We are studying Judges at church this year. I love our church’s commitment to expository teaching because it forces us to preach through the whole counsel of God—even the tricky bits. And Judges certainly has some tricky bits.

The judges use deception and violence against Israel’s oppressors (e.g. Ehud, Judges 3:12-30). Israel decides to kill the women and children of Jabesh-Gilead, except the 400 virgins forced to marry the Benjaminites (Judges 21). Perhaps most horrific, a woman is raped, murdered and dismembered in Benjamin (Judges 19).

Sure, the narrator doesn’t say God approved of all this; Hebrew narrators often describe events with minimal explicit commentary, leaving us to interpret things ourselves. But the ambiguity can leave our moral compasses spinning. 

Then there are the things God does approve of. He helps Judah win in battle against the Canaanites and Perizzites (Judges 1:4), and they celebrate by cutting off Adoni-Bezek’s thumbs and big toes (Judges 1:6). He enables Judah to dispossess the inhabitants of the hill country (Judges 1:19). He is with Joseph when they put the entire town of Bethel to the sword (Judges 1:25). At one point God criticises the Northern tribes for making treaties with the Canaanites and not destroying their altars (Judges 1:27 – 2:3).

Much of this fulfils Deuteronomy 7:1–5, which tells Israel to ‘utterly destroy’ seven nations including the Canaanites and Perizzites. No treaties, no mercy, no intermarriage. Instead they are to destroy their idols and altars. Nothing that breathes should remain alive (Deuteronomy 20:16–18).

Did God really say?

It is difficult to read Judges without addressing the objection that the God described is too violent to worship. Richard Dawkins casts the Old Testament God as:

… arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction … a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (The God Delusion, 51.)

Dawkins’ description is extreme and one sided, but even Christians struggle with questions about God as depicted in the Old Testament. We know that he is the God of life not death, creation not violence, mercy not destruction. So did our God really command all this stuff? The violence of Judges can leave us wondering if this is the same God we know.

Did our God really command all this stuff? The violence of Judges can leave us wondering if this is the same God we know.

Possible Approaches

Christians take several approaches to the violence of the Old Testament.

1. We can reject the depictions of God here as inconsistent with God as revealed in Jesus.

This approach considers any violent descriptions of God as human projections onto God, which God puts up with (accommodation) until he can get his real message through to thick and thuggish humankind (progressive revelation). Greg Boyd, for example, employs a “Cruciform Hermeneutic” centred on the non-violent God revealed in Jesus Christ, which then requires many Old Testament texts to be reevaluated to address their sinful distortions of God’s true character.

There is some truth to this kind of approach (it’s called the “Old” Testament for a reason). We certainly do need to read these accounts in the light of Christ’s ultimate revelation. For example, God’s election of Israel seems narrowly nationalistic and exclusive, until we discover that their election was always ultimately part of God’s plan to bring Jew and Gentile together in Christ.

Overall, however, this approach is to be rejected because it does not do full justice to the complexity of the God who is revealed in Christ: the prince of peace is also the judge of the world (John 5:27). The reason why Christians can embrace nonviolence now is precisely because God will soon judge the world in Jesus Christ.

2. We can reinterpret the descriptions of violence to make them less confronting.

This approach looks closely at the context of what is commanded in order to show that the commands are not as genocidal as they at first appear.

The word translated “utterly destroy” or “annihilate” or “devote to destruction” is herem, sometimes translated as a “ban”. While physical violence may be involved, simply killing people is not the goal. The emphasis often seems to be on the inhabitants being forced to leave (“driven out”) rather than being systematically killed (Judges 1:33, as in Exodus 23:23-33 and 34:11–16). This explains the otherwise puzzling prohibitions on marrying the Canaanites: who are they marrying if everyone is dead?

Recent studies in comparative literature have even suggested that the extreme language of the biblical texts (“kill every living thing”) is not intended literally, but reflects a particular genre of war report which employs hyperbole to describe definitive victory. It is like saying that Hawthorn “decimated Collingwood”: it doesn’t literally mean they killed every tenth player. Judges is describing, using the vocabulary of the day, decisive victory in a war, not ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Some archaeological evidence backs this up, suggesting that the targets of violence were military forts rather than well populated civilian towns. This toned down interpretation of the commands might explain why there is little archaeological evidence that total destruction of the cities always took place. The conquest, as Tim Escott puts it:

… was a convincing subjugation of the promised land, involving the destruction of key military strongholds, armies, and leadership, along with the driving out of much of the population.

This clarifies that God is not commanding genocide, nor inciting violence for violence’s sake. Women and children may have been collateral damage in these battles, but they were probably not the targets.

The surrounding biblical context also suggests that mass killing is not the goal but a last resort. Some of God’s enemies choose to surrender and are saved: for example the men from Bethel (Judges 1:25), and Rahab in Jericho (Joshua 6:25). This option rules out the motive of genocide or ethnic cleansing. Keep in mind that the Israelites expect to receive exactly the same punishments themselves if they misbehave (e.g. Achan in Joshua 7).

We do need to read the events carefully in their context to be clear about what is, and isn’t, being described. However, this kind of clarification does not address the complaint that God is still commanding dispossession and, in at least some cases, killing. 

3. We can assert God’s right to judge the world

This approach essentially bites the bullet: why can’t God use violence as part of his divine judgment? God gives life, and it is his to take away. “God has repaid me for what I have done”, says Adoni-bezek when his thumbs are cut off (Judges 1:7).

God is not violent in his character; he is not like the Canaanite gods who delight in human sacrifice. But God is just, and he does confront evil with righteous judgment and sometimes force. The wickedness of the Canaanites is a reason for their destruction (see Deuteronomy 9:5). They sacrifice their children in the fire to false gods (Deuteronomy 12:31). The Amorites are not destroyed until their iniquity reaches its peak (Genesis 15:16).

Meredith Kline points out that it is only God’s grace that has held back his final judgment on earth, and so the killing of the Canaanites is merely a pulling back of mercy. Everyone is already getting better than they deserve.

This approach is simple, even if it is hard to swallow. It comes down to a basic presuppositional question: is God allowed to judge the world, give and take life, and determine the course of human wars? If not, then no explanation will satisfy.

I would affirm God’s right to judge. However, on its own, asserting God’s right to do what he does leaves us with more questions. Isn’t God’s desire also for mercy (Deuteronomy 4:31, Psalm 145:8, Ezekiel 33:11)? Why punish these seven nations and not the many others who were guilty of comparable sin?

4. We can re-contextualise the violence within the story of the Bible

This approach sees the violence in the context of God’s bigger plan and character, climaxing in the cross.

It’s important to acknowledge our different reactions to violence. I’m shocked by it because I live such a blessedly sheltered life. The world of the text reflects the realities of life for most people who have ever lived: war, instability, and constant struggle for survival.

Our reactions can serve the book’s message. Judges is supposed to be horrific. Things are not the way they are meant to be. Judges is the dark sequel to the optimism of Joshua—illustrating, as Daniel Block puts it, the “the Canaanisation of Israelite society during the period of the settlement”. The external threats becomes internal threats, as Israel becomes more and more like the surrounding nations. The actions of the judges are often very ethically mixed, and there are few if any heroes.

Israel’s moral landslide illustrates precisely why God warned against coexisting with the Canaanites in the land. Total dismantling of the Canaanite civilisation was necessary to protect Israel against becoming corrupted by the infrastructure of toxic idolatry. Yet Israel failed (Judges 2:1–13). They covenanted with the people rather than driving them out. This tolerance of idolatrous practices including child sacrifice would eventually infiltrate Israel’s worship (Jeremiah 7:18, Ezekiel 20:31).

Israel’s moral landslide illustrates precisely why God warned against coexisting with the Canaanites in the land. Total dismantling of the Canaanite civilisation was necessary to protect Israel against becoming corrupted by the infrastructure of toxic idolatry.

The Israelites are never given a blank cheque for killing whomever they like, whenever they like. This is a pivotal moment in history, when judgment is being brought on the land, and God’s plans to save the whole world are being enacted. This requires herem (e.g. Judges 1:17) in order to mitigate the risk of corruption of the pilot project Israel. It’s a matter of national security, but also the worldwide mission: if Israel is contaminated at this stage by false worship and idolatry then they cannot do their job as God’s spiritual lifeboat for the world.   

God’s judgment of the Canaanites is one part of his plan to redeem humanity from within the mess of human history. It is not indiscriminate violence. Nor is it simply racially based—the Israelites will experience the same judgment as the Canaanites in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonians when they fail God’s covenant.

For me, reading the Old Testament through the lens of the cross reveals a God who is anti-violent, rather than non-violent. It is not in his nature to destroy, but to redeem. He is not bloodthirsty like the Canaanite gods, but nor will he sit by passively while evil takes over his world.

God does not delight in the death of the wicked, but he is not above getting his hands dirty to win back his world. When he uses force it is as a last resort, a measured response to restrain wickedness. He destroys only ever with tears in his eyes, and with a view to future salvation.

Christians do well to remember that most of us, as gentiles, belong on the Canaanite side of the story in Judges. We are living proof of the grand scope and glorious mercy of God’s rescue mission.

Thinking Through Old Testament Violence

How do we work through a book as horrifically violent as Judges? Just as in Michael Rosen’s classic children’s story, I would say: “we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, oh no! we have to go through it!”.

I would suggest that as Christians we cannot simply reject the witness of scripture in the Old Testament. Jesus treated the Old Testament as the authoritative word of God, and so must we (Matthew 5:17). It may be necessary to re-interpret the texts in context to understand exactly what is and isn’t being commanded. We affirm that God is right in judging the world. Ultimately we need to re-contextualise the violence in light of the cross of Christ.