Monday, January 12, 2015

Difficult Passages in the Bible

Photo Credit: Mikhail Pavstyuk
One of the biggest moral difficulties in the Bible is the supposed God-endorsed genocides of Amalek, Canaan, and Midian. These passages grate against our consciences as they seemingly paint a picture of a wrathful and unjust God. We echo the cries of Abraham: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

Most of us are content to leave these passages alone. They are like those dark parts of our history that we have doomed to never see the light of day. We have some vague notion of the common explanations for these passages and we accept those explanations or simply have faith that there is an explanation. Why should I bother myself in trying to figure it out? My faith is just fine as it is—what profit could I gain from such an inquiry other than to prove to myself that the Bible is indeed true?

Much. These difficult questions of the Bible are not simply trivial matters like the misreporting of a number or a broken genealogy. They aren’t merely difficulties of fact; they are difficulties of truth. They have potential ethical and theological implications. How we deal with these questions will play a part in how we interpret the Bible and how we view God. There is much, indeed, at stake here.

There are generally three ways of dealing with the issue (though one may very well fall in between):
  • Adjusting our moral attitude to the literal text
  • Adjusting our interpretation of the text to our moral attitude
  • Denying the inspiration of the text
Or another way of looking at these possibilities is to say:
  • God said it, that makes it moral
  • It must be something moral, because God said it
  • God didn’t say it

What Happened
God commanded Israel to go to war with three nations: Amalek, Canaan, and Midian. In each of these cases it appears that a total destruction is intended in order to punish the nation for their sins. The details do vary slightly.

When it comes to the extent of destruction, God explicitly orders the Israelites to leave nothing alive that breathes (Deut. 20:16-17). Again in Deut. 7:2, 16 we see the command to “show no mercy to them.” With Amalek, we see that the command is to “blot out their memory” (Deut. 25:19), again implying total destruction. With Midian, it is not quite as clear cut. God only commands Israel to take vengeance. It is Moses who chastises the Israelites for not killing the women as well. Additionally, we see that a total wipe out does not actually occur, when some of the female children are allowed to live (Num. 31).

The reasons for the destruction of each of these nations are fairly simple:

Amalek: Attacking the weak and defenseless (Deut. 25:17-18)
Midian: Enticing Israel to idolatry through seduction (Num. 25:17-18)
Canaan: Idolatry that may cause Israel to stumble (Deut. 20:17-18, 7:3-4, 9:5)

Now, one thing that I must point out is that idolatry in this context is not simply a case of having the wrong religion. The Canaanite idolatry include the human sacrifice of children (Deut. 12:31).

With that said, I think a pattern can be discerned here. In every case, the nation being devoted to destruction was judged for preying on the innocent.

The Difficulties
This case presents us with three difficulties:
  • The death penalty
  • The lack of a call to repentance
  • Judgment on a group without distinction
We can look at each in turn.

The Death Penalty
Capital punishment is hotly debated today. There is a movement afoot that argues that capital punishment is ineffective at deterring crime and moreover violates the sanctity of life.

The Bible gives us both a law and a case example that give us some insight into this debate. The law comes at the time of Noah, just after the flood. God tells Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). Thus, God institutes the death penalty in order to protect the sanctity of life. Because life is so sacred, one who violates another life must answer with no less than his own life.

This follows on the heels of a most violent period of mankind. In Genesis 6:11, we find that the earth is filled with violence. Men were seizing wives for themselves, men of renown exercising power over the weak. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days. The Bible calls them “mighty men of old; men of renown”--considering the context, I would suggest that these were power hungry tyrants.

God is seeking to prevent a repeat of these events. The “men of renown” must not be allowed to rise up again. Oppression must not be tolerated. It’s interesting to note that the Canaanites were compared with the Nephilim in Numbers 13:33. Perhaps Scripture is trying to draw a connection between these two races that prey on the weak. In one place, the Lord wipes them out with a flood. In another, He supplants them with what is to grow into a righteous nation. Either way, it is clear that the Lord hates oppression.

But, the death penalty is not a settled matter. You see, our case example contradicts the law. When Cain murdered Abel, according to this law, Cain should have been put to death. But, he pleads to God for mercy and God grants it to him. He is protected with a mark from the avenger of blood and sent into exile. There is room for debate.

The Call to Repentance
The second issue we see here is a lack of a call for repentance. Indeed, God explicitly says to “show them no mercy.” But, is that what we see played out?

One of the very first Canaanite cities to be defeated was that of Jericho. Yet, not everyone was killed in this city. One family was spared--that of Rahab. Hear what she says:

"I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death." [Jos 2:9-13 ESV]

Firstly, notice that the Canaanites had heard of all the works which the Lord did in Egypt and the wilderness. They know the miracles that He did. And they know He’s coming to judge them. This is the call to repentance, and Rahab responded. She called upon the God of Israel that she and her family might be spared. Every other Canaanite had the same opportunity.

When God gives the commandment to show no mercy, I do not think that means to give no room to repentance. It’s talking about showing no mercy to the unrepentant.

Consider also Ruth, a Moabitess who as such was forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord. Yet, we find her as an ancestor to David. How can this be? I would suggest that she was no longer considered a Moabite under Israeli law after she joined Israel. Similarly with Rahab. If one chooses to take on the God of Abraham and join the people of Abraham, none of the conditions placed on you as an outsider apply anymore. A Canaanite ceases to be a Canaanite.

Maimonides goes so far as to argue that the commandment to offer terms of peace in Deuteronomy 20 applies to Canaanite nations as well. When the text makes a distinction between those living in the land and those not, it’s not a distinction of whether or not to offer peace, but of what to do after the nation rejects peace. Read the chapter again and see if it fits.

It is admittedly a difficult position to hold when you look at other passages, but at least one verse seems to be in line with it. Joshua 11:19 says that “there was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel...” Notice the sentence construction. The Canaanites are the subject, the actors, the ones with a choice. This seems even further confirmed in the next verse when it says that the Lord hardened their hearts, so that they might receive no mercy. Does this not imply that had they not had hard hearts there would have been room for repentance and mercy?

Judgment Without Distinction
This is admittedly the hardest of the difficulties. How could a just God condemn all of the Canaanites (women and children included) indiscriminately?

I’m reminded of the movie Thor. In this story, there is a great war between Asgard (ruled by Odin) and the Frost Giants. In the course of this war, Odin finds a baby frost giant and takes it to raise as his own. As the boy grew up, he began to realize that he was different and began seeking after his heritage. Finally, he chose to betray Asgard and return to his people, making way for the frost giants to attack.

We actually find a similar story in the Bible. When Saul went out to destroy the Amalekites, he spared one--Agag. Samuel rebuked him for this. Years later, a descendant of Agag arose. His name was Haman. It was this Haman who plotted to destroy all the Jews.

We find this story working the other way too. When Moses is shipped off in a river so that his life might be saved, the daughter of Pharaoh finds him and raises him. Little did she know that she was raising the redeemer of Israel and the destruction of Egypt.

In each case, we see a child who is spared. In each case, that child returns to the heritage of his fathers. Today we have a much more individualistic culture, but at that time family was everything.

Does this justify the mass slaying that God commanded? Perhaps not. But it is helpful to see where there might be reasoning behind it.

This actually belongs to another debate within Scripture. In Exodus 20, we are told that the iniquity of the fathers is visited on the children to the third and fourth generation, and we see several examples of this throughout Scripture. But turn over to Ezekiel 18, and we see just the opposite. Each man shall die for his own sin.

The issue here is whether or not to treat an individual or a family as the base unit (in the case of Canaan, you could argue that the nation was seen as the base unit). If a family is viewed as a single entity, then it makes sense that all in the family should be judged together. Note, that this does not prevent someone from cutting himself off from his family so as not to suffer the same fate; but, this means totally disowning his family.

Why would one consider a family as a single unit? It starts with the verse in Genesis 2 where Adam and Eve are called “one flesh.” So tight is the bond of marriage that the couple is regarded as one. Would this not also be true of those who proceed from their bond?

This is not just a Scriptural/spiritual reality. It’s something that we observe in families today. When you hurt one member, you hurt them all. When you bless one member, you bless them all. Perhaps our individualistic culture has concealed this some, but the bonds still remain. The fact is that you can’t punish one member of a family without damaging the lives of the rest. Similarly, when you leave the children alive, you are leaving an heir to continue on the father’s name—thus, in some way, allowing the Canaanite spirit to still live.

As I said earlier, this subject is debated within Scripture. It is not closed. All I am doing is trying to give a window into the other side of the argument.

The culture
One of the mistakes we make in judging these passages is that we always judge them in the context of the present culture. We don’t consider how radical of a change it would have been for God to swoop in and teach the Israelites all about human rights and democracy and equality. We are comparing two sets of standards as if they both professed to be the standards for all time, instead of appreciating the time and effort it took to get to where we are now.

Consider the battle for civil rights. When America was born in 1776, our declaration of independence professed the equality of all men as a self-evident truth. Yet, for almost a century afterward, African-Americans were denied this equality as slave-owners continued to oppress their people. They were seen as an inferior people.

In 1861, the Civil War started, lasting until 1865. This was a major breakthrough in the road to equality, but it was accomplished only through violent 
means and there was still far to go. One might question whether or not this war was just by the moral standards we hold today.

The next major breakthrough was the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s. Up until then, even though African-Americans were “technically” free from slavery, they still did not have access to equal rights and still suffered under segregation. These campaigns used civil resistance, but they were by all means radical and sometimes did result in violence (though not intended). It also brought up moral questions of civil disobedience.

All this occurred over the course of 200 years, and we are not even considering the groundwork that had to be laid for even the concept of equality to find a foothold in America nor the ongoing work since then to combat racism. We are talking about long periods of gradual change punctuated by moments of radical transformation. I ask you, why then do we expect God to lay the pinnacle of morality on a people steeped in Egyptian idolatry that can’t even keep the basic commands God did give them? I believe God met the Israelites where they were at and acted to raise them to a higher level compared to where they were at before. When we look at the laws of Torah, we must consider them not merely as static standards for all time, but consider the motion, the direction they are taking. But, now I am getting ahead of myself.

A second reason we must consider culture is the fact that circumstances do affect morality. A basic example of this is lying. Most people would consider it wrong to lie. Yet, if one lived in Nazi Germany hiding Jews in his basement, lying suddenly becomes a moral imperative. We should hesitate before we consider any moral standard absolute and universal. We did not live among the Canaanites or the Israelites. We do not know the circumstances of what happened or what the alternatives might have been. To say that our standards apply to them or that their standards apply to us is to ignore the fact that we are faced with very different challenges in very different settings.

Related to this is the fact that we have different value systems. Today we value democracy, freedom, individuality. The Israelites valued things like honor and family. That’s not to say these value systems are mutually exclusive, but there are different emphases. An excellent example of this is in the last chapter of Numbers when some of the elders come to Moses with concern that land will be passed out of the control of their tribe. This is not something most of us would consider important today, but God respects the fact that the Israelites valued it.

Finally, we must realize that we have a cultural bias. I find it terribly arrogant to assume that we who live in the modern western world must be correct in all of our moral standards. A quick look at ethical philosophy will show you that morality is not a simple subject. For example, take the question of which matters most: intention, action, or result? Ask different people and you will get different answers. It’s entirely possible that parts of our moral view may be subject to error.

Consider the fact that we live in a free nation far removed from oppression and violence. Would that not affect our outlook on morality? When injustice does not hit close to home, we find ourselves less willing to take radical action against it. We also find ourselves reaching for the tools that we are familiar with to combat injustice.

Note that I’m not saying we should simply surrender our own morality (since we could be wrong) in exchange for following a strict literal Biblical morality. I’m simply saying we should not be so quick to judge. I’ve presented three ways in which culture and circumstances affect ethics. I don’t think any one of these ways explains everything, but when taken together we can begin to see that perhaps these difficult passages aren’t so black and white after all. Perhaps we should withhold judgment and instead ask: What can I learn from this?

The Call to Question
I’m sure I stepped on some toes in the last section. The fundamentalists are appalled I would suggest a progressive morality. The liberals can’t stomach the idea that their enlightened philosophy could be wrong. I did not give you the answer you were looking for; no, I pushed the question deeper. Consider the following story.

Once while Yeshua was walking through the land, a Canaanite woman approached Him. “Have mercy on me,” she pleaded, but Yeshua ignored her. “My daughter is oppressed with a demon. Have mercy on me.”

Yeshua responded with the law, “I have come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.”

The Canaanite woman was persistent. “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” At this Yeshua turned. He had mercy on her.

Did you catch what happened here? A mere mortal, a Canaanite at that, questioned the Living Word of God!

This is not some isolated incident. We find throughout the Bible a tradition of questioning. Abraham bargained with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses pleaded for mercy when God declared His intentions to destroy Israel. Nor is this justification for us to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we like, as it is written in Job:

Though He slay me, yet I will hope in Him;
yet I will argue my ways to His face — Job 13:15

Indeed, Job did argue his ways to God’s face and God put him in his place. This is not a license to choose our own theology; it is an invitation to struggle with the Living God and wrestle with His words, just as our forefather Jacob did. And when we do, we must prepare ourselves to be humbled.

The Bible is not a one-way street. It is not God’s monologue to us. It is a conversation between God and man. It contains within it the voices of both God and man. David, out of his own free will, determines to build a house for the Lord. Hezekiah calls on God to look down on their desperate situation and have mercy.  Sometimes, as when Israel asked for a king, God expresses His dissatisfaction with our decisions. But there is always a certain freedom (God gave Israel a king; what’s more brought good out of it). The human race has a voice and we are called to engage God in this ongoing conversation.

We started this conversation confronted with the difficult passages of the Bible. These are the passages that threaten both our moral sensibilities and our faith in God’s word. Our choices did not look too appealing, leading us to compromise on either our ethical standards or our trust in the Bible.

What we found, however, was not a simplistic solution. Rather than considering the Bible as a monologue of successive “God said”s, we need to look at the Bible as a conversation between God and man. It is an ongoing story that we must wrestle with as Job and Jacob. It is by this very struggle that we come by our name.

Israel--The one who strives with God and man and overcomes.


  1. Honestly, I resolve to leave a comment on most of your posts, but then whenever a new one is published, I'm really just left with nothing to say...You go and write 2500+ words and pretty much say it all. *high five*

    When I read this post for the second time a few minutes ago in an attempt to grasp it all and mull over what I understood the first go round, I think I found a few thoughts worthy enough to add...

    First of all, I really appreciated your thoughts on how we reason the difficult passages of Scripture. Having them laid out like that made me realize how many times I have adopted them myself without really thinking through the implications in the follow through.

    Also, I remember the first time I really realized that Scripture was one giant conversation between God and humanity. It was a mind blowing realization. To know we have input in the making of the future and that dialoguing with our Creator is something not only encouraged but welcome inspires in me a drive to take my role in being a kingdom builder more seriously. Sort of ironic I suppose because you'd almost think it would create an environment that encouraged a less respectful relationship and view of God. Interesting how that works.

    This whole perspective on looking at Scripture makes me think more about the question you once asked...if enough people repented would Yeshua be able to come back as the conquering king without us having to go through the whole tribulation ordeal....I think looking at history and the future as a opportunity to dialogue with God makes that more of a possibility than I've ever thought before.

    So, hopefully I won't sound like a broken record when I say this, but really thought provoking points here...thanks for sharing.

    1. Yeah...this one was originally a note on Facebook where I have more disregard for length. I put it on the blog so that I could share it with others.

      I think the seed for viewing the Scripture as a divine/human conversation was planted with Abraham Heschel's book "God in Search of Man" (it was mind-blowing for me as well). I do sometimes worry about drifting into a more liberal mindset as I learn to question even the Bible, but like you said--I find that this mindset has only challenged me further in my desire to build the Kingdom (I've seen a similar counter-intuitive phenomenon at work in how Calvinists seem to have an amazing grasp of obedience). Something about the idea of a partnership with God that strengthens my relationship with Him =P

      Glad you found the post encouraging and challenging; and thanks for your comments.