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Understanding Biblical brutality


Understanding Biblical brutality

Understanding Biblical brutality

This month we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, which followed the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American military planners at the time considered the death weapons to be lifesavers: Japanese leaders had showed no inclination to surrender, and an invasion of their islands would cost at least 400,000 American lives and 10 times that many Japanese fatalities. 

But if almost all records of World War II disappeared, so historians 3,000 years from now knew nothing of Shinto fanaticism, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, or emperor worship that demanded death before surrender, they would likely condemn American use of weapons that killed at least 100,000 civilians. They would wonder what kind of people could do something so bloody and brutal—and what kind of God did many of those barbaric people worship? 

That’s the context in which I read Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling With Troubling War Texts, by William Webb and Gordon Oeste (IVP, 2019). Atheists for centuries have used tough passages from Deuteronomy and Joshua as evidence against the existence of a God of compassion and the truthfulness of the Bible. Webb and Oeste offer several suggestions for defense against Hitchens epigones. They want us to read ancient war documents from Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia to learn the grotesque suffering in store for men who lost battles and the women they left behind. They want to believe that God’s commands to kill all the Canaanites were hyperbole. 

Maybe, but we don’t know enough about the context. How fanatical were the Canaanites? Were children brainwashed into knifing non-Canaanites? Would total early victory lead other Canaanites to flee, thus saving lives? God had said in Exodus 23:27 and a dozen passages in the next five books that this would happen: “I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you.” 

God’s critics also decry the teaching of Deuteronomy 21:10-14 that if an Israelite wanted to take a beautiful captive woman to be his wife, he could wait a month, put her under his protection, and then marry her. If the Israelite changed his mind within the month, he had to “let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave.” Hard for the captive, yes, but far superior to the multiple rapes and sexual enslavement she would encounter if taken as a trophy of war by other ancient Middle East people. 

Besides, God was no racist: He often told the Israelites that if they acted like the evil people around them, they too would be destroyed. As Tim Keller noted in one sermon, Israel’s neighbors fought war for plunder, and when Saul in 1 Samuel 15 defeats the Amalekites but grabs cattle instead of destroying them, he’s showing that he’s thinking like an Amalekite—and God rejects him.


Barton Priebe’s chapter in Everyday Apologetics, edited by Paul Chamberlain and Chris Price (Lexham, 2020), notes that “Israel attacked military strongholds, not ­concentrated civilian populations. In the ancient Middle East, most people lived in the countryside. The cities of Canaan (such as Jericho and Ai) were not like modern cities. ... Rather, cities were military outposts used to guard the civilian populations living beyond them.”

Priebe says, “God waits hundreds of years for the Canaanites to turn away from their sins, which included idolatry, child sacrifice, bestiality, incest, temple prostitution, and violence. But eventually, those sins cross a moral threshold and, like any just judge, God punishes them. … Consider how we would react if God had not acted to put a stop to the horrific evil and violence.” Some turn against God for seemingly not punishing evil, so it’s illogical to turn against Him when He does: “The Bible never asserts, or even hints, that the Canaanites were destroyed because of their ethnicity.” —M.O.


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  • RC
    Posted: Sun, 08/23/2020 11:14 am

    Marvin, Thanks for the reviews!  I am going to add these two books to my collection. I have used information from other articles, papers and books to help me defend the Bible and discuss the points raised here. While these other resources were good, they did not feel compete enough for me much less the non-believers I talked to.  I hope these two books will fill the gap. Thanks again.   

  • JUSTIN10292000
    Posted: Sun, 08/23/2020 02:58 pm

    RC, another great resource is Paul Copan's Is God A Moral Monster?