Richard Dawkins made big waves years ago with his book The God Delusion. This quote in particular struck a chord with many people,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Dawkins arranges all of those words in a way that is very compelling, but they are compelling because they are simplistic. It’s easy to critique Dawkins’ biblical scholarship. In fact, when it comes to the Bible, Dawkins is no scholar. He’s a living example of the adage, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
And that’s okay. He just hasn’t been taught. I get that because I’m ignorant about many things, too. I’m completely ignorant about medicine, which is why I have a great doctor whom I trust.
Dawkins’ ignorance about the Hebrew Bible leads him to proclaim a partial truth as the whole truth, and that’s a dangerous thing.
For example, is the God of the Hebrew Bible genocidal? It sure seems that way in the book of Joshua. Joshua tells the story of the Israelites entering the promised land. But there’s a problem. Other people live in the land. So God makes a second promise to drive out the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites.
God promises to be with the Israelites by being against the people already in the land. God calls Joshua to lead the Israelites in a holy war against them. God acts as a warrior along with the Israelites as they conquered the people. The name Joshua comes from the Hebrew word Yeshua, which means rescuer or savior. So Joshua, the savior of the people Israel, would save them through acts of war and murder. Everything, and everyone in the land, was to be annihilated.
I gotta tell you, I agree with Dawkins that the God depicted in Joshua seems like a monster. Maybe the biggest monster of all time. But if Dawkins thinks he and the new atheists are breaking new ground in critiquing the God depicted in Joshua, he’s about 2,800 years too late.
Whenever the Bible tells a story about God’s violence, you can be sure that there is a counter-story. Sure enough, there’s a counter story to the God depicted in Joshua.
Joshua was written during the time of King Josiah, who reigned from 640 to 609 BCE. But the prophetic writings and the Psalm that refer to the story of the entry into the promised land were written around 950 BCE, almost 300 years earlier than Joshua. Those writings tell the story differently. They do talk about the miracle of the splitting of the Jordan River before they entered, but none of them mention a violent conquest. None of them say that God or the Israelites drove out the Canaanites or anyone else. None of them even mention Joshua. As Hebrew Bible Scholar Robert Coote states in his commentary on Joshua, “What is most striking about all of these references to the tradition in its archetypal form is that not only do they make no mention of Joshua, but also they imply nothing about conquest or reconquest.”*
In fact, the book of Judges, which comes right after the book of Joshua, says that God intentionally left the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites in the land in order to teach Israel how to become a nation.
The Bible has differing views on divine violence. As René Girard points out, the Bible is a text in travail. It struggles to bring forth the image of the true God, who has nothing to do with violence, but is revealed as nonviolent Love. But let’s look outside of the Bible. Again, Dawkins may be offended by the violence of God in the Bible, but Jews and Christians have been offended by that violence for thousands of years.
For example, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, a man named Philo of Alexandria, was offended by the violence he found in the Bible. He decided that the best way to interpret that violence was allegorically. Early Christian commentators made a similar move and interpreted God’s violence in the Bible similarly. One of the most important theologians in Christian history was a man named Origen. He lived around the year 220 of the Common Era. Origen’s allegorical interpretation claimed that Joshua’s war against the Canaanites didn’t actually happen. But, and here’s the paradox, he did say that the story is true. Origen’s interpretation was allegorical because he interpreted the external battles as internal struggles. He said that within each of us there is a battle between good and evil. It’s as if Joshua’s battle is happening within each one of us, and God goes with us as we face our inner demons.**
I don’t know if you find Origen’s allegorical interpretation compelling or not. But here’s the point I want to leave you with. There are two Yeshuas in the Bible, for Jesus’s name in Hebrew is also Yeshua. There are two men who are called Savior. One who believed that God called him to pick up the sword and kill his enemies in holy war. The other believed God called him to pick up the cross and forgive his enemies in holy love.
Jesus says that his followers have one teacher. We have one rabbi. Indeed, Jesus was fully within his Jewish tradition when he worked for justice through nonviolence. The word Christ means King. Jesus wasn’t a king who exalted himself with worldly power and threats of violence. In the face of fear, in the face violence, Jesus didn’t respond in kind with threats of divine violence. Rather, when Jesus hung on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The only question is, which Yeshua will we follow?
*See Coote’s commentary on Joshua in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, pg 600.
**For more on this, see Gregory Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 437 ff.
This article was adapted from a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, just outside of Portland, Oregon. You can watch the sermon “For God So Loved the Canaanites, Too” on the CUCC youtube channel.