Genocide and other moral problems with the Old Testament

Excuse me if this may have been discussed before but it is something that bothers me and may feel concern others.

On social media I have been coming across attacks of atheists on the Bible, particularly with reference to the Old Testament that certain writings and laws may by today’s standards be considered as immoral and that blights the character of God and His revelation. God appears in some places to command or sanction the deaths of pagans and even wiping them out (today considered as Genocide). One could add to this stoning to death and slavery. Are we our age more moral than God for thinking these things are evil? And how can a good and merciful God have commanded such things in the first place? (if indeed God did).

Is the answer that revelation has been in some progressive but not reflected in the mosaic of the OT documents etc.


A lot of people struggle with these types of questions. I don’t know the answer, but I know the approach of some (such as Pete Enns) has been to see the Old Testament as the Israelites’ best attempt for their time and place to make sense of God. But they were still only human and wrote from a human perspective with human desires (such as superiority over others). One of the big struggles I have with OT genocide is when you try to pair it with the idea of an “inerrant” Bible, at least in the modern evangelical sense of inerrancy. Letting go of inerrancy might help some to read ancient writings in context rather than trying to force them to be “relevant” for our time in ways they were not intended to be. Of course, none of that really “solves” the whole “problem of evil,” which a lot of these discussions circle back to, but it’s helped me anyway.


Many of the wars and stories are simply not true. Some that are were most likely written after the fact by the men who went to war.

It’s easy to look back at the barbarians of the past and harder to imagine how we will be viewed by those in the future. For example, in a few thousand years they may look back at factory farms and eating meat in the same way we look back at slavery. They may wonder why did we use so much plastic and think plastic is evil. Remember, we could all choose to basically stop using it right now if we wanted to for many things. But we don’t. Despite knowing it’s bad for the planet.

So take the flood. We know it never happened. We can be pretty sure God did not actually destroy Sodom. There was not millions of Jewish slaves under the Egypt and so they were never set free and therefore God never killed the first born. War has existed before we even evolved. Look at ants. They have civilizations that go to war. Perhaps in the future we will have a better way. That better way may still be considered horrific in several more thousands years after that.


One initial point I’d recommend you observe, is that these atheists that claim that the actions of a deity are immoral have their own problem: That is, they are tacitly acknowledging the existance of an absolute, objective, universal moral code that is so binding and overarching over all of reality that even the Christian God must be subject to it. It is an odd position for anyone espousing atheism to embrace - the existence of a universal and absolute morality that exists even independent of matter/energy and would even bind a creator if one so existed. By simply raising this objection, they are giving away their materialism.

As to the specifics in the Bible, there are indeed challenging questions, however, one thing that helps me put it into perspective is the simple realization that (from God’s perspective), every human life is in his hand, and he has determined the cause of death of every single human life. If we “blame” him for a death that came about due to a command he gave to the ancient Israelites, do we not have to similarly blame him for every death that ever happened under his dominion whatsoever? Every heart attack, every birth defect, every natural disaster, every accident every combat related death (whether from a holy war or no)?

Rather, I feel great confidence in simply acknowledging that God, as the author and authority over all life and death, has every right to take any human life at any time he so chooses, he has no obligation to give to any single one of us another breath. So from his perspective, I don’t see that categorical a difference between him taking one life through an accident, another through a natural disaster, another through a medical condition, another through a war, another through a capital punishment that he imposed in the Old Testament, or another through a holy war that he similarly commanded in the Old Testament.

A similar observation, and I hope it doesn’t sound trite or callous, is simply that every single one of those people that were killed in the ways you described in the OT were already going to die anyway… none of them would be alive now… Now this is hardly a justification for us, as humans, to ever take a life against God’s commands of someone created in his image, or to commit atrocities on the basis of, “Well, they were going to die anyway…” but if we’re talking about God’s right to take a life (not our right to do so), then I think this is in fact relevant. All those people that God decreed to die through those commands, if he had not so commanded, it was the same God who would have ordained for them to have died in other ways.

Slavery issue is similarly complicated, but I would observe that as harsh a reality as it certainly was even in biblical times, there were still categorical differences between the race-based chattel slavery that was part of recent history, and that of what we find in the Bible - Israelites where slaves were set free every number of years, or even that of the Roman empire / New Testament wherein slaves could achieve their freedom in various ways. And honestly, it is hard for me to conceive of many different societal arrangements for ancient nomadic tribes that wasn’t essentially feudal (which similarly resembles slavery from our modern perspective), wherein one was either a serf/indentured servant or the land/crop/herd owner.


I mean it’s basically chattel slavery. They conquered lands, killed the men and kids but let the virgin women alive who then was turned into a concubine by the men who killed their dads, brothers and cousins.

Also, atheism does not mean morality can’t be socially accepted. Regardless if it’s “absolute” or “universal” they will still argue we know slavery is wrong. Atheism tends to think slavery is more wrong than the bulk of religious systems. Alien slaves also had different, less considering, laws than for Jewish slaves.


You are assuming that the ability to judge morality requires an objective morality. A subjective morality based on the wants and needs of human beings works perfectly fine here.

In the atheist view, people aren’t following the edicts of a deity. The morality of the Bible is a product of the people and culture of that time and place. So yes, the atheist can judge those moral codes in the very same way they would judge any moral code created by any human culture.

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This isn’t going to be helpful but we find similar stuff in the New Testament. Annanias and Sapphira, the destruction of the Temple being cast as God’s judgment (this was a brutal war: starvations, hundreds plus crucified daily during the siege, probably hundreds of thousands killed and 100,000!slaves), The bloody stained Jesus on the war-horse in Revelation is there as well.

Violence in the Bible is a problem for a lot of us Christians today. This may be good or bad news, depending on your ideology, but most of this stuff didn’t happen as the Bible records it. Christians have trouble with this but I think it’s easier to dispense with inerrancy than to see God as a murderer and rapist. At least for me this is true. Many Christians are more afraid of a contradiction in the Bible than God commanding genocide. This should not be the case and it disturbs me that it is.

I try to focus on the person, teachings, character and life of Jesus including His sacrificial death. I worship and follow Jesus, not the Bible or all its stories. I try to learn from all the stories but sometimes the lesson is “don’t do this.”

There is no shortage of ammunition for atheists plucking from the Bible.

Whether true or not (probably true), does anyone care? People don’t feel like they need to justify why rape is wrong. It seems self-evidently true and that is good enough for most people. They are starting there because everyone (who isn’t a lunatic) agrees. Your response doesn’t help anyone but the 0.0001% of people who are philosophers worrying about such a thing. People can be justified in believing things without being able to prove why.

Not to mention as Christians we subjectively believe we have an objective standard. But we can’t agree on interpreting it. There are many takes on the OT: Boyd, Copan, Enns, Sparks, Walton etc., and they are all over the place,

Not to mention that anyone can offer a reductio as absurd argument against Christianity on this front. They don’t have to assume they have an objective moral standard. They can simply show how divine violence seems incompatible with the words of Jesus and other parts of the Bible.

Plus what Christians have deemed moral has changed so much on many issues (e.g. slavery and women) over time, we cannot even claim to have an objective standard. God is it for sure but we can’t often agree on what God is saying.

The moral argument is fine to start a conversation but using it to defend specific violence in the OT doesn’t seem very practical. It’s not going to convince people who just want to know why this loving God we are pitching to them condones rape. Surely, “you don’t have an objective moral standard” is not going far in response.

The morality of the Bible is that but it may very well be more. It is more to Christians and Jew. If God actually inspired texts and intervened the Bible can contain both human morality and God’s morality given in a specific time and culture. But on many of these passages I would agree they look like what is to be expected in a time with a lot of warfare.

He is asking what standard is used to judge moral actions? Surely “murdering babies or not” isn’t just an opinion piece like what tastes better “Pepsi or Coke.” If it is, how sad for atheism. I don’t have the pride to think I have direct access and perfect interpretation of an objective moral standard or that it is synonymous with my views, but I certainly believe in one.

And attempting to interpret a source of objective morality is preferably to me than being driftwood.

Atheism can’t account for the value of life and moral certitude most of us give to things. It doesn’t work as a worldview and when push really comes to shove on many of these issues, it doesn’t have any legs to stand on.

I do appreciate how Tremper Longman sees this episode as an intrusion of end time ethics. It’s also important to note that when an Israelite acted like a Caananite, they were cutoff, and when a Caananite acted like an Israelite, they were saved.

It was actually this explanation from Longman that led me to pickup his book on OT controversies, and it in turn introduced me to his reasonably evangelical view of theistic evolution. By the time I finished the chapter, I considered myself a theisitic evolutionist. Longman had a great quote on God’s providence from the book of Ruth which he related to theistic evolution.


Except for any teachings of Jesus that you disagree with… including apparently his casting the destruction of the Temple as God’s judgment?

But good observation about moral argument - I would never suggest it “answers” the questions that were raised in the original post, and I’d agree it would be evasive to use that and not also try to answer the actual question… but I would maintain it is worth asking to those atheists who ask… I personally have found it very thought provoking to the questioners and it has proven to have some atheists further pursue the question about the reality of God… when I have been asked about such challenging topics in the past, it has proven very thought provoking to both the questioner and anyone else when I respond with something like, “So, in asking that question, can I quickly ask - you’re saying that you do believe in an overarching, absolute morality that is so universal that even the Christian God, if he existed, would be subject to?”

Figuring out what Jesus taught and how the evangelists edited things to their purposes is a difficult task. I believe Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple but Mark writes 65-75 when these events are in process. Whether or not the Markan framework is correct or fully goes back to Jesus is another matter. Mark 13 is not easy to interpret canonically or historically. But it teaches God’s judgment:

“Basically the discourse is about God’s judgment on Jerusalem, on the temple, and on the Jewish leaders, and only after that (when the Son of Man returns), on the world. It is thus primarily not about the end of the world, but the end of a world - the world of early Judaism as a temple-centered faith.” – Ben Witherington The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary

We find an interesting parallel to the coming destruction of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8–9.50 There the sins and “abominations” of Israel are described as the cause of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 b.c. The profaning of the temple is not seen as a future action of the nation of Babylon and king Nebuchadnezzar but rather as due to Israel’s abominable acts. These included massive idolatry (8:1-6); the worship of animals (8:7-13); the worship of Tammuz, the Mesopotamian god of vegetation (8:14-15); and murder and injustice (9:9). Far from being the cause of the abominations occurring in the temple, the Babylonians would be God’s instrument of judgment against Israel’s abominations. Jesus likewise prophesied to the people of Israel that the temple would be destroyed because of their sins, which included profaning the temple (Mk 11:15-17), rejecting the coming of God’s Son (12:1-12), ignoring the coming of the Son of God and their day of visitation (Mt 23:37/Lk 13:34), making life difficult for the people (Mt 23:4), religious chicanery and concentrating on religious trivia while ignoring justice and mercy (Mt 23:23), religious hypocrisy (Mt 23:25-28), and so on. In 587 b.c. it was not a foreign nation that profaned the temple, but Israel. Likewise in a.d. 70 it would not be a foreign nation that would profane the temple, but Israel again. Furthermore, just as Babylonia in the former in- stance served as God’s instrument of judgment in destroying Jerusalem and the temple, so Rome would be God’s instrument in the latter instance. Stein, Jesus and the Temple

The rape, famines, mothers eating their children per Josephus, suffering, death and torturous crucifixions of the 1st Roman Jewish war were horrendous, Plus the siege happened shortly before Passover which mean an influx of visitors. Rome was strategic. Let them in and surround the city. More mouths to feed = quicker starvation.

But yes, in light of the horrors of what actually happened during the Roman-Jewish war, Mark presenting Jesus as casting it as God’s judgment is very difficult for modern sensibilities. It’s akin to saying God caused the holocaust. These are things which don’t seem to match up with “God loves us so much he died for us.” Things like love your enemies and the Good Samaritan are a far cry from this. The NT has its own divine violence which many commentators seem to ignore.

For all I know, Mark may be trying to rationalize the senseless brutality that occurred (or is about to occur) anyway he can. Or maybe this view was Jesus’ which is a tough thought.


No they aren’t.

They could be basing their judgement of immorality on their own personal moral code. They could be referring to one or more of the many moral codes and principles that have been developed throughout history, some of which are objective. They could be basing that judgement on the moral code(s) espoused by those who champion God(s) rather than on their own, or on (one of) the supposed absolute objective universal moral code(s) some theists insist exist. They may recognise that moral codes are voluntary rather than binding, societal rather than universal, and exist only as concepts that cannot exist without people to formulate them and hence do not cover all of reality.

So you are one of those slavery apologists who talks only about Israelite slaves in the OT, and ignores the non- Israelite slaves who were not set free every few years and who were subjected to race-based chattel slavery.

Yes they are… :wink:

Sure, they can say, “According to my own moral code, God doing such and such is unjust… but of course, he has no requirement to abide or submit to my own moral code, developed as it is by my own society, of which he isn’t a part… and of course he has the same right to develop his own moral code just as my society developed ours, so really he isn’t unjust or immoral in any meaningful sense, except that he doesn’t align to the moral code a certain group of humans developed at one point in their history…”

But then this loses any meaningful critique.

If they want to say that God is (categorially, absolutely) immoral by commanding such and such, then they must post an eternal, absolute, objective morality, one so overarching that even non-human entities that are in no way bound or connected to our particular society must also be bound by.

Put simply, no, I’m not. but one can’t say everything in a single post. However I’d happily discuss that as well if interesting. But in short, given that culture and society, permanent POW status might have been preferable after combat than simply slaughtering all POWs (though granted, the slaughter of all enemies was occasionally done as well, I wouldn’t want you to accuse me of leaving out some relevant facts! :slight_smile: ). But I’d also observe, it is a bit complicated - Israelite society often recognized people as being foreign or native based on religious commitments, not based on “race”.

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I would say that even the modern people may perfectly well understand what the divine judgment is - it is to be left to one’s own devices and their unfortunate consequences. That’s what happens with the individuals and with the entire communities. Surely, the innocent suffer in the latter case. But God allows the created world - both nature and human history) - to develop consistently, according to its own inherent logic. Therefore, God doesn’t often intervene to stop people who organize extermination camps and the like. What we’ve got is the promise that all these calamities will come to an end someday. In the meanwhile, the creative Logos of God partakes in human suffering that he doesn’t prevent.

As for the direct divine orders to kill, to exterminate, and so forth - well, there are such passages in the Old Testament. Why have the Old Testament prophets perceived what they have perceived? The modern scholars may make a lot of conjectures, but nobody can know for sure. What’s more important - Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, and he has not given us any such orders.

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Very thoughtful and insightful reply. One of my biggest critiques and complaints (which you were careful NOT to do, I should emphasize), is when someone says (essentially), "All the things recorded in the Scripture that Jesus said that I agree with or approve, those are the things he really said… All those things that Scripture quotes Jesus as saying that I disapprove of, well, those are clearly things that the evangelists wrongly put into Jesus’ mouth…

What I so appreciate about your thoughts here is that I think it highlighted the difference I find, philosophically, between my own world view and approach to religion, and what seems to be the view of the vast majority of participants here.

Your challenge seems to be (and please correct me if I am misunderstanding or misconstruing what you wrote): If Jesus really did say or believe this about the sack of Jerusalem being God’s judgment, this is a “tough thought…”, given my modern sensibilities… I’m not sure how to embrace what he said and maintain my modern sensibilities.

For me, my perspecive is more of “if this view was Jesus’ then so much for modern sensibilities.”

That said, I’m not blind to the importance of rightly understanding, determining, and understanding what Jesus said to make sure we understand his words and teaching correctly, and of course we use our understanding of right & wrong, our logic and rationality, so I’m not discounting the importance of wrestling with Scripture in those times when something doesn’t “seem right.” But I feel like I categorically differ with most people here (and you can correct me if you think otherwise, I’d genuinely appreciate your thoughts): in that, I don’t feel like I have any need, pressure, or inclination whatsoever to make sure Christ’s teaching aligns with “modern sensbilities.” I want to be faithful to be sure to be accurate in understand what Jesus (and God through Scripture) has actually said… but I feel no inclination or hope to see his teaching align with modern sensibilities.

Hence, if I determine that Jesus’ teaching about punishment, or final judgment (or hell, or whatever) conflicts with modern sensibiltiies, I could care less. I think this benefits me (and again I’d appreciate your critique), in that I don’t have an agena or motivation to interpret Scripture, or Christ’s words, with the hope to find that they align with modern sensibilities.


In other words (and this may be overstating or oversimplifying, again, I’m defering to your further critique)… based on what you wrote above…

It seems to me that I start with Jesus’ teaching as my baseline on understanding right & wrong, and use that as my filter on which to judge modern sensibilities,

Whereas based on what you wrote above, it appears to me that your starting point / baseline on right and wrong are the modern sensibilities, and you use that as your filter to interpret Scripture?

Whether or not that is in fact accurate to you, this is my impression of the perspective which seems to be the majority of participants here on this page. Would appreciate your further thoughts.

Correct, he didn’t tell us to go and destroy our enemies, he promised he’d do it himself…

Technically (although that doesn’t make the problem less of an issue) it is not genocide. For example, Achan’s whole family (including his animals) is killed for his sin. So herem warfare is applied to those acting against God’s purpose, whether they are Israelite or not. And the actions of head of the family / state would decide the fate of the whole group.

I like this article. (Although I don’t agree with his take on Jezebel’s children being innocent. In the context of Revelation 2 “children” probably means “followers.” But this doesn’t influence his argument.)

It is not about race. Israelites and their neighbours, e.g. the Edomites, would have had the same skin colour. “ethnicity-based” would be more accurate.

I can think of two reasons for this, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

  1. The Israelites belonged to Yahweh, so no one could enslave an Israelite forever.
  2. Every Israelite “owned” land to which he could return after his period of servitude. (Yahweh owned the land but had distributed it to the Israelite tribes.) Foreign slaves didn’t own land, so if they were to be released it would be hard to sustain themselves.

Atheists also understand that Christians and Jews think there is more than just human morality in the Old Testament. We also understand that both atheists and Christians share the same inner sense of morality, and we both find it an important part of determining morality.

The question that we atheists often face is how we can judge the morality of God without believing in God. That is the question I was trying to answer.

A subjective morality is based on the most important part of being human, our wants and needs in this world. If an objective morality went against everything humans believed about morality, then what good is an objective morality? Morality only makes sense when it is based on the human condition which is inherently subjective.

I don’t want to take over this thread with another discussion of objective v. subjective morality (unless that is what others want). If you want to get my view on things there are a couple of blogs that do a good job of explaining where I am coming from.

Good observation - and as others have observed, those who converted and joined the faith of the Israelites were welcomed into the family of God’s people regardless of their ethnic/racial background.

True and relevant - I’ve often thought of the foreign slaves (generally taken through warfare) as essentially being POWs. Releasing them would have not only been an issue due to the lack of owned land, but also created the danger of them returning to a state of active warfare.

Henry V was criticized (including by those in his own army) for ordering the execution of the numerous prisoners that his soldiers had taken at Agincourt. For right or wrong, his decision wasn’t based on a bloodlust or the like, but a tangible fear that, with another wave of the French Army coming on him, that his numerous prisoners would have been able to rejoin the French efforts.

But there is enough hints that foreign slaves who converted and joined the passover and underwent circumcision (and thus were no longer a danger of being released only to swell the ranks of enemy armies) may well have been treated as fellow Israelites, not entirely unlike Rahab and family or Ruth.


A subjective morality based on the wants and needs of human beings cannot judge a deity’s morality any more than it could judge, in any meaningful way, the actions of alien life that had evolved an entirely different biological and sociological sense of morality… if we discovered an conscious, sentient alien life that ate half of their offspring, on what basis could a human, subjective morality based on the wants and needs of human beings be used to judge their behavior as “wrong”?

We could at most say, “We don’t like that, and it would be bad if we did that in our society… but who are we to judge what these aliens do according to their own needs and wants according to their own evolved biology and sociology?”

If we couldn’t judge an alien life form’s morality based on human-based morality, on what basis could we stand in judgment and determine a deity’s purported actions are “right” or “wrong” based on human-invented morality?