How to respond to the charge that the Bible is as violent as the Koran

I have moved this thread here from another entry. Along with a several readers’ comments offering practical suggestions on how to respond to the moral equivalence charge vis a vis the Hebrew Bible and the Koran, I’ve also posted my own, probably highly idiosyncratic and unorthodox, and maybe totally indefensible, interpretation of the dispossession of the Canaanites.

February 14

Clark Coleman writes:

Some liberal UK reporter at the Fitna showing asked about the fact that “the Bible condones violence” as a defense of the Koran. A simple response would be:

1. Yes, this point has been brought up many times. There are many Jews and Christians who are happy to discuss whether God’s instructions to the Hebrews to wipe out the Canaanites gives any authority today for anyone to commit violence. Are Muslims equally happy to discuss whether the statements in the Koran are authoritative for anyone today?

2. When people criticize the Bible for incidents of violence, Jews and Christians do not attempt to silence them. We debate them rationally. Is that true of the Muslim response to criticisms of the Koran?

3. Critics of the Bible are not excluded from entry into Western countries. Why should critics of the Koran be excluded?

By all means, let us compare the Bible and the Koran, and Jews, Christians and Muslims, in all these respects.

What does it say about a civilization that so many people are so intellectually juvenile that they will bring up their profound points of wisdom, which a child could refute?

Mark P. writes:

I would suggest a simpler argument regarding the violence in the Bible:

Simply put, the people the Bible commands to kill no longer exist. There are no Pharisees, or Canaanites, or Phillistines anymore. Bible violence is, in other words, mythic. For the Koran, however, there are always unbelievers and infidels. So the command to violence is very real and the potential victims number in the billions.

February 15

Ron L. writes:

Those who compare Biblical violence to that mandated in the Koran are quite ignorant. While the conquest of Canaan was certainly bloody, it was limited. The mandate was only for what is now Israel, plus the disputed territories, plus one half of Jordan and Lebanon up to the Litani river. Compared to the global call for Muslims, this is a trifle. It does not even compare to what the Muslims had conquered in the generation after Mohammed’s death.

The only claim that comes close to that of Islam is a line from Temujin, the Ghengis Khan, from the Secret History of the Mongols: “As Tengri is the only ruler in the sky, so there shall be one ruler under the sky.”

Finally, I would note that no Jew today would call for this, whereas most Muslims wish to see the world under Muslim rule and differ from each other only in means.

I would like to correct an assertion by Mark P. There most certainly are Pharisees. All Rabbinical Jews, or those following traditional and Orthodox Judaism are Perushim. The Talmud includes rulings from the Sanhedrin before the destruction of the Temple as well as the renewed Sanhedrin founded at Yavneh under Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai. Although they don’t really respect the authority of the Talmud, or the Bible for that matter, Conservative Reform and Reconstructionist Jews are also Pharisees. The only group of Jews who are not Pharisees are the few thousand Karaites.

LA writes:

I would add that there were no Pharisees at the time of the conquest of Canaan. The Pharisees did not come into existence for another thousand years.

William W. writes:

Regarding the discussion of whether violence in the Bible is comparable to violence in the Koran:

It must be remembered that the issue of Old Testament violence, ordered by God against the Canaanites, is at root a philosophical issue. No person who reads the Bible honestly can possibly come away believing that in order to be a Christian, he must kill innocent people. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the Koran and Islam.

The philosophical question, which is indeed troubling, is something like this: how can God, who is the primary reality, creator, standard and author of all goodness, at any time order, commit, or permit what seem to us to be heinous acts of indiscriminate violence? I won’t attempt to address this fully here. There are very good answers to such questions, but they go beyond the scope of this discussion. In order to answer someone troubled by Old Testament violence, questions such as what it means to have a final standard for all goodness, and how apparent randomness co-exists with a purportedly omnipotent God need to be addressed. We very quickly find ourselves in very deep. Can God stop children from getting leukemia? Why doesn’t he? Indeed, even to broach such questions about the stories of the Bible, a solid philosophical understanding of God, free will, pain, righteousness and sin must be worked out. Much of the problem with handling a question such as the ever-present “Why did God kill all those innocent Canaanites?” is that this isn’t, strictly speaking, a philosophical question. It’s an emotional reaction, rarely accompanied by a sturdy theory of the Good.

The reason I say all this is in order to strike a contrast with Islam. As other readers have said, the problem with violence in the Christian Bible is that it raises difficult philosophical issues, not that an honest reading of it will leave people feeling compelled to go out and slaughter the innocents. The problem with the violence of the Koran is emphatically not a philosophical one. In the Koran, Muslims are not given incitements to violent jihad in order to stimulate thoughtful philosophical discussion on good and righteousness. Quite the opposite: Muslims are ordered to spread Islam by the sword precisely because Mohammed wanted exactly that. And his belief, which has now become their belief, is that this violence is not only in keeping with the will of Allah, but, in that context, is a healthy, good, and normal part of human existence, never to be interfered with or questioned. In short, it is an exhortation to the faithful to become structured and formal barbarians.

LA replies:

You make good points. However, while you emphasize the need to discuss the philosophical issues, you don’t actually discuss them.

Let me give my view on this, which I’ve done before, though probably not at this much length. First I have to say that I don’t know that my view would be acceptable to any orthodox Christians or Jews. It’s my view, based on my own strong experience of reading the Bible plus, of course, the influence of Eric Voegelin’s interpretation of it in Israel and Revelation.

I’ll start by saying that, while it may be morally insensitive of me, I’ve never been troubled by the extermination of the Canaanites, because the way the Bible story hits me, it is not about the Canaanites. It’s not about punishing or hurting anyone. Whenever God mentions the Canaanites, it’s impersonal. What the story is about, what its emotional and spiritual impact is about, is God’s favor to the Israelites, that he is doing this great thing for them, giving them a land flowing with milk and honey. The Canaanites are merely incidental to that act of provision; in order for God to give the land to the Israelites, the present dwellers in the land must be removed.

The entire story of the Exodus and the settlement of Canaan is a spiritual parable. Israel represents the human soul. God is reaching out to this human soul, wanting it to live a higher kind of life than any it has previously known, a life under God. For this to be possible, first the soul must be liberated from the grip of the Pharoah, who represents the lower, greedy, obtuse human ego that wants what it wants and will not let go until total disaster has befallen it. So God punishes Pharoah with the ten plagues and Pharoah finally lets the Israelites go. Now they are in the wilderness, no longer slaves to the lower self, but living under God. Of course, they are still rebelling against this new relationship, resisting God, complaining, whining, every step of the way, which ultimately leads God to declare that they must remain 40 years in the wilderness until the “unspiritual” element among them, which is not ready for the new life under God, has died out and been replaced by a new generation that was not brought up in slavery. This purified people still need a permanent abode to live a proper human life. The Canaanites, like Pharoah, like the complaining and idol worshipping Israelites who must die out in the wilderness, represent an older aspect of man, that aspect of man that is more material and not capable of living under God. In order for the life under God to be possible, the old part of ourselves must be cleared away.

Does this “psychological” interpretation mean that the Torah is just “symbolic,” just legend? No. The core of the story is clearly historical and comes from the deepest level of the historical memory of the people of Israel. Israel was in slavery in Egypt, was brought out by God, was miraculously delivered at the Red Sea, was given the Law on Mount Sinai, and, after a sojourn in the wilderness for purification, was given the land of Canaan to dwell in, under God, as God’s people. This historical experience, the coming to dwell in the land of Canaan, in this new life as God’s people, was felt by the Israelites as such a blessing that the Biblical account was elaborated to express this experience. God is so great that he even clears out of this land its former inhabitants and gives it to Israel, as a gift, not needing to be settled by them, since it was already settled. But did that really happen? Were the former inhabitants really cleared off and totally eliminated? If you look at the story in the realistic and literal manner of modern people, you will only see terrible unfairness and injstice and miss the real emotional and spiritual impact of the story. Within the terms of the story, the killing and dispossession of the Canaanites is not about killing Canaanites; it is an expression of God’s marvelous favor to Israel in giving them a land, in purifying the human soul of the old, unspiritual self and putting in its place the spiritual self represented by Israel.

Strong evidence that the slaughter of the Canaanites never happened is found in the stark contradiction between the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges, which I’ve discussed before. In the Book of Joshua, the Canaanites are systematically wiped out as per God’s orders. But in the Book of Judges, which comes immediately after, the Israelites are living in Canaan, surrounded by Canaanites and frequently at war with them. So the Canaanites were not killed off. In saying this, it’s not I who am challenging the literal truth of Joshua; the Bible itself challenges the literal truth of Joshua. What this suggests is that the Book of Joshua is a symbolic expression of perfect obedience to God in getting rid of the old, unspiritual man as God has commanded. Again, this is not just “symbolic,” a word that to modern ears means fictional. The story is true. It is divinely true. It is conveying the experience of the people of Israel as they were transformed from a bunch of slaves into a people under God, living in their own land. Their collective memory of the great thing God has done for them constantly reawakens their shared gratitude and love for God and keeps reviving their identity as a people.

The limitation imposed by the story is that in connecting Israel’s covenant with that particular land, the spiritual truth is always bound up with the land and the temple. Such a material limitation on a spiritual revelation was not sustainable in the long run. Over the course of the Hebrew Bible, Israel’s relationship with God is increasingly spiritualized and personalized, no longer bound up with the land, the temple, the Covenant, and so on. In Jeremiah God says he will establish a new covenant that will be in each man’s heart. That’s why the Psalms and Isaiah and Jeremiah are the most removed from the covenantal relationship of the people of Israel to God and the closest to Christianity, in its universalism and in its aspect of a personal relationship between the individual and God. But of course that personal relationship is a constant throughout the Hebrew Bible, in the relationship of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, Samuel, Saul, David, the psalmist, and many others to God. I would even say that the proto-Christian relationship of the individual person to God is the most alive element of the Hebrew Bible. In this sense, the Christian Bible is not a spiritual rejection of the more “material” Hebrew Bible, but its fulfillment.

At the same time, the covenantal relationship of Israel to God and his deliverance of them from Egypt and his giving Canaan to them is not to be diminished or put aside, since that is also the basis of the more “spiritual” revelations that came later.

To sum up, if people focus on the apparent moral dilemma that God orders the slaughter of the Canaanites, and try to explain that dilemma in modern terms, they are missing and distorting the meaning of the story in its actual Biblical context and imposing concerns that are alien to the Biblical account itself. To read a book properly, is to try to understand what the author is trying to say to us. Within the context of the Bible, the dispossession of the Canaanites is not a moral problem. Its moral meaning is not that of invasion and mass killing; it is that this is what God wants for the people of Israel.

That’s the way I see it.

At the same time, I realize I’m making broad, sweeping points that can probably be faulted in particulars.

Terry Morris writes:

Not at all to discount the philosophical and theological arguments others have made on this subject, but a very simple answer to this charge is that in terms of percentages, there are four to five times as many violent verses in the Koran as there are in the Bible. As I recall it’s something like one to every fifty five verses in the Koran vs. one to every 250 verses in the Bible.

Here are some statistics on violent verses in the Bible vs. Koran. **Certainly not a Bible-friendly site.

These numbers, coupled with the arguments other commenters have made to the entry, make a pretty compelling argument for the Bible’s being far less violent than the Koran.

February 16

Joel LeFevre writes:

Here’s a passage that may be worth noting:

First, God’s prophecy to Abraham about the Egyptian bondage and deliverance:

Gen 15:13-15—And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land [that is] not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.


Verse 16—But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites [is] not yet full.

Thus God is giving the Caananites time to fully determine their course. (The reference to the Amorites seems representative of the Caananitic nations generally.)

Finally, this concerned a defined land base that God gave them for his own purposes. There’s nothing further to indicate this as the beginning of an expansionism embracing the whole world. Israel was to be held out as an example to the nations, not a force by which all the nations would be conquered. (Though Christ himself will conquer and rule the nations, reigning from Jerusalem as the world capital.)

Joel LeFevre writes:

The problem with the comparison is that its pits the situation of human societies 3,500 years ago with a politico-religious phenomenon that is contemporary. The real lesson to be gained is just how regressive the Mohammedan religion really is.

The history of conquest (which is what much of human history is about universally) as told in Joshua is but one example. The fact is, God deals with man as he finds him. In the Hexateuch [i.e., the Pentateuch plus Joshua] we see mankind in an early and very primitive period, where patriarchal societies were the norm—and where the patriarch’s word was law. The patriarch of a clan had absolute power of life and death over his children, his wives and concubines, and his slaves.

Other examples would include polygamy, which was never God’s ideal but which he tolerated and even enabled. The Mosaic Law qualifies the practice somewhat, but it’s never forbidden in Scripture. Still, by the New Testament period, monogamy was taken for granted as the norm.

Then there’s incest. Obviously, a literal interpretation of the Genesis Creation requires that the earliest marriages were incestuous. And this persisted to some extent for generations—Abraham was married to his half-sister. Incest was later forbidden in the Mosaic Law.

Levirate marriage was another example, necessary at the time to ensure the survival of a widowed woman, but something we would never allow today.

Of course, slavery is a classic example. It was acknowledged (though ameliorated) in the Mosaic Law, even in the Ten Commandments (one may not covet his neighbor’s slaves.) Yet it’s only in the past two centuries that (in the West) the practice has been done away with—human societies do advance!

But Mohammedanism is regressive; it is internally incapable of embracing the advance of human societies that Christianity has fostered. Comparing the Koranic mandates to a situation that existed thousands of years ago only makes the point.

Bill Carpenter writes:

The exercise of comparing Biblical and Koranic violence is premised on the existence of a “true” standard of pacifism against which such violence is to be measured. The premise is not acceptable. However, the premise emerges from Biblical prophecy and moral lessons that are wrongly understood. I would say that Biblical and Koranic violence both have the purpose of establishing and maintaining communities under God, and that violence is a feature of God’s design for man. However, the Bible also includes an ongoing, in-depth critique of wrongful violence, and its effects on peoples and individuals. From Cain to Caiaphas, wrongful killing is a horrible sin. (We are all Christ-killers, though forgiven for it.) Christian civilization is based on divine justice, and the rightness of killing is always questioned, along with the rightness of not killing. Indeed, Christianity in its essence is a dialogue between higher and lower understandings of divine justice, i.e., the Law, and paciism is a product of that dialogue. Islamic civilization seems quite undeveloped by comparison, though the point may be disputed, as may the merits of development if it leads to suicdal liberalism. But pacifism is not the Way. Rather, Christ asks, with Sandahl Bergman in Conan, “Do you want to live forever?”

February 17

Bill Carpenter writes:

Christian knighthood is one of the highest creations of our civilization, from Beowulf to Sienkiewicz. It is martyrdom in defense of all that is good and holy. To complain about violence in the Bible is evidence that one has no understanding whatsoever of who Westerners are.

Liberalism is not the standard by which religion is judged. Instead, religion judges liberalism. Non-liberal Christianity is a redundancy. It appears in force in Sienkiewicz’s delightful portraits of Polish knights, if anyone is looking for some good reading. (Henryk Sienkiewicz won the 1905 Nobel prize for Quo Vadis?, but he made his name with patriotic historical novels.)

LA replies:

Are you equating mass exterminations of entire populations with martyrdom in defense of all that is good and holy?

Bill Carpenter replies:

Not in general, but I don’t think we can reject the means of establishing a godly people (expelling, suppressing, or exterminating prior inhabitants) without rejecting the fruit. The need to seize and hold land is part of God’s providential design. To obey his commands is good. To indulge in sadistic violence is evil. The conquest of Canaan was a test in many parts. When the Hebrews obediently slaughtered their enemies, they passed. When they disobediently spared them, or seized booty, they failed. However, Abraham had earlier successfully argued for a city to be spared, and Jacob’s sons wrongfully slaughtered another city. The precedent of mercy is also strong. Obedience to the Lord is the key, wherever it leads.

We have good cause to reject mass exterminations out of hand because of the unjust destruction of innocent lives, but the divine command behind Biblical exterminations commands our respect and possibly our assent. They are a good subject for the Christian dialogue between higher and lower understandings of the Law.

Joel LeFevre writes:

Also, I think your explanation has more merit that you give it credit for. The spiritual parallels/lessons with the recorded events is one of the remarkable features of Scripture, particularly the OT.

I would only offer clarification in that the contradiction between Joshua and Judges is more apparent than real. The Book of Joshua does not teach that all of the Canaanites were exterminated, but rather the contrary. As Joshua himself warned in the penultimate chapter (vv 11-13):

Take good heed therefore unto yourselves, that ye love the LORD your God. Else if ye do in any wise go back, and cleave unto the remnant of these nations, even these that remain among you, and shall make marriages with them, and go in unto them, and they to you: Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.

The record in Joshua is concentrated on the large cities—those power centers that had to be taken out in order for Israelite sovereignty over the land to acquire its foothold. But there was still work to be done, and after Judges 1 it fell to each of the tribes to deal with the remaining inhabitants within their respective, allotted territories. This of course they miserably failed to do. Lacking Joshua’s spiritual influence they got slack and over-confident—and paid the price for centuries. (Though even under Joshua there was failure here, as with the Gibeonites in ch. 9.)

Lastly, I agree with your overall assessment that the emphasis is on what God is giving to this his people. The Canaanites are under judgment, which God carries out through Israel. But it’s worth noting that even then, God was still searching for even one soul among the condemned peoples who would follow him—even if it were merely a harlot, like Rahab.

Bill Carpenter writes:

Your point about the Hebrews not actually having exterminated the Canaanites is a good one. I believe it is characteristic of Biblical composition to juxtapose narratives in tension with each other, rather than attempting to harmonize them. Not that Joshua expressly says the Canaanites were cleared out, but you would not expect after his successful campaigns for the Hebrews to be surrounded, embattled, and in danger of destruction as we see throughout Judges. The revelation is the main point—the reality of the living God, who rewards obedience and punishes disloyalty. Obedience to God, not extermination, is the point of Joshua. But a people needs land.

LA replies:

I would have to look it up, but there is a passage in Joshua that summarizes what the Israelites have done to the Canaanites, and it sounds like total, systematic extermination from one end of the land to the other.

“I believe it is characteristic of Biblical composition to juxtapose narratives in tension with each other, rather than attempting to harmonize them.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 16, 2009 01:52 AM | Send

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