Why does God allow people to commit atrocities in His name?

Q. One thing I really struggle with is the horrible things that people have orchestrated in the name of God.  Offhand I can think of the Crusades and the Jonestown massacre, just to name two. I understand our sinful nature and free will, but why on earth does God, whom I believe is still in charge, allow tragedies to take place that claim to come from God but clearly aren’t? It occurs to me that this makes sharing the gospel a bigger challenge.  Does the Bible provide any clue as to why this occurs?

Your question makes me think of the incident recorded in the gospel of Luke in which, at least according to some early manuscripts, when a Samaritan village refuses its hospitality, James and John ask Jesus, “Do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them, as Elijah did?”  Jesus replies, according to these same manuscripts, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.”  (See the translators’ notes in versions such as the ESV.)

Apparently the most reliable ancient manuscripts don’t contain the reference to Elijah, or any specifics of Jesus’ reply to James and John (they just say that “he rebuked them”).  Bruce Metzger writes in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament that the longer version of the story likely incorporates “glosses derived from some extraneous source, written or oral.”  If that’s the case, they may actually preserve a genuine tradition coming down from Jesus that wasn’t included originally in the gospels.  Alternatively, they may express an early understanding of what Jesus likely said to James and John on this occasion, based on his undisputed statements that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” and that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Either way, the point is that starting with Jesus’ very first disciples, people have mistakenly thought they could and should wreak destruction on others in the name of God.  Jesus’ answer to James and John, however it has come down to us, shows that such people have the wrong spirit; they don’t realize that the mission of Jesus, and thus of his followers, is not to destroy people’s lives, but to save them.

I believe that God doesn’t actively intervene to stop such people for the reason you cited—the free will He has given to us, which allows us to choose loving, gracious, life-giving actions, even as it also permits us, if we choose wrongly, to be destructive.

You’re right that this creates problems for what we might call God’s “image” in the world.  (In biblical terms, it robs him of His glory.)  Certainly if people evaluated God by the worst actions of those who claimed to follow Him, few others would choose to follow.  But I believe the proper response for sincerely concerned followers is to redouble their efforts to bring honor and praise to God through generous, loving actions towards others.  These will correct the misimpression that violent actions create and help people understand what God is truly like.

In other words, rather than expecting God to intervene from heaven to stop people from doing violent actions in His name, we should recognize that God is expecting us to do loving actions in His name that will preserve His reputation in the world and bring Him the glory and honor He deserves.

Why would Jesus tell the disciples to bring swords and then rebuke Peter for using one?

Q. Why do you suppose Jesus would tell the disciples to bring swords, and then they do, and then Peter cuts off someone’s ear, and then Jesus clearly thought that was a dumb move, and heals the guy? It seems like a weird sequence of events.

The events you’re describing happen on the last night of Jesus’ life on earth.  At the Last Supper, he predicts Peter’s denial, and then warns the disciples that the circumstances of their lives and witness are going to change.  He asks them, “When I sent you out to preach the Good News and you did not have money, a traveler’s bag, or an extra pair of sandals, did you need anything?”  When they say “no,” he responds, “But now take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”

It appears that there are some contexts that will be favorable to the life and witness of the community of Jesus’ followers, and in those contexts, it can count on what appears to be spontaneous support as God actually moves in people’s hearts to respond.  (This happens, for example, when Paul proclaims the good news in Thyatira and a woman named Lydia is listening. Luke, who was traveling with Paul at the time, describes what happened:  “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’”

However, there are other contexts that are very unfavorable, indeed hostile, to the life and witness of the community of Jesus’ followers.  In those contexts, it shouldn’t expect the support of outsiders.  It has to supply its own provisions and it also needs to be prepared to defend and protect its members by reasonable means and precautions.

I think it’s significant that when the disciples reply to Jesus at the Last Supper, “Look, Lord, we have two swords among us,” he answers, “That’s enough.”  Many biblical interpreters believe that Jesus is saying it’s all right for the disciples to have some weapons as a deterrent and basic protection in a hostile environment.

However, in the Garden of Gesthemane, Peter moves from defense to offense by attacking first.  He also does this in a situation where the disciples are outnumbered and much less well armed than their opponents.  Jesus rebukes him and heals the man he injured, in order to prevent a bloodbath.

So it appears that while the community of Jesus’ followers can adopt basic protections and precautions, when it encounters an overwhelming force bent on doing harm, its response must not be to fight to the last one standing, but to be willing to accept suffering as the means of continuing its witness.

Dirck van Baburen, “The Arrest of Christ,” depicting the episode in which Peter strikes with his sword.

Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?

Q. Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?  Or is the other point of view correct that says that she lived her life as a virgin and in that sense was sacrificed?

George Elgar Hicks, “The Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter”

Unfortunately Jephthah most likely did sacrifice his daughter after he vowed to make a burnt offering of “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph.”  The author of Judges includes this story as one of several horrific examples of what happened in the days when “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”  These examples support the overall argument of the book, that the people need a king to help ensure that they will know God’s law and follow it.  As I explain further in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth:

* * * * *

It wasn’t unusual for an Israelite who was counting on the LORD to make a vow, as Jephthah does.  This was a promise to acknowledge God publicly when he brought deliverance.  Vows like this are described often in the Psalms, for example, in Psalm 66:  “I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you—vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.”

There would have been nothing wrong with Jepthah’s vow if he had only known the law.  Moses allowed the Israelites to offer anyone or anything they wanted to the LORD in payment of a vow, but it specified that if they dedicated a human being, they had to “redeem” that person by offering the value of their labor instead.  (These regulations are found at the end of the book of Leviticus.)  Jephthah should have paid ten shekels of silver into the LORD’s treasury, rather than sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering.  But by now the Israelites were so used to Baal-worship, which included human sacrifices, that they were actually prepared to offer human sacrifices to the LORD–even though he had expressly forbidden them in the law.  And so Jephthah’s daughter suffers a horrific fate.

* * * * *

After offering this explanation, I then make these further reflections on the story of Jephthah:  “However, apart from his ignorance of the law and these tragic consequences, Jephthah is in other ways an exemplary judge.  He continually acknowledges the LORD as the one who delivered Israel in the past and who should be trusted to do so again.  The narrative says that the ‘Spirit of the LORD’ was on him, and that ‘the LORD gave [the Ammonites] into his hand.’  The book of Hebrews names him as a hero of the faith.”

In light of these observations, I ask these questions in the guide:

• Was Jephthah the best man he could have been, given his nation’s state of spiritual decline?  Or could he have been better?  If so, how?

• What consequences do you see in your own culture of an ignorance of God’s ways?  What activities are accepted, perhaps without question, that God doesn’t want people to practice?

What would you say in response to these questions?

What about the law in the Bible about masters beating their slaves?

Q. An atheist has challenged me about a problem in the Bible that I have been trying to resolve.  In Exodus 21:21 it says about a slave who is beaten by his master, “Notwithstanding, if the slave survives for a day or two, the master shall not be punished: for the slave is his money.” How is this consistent with a compassionate God who wants to protect the weak?  Can you help me with this?

Thanks for your question.  This law in Exodus is one that compassionate people of faith really struggle with, as it seems to suggest on first reading that once masters have paid for slaves, they can do anything with them that they want.  But I believe that the proper way to understand this law is by recognizing that it was originally intended to protect slaves from severe beatings.

Someone asked me about that same law on this blog earlier this year, as one of a number of questions about slavery and the Bible. Here’s what I said in response:

* * * * *

The law in Exodus about beating a slave should not be understood in any way as giving permission to masters to beat their slaves severely, so long as they don’t quite kill them.  For one thing, this law specifies that if a slave dies immediately from a beating, the master must suffer the death penalty, just as in the case of a free person being murdered. The Hebrew says literally, “vengeance shall surely be taken.”  The NIV says that the master “must be punished,” but this is not specific enough; the ESV says that the slave “shall be avenged,” and this is clearer.  The first part of this law provides the same protection for slaves as for free persons, an unusual and perhaps unique piece of legislation among ancient cultures.

The second part of this law says that if the slave does not die immediately, but after a day or two, “he is not to be avenged,” that is, the master does not suffer the death penalty.  The reasoning behind this stipulation is that the slave’s survival for a time suggests that the killing was not intentional. The law of Moses carefully distinguishes between the penalties for murder and manslaughter (that is, for intentional and unintentional killings).  The explanation “for the slave is his money” does not mean that the master has bought and paid for the slave and so can do anything with him that he wants.  Rather, the meaning is that the loss of the price of the slave, a significant sum in the ancient world, punishes the master sufficiently for manslaughter.  The master has, in effect, punished himself.

Even though understanding more about the background and intent of this law can help us recognize that it is designed to protect slaves, not the masters who beat them, it is still a very difficult law for compassionate followers of Jesus to read today in the Bible.

* * * * *

I hope this helps answer your question.  If you have more concerns, please comment on this post and I’ll try to respond to them.

Are the stories of genocide in the Bible actually made-up?

Q.  I saw this review and it made me think of many of the difficult questions you’ve been untangling on your Understanding the Books of the Bible blog. Perhaps you’ll find in it a few more.

The friend who sent me this note was referring to a review by Patrick Allitt of Philip Jenkins’ book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.  I should specify that I haven’t read the book itself, only this review.  But it does indeed raise difficult questions.

According to Allitt, Jenkins insists that “the Bible contains incitements not just to violence but also to genocide.”  He argues that “Christians and Jews should struggle to make sense of these violent texts as a central element of their tradition.”  This, he says, would be much better than past approaches, which have included:

•  Taking the passages about merciless warfare literally and imitating them when the occasion seems to justify, as the Crusaders and conquistadors did.

•  Ignoring the passages, as the Revised Common Lectionary and most preachers do today.  This is equivalent to taking them out of the Bible, as  Marcion wanted to do in the second century.

•  Allegorizing them as metaphorical descriptions of the individual believer’s struggle against sin, as Origen and Augustine did.

•  Arguing that they discredit the God of the Bible, as some Enlightenment figures did and as today’s “new atheists” are doing.

Instead of taking any of these approaches, Jenkins argues, we need to recognize that the biblical stories of divinely commanded genocides are actually a historical fiction made up many centuries after the facts, to encourage Israelites to “live up to the rigors of monotheism” by having nothing to do with the gods of the surrounding nations.  The biblical authors were “‘telling a story and at every possible stage heightening the degree of contrast and separation between Israel and those other nations,’ not for the sake of historical accuracy but to send a spiritual message to their own people.”

Jenkins, citing archaeological evidence that “the Hebrews coexisted with many other peoples in the Canaan of the 12th century B.C.,” is convinced that  “the pitiless massacres in question almost certainly did not take place.”  So “perhaps,” he concludes, “the later commentators, Jewish and Christian, were not that misguided in seeing the massacres in allegorical terms.”  “Israel had to kill its inner Canaanite.”

This is a very attractive proposal, because the biblical stories of genocide are so disturbing.  It would be a great relief to think that they never really happened.  However, I do have some concerns about this proposal, at least as it’s summarized in this review.

As I understand the Bible, it’s the written record of God’s initiatives throughout history to bring humanity back to himself.  I allow that the recounting of this history, like all historiography we do on this earth, was necessarily shaped and limited by the sources available to the human authors of the Bible.  In it we may encounter multiple perspectives on the same events.  But this is very different from saying that the biblical authors, in telling their story, deliberately altered events as they were known to them from the historical record.

We shouldn’t have to read the Bible with a built-in skepticism about what it says happened.  We may sometimes get slightly varying accounts of how, and there are often questions of why, but in general we are supposed to trust that we are hearing an overall narrative of what God has actually done in human history.

So I would take a different approach to the violent stories in question.  I would accept that they actually did happen.  (Even if there is archaeological evidence of co-existence with Canaanites in ancient Israel, this is no more than the Bible itself says:  Joshua’s campaigns were against the fortified royal cities of the region; when these were subdued, Joshua gave the individual tribes the task of conquering the Canaanites remaining in their allotments, and in many cases they chose to co-exist with them instead.)  But I do not believe that followers of Jesus should consider these stories a “central element” (admittedly Allitt’s phrase) of their tradition.

Quite the opposite.  I see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible.  The challenge is not to see how we can incorporate them into the heart of our faith and practice (as epitomizing the struggle against sin, for example), but rather to see whether we can somehow account for them without losing our faith.

I talk about how we might do this in this post, in which I argue that “Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.  Jesus taught that we should love even our enemies, and that we should show mercy to others so that we will receive mercy ourselves.  He died to save people who were, at the time, his own enemies.  So his life and teachings show that judgments of total destruction, like the one described here, are “exceptional.”

The question then becomes, “Why did exceptional events like this occur as the Israelites took possession of Canaan?”  This is, as I also say, “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.”  It does not have a simple, easy solution.

But I would suggest that if we did abandon the God of the Bible because we found these violent episodes impossible to reconcile with the biblical presentation of God as essentially loving and merciful, then we would also be abandoning that loving, merciful God in the process.

I think it’s better to take as our bottom line John’s statement that “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”  If we want to know what God is really like, we can look to Jesus.  This is the “made him known” part The challenging questions that remain then have to do with the “no one has ever seen God” part, and we can hope that they will finally be resolved once we do see God.

Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 1)

Q. Peter clearly states in his second letter that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  Several statements in the Bible that seem to be contrary to this don’t make sense to me.  Two examples are Joshua 11:20, “The Lord hardened their hearts . . . that they might receive no mercy,” and John 12:40, “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn, and I would heal them.”   Wouldn’t God want to make it easier for all of us to get to Him?  So why would God discourage some people from believing or make it harder for them than for others?  Related to this is the way people or nations had their hearts hardened so that God could demonstrate his power. Pharaoh seemed ready to let the Israelites go, but instead God hardened his heart and the plagues came, including death to all the first born. 

Thank you for these excellent questions.  I’ll take some time to answer them.  In this post I’ll talk about the reference in Joshua to God hardening hearts and showing no mercy.  In my next post I’ll take up the passage you cite from John.  And in a final post I’ll look at the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

The question of people and nations being hardened, so that they are destroyed rather than saved, comes up several times (quite understandably) in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.  As I tell groups when they first read through Joshua, “This aspect of the book . . . creates one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.” So let me begin answering your question by sharing what I say about it in the Joshua study guide.  I’ll take up the passages you cite from John and Exodus in subsequent posts.

In Session 4 of the guide, when groups consider the destruction of the city of Jericho, when no one is spared except Rahab and her family, I offer these observations:

Esteban March, "Joshua at the Walls of Jericho"
Esteban March, “Joshua at the Walls of Jericho”

“The Bible sometimes describes judgments of total destruction like this, but at other times God’s judgments are limited and tempered by mercy.  The challenge for readers of the Bible is to determine which kinds of episodes are normative and which ones are exceptional, and why those occurred.

Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.

Jesus taught that we should love even our enemies, and that we should show mercy to others so that we will receive mercy ourselves.  He died to save people who were, at the time, his own enemies.  So his life and teachings show that judgments of total destruction, like the one described here, are exceptional.  So why did exceptional events like this occur as the Israelites took possession of Canaan?

“This is a question that thoughtful interpreters have offered different answers to, but here is one possibility to consider.  It may be that God had determined that Canaanite society had become so corrupt that it couldn’t be redeemed.  This society was particularly violent, oppressive, and degraded.  . . .  If this society was never going to change, then it had to answer the demands of justice.  Moreover, if the Israelites imitated the Canaanites, they’d rapidly be corrupted themselves.  So their influence had to be removed completely.

As God had earlier used flood and fire to purge away irredeemably wicked societies from the earth, now God chose to use the Israelite armies for this purpose.  This was not an ordinary war; these armies were on special assignment as agents of divine judgment.  This is why, in the case of the opening battle of Jericho, the soldiers weren’t allowed to take any plunder.”

I then invite groups to interact with these comments, to say whether they think they might be on the right track, even if they don’t completely agree with them, or whether they’d account for episodes like this one in some other way.

Then, in Session 7, groups take up the part of Joshua that summarizes the conquest of the nations living in Canaan. There we find the statement that you asked about:  “It was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy.”  When we read this statement on its own, it does sound as if God wanted all the Canaanites to perish, in direct contradiction to what Peter writes.  But we need to understand this statement in its context.  I suggest the following in the Joshua study guide:

“The author’s primary concern here is to document that Joshua faithfully carried out what ‘the LORD commanded Moses.’  Canaanite culture was so corrupt and oppressive that God didn’t want it to supply any part of the model on which the new Israelite society would be built.  But this meant that Canaanite influence had to be completely eliminated.

So God led the Canaanites ‘to wage war against Israel so that he’—Joshua—’might destroy them totally . . . as the LORD had commanded Moses.’  The fundamental goal is the complete removal of the corrupting Canaanite influence, so that a new society can be built on God’s laws, as a model for the rest of the world.  Everything else–the hardening, the war, and the destruction–follows from that.”

If this is the case, then paradoxically the indirect but ultimate goal here is to make it possible for people to follow God, not to prevent them from doing so.  And so, as I observe further:

“If the ultimate goal is to make it possible for the Israelites to model God’s ways for the rest of the world, then it’s consistent with that goal for some people outside Israel, at any point, to choose in favor of God.  But this means that the hardening must have been general, on the Canaanites as a whole, and not specific, in each one of their individual hearts.  (The text uses the collective singular: ‘It was from the LORD to harden their heart.’)  To seek the God of Israel, an individual person or city would have to make a choice contrary to what everyone around them wanted to do.  In this culture of corporate identity, this would not have been easy.  But as the cases of Rahab and the Gibeonites show, it wasn’t impossible.”

Indeed, if we understand the episodes of total destruction in the book of Joshua by analogy to the judgment of the flood, then only the earthly destiny of the Canaanites was at stake, not their eternal destiny.  In an earlier post I’ve explored the biblical statement (also by Peter) that Jesus went and preached to the imprisoned spirits who perished “in the days of Noah.”  This is only speculative, I must emphasize, but it’s possible that the spirits of those who perished “in the days of Joshua” might also have been “imprisoned,” awaiting a proclamation of the gospel that they could understand from Jesus himself.