Understanding Violence in the Old Testament: Critical and Patristic Perspectives

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One of the thorniest issues that people deal with when trying to understand the Bible is what to make of the brutal violence depicted in the Old Testament. A recent interview of Paul Copan, author of the book Did God Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms With the Justice of God, reveals just how difficult in may be to come up with satisfying answers. Questions and answers search for any kind of handle on the situation in order to deal with the natural discomfort that is felt by people today in the age of terrorist and anti-terrorist ideology. One snippet of the interview proceeded thusly:

RNS: In these passages, the text says God told them the Israelites to slaughter children, women, even animals. How do we even begin to process this?

PC: We must first understand that the Canaanites engaged in acts that would be considered criminal in any civilized society–incest, infant sacrifice, ritual prostitution, bestiality. Also, God waited over 400 years for Canaan to hit moral rock-bottom before commanding they be driven out (Gen. 15:16).

Answers such as this are poorly thought out, and the implications of such ideas are not considered. For example, may we say, then, that genocide is just and proper if the targeted people are barbarous in their behavior? Exactly how bad must they be before we proceed with our genocide? Is life sacred only to a point, a point where genocidal killing becomes defensible?

These answers also miss the ancient Near Eastern context of holy war. The Hebrew term ḥērem used of the wars of Joshua in the conquest of Canaan indicates a ritual warfare by which the enemy was devoted to God as a sacrifice. If the Canaanites deserved to be killed because of their child sacrifices, what then of the Israelites who sacrificed men, women, and children to God through holy war? In a world ravaged by militant jihad, is it so easy to find justification for it, when we find it in our Bible?

Thankfully, we do not have to resort to such handwaving excuses to justify our Bible, and herein we find a case where critical scholarship of the Bible and the patristic tradition of biblical interpretation may be found to be in harmony.

 

Critical Interpretations

Biblical scholarship has generally settled upon a theory of composition of the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, known as the dual redaction of the Deuteronomistic History. The theory states that through a series of redactions (either two or three major periods), this series of books was shaped according to a consistent ideological and theological tradition. For example, it is hypothesized that an early edition of Joshua, chapters 1-12, was written during the time of King Josiah of Judah as he sought to retake Benjaminite territory previously captured by the Assyrians. Josiah wished to present himself as a new Joshua, taking back territory that rightly belonged to the people of God. Subsequently, the book of Joshua was expanded by Jews taken into exile in Babylon, who looked to their own eventual return to the Land of Israel as a reconquest of Canaan in the manner of Joshua and the Children of Israel who entered the Land after the Exodus. The Exilic Jews were awaiting their own Exodus that would allow them to return to the Promise Land.

Now, it is expected that traditionally-minded Orthodox Christians might take issue with this scenario as I have presented it (in a very simplified form), but I caution jumping to conclusions too quickly, for we find that such a scenario may enable us to more closely approximate patristic interpretation of the Book of Joshua. In positing a redaction of the Book of Joshua during the time of Josiah and the Exile, we are able to move away from an overly literal, historical-factual reading of the book. If indeed the book was composed in order to express certain ideological and theological ideas, then such a historical-factual reading would in that case not even be “literal.” If Joshua was composed to promote the ideology of Jewish kingship and the hopes of an exilic community awaiting their own “Exodus” and return to the Land, then a properly “literal” reading will take these ideas into account.

 

Patristic Interpretations

If we do so, we may approach a more patristic style of exegesis. We may, for example take the ideology of kingship and apply it to the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. As Joshua is depicted conquering the land of Benjamin, so Josiah wished also to view himself as a new Joshua taking back land that had been captured by the Assyrians. In the same way, Christ, the New Joshua (Yeshua), leads the people of God to reclaim the “Land” of their heart, overtaken and captured by sin. He leads His people into the promised land of the Kingdom of God, which is found in the heart, and he establishes His kingship there.

If we understand the hopes of the Jews in exile in Babylon, and we interpret Joshua as reflecting their hopes of reentering the Land of Israel, we may also see in this a type of Christ who leads us out of the bondage of sin and the exile of godlessness into the Promised Land of the Kingdom of God. Within this Kingdom, that is externally the Church and internally within our hearts, we must drive out the Canaanites, which is interpreted to be sin.

This is indeed how the Fathers understood the book of Joshua. St. John Chrysostom writes:

The name of Jesus [Joshua] was a type. For this reason then, and because of the very name, the creation reverenced him. What then! Was no other person called Jesus [Joshua]? But this man was on this account so called as a type… He brought in the people into the promised land, as Jesus into heaven; not the law; since neither did Moses [enter the promised land] but remained outside. The law has not the power to bring in, but grace. (Homilies on Hebrews 27.6)

From Ode VI of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete:

Like Joshua the son of Nun, search and spy out, my soul, the land of thine inheritance and take up thy dwelling within it, though obedience to the law.
Rise up and make war against the passions of the flesh, as Joshua against Amalek, ever gaining the victory over the Gibeonites, thy deceitful thoughts.
O my soul, pass through the flowing waters of time like the Ark of old, and take possession of the land of promise: for God commands thee.

Many more quotations could be provided from patristic and liturgical texts, but these should suffice to illustrate the matter. When we read and are repulsed by the slaughter and carnage in the Bible, we may take some solace in the very real possibility that these texts do not record history exactly as it happened, but rather they represent the ideology and theology of the Israelites and Jews as they struggled to take possession of the Land of Israel. Seeing it this way brings us closer to the manner in which the Fathers interpreted these things, in a spiritual fashion, not literalistic.

Origen offers his explanation:

You will read in the Holy Scriptures about the battles of the just ones, about the slaughter and carnage of murderers, and that the saints spare none of their deeply rooted enemies. If they do spare them, they are even charged with sin, just as Saul was charged because he preserved the life of Agag king of Amalek. You should understand the wars of the just by the method I have set forth above, that these wars are waged by them against sin. But how will the just ones endure if they reserve even a little bit of sin? Therefore, this is said of them: “They dd not leave behind even one who might be saved or might escape.” (Homilies on Joshua 8.7)

 

What to Take Away

  • Critical scholarship does not have to be conceived as an enemy to proper biblical interpretation in the Church, for it often enables us to follow patristic exegetical techniques by allowing us to see more clearly non-literal meanings in the text.
  • When we encounter violence in the Old Testament that unsettles us, we may take some solace in the possibility that these texts were never intended by their authors as reporting factual history. Rather, they reflect theological and ideological concerns as encountered by the communities that first read these books.
  • While the Fathers did not have recourse to modern critical scholarship, they nevertheless interpreted the Bible in non-literal ways which are able to work harmoniously with critical scholarship, in that both allow us to transcend literalist readings.
  • This is a pastoral issue. There are many people out there who reject Christianity because of such literalist readings of the Bible. It is incumbent upon Orthodox Christian leaders to assure them that the God we believe in is not a genocidal maniac, and our Bible does not have to be read in such a manner. Furthermore, we do not need to try to justify such heinous acts in order to support a literalistic reading of the Bible.

Patristic quotes are taken from:

Franke, John R. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament Vol. IV Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005

The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is taken from:

Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware. The Lenten Triodion. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002.

68 comments:

  1. Thank you, Eric. This is such a difficult subject. Do you have any recommended Orthodox references that give a detail of this view (based on the texts in question)?

    The difficulty I have with this viewpoint is that it is so generalized–where does one draw the line? If we say that the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are so open to theoretical interpretation, what prevents anyone from doing the same with Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc…. I am not one to advocate a literal viewpoint of the texts; but it is difficult to know where one can draw the line within it.

    1. Sorry, I don’t have any Orthodox references off hand, though Tarazi might say something about it. Where do we draw the line? We draw the line with the principles of scholarship, reason, and Orthodox dogma. See my last post in that regard.

  2. While it is certainly true that there are different levels of meaning in the Scriptures, and when we speak of how we can apply passages such as the ones mention in our own lives, we would tend to focus on more allegorical interpretations, I have so far not found any of the fathers denying the literal meaning of these passages. If you have found any, I would be interested in seeing them.

    Here is a pertinent quote from Blessed Theodoret. He wrote, in his “Questions on Joshua”, in Question 12: “There are those who accuse the prophet [Joshua] of cruelty for slaying everyone without exception and crucifying the kings.

    Whoever accuses the prophet accuses him who gave the order: It was he who, through Moses, the lawgiver, enjoined the slaying of every single inhabitant of that land for reaching the limit of lawlessness and committing crimes deserving of extermination. For this reason, in ancient times he brought on the flood and wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah with Fire.

    The prophet also ordered the officers to place their feet on the necks of the kings so that they would grow in confidence and go into battle with greater enthusiasm. And this is just what Jesus our Lord told us to do: “Lo, I have given you power to walk on snakes, and scorpions, and on all the might of the foe.” So, may we too put our feet on the necks of hostile spirits!” (Theodoret of Cyrus,trans. Robert C. Hill, The Questions on the Octateuch, vol. 2, On Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), pp. 285-287).

    Presbytera Eugenia Constantinou also discusses this issue in this podcast: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/searchthescriptures/joshua_-_part_three

    1. St Gregory of Nyssa (Life of Moses) explicitly says we must not imagine God literally killed the Egyptian first born. For what its worth, I believe this was discussed in your class on the Scriptures when I took it a few years back, if memory serves.

          1. I found it quoted in this blog post: http://miklagard11.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-death-of-firstborn.html So there is at least one Church Father who tried to deal with this by apparently arguing that it did not happen literally as described. I don’t know that in our time, that is a satisfactory of an answer as St. Gregory of Nyssa thought it was. Also, while I certainly have not made an exhaustive study of the Fathers of the Church, and so there may be other Fathers that deal with this in the same way, the Fathers I have read have otherwise acknowledged the historical meaning of the text to be accurate (though often focusing on other levels of meanings).

        1. Yes, the Life of Moses, which I cited: any translation. I don’t have the time right now to sort through the patristic corpus, I was responding specifically to your erroneous statement about St. Gregory.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. As someone not belonging to the Orthodox Church, I wondered to what extent your position is representative of Orthodoxy as a whole, both in those parts of the world most intimately familiar with (and receptive to) critical scholarship, and those that are not?

    1. There are few Orthodox scholars who study Hebrew, Judaism, and ancient Near Eastern history, so I am not aware of much out there which is doing the same thing that I am. Orthodoxy, unfortunately, has suffered from a lot of anti-intellectualism which tends to eschew any sort of critical scholarship and the role of reason and learning, this, in spite of the Fathers, who valued reason and secular learning insofar as it could be made to serve Christ and the Church. What academic work is being done in Orthodoxy is not focused more on theology rather than biblical studies.

      1. One does not have to embrace all the assumptions of the historical-critical (aka Protestant) Biblical scholarship to not be guilty of eschewing the role of reason and learning in our faith, theology, or interpretation of Scripture. I don’t think no one was properly interpreting Scripture prior to the so-called “enlightenment”. I would agree that there are useful things that we can learn from Protestant Biblical scholarship, but I do not agree that we have to adopt their approach to Scripture to properly understand it. I think we should apply the criterion of suspicion to historical-critical scholarship — which is only fair, since those scholars who adhere to that approach are so fond of applying that criteria to everything else. Thomas Oden ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_C._Oden who was a student of Rudolph Bultmann) could not be fairly accused of being anti-intellectual, and this is precisely what he advocates in Volume 2 of his Systematic Theology, p. 217-228). He also makes similar arguments in his book “After Modernity… What?”

        1. I don’t want to go back and forth on this, but I will say that characterizing critical scholarship as “Protestant” is a gross error. There are people of all different faiths that practice it. It’s principles are not grounded in Protestantism, nor are its practitioners trying to be Protestant, even if some happen to be Protestant. In fact, much of critical scholarship is rejected by conservative Protestants.

          You are also mischaracterizing my position. I nowhere stated that we must adopt critical scholarship in order to properly understand the Bible (whatever that amounts to). I only stated that some critical scholarship can help us in that regard.

          I would normally not approve the above comment for these egregious errors, but I only do so to highlight that any further comments here must properly characterize my own positions as I articulate them as well as scholarship as a whole refraining from undue labeling such as “Protestant” or accusing me of positions which I have not articulated.

          1. The historical-critical approach is Protestant in origin, and it comes with Protestant assumptions. I am aware that it is the dominant approach used by Roman Catholics these days, and that even atheist scholars use it. But the methods of historical-criticism are not simply objective tools that produce consistent and objective results. These methods have assumptions, and often cloak agenda driven scholarship with the veneer of scholarly objectivity.

            When you spoke of those who eschew critical scholarship as also rejecting the role of reason and learning, I assumed in the context of your reply, that you were suggesting that this has a negative impact on their ability to properly interpret Scripture. If that was not what you meant, then I apologize.

            If you only mean to suggest that critical scholarship can produce helpful results at times, I would agree with you. I just don’t think we should use that approach, uncritically — in fact I think we should use it with the criterion of suspicion at hands at all times.

          2. Critical scholarship cannot be narrowed down to one religion, regardless of its origins. It is the product of the entirety of Western Civilization, which we all enjoy the fruits of. We all benefit from Enlightenment principles, notable in science and technology. The same principles of biblical scholarship underly all history and philology, or do you reject the discipline of Classics or of Meso-American studies too? Besides, many regard Baruch Spinoza as the father of modern scholarship. Persisting in calling it “Protestant” is a caricature and not an accurate representation.

          3. Also, most Protestants, including most conservative Protestants do embrace the historical-critical approach to Scripture… they just do not all except the conclusion that liberal Protestant scholars tend to arrive at with those methods.

          4. Nonetheless it is good for reasons other than just highlighting policy on using the P word that you allow discussion. Such discussion can help highlight historical-cultural assumptions (and potential biases) underlying critical approaches. The “sola scriptura” tendency did often tend ultimately toward both fundamentalist and rationalistic approaches to texuality, rather than what could be called iconographic and liturgical ones in noetic Tradition. Being willing to discuss contexts can help avoid bias-confirmation. For us academics, in what Charles Taylor, calls a secular “immanent frame,” that is always a risk!

          5. I am open to discussion. For example, one might legitimately raise the issue, “How might such a view reflect certain Protestant assumptions?” I can answer that truthfully by distinguishing what in critical scholarship might be characterized as “Protestant” (and defining this term is difficult, especially if one wishes to avoid unnecessary labeling as a function of identity formation.) and what can be characterized as more technical and related to the enterprise of historical inquiry, archaeology, philology, etc. Examining the Book of Joshua from the point of view of Deuteronomism is a serious look at the formation of early Jewish theology within the context of Josianic and exilic reforms that established Second Temple Judaism as we know know it. It also enables us to deal with the archaeological issues involved, which has been unable to reconstruct the exact sequence of battles as found in the book of Joshua. If one takes Joshua as being an accurate historical record, there are enormous problems with how it fits with the rest of what we know about the history of Late Bronze Age Palestine. The Fathers had no recourse to this knowledge, so they did not encounter the problems that we have to deal with today. We cannot just sweep the enterprise of history or archaeology under the rug and pretend it does not exist. To package all of this up in a box, tie a bow around it, and label it “Protestant Critical Scholarship” is handwaving at its best. If we do this, we end up having to question all disciplines of history, archaeology, and philology, because they are based on the same academic principles. There is an underlying assumption here that any knowledge that proceeds from non-Orthodox sources is suspect at best, and I simply cannot live like that, for it contradicts reason and common sense. The sort of intellectual isolationism that regards secular knowledge in this way is a denial of the basic integrity of the human person as a rational being made in the image of God. This is neither patristic nor Orthodox, for even the Fathers regarded the general human reason and the advances of secular knowledge favorably when it did not contradict Orthodox dogma. The suggestions I have made here (and they are merely suggestions, not dogmatic pronouncements) do not contradict Orthodox dogma in any way, but rather, as I have explained, aid us in affirming Orthodox theology. In fact, I would suggest that the sort of literalist interpretation that requires absolute historical factuality from these OT narratives is more in keeping with principles of Protestant sola scriptura than it is with Patristic exegesis. Again, though, the task at hand to try to square biblical narrative with the problems raised by history and archaeology were not something the Fathers had to deal with, so we lack a frame of reference to properly deal with it in a “patristic” way. Nonetheless, as I have demonstrated, if we do take some (but certainly not all) conclusions reached by critical scholarship, we may actually arrive at interpretations which do square nicely with Patristic typological interpretations. This is, in a way, a plundering of the Egyptians, making secular scholarship serve Christ while at the same time alleviating cognitive dissonance produced by the historical and archaeological records, and this is what I am after.

          6. The growth or transfiguration of the Old Testament Church into the New Testament Church is important to remember in the different way in which Christians read this in the Church today, following the Incarnation of Christ and the transfiguration of Israel. Partly it is an issue of a way of reading. For example, do we not read the imagery of the Song of Solomon as expressing intimate love because there is no historical or archaeological verification of its authorship and the relationship described? I remember reading somewhere (I think in an essay on the body by Fr. Andrew Louth) that the Lateran Council in 1215 in defining the Eucharist as a real and not symbolic transformation helped to reflect and influence a bifurcation of real and symbolic in the West different from Orthodoxy. In any case, rather than plundering the spoils of Egypt, we might also or instead think of St. Basil of Caesarea’s image of being the bees gathering nectars from different flowers transfiguratively. Maybe that puts these issues on a different footing, one in which the binarized framework of whether a Scriptural text is historical or allegorical can be in a sense a false choice (albeit realizing cues from genre).

          7. I agree with you whole-heartedly. In the ancient Jewish imagination, literal and symbolic was likely not differentiated in the same way they are for us today. They likely conceived of history as being cyclical, so that the patterns of events of the past were to be repeated in the future, so as Josiah saw himself in the role of Joshua capturing Benjaminite territory or as the exilic Jews saw their hopeful return to the Land, they also understood this to be a repetition of the past, hence they composed or redacted the Book of Joshua to reflect these beliefs. Here “literal” and “symbolic” overlap to a great deal, but this says little of what actually happened in Late Bronze Age Palestine. History in the ancient sense is more a religious-cultural construction that a journalistic reporting of what actually happened.

          8. “Critical scholarship cannot be narrowed down to one religion, regardless of its origins. It is the product of the entirety of Western Civilization, which we all enjoy the fruits of.”

            And yet prior to Vatican II, while the Roman Catholic Church accepted lower criticism (textual criticism), it did not accept higher criticism — and so those approaches did not develop in the bosom of the Catholic Church. http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/higher_criticism.aspx

            “We all benefit from Enlightenment principles, notable in science and technology.”

            And when you are talking about empirical sciences, you are also talking about things that are capable of empirical proof. That is not the case when it comes to most aspects of historical criticism.

            “The same principles of biblical scholarship underly all history and philology, or do you reject the discipline of Classics or of Meso-American studies too?”

            I don’t reject the discipline of Biblical studies either. I just am very skeptical of the objectivity of much of the scholarship produced by the Historical-Critical approach to Scripture… though again, I agree that there are some useful aspects to it.

            “Besides, many regard Baruch Spinoza as the father of modern scholarship. Persisting in calling it “Protestant” is a caricature and not an accurate representation.”

            Spinoza was not a practicing Jew. He was heavily influenced by the Protestant culture he thrived in. He was very closely associated with a particular Protestant group, and was buried in one of their Church yards. And while is a significant figure in the history of Biblical Scholarship, Protestant Biblical Scholarship was already well on its way in the rationalistic direction it heading into before his time, and he did not set a radically different course for it.

          9. Saying “no these aren’t historical” still can easily engage in the secularist framework, which is a different kind of epistemology from the noetic life of the Church, which in her Tradition sees them as both historical and symbolical. Richard Dawkins exemplifies the secularist view of this with regard to Creation. No it’s not historical, he argues. But he’s so stuck in the empty “frame of immanence” of secularism (to use Charles Taylor’s phrase again) that Dawkins had to go outside his own frame to posit space aliens as the source of life on earth, when pressed for an answer to how life appeared (see the ending to Ben Stein’s “Expelled”). Ultimately the issue of epistemology becomes one of faith–do we base it in revealed noetic truth of Scripture and the holy Fathers or in the fallen and often solipsistic and ethnocentric logic of secularists? If we think about logos as a Greek word for reason, it also can mean harmony, and exercising our reason as Orthodox Christian doesn’t just of course mean logic in a cognitive sense (which can be deceived and solipsistic whether individually or culturally) but in the sense of harmony with the Logos and what St. Gregory of Nyssa described as the underlying harmony of Creation in relationship with God.

          10. I’m not trying to turn this into a zero-sum game by positing that some narratives are not historically factual, as if all the Bible suddenly becomes ahistorical because one or more pieces may be, nor does it open the flood gates to deny the historicity of all of it. We have to use reason and the tools of modern scholarship to determine how we go about that.

  4. I appreciate Fr. Pat Reardon’s treatment of this issue from his January 1 post, on this same blog:

    “[The Canaanites] were idolatrous cultures, devoted to the worship of demonic powers. The religion of those peoples was hateful to God. As offensive as this may sound to modern ears, Israel was involved in a godly task when it endeavored to destroy those cultures. Although Christians are forbidden to employ such violent means to eradicate idolatry and perversion from our modern culture, we are no less obliged to dedicate ourselves to that struggle and to that eradication.”

    He ends up the same place you do, that ultimately in preaching and in Christian devotion these Bible passages refer to our “struggle against the forces of evil rampant in [our] own souls.”

    I see implicit in Fr. Pat’s post what may be a helpful distinction here: We can take the stories at face value as part of Biblical history, but we are not to apply them literally. Genocide is of course out of the question for Christians today.

    1. Clearly the commandment that the Israelites slay all the Canaanites was specific to a particular time in history, and does not have a direct application in the literal sense to us, while the allegorical interpretation does.

  5. Thank you for the article, Eric. It is definitely a worthwhile subject, and I think you make a compelling case.

    However, as I finished reading through, I found one issue unaddressed. I don’t have your level of expertise in biblical textual analysis. But I do have some modest exposure to interpretations of medieval literature, which, much like you suggest the Book of Joshua does, often comes laden with ideological (and theological) meaning in addition to the literal. And, at different times in academic scholarship, it has been fashionable to treat these allegorical meanings as the true or more important ones.

    This, however, has rightfully been recognised as anachronistic. All evidence points to medieval contemporaries taking these texts *both* allegorically and literally. In other words, we ought to recognise the intentionally or otherwise ideological meaning of the text, but it does not follow from this that the literal meaning is less important. Indeed, such a separation is in itself rather anachronistic, even if it seems perfectly natural to our modern minds. (It’s somewhat tangential to the discussion at hand, but medieval literature a ‘figura’ is, for example, something real that *also* signifies something else, in addition to itself; that is, both its literal and its non-literal meanings are equally important).

    This brings me to my point: even if the Book of Joshua can be read in the way you describe, that is not much consolation to those troubled by the brutality of the events depicted. Or, to put it differently: yes, we could and perhaps should make such a reading, but that does not in any way diminish the literal significance. Indeed, if we look at the quotes from the fathers that you provided we see nothing about explicitly rejecting the literal brutality (genocide, in modern terms). Rather, what we see is something akin to medieval ‘figura’ — a real thing that also happens to signify something else.

    In this case, the fathers recognise that the destruction of the Canaanites also signifies the destruction of sin that we must strive towards. But that in no way diminishes the reality of this destruction, which, as far as I’m aware, no fathers denied took place nor condemned.

    1. You make a good point, and I addressed it to some degree, but as you noted, perhaps it was understated. I argue from the critical scholarship that *the* literal reading of the text would be according to the Deuteronomistic interpretation which I presented. In other words, a “literal” reading of the text would be that of the underlying historical events of the Josianic reforms and the Exile. If indeed this book was redacted during these times, the most literal reading of the text is as royal propaganda for Josiah and as representing the aspirations of exilic Jews looking to return to the land. This *is* a literal reading! To take it as historically factual would be overly literal and anachronistic, for the ancients did not necessarily conceive of history in the same way we do. There is much indication that they conceived of history as cyclical, hence their own experiences or hopes for the future should mirror history. When asking whether or not we should take the literal meaning of something, we must ask what “literal” really means. Does it mean historically factual or does it mean in accordance with what the authors and redactors intended? If a historically factual reading conflicts with what we find in the historical and archaeological record (as in the case of Joshua), then perhaps we ought to look elsewhere for our “literal” interpretation.

      1. Opinions on how archaeology and Biblical history have changed over time, and will no doubt continue to change well into the future, and so while we should be aware of the findings of archaeologists, we don’t need to figure out how to make everything in Scripture jibe with such findings in order to interpret the text or to affirm the truthfulness of the text.

  6. My daughter is an apostate and has mentioned this issue as one of the major reasons for leaving the Church. I tried appealing to the patristic interpretation that you’ve mentioned, but I don’t think it made much of an impact. That may be more due to my own feeble attempts to explain it, though. In my search for other ways to look at it, I came across this article and would like to know your thoughts on it: http://christianthinktank.com/qamorite.html

    I also recently discovered chapters 11 and 12 of Wisdom, which paint a merciful picture of the conquest of Canaan and, at least in my understanding, seem to support some of what the article’s author says. I’d appreciate any feedback you have.

    1. Michael, I am sorry to hear about your daughter. While I couldn’t possibly judge in the case of your daughter, in my experience, problems with certain points of biblical interpretation are often smoke screens for deeper issues of the heart. Faith seeks understanding, especially in regard to the tough questions we face in the Bible. When it comes to the heart, no amount of data or argumentation will do much good, so I don’t think it is proper to carry on to much about it. It is often enough simply to agree that these are tough questions that do not have easy answers. When we don’t have answers, we can start with Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God. The loving heart of God is revealed perfectly in Christ who gave himself for the world. The Bible only has meaning to us as Holy Scripture insofar as it reveals Christ to us. If an interpretation of Scripture does not reveal to us Christ crucified and raised from the dead, but only a vengeful Bronze Age deity commanding holy war, then maybe we ought to rethink how it is we hold these writings to be Scripture. The way in which we hold them as Scripture must ultimately conform to the revelation of the Incarnate Logos. So, like St. Paul, let us determine to know nothing among those who struggle with faith except Christ and Him crucified. It is in the Gospel that faith is to be found, not in biblical exegesis, for as St. Paul said in Romans 10, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God,” by which he means the word of the Gospel. The Gospel is a two-edged sword piercing to the marrow. Biblical exegesis and apologetics is a rather dull blade by comparison. But, yes, sometimes we must remove obstacles or at least admit that we do not have all the answers. That will do. A little honesty and humility will go a long way. At any rate, I do pray that your daughter will find faith once again.

  7. Because the Old Testament records the historical pedagogy by which God prepared His People for the arrival of the Savior, it is hardly surprising that it says a great deal about what human beings were to be saved from—that is, sin. The Hebrew Bible conveys quite a bit about God’s attitude toward sin. This was a necessary part of the divine tutelage revealed in Salvation History.

    God is not directly “hurt” by sin. Sin is offensive to God because sin is hurtful to man. Confronted with man’s sin, moreover, God is—if I can bring myself to say it—respectful. Indeed, even the divine anger is an expression of deference. If God were nonchalant about man’s sins, it would mean that He does not take human choice seriously. The wrath of God is the respect He shows to human choice. It is the revelation that God does—in the strictest theological sense—”give a damn.”

    It may be a particular point of a modern reader’s discomfort with the Old Testament that it contains so much bloodshed, violence, and, even, genocide. Many sincere Christians, it appears, deplore that aspect of the Hebrew Bible. The books of Joshua and Judges come in for special criticism in this respect.

    For this reason it is important to reflect that the God of history gradually revealed the truth to the human race. He did it in stages, according to man’s historically conditioned ability to receive the revelation. God began by teaching the basics—the grammar of the historical process. Chief among the elements of Old Testament pedagogy is the grammar of sin.

    Among the first things mankind had to learn was God’s enmity toward sin and His inveterate disposition to show a harsh side of Himself when confronted with it. God, if He truly loved man, could not permit man to remain in doubt on the point. So He rained fire and brimstone on the Cities of the Plain because of their sins. He commanded Israel to slaughter the nations of Canaan in order to teach the human race about the seriousness of idolatry. If death entered into the world through sin, God was obliged, so to speak, to demonstrate, in unmistakable ways, that sin ends in destruction.

    If God was to teach human beings anything, He first had to make sure they understood, in a forceful way, that the wages of sin is death. There was no painless way to instill this truth. So He commanded this slaughter of the Canaanites, for the same reason He destroyed the Egyptian firstborn and Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea: God is very angry at sin. This truth is essential to the ABC’s of revelation for all time. God hates evil. He hates it so much that He commands evildoers to be destroyed. Such is the lesson outlined on many pages of Joshua and Judges, nor could Mankind afford to skip school on the days that lesson was taught.

    The Israelites were not less intelligent than other ancient peoples, so it is no slur on them to observe that they appear to have been pretty slow learners. Indeed, the biblical prophets, along with the Psalmist, mentioned this fact from time to time, uniformly to censure it. After the terrible fate of Sodom, after the plagues inflicted on Egypt, after the punishment dealt out to the Philistines—after all this, one might think, the People of God would get the message. But no, even after the overthrow and deportation of the Samaritans, the children of Judah continued in their sins and abandoned the responsibilities of the Covenant. Finally, with immense reluctance (according to Jeremiah) God condemned them to exile in Babylon.

    In respect to this historical punishment, a caution might be in order: It may be the case that these questioning Christians, the ones bothered by the books of Joshua and Judges, do not hate evil. They feel bad for the slaughtered Canaanites, because they—deep down—are not so sure idolatry is all that bad. They seem not to be convinced that the wages of sin is death. They appear not to believe that sin leads to destruction, so they complain when, on some of the more gruesome pages of Holy Scripture, evil is dealt with severely.

    This punishment of sin, of which God, on occasion, made ancient Israel the instrument, was essential to the historical process revealed in the Bible, and that punishment was appropriate to its particular times. There is an ongoing historical and pedagogical process involved in Salvation History. At certain crucial periods, ancient Israel and its neighbors were obliged to learn—for the benefit of all of us—some very difficult but necessary lessons, lessons appropriate to their particular age and place in history. For this reason, to lament that there is bloodshed, violence, and genocide in the Old Testament is something on the order of complaining that infants soil their diapers.

    1. I do believe the progressive nature of revelation has a lot to do with it. God revealed himself along with and through the civilization of Late Bronze Age Israel, where the realities of war and interethnic conflict were much greater than they are even today. I also agree with the general notion that the actions of God in the OT were somewhat more sever as a pedagogy leading to the revelation of Christ.

      But I also believe there are still great philosophical and theological problems associated with a God who seems to be uninterested in following his own ethical revelation. Can mankind be more ethical than God? Is God able to command genocide for reasons of “pedagogy,” to which mankind finds this abhorrent? Are ethics true to the extent that they govern only mankind, or are they true in themselves and thus from God the Logos who is both true and Truth? What does it say about God, when we find him acting in kind by killing the firstborn of Egypt? People are rightly repulsed by such notions, because we are ethical enough to understand that killing innocent Egyptians is no different than killing innocent Hebrews, and pedagogy be damned! I fear that such appeals to pedagogy are another case of handwaving, of trying to avoid the real philosophical and theological issues at stake. Simply saying that God can do whatever he wants because he is God is a very poor way of saying that God is righteous in all his deeds, for then we are unable to determine exactly what righteousness is. If God commanded holy war and genocide in the Late Bronze Age, but we say that such would be unethical and evil today (as in the case of jihad), the reasoning that, “Well, we have learned our lessons about sin” does not resolve the ethical dilemma, for what is evil at one time is evil in another, or we slide into a temporal moral relativism. And, while St. Paul says that where there is no law sin is not imputed, nonetheless, he also states that sin reigned from Adam to Christ.

      The theories presented by a dual redaction of the Deuteronomistic History allow one to resolve most if not all of these problems as well as the historical and archaeological issues. If the Book of Joshua took its shape from the seventh through the sixth centuries BCE, then such characterization of the divine action is the product cultural mythopoesis rather than historical fact. This allows us to elevate such actions in the book above the logical plain of the ethical toward the allegorical or typological plain of the image, which reveals not the ethical, but the theological, for the ethical is bound up within culture and civilization. And in this pedagogy remains intact, both for the ancients and for us.

      Lamenting the bloodshed in the OT is far from soiling diapers (or would you characterize Origen as a baby?), for it demonstrates the logical and ethical principles at work within us, and our search for truth and meaning in the midst of real cognitive dissonance. I certainly hope you, Fr. Pat, would be kinder to those who are truly dealing with such dissonance, for it is a grave pastoral problem that deserves more than handwaving.

      1. You say, “What does it say about God, when we find him acting in kind by killing the firstborn of Egypt?”

        But what does it say about God when we find him killing people with cancer or hurricanes or crucifixion? Pain and death are a part of life, and to be appalled by God having his hand in the destruction and torment of people is to claim that your picture of justice is clearer than God’s. God gave us an understanding of righteousness, but man is not perfect in any way, so why should our understanding of what is righteous be perfectly tuned?

        Isaiah 55:9 – “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

        I understand that it is unnecessary to increase our complications in reading Scripture by saying things are literal when they are not. However, it does not seem to me that any of the patristics claimed that the books you’re talking about are anything less than literal in the traditional sense of the word. And even if the book was written in the time of Josiah, how does it logically follow that the events described were not intended to be historically accurate?

        1. The difference is when God acts in such a way and when a person or nature does. God is not “killing people with cancer or hurricanes or crucifixion.” These are acts of men or nature.

          1. But God did kill through the flood. God did cause people to be killed in many and diverse ways throughout Scripture. And we are told of Christ’s second coming: “the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day” (2 Thessalonians 1:7b-10).

            The problem we have with God telling the Israelites to kill women and children is that we live in a rationalistic age, and people are not so sure God really talked to people like Joshua. Also, we don’t want folks to go around killing people because they claim God told them to do it. But if God could wipe out a city with fire and brimstone, there’s no reason why He couldn’t do it via the Israelites if that was indeed His choice. And so if He did indeed tell the Israelites to utterly destroy a city, He had the sovereign right to do so, and the people of Israel, who had seen so many miracles worked by God had every reason to believe that God was speaking to them through, Joshua, and later through their Judges. The Church has not taken this as a precedence, but has seen it as something of literal application only to that specific time and place. The applications we can make from these passages today would be primarily of an allegorical nature, from a patristic perspective.

            Another thing that we should keep in mind is that, if you really believe in God and in the afterlife, death is not the worst fate that could befall someone. Far worse than physical death is spiritual death, and it was for the salvation of future generations that these things were commanded. Death is a punishment for sin, but it is also a mercy in that it puts limits on the evil men may do, and also gives them cause to repent and turn to God. God sometimes allows people to die young in order that they might be spared worse things that would come their way. For example, the wicked king Jeroboam’s son was allowed to die at a very early age, “because in him there is found something good toward the Lord God of Israel in the house of Jeroboam,” and so of the house of Jeroboam, only this child died in peace, and was properly buried. And no doubt, in his early death he was also spared the evil influence of his family (1 Kings 14:13).

            God judges nations in history. Nations do not have an afterlife in which they can receive punishment or reward. God dispenses His justice upon nations in history, and so this justice by its very nature is dispensed collectively. If a nation is wicked, it will suffer the fruits of that wickedness, and unfortunately that means even the youngest children in that nation reap the bitter harvest sown by their parents. Our culture is very individualistic, but in Scripture, we find a view of the human race that sees us as having a corporate personality as well as being individuals. We are ultimately judged as individuals in eternity, but in this life we are not just individuals… we are part of families, tribes, and nations. If our forefathers make wise decisions, we reap benefits that are not due to our individual choices or merit. If our forefathers make wicked decisions, we also reap what they have sown. This is why you find people in Scripture not only repenting of their own sins, but of those of their forefathers. Of course if we come from a line of unbelievers, we can make the decision to embrace the Gospel and change the future for our descendants for the better. Is it “fair” that a child who is born in a Christian home hears the Gospel, and is more likely to grow up as a Christian than a child born to an unbeliever? Is it fair that a child born to a drug addict will grow up facing challenges that other children do not? If you look at this with a purely individualistic mindset, it might seem unfair, but the Biblical worldview is that we are not islands unto ourselves. We are not just souls who had the misfortune or fortune to be born to a particular set of parents, but we are their offspring, and are connected to them on a deeper level. Adam and Eve’s choice to sin has affected all of their offspring – we were not consulted before they made their decision, and yet we have suffered the effects of their decision. However we have been given the option of placing ourselves under a new head, and aligning ourselves with a new Adam – Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-49), and so we can change the future for our offspring for the better, though they have not been consulted either.

            Murder is wrong because we do not have the right to take the life of another human being without just cause, because we are not the giver of life. God is the giver of life, and he can take any life for any reason he sees fit, because He is God. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

          2. This is, of course, much of the inner, biblical perspective, though the Bible itself nuances it quite a bit. In fact, one might say that the entire Old Testament is about trying to work out what God’s role is in the rise and fall of nations, especially Israel and Judah. Ultimately, the retributive model fails to answer all the questions, especially in the Hellenistic age, as we see in much of the wisdom literature. Suffering is not always for just cause (Job), nor is violence seen as being the divine response to sin and unbelief (Romans 1:18ff). When the disciples wished to call down fire from heaven like Elijah upon those who rejected Jesus, He said to them, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of” (Lu 9:54-55). Some manuscripts add in v 56, “The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s souls but to save them.” There is a sort of inner biblical metabolism that digests these seemingly conflicting ideas and allows them to stand together in an often frustrating admixture of theology. On the one hand, there is the clear, divinely perpetrated violence of judgment upon evil doers, though, to our shock and horror, many innocents are casualties. It ought to cause one to pause that we commemorate the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod, though we think nothing of the fact that God committed the same act of death upon the Egyptians. Is the only ethical difference between these two events that the evil King Herod performed one act while God committed the other, or that the victims of one event were Jews and Egyptians victims of the other? This is a very poor ethic and potentially dangerous. Is an act evil in itself or only evil because someone other than God did it? Is God capable of violating a universal ethic, simply because he can? Shall we take up arms and drive out the evil doer like Joshua? Shall we call down fire from heaven like Elijah? No, “you do not know what spirit you are of,” for the Bible also, on the other hand, presents a theology of life, mercy, and the bearing of Good News. Certainly, God will judge the world at his Second and Glorious Coming, and in that day all ethics will find their telos, not in violence and injustice, but in righteousness and holiness.

            The problem with trying to take up a “Biblical worldview” is that there isn’t just one biblical worldview. We cannot level out the Bible as expressing a worldview where it expresses different views of different worlds. The worldview of Iron Age Judah is vastly different that the worldview of Roman Palestine. The worldview of nomadic tribes is different than the worldview of Hellenistic civilization. Such a “biblical worldview” has given impetus to grave atrocities throughout the ages, from the Crusades to the worst forms of Zionism today, and all of these things have been rationalized because their acts of violence were committed against the idolaters and sinners who are being judged by God. This ethic is just one step short of radical Islam and jihad.

            Such a “biblical worldview” that condemns the innocent because they grow up in households of guilty sinners is to tear up the wheat with the chaff. Is this supposed “biblical worldview” the ethic we should adopt? Should we not sorrow when civilians are killed by bombs alongside combatants? If the ethic that parses out the innocent from the wicked regardless of where they are born is to be called “rationalistic” then count me guilty as charged. But you yourself state that God will judge the individual – so why the conflict? But what is a mark of rationalism? Is it not rationalizing the unethical violence purportedly committed by God and the servants of God in the name of God as found in the Old Testament? Is it not trying to rationalize that these events are historically factual when all other evidence points to the contrary? Is it not insisting on their historical factuality when the Fathers do not? Yet, you accuse me of applying “Protestant” critical scholarship, whereas the insistence upon literal factuality of all of these OT narratives is the very hallmark of sola scriptura hermeneutics!

            I am deeply disturbed by the ethics you articulate. Is murder wrong simply because we do not have the right to take a life? Is murder about rights, or is it about the sanctity of life? Is murder a violation of rights or an evil in itself? All of this handwaving, excuse-making, and “rationalizing” all to defend a literalist hermeneutic is just baffling to me. Yet, a non-literal hermeneutic and the serious consideration of critical scholarship that tells us these events did not happen as they are described allow us to maintain the faith of the Fathers and construct an ethic that is of the spirit of mercy and not of fire. We must take seriously the ethical implications of our literalist hermeneutics, for they may take us down roads that are in fact contrary to the Gospel and the Spirit which was given to us.

          3. I don’t think Blessed Theodoret was a Protestant who believed in Sola Scriptura, and I am taking the very same position that he articulated. Yes, life is Sacred, because it comes from God. But that is also why it is a sin for a man to take it upon himself to kill someone (unless this is done in the course of self defense, war, or as a punishment for a capital crime), but it is not a sin when God chooses to take someone’s life. He is the giver of life, and so He has every right to take someone’s life, without having to answer to us for it. The difference between God slaying the firstborn of Egypt, and Herod slaying the holy innocents, is that God did not slay the first born of Egypt out of the blue — he did this in part as punishment for their slaughter of the Hebrew infants, but he always gave them every possible warning and every chance to avoid this from happening, but they did not repent. The holy innocents were not the children of people who were in rebellion against God, and who were guilty of horrible crimes, they were the children of people who were generally living pious lives. And aside from that, Herod was not the one who gave them life, and so had no right to take it.

            Furthermore, the difference between acknowledging that these things were done by God in the Old Testament and what the Jihadists are doing, is that none of these commands in the Old Testament were open ending commands to kill — they were for a specific people, at a specific time. These people also had been given every chance to repent, and one father (I can’t remember who, off hand) pointed out that God displaced the Canaanites over a long period of time because he was continuing to give them opportunity to repent.

            But as a matter of fact, the Israelites did not obey God. They did not kill all the Canaanites, and in fact the Canaanites and their culture were a thorn in their side that continually led them astray up until the time that God finally sent the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem, and to take the people into exile. When Israelite farmers had Canaanites telling them that if they wanted their crops to grow, they had to make Baal happy, they repeatedly gave in to the temptation to cover all the bases, and engage in the ritual prostitution and child sacrifice that the Canaanites believed were the only sure way to ensure good harvests. As it says in Psalm 105 (106):34-39: “They did not destroy the heathen, concerning which the Lord had spoken to them. They mingled among the nations and learned their works; and they served their graven things, and it became for them a stumbling-block. And they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto demons. And they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the graven things of Canaan. And the land was befouled with the blood of murder, and it was defiled with their works; and they went a whoring with their own inventions.”

            It was only after this experience of the exile that the Jews matured spiritually enough that they would never again be tempted into idolatry by their neighbors, though they often lived in a diaspora, in which they were a small minority surrounded by a pagan majority. Having the fullness of Gospel, we are better able to resist the temptations that come with being surrounded by evil people, and in fact, we are called to bring the Gospel to those wicked people, and to change the spiritual climate by the power of the Gospel, and not by the sword, as before, in the Old Testament.

            What is perhaps most ironic about this issue is that the atheists that point to these passages to argue against Christianity are appealing to a Christian sense of morality, love, and mercy, in order to be outraged. But the fact is, as Dostoyevsky pointed out, if there is no God, all things are lawful. If there is no God, the slaughter of innocent children is of no more moral significance than when a colony of ants is washed away in a flood. There is no moral standard that one can appeal to. There is only power, and those who have the will to use it. And in fact, if you want to see the worst and most monstrous examples of the brutal slaughter of innocents by the millions, no one has surpassed brutality of militant atheism in the Soviet Union, Communist China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, etc.

            The only moral standard that can have any real meaning is one based on what God has revealed. God has revealed the most excellent way of the Gospel to us, and that is the standard we live by now. God, who is the giver of life, does not have to answer to us when He chooses to take it. We know that He is Love, and we know that He is Holy. We know that He always seeks the salvation of men, but we also know that He punishes the wicked, and places limits on their wickedness by His judgments, and that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 18(19):9).

            None of this means that we should read these accounts and feel no sense of grief over what happened. In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible that is called “Lamentations”, and it was written by the Prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied that the judgment of God would fall on the Kingdom of Judah, and he lived to see it come to pass. And this book is a lament over the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophesy, because the people did not listen before it was too late. Obviously, he knew that the judgment of God was just, but he nevertheless wrote:

            “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1).

            “My eyes fail with tears, my heart is troubled; my bile is poured on the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because the children and the infants faint in the streets of the city” (Lamentations 2:11).

            “The young and the old lie on the ground in the streets: my virgins and my young men are fallen by the sword; Thou hast slain them in the day of Thine anger; Thou hast killed, and not pitied” (Lamentations 2:21).

            But even in the midst of the Prophet Jeremiah’s lament over the destruction of his people, he also confesses:

            “But though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:32-33).

            We should grieve over such destruction, but we should grieve for the right reason – not because God wished to destroy the Canaanites for some arbitrary reason, and that this was unjust of Him; but rather because sin and rebellion against God inevitably lead to such horrible ends as this.

          4. Again, these are rationalizations for something that we view today as being an evil act for any reason whatsoever. Just because a civilization is evil does not mean that genocide suddenly becomes an ethical option. The problem still remains, God in the OT commanding something that, if he were to do the same today, we would find reprehensible. The binding of Isaac, the death of the firstborn of Egypt, the conquest of Canaan, all present ethical dilemmas for us that cannot be easily rationalized by simply saying, “well, that’s what God did, so therefore it’s ethically defensible.”

          5. Also, while it is true that critical scholars would argue that the book of Joshua portrays a level and rapidity of destruction that they do not think actually happened, it is also true that they would not deny that the Israelites did wipe out groups of people in battle. And so appealing to such scholarship does not really solve the question, it may divert the attention of the uninitiated who were unaware of such questions… but the real question still remains. If God did not order the Israelites to do it… we still have a moral problem. And if God did order the Israelites to do, you still have the difficult questions that come from that. And such scholars would also not be of the opinion that the authors who wrote these accounts intended for them to be taken as allegories only, and not as actual events.

          6. As I have noted elsewhere, there is archaeological evidence of conflict between highland Israelites and lowland Canaanites, and the book of Joshua likely does preserve some historical memory, though not in the exact narrative or dialogue. The difference is, in these conflicts, we do not have the divine command to exterminate very last one of them. Doubtless, late Bronze Age tribes did take their actions to be of divine command, but this by no means establishes an ethic or even a theology of divinely sanctioned genocide.

          7. And on the question of worldview. While it is true that there would be differences in the worldview of a Roman Christian in Palestine in the 1st century, then there would be of an Israelite in the 8th century b.c. — it is also true their worldviews were far more similar than the prevailing worldview in our culture.

            My point, which is undeniable, is that the worldview found in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, did not see people as individuals only, but also as parts of families, tribes, and nations. Apart from such an understanding, the fact that all of mankind has suffered as a result of the fall would be one more reason to charge God with injustice.

          8. I fail to see the connection between a collectivist world view and original sin. That one or more cultures had this perception of society, even an ancient Israelite view, does not make prescribe it as “biblical” or the way we should view it. In fact, I would think that many would regard the individualist view of our present age as the result of Christian theology of personal faith and responsibility rising out of a former cuius regio eius religio politic. Individual personhood, responsibility, and free will must factor in somehow.

          9. If you acknowledge that the Israelites engaged in such actions, and when you have God commanding them to do it in Scripture, then you cannot simply say that these things did not happen, and neatly side step the question with an allegorical interpretation. You either have to say that God did not give such a command, and then you have the problem of whether we can take anything that God is said to have commanded at face value, or you are back to the same problem of explain why God would give the command.

            The “corporate personality” view found in Scripture is directly connected with original sin… because if we are merely individuals, then why should Adam’s children have to inherit a fallen nature? Why shouldn’t each offspring of Adam be given a perfect unfallen human nature, and allowed the same chance that Adam had? There is a whole lot of evil, death, and misery that have come to all of mankind because of Adam’s sin, and because we have received a fallen human nature. Not fair, if we are just individuals who happen to have descended from Adam.

          10. The art and science of hermeneutics does enable us to parse out divine commands in scripture, not from the point of view of “did he or did he not really say,” but from the point of view of “what do these commands actually entail from the point of view of the divine Logos incarnate in Jesus Christ.” The problem here is putting the literalist hermeneutical cart before the Logosical horse, if you take my meaning. What are we defending here – literalist hermeneutics or or a hermeneutic determined by our encounter with the Divine Logos?

          11. One day, if Scripture is to be believed, God will bring out the end of the world as we know it, and a lot of infants are going to die in the process. I will not find that morally reprehensible, because it is only by the mercy of God that this did not happen sometime in Genesis chapter 4, and God, the giver of life, has every right to take life, without having to answer to you, to me, or anyone else.

          12. I am defending a hermeneutic that is consistent with what most of the Fathers had to say on this question. I agree that there are different levels of meaning, and have no problem with interpretations along those lines, but when you discount the historic meaning of the text, you open up a pandora’s box that ultimate undercuts the authority of Scripture — and one need only look at what has happened to the mainline Protestant churches that have gone down that path for proof. Now you can say that the Orthodox Church is the true Church, and that it will never fall into such error… and I will agree with you when you speak of the Church as a whole, but this truth did not prevent most of the Church from falling into the Arian heresy, or for large parts of it to fall into any number of other heresies. Given that, we have to be extremely careful to be guided in our interpretation by the consensus of the Fathers, and not do or think whatever seems right in our own eyes.

  8. How does one find this post? I appreciate Fr. Pat Reardon’s treatment of this issue from his January 1 post, on this same blog:

  9. So what do we do then with the violence executed on the idolaters by Josiah which earned him the praise of there being no king like him either before or after? Was it literal or figurative?

    2 Kings 23:
    19 And all the houses also of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made to provoke the LORD to anger, Josiah took away, and did to them according to all the acts that he had done in Bethel.

    20 And he slew all the priests of the high places that were there upon the altars, and burned men’s bones upon them, and returned to Jerusalem.

    21 And the king commanded all the people, saying, Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in the book of this covenant.

    22 Surely there was not holden such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah;

    23 But in the eighteenth year of king Josiah, wherein this passover was holden to the LORD in Jerusalem.

    24 Moreover the workers with familiar spirits, and the wizards, and the images, and the idols, and all the abominations that were spied in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, did Josiah put away, that he might perform the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD.

    25 And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.

    1. We are, of course, distinguishing between violence perpetrated by men upon evil doers on their own account, and violence perpetrated or commanded by God upon innocents.

      1. The Canaanites were not innocent. Their youngest children were innocent, but we also have to keep in mind that in the Biblical Worldview, we are not just individuals — we are part of a family, a tribe, a nation. And when God judges a nation in history, that by its very nature means that even the youngest of children are adversely affected.

        1. I think Father John Whiteford puts his finger, if not on the key, at least on the key hole.

          Much of the commentary on this thread, it appears to me, simply reflects the traditional problems theodicy poses to Sacred Theology.

          I know some folks do take these problems seriously; they feel, in the face of such difficulties, a kind of cognitive dissonance, constituting even “a grave pastoral problem that deserves more than handwaving.”

          Surely it is significant that the harsh treatment dealt out to the Canaanites was a serious problem mainly for Origen and those Fathers most influenced by middle and late Platonism.

          I have the impression that it was not such a problem for those Fathers who escaped that influence—Irenaeus, for example. (If I wrong about Irenaeus, I am confident that one of you will show me the kindness of correcting me.)

          1. I agree that this is well trodden ground in the history of theodicy in both theology and philosophy, hence, why I am looking for a more serious treatment of these issues from that standpoint rather than a fideistic “God said so/did so, therefore it is right.” I have provided a hypothesis from critical scholarship, which resolves at least some of the cognitive dissonance for me, which results in these OT narratives as reflecting Israelite and Jewish religious-cultural perceptions and projecting of a more-or-less primitive theology upon a national narrative rather than being actual divine commands which took place in space-time. This allows for the fullness of patristic allegorical interpretation and faithful adherence to Orthodox dogma. If one would like to argue theodicy from any other perspective, then I welcome the discussion, though I am growing very weary of the fideistic defense of literalist hermeneutics.

  10. Yet even later we have the Psalm of the exiles in Babylon which exults in the killing of infants. Of course we now apply that figuratively to our sins, but certainly that was not the sentiment of the author.

    Psalm 136/137
    8Wretched daughter of Babylon! blessed shall he be who shall reward thee as thou hast rewarded us.

    9Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock.

  11. Dale Crakes inquires, “How does one find this post? I appreciate Fr. Pat Reardon’s treatment of this issue from his January 1 post.”

    Dale, you can check out the “Pastoral Ponderings” on the web page of All Saints’ Church:

    These pieces tend to appear in that place a week or so before their appearance on the Ancient Faith blog section.

    Or, you can simply go to

    http://www.allsaintsorthodox.org/resources/email_list.php?msg=xs

    and make yourself a subscriber.

  12. Eric,

    I really enjoy your blog, and your thoughtful and scholarly treatment of difficult issues in Scripture, and this is no exception. I know many younger people who are deeply troubled by the issues you are wrestling with.

    While I do not even pretend to play in the same sandbox as you, it seems to me that what you propose is fully consistent with the revelation we have of an in Christ. Jesus himself was a ‘new Joshua’ and he not only railed against the religious leaders (and sometimes lay people) about their expectations that the Messiah would be ‘like’ Joshua (or David) and destroy their Roman oppressors and drive them from the land. But he also went so far as to allow them to murder him to show his love for ALL mankind, and forgave the Roman oppressors from the cross.

    In Luke 4, when Jesus quotes the Isaiah passage, which they all recognized as him saying he was the Messiah, they “all spoke well of him.” Then when he alluded to two OT passages showing that God loves foreigners and even has mercy on the oppressors, they wanted to kill him. Jesus is revealing a completely different Messiah (and God) than their ideology supposes, and using Scripture to do it.

    I thoroughly enjoy your thoughtfulness and courage in dealing with a very difficult subject. Thank you.

  13. Eric confesses, “I am growing very weary of the fideistic defense of literalist hermeneutics.”

    You are doing a pretty good job of debunking it, Eric.

  14. I haven’t read all the comments… But Father John mentioned something about death not being the worst thing, so to speak, that could happen to someone. Christ descended into Hades and brought everyone out, including the Canaanite children. Is this not important to the discussion?

    Also, as I think has been mentioned above, for me, the ‘Old Testament cruelty’ and the problem of evil in the world cause the same cognitive dissonance. Both are _permitted_ by God, and I in my simplistic understanding have to end up saying, ‘God knows best’. And I do believe in God, really believe in his omnipotence, then I have to trust.

  15. Father John Whiteford justly declares, “we have to be extremely careful to be guided in our interpretation by the consensus of the Fathers, and not do or think whatever seems right in our own eyes.”

    I wonder how many exegetical questions can actually be settled by “the consensus of the Fathers.” Precious few, I suspect.

    I am thinking of this question tonight, as we begin the feast day of Saints Athanasius and Cyril.

    As I was preparing the Vespers service this evening, I reflected that tomorrow morning, by way of celebrating the memory of St. Cyril of Alexandria, we are going to serve the Divine Liturgy ascribed to St. John Chrysostom, whom St. Cyril regarded as worse than Lucifer.

    During the course of that Divine Liturgy, we are going to declare, several times, that Jesus’ Mother is the “Theotokos,” an identification which never appears in the writings of St. John Chrysostom—an omission that had to be deliberate.

    I am very happy to follow “the consensus of the Fathers” in matters of faith, of course.

    On other points, particularly how to interpret this or that passage of Holy Scripture, things are not always as clear and definite as we might like, and I, for one, applaud the manner in which Eric applies his critical skills to the Sacred Text.

    1. Yes, of course, there is an epistemological problem here regarding the manner in which we can know or apprehend these concepts such as the “consensus of the Fathers” or even something so simple as “the Fathers teach/say/etc.” In conceptualizing the “Fathers” (BTW, who are the “Fathers” exactly? Who does this group include/exclude? How does one become included/excluded?) in such a singular manner of reference, we do necessarily abuse the very real variance that is found between them – their distinctive theological expression, sometimes conflicting teachings, historical/geographic/linguistic/cultural distinctives, and their very individual personhood. Speaking of “the Fathers” in such a manner is, also, an ideological construct overlaid upon the historico-theological narrative of Orthodox Christianity (both East and West), and as such, it has the potential to speak more of our biased perceptions of the Fathers than the Fathers themselves. Of course, we all do this, likely out of necessity, though we should do so cautiously.

      1. The idea that there is broadly speak an interpretation of the Fathers, or a consensus that should guide us is clearly found in St. Vincent of Lerins’ definition of Catholic: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.” http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/vincent.aspx

        Also, Canon 19 of the Quinisext Council states that when we are interpreting Scripture, we ought “not to interpret it otherwise than as the luminaries and teachers of the Church in their own written works have presented it…” (Rudder, p. 314). At a minimum that means we should be guided by them, should not contradict them.

        As to who a Father of the Church is, if one reads the lives of the saints, they will be told who is a father. Also, the Church has preserved and valued certain writings because they were considered to be faithful guides to the theology of the Church, and to the correct understanding of the Scriptures. And some are considered to be of generally more value than others.

        In many ways the Fathers of the Church could be compared with copies of the Scriptures. None of them are completely infallible, but when you compare what they all say, you are able to discern the infallible text that they all reflect with more or less accuracy, as the case may be.

        When you are interpreting a particular passage of Scripture, there are of course times when you get a variety of interpretations, and no one interpretation is particularly more dominant. In such cases, it is usually good to lay out the various interpretations, and recognize that there are different opinions… though in many cases, the differences are complimentary, rather than contradictory.

          1. I don’t disagree, though I was approaching these issues from a more philosophical point of view rather than the internal Orthodox understanding of itself. While we have an understanding of these matters form the internal witness of the Church itself, there are still certain epistemological problems that need to be addressed. The problem here is finding Orthodox Christians who are willing to address them at that level rather than simply stating the right catechetical answers.

  16. St Augustine, we might recall, struggled with these very issues of theology and proper biblical interpretation. Growing up in what Peter Brown calls the Bible Belt of the Roman Empire, Augustine’s mind stumbled at the gross corporeality of North African Christianity’s literalness (see especially Book IV.26 where Augustine struggles with whether God has a body or not) and turned to the Manichees for spiritual solace. Later, when Augustine was in Milan and heard St Ambrose’s preaching, he realized he didn’t need to read the Old Testament “literally.” He could avoid the stumbling blocks of Scripture by reading the Bible allegorically and thus he found a vision of the Christian faith that satisfied his mind and his heart. Here I couldn’t pilfer Chadwick’s elegant translation of The Confessions Book V, so I had to make do with Pusey instead:

    “For though I took no pains to learn what he spake, but only to
    hear how he spake (for that empty care alone was left me,
    despairing of a way, open for man, to Thee), yet together with the
    words which I would choose, came also into my mind the things
    which I would refuse; for I could not separate them. And while I
    opened my heart to admit “how eloquently he spake,” there also
    entered “how truly he spake”; but this by degrees. For first, these
    things also had now begun to appear to me capable of defence;
    and the Catholic faith, for which I had thought nothing could be
    said against the Manichees’ objections, I now thought might be
    maintained without shamelessness; especially after I had heard
    one or two places of the Old Testament resolved, and ofttimes “in
    a figure,” which when I understood literally, I was slain spiritually.
    Very many places then of those books having been
    explained, I now blamed my despair, in believing that no answer
    could be given to such as hated and scoffed at the Law and the
    Prophets. Yet did I not therefore then see that the Catholic way
    was to be held, because it also could find learned maintainers,
    who could at large and with some show of reason answer objections; nor that what I held was therefore to be condemned,
    because both sides could be maintained. For the Catholic cause
    seemed to me in such sort not vanquished, as still not as yet to be
    victorious.
    Hereupon I earnestly bent my mind, to see if in any way I could
    by any certain proof convict the Manichees of falsehood. Could I
    once have conceived a spiritual substance, all their strongholds
    had been beaten down, and cast utterly out of my mind; but I
    could not. Notwithstanding, concerning the frame of this world,
    and the whole of nature, which the senses of the flesh can reach
    to, as I more and more considered and compared things, I judged
    the tenets of most of the philosophers to have been much more
    probable. So then after the manner of the Academics (as they are
    supposed) doubting of every thing, and wavering between all, I
    settled so far, that the Manichees were to be abandoned; judging
    that, even while doubting, I might not continue in that sect, to
    which I already preferred some of the philosophers; to which philosophers
    notwithstanding, for that they were without the saving
    Name of Christ, I utterly refused to commit the cure of my sick
    soul. I determined therefore so long to be a Catechumen in the
    Catholic Church, to which I had been commended by my parents,
    till something certain should dawn upon me, whither I might steer
    my course.”

  17. Maybe you would like to comment on this brand new (unedited) version of The Old Testament, “The Old Testament – love, murder and blasphemy” ? It is by no means a scientific stuty, but then again most readers aren’t.

    It can be found on Amazon.com as e-book. Link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Old-Testament-love-murder-blasphemy-ebook/dp/B00TE8QCF6/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1423654297&sr=1-1&keywords=the+old+testament+love

    Sincerely,
    Klaus Koenig

  18. Eric,

    I agree with your concern about the moral goodness of God in the Old Testament. God wants us to recognize Him as good. Part of the basis for recognizing God as good is that He has given us an ability to perceive the good; and it is this recognition of good in Christ that leads us to worship Him. We rightly recoil when reading about the horrific acts of the pagan gods, and the early Christian writers who brought this up were not appealing to Scriptural teaching about morality when they portrayed the rape and cannibalism of the pantheon as evil. Furthermore, our perception of Christ’s goodness in the New Testament develops our consciences; and it is in light of this that your reaction to the OT narratives strikes me as not a philosophical exercise or imposition of your own ethical presuppositions, but rather as a careful, wise, and Christian response, informed by your God-given conscience and deep awareness of the New Testament revelation of God’s goodness.

    That being said, I suspect that Fr. John and Fr. Reardon are right that we as Orthodox Christians are committed by default to the historicity of the OT narratives. And it is interesting to contrast the approach of, say, Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine with the approach of St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Maximus, St. John Chrysostom, or St. Irenaeus. These latter Fathers are closer, I think, to the heart of the tradition than St. Gregory is (of course Origen is not a father; and I suspect that St. Augustine probably changed his attitude towards the OT narratives later in his theological development). These core Fathers also recognize that the OT contains things which are unclear and that it even appears to ascribe evil to God. But instead of allegorizing the text, they recognize its historicity while interpreting it in light of the fullness of divine revelation in Christ.

    For instance, St. Cyril takes a text in the OT which seems to ascribe to God the punishment of innocent children; and he simply points out that it should not be interpreted that way in light of how Christ reveals the goodness of God. Instead of “visiting the iniquities of the Fathers on children until the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” meaning “God punishes children, grand children, etc. for their fathers sins” he takes this to mean: even if great-grandchildren imitate their fathers sins, God still is merciful to them, and holds back punishing them for their *imitations of their forefathers* for a very long time. St. Maximus does something similar with the text from Exodus in which Moses is threatened with death for not circumcising his son; he interprets the OT in light of the NT, but instead of denying the historical sense, he simply points out that it admits of an unobjectionable interpretation–one which does not violate Christ’s revelation of divine goodness.

    I think this hermeneutic is closer to the mind of the Fathers than the pure allegory which dismisses historicity. When we apply it to the Canaanite wars (particularly the specific things that St. Cyrial says about God not punishing the innocent), it seems to me that we should take one of the following routes:

    1. The proposal Matthew Flanaagan (and my understanding is that Copan agrees) has argued extensively is that the command to commit genocide is hyperbolic; as such, it does not imply that God willed the killing of innocent children. This seems quite plausible, in light of the ANE war narratives they bring up, which are full of hyperbolic expressions of victory. Copan’s position, if it is the same as Flanaagan’s, is not “a people of great evil should rightly be killed, regardless of whether everyone is really responsible” but rather “the command does not literally mean everyone, and as such does not constitute a command to take innocent life; that being said, those who were morally responsible were to be killed because of the great and terrifying evil they were doing to themselves and for corrupting our shared human nature”.

    2. One could see the teaching in Ezekiel and in the Pentateuch that the soul that sins shall die, not the innocent, as qualifying who was killed. “Children” may be included in the list of those to be killed in the divine command; but if this is to mesh with Ezekiel and the Pentateuch, it seems reasonable to say “only those children who are actually responsible, old enough to commit wrong”. This is no different than any other attempt to mesh together two divine commands, like “honor your father and mother” and “do not worship idols”; if my father tells me to do worship idols, I continue to honor him, but not by becoming an idolator.

    3. It could be that it was already understood that the Canaanites who were specifically being eliminated upon divine command were all of a responsible age; for it is possible that their practices of child sacrifice had reached a peak. Thus the young who were spoken of would have to be, given the circumstances, people old enough to make free choices.

    These three options all seem like reasonable possibilities. And though none of them are provable, this fact should not bother us; after all, what we are looking for is a *possible, unobjectionable* way of harmonizing the war-commands with Christ’s goodness. I used to be surprised by the apparent harshness of the OT passages; now, I am not surprised. It makes sense that shadows would look dark compared to images (and Hebrews tells us the law is shadows and the new covenant is images), and that Christ the Word would incarnate and conceal Himself in the harshness and lowness of his chosen people’s words.

    Thoughts?

    1. Seeing as there is yet no dogmatic decree instantiating the historicity of OT narratives, it is difficult to say whether or not we are “committed” to such a reading. There are some rather troubling issues in deriving historicity simply de fide, especially when historicity conflicts with scientific, archaeological, philological, and historical scholarship. We end up polarized either having to accept all of biblical narrative as historical fact and reject scholarship as an enterprise of human knowledge, or else we have to end of rejecting the bible as the Word of God. This is the same problem young earth creationists have, and which is normally found in Evangelical Protestantism. Not only does it produce the silliest beliefs, but it also causes the downfall of many people of faith as well. There are also some deeper issues, for example, how is it that historicity can be gotten from a literary narrative of an Iron Age culture? What exactly is historicity in terms of literary narrative? You yourself offered the possibility that the narratives were using hyperbole, so they should not necessarily be taken literally. If this is the case, then how can historicity be gotten from a non-literal narrative, since historicity conceptually is based upon assumed fact derived from evidence?

      Your treatment of the Fathers in this regard does not deal with the very real fact that none of the Fathers you mention lived in an era where the modern disciplines of history, archaeology, philology, anthropology, or even literary criticism were known. Historicity of OT narratives was something assumed rather than explicitly chosen in spite of the enormous problems with historicity that modern scholarship has presented to us. We simply don’t know how the Fathers would have reacted to the knowledge we have available know, so to say that we must be committed to historicity of the OT because the Fathers did is comparing apples and oranges, and is a very poor way to go about forming a belief system. The other routes you offer are simply grasping at straws, and are quite absurd. The same attempts aimed at non-biblical literature would be laughable.

      The bottom line is, the enterprise of human knowledge, which we all accept at one level or another, has presented us with disciplines and methods which, when investigating the historicity of OT events, have presented us with grave problems. Fortunately, unlike certain rigorous historicizing readings of the Bible found in Evangelical Protestantism, the Fathers were well capable of offering non-literal interpretations of the same narratives as being the truest nature of Scripture, and this I follow. As an Orthodox Christian, I am committed to Christ as the Logos and the true hermeneutic of Scripture, not to historicism. Now this is not to say that I disregard the entire historicity of the OT. Indeed many people and events featured therein were historical, and I certainly allow for this.

      We are in need of a hermeneutic today that is both faithful to the Fathers and the Spirit who breathes out Scripture and faithful to the integrity of human reason, for if we violate the integrity of human reason we do violence to that image of God by which we were created. I simply cannot violate my reason by necessarily committing de finde to a whole scale rejection of modern scholarly methods that the Fathers themselves would have been incapable of doing. The anachronistic nature of such “patristicsim” is itself not “Orthodox” and neither nearer for further from the “mind of the Fathers.” The Fathers simply must be treated with greater nuance and attention to their own historical and cultural contexts as well as our own. We no longer live in 5th century Byzantium, and we can no longer afford to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that the advancements in modern scholarship and human knowledge simply didn’t happen.

  19. I’m way out of my league here. But just a couple of thoughts I had after reading the post and many of the subsequent comments:

    1. Archeology and it’s corollary disciplines that inform much of higher textual criticism continues to be amoebic, by it’s nature. And while the net deposit of knowledge can be said to be growing, there is no lack of it’s own instances of redaction, just as occurs within all the sciences, as ubiquitously represented in so many publications with phrases like, “It appears our whole understanding of the history of _________ must now be totally re-written.” It’s apparent to me that there is probably far more left to be discovered in the sands and rocks of the ME than we have currently discovered, based on the continuing influx of new archeological revelations that occur to this day. My point is, we may be but a spade-turn away from turning a well-accepted scholarly assumption into a discarded theory of the past. So, while I agree that we can gain good knowledge from these endeavors, it is always best to hold onto the historical “truths” based on the state of current findings, somewhat lightly. I recall a quote I heard years ago (I can’t recall the source), regarding the ever-changing landscape of such knowledge, “If you marry your theology to historical science today, then be prepared for a divorce tomorrow.”

    2. The current concern with God’s sin-cleansing activities of the past is often a matter of some combination of degree and methodology. While critics generally question the instances of Noah’s flood and Israeli conquest after the Exodus, I generally see the most angry retorts from skeptics aimed at the latter. Certainly the Flood (even if one assumes it was local and not global), was far more sweeping in it’s destruction than the battles were. So if we’re just counting numbers of lives, the Flood appears far more extensive in the amount of deaths caused. So why the focus on Israel? I think this is probably because a) God acted singularly in drowning the violent culture of Noah’s day, and b) The strike of a sword on a child’s neck seems to be a very personal way of killing them off, via a human agent.

    However, both acts took the lives of many innocent children. So, while the sheer numbers matter to people, there is also the element of method. Few make waves about individual sinners judged and killed under God’s orders.

    That being said, I can’t help but think about what Fr. Reardon said above about God’s concern for the spread of sin throughout mankind, and the need to make it quite clear that choosing sin is choosing death. When idolatry, and all that comes with it, becomes planted in a society as it’s taking root, the whole structure becomes compromised, and the world is much worse off in the long run. This was the lesson of the Flood, of which only 8 persons survived after many years of societal violence. Sin is ugly. God is not. But those who embrace sin, and see it as good do see God as ugly, because for them (as well as us very often) God is both too unreasonable and too impatient, both of which are actually quite false. But certainly there are differences in the degree of His actions, based on the need for the sin to be stopped short at the time. We don’t need to have extensive knowledge of the details of that need, although we certainly would like to know at times. I think it’s okay to start from the premise that God is not a capricious monster. He didn’t just say, “I feel like being extra harsh today.” His activities need not be seen as a measure of His anger so much as a measure of how far man is willing to be swept away by sin if he (or God) doesn’t put a stop to it.

    Recall also that God (through St. Peter) judged and killed Ananias and Sapphira after Pentecost. Sure, we’re only talking about two people. But neither were they wicked, idolatrous murderers. Their sin was lying, which every man is guilty of sometime in their life. So why was He so hard on these two? Perhaps because of the importance of both the time and the place of the occurrence. The budding Church was in it’s infancy, and this couple was right at the heart of it. A seed of idolatry threatened to be planted with the root, which could have had far-reaching effects. So the Holy Spirit took care of business. Was this cruel and unusual punishment for what many would consider a “typical” sin? The Church didn’t think so. But modern secular man, far removed from the understanding of such things, would probably say it was. This is but a microcosm of the larger issue of more people being slain for an equally imminent threat at a different historical crossroads. But the purpose is the same – the salvation of the greater population over time. If people wish to reject God because of this, or reinterpret Him to make peace in their own mind, then it is because they have rejected the reality of the depth of sin and the notion of removing a root-toxin for the greater good of the whole tree.

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