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A genocidal God?

May 12, 2010

At Vox-Nova there have been several very interesting conversation on violence in the Old Testament and God’s apparent command to the Israelites to commit genocide.

Referencing 1 Sam 15, fellow EC blogger Kyle Cupp, posted his view that moral reason and Christian conception of God deny the possibility of God having commanded genocide. Nevertheless he wished to maintain the inerrancy of the Bible. He explains:

“I am not saying is that Bible is a perverse book or that we worship a perverse God. I’m not saying that God didn’t have a reason for having the statement in the Bible or that he didn’t have a reason for having the imperative attributed to him. I’m not saying that the author of Samuel is acting perversely or in error in his task as a sacred writer. Nor am I saying that God is acting perversely or in error by having perverse statements in the Sacred Scriptures. I am not denying or undermining the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, though, of course, what I say speaks to how I understand inerrancy. I affirm that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation,” but my affirmation doesn’t preclude me from recognizing cultural and even barbaric cultural influences upon those same scriptures. The Bible chronicles salvation history, and there’s not a little perversity in that story.”

Others responding to him seemed intent on protect the inerrancy of the literal sense of the Bible. God did indeed command genocide, but that’s okay he alone has authority over life and death. There is little or no moral difference between God allowing countless deaths via miscarriage and his commanding Israel to commit genocide against the Amalekites, especially considering this was done to preserve the spiritual purity of the Jews and enable God to eventually bring forth Christ from their community.

Nathan O’ Halloran offered another perspective:

The so-called “Historical Books” from Joshua – 2 Kings are more commonly known to scholars as the “Former Prophets.”  The reason they are called prophetic books is because they are basically an unpacking of the book of Deuteronomy and its main message: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.”  In other words, the Deuteronomistic author wrote them in order to explain to the Israel of his time what happens when God is disobeyed.  They are prophetic more than they are historical.  1 Samuel 15 is not about telling a story from the past, but speaking a word to the present, using a well-known story from the past. These books “speak God’s word” through a series of historical tidbits, legends, stories, tales, etc.  Some might be historical, others are clearly legends, and others morality tales.

In this sense, the “literal” meaning of a story like 1 Samuel 15 would be the prophetic message that it embodies.  Who knows whether or not this event actually happened.  However, whether or not it did, the message is clear: Amalek must be destroyed.  Now, according to the legends of ancient Israel, Amalek had taken on a meaning far great than that of a particular nation.  Amalek represented evil, and the enemies of God’s people.  This goes back to the story in Exodus 17.  Amalek opposes Israel’s journey when God is leading them out of slavery.

… Amalek is a symbol in a prophetic history of Israel.  And we must read the intention of the author to be to use Amalek as a symbolic character in order to make a point.

This is the interpretation that I prefer, and I belief it is faithful to a proper literal reading of Scripture.  If the true literal meaning according to a proper identification of the genre of 1 Samuel 15 is as “symbolic prophetic history,” then the intention of the author is simply to use the nation of Amalek as a symbol of God’s incompatibility with evil.  Israel also cannot now (at the time of the author) go about making alliances with Egypt and Babylon and still think it is being faithful to the plan of God.

I tend to lean more toward Kyle and Nathan’s approach, but I am still wrestling with this. However, I would like to offer a few thoughts in reflection.

We can’t merely place this on their ancient context. “Genocide was just the way things were done back then, etc.” Christians were involved in both the NAzi’s attempted genocide of the Jews and settlers’ attempted genocide of the Native Americans. We (our time and culture) are no better in this regard than that of ancient Israel.

Reading passages like this as mere allegory seem to require a, perhaps unconscious, but nevertheless real suppression of the literal sense of the text.

This particular passage, 1 Sam 15, is not generally where scholars go to address questions of Genocide, those happen in Joshua, this text seems to be generally seen as an account which revelatory about Saul rather than about God. It attempts to show that Saul, because he is disobedient and willing to kill innocents (1 Sam 21-22), is unworthy to be king, and is therefore a nod toward the Davidic kingdom.

I think we need to be careful about discussing inerrancy, which has an important place in magisterial texts prior to VCII, but is curiously absent from Dei Verbum. DV says that “he books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation,” but it does not teach that the texts are inerrant in faith and morals. Furthermore, verification of error generally requires some sort of empirical fact check. This simply cannot be done in regard to the Bible. There is a Truth which is taught without error in the Scriptures, but what that is precisely is left unanswered by the Council. This does not seem to support to semi-fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy which is often put forth. For example, in 1 Sam 15:11 God tells Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king,” but in verse 29, Samuel says to Saul “The Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal that he should change his mind.” In Hebrew, the words for “regret” and “change his mind” are the same word. Clearly we must be cautious in how understand inerrancy and in how we draw grand theological ideas from these complex texts.

In conclusion, it seems to me we, myself included, need to be much more humble when approaching the Sacred Page. We ought not assume to know have God and the Scriptures fit comfortably within out theological system. I cannot completely or accurately place my wife, son, or best of friends, or random strangers into any given system. Why should I suspect God to fit into any of theological boxes? . It is so much easier to conceive of a tame and domesticated God that fits neatly into our lives and moral values. We can thus read the Bible according to this understanding of God and the Scriptures, and find ourselves and our understanding reaffirmed. But I do not think there is any such God, or that Scripture can be read this way. Hebrews tells us that it “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow” (Heb 4:12). We must approach it prayerfully and with great humility, with an open mind willing to allow the God of all creation to some about us to ourselves and something about Himself to us.


  1. May 13, 2010 2:22 pm

    We must be careful when discussing inerrancy? I second that, third that with the other hand and bang both on the table for emphasis!

    During the Second Vatican Council, one Council Father, namely Franz Cardinal Koenig, read a list of Biblical “errors” and declared that scripture is not inerrant. That his argument had the impact that it did on the Council Fathers – preventing them from being able to unanimously approve of language that would affirm Biblical inerrancy in the same strong language that it had been affirmed in prior Church documents shows that those men had not, individually, in the course of their lives, their study, their walk of faith, come to terms with passages such as those. They did what almost everyone else does with them – they intellectually shelved them and ignored the collection on that shelf. It only took someone drawing their attention to its contents in detail, forcing them to examine item after item, to really shake the faith of some of these men.

    I had an experience like that when I was in my first year of college. I wasn’t a Cardinal, ensconced in wealth, power and position, so I lacked some of the motivation that those men had to continue to act like a believer after my faith was shaken. From the data of apparent errors, I assumed the presence of actual error, rejected inerrancy, and with it, the only authority that I at that time accepted for the essentials of my faith. I no longer had any reason to consider myself a Christian. Those men could not have considered themselves at similar liberty, so they must have struggled to hold on to as much of their faith as they could, or at least act like it.

    What I find remarkable is this – even though many of the Council Fathers were at that point convinced that the doctrine of inerrancy was a false, that conviction did not find its way into the Conciliar documents. The weak way that inerrancy is affirmed in Dei Verbum is still an affirmation, and not a denial of anything affirmed by Popes and Councils prior to Vatican II.

    Here is how things stand now – the Church has always affirmed inerrancy and has done so infallibly. In the past it did so in the strongest terms. When it did so in those terms, it did it infallibly. In the most recent council, the faith of many of the Fathers was shakem but the Holy Spirit did not allow that to result in a statement in Dei Verbum that would contradict any of the strongly worded prior affirmations of biblical inerrancy.

    Logically, if a strongly worded proposition P1 is affirmed as true, and then a later proposition, p2, a weaker version of P1, is put forward, we can confirm p2 in light of the truth of P1. But the weakness of p2 does not weaken P1. P1 is still just as true in its entirety as it ever was. Logically, it is just not the case that p2 implies P1 Light (which, strictly logically, is Not-P1).

    The weak statement in Dei Verbum does not blunt the atrong affirmations declared by previous councils and encyclicals in which the Pope was teaching under the charism of infallibility. Catholics are not permitted to re-examine and weaken the force of the doctrine of inerrancy taught for millennia based on a weak affirmation in a recent council. To do so would not only be a lapse of faith, but a lapse of logic.

    We should be careful when discussing inerrancy, because we do not have all the answers to all the questions and all the solutions to all the problems. A list of apparent errors can get very long, especially if one is inclined to read scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion, in which anything that looks even remotely questionable is assumed to be error, instead of with a hermeneutic of charity in which the author of ancient text is given the benefit of the doubt whenever possible (which is necessary, but not sufficient, for the greater hermeneutic of faith). As the list of problems grows in length, a conviction emerges and begins to grow – there must be something to this…these can’t all be misreadings or copy errors of scribes absent from the autographa, can they? Lists of what look for all the world to be contradictions in scripture can be very persuasive, and very dangerous.

    The one brought up is one of my favorites, because of how contradictory it looks, and how easily that appearance of error is dispelled. For me, it is a perfect paradigmatic example of a biblical “error” or “contradiction” – quite puzzling at first glance, but surprisingly easy to resolve with a little honest effort. I wish they were all so easily resolved. Here is what I do with that one:

    I start with a hermeneutic of charity. Before the issue of inspiration even comes into it, I assume that the human author at least was not a moron or a lunatic. If two statements are in the same passage, and we can know with as much certainty as we know anything about the text, that the two apparent contraries were penned by the same hand, probably within minutes of each other, it is unlikely that he is both affirming and denying the same thing simultaneously in the same sense. If any other reading is possible, I accept that one. If several are possible but only one is plausible, I take the plausible one. So what is the human author trying to affirm when he writes that God “regrets” making Saul came? If we assume, charitably, that he is not affirming that which he denies later in the same passage, namely, that God literally changes His mind, then he must be affirming something else. Is he using anthropomorphic language to indicate Saul has lost the favor of God, that by sinning Saul’s reign no longer enjoys the blessing of God and that without God’s support, his days as king are numbered? I think that is a plausible reading of the statement in the text about divine regret over Saul, and perfectly consistent with the later literally-intended theological negation.

  2. May 13, 2010 2:41 pm

    Follow-up to prior comment, cross posted at as a series of comments at Journeys in Alterity and a single blog post at The Naked Ontologist:

    Because the loss of my faith was largely due to the examination of apparent errors and contradictions in scripture, I knew when I returned to the faith that one day I would have to face that list again. Eventually I did. I was aware of a great many more problems the second time (I had a book length list of them, far longer than the one recited by Cardinal ———- and I no longer approached this challenge with the faithful assumption of inerrancy, but when I went down the list and read the text in context with a hermeneutic of charity that I was taught to apply to philosophical texts (but had not heard of the first time I dealt with these problems), the problems began to disappear. I found reasonable interpretations that did not support charges of error or contradiction, and, one-by-one, I was able to scratch off the items. Soon it got to be a game – I was positively hunting for the ONE indisputable error, the one pair of outright contradictories, that would settle the issue. But, when playing by the rules of a hermeneutic of charity, I could not find even one that fit the bill. I did not get more than halfway through my list before I threw it out, satisfied, and now as fully convinced of Biblical inerrancy as ever (but in a more doctrinally and theologically informed way). Today it strikes me as ironic that the first time I dealt with the issue of problems with inerrancy, I assumed inerrancy (in a naïve, fundamentalist way), but it did not take the presentation of very many scriptural difficulties to shake that assumption of faith, and I wound up losing my faith, but the second time, with renewed faith in Christ and a reasonable scholarly hermeneutic of charity, but no meaningful belief in inerrancy, I not only kept my faith, but became convinced of the truth of the Catholic doctrine of inerrancy!

    When I argued for the Catholic doctrine of inerrancy at Vox Nova, I was repeatedly told by more than one poster that there was no such thing, that I was attributing my view to the Church, but there was no one official Catholic position on inerrancy. I was told that a view like mine was rejected at Vatican II. But such a “rejection” emerging in discussion and debate during the minutes of a council is not covered by the charism of infallibility. The final documents are, and nowhere in them is the Church’s traditional position on inerrancy retracted. Raymond Brown notwithstanding, the traditional doctrine of inerrancy stands. I close with a quote from Fr. William Most which confronts such Brown-inspired modernist heterodoxy head-on:

    “Raymond E. Brown in many places, such as NJBC (p. 1169) , insists that Vatican II allows us to say that there are all kinds of errors in Scripture, in science, history and even in religion – only things needed for salvation are protected by inspiration. Hence he insists that Job 14. 13 ff raises the possibility of an after life, and then denies it. Brown said that if anyone tries to differ from this position of his, it is an “unmitigated disaster”. He claims to found his view on a line in Vatican II, DV §11: “since all that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert should be regarded as asserted by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error teach the truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be confided to Sacred Scripture.” Brown insists the underlined passage is restrictive, not descriptive, i.e., that it means to say only such things are inerrant. Brown points to the “prevoting debates”, i.e., the day when Cardinal Koenig arose and gave a list of errors in Scripture. Sadly, a large number of bishops chimed in with him. Yet the Holy Spirit was at hand, and no trace of this idea is found in the final text of Vatican II. Most importantly, Brown ignores the fact that the Council itself gave several notes on the very passage, sending us to earlier pronouncements of the Church, including the statement of Vatican I that God Himself is the chief author of Scripture. Of course, Brown thinks he can get around it. He says there are two ways to look at Scripture. One is a priori, in which we say God is the author, and so no error is possible. But there is also, he asserts, the a posteriori way:look at the text, see all the errors, decide there are errors.

    “The incredible thing is that today, now that we have new techniques for studying Scripture, not possessed by earlier scholars, even at the beginning of the 20th century, we have the means of answering countless claims of error, which earlier exegetes could not answer. Yet at this very point, those, like Brown, who are supposed to know these techniques, insist on saying the problems cannot be solved, that to try, e.g., to solve the problem of Job 14:23 – which is really easy — is an “unmitigated disaster”!”

  3. May 14, 2010 10:19 pm

    Kevin, thanks for taking the time to read and comment and thanks to Kyle for inserting me into the conversation at Vox-Nova and his blog. Unfortunately, I don’t currently have the computer time necessary to adequately respond to the many insightful, engaging, and challenging comments. Therefore, I offer this rather long-winded addition to what I have previously said. (This will be cross-posted at the 3 locations where the convo is taking place)

    A further explanation of some of my thoughts on inspiration and inerrancy: I believe the entirety of the Bible was inspired by God. The text(s) which we now call the Bible can be considered inspired because the inspired communities (of Jews and Christians) recognized them as such. (Thus scriptural inspiration is dialogical.) In accordance with its divine authority the Scripture contains Truth with a capital T. However, I think it is dangerous to speak of “inerrancy” because error can be understood in any number of ways, many of which ought not be applied to the Bible. For example, our post-enlightenment scientific and empirical understanding of the world conceives of error primarily as factual error whereas the sacred authors would not have had either that understanding of error nor that empirical outlook on historicity. Accordingly, their literary genres don’t fit neatly into ours. The Gospels would not pass for adequate biographies today, and Samuel would not pass for an acceptable historical textbook. Trying to judge them as such does violence to the text. Thus, I think the Fathers of VCII were quite wise to avoid the word “inerrancy” and to instead speak of “ that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

    I also want to reaffirm what I said/meant about approaching Scripture with humility. The Bible is not a monologue. If God had wanted to reveal “that truth which is necessary for salvation” with utmost clarity and precision, then the Bible probably would not consist primarily of narratives, poetry, and letters. Rather, it might read more like a medieval scholastic treatise. If Scripture could be reduced to simple precepts, then it wouldn’t need to be read. We could just read…the “Catechism of the Bible” instead. The complexity of the Bible reflects the transcendence of the person, both of human persons and of the divine persons, which cannot be contained in simple precepts. The Bible, as revelatory of both God and man, is necessarily complex, and being that it represents the inspired work of innumerable human authors, editors, and redactors, we should expect that complexity to open up a wide range of valuable interpretations, which, in my opinion, is part of what makes it a living text capable of speaking to us today, rather than a mere dead letter.  As the Pontifical Biblical Commission puts it, “One of the characteristics of the Bible is precisely the absence of a sense of systematization and the presence, on the contrary, of things held in dynamic tension. The Bible is a repository of many ways of interpreting the same events and reflecting upon the same problems. In itself it urges us to avoid excessive simplification and narrowness of spirit.” (Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, III.A.2) We have four Gospels -not one- and multiple creation stories. The dynamic tension contained therein opens up the “personal” and the transcendent so that neither God nor man can be conceived to have been fully contained in the text. Additionally, this dynamic tension, it seems to me, is precisely where the Bible delivers its most powerful moral influence. Morality, holiness, virtue – these do not come from mere blind obedience, as Pope Benedict has repeatedly taught. Faith complements and is complemented by reason. They need each other. Accordingly, it seems that these tensions within scripture ought to move us to humility before the text and remind of the transcendent and sacred character of the text. A friend who is an OT scholar once explained to me, “The diversity within Scripture makes us better people by engaging our critical imagination and therefore developing our capacity for empathy.”
    We ought to have the humility to recognize that God and man are both bigger than we can imagine. We do know a bit about God through Scripture and Tradition, but even the doctors of the Church are always quick to complement the positive assertion with negative theology. Thus, upon his Eucharistic vision Aquinas called his writings straw, and Bonaventure believed that in the mind’s journey to God the intellect must eventually give way to the relationship, to love.

    Thanks for challenging and engaging conversation. Pax.

  4. May 15, 2010 11:12 am

    Thank you, Joshua, for the thoughtful response. Almost everything you have said is true (as far as it goes) and potentially helpful. I do feel the need, however, to re-affirm certain points in reply to some of your offhand remarks. The biblical authors may have had such a broad view of the nature of error that factual error was not the primary type of error, and granted that there is much more to the Bible than a set of factual assertions, but recognizable concept of factual error was not unfamiliar to them. It is true that the gospels are not strictly biographies and Samuel is not a strict history, in the contemporary sense of those genres, and would not pass as such. But it is also true that, according to Catholic teaching, everything in the scriptures asserted as true by the human authors is true. It is true in every sense in which it is asserted, and when something is asserted as a statement intended to convey a fact, that statement is true as asserted. While there are passages (many, actually) with content that is not intended to be factually asserted, but rather to affirm some other truth, there are no factual errors per se (that which is not asserted as a fact cannot rightly be called a factual error). The word “inerrancy” is nowhere in any papal encyclical or Conciliar document that I have read, but that no more implies it is not a Catholic doctrine than the absence of the word “Trinity” in the Bible implies that the Trinity is not biblical. The term is used as short hand, and its meaning is present in infallible Church teaching. It is not restricted to matters of faith and morals, let alone to the even more narrow area of that which pertains to our salvation (contrary to the insistence of the late Raymond Brown).

    The issue of whether scripture teaches (without error) that God did in fact command the genocides ordered by Moses and Samuel in His name depends on the literal meaning of those passages. All the spiritual senses beyond the literal sense build on the literal sense, and do not subvert, replace, overturn or falsify it. While I am open to correction on this point, it seems to me that the literal meaning of the passage does affirm that. While this is troubling to us in our contemporary theological understanding, scripture and tradition are the data that our theology is supposed to make sense of, not so much the other way around. When we use theology to understand, for example, the scripture you cite in which God says He regrets making Saul king (1 Sam 15:11), that this is meant to be an anthropmorphic metaphor, but we can do that because scripture — in that very passage, actually (v. 29) — does the same thing : it factually asserts a more plainly literal theological truth, and it is a truth of negative theology and a specific denial that the literal sense of the anthropmorphism is asserted as a fact (The Strength of Israel is not a man that He should change His mind).

    It does not seem to me that the genocides in the Old Testament are subject to the same sort of re-examination and understanding. The scriptural assertions of negative theology deepens our understanding of the anthropomorphisms that are also in scripture. But if the genocides were not divinely commanded, what are we to do with the apparent presence of the assertions that they were? Those, it seems, we cannot understand deeply, but reject them outright if we do not accept them. I do not see how we can be true to the Catholic doctrine of the plenary inspiration of scripture free from all error if we do that. I am open to correction on the literal sense of this scripture and the meaning of the Catholic doctrine of inerrancy, but the correction has to actually help me understand, not exhort me to reject part of what the Church teaches in order to better accomodate another part of its teaching, because that would not be a correction.

  5. July 24, 2010 10:33 am

    Interesting discussion. Well done. No easy answers to these things. I think we are on the right track when we both 1) understand the literal sense as prophetic in a way that does not absolutely divorce it from the historical sense 2) never interpret Scripture in such a way to imput evil to God. The teleological suspension does not cut it. Our concern for historical accuracy over moral purity is not God’s.

  6. Tom permalink
    July 27, 2011 3:59 pm

    We in the Catholic Church canonized saints who where enthusiastically and energetically involved in getting “witches” burned alive at the stake. We have popes in the past doing the same thing. This is all undeniable. These “witches” were most just mentally ill women.

    The Bible is has many depictions of God ordering or approving of things that, if a person or nation did them, we would all condemn that person or nation.

    To me, the only answer is to view the works of God as perfect, but all the works of human beings as imperfect. The Church and the Bible are, in part, the works of human beings.

    Even the official current Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church says “Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book” (para 108).

    I feel that we must give up on trying to find and prove that the Catholic popes, bishops, saints and the Bible to be “immaculate.” Let us leave that to the Holy Trinity only.


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