We all hear about the supposed “God of Wrath” in the Hebrew Bible, and the supposed “God of Love” of the New Testament.
Those who draw that distinction don’t know their Bibles very well.
For the Hebrew Bible celebrates human sexual love, underwritten by the Hebrew Bible’s God, in its Song of Solomon. This God also tells his people that he will shepherd them so that they will not lack any good thing, and will bring them goodness and mercy all the days of their lives (Psalm 23).
Do they know that the Jesus of the New Testament holds a two-edged sword in his mouth in the book of Revelation, and “treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God” (chap. 19)?
So it is a myth that the God of Israel is a god of wrath (alone) but that the Christian God is a God of love (without wrath). The fact is that the God of the Bible, who is the God of Israel in both Testaments, is wrathful toward evil and loving toward all who want him—and that this is in both parts of the Bible.
The toughest part of the Bible for me has always been God’s war against the Amalekites and other Canaanites in Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, and Joshua. Why would God tell his people to exterminate all of these people, including their children and elderly?
In his essay on religious violence in his new co-edited (with Robert Jenson) book of essays, Ploughshares into Swords? Reflections on Religion and Violence (Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation), Rabbi Eugene Korn tackles this question head-on:
These biblical texts, with their depictions of Amalek and the Canaanites as subhuman, were not lost to religious authorities and zealots throughout history: During the Crusades, Pope Urban II considered Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem to be Amalek. In medieval times Jews considered Christians to be Amalekites, and in modern times anti-Zionist Jews considered Zionists to be Amalekites, while radical Jewish nationalists have designated as Amalek the Palestinians, Jewish leftists, and Israeli officials advocating ceding biblical land to Palestinians.
Even Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers, ruled that “it is a commandment to destroy the seven (Canaanite) nations . . . .If one of them comes into your hands and you do not kill him, you have violated a negative commandment.”
But Korn also points out that the rabbinic traditions dealt with this moral problem in two ways. First, it determined that since the Assyrians forced the intermarriage of their conquered peoples, and the Canaanites were among them, it was impossible after Sennacherib to trace any people who were still purely Canaanite. Hence this biblical command was no longer applicable.
Second, the Talmud contains a story that Moses saw the moral problem, and argued with God about the justice of killing the innocent. According to the story, God allowed Moses to provide for Canaanites an escape route if they were willing to make peace.
Maimonides picked up on these cues and proclaimed that the commandment to make war on the Canaanites should be observed only if there were Canaanites who refused to make peace.
Korn’s larger lesson is that every religious text that seems morally problematic must be evaluated by the way it has been interpreted in the religious community that uses that text. In this case, the Jewish rabbinic tradition constructed a categorical and non-falsifiable religious law that these texts about the Canaanites could be used only in just wars or in self-defense.
In a day when jihadist violence is an almost-daily occurrence, apologists for Islam sometimes claim religious equivalence—asserting that the sacred texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition have their own incitements to violence. One response is that while in the Qur’an the imperative to “slay the unbeliever” (S. 9:5) comes without any clear historical context and therefore appears to be a command for today, the Bible’s commands to slay Canaanites are imbedded within stories that clearly are part of the past and have no manifest application to the present. The rabbis’ observations underscore this point: God was speaking about the Canaanites back then, and there are no more Canaanites today. Therefore the other biblical and theological directives that limit violence to just war and self-defense are not contradicted by these biblical stories.
The rabbinic tradition thus helps show us that that there is no religious equivalence with the Qur’an. It also helps Jews and Christians take the sting out of one of the most disturbing objections to the God of the Bible.
Gerald McDermott holds the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.