Brandon Vogt

Did God Command Genocide?

Angry God

In his bestselling book, The God Delusion, popular atheist Richard Dawkins shares this genial observation:

“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.”

Well, then. I wish he hadn’t minced words.

All jokes aside, this view of God has become incredibly pervasive among non-Christians. In fact, judging from conversations I’ve had with hundreds of atheists and agnostics, I’d wager it’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks to faith today. How could the apparently angry and bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament be the same loving God of Jesus Christ? How could God sanction deplorable practices like slavery, homophobia, infanticide, and, worst of all, genocide? Did he simply change his mind or is that still his true character? How do Christians handle these so-called “dark passages” of the Bible?

Before answering these questions, we need to recognize a couple facts. First, these troubles are nothing new. It’s not as if contemporary atheist writers discovered these devastating problems which, for thousands of years, had escaped all believers. The truth is that Christians have wrestled with these difficult passages for centuries and have offered many resolutions.

For example, some like Marcion, a second-century bishop, suggest the Old Testament God is, in fact, a distorted version of the true God. Therefore Christians should excise the Old Testament from their religion. Of course most Christians, then and now, reject Marcionismm, seeing the Old and New Testaments in continuity with each other. But this is one way to handle the issue.

Others like Origen, a third-century writer, maintain that these passages do not record historical events but offer allegorical spiritual truths. For instance, when the psalmist says, “Blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock” (Psalm 137:9), he’s encouraging God’s followers to destroy our childish, sinful tendencies that cry out for satisfaction. We cannot soothe or mollify sin. We must destroy it.

Over the years, theologians have provided several other views, but the point is that Christians have faced these difficulties from the beginning. They are nothing new, and plenty of satisfactory answers exist.

The second thing to realize—and this is more important—is that the Bible is not a single book, but a collection of books. It contains many different genres like poetry, letters, epic sagas, creation myths, biography, and theological history. And we can’t begin to understand any particular passage until we first recognize its genre.

This is no different than if you walked into a library today and someone handed you a book on Abraham Lincoln, quickly asking you to read it and explain the meaning. The first question you’d ask yourself is, “What genre is this book? What section did it come from?” Is it a meticulously-researched biography on the president or is it a copy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Is it a comic book, a parallel history, or a collection of love poems Lincoln wrote to his wife? Until you know the genre, you can’t determine the book’s purpose—you don’t know which lens through which to interpret the book. But once you know its genre and purpose, then—and only then—are you prepared to make an informed judgment about its content.

Most atheists today display a remarkable inability to discern different genres throughout Scripture. They attempt to read Genesis through the same lens as the Psalms, Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, the Gospel of Luke, and Revelation. And most of the time, this lens is the lens of modern journalism. The problem though is that none of the Bible was written in the way, according to today’s journalistic standards. In most cases, the biblical authors are not interested in specific historical details but in conveying theological and moral truths. This realization, in itself, solves many apparent difficulties in Scripture.

Once we begin with a firm grasp of these two basic principles, that the “dark passages” do not present new problems, and that to solve them we must first ascertain their genre, then we’re prepared to explore adequate solutions. Thankfully, many Christians today are rolling out tools for understanding these “dark passages” and I’d like to highlight a few of them.

Is God a Moral MonsterFirst, the best book on this subject, and one I’ve recommended countless times, is Dr. Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker, 2011). Copan devotes whole chapters, and often more than one, to questions about whether God is genocidal, needlessly violent, pro-slavery, supportive of child abuse, or arbitrary in the laws and restrictions he places on the Old Testament people. Copan is a Protestant apologist, which means he takes a few interpretive moves Catholics would probably not embrace, but on the whole it’s the best popular-level book on the subject. Here’s the publisher’s description:

“A recent string of popular-level books written by the New Atheists have leveled the accusation that the God of the Old Testament is nothing but a bully, a murderer, and a cosmic child abuser. This viewpoint is even making inroads into the church. How are Christians to respond to such accusations? And how are we to reconcile the seemingly disconnected natures of God portrayed in the two testaments? In this timely and readable book, apologist Paul Copan takes on some of the most vexing accusations of our time, including:

  • God is arrogant and jealous
  • God punishes people too harshly
  • God is guilty of ethnic cleansing
  • God oppresses women
  • God endorses slavery
  • Christianity causes violence and more

Copan not only answers God’s critics, he also shows how to read both the Old and New Testaments faithfully, seeing an unchanging, righteous, and loving God in both.”

Dark Passage of the BibleA second great resource, written by Dr. Matthew Ramage, a biblical scholar at Benedictine College, is the just-released book, Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and St. Thomas Aquinas (Catholic University of America Press, 2013). It’s a bit more scholarly than Copan’s book, and Ramage is more interested in interpretive principles rather than their application to specific biblical instances, but he’s written a deeply engaging and important book on the “dark passages”, the best to date from a Catholic perspective. I’ve been absorbing it over the last few weeks and plan to interview Dr. Ramage here soon. Here’s the publisher’s description:

“Multiple gods? Divinely mandated genocide? Rejection of an afterlife? If the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant word of God that Christians claim them to be, how can they contain these things? For many believers in the modern age, traditional Christian answers to these challenges are no longer convincing. Though spiritually edifying, they are unable to account for the sheer scope and depth of problems raised through the advent of historical-critical scholarship.

Following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI, in Dark Passages of the Bible Matthew Ramage weds the historical-critical approach with a theological reading of Scripture based in the patristic-medieval tradition. Whereas these two approaches are often viewed as mutually exclusive or even contradictory, Ramage insists that the two are mutually enriching and necessary for doing justice to the Bible’s most challenging texts. Ramage applies Benedict XVI’s hermeneutical principles to three of the most theologically problematic areas of the Bible: its treatment of God’s nature, the nature of good and evil, and the afterlife. Teasing out key hermeneutical principles from the work of Thomas Aquinas, Ramage analyzes each of these themes with an eye to reconciling texts whose presence would seem to violate the doctrines of biblical inspiration and inerrancy. At the same time, Ramage directly addresses the problems of concrete biblical texts in light of both patristic and modern exegetical methods.”

Third, today at Strange Notions, Jimmy Akin has contributed a helpful article titled “Pope Benedict on the ‘Dark Passages’ of Scripture”. Jimmy focuses on the Pope’s exhortation, Verbum Domini, likely the most significant Church document on Scripture in the last fifty years, along with the Synod on the Word of God from which the exhortation resulted. If the books above look too long or challenging, read Jimmy’s article for a short and easy introduction to handling the “dark passages.”

Finally, Fr. Robert Barron just released two helpful YouTube commentaries on violence in the Old Testament. Sharing the view of Origen, he reads these passages allegorically. He maintains that they are meant to convey spiritual truths about the necessity of eradicating sin, not a historical, journalistic account of murder or infanticide. On this view, whether such massacres actually took place historically, or whether God actually commanded them, are both secondary questions.



Which “dark passages” do you find most troubling?


  • Cyan Pine Marten

    I’m a atheist and don’t know much about chistanity so forgive me if I’m wrong but
    Didn’t god kill millions (or billions) of people in the flood and as they were all “sinners” condem them to a eternity in hell….
    That seems harsh

  • Christy Marie

    As a Catholic, I’ve come to accept that God can be violent. So yes, to the atheists, God has hidden nothing about that nature, self proclaiming in the Scriptures to be a God of War, to be jealous, etc. The atheists are right in that sense and there is no reason to beat around the bush with them. I do believe that for Christians, the old testament passages can be applied to our faith allegorically as a means to destroy sin in our lives, but also believe that the author’s intent was to record a real, historical event, and that we can’t hide from that. But on the other hand, God is a God who cares deeply about the orphan and the widow, as several thousand passages in Scripture have to do with social justice. He hates hell so much he sent his divine son to an agonizing and grueling death to save everyone who accepts his Son.So yeah, I wrestle with God. But in my heart of heart, I’d rather be on God’s side than against him, and I believe everybody, including atheists, would be much better off being for God than against God, regardless of God’s difficult personality. 🙂


    I think perhaps one of the reasons atheists so often fail to recognize the different genres of scripture is that we seldom see that recognition in Christians. Frankly, that kind of subtlety has little to do with the faith we encounter in others.

  • Dante Aligheri

    I know this has been here for awhile, but I’ll comment anyways. Yes, the stories were written in historical context and with highly charged symbolic meaning. I would highly recommend an article by Leonard Greenspoon entitled “Origin of the Idea of the Resurrection” which primarily deals with the Divine Warrior motif in the ANE; I would also recommend John Geyer’s “Mythology and Lament: Studies in the Oracles about the Nations.” On a related note just to understand the OT worldview, I would recommend Michael Heiser’s work on the Divine Council.

    Beyond this background, however, I would like to note that the Canaanites were never completely eradicated nor does the Bible imply that they were. First, the JPS Torah Commentary interprets Deut. 20:19 as saying “Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege?” – implying people were allowed to flee before battle commenced. Jewish tradition also taught that a flank was left open for people to flee before total warfare began.

    Second, some Jewish rabbis, including Maimonides, believed even the Seven Nations were required only to submit the Seven Noahide Laws and had to be offered terms of peace. In fact, the Book of Joshua implies this when towards the end it states that God hardened the hearts of the Canaanites so they would not accept the peace of the covenant.

    Regarding Amalek, I would recommend Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot’s “Amalek: Ethics, Values and Halakhic Development” found in his Companion to the Book of Samuel which can be read in its entirety on GoogleBooks.

    On the enslavement of the Gibeonites and related issues, I would recommend Israel Drazin’s chapter “Was Joshua Acting Morally…” in his book, “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.”

    I will only note that some Jewish rabbis also taught that Joshua was required to send three letters out into the Holy Land before he entered – warning the Nations to flee, sue for peace, or accept war – just as Moses had done for the Edomites and Ammonites before they turned around and attacked him. I would suggest reading this for comparison: .

    Admittedly, this tradition can only be inferred; nevertheless, this demonstrates a deep-seated discomfort even among Jews with this issue, and I don’t think we are meant to be comfortable with it. After all, the only time an ideal state (and not the fallen, historical one) is shown is Genesis 1 and 2 and Revelations.

    In the end, I think a closer and traditional reading of the text reveals a far less than genocidal situation with regards to the Conquest as opposed to a more piecemeal, tribal affair (as Joshua and Judges actually overlap in chronology greatly) where the terms of war were more clearly demarcated than usually recognized. I know the rabbis and Jewish tradition are not always equatable with our own Tradition, but I usually try to make it a point to consult them especially on matters of Old Testament interpretation.

    I hope this is useful to someone.

  • Matthew Ramage

    Thanks for this post, Brandon. You do great work. By the way, for some reason CUA/Johns Hopkins Press is currently having distribution problems with my book Dark Passages. (Amazon is showing it as “not yet released” even though it is). They are therefore offering a 30% discount due to this error. To order, one can call 800-537-5487 or email them at [email protected] and give the code cgaz. I look forward to discussing more. God bless!

  • Harry Seldon

    You must know, of course, that these suggestions are ultimately extremely unsatisfying to many, many people. Sensitivity to genre cannot be a hermeneutic by which we edit things we find distasteful out of scripture. Operating like that simply pushes people out, either on the one end into post-Christian liberalism (‘None of it is true anyway’) or into Pope Francis’ bogeyman, self-referential traditionalism (‘Something, somewhere must be simply and objectively true”). I wonder who it is who is satisfied with an explanation like Fr. Barron’s, which essentially is just a restatement of the problem. Marcion was not an idiot, you know. Distinguishing the genre of a passage is what the new atheists are failing to do, specifically because they challenge the ability of Christians to do so. It’s like taking your car to a mechanic and him telling you “Your car is failing to run. that’ll be $200”. Gee, thanks Fr.

    • Anonymous

      I agree. Fr. Barron’s arguments attempt to rationalize divine behavior that Christians find troubling precise because the behavior flies in the face of Christian morality. Augustine’s and Aquinas’s argument might be distasteful but at least they are honest and both seems to come to the conclusion that SOME of these dark passages are presented as historical facts.

    • Christy Marie

      I’ve too noticed that the trend in Christian theology is to claim that distasteful, unpleasant passages of Scripture are merely ‘allegorical’ and not historical. Honestly, the atheists are smarter than that and see right through it.

  • Vincent Torley

    Hi Brandon,

    Thanks for an interesting article. While it’s true that Origen defended a purely spiritual interpretation of the “dark passages”, he was the only Church Father to do so. St. Augustine, Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas all interpreted the passages and said that God had the right to command the Israelites to kill the Canaanites and Midianites. Aquinas says (S.T. II-II q. 64 art. 6 ad. 1): “God is Lord of death and life, for by His decree both the sinful and the righteous die. Hence he who at God’s command kills an innocent man does not sin, as neither does God Whose behest he executes: indeed his obedience to God’s commands is a proof that he fears Him.” I’ve written an article on this topic at .Cheers.

  • Doug Lawrence

    In Old Testament times, foolish mankind had willingly teamed up with Satan, against God, and the war that was previously fought in Heaven soon erupted on a totally new front, right here on Earth. Sugar coat and reinterpret the Old Testament all you want, but the real difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament is Jesus Christ and the grace and peace he obtained for us on the cross at Calvary. If the Israelites had not engaged and destroyed their enemies there would be no Messiah, no atoning sacrifice, no forgiveness of sins, no saving grace and no Catholic Church. All of mankind would have remained eternally enslaved to Satan, sin and death – and that’s precisely what Satan wanted. Jesus came and gracefully declared an end to the “old” war between Heaven and Earth. Then he made our reconciliation possible, according to the will of his Father in Heaven. All of this was done out of love. Call the unfortunate events of old whatever you like, but God permitted (and yes, even ordered) “bad” things back then and he still does – precisely as his written Word honestly describes. Yet divine justice prevails and woe to the impudent soul who attempts to demean or criticize God’s motives or his means. I wonder how these well-meaning but misguided people plan to reinterpret and “sugar coat” the tragic, end time events described in the Book of Revelation – or is all that mere allegory, as well?

  • [—
    “Blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock” (Psalm 137:9)

    The “rock” is Christ.

    • Harry Seldon

      The hermeneutic of incoherence.

      • Except that this was a restatement of St Bellarmine which impresses me more than the thinly veiled ignorance I see in the reply.

        • Harry Seldon

          It’s also in the Rule of St. Benedict, that doesn’t mean I have to consider it a coherent response to the question at hand. Next time you see Richard Dawkins and he takes you to task about bashing babies’ heads against rocks, tell him “the rock is Christ” and see what sort of look he gives you. Every Christian knows the rock is Christ. Every new-atheist knows that babies’ heads really were dashed against things. The one is not a response to the other.

          Also, is my veil slipping? I’d hate to challenge your prejudices.

          • [—
            Every new-atheist knows that babies’ heads really were dashed against things.
            That’s an awkward claim to read. So “every” new-atheist thinks this psalm really happened. Can you tell me which ones think this psalm is an historically reliable event? When “they” all respond to your next poll, let me know.

            Every Christian knows the rock is Christ.
            And yet in scripture sometimes it’s Peter, and sometimes as you remind me… it may just only be a rock.

            Also, is my veil slipping? I’d hate to challenge your prejudices.
            Since you consider the writings of St. Benedict and St. Bellarmine to be party to the hermeneutic of incoherence, then I see no need to reference the veil any longer.

          • Harry Seldon

            Okay, you just really want to fight. So be it.

            It’s not an awkward claim. Please reference the first quote of the above blog post. We are discussing responding to those people. I presume you are in this thread because of this blog post. It is a given that the new-atheists presume that the violence was representative of actual violence between real people, and that real children suffered and died in ancient wars, even those prosecuted by the Israelites.

            When you said “The rock was Christ” I, although obviously ignorant, knew that reference from Paul about the Exodus, and my point is that most literate Christians do. And, I can only presume the Catholics among them know about Peter the Rock, but since you said “the rock was Christ” I figured we could simplify and leave that out, but oh no…

            Finally, I consider YOUR use of this to be incoherent. I don’t consider either of those saints to be so. Again, something I think could be presumed among reasonable people, but oh no, not here, not on the internet.

            My point is that your comment distills down to its essence the incoherence and uselessness to the issue at hand of the type of response Brandon and Fr. Barron are promoting above. When the new-atheist says “the God your scriptures record is violent”, saying “All the offensive language is theological symbolism” (i.e., the rock is Christ, you have to know genre, etc.) is synonymous with saying to them “The Old Testament does not record our God, not really” which is essentially either Marcionism (The literal sense records someone else) or is tending to Modernism (It records only myth).

            In the context of *this* discussion (the one prompted by the blog post above, you know) saying “the rock is Christ” is not a response.

          • Mickelodian

            The rock is not Christ this was instruction in the bible which included not only taking babies from their mothers and bashing their heads off rocks… but also to kill all the men, all the boys and rape and enslave the women…

            For you to be so bloody deluded and desperate for it not to be there…to then take that OLD TESTEMENT entry and try to align it with a word used to describe a demigod several thousand years AFTER it was written is not a hair shy of the lunacy in that book in the first place,
            Because in the Bible the soldiers seemed not to realize it was JESUS being spoken of by god… the future Jesus that they didn’t know about… they seems to take their gods word for it and carried out the actions commanded.

            Thankfully we know this never happened anyway.

            EDIT: Damn wrong reply button…wtf…

    • Christy Marie

      King David was angry when he wrote that passage. He wanted justice. There’s nothing in the passage that says that God approved of his wanting to kill innocent babies of the enemy.

  • Lynda

    I think it is important that God in the OT is primarily concerned with the Jewish people entering taking possession of the land. This is the source of the spiritual reading for the people of God entering into the Church. The violence is limited to a people, time, action and place in the OT. hat comes about from Judaism is vastly different in moral action compared to the pagans around them…..Rome, Carthage, amelakites etc. Also we live in a natural world and death is by secondary causes not direct intervention by God….I.e. Bus accidents in Peru.

  • E. Murray

    “The works of the Lord are perfect, and all His ways are judgments: God is faithful and without any iniquity, He is just and right.” (Deuteronomy 32: 4). It is the people of this century that are wrong, imbued with the errors of Freemasonry. Our ancestors who were true Christians were better people than the people of today. The same God is the author of the New Testament and the Old Testament, says the Decree on the Canonical Scriptures of the Council of Trent. There were times in the New Testament when Catholics had to save themselves from enemy nations, as the Hebrews did in the Old Testament. For example, in the reconquest of Spain, St. Fernando and his army was accompanied by warrior angels and St. James on horseback as they fought against the Moslems. So much so that they called St. James: “St. James the Moorslayer.” The true faith has almost disappeared because formerly Catholic populations have been brainwashed into the Masonic errors of the world around them.

  • Paul Sho

    The real problem is Catholics (Christians) in the West have largely failed in their duty tell atheists, like Richard Dawkins, in very clear terms what will happen to them if they don’t repent their unbelief. Rather nowadays we cuddle them and tell them to just ‘follow their consciences’ and they will be okay. No they wont; they are in fact headed for a very unpleasant place – barring a last minute conversion.
    Anyone who accuses the Creator of the crime of genocide may well accuse people, who kill mosquitoes, of murder. Yes, before the majesty of the Eternal God we are no more than irritant mosquitoes. It is the spark of the Holy Spirit (a pure gift of God) within us that gives us the dignity we can claim.
    Indeed the psalmist says, ‘what is man that God cares about him’; and ‘even the best of men are no more than a puff of smoke.’
    (cf Psalm 8 and 39 and 62) hebrew numbering.

    • Onyeka Onyebuchukwu

      And who the hell is so invested in the daily dealings of mosquito’s? If you really think we are that insignificant in the sight of god

    • Onyeka Onyebuchukwu

      And who the hell is so invested in the daily dealings of mosquito’s? If you really think we are that insignificant in the sight of god

  • Chesire11

    We also need to consider the context in which each passage was written; from what perspective within the narrative of salvation history did each of the inspired authors write? The authors of the books of the Old Testament recorded scripture with the light of incomplete Revelation, aware only of the reality of how we sin against, and offend God, and not fully aware of His infinite mercy. Accordingly, they wrote about the consequence of sin, and the wise justness of God, hence they focused upon the demand of, and the penalties for transgressing the Law. The inspired authors, therefore, interpret historical events in that context of “:crimes and punishments.”

    The New Testament books were enlightened with the fullness of Revelation. God incarnate had dwelt among man, revealing Himself to us most intimately, therefore the depiction of God in the New Testament reveals a God who is just, but merciful to the point of sacrificing Himself for our sins. That is a very different perspective from which to understand man’s relationship to his Creator.

    To illustrate the point, imagine you are sitting at home one afternoon, when you are startled by the sound of a crash. A young driver has misjudged a turn, or taken his eyes off the road for a moment and crashed into a tree. Rushing outside, you find the driver uninjured, but the car is totaled. The driver, however, is distraught, and tells you that he has wrecked his father’s car, and details how angry his father will be, and what punishments he can expect to receive. When his father arrives at the scene of the accident, however, he rushes to his son, and tearfully embraces him, relieved that he is uninjured, and heedless of the condition of the car. If we considered only the son’s description of how his father would react to news of the accident, we would be left with an impression of a stern, unsympathetic father, concerned only with justice, and we would have been unaware of his overriding love for his son. It is only after the father reveals Himself that we have a more complete, and accurate understanding of His nature – one that would not otherwise have been apparent.

  • Jordan Miller

    “Whether such massacres actually took place historically, or whether God actually commanded them, are both secondary questions.”

    I doubt that this statement reflects your own position, Brandon, and I also doubt it reflects the position of Fr. Barron (wasn’t able to watch the videos), but taken at face value the statement is very problematic.

    “Whether such massacres actually took place historically, or whether God actually commanded them” is nothing other than the literal sense; and the literal sense is never secondary, always primary.

    The literal sense is the foundation on which the various spiritual senses are built. If this is obscured, the OT quickly dissolves into a mere allegory, the historical truth of which is irrelevant to its ‘meaning.’ But in short order, the NT likewise dissolves; if the OT does not depict real events, but allegories with a spiritual meaning, then what is to prevent us from understanding the NT in the same way (e.g., resurrection as an allegory)?

    The scriptures are only important insofar as they are accounts of God’s historical relationship with humanity. The events are primary; the texts recounting the events are secondary. This is why the literal sense is the foundation, and it cannot be displaced by the allegorical sense without thereby undermining the value and purpose of scripture as such. Even those many portions of scripture which are not recounting historical events (e.g., the Wisdom books, many of the prophets, the NT letters) derive their value from their relationship to the events of salvation history.

    Judaism and Christianity stand or fall with the events of God’s action in the world. If God did not really call Abraham, did not really free Israel from slavery via Moses and a series of miracles, did not really speak to Samuel and through him establish the monarchy, did not really send the various prophets to call Israel back to the covenant, and did not really send his own Son and raise him from the dead, then both Judaism and Christianity are in-credible nonsense.

    The allegorical sense is obviously very important and necessary to a fully Christian reading of the OT. Jesus himself sets the example here, long before Origen, by opening the scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But the allegorical sense cannot stand by itself; it stands on the literal sense. If we cannot provide a cogent and reasonable explanation of the literal sense, we will not have actually answered the questions posed by atheism about the depiction of God in the OT.

    I assume that both of the books you mentioned, especially the one by Ramage which draws on Pope Benedict, emphasize this primacy of the literal sense. I also assume that neither you nor Fr. Barron are actually proposing a reduction of the OT to the allegorical sense. I posted this comment not because I actually think you are actually saying something problematic, but because the particular statement I quoted could be misleading for atheists reading the blog post.

    One other thing: the key to understanding why God actively destroys some people in the OT (the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the 10th plague, the conquest of the promised land, etc.) is to read these events in light of the warning of hell in the NT. God is showing us that the wages of sin are death; in the “violence” of the OT he is giving us a glimpse of hell, so as to warn us against choosing it. His “violence,” then, is not in contrast to his mercy, but precisely a consequence of his mercy. He doesn’t want anyone to choose hell, so he warns us by showing in a physical, visible way that sin = death. Not having gotten a chance to read the books you recommended, I assume that they discuss this connection between OT “violence” and Jesus’ teaching on hell.

    • Thanks for the excellent reply, Jordan! You’ve given me much to think about. A few things in response:

      “If the OT does not depict real events, but allegories with a spiritual meaning, then what is to prevent us from understanding the NT in the same way (e.g., resurrection as an allegory)?”

      But this would be to fall into just the same trap as the fundamentalists and atheists, namely thinking that *all* Scripture must be read in precisely the same way. Your suggestion is, essentially, “If these passages in the Old Testament are to be read allegorically, then the New Testament passages *must* be read that way, too.” But Catholic biblical interpretation does not follow this principle.

      If someone genuinely asked the question you asked, the Catholic exegete would be tasked to show how the Old Testament writers, when recounting genocide and “the ban,” were not primarily intending to record historical events while the Gospel writers were.

      “The scriptures are only important insofar as they are accounts of God’s historical relationship with humanity.”

      I’m agree to an extent. But if by this statement you mean the Bible is only important in the sections where it records actual history, then I’d disagree. This would discount, for instance, the rich poetry, wisdom books, love poems, creation myths, and apocalyptic literature, if nothing else.

      “Judaism and Christianity stand or fall with the events of God’s action in the world. If God did not really call Abraham, did not really free Israel from slavery via Moses and a series of miracles, did not really speak to Samuel and through him establish the monarchy, did not really send the various prophets to call Israel back to the covenant, and did not really send his own Son and raise him from the dead, then both Judaism and Christianity are in-credible nonsense.”

      I would agree, but who has argued this? Who has claimed that the *entire* Old Testament records events that did not take place in history? Surely not me or anyone in this post. You’re again falling back into the same trap of assuming that if one passage is meant to be allegorical, *all* passages must be allegorical and non-historical. Nobody is proposing that.

      “I also assume that neither you nor Fr. Barron are actually proposing a reduction of the OT to the allegorical sense.”

      That’s correct. I stated that the historicity of the Old Testament “bans” were secondary in importance. But that’s not to say they’re unimportant.

      “I posted this comment not because I actually think you are actually saying something problematic, but because the particular statement I quoted could be misleading for atheists reading the blog post.”

      And for that I’m thankful. You’ve added some really good insights to the dialogue.

      • Jordan Miller


        A few things. Certainly it is always necessary to take account of the genre of a scriptural text. Without an awareness of genre (and various other historical-critical considerations), one cannot even arrive at the true literal meaning (which accounts for 80% of the debate over “creationism” and evolution).

        Also, I’m not saying that only those portions of the scripture that depict historical events are important, or even that they are more important. My point was not to establish some kind of hierarchy, with historical books elevated above the prophets and the Wisdom literature. Rather, I was trying to emphasize that the events of salvation history, the events in which God speaks and acts in history, are what sacred scripture is ‘made of’; they are the ‘material cause’ of scripture.

        Those texts which do not depict events are inspired scripture insofar as they clarify and reveal the deeper meaning of the events. Books like Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, etc. are scripture insofar as they enrich Israel’s understanding of the God who is encountered in salvation history. This is the same reason why Dei Verbum stresses that the Gospel accounts stand above the letters of Paul, John, etc. — because the events of salvation history are prior to theological reflection on these events.

        My point about the danger of the NT dissolving into allegory does not presuppose that OT and NT are interpreted in the same way; rather, my point was that if the OT is dissolved into allegory, the NT is implicitly called into question. This is so not because the NT and OT are read according to one and the same hermeneutic, but because the Incarnation presupposes the historical events depicted in the OT; only if the OT presents a reliable history of salvation does the NT become plausible or fully intelligible.

        One might say “Of course the OT presents a reliable history of salvation. What does that have to do with interpreting some passages more in an allegorical sense than other passages more in a historical sense?” Along these lines, you write, “Who has claimed that the *entire* Old Testament records events that did not take place in history? Surely not me or anyone in this post. You’re again falling back into the same trap of assuming that if one passage is meant to be allegorical, *all* passages must be allegorical and non-historical. Nobody is proposing that.”

        But I’m not accusing you or anyone of this, nor am I assuming that if one passage is allegorical, all passages must be allegorical. My point is that we are in a dangerous area, exegetically speaking. Dealing with the literal meaning of Genesis 1 is one thing; dealing with the literal meaning of a text like Joshua (or even Gen 19) is actually much stickier, even though Gen 1 gets more attention.

        You say “the Catholic exegete would be tasked to show how the Old Testament writers, when recounting genocide and “the ban,” were not primarily intending to record historical events while the Gospel writers were.” But this seems vulnerable to the charge of special pleading. Certainly the Evangelists were intending to record historical events in a way much different from the authors and redactors of the OT (also, the Evangelists were only decades removed from the events, not centuries). But even so, the OT writers were working from an oral tradition that was clearly understood as traceable to real encounters with God in history. They are attempting to record historical events, even though not in the same way as the Evangelists did.

        Why should killings expressly commanded by God be understood primarily as allegory, when a straightforward reading of the text indicates that the human author regards the account as historical (albeit historical in a different way than the Gospel accounts), comparable to when God speaks to Moses or to Samuel or to Elijah? The allegorical sense of scripture, while necessary and extremely important for theology, can become a cop out, a way to skirt a difficult issue, a way to dodge an unwanted conclusion. NOTE: I’m not suggesting that you or Fr. Barron have “dodged” anything; I am saying that it is real danger for the Catholic exegete.

        The atheist says, “God commanded ‘his people’ to kill; he also did quite a bit of killing himself (flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, 10th plague, etc.). How does that comport with Christian claims about God’s mercy, love, forgiveness, etc.?” If the Catholic response is to say, “Well, in such texts we’re dealing with allegory, not a historical account of real events; God is telling them to kill sin, not to kill people,” the atheist will (quite reasonably) point out that other passages of the same books are understood as historical by the Church, in which case it seems like special pleading.

        Also, Catholic theology has always taught that every part of the scripture has some kind of literal sense; no passage has only spiritual sense (even Song of Songs refers to human marriage and sexual love before it teaches of God and Israel or Christ and the Church). It is hard to see how one can avoid a literal sense that includes God sometimes commanding the Israelites to kill, and sometimes killing by his own direct activity.

        Basically what I’m saying is that the allegorical sense of these “dark passages” is important and necessary for a full exegesis, but not sufficient. We have to be able to account for the literal sense, and that means coming to terms theologically with the unambiguous fact that scripture presents God actively killing human beings and telling Israel to kill at certain points in their history. If we skirt this issue, we are not really answering the question posed by the atheist, and we are leaving our own faith vulnerable.

        Ultimately, the “dark passages” of the OT have to be read in light of the even darker passages of the NT (e.g., “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”). The atheist presupposes that human life belongs to us, that we have a right to it; but the Christian knows that human life is only entrusted to us as the possession of another, that it belongs properly to God. Also, the atheist presupposes that for God to kill someone is the same as to damn that person; but the Christian distinguishes between the ‘first’ and ‘second’ death, and recognizes that for God to kill in the OT is not necessarily to permanently destroy, that Christ preached on Holy Saturday even to these dead (those killed in the flood, those killed at Sodom and Gomorrah, those killed in the 10th plague, those killed in the conquest of Canaan, etc.).

        I’m sorry for another long comment, and I realize that many of the concerns I’ve expressed here are probably treated in the two books you’ve recommended. I’m just engaging in friendly back-and-forth, from one Catholic to another. Want to add also that I think your Strange Notions site is a great idea; the timing is very fitting, considering the election of Pope Francis this year, and the heavy emphasis he has placed on our responsibility to reach out to atheist brothers and sisters.

        • Jordan, I wish I had time to respond to each paragraph here–perhaps one day in a pub!–but my short reply will have to suffice: thoughtful, well-done, and I agree with basically everything you’ve said.

          Also, thanks for the kind words! I really appreciate them.

          • Jordan Miller

            It would be great to talk exegesis over a beer (or whiskey) at some point. I teach theology, and I really want to get more involved in dialogue efforts, both online and off. Keep up the good work at SN.

          • Definitely! I’d love to learn more than you. Can you send me an email ([email protected]) so we can better connect?

  • Michael

    Father, you mentioned that the Bible contains “creation myths.” Can you briefly state what stories you are referring to here? Thanks.

  • Mike

    What about the story of Sampson? I always thought of him as a hero, who defeated the philistines in the end by his own sacrifice, toppling the pagan temple where he was chained and destroying his enemies. Then 9-11 happened and we all read about suicide bombers thinking they were doing gods will by killing lots of people, including themselves. Was Sampson the first suicide terrorist?

  • John S

    Just as a point — actually two points — of information, Origen wrote in the third century, not the second (his dates are c. 185-254), and he did not deny the historical accuracy of the conquest narratives in Joshua. He only denies the historical truth of biblical narratives when he thinks they contain a literal impossibility or an internal contradiction. He did deny that this historical sense should be appropriated by Christians, who should rather appropriate the spiritual sense according to which the “Canaanites” are the demonic vices that dwell in the “promised land” of your soul.

    • Thanks for the correction, John! Just updated the article.

  • Matt (not Ramage)


    Just a quick note that Dr. Matthew Ramage is at Benedictine College, unless he has moved recently. Not a big deal, I just wanted the Ravens to get a little good publicity here. Peace!

  • Dom

    Talk of “dark passages” and the “Old Testament God” has come to sound rather juvenile to me. In the Old Testament, God reveals himself to be every bit as merciful and beneficent as in the New. And the wars and genocide and slavery are just part of the human condition and were so long before God ever revealed Himself to Noah or Abraham.

    During the time period covered by the Old Testament, God may have been content to chastise His children (which even the Old Testament points out includes Gentiles) through the sins of others, but it is worth noting that the punishment doled out is regularly of a temporal nature. Loss of life, property, family, and enslavement, etc etc. It is nature of man, his free will, and his relationship to his God that puts it all in perspective.
    If anything, Christ’s teaching, far from reducing the dangers brought on by disobedience, actually raises the stakes; in revealing the path for eternal life, He also warns–repeating Himself seemingly over and over again — about eternal death in Hell. No genocide or famine or disease or tragedy in this life can compare to such a fate in degree of darkness. The stakes with the “New Testament God” are a great deal higher and, frankly, a great deal scarier.

  • Howard

    It’s silly and arbitrary to object to divine genocide unless one objects to all death, period. If it is objectionable for God to order His followers to kill, is it not also equally objectionable for Him to kill through direct, divine judgement — as with Sodom and Gomorrah? If the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is objectionable, is not the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum through the medium of nature equally objectionable? If it is objectionable that God destroys a city in a sudden act of nature, is it not equally objectionable that He destroys all inhabitants of every city and countryside through the mere passage of time?

  • bill b

    I’m going to take issue with the very idea that the dooms of certain groups were simply in the Old Testament. The worst (and last) doom quantitatively was in 70 AD and was announced by Christ who said it would include preborns within the women of Jerusalem (Luke 19:44) and He said it would happen because Jerusalem did not know the time of its visitation (ibid). Josephus gives a figure of 1.1 million killed in that Jerusalem doom and Tacitus gives 600,000. There is no God guided doom after that in the “certainly willed” sense that we can know of since Revelation closed. The Romans did the slaughter of Jerusalem but God willed it and Christ gave its real reason in the mentioned Lucan verse. Exodus 20:5 says that God punishes down to the third and fourth generation physically not as to guilt of sin…hence the preborns.
    Fr. Barron in his video and Pope Benedict in section 42 of Verbum Domini both shrink from mentioning the 70 AD doom announced by Christ; and neither seems to know Wisdom chapter 12 ( only canonical with Catholics) which tells you that God first punished the Canaanites slowly and lightly to give them space for repentance ( Wis.12:10) for four hundred years until their sin was complete or filled up in God’s eyes ( Gen.15:16) before He resorted to the dooms. Jerusalem is also not doomed until its sins are fiiled up or complete ( Matthew 23:32). The dooms by God were God’s last resort with people…not His first measure.
    The answer is that God is taking humans into the next world everyday of the week…including women and children (c.150,000 per day). Read your newspaper. Fifty one people in a bus in Peru went over the edge of a cliff just days ago and were all killed hundreds of feet below. That can only happen if God permits it and He permits such things weekly. Christ said that a bird does not fall to the ground without your Father’s permission. Did God bring the Peru incident about by actively choosing it rather than permitting it? We have no idea because Scripture no longer tells us when God wills such things actively as He did the dooms. In scripture both God and the devil bring deaths to humans. God killed Herod in Acts 12 and the devil used a storm to kill Job’s relatives (Job1:19) and used men to slay Job’s servants ( Job1:15).
    So both God and the devil can be the active source of a death but only God permits both deaths…and we cannot know outside scripture usually whether God or the devil actively willed a death.
    The Biblical dooms had several purposes: punishment of the Canaanites but only after four hundred years of lighter punishments; protection of the Jews from the corruptive Canaanite culture of child sacrifice and cannibalism ( Wisdom 12:5)…which the Jews repeatedly followed anyway later. The Jews did not have sanctifying grace though they had sporadic actual grace. Hence they were weak from that and from Christ not yet having reduced the devil’s power…ie possession cases multiple in Christ’s time are minuscule now vis a vis a given population context.

    • billy

      So God actually permits abortions as part of the “150,000 per day”, just like those fifty one people in the bus in Peru that experienced a horrible death?

      • bill b

        Permit does not equate to endorse….yet scripture says, ” He has made all things even the evil man for the evil day.”
        eg Judas. That is He brings good out of evil and I agree with John Paul II that the aborted are in Heaven. ( non de fide)…Evangelium Vitae ( address to women who have aborted).

    • Daniel Rooke

      3 years late, but this is a great answer!

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