Does the Bible libel God?

As a pastor with his influence and visibility can do, Adam Hamilton has churned up a lot of conversation this week about the topic of biblical interpretation. Earlier this week, he wrote about “Homosexuality, the Bible, and the United Methodist Church,” generating hundreds of comments.

He also stirred both David Watson at United Theological Seminary and Bill Arnold at Asbury to respond with somewhat different takes on Hamilton’s use of a metaphor of three buckets to divide up Scripture. Both of their posts are worth reading and certainly more learned than what follows on this post.

Partially in response to some of the critics, Hamilton wrote a second post, which responds to the complaint that he is advocating “picking and choosing” among biblical texts.

In both posts, Hamilton has pointed to texts like Deuteronomy 20:16-18, although he does not specifically list that or any other text, as the kind that do not reflect the character, heart, and will of God.*

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.

Hamilton’s flat rejection of such texts in the Torah and Joshua — among other places — causes me some questions that I’d like to explore a bit here.

First, if the stories of YHWH calling for the total annihilation of enemies of Israel are human inventions that do not reflect the will of God, why were they left in the scriptures? Did not any later prophet point out the flaw? Couldn’t Jesus himself have pointed this out at some point?

“Hey, you know that guy Joshua. Yes, we share a name. But a lot of stuff he did and said was my will, he was hearing voices or something because it was not me.”

Of course, Hamilton is not the first person to raise objections to the violence of God in the Bible. I am reminded of Augustine’s observation in The Confessions that many things in the Old Testament were greatly troubling to him and obstacles to faith before he was taught to read them as allegories. And we have, of course, the heretical Marcion who declared YHWH a different God than the Father of Jesus.

Hamilton appears to be arguing that texts such as Deuteronomy 20:16-18 do not belong in the Bible. I do not know if he goes so far as suggesting we edit them out. But if they are false, if they libel God, shouldn’t they be cut out?

My second question is whether the ironclad “Jesus would never do this” case is as strong as Hamilton argues it is? In the gospels, Jesus warns to the annihilation of several cities in Israel, warning that it will be better for Sodom in the judgement than it will be for them. Sodom was that city God annihilated to the last breathing thing. Jesus does not appear to frown his own role in that episode (#Trinity).

In the gospels, Jesus warns of eternal punishment in hell for people who do not do his Father’s will. The phrase “where the worm never dies” comes up more than once. He talks of wailing and gnashing of teeth and outer darkness. He tells the story we all love so much about goats being cast into hell for eternal punishment because they did not feed the hungry or clothe the naked.

In Revelation, we are told Jesus is going to consign people to eternal judgement as well as participate in great turmoil and terror across the Earth.

Yes, he does not anywhere call for the killing of everything that breathes in a particular place, but Jesus of the gospels does not appear to me to be shy about destruction and judgement even as he talks of love, forgiveness, and mercy. The two things to not appear to be mutually exclusive in Jesus’ own preaching and teaching.

I agree with Hamilton that the stories of YHWH ordering the deaths of every man, woman, child, and animal in a city are fear inspiring and deeply challenging.

But when I read the New Testament, I do not find such things totally out of line with the character of Jesus as he appears in the gospels, as he is described in the epistles, and as he is anticipated in Revelation.

If we start from the limited claim that only a part of the biblical witness is divine in origin, why would God would let stories that impugn the character of God remain in the books without some explicit contradiction or correction? If those lines in Deuteronomy are telling falsehoods about the character, heart, and will of God, why has God not clearly indicated that in the parts of Scripture that are true revelation?The only answer that makes sense to me is to go all the way and say the books of the Bible are entirely human in origin and that God had no means to correct libelous mistakes. I’m not prepared to take those steps.

None of that means I find these parts of the Bible easy to understand or explain to others. Far from it. But for my part, I’m not ready to label as false witnesses those parts of the Bible that tell of the terrible judgement of God on his creatures.

I’m curious how you respond to these issues.

*In his first post Hamilton actually describes this in two different ways. In one place he says they are texts that never “fully” expressed the heart, will, and character of God. In another place he simply writes that they never did so. He later writes that such texts are “completely inconsistent” with Hamilton’s understanding of God. The first sentence appears to leave room for some fidelity in the texts. The later statements appear not to leave any such room. I’m not sure which is the proper way to read Hamilton’s intent.


4 thoughts on “Does the Bible libel God?

  1. It’s hard for me to deal with these tests on violence and I’m working through it.

    In reading Rene Girard, I’ve found that the scapegoat who suffers violence is the innocent one. In those “destruction texts” the peoples being “wiped out” had practices which would not even in the most generous times be considered innocent.

    I still struggle with it and my thoughts, as always, are a work in progress.

    The Geekpreacher

    1. I’ve never read Girard, although I encounter lots of people who do. Thanks for taking time to comment.

  2. I really appreciate Bill Arnold’s robust critique of attempts to cure scripture of its way of talking. Ben Witherington agrees. David Watson also discounts the effort, though he is softer on Adam Hamilton. Lift the siege on the Bible.

  3. Don’t even begin to mention the temporal judgement meted out by God/Jesus in the Great Flood! It seems to me that we assume/want God to be a lot nicer (and far more lenient) than the Scriptures reveal Him to be. I’m no Calvinist (not even close) but it seems us freewillers often would much prefer a God who never really judges people temporally, and we even seem hesitant to affirm the idea that God judges people eternally. We’d much prefer God as described by Rob Bell instead of the God described by John Piper.
    Even so, the actual truth is somewhere between such extremes.

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