Don’t ignore the problem

Richard Dawkins highlights the problematic texts of the Old Testament (e.g., the Canaanite genocide in Joshua; the smiting of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6).  Atheists like Dawkins, after they bring up one of these problematic passages, like to say, “I bet you didn’t hear about that in Sunday school?”  And they are usually right.   Because Christians focus on the nice parts (e.g., Psalm 23; Jeremiah 29:11–“I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not harm”).

While I understand the desire to avoid the nasty bits of the OT (they are confusing and take work to understand), those of us who teach the Bible are not serving people when we skip over the parts we don’t like.  It’s a bit trite, but it’s hard not to think of that proverbial ostrich.

If the problematic bits of the OT get ignored in church, when will people encounter them?  At least 3 places.

1) When they are reading through their Bibles on their own.  What are they going to do when they get to the Levites concubine (Judg. 19)?  Since they’ve never heard a sermon on it, or never discussed it in Sunday school or in a small group, they will be confused without anyone to help them make sense of texts like that.

2) When talking to an atheist, who, like Dawkins, knows more about the problematic bits (Psalm 137:9- divinely authorized infant head-bashing?) than they do.  They will be surprised that there are passages like that in their Bible, and they will be embarrassed that the atheists know more about the Bible than they do.

3) When they go off to college and their Intro to the Bible or Intro to Religion prof, who is a big fan of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, brings up the story of the angel of YHWH killing 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35).  Or perhaps, a bit more familiar, the story of the flood, where God drowns all humans except Noah’s family.  (At what age is it appropriate to first expose people to the horrors of the flood narrative?  College?  Mid-20’s?)

As I’ve been talking to people about God Behaving Badly, people tell me story after story of being shocked by what they find in their Bibles and being angry that their church never taught on problematic texts.  The word that gets used frequently is “betrayed”.

If you teach the Bible, don’t ignore problematic texts.  They teach profound lessons about God and his character.  And people need to know how to deal with them.  Books like God Behaving Badly, or Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? can help us understand texts like these.

In what contexts have you talked to people about problematic texts?  What texts do people ask you about? 


  1. Dave,

    I recently was listening to a lecture hosted by the Veritas Forum by Fredrica Matthews-Green called “The Meaning of Sex.” Green took questions from the audience after the lecture. A gay man stood up and thanked her for her talk. He said he camed preparing to be pretty hostile, but was surprised by how understanding and reasonable Green came across. He asked a question about Leviticus 20:13 (death penalty for homosexuals) and how a thoughtful Christian like herself responds to passages like that. Green handled the situation well, but basically just said that there is a lot of commandments in the OT that Christians do not follow. That doesn’t really answer the question of “What is that doing in the Bible?!”

    I don’t remember if that is a passage you addressed in your book. I’ve often been asked that question, and responded basically like Green did. How would you have answered?

  2. I think apologists like Paul Copan make matters worse (and reinforce Dawkins’ point) when they make excuses for the barbarism in the Old Testament and why it was okay to slaughter Canaanite children, since they’d just be going to heaven. (ugh)

    The men who wrote much of the Old Testament were definitely moral monsters. Christians need to own up to that.

  3. Paul, while I share your assessment of Copan’s work and apologetics in general, I would disagree with your final assessment for a variety of reasons. It continues to encourage black and white thinking, when matters are much more gray. It also runs the risk of degenerating, all too quickly, into Marcionism. Such statements also assume that we know who wrote the Old Testament, and what the situations were that gave rise to some of these texts. The interpretive issues are quite a bit more complex than you’ve outlined. Moreover, the OT may contain violent images, but it also contains a wealth of beautiful images–covenant, love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, grace, YHWH’s steadfastness, etc. Similarly, though, the New Testament is not immune from such violent portrayals. Read Revelation and compare its Jesus with the conquest narratives! Look at Jesus with a whip in the Temple in all 4 gospels, driving out the money-changers. Look at Matt 15, where Jesus calls a woman seeking healing for her daughter a “dog.” While not all of these examples exhibit violence, they do point to a farmore complex and diverse picture than what many Christians actually usually see. In my view, Christians need to own up to the fact that BOTH Testaments have love and wrath, beauty and terror.

    David, we’ve touched on this topic a bit before. In my intro classes I actually tackle the issue head-on. I focus the class around different ways of thinking about and imaging God, noting the complexity of the biblical portrait. Students read Seibert’s’Disturbing Divine Behavior’ and Fretheim’s ‘The Suffering of God,’ which give two very different views of the biblical God. I had a student last week ask me why we were studying problematic images of God, because, as she said, she was perfectly happy with her image of God beforehand. (moments like this when I suspect all students in the classroom begin chanting FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT in their heads!). I responded in number of ways, and it seemed worthwhile. Tomorrow we’re wrapping up Seibert, and the students are always surprised at where he goes with the problem. At the outset they are terribly angry he’s even saying such things about God, and by the time they read his conclusions they’re angry because they think he’s walking a Marcionite line! It’s interesting to watch. And they’re right . . . he is walking that line!

    Another student asked me when I thought it was appropriate to introduce folk to these texts, because Ihave gotten responses such as feeling betrayed or “lied to” by their pastors or sunday school teachers. I do firmly believe if people were exposed to these images and had a context in which to address them thoughtfully, that would prove ideal. No sense hiding from the images; the danger comes, as you rightly say, when these texts are encountered outside those boundaries.

  4. To be sure, there are absolutely wonderful and morally profound writings in the Old Testament (Hosea, Jonah, etc.). I’m just fed up with the approach that the entire thing is perfect and impeachable moral goodness, and if we just work hard enough we can explain away the nasty bits and devise hermeneutical distractions.

    > Look at Matt 15, where Jesus calls a woman seeking healing for her daughter a “dog.”

    Heh, that reminds me of the Mitchell and Weber skit (British comedy duo for those who don’t watch British TV) in which Jesus is trying to tell the story of the Good Samaritan and keeps getting chewed out by his audience for being racist.

    1. You know, I think there are times when a good head-butt is just what the dotocr ordered. I’m planning to do it one of these days. I’ll calmly climb on a chair and the man (it will be a man, no offense) will wonder, “what is that crazy woman doing now?”And it will be his last coherent thought for a few days.

  5. Matt, nope, I don’t talk about the death penalty for homosexuals in GBB. Perhaps I’ll discuss it in the next book. The death penalty was given for many things in the OT, some that might not disturb us (murder, rape), others that might (rebellious children). I do talk about how laws needed to be much simplier, stricter and more straight-forward (ch. 6). It’s a great question that I can’t do just to in a few sentences.

  6. Paul and John, I’m probably going to come down closer to John on many of these issues. I like reading Seibert and Copan, even though I don’t always agree with them because they have things to teach me. I probably agree with Copan more than Seibert. John, sounds like a great assignment and I’m sure an interesting discussion on Fretheim and Seibert. Copan is trying to help people understand these texts and sometimes his explanations work, but other times, he glosses over the problem and his arguments wouldn’t convince skeptics (which people probably say about my book too).

    Paul, I haven’t seen that sketch, but I discuss The “Good” Samaritan in my book God Behaving Badly (88-89), in the chapter on racism and talk about how the title we give the parable is actually racist.

    Thanks for the perspectives, gentlemen.

  7. I wonder if some of the problem lies in the way the Bible is communicated. What does preaching and individual reading do? Can you really preach a sermon on Judges 19? Can you really preach Ecclesiastes?

    Also, when you tell people to read the Bible more, but give them no tools for understanding context and no one to ask questions to, that sets them up for failure or “betrayal.”

    Maybe churches need more time in group study where questions can be freely asked and honestly wrestled with. But I also work for InterVarsity so I am totally biased about inductive Bible Study.

  8. David, if you didn’t catch the announcement on my blog (or on FB, assuming we’re FB friends, which at the moment I honestly can’t recall if we are or not . . . anyways), I am now officially adding my voice to the conversation in print. I’m under contract with Eerdmans to publish a volume with the current title An Untamable God: Reading the Old Testament’s Troubling Texts Theologically. It is a worthwhile and robust conversation going on re: these issues, and as you know, I remain dissatisfied with all approaches out there on the topic.

    Re: Copan, I simply cannot get past the flawed exegesis that is rampant in that book. Thom Stark’s thorough (book length!) review, while admittedly I haven’t read all of it, seems to have some merit, and that Copan hasn’t responded at all only confirms to me all the more my original suspicions. I do not find Copan’s book helpful at all; I am sorry to say this, but it is true. He works waaaaaaaaaaaay too hard to apologize for God, and his arguments often strain the evidence. I’d encourage you to check out Stark’s review, which is available on his blog,

    My thoughts on Seibert’s book–though he is a dear friend–are no secret; see my RBL review of his DDB.

  9. There is another alternative view: the view of historic Christianity, which all of you avoid. It is simply this: Canaanites are genetically the center of rebellion against the God of the Old and New Testaments, and will be finally exterminated as recorded in Rev. 20:9. Jesus said they were children of the devil in John 8:44, and I am ready for Him to return and finish the job started following the Exodus from Egypt- good riddance!

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