Thoughts on: Can We Trust the God of Genocide?

This is the question asked by author Mark Buchanan in the July-August issue of Christianity Today.

His article is part of the cover story called Grappling with the God of Two Testaments. I was excited when I saw the cover story because I have been greatly interested in this topic for many years. I wanted to see how he addresses the disparity between the angry, violent God of the Old Testament and the loving Father Jesus talks about in the New Testament.

Genocide--The Dilly Lama

Image Credit: Genocide, The Dilly Lama via Wikimedia Commons

When I re-subscribed to Christianity Today a couple years ago after a lapse of many years, I was surprised how often the magazine entertains progressive ideas that would have had no support when I was a subscriber long ago. I rushed in eager anticipation to discover what Buchanan might say about the God of genocide.

On page 20, I found his answer in the sub-title: “Yes—If we set our eyes on the Cross of Christ.

Buchanan’s Argument for an Angry, Violent God

My disappointment was heavy. I had hoped for an explanation of why the Old Testament depictions of God were incomplete and distorted, but instead Buchanan accepts the violent accounts as accurate portrayals of God.

He begins with a discussion with a young man about whether the young man trusts the Bible. He does not. When asked why not, he responds: Hosea 13:16,

The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.

Buchanan captures the question rather well when he says,

What is not easy is explaining what appear to be the deliberate acts of divine cruelty. God’s virulent rage. His hair-trigger vindictiveness. His apoplectic jealousy. Why would God make women and children pay for the sins of despots or the apostasy of priests?

Buchanan admits the difficulty of reconciling this image with the God revealed in Jesus, but he goes on to affirm the ‘fundamental assumption of the unity of scriptures.’ He insist that the New Testament gives us a clearer and deeper revelation of God, but not of a different God as the ancient heretical bishop Marcion claimed. Buchanan states that God’s dreadful wrath, fierce justice, and burning jealousy are found in the New Testament as well. In fact, he says that ‘the road is even steeper now, the judgment of God sterner, and the cost of refusal greater.’

His conclusion is to quote the old theologians: ‘We take refuge from God in God. The only escape from God’s wrath is God’s mercy.’

Response to Buchanan’s Argument

After many years of grappling with the angry, violent, and vindictive God of the Old Testament, I  can no longer accept Buchanan’s fundamental assumption of the unity of scriptures.

The New Testament is informed by the insight Jesus gives us into the nature of the Father; I accept what he tells us. However, his perspective on the Father seems to conflict significantly with the perspective of much of the Old Testament. But the answer is not that of Marcion, who understood the accounts to described two separate beings, with the Old Testament god being an inferior being.

Marcion and Buchanan share a common assumption—that the Old Testament accurately describes a being called God. I contend that the Old Testament was written by people who were very interested in God, and felt a strong connection to him, but whose understanding of his character was woefully inadequate. They described what they understood God to be like and interpreted their history in terms of that understanding.

For those who believe that the Bible is consistently the word of God throughout, the only way to resolve the violent god of the Old Testament is to defend or explain his behavior. The better understanding is that he never behaved that way at all.

The Nature of the Old Testament

During the time in my journey as a believer in which I struggled with inerrancy, I despaired the loss of God’s very existence for over a year. One of the things that brought peace and faith back into my life was the book, Holy Scripture, by theologian G. C. Berkouwer.

Berkouwer suggests that the Bible is the product of both divine and human effort, so he recognizes the element of human witness. As I think about the Bible as a mix of divine and human, I realize that it is impossible to determine the proportion of each in the mix. In regard to the violent actions of God we find in the Old Testament, I believe they are human understandings and not revelation from God.

Jesus seems more qualified to describe the character and actions of the Father than the writers of the Old Testament. Therefore, I accept Jesus’ portrayal of the Father over the Old Testament portrayal and resolve the discrepancies by understanding that the Old Testament portrayals are very inaccurate.

Your observations and comments are welcome below.
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10 Responses to Thoughts on: Can We Trust the God of Genocide?

  1. Eric says:

    Good post Tim. I think it’s impossible to harmonize the two God’s of the Bible. One is the compounding human-inspired viewpoints of many tribal generations building upon one another, and the other is the views primarily of Jesus and Paul.


    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree Eric! We should not try to harmonize such a varied library of works to produce a single voice.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your post, Tim. I haven’t really found any solution that satisfies me, to be honest. I’ve been tempted at times to believe in the sort of understanding of Scripture that you explain in this post, but I’m not sure how to respond to the fundamentalist question of “If you can’t be sure that one part of Scripture is true, how can you trust any of it?” Fundamentalism’s view of Scripture at least appears neat: all of the Bible is from God and is true, period. My problem there is that fundamentalism’s neatness is illusory, for it tends to explain away or fudge on some of the difficult passages of Scripture, rather than accepting them at face value.

    I was reading one of Bart Erhman’s books, and his characterization of Marcion’s and Gnostics’ beliefs resonated with me. At least they saw problems with the Old Testament God, as opposed to trying to interpret his actions as somehow just! The thing is, I don’t think that the New Testament is always better than the Old, for both have their humanitarian but also their violent elements.

    Maybe I should read Berkouwer!


  3. lotharson says:

    “Marcion and Buchanan share a common assumption—that theonde Old Testament accurately describes a being called God. I contend that the Old Testament was written by people who were very interested in God, and felt a strong connection to him, but whose understanding of his character was woefully inadequate. They described what they understood God to be like and interpreted their history in terms of that understanding.”

    Wonderful, I could not have better expressed it 😉


  4. so if the Old Testament is innacurate, then the bible can not be trusted? What is the point of the old testament exactly? And how do people know if the new testament isn’t innacuarate also.


    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Juan, these questions are asked frequently–and for good reason; they are very, very important questions. It would be very nice if we had an authoritative book of truth given to us directly by God. But we don’t. What we have is two collections of documents.

      The Old Testament documents were written by a large number of people over a very long time period, and they concern a group of people who felt they had a unique relationship with their God–the supreme God. In their writings, they described what they understood this God to be like, and due to their culture and limitations they produced both profound ideas about God and ideas that were not profound at all.

      There is much of value in some of their reflections that can still provide insight to us today, and we should benefit from their thoughts. But that does not mean that we should read the OT in a flat manner, as though it was revealed by God. This is a notional literature, and the individual components vary in value just as would a collection of American Literature; some parts are inspiring and provoke us to deep thought, while others are just hero stories that include ‘God’ in the narrative.

      The New Testament is somewhat different. It was written over a short period of time with one subject in mind–the teachings of Jesus. And these documents were based on the life of Jesus described from the memories of his earliest followers who were tremendously impacted by his words and example. Essentially, the NT tells us about Jesus. Even there the record might not be perfect, but we do see a very consistent picture of Jesus, his life, and his teaching. It is this Jesus that I trust–not the New Testament (as a book) that tells us about him.

      Our faith does not rest on the authority or accuracy of the Bible but upon Jesus. So the New Testament, in particular, is indispensable–but it is not the foundation of our faith. I hope this is helpful; let me know if you have further questions.


  5. Jack says:

    Interesting that even though the conclusions may be disappointing, the concession of admission of using the term genocide is quite a leap. To understand some parts of the Bible, one need only look at history books in the US and then take time and an open mind to understand our country’s unvarnished history. We discover much of what we’ve been taught is a whitewashed coverup justification of atrocities. Nothing new; it’s always been so in societies. So, there’s nothing new under the sun about Bible writers misusing God to justify their own evil behaviors. Instead of, “The devil made me do it”, it’s “God made us do it!” No wonder we needed Jesus to say, in essence, “You’ve heard this and you’ve heard that, but here’s what God is REALLY all about.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Jack, I think you are right. The writers of the Old Testament used God to justify their nations atrocities, and they might have been convinced, themselves, that it was true. Like other cultures, Americans too often justify their national atrocities, and sometimes they use God as an excuse.


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