Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?

During the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), I attended a meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. The theme for the conference was: “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” As I mentioned in a previous post, that meeting was probably the best one I attended while I was in Atlanta. The following papers were presented in that session:

Paul Copan, Palm Beach Atlantic University, spoke on slavery in the Old Testament.

Matthew Flannagan, Bethlehem Tertiary Institute, spoke on the genocide of the Canaanites.

Randal Rasuser, Taylor Seminary, spoke on child sacrifice, with emphasis on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.

Richard Hess, Denver Seminary, spoke on the wars of Yahweh.

In this post I want to summarize Hess’s paper. In a coming post I will summarize Copan’s paper. The reason I want to call attention to these papers is because they deal with an aspect of the character of God that has been highly debated in scholarly circles.

All four papers presented at this session deal with some aspect of divine behavior. During the session I met Eric A. Seibert, the author of Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009). In his book Seibert seeks to address some of the passages where God’s behavior seemingly contradicts other passages in the Bible where God is presented as a loving and forgiving God. I told Seibert that I had read his book and that in January I would write a series of posts in order to discuss whether or not God’s disturbing actions can be defended.

The relevance of Hess’s presentation is that he addressed one of the issues raised in Seibert’s book: the wars of Yahweh. As a pacifist, Seibert would probably say that war is never acceptable in a civilized society. I agree with him, but we do not live in a perfect society, nor did Israel. Wars exist in the world in which we live and the results of war are not pretty.

The issue raised by Seibert and addressed by Hess is genocide, that is, God’s order to the people of Israel to kill both the men, women, and children of the conquered cities (1 Samuel 15:3). One good example of God’s order is found in the instructions for Holy War in Deuteronomy 20:

“But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them — the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites — just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18 NRSV).

Hess’s paper dealt with several passages in the Hebrew Bible dealing with the wars of conquest and whether archaeology proves or does not prove the reality of genocide in the wars of conquest. Hess noticed that in the rules of Holy War in Deuteronomy 20, the Israelites were commanded to conquer the cities (“towns” in the NRSV) that belonged to the inhabitants of the land.

In his presentation, Hess demonstrated that the Hebrew word for city, ‘îr (עיר), means either a city, a village, a fortified place in a citadel where the king lived, or a fort. Most people in Canaan lived in unwalled villages. A fortified place was composed primarily of soldiers. Thus, the people living in the cities were not civilians, but military people employed to defend the citadel.

Thus, when the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Canaanite cities, they were not commanded to destroy the villages where civilians lived, but they were commanded to kill the armed people (soldiers) who were defending the city.

Hess also showed that the translation “men, women, and children” is not a good translation of the Hebrew words in the text. Literally, the Hebrew words mean “from men to women,” meaning everyone who were in those fortified locations. In the wars of conquest, the text never mentions Israel conquering the villages or the places where the non-combatant population lived.

In fact, the Old Testament clearly says that most of the Canaanite population were not conquered. This is clearly seen in the books of Joshua and Judges. Below, I give a few verses where the Bible says that many of the population of Canaan were alive after the wars of conquest ended:

Joshua 13:1: “Now Joshua was old and advanced in years; and the LORD said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.”

The text then goes on to list all the places not conquered. These lands include the land of the Philistines, those of the Geshurites, several territories that belonged to the Canaanites, and the land belonging to the Amorites.

Judges 1:21 says that the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem. Judges 1:27 says that Manasseh did not drive out the Canaanites who lived at Beth-shean, at Taanach, at Dor, at Ibleam, and at Megiddo.

The text also emphasizes that none of the population of the many Canaanite villages were conquered: “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; but the Canaanites continued to live in that land” (Judges 1:27).

Judges 1:29 says that Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer. Judges 1:30 says that Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, nor the inhabitants of Nahalol. Judges 1:31 says that Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, nor the inhabitants of Sidon, nor the inhabitants of Ahlab, nor the inhabitants of many other Canaanite cities.

These texts and many others clearly show that there was no genocide. In wars people die, both combatants and non-combatants. Whether people approve of fighting wars or not is another matter, but the fact remains that although people died in Israel’s wars of conquest, there was no genocide of the Canaanite population.

Yahweh is not a moral monster.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary



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8 Responses to Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?

  1. >Taking into account all of Judges 1:27-2:5, it seems that God wanted them all driven out (if one does not want to conclude that God commanded all men, women, and children killed). The fact that they remained in the land was a consequence of Israel disobeying the command of God for them. Forcing the people into labor was making a covenant with them, similar to what they did with the Gibeonites. What did they have to do to obey God's command in this situation? Did God intend genocide? Rahab assumed that more than just soldiers were supposed to be killed (Joshua 2:12-13). The spies said that her family would not be killed if they remained in her home, which leads me to believe that the killing was for more than just the soldiers. Was God's command, in order to be fulfilled, nothing less than complete destruction of the Canaanites over time?


  2. >Preacher,You have a good point in your comment. It is possible to say that the conquest of the land did not imply the wholesale destruction of the population. Either, as you say, the Canaanites were to be driven out of the land or that they were supposed to be conquered without being slaughtered. After David conquered the Canaanites, he did not kill them; he put them to hard labor. The case of the Gibeonites is different. The Gibeonites deceived the Israelites. This is the reason Israel made a covenant with them. Otherwise, no covenant would have been made.All of us struggle with the issue of genocide. With all this, we can still affirm that God is not a moral monster and that the conquest of the Canaanites was justified, notwithstanding what people may say about the wars of conquest.I hope to go into more detail about this in January. I hope you will come back again.Claude Mariottini


  3. >Jos 6,21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young [na'ar – from the age of infancy to adolescence]and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.


  4. >Claude,I am planning on returning.God destroyed people on a massive scale with the flood. It was not until their moral character was far beyond hope (?) that He destroyed them.I also think of Jehovah's statement to Abraham in Genesis 15 about the Amorites' sin not being "full" for destruction.Whenever God destroyed whole nations of people, it was not on a whim, a migraine, or out of boredom.God's command to destroy the women and children probably kept them from experiences far more horrific had they lived.


  5. marlowe1 says:

    >The interesting thing about the Book of Joshua is how much it wants there to be a genocide. Judges does relate the tragedy of a land divided against itself, but that's from the high point when everyone is united against the Canaanites.Actually, I came across your blog and I had an ulterior motive for commenting. I edited an anthology of short stories based on Bible tales called She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror and I was wondering if you knew anyone who would like to review it – either in pdf format or physical. It's a multi-author anthology and features stories including an alternate history where David never becomes king and a story told from the perspective of Saul's ghost. If you're interested, please email me at omanlieder-at-yahoo.Thanks


  6. Anonymous says:

    >Dear Claude,I am Braziliam as well. I must confess I get proud about you, it not just because that, but much more regarding your knowlodge on Old testament.I have a question to you; Why G-d has determined such hard punishment in Deut 21: 18-23? It comes from G-d?? Why? it is a crime to me.L Moreno


  7. Connor says:

    It’s quite obvious that we are not talking about a universal saviour here, but a tribal god with a vested interest in Israel. When pharoah refused to release the Israelites, Yahweh could have done pharoah in and the the problem might have been solved there and then. But what did the father of Jesus do? He killed the firstborn of Egypt, he visited plagues after plagues on the land, and he inflicted such misery on thousands upon thousands. Just to show pharoah who’s boss. Yahweh’s capacity for sadism and violence surely puts Satan to shame. Sorry, but I’m with Dawkins on this one.


    • Connor,

      When you look at God from Dawkins’ perspective, then God may be a moral monster. But look at this: one nation oppresses a group of people for years. This nation commits genocide by killing babies. This nation brings pain, suffering, and agony to thousands of people. This nation places a heavy burden upon innocent people. Now, who will bring this brutal and oppressive nation to justice? You only blame God. Why don’t you blame the pharaoh for his inhumanity, his genocide, his brutality, and his oppressive behavior? I believe in justice and so does God.

      Claude Mariottini


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