“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Richard Dawkins
Never short for words, Dawkins has a point. Let’s take one tag: genocidal. Think global flood, God eradicating Egypt’s firstborn then throwing horse and rider into the sea, and the divine mandate to destroy seven people groups before Israel could set up in the Promised Land. The Bible is a bloody book, and whilst religion is a convenient excuse for crazy people doing crazy things, much of the blood is directly on God’s hands. In a world with religious violence on the rise, this is disturbing.
Let’s hone in on one particular incident: Jericho. In Joshua 6 we read of Joshua’s conquest of the Canaanites—seven musical rounds of the city and the walls tumbled down. They were to ḥērem this people: utterly destroy all life, including men, women, the young, the old, and even the livestock. I wonder how a Tutsi would read this text? Would they insert Hutu for Israel, recalling the hundreds of thousands of people—friends, grandfathers, daughters—murdered in cold blood back in Rwanda, 1994?
Make no mistake, this is shocking. And unless your tack is to save YHWH by dismissing the Bible (kind of like cutting off your nose to spite your face), what we have here seems to be Class A Genocide. No answer will make the situation rosy, but is there a way to make sense of divine violence?
First, a couple of questions: Can God kill the innocent?
Granted, it’s immoral for us to destroy life: we didn’t create it in the first place. That would be “playing God”. But can God play God? Is there anything inherently wrong with the Creator of life—where life is a gift, not a right—destroying the life he made? It may offend us, but if we can cut the lawn and kill a cow (neither of which we made) then surely God has a right to give life and take it away. Death is everyone’s end, whether in the calm of a nursing home or the turmoil of a battlefield.
I’m not sure Jericho is this stark, though. God is never capricious. Who, truly, is innocent? Can the perfect people raise their hand? In Biblical language, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. … For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our actions flow from our desires, and we’ve each hated (the heart of a murderer), lusted (the heart of an adulterer), coveted (the heart of a thief), not to mention blasphemed (damning the Life-Giver). (And all of this without unveiling enacted evil, where our self-control couldn’t restrain destructive passion.)
Which brings me to the second question: Does sin deserve to be punished?
Josef Fritzl locked his 15 year old daughter in a basement and raped her up to 5 times a day, fathering her seven kids. He got life in prison. Is his punishment deserved? Perhaps too lenient? Unless you’re a die-hard anarchist, you recognize the need for ultimate justice. When wrong is done, someone must pay. And in the case of the Canaanites, these weren’t minor indiscretions: they imaged their violent and sexualized gods, enshrining child sacrifice, cultic prostitution, bestiality and incest (Leviticus 18). Who better than God to weigh right and wrong, and meter out punishment?
God is longsuffering. From his initial heads up to Abraham about Jericho’s sin in Genesis 15, through to his final right handed violence in Joshua 6, we have 430 years of repeated warnings about impending judgment. One of Canaan’s prostitutes, Rahab, used God’s covenant name YHWH when explaining to Israelite spies that this coming conquest was no surprise; in her mind, the punishment was expected and just (Joshua 2:9-14). Granted, this punishment affected everyone, even infants. For individualistic westerners, this is unconscionable. Yet even we recognize that our actions affect each other—we are part of an interconnected web. A parent’s bankruptcy endangers the whole family. A president’s call to war endangers the whole nation. God was holding all of Canaan responsible for their collective sin. The corruption and violence of this culture was systemic. Enough was enough, so God stepped in to judge.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf was born in Croatia. He lost family members to ethnic violence. Wrath first seemed “unworthy of God. Isn’t God love?” But his final resistance to the idea fell as he reflected on genocide in the former Yugoslavia, millions displaced and thousands butchered. Volf wondered,
“How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? … Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? … I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”
For Canaan, divine violence was just. Israel was the underdog, a nation of slaves called to confront a superpower as YHWH’s sword—not because of Israel’s superiority, but because of Jericho’s sin (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). God returned on Canaan the violence they unjustly exercised on others, even their own people. We may not like it, but we can hardly call it unfair.
But the right-handed violence of God is only half the story. As God laments in Ezekiel 18, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” God’s left hand of mercy and grace was always extended to any who would repent. Even to a prostitute named Rahab. This was not ethnic cleansing. Indeed, Rahab was incorporated as the ancestor of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus the Christ. God would still bless the nations through this nation.
Any blog-length treatment of such complex issues will always fall short. But as I’ve grappled with divine violence, I’ve come to see the truth in the old spiritual, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Yes, but it takes two hands for God to hold a broken world. God’s right hand of justice will rightly deal with individual and corporate evil, bringing all things to account, precisely because he loves the world. Without confidence in ultimate justice, surely we would play vigilante rather than turn the other cheek as peacemakers in the image of Jesus. But God is arguably left-handed. Grace and mercy had the first word at creation, the decisive word at the cross, and will have the final word in New Creation where violence is no more and swords are beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2). It is this perfect fusion of both hands together that allows God to hold this fallen world in love. Anything less, and YHWH wouldn’t really be God, or worth worshipping.
Will such answers satisfy sceptics? I doubt it. But God is not genocidal. Dawkins’ rant was one tag too short: Deicidal. God’s character is most truly seen at the cross. Whatever your background, YHWH is ever ready to absorb your evil in love, even if it costs his own life.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 31.
 Genesis 6-9; Exodus 11-15; Deuteronomy 7.
 Romans 3:23; 6:23.
 Free of Charge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 138-39.
 Delving deeper? Watch the video “God’s Two Hands” at https://wonderingfair.com/media/ and download resources from http://logos.kbc.org.au/blog/resources/logos-talks/gods-two-hands/.