Violence and the Bible
This is what the Lord Almighty says: "I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” 1 Samuel 15:2-3
Harsh words! This is not the only time God tells Israel to wipe out a group of people. It is a recurring “command” throughout the books of Joshua, Judges and 1-2 Kings.
What do we do with passages like this? Many of us just read through them and try to ignore the tension. But many of us can’t do that. The passages trouble us to the point we need some resolution. Not only is our trust in the Bible at stake, but so is our trust in the goodness of God.
There are five options taken by most scholars when it comes to the violent passages in the Bible where God demands certain people be killed. The first is to declare God a genocidal maniac and dismiss the Bible as an archaic relic from the past. The second is to determine that God was not commanding genocide but “sinocide.” He was using Israel to judge various tribes and nations in Canaan for their idolatry, child sacrificing practices and violence. You probably see the irony in the second option! The third is the belief that this was holy war. That Israel was a bunch of recently escaped slaves who did not have a chance against towns that were actually military fortresses. It was not Israel doing the fighting but God on their behalf. A fourth, and similar option was that God was doing the fighting and never intended Israel to use violent means. God himself had planned to “drive” out the Canaanites via non-violent means. When Israel rebelled in the desert, God chose to accommodate to their worldly ways of making room for themselves in Canaan which meant the use of force. The final option is that Israel was made up of ancient people who thought and lived in ancient ways. This included being a part of a tribal culture that was extremely violent. Tribes fought tribes all the time. It was kill or be killed. If you did not destroy another tribes children, those children would grow up to destroy your children. God accommodated himself to reveal what he could of his nature, given their fallen, culturally conditioned worldview.
Regardless of which option makes the most sense to you, there is one thing that is very hopeful. God has revealed himself most clearly in the second member of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ. Jesus shows us the true nature of God hidden from ancient Israel. God is a pacifist by nature. He hates violence. Jesus taught us to avoid using violent means in our personal lives and to go on the offense against our enemies by praying for them and loving them in tangible ways (see Matthew 5).
So how do we read these violent passages? As the product of fallen people who had less light regarding the nature of God than we do in Jesus Christ. Let’s let Jesus interpret the Bible for us through his teachings, lifestyle and his cross. Let’s follow his example in seeking to love our enemies and ask him for the wisdom to know what that looks like.