The violence described and even commanded in the OT narratives raises numerous challenges for preachers. The material can be viscerally confronting, with descriptions of all sorts of trigger warning worthy events (murder, rape, war, slavery). Sometimes the text is ethically ambiguous, leaving us at sea as to what we are to make of it. And even when we are given a clear moral commentary, this can raise more questions about the character and moral compass of the God being depicted. Apologetical issues come up in almost every chapter. It is difficult to preach on this material without addressing the obvious objection that the God being described is too violent to be worthy of our worship:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control- freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 51.)
Even Christians will struggle with much of this material. It can be difficult to read some of the descriptions of violence within the OT without wondering if this is the same God we know.
Judges is no exception:
- God judges the Northern tribes for making covenants with the Caananites and not destroying the altars: in a sense they are in trouble for not completely wiping them out.
- The judges themselves use deception and violence to defeat the oppressors of Israel, and this is often vividly described (e.g. Ehud, Judges 3:12-30)
- The horrific rape and murder and dismembering of the concubine in Benjamin shows a startling moral degradation and this is passed over with little comment by the narrator (Judges 19).
- The Lord commands Israel to fight against their own brother tribe, Benjamin (Judges 20)
- The congregation of Israel decides to kill the women and children of Jabesh-Gilead except for 400 virgins who are forced to marry the Benjaminites (Judges 21).
Approaches to God’s violence
Christians can take several approaches to the depiction of God as violent in the Old Testament:
- We can reject the depictions of God here as out of keeping with the God revealed in Jesus. Historically this approach was associated with Marcion, but modern commentators such as C. S. Cowles, Eric Seibert and Greg Boyd present more nuanced views based on ideas like accommodation or progressive revelation. These views have in common a hermeneutic centred on the non-violent God revealed in Jesus Christ, which then causes the OT texts to be reevaluated as less than a full revelation of God’s true character.
This approach is to be rejected because it does not do full justice to the complexity of the God who is revealed in Christ: the prince of peace is also the judge of the world. As Miroslav Volf points out, the reason why Christians can embrace nonviolence is precisely because God will judge the world in Jesus Christ. The guy on the cross comes again in Revelation with a big sword. So while we are right to read the violence in the OT through the lens of the cross, this should lead us to conclude that God is anti-violent rather than non-violent: it is not in his nature to destroy, but to redeem. Force is a last resort in order to restrain evil, so that as many as possible may be saved on the day of the Lord.
- We can reinterpret the descriptions of violence to make them less confronting. The biblical account itself alludes to the possibility of God’s enemies surrendering and being saved (e.g. Rahab, or the men from Bethel in Judges 1:25). The emphasis seems to be on the inhabitants being forced to leave (“driven out”) rather than being massacred (Judges 1:33). This is reflected, for instance, in the prohibitions on marrying the inhabitants of the land (who are they marrying if genocide has been carried out?) So what is being described is war, not genocide. Furthermore, some recent studies in comparative literature have revealed that the biblical texts reflect a particular genre of war report which employs hyperbole to describe definitive victory. Some archaeological evidence also suggests that the targets of violence were military forts rather than well populated towns.
What happened in the conquest was a convincing subjugation of the promised land, involving the destruction of key military strongholds, armies, and leadership, along with the driving out of much of the population. Civilians were probably not the targets of the conquest. (Tim Escott, The Violence of God)
This helps clarify that what is being described and what is not being described. However it does not remove the complaint that God is commanding dispossession and, in many cases, violence.
- We can bite the bullet and assert the justice of God’s punishment. Why can’t God use violence as part of judgment? The violence is often portrayed as God’s just judgment rather than simple human bloodthirstiness. “God has repaid me for what I have done”, says Adoni-bezek when his thumbs are cut off (Judges 1:7). God is not violent in his character, he is not like the other gods who delight in human sacrifice. But God is just, and he does confront evil with violence. Meredith Kline, for instance, points out that it is only God’s grace that has held back his final judgment on earth, and so the killing of the Caananites is merely a pulling back of mercy. Everyone gets better than they deserve. This is many ways is the hardest to swallow, but once we have clarified what is and isn’t being described we are left with a basic presuppositional issue: is God allowed to judge the world, give and take life, and determine the course of history? If not, then no explanation will satisfy. This is true, however it can be hard to swallow in light of what we know about God through Jesus.
- We can explain the scope and necessity of the violence in light of the story of God climaxing in Jesus. The Israelites are not given a blank cheque for destroying their enemies. It is important to explain that this is a particular point in history where judgment is being brought on the land, and God’s plans to save the whole world are being enacted. This requires herem (e.g. Judges 1:17): the devotion to destruction, so as to mitigate against the risk of corruption of the pilot project Israel. It’s a matter of national security, but also the worldwide mission: if Israel is contaminated at this stage by false worship and idolatry then they cannot be a light to the world. This is reflected in the judgment on Israel in 2:1-5, where the accusation is that they covenanted with the people rather than driving them out, and did not destroy their infrastructure of toxic idolatry.
Preachers may illustrate the urgent need for purity in the land by pointing to the practice of child sacrifice which eventually would infiltrate Israel’s worship. It is vital to see violence in the context of God’s bigger plan and character, climaxing in the cross. This helps to clarify that this is not indiscriminate violence, or racially based (the Israelites will receive the same treatment at the hands of the Babylonians when they fail God’s covenant) but evidence of a God working through the mess of human history because he will not give up on humanity. Though he does not delight in the death of the wicked, he is not above getting his hands dirty to win back creation.
Specific considerations in Judges
In many ways, Judges illustrates the ‘the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of the settlement’ (Block). The external threat becomes an internal threat, as Israel becomes more and more like the surrounding nations. Two observations can be made about the violence in Judges based on this:
- The book is meant to be horrific. The moral decay of Israel is not celebrated, but illustrates precisely the threat which the warnings against leaving the Caananites in the land were anticipating. Total dismantling of the Caananite civilisation was necessary to protect them against becoming corrupted by the infrastructure of toxic idolatry, and yet they failed. While they worshipped the Lord during Joshua’s lifetime, after his death ‘they worshiped the Baals and abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods from the surrounding peoples and bowed down to them.’ (Judges 2:11-13).
- We must be sensitive to the genre and purposes of the narrator. Hebrew narrative is not always normative. While there is explicit commentary throughout, much of the material is described without a clear judgment. But the point of the book is not usually that Israel’s actions are to be commended! The actions of the judges are often very ethically mixed (e.g. Samson). The grotesque violence in the book is often a symptom of corruption and is certainly not condoned. This culminates in the war against the Benjaminites (Judges 20). What are we, then, to make of the taking of the brides for the Israelites and the cryptic comment: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted.’ (Judges 20:25)
- Tim Escott, The Violence of God (Sydney: Mountain Street Media, 2014)
- Daniel Block, Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999)
- Barry Webb, The Book of Judges, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)
A discussion paper for preachers
Andrew Judd, Ridley College
Andrew Judd is a Pastor at City on a Hill and an ordained Anglican minister. He is married to Stephanie Judd, who is also an Anglican minister and a leader at City on a Hill. When he's not looking after their two small children he works as a Lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley College.