I recently felt heartbreak when my daughter, shortly after receiving her first Bible, stumbled onto Deuteronomy 20, which commands Israelites to kill all that breathes in Canaan (vv. 16–18). I’m a pacifist, and that chapter is probably the last one I would want her to read. It happened to be one of her first.
“Dad, why does it talk about killing the boys and girls?” As if that question wasn’t bad enough on its own, she asked it first thing in the morning, before I had any coffee.
“I don’t know,” I slowly replied.
“But you teach the Bible! You’re supposed to know this stuff!”
At that moment, I wanted to resign from my job as a professor of Old Testament and find another line of work. Despite her young age, she knew enough to know that the killing described in that text was wrong. I’m very familiar with scholarly and pastoral responses to texts like Deuteronomy 20; I’ve even written about some of them. At that moment, each and every explanation seemed worthless and unconvincing. What do you say to a girl in elementary school about a text with which you have such a complicated relationship?
One of the few passages of the Bible that offered help is Genesis 34, which contains an awful story of rape and revenge killing. It’s not an inspiring, peaceful, or happy text. Yet it does tell us that at least since the Bronze Age, the people of God have had to struggle with horrendous deeds that no one wants to talk about. This chapter makes the Bible a more violent book—but also more relevant. It reminds us that God continues to work in and through families who have to struggle with these kinds of monstrosities. Religious folk are sometimes characterized as sugarcoating the nasty realities of the world. The Old Testament grounds us in what life is really like.
At times, the Old Testament presents God as violent. Exodus 15:3 calls God a warrior, and the common title “Lord of hosts” could be easily translated “Lord of armies.” How can I worship such a God, given my pacifist commitments?
I find it helpful to recognize that there are some things God is and does that are off-limits to humans. A core biblical virtue is humility, which begins with the recognition that we are not God. Human beings lack every type of perfection: we’re not all good, all powerful, or all knowing. Who among us should cast the first stone—or pull the trigger?
But there are also texts in the Bible that encourage human violence, like the passage my daughter read. While I can explain the meaning of those Hebrew words and the context in which they were written, I can’t explain why they should be in our Bibles. Nor do I think I have the authority to overturn 2,000 years of church teaching that Deuteronomy 20 does belong there.
In the end, I stand by my initial response: “I don’t know.” I don’t know why this chapter is in our Bibles. That answer obviously let my daughter down. But I hope that I’m teaching her that faith is a place where questions often go unanswered. I hope that she learns that our job is to have compassion for people who struggle with the Bible, not to come up with apologetic answers that beat them into submission.
The truth is, we’re finite beings trying to grasp the infinite through texts that are thousands of years old. We’re fooling ourselves if we think everything will have an easy answer—or even any answer at all. Maybe these texts are in our Bibles so that we worship God more than God’s word.