thinking on the subject.

    My less hopeful thinking is probably along the lines of Marcionism, if not “Oh, what’s the use?”


  13. Thanks for the correction on possible perspectives within universalism.

    Of course, the OT/NT dichotomy becomes even blurrier when you consider the traditional interpretation that because Christ, both before and during the Incarnation, is the revelation of God, and that it is He that the Old Testament saints were interacting with. Therefore it is He who ordered the destruction of the Canaanites.* I agree with this interpretation broadly speaking: it is the angel of the LORD who spoke to Moses in the burning bush, who is identified as YHWH but is distinct from Him, and that same figure went with Israel in the desert and executed God’s judgments. Not only will Christ judge the world, but He has judged it in the past.

    That perspective is required already by the doctrine of the Trinity: the Son was no less the Son before the Incarnation, and willed Israel’s conquests; as, of course, did the Father and the Holy Spirit. The three Persons also willed the Flood, the nation’s wars against Israel, and other divinely ordained acts of violence.

    *I do agree with the scholars who have argued that the language of killing every man, woman, and child is a sort of divine hyperbole.


  14. I do understand that concern. But I don’t think there’s a way out of it. Yes, people who believe they are doing God’s will are capable of justifying anything. But if there are actually people who are doing God’s will, and if that will sometimes involves unpleasant or even terrible (in the KJV sense) things, then I don’t think we can look at conquest, imperialism, or religious wars and say that they are always and in every case bad. We just have to say, “Look, they’re bad unless God has commanded those people to mete out His judgment.” And then we have to address the question: well, who has God actually commanded? He communicated with ancient Israel, but He did not communicate with ISIS. The former are justified, the latter aren’t.


  15. “Our age is every bit as violent as ages past. Some of us are, however, less aware of the ongoing violence that is built into our world. Because we “outsource” the wet work to the professionals. ”

    Yes, David (and Mule). I was wondering when someone was going to mention that. Golly, we killed several hundred thousand innocent people in Iraq — an accomplishment which would make ISIS dizzy with envy.


  16. According to the Apostle Paul, spiritual warfare — the true war between good and evil — takes place in the minds of human beings. I tend to think of OT scripture as a progressing account of God trying reveal Himself within the framework of human thought in order to gradually, step by step, bring the way we think into line with the way He thinks. And rather than skipping any steps on the way from A to Z, our patient God has been working with us one letter at a time. When the ancient Isrealites slaughtered their enemies and credited God for the victory, I don’t think that represents a divine sanction for slaughter. What I think it means is that people thanking Him for something — even winning a bloody battle — is one step better than people winning a bloody battle and praising themselves or some empty idol made of wood or stone. I suspect He has been leading us along a crumb trail one crumb at a time, and I think OT scripture depicts this journey of the mind in progressing segments, each segment reflecting the current state of mind of the writers in a true and honest way without candy coating any of the barbarity or bloody mindedness still lurking between their ears. And if they projected some of that onto God in their writings, then maybe God was okay with that as long as they continued to follow His crumb trail toward a truer revelation of Himself in Christ. And call this heresy if you will, but maybe God’s experience as a human being actually did soften and moderate the way He relates to sinful humans. Or perhaps another way to say it is that God’s love and mercy prevailed over God’s uncompromising righteousness and holiness in the person of Jesus.


  17. During my time in SF litfandom, I ran into way too many Superior Intellects(TM), i.e. Intellectual Snobs.

    I shall let Chuck Jones of Warner Bros speak for me:


  18. +1
    I subscribe to a low anthropology, as you say, Clay; and I’m troubled by the fact that the passages of Scripture that we are discussing today tend to lead me to subscribe to a low theology, too.


  19. I appreciate and respect your attempt to make sense out of these difficult aspects of the Old Testament (parts of the New, too) without merely understanding them as mistakes. But I think of violence as what happens when language, when communication, fails, or is not wanted.


  20. I’ve been thinking about this as the day has gone on, and it strikes me that violence is a language human beings understand, a powerful and bloody language, but a language. In this sense, this “tactic” might indeed work.


  21. Yeah – liked some of it early on, then outright railed against them and satirized them. Of course, he did the same with the CofE, so…


  22. “As I walk through
    this wicked world,
    searching for light
    in the darkness of insanity,
    I ask myself ‘Is all hope lost?
    Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?’

    And each time I feel like this inside
    there’s one thing I wanna know:
    What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?
    Ohhh, what’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?”

    Nick Lowe


  23. Oh Stuart I didn’t want to bring up bad memories for you. Audibly only once like the falling of many waterfalls of some distant tongue which came with interpretation and I was alone. The beauty of it was earth shattering in I only wanted to hear it again. So yes like a bomb only it elevated me to new position by it’s beauty. You know what it said. The interpretation said the same tongue that blesses me is the same tongue that curses me. So I guess it is only one sentence but with two parts. It took many minutes for it to sink in because I only wanted to hear the voice again.

    Something like this seems distant since her death and I have had bad days to many and I seem stuck in this rut. I wish to get out. I would be the suffering child if it could mean the rest would be happy. I could do that for Omelas. I have a good start. I have been here.


  24. You could’ve just said nothing. But…Naw, that wouldn’t have been snarky enough.


  25. The same reason I do – to cross my hands across my chest, smiling at my unassailable intellectual superiority


  26. “We outsource our violence…”

    Yes. You hit the nail on the head with this one. Our age is every bit as violent as ages past. Some of us are, however, less aware of the ongoing violence that is built into our world.

    Because we “outsource” the wet work to the professionals. And this is not only military and law enforcement, but we could also be extended to having Mexicans slay the animals we eat. Few American-born gringos care to stand elbow deep in blood for a few dollars an hour anymore. So we pay immigrants to process our steaks and hamburgers (me included).

    Because we live in a nation that enjoys relative (!) political and economic stability and we think that is normal. So we look down our noses at other countries that can’t get their poop compiled.

    Because when violence erupts in this country, many of us (me included) look at it as if it is some alien thing coming from outside of us (shocking!), denying that violence has been deeply embedded in the heart of our nation from the beginning.

    Because we would much rather watch simulated violence on a screen. calling it entertainment, than pay attention to the real blood that is spilled (me included).

    Consider this: it would appear that death (including violent death — as if there is a different kind) has been part of creation from the beginning. As the saying goes, “nature is red in tooth and claw” and we have never been immune from that. Our very survival depends on killing and consuming other creatures (including plants). When viewed that way, it begins to look more like a feature than a bug.

    I think what Burro may be saying is that perhaps we need to own up to that, and stop trying to justify God. I can’t see where he feels as though he needs us to make excuses for him. Perhaps rather than attempting to reduce the equation, we need to try to understand the implications of the equation — try playing with the variables and see what computes. That idea seems to me to re-frame the conversation, although I’m not sure it “solves” any problems.


  27. Aidan the problem is that people who believe they are doing God’s will are capable of justifying anything.


  28. Trevis – not Swedenborgian, though that rings a bell re. Romantic poets, and I’m going to try and find out more.

    Blake’s beliefs were highly idiosyncratic, to say the least.


  29. I think Tom C upthread has the view that should be our signpost.

    My brilliant friend John has written about this lately on his blog. He has studied the bible all his life, can read the original languages, has a Master’s in Buddhist Studies, and is Cathodox – Catholic for the first 30 years of his life, Orthodox the rest – he is also a person one “can set a compass by” – he endeavors to live what he talks about. I agree with him that the OT is a Jewish record of Jewish history, and the commentary of some Jews on their Jewish history, that has been handed down to us for a purpose. The truth of the bible does not depend on when it was written, or being a document that functions like a video camera or any kind of scientific textbook. The most important thing to ask about any episode recorded in OT is, “What is it there FOR?”

    And to answer that question, you have to view the OT as a whole, and a larger part of the Whole that is scripture. This is tough, because that OT portion is very long, difficult and seemingly disconnected; it’s a lot easier to settle into the usual Sunday School stories, which continue to seem disconnected even as we leave Sunday School behind. Trying to string the individual episodes together to find meaning outside of seeing the whole is frustrating on many levels, especially if we were taught a strict doctrine of “inerrancy” or that “the bible is the Manufacturer’s Handbook” or “the bible has all the answers”…. That mindset does not allow for stepping back to view the whole. So, we retreat into seeing one God for the OT and one for the NT, or we jump to reading things hyper-literally or allegorically without ever asking or answering the question, “What is this episode there FOR, and how does it fit in with what the OT as a whole is there FOR?”

    Can we ask those questions of scripture just as we ask them of any other text? This is a road most bible scholars have not traversed, even those who have some kind of literary analysis on their radar screen. Asking and finding the answer to this question does not have to lead to the Documentary Hypothesis. It does not preclude reading the OT through the lens of the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection; doing so actually helps provide the ambiance for that question to arise. It does not deny that Moses somehow had a hand in the composition of the Pentateuch, and it does acknowledge the legitimacy of oral tradition, but is not dependent on those things to establish “authority.” “Authority” is not the point. The point is, what are we to make of what we have, especially in the light of the whole?

    Yes, we can “allegorize”, and the Orthodox Church does see the “enemies of God” in those texts as things that underlie our sin that we must “put to death” before they grow in our lives. This is a true way of understanding it. And we can also say something about the time when these things were written (post Babylonian captivity) and the relation of that to the texts. But we ultimately have to answer the question, “What is THIS narrative there FOR? Why did God superintend the handing down of this, and not something else?”

    And the answer is very much the reaction of the daughter of the author of the article to which Christiane linked:

    “And Betty looked up at me with her big five year old eyes and asked, ‘Is that GOOD?'”

    The icky parts of the OT force that question upon us, if we read it carefully ***as a whole*** and as part of the whole which is the bible. That specific question is exactly where God wants us to end up. Yes, it’s very uncomfortable, most of all because it ultimately forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about ourselves and our own actions, and that of our “tribe” or society – the very things the Prophets addressed… We have to go through that prophetic indictment and end up at the place the Jews in C1 were when Jesus came on the scene. We know it’s not the end of the story, but at the end of the OT we haven’t gotten there yet; we are left with another very disconcerting question: “What now?” We have to get to that point before we can go on.

    If you’re interested in this angle, do please read John’s take at jbburnett dot com/blog/. Scroll down and read “shell game” first, along with the comments, then back up to “Why did God command Abraham to kill Isaac?” (John grew up in SLC, therefore his interest in the Mormon blog referenced.) This way of approaching the meaning of things is not the “easy way” of dismissing the intellect of the people of the time, positing 2 different gods, reluctantly admitting that God had reasons for commanding cruelty, or primary allegorizing. To me, John’s analysis rings true, in the very deepest sense.



  30. Agreed. The OT/NT violence dichotomy is a false one in some ways. There are certainly plenty of references to divine violence in the NT, but different in that you don’t see the same claims of divine authority for people to carry out that violence. Nor, despite the parables etc, does Jesus actually kill anyone. Rather, Jesus forgives those that kill him and his resurrected word is “shalom”. Nevertheless, there’s the traditional expectation that the violent stuff will come later.

    Also, universalists don’t (necessarily) believe in a no punishment scenario. Only that the punishments (whatever they are) fit in a redemptive story of the reconciliation of all things and are therefore (potentially) not the final word/are not entirely without a restorative purpose.


  31. “You gotta be
    Cruel to be kind in the right measure
    Cruel to be kind it’s a very good sign
    Cruel to be kind means that I love you
    Baby, you gotta be cruel to be kind”
    – Nick Lowe/Ian Gomm


  32. I don’t understand why the conquest narratives in the Old Testament are any more problematic than the doctrine of the Final Judgment. I’m not trying to be blase, but I feel like I must be missing something. I know this site has questioned the doctrine of Hell, but even if you don’t believe in eternal torment for the wicked, you still believe in *some* sort of punishment for evil (unless you’re a universalist). The doctrine I see most often championed as an alternative to the idea of Hell is the annihilation of the soul. But what’s the principled difference between God annihilating a soul and God killing a person in this life? Aren’t they both a form of “violence”? Aren’t they both punitive judgment? If we accept that God is going to punish evil-doers on the Last Day, I don’t think it’s too problematic to say that in Israel’s conquests God brought that punishment temporally to the Canaanites. Or is it the fact that the Israelites were God’s instruments for this judgment? “But do you not know that we shall judge the world”?

    Also, Jesus said that He was going to be the Judge of mankind, and that He would consign those who rejected His message “outside” the kingdom where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” However you interpret that verse, that’s still punishment, and still a kind of violence. So it’s not like Jesus is a revelation ONLY of God’s love.


  33. “Is the Bible basically true? I believe so. But are all the details accurate”

    But were they meant to be? Or were they supposed to support, or at least surround, the true message that is meant to be communicated?


  34. I’d be willing to bet that most of the frequenters of this blog, especially those of us well into or past middle age, subscribe to a low anthropology. We are under few if any illusions that man’s arc has been a stairway to heaven. While I have no problem dismissing whole passages of scripture that ascribe to God genocidal decrees, It appears that the writer of the above article, while admittedly troubled by these passages, is not wiling to do so. And therein lies the rub. As to 21st century liberals considering themselves to be the crown of creation – cheap shot.


  35. Uh, I think you’re putting words in my mouth.

    Modernist sensibilities are modernist for a reason. We can leave the “wussy” out for now, although we still outsource our violence, hopefully to non-“wussies”.


  36. I really like how you put it, numo. That’s how I want to always default to seeing it and thinking about it too. Even if I don’t know if I could ever make the full jump to being a pacifist myself.

    amen, either way.


  37. So divine violence is really just something that bleeding heart liberals “get their panties in a bunch” about? Just modernist wussy sensibilities being offended? Very Enlightening.


  38. Is the Bible basically true? I believe so. But are all the details accurate, in the sense that we now understand that word? I believe not.

    careful with that slippery slope, you may just end up a Christian! or at least a Christ follower.


  39. Blake was most definitely a mystic, and had his own ideas about religion. You might want to look up some info. and see how much he differed in that respect from common Christian beliefs. There’s a considerable gap.


  40. Swedenborgian, I think. (Or maybe I’m confusing him with some other Romantic English poet.)


  41. Well, you cannot tell me that Samson really killed thousands of people with a donkey’s jawbone.

    Someone who is an archaeologist (has a degree in Ancient Near Eastern studies) commented re. Joshua, over on Wartburg, about the fact that the “And they annihilated everyone” thing is a standard feature of *all* ancient NE conquest “narratives,” and gave an example of an Egyptian text that says pretty much the same things that are said in Joshua, except that the conquered people(s) are not the same as the ones named in Joshua.

    Myself, I cannot read any of the OT “histories” literally – I do not believe they were intended to be taken that way at the time they were written, and further think that all of the people who wrote/compiled/edited both the Hebrew Bible and the NT would be baffled by the 20th-21st c. “literalist” approach to all of these texts.

    Is the Bible basically true? I believe so. But are all the details accurate, in the sense that we now understand that word? I believe not.

    Further, if the God of the Hebrew Bible really is so violent, why did ancient Israelites literally *not* live in a culture that was violent *in emulation of* its god? Because he wasn’t. (Yes, there was a lot of violence, but if you look at the reality of the supposed leveling of both Jericho and the rest of “Canaan” versus what actually happened – if you even look at the alternative descriptions of “conquest” in Judges and other passages outside of Joshua – a different picture emerges.)

    I do not believe God was or is violent. Period. That might put some peoples’ noses out of joint, but there it is.


  42. I have never heard God’s audible voice. It sounds amazing and wonderful, and something for years I desperately wanted.

    Or terrifying, devastating, and earth-shattering. I have often thought of his voice (his Word?) as a bomb that when it goes off, it causes the restoration of all that was broken rather than the destruction of what was whole. Still a bomb. Still and explosion. But a different end.


  43. Yes, there’s no doubt that MY perspective and understanding of God/Jesus/Spirit and the Bible has evolved and changed. And each evolution and new understanding only seems to enlarge the box that I previously put God in, or shows me how far OUTSIDE the box He truly is. That’s why the idea that maybe He “does” evolve and perhaps He “does” change is a bit more valid for me. I’m not necessarily saying it’s Truth, but it does make my God-box bigger.


  44. Well, the primary theological reason we have to consider it Scripture is that the consensus of Jews has always considered it Scripture, Jesus was (and is) a Jew, and salvation is from the Jews.


  45. Yet I have heard God’s audible voice.

    I have never heard God’s audible voice. It sounds amazing and wonderful, and something for years I desperately wanted. Now I really don’t, nor expect to, and it’s been incredibly freeing and relaxing.

    Yet I hear God speak all the time. Through the voices of friends. Through the lives of people who do his work. Through the singing I hear on the radio. Through the silence.

    I guess that may have to be enough for me. Actually…it is enough.

    Thanks again for sharing, w.


  46. “But God is God, shouldn’t he know better than us what’s best for us?”

    Ever notice that those passages in the Bible of God being argued with or reasoned with and Him changing his mind are mostly smoothed over and forgotten?


  47. Well when you put it that way…lol.

    Tongue in cheek, but:

    One interpretation of this is it’s evidence of God’s recurring pattern of wanting to force us to follow His rules and regs and laws. In love he gave humans freedom to navigate our lives in relation to him; in reality he’s always pulling the stick out, to guide or correct. You have freedom to do things your way, but in love he’ll always reign us in and tell us to do things his way.

    Well, you didn’t obey in paradise, so let’s move on to a new beginning. Well, new beginning didn’t work, so let’s try guidelines. Guidelines move on to a long journey and maybe long enough to get rid of those who chose to exercise that freedom I gave them…

    When is freedom not truly freedom? When love is conditional, maybe.


  48. From the article that Christiane linked (not the Fr Barron article):

    3. The Old Testament tells us about God, not from God’s perspective, but from man’s.


  49. Lol!

    I think he’s the opposite number from Ivan’s tempter in “The Brothers Karamazov”, who says that, though he intends to do nothing but good, he is cursed to do nothing but evil.


  50. If God did not know from the start that those tactics wouldn’t work back then, how does he know that what he did in Christ will work now?

    My problem is that to me this creator seems much like Blake’s demi-urge, perhaps full of good intentions, but very ignorant.


  51. According to Owen Barfield, following Rudolph Steiner, there are two devils; one attempting to push man into a state he is not ready for and the other trying to maintain him in a state he has outgrown.

    Which do you represent?


  52. I figured Happy Citizens of Omelas(TM) wouldn’t be struggling with it like the original post and the rest of these comments. Happy Citizens of Omelas(TM) would be more likely to (1) Happy Happy Joy Joy! Who cares how — I’m Happy/Saved! (2) “Better the Kid than ME”, or (3) “That’s Just The Way It Is; Eh, Kismet.” While you DO see this among some groups (like the IFB types snarked at “Stuff Fundies Like”), the rest of this thread shows it is FAR from universal.


  53. Because it’s printed on fine paper with a black cover and gold lettering.

    “De-Bible-ing” the Bible would work wonders for Christianity.


  54. *Some modes of thinking are dependent upon prior developments, whether scientific or spiritual.*

    Oh you’re so close now. Just unfold that paper-doll chain ONE step further…


  55. I’m willing to consider a lot of them were allegorical. Or remembering ancient battles and victories from scribes while sitting by the rivers of babylon telling the kids about the “good old days”.

    Any time there is a chance to humanize scripture, I’m willing to embrace it. Probably a reaction to my 100% God inerrancy upbringing. Yet my God incarnated and was 100%/100%, so…


  56. You make a fair point.
    However, God’s “street cred” still makes some sense to me, especially since that God takes ownership of the death and suffering He caused by dying and suffering. The love and incarnate humility of a God you have learned to fear is all the more powerful.


  57. Because these tactics finally don’t work, I think. And, the only way we human beings can know they don’t work is by seeking these tactics play out through human history.


  58. I often wonder where Ms. LeGuin’s pilgrims ended up.

    All cities are Omelas. Every one of them.


  59. I at one time thought the word judgement to be negative. I have since come to realize he must of judged me worthy enough to come here and be the Lamb of God. I am not saying I did anything. Mostly on my own I did the wrong sorts of things. Still there must be something worth redeeming. Maybe it is love in its own nature that cannot give up while there still is a chance. Reconciled to me is the word that has me thinking.


  60. “to acquire street cred so that he could have the space and resources to do the work he ultimately intended?”

    Pretty much.

    Sounds like “capitulating to culture”.


  61. It never fails astound me that a group of people who so enthusiastically embrace an evolutionary view of mankind should get their panties in a twist about Bronze Age writings about God, even the real God who really is. If we are primates, then we were meant to have a primate background, and hierarchies and violence are what we do.

    Or do you all think evolution ended when Cro-Magnon man crawled out of Africa and began his gentle ministrations to his Neanderthal cousins?

    Apart from very good arguments Mr. Thompson makes in the above article, I would like to propose that what we so blithely refer to as ‘human nature’ is more dynamic than we previously imagined. It is not as malleable as we wish it to be, but we are more now than our many-times-great grandsires and granddams for whom the only possible answers to the problem of the Other were enslavement, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. One of the most intriguing verses in the New Testament to me is the one where our Lord tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a woman (!!) mixing yeast in a measure of meal, and does not stop until the whole measure is leavened.

    If God had told the Israelites to be 21st century liberal democrats [and you all do consider yourselves to be the crown of creation, don’t you? Just admit it, or at least read the University of Chicago Great Books course], He would have gotten the same response from them as He would have from the Protestant scholastics in the 16th Century if He had tried to explain quantum mechanics to them. Some modes of thinking are dependent upon prior developments, whether scientific or spiritual.


  62. Agreed, but the texts are still there for all to see and they aren’t going anywhere.

    Does the idea that they were written later then make them “fallible”?


  63. Or, that God simply changes his mind, tactics and efforts. God is in relationship with his dynamic creation. In Love he gave humans freedom to navigate our lives in in relation to him. The Bible’s story tells the tale of God’s ceaseless pursuit of what he hopes is a loving relationship with an obstinate people who don’t get it.

    Give us paradise? Nope.
    Hold out a new beginning to us?: Nope.
    Give us some guidelines?: Nope.
    Lead us through the long journey?: Nope.
    Give us a homeland?: Nope.
    Allow other civilizations to take us over?: Nope.
    Concede to our demands for a king?: Nope.
    Give us wise leaders?: Nope.
    Go become one of us?: . . . we’ll see, but it’s not looking too good..


  64. If we look at these accounts as having been recorded at the time they occurred then we would have a BIG problem. Fact is, they were put down in writing almost 1000 years AFTER they happened during the Babylonian captivity.


  65. Great article from Fr Barron. That would be an interesting article to discuss on Imonk.

    Re: the ban….

    Pete Enns (in particular) shows quite convincingly (IMO) that the conquest narratives (historical considerations aside) aren’t about the crusading Israelites randomly finding evil and destroying it per divine directive – a sort of depersonalized righteous war of good vs evil. The way the story is portrayed from 30k feet, the victims of the Israelite conquest aren’t victims because they were PARTICULARLY evil – no more than anybody else in Israel’s past or future anyways. As the story goes, it’s because these particular people in time and space happen to be on Israel’s land. They needed to die so Israel could get their land. Fairly simple.

    I suppose that can be allegorized as well.


  66. The main thrust of this argument doesn’t really move the dial for me. God stoops to using the means of his fallen world in one era but rises above them gloriously in another? Why? For purification? Huh? When was Israel ever pure? The whole story of Scripture is about people not being pure and needing God. Also, there were people in the NT who very much wanted a conquering God, and culturally it would have been as effective as it was in the OT.

    Short on time and maybe I need to go back and read it closer, but so far for me this is not working.


  67. I don’t know that I can accept that from our perspective The Uncreated First Cause changes or improves over time. It’s easier (not easy) for me to accept that our understanding of God and the scriptures, as revealed in Christ, has evolved. I do like your riff on Revelation.


  68. Yes, a combo of 1 and 3 is kinda where my head is at. I’ve always struggled a bit with the idea God is this unchanging, same (EXACT same) entity of all-time. His approach seems to change to often for me to keep Him in that box.


  69. Or how about a combination of 1 and 2: Our understanding of God has evolved, there is a progression of revelation. And maybe John in Revelation is slyly subverting the paradigm: The image of the warrior holding a sword and stained by blood of those he conquered is instead alreadty bloody BEFORE he goes into battle. So whose blood is he stained with; I think John means to say it is His own blood. He is the lamb that was slain. And the sword that slays His enemies comes out of His mouth. What sword comes out of the mouth? Words, he slays the nations with His words. So maybe John means we are slain by the Gospel; the old life is put to death; we are buried with HIm in baptism. The defeat of the nations is the triumph of the Gospel. My $0.02.


  70. It took the lion like nature and the Lamb to accomplish once and for all. it was the lion that marched to the cross and it was the Lamb that laid down and became the atonement. It took both. The actual and greatest power is in the Lamb.

    I have heard it said here Job is a wisdom tale. Yet I have heard God’s audible voice. I testify sorry if it doesn’t line up. He was correcting me. It was actually the most beautiful thing my ears have ever heard. So when I read Job I realize he was lifting Job in everything He was saying. Read it again through this lense. God spoke a lot. Not just the two sentences I heard and it wasn’t english. In all of Job’s suffering He got to speak to God or more like God spoke to Him.

    yes I have a hard time with all Job’s family being killed. That is hard. God didn’t fore know this. Not likely. Just like he certainly knew the outcome of what was going to happen. Our enemy couldn’t have or did he and just wanted to make suffering like it has to be doing. Maybe the foremost thing on its mind.

    Still in the end do we trust him or don’t we. Do we believe that those he created for the purpose of destruction had a place here or were they just a by product of a fallen world. Genesis the beginning of a story to an ending seems like the lines must be filled in between. This place in between. Somewhere is my story in between.

    I always thought since I could remember saying i don’t like it here and this isn’t what I would choose. Along with that and accompanying that was whatever your will is, is okay with me. I have not a choice but I trust you. I didn’t have a choice in coming here and I don’t have one in leaving. It will have to be okay with me.

    I have learned the hurts of a world and in them I have found a Savior. It is what he does and it will be Him who will stand next to me and present me to Father. I will see fully and my knees will bow in utter respect of Him who could love me like this through my Friend.


  71. I’m sorry, but I have not been able to square the God presented in the OT with the God of the NT in relation to violence and genocide, no matter how hard I have tried. To my simple mind ether, 1) God evolves, 2) I must choose one God and reject the other or, 3) the writers of the scriptures were flat out wrong in their description of God aa a bloodthirsty deity requiring His people to do His wetwork.


  72. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Our ancestors had a habit of using the word ‘Judgement’ as if it meant ‘punishment’ … I believe we can sometimes render the thing more vivid to ourselves by taking judgement in a stricter sense: not as the sentence or award, but as the Verdict.” In this light, destruction is the verdict … a true word or statement … the natural consequence of a riven heaven and earth. Calvary is the arm of God pulling it back together.


  73. For Blake both Innocence and Experience are forms of ignorance. The Lamb and Tyger reside inside of each other, though ignorance makes this difficult to see. The way out of the illusion that the Lamb and Tyger are separate from each other, opposite each other, is by way of knowledge, which is form of seeing and vision.


  74. Only if they were allegorical people being hacked to death allegorically. We jump right back into the ethical swamp if they weren’t. Allegory explains some of it (and maybe alot of it). Not sure if it explains all of it.


  75. For Blake, the Lamb and the Tyger are linked; in fact, the Lamb, when looked at closely, is seen to contain a Tyger, since they were both created by the same ignorant and powerful demi-urge who has entrapped the energy of spirit in the material world. For Blake, the way out of the illusion that the Lamb is “good” and the Tyger is “bad” is to see through the illusion of moral opposites that serve to underwrite the creator demi-god’s investment in perpetual conflict and warfare. Wherever this illusion is seen through is the place of salvation and redemption. which is a kind of purity and knowledge that transcends the ignorant Innocence and Experience of the Lamb and the Tyger. This purity and knowledge come from outside the created world and its creator, and for Blake is seen in Jesus, though not solely or uniquely in him.


  76. This is the only interpretation that makes sense to me. Allegory is the only path out of the ethical swamp.


  77. So, the God who created the heavens and the earth ordered and enabled the slaughter of whole people’s, who he also had created, to acquire street cred so that he could have the space and resources to do the work he ultimately intended?

    This does not resonate with me, nor does it seem like an improvement over traditional interpretations which take the texts at face value, and insist that whatever God wills is good quite apart from our feelings about it.


  78. Methinks you make the distinction too distinct.

    And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of Him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. – Revelation 19:19-21

    And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” – Jonah 4:10-11


  79. From what I can make out, violence seems to be an integral part of life in modern times, and wars between states and violence in general are religiously sanctioned. One appeals to one’s gods for victory, and if your side wins the war, your gods are the reason for the victory. You win because your gods are more powerful than the gods of your enemies.

    Given your premise, why would God change his tactics when human beings haven’t changed theirs?


  80. The first century of the common era was hardly less violent than the late bronze age/early iron age. Why was God constrained to appear as the Lord of Hosts in one time and free to appear as the Abba in the other? Isn’t the simplest explanation that the early Hebrews were bloodthirsty savages who justified their slaughters by an appeal to their concept of the divine?

    Fortunately there is little evidence that these accounts of the conquest of Palestine were historical. The archeological evidence seems to show that the Hebrews were indigenous Canaanites whose cultural practices separated them from the neighbors. It’s probably best to read the stories of the Exodus and the conquest the same way one would read the Iliad and the Odyssey. Of course no one considers Homer to be scripture. But why would someone consider the Book of Joshua to be scripture?


  81. ‘The Ban’ is a phrase used by the Church to explain the metaphorical portrayal of good and an evil which must be completely destroyed.

    One of the keys to understanding ‘The Ban’ is this Scripture:
    ” “The Lord will war against Amalek through the centuries” (Exodus 17:16) Take it literally, it makes no sense. Take it metaphorically, and we can see how the tribe of Amalek is used to represent evil itself.

    essentially, if people take the OT ‘God of Rage’ literally, they may miss the real metaphorical meaning of the battle of God against evil . . . and make God out to be a ‘monster’ who would in reality dash a baby against the rocks. But when the metaphorical language of ‘The Ban’ is understood,
    then the Old Testament and the New Testament representations of ‘Who God Is’ no longer is seen as so variant as to be unbelievable.

    Take a look at this link, from which I pulled the understanding I have described here, which I can credit to the research of the authors of the blog AND to the words of Father Robert Barron quoted therein. I think the link helps explains ‘The Ban’ in terms that are clear and easy to comprehend
    (at least I hope it offers some clarity):



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