A God of Violence?
It works like this (and I speak from personal experience). (1) Dial down the passages in question. It wasn’t really a thousand, just a clan. It didn’t really involve killing all the people, just the men. It wasn’t a domestic city, but a fortified city. Basically, it was the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a surgical strike. No civilians died, ever. (2) Place them firmly in their historical context, and explain why such a thing was only appropriate then (and that our naughty God would certainly not lose his temper like that again). The people of this city were the worst people ever, and they would have sacrificed even more children to false gods if the Israelites hadn’t wiped them out, so you can forgive God for judging them, can’t you. More lives were saved than lost, you see. (3) Pivot to Jesus. The images of mangers and lambs do the rest.
As an apologetic strategy, however, not to mention a hermeneutical one, this has its challenges. It turns out that, on careful reading, God kills people throughout the Bible, and not always because they were sacrificing children to Molech at the time. Some of them were just fiddling around with fire (Lev 10:1-2), or touching a box when it looked like it might fall off a cart (2 Sam 6:6-7), or exaggerating their generosity (Acts 5:1-10), or enjoying the plaudits of an audience too much (Acts 12:21-23), and who among us has never done that? So the response only works if people don’t know their Bibles (which, of course, most angry atheists don’t). But what if they do?
Last week, Peter Leithart came to the question with a different approach. The middle paragraph is the crucial one:
No biblical passage endorses “violence,” and there are frequent condemnations of violence (Psalm 7:16; 18:48; 55:9; 58:2; 73:6; 140:1, 4, 11; etc.). Yet, the same God who hates violence threw down fire on Sodom, brought devastating plagues on Egypt, sent Joshua across the river to conquer Canaan, and finally rules with a rod. The biblical writers see no contradiction between a God who laments “the earth is filled with violence” and then decides to stop the violence, “I will destroy them” (Genesis 6:11). Even the church’s first martyr acknowledged the difference. As his murderers fingered their sharp stones and limbered their arms, Stephen preached a sermon that described Moses’s killing of the Egyptian not as an act of violence, but as “defense” and “vengeance for the oppressed” (Acts 7:24).
Put into a more philosophical idiom, the biblical writers imply that intentions, aims, contexts, and results are not extraneous additives to our actions, but constitutive of actions. Our actions are more than their physical components, just as we are more than the matter that makes us. Change the intention, and you change the act. In many cases, if you change the actor, you change the act. A sniper on a battlefield is not a murderer; a sniper in Brooklyn is. Enslavement and exodus are not two forms of violence, one perpetrated by Pharaoh the other by Yahweh, any more than marital sex and adultery are simply variations on the generic physical act of “having sex.”
Dawkins to the contrary, the “ogre” of Israel never acts violently, nor does Jesus. The Judge of the earth does right, and if Jesus carries a rod, it is as the Good Shepherd who strikes the earth to deliver the afflicted and bring justice to the wretched.
As the writer to the Hebrews might have said, this argument is better, because it is founded upon better premises (cf. Heb 8:6). You can read the whole thing here.