Did God sanction genocide in the Old Testament? The biblical passages concerning the Israelites and Canaanites are some of the most challenging texts in all of Scripture and have been a major stumbling block for people interested in Christian faith and a difficult one for followers of Jesus to answer. Join Scott and Sean as they talk with Talbot colleague and OT professor, Dr. Charlie Trimm, as he lays out the various options for how to think about these perplexing texts in his most recent book, The Destruction of the Canaanites God, Genocide and Biblical Interpretation.

Dr. Charlie Trimm is Associate Professor Old Testament and Chair of the Undergraduate Department of Old Testament. He is the author of Fighting for the King and the Gods: A Survey of Warfare in the Ancient Near East, and Understanding Old Testament Theology: Mapping the Terrain of Recent Approaches

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell professor of Christian apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're today with one of our faculty colleagues in Old Testament, Dr. Charlie Trimm, who's done a lot of work in his background on the whole subject of divine violence and sort of tackling some of the issues, some of the hard issues that revolve around the use of violence in the Old Testament that portray God, to some people, portray him in a very negative light. He's latest book is entitled The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide and Biblical Interpretation. And here Charlie tackles, I think in my view, the most challenging, ethical issue in the entire Old Testament. And these are the places where, depending on how you read the text, God may be commanding genocide. And our intuitions tell us that if genocide is immoral and God's commanding it, then we've got a really big theological problem to deal with. So Charlie's tackled this head on and given us a good landscape of what the options are for trying to resolve this moral tension. So Charlie, welcome, we're really glad to have you with us.

Charlie Trimm: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Scott Rae: So tell us, I mean, you've spent a lot of your academic career on some of these really difficult subjects related to divine violence, but what originally sparked your interest in this subject?

Charlie Trimm: Well, this is a story that will show how random things are sometimes behind the scenes in academia. When I was working on dissertation at Wheaton College under Dan Block, my initial topic was intertextuality between numbers and Deuteronomy, but there were far too many texts and so we narrowed it down to military stories. And then as I was doing work on it, the military part took over and the intertextuality went away and I never got back to it. And so my dissertation was on YAHWEH as a divine warrior in the Exodus narrative. And as I came here to Biola and started teaching on divine violence, the students naturally wanted to learn more about the Canaanites as well. And so I kind of backed into this topic in some ways in academic terms.

Sean McDowell: What's the core moral issue at stake in this discussion and how big of an issue is it for a lot of the students you gauge with at Biola and beyond?

Charlie Trimm: Scott basically summed it up in the introduction, we seemingly have God commanding genocides, and we all feel genocide is wrong, and God is loving and kind so that can't be right. What's going on here? And so for the majority of my students, this is a major issue. I don't need to spend a lot of time convincing them here's something you should be concerned about. They come in knowing this is something that is deeply troubling. How do we think about this?

Scott Rae: So they come with this question already in the forefront of their minds?

Charlie Trimm: The vast majority of them, or at least as soon as they start reading the text, they immediately have questions about this.

Scott Rae: Okay. I think one of the helpful things in your book, there was some things that you lay out that we just need to know about how warfare was conducted in biblical times in order to understand this segment of scripture better. What are some of those things that we need to know about warfare in the Old Testament?

Charlie Trimm: The first chapter of the book is an overview of how warfare functioned in the ancient near east. This draws on a larger reference work that I wrote surveying this topic as well. There are several things that could be noted here, but the really important one is the use of hyperbole. And so clearly when ancient or Eastern kings talk about warfare, there's a lot of hyperbole involved, whether it's numbers or the extent of the victory. Now, it doesn't seem like they made up stuff entirely, so they don't make up battles or anything like that, but they will certainly make their victories look more conclusive than they actually are, and so on, and so that plays an important role in thinking about the military stories in the Bible.

Scott Rae: So they don't portray themselves as winning battles that they actually lost, but maybe just exaggerating what already took place.

Charlie Trimm: Correct, for the most part. There's a few that they claim victory to, or we have a few battles where both sides claim victory in different terms and so on.

Scott Rae: Okay. So maybe let's get our definitions straight here. What exactly do you mean by the term genocide? Do you go by sort of the standard human rights definitions of that or do you understand that differently?

Charlie Trimm: So genocide is a very contentious term to define. There is a UN definition of genocides that many people go with. However, one commonality among genocide scholars tends to be they all disagree with it in some way and so they all want to tweak it some different way. But the core definition that most people would agree with is genocide is not about numbers. It's not about how many people you kill, but it's about killing or destroying a group identity. So it's because of a membership in a group that the death or the attacks, whatever it is, happens. And so it's that group identity part that is core to the idea of genocide.

Sean McDowell: So obvious example would be World War II, wiping out the Jews as a group is an example of genocide. Would you say genocide occurred in the Old Testament, because there seems to be certain commands, like wipe out the Amalekites, for example?

Charlie Trimm: When you use the word genocide, a modern idea, and bring it into the ancient Near East, it's a bit difficult. I don't think there's a lot of genocide technically in the ancient Near East because even though the Assyrians and the Egyptians and so on can be pretty lethal, they don't tend to kill people just because they're part of a group identity. And so, they'll fight the group if they rebel, for example, but they're not going to wipe someone out just because they're part of this other group. So I don't think genocide in that sense is widespread in the ancient Near East. And even in the Old Testament, finding genocides could be a bit difficult because you have stories like Rahab or Caleb, who's a Canaanite, and they convert and they are welcomed into Israel in a variety of ways. And so ethnic background doesn't seem to play a role. The one place you could make the argument is with religion. And the UN convention on genocide explicitly includes religion and clearly the Old Testament is opposed to Canaanite religion.

Scott Rae: Charlie, you approach these problematic texts in the Old Testament with a certain set of assumptions. What are you assuming that sort of governs the way you approach the biblical text on these matters?

Charlie Trimm: In this particular book I don't make a lot of assumptions. I'm just presenting the views and then that allows me to see what scholars are saying all across the board. Many of them I disagree with in a variety of ways. And so when it comes to what I actually think, in the book I didn't present that, and it tends to be that I've hidden myself pretty well and you wouldn't be able to figure out what I think just based on reading the book. Now that the book's published, I don't mind talking about what I believe, but the assumptions I would begin with as an evangelical one who teaches here at Biola, things like inspiration of scripture are obviously going to be important for me when thinking through these texts.

Scott Rae: So Charlie, maybe another way to ask this question is what's the overall framework that you're using to approach these problematic texts? It seems to me this constitutes a lot of your starting place for this and it's the way that you evaluate different views. So what is that framework?

Charlie Trimm: The framework is these four different statements. So number one, God is good and compassionate. Number two, the Old Testament is a faithful record of God's dealings with humanity and favorably portrays YAHWEH's actions. Number three, the Old Testament describes events that are similar to genocide. Number four, mass killings are always evil. And so these four statements, can't all be true. And so in order to move forward with this scholars tend to reject any one of them so that the other statements can cohere. And so I arrange things based essentially on which one of these do you reject?

Sean McDowell: That's really helpful because there's only so many options that people can take regardless of their theological or philosophical commitments and some resolve this tension by just saying if God commands genocide or something that looks like mass killing, he cannot possibly be good. And of course that would give up believing in God, at least any God closely resembling the God of the Bible. You say that's costly. What would be the cost of giving that up?

Charlie Trimm: There's a variety of different kinds of costs. One would be a social cost, especially for those who grew up in the church and then leave the church. There's going to be friendships left behind, communities left behind. John Marriott, a Biola grad has done extensive work on deconversion and he interviews many people, and this tends to be thing that comes up very often is the social cost of leaving these communities behind. But there's also the intellectual moral cost in a sense of needing to find new grounds for morality. And so you can't use religion anymore, image of God and so on, so to say genocide, for example, is wrong, you would have to find new grounds to reject that, which many atheists of course have good reasons for their views, but you do have to shift your reasonings in that case.

Sean McDowell: I want to make sure our listeners are on track with this. This is not an apologetic book in which you're saying here's why God commands or allows mass killing. What you're doing is walking through different options in kind of an educational approach, almost like letting viewers kind of make up their own mind, so to speak. So I want to make sure that if people pick this up, they're not going to expect just an apologetic, here's exactly how you answer it, because even Christian apologists committed to the things that you're talking about will answer this differently. It's a guide to think Christianly and biblically and weigh the pros and cons of different positions. So you're writing as good educator does to just walk people through options and in a sense think for themselves about it. So that's really the strength of the book as I see it.

Scott Rae: So option one, we reject the notion that God is good. That's a pretty costly one. And I think that's actually costly for the whole enterprise of morality because as we've talked about on this program before naturalistic grounds for morality are on shaky ground at best. And so, for people who want to hold on to universal human rights and condemn genocide as it takes place today, giving up theism makes that a lot more challenging to do. Now others, they resolve this tension a little differently and they do that basically by distancing the God of the Old Testament from these violent acts. I think our listeners would be interested to know how does that play out and what does that look like?

Charlie Trimm: There's a variety of ways of doing this. One is simply to say these violent acts in the Old Testament didn't happen and so therefore it's not an ethical problem. But the more common one is to take a Christocentric approach, that is to look at the life of Jesus and to say if Jesus reveals God to us, then who is God according to Jesus? And if we think of Jesus as pacifistic, as anti-violence in the gospels, then the next jump would be to say, okay, in the Old Testament then anything where God commits an act of violence that's not truly God, this is something to be rejected. So Greg Boyd, Eric Seibert, are two prominent names who propose such a way of reading the Old Testament. And so this disconnects God, a pacifistic God in the view of Seibert and Boyd, from these violent actions in the Old Testament.

Scott Rae: So this is actually, it's a little different view than saying that the Old Testament, just simply as a historical record, is not accurate and therefore we can be skeptical about whether these things actually took place because we have doubts about the veracity of the Old Testament as a book of history. This is a different more to the theological view that under that underpins that.

Charlie Trimm: Correct. And this is one point of difference between Seibert and Boyd. Boyd's more optimistic about the historicity of the Old Testament, Seibert is less optimistic, but they both use Jesus as a lens to interpret the Old Testament and to reject the violence there as divine in origin.

Sean McDowell: So we talked about the option of getting rid of God, but then that leaves the challenge of where does objective moral values and duties come from. The second option kind of this, I think you said, like a cruciform approach, crucicentric, what would maybe be a downside or criticism of that? Would it just be that it ignores how Jesus handled the Old Testament and that Jesus seems to be a judge in Revelation and taught things like hell? What might be a criticism of that view?

Charlie Trimm: There's a few corollaries that go along with it. One is your view of scripture. So most people in this category reject inerrancy, they'll sometimes reject this entire text from the Old Testament, and so many people would have difficulties accepting this view based on their view of the Bible. Another problem would be just thinking about eschatological violence, to a certain extent, accepting this view leads you to universalism. It's hard to have any kind of judgment and say that God is nonviolent. And so Eric Seibert finds a way to make an argument for a distinction. He says it's out of the space-time continuum so it's not God's true character, but that seems hard to defend. And so I think to be consistent, to have a nonviolent God, leads to something like universalism with no judgment ever for anyone.

Scott Rae: Now, there's a third way that you point out to resolve this tension, and that is to suggest that what God is actually commanding here is something other than genocide. So what might that something other be if it's not genocide?

Charlie Trimm: This is where looking at warfare in the ancient Near East is helpful because we tend to read biblical text at face value as we take them and it sounds really brutal. But we need to read it as genres from the ancient Near East and military texts in ancient Near East use hyperbole. And so to read them well, would seem to indicate we would expect the presence of hyperbole. And we can see this in the Old Testament in several places, Deuteronomy 7 says destroy them all and make sure you don't intermarry with them, which doesn't seem to go together very well. Joshua 10 talks about wiping them all out and the remnant going back to the city. So pretty clearly there's hyperbole going on here. So the argument could be made that it sounds bad, but when read as an ancient Near Eastern text, we're just describing normal military battles, we're not talking about genocide.

Scott Rae: So this would be something like a hyperbole to say what, something like he's commanding a very decisive victory, sort of leave no doubt who the victor is, something like that?

Charlie Trimm: Correct. It's an extensive victory in military terms, the enemy is clearly crushed. But we're not talking about killing kids or something like that. It's the enemy was defeated decisively and the hyperbole shows that in ancient Near Eastern genre.

Sean McDowell: So when it specifically says, kill men, women, children, and infants, this interpretation is going to say, well, it doesn't mean what it says. Of course that doesn't mean it's false, we always have to interpret words, I get that point, but would they say there was no slaughter of kids and children at all? Is that how they far they would take it?

Charlie Trimm: I can't speak for them, but probably many of them would say that. So, you can think of it as a metaphor and you don't interpret metaphors literally. And if you do, you misread them. And so this is similar. This is a figure of speech, meaning everyone. And so you can make the argument maybe it's just a military encampment, and so we kill everyone there. There's no kids there and so no kids are killed. Or it's extensive, once again not everyone, but the entirety of the people, not every single person, but large portions of them are killed.

Sean McDowell: So this doesn't mitigate God causing violence. If you have an issue with God causing violence, this doesn't get God off the hook. It just looks less like genocide and looks more like appropriate, whatever that means, warfare, given the context in which it occurred.

Charlie Trimm: Correct.

Sean McDowell: Is that fair?

Charlie Trimm: Yeah.

Sean McDowell: Okay. So you still have things like the flood, which would involve obviously killing men, women, and children. It would seem that it wouldn't totally get God off the hook if you take the entirety of the Old Testament on the very criticisms it's meant to get God off the hook from.

Charlie Trimm: The difference would be, in this case, God commands Israelite soldiers to kill the children. And so with the flood, it's God doing it himself. In this case, we have Israelite soldiers commanded to do it. So, that would be one difference that's brought up between those two cases.

Scott Rae: Is that a morally relevant difference?

Sean McDowell: Yeah, that's a good question.

Charlie Trimm: Things like PTSD and so on is brought in, is moral injury done to the Israelite soldiers if they're commanded to do it? So is there an extra layer of moral damage done in a way that is not true with the flood? These are some of the arguments that are brought up.

Scott Rae: Yeah, yeah. It seems to me we use hyperbole like this today too. This is not an ancient Near Eastern thing exclusively, because Sean, I've heard you talk about your son's basketball team annihilating their opponents.

Sean McDowell: Sure.

Scott Rae: But you don't mean that they killed all their opponents. They achieved a decisive victory. And even when we say to people before a game or something, we say don't take any prisoners, which is again a figure speech for annihilation, which is a figure for a very decisive victory. We don't mean anything even remotely literal to that. If that's the case here, then what exactly is God commanding the Israelites to do to their enemies?

Charlie Trimm: So the historical reconstruction then would be less killing them all and more banishing them. And so the banishing language-

Scott Rae: Just driving them out of the land?

Charlie Trimm: Correct.

Scott Rae: Something like that.

Charlie Trimm: And that does show up both in the commands, I'll say in Exodus, as well as a few places in Joshua and Judges, where people are talked about as banished. And so it's less killing them all and more removing them from Canaan so that Israel can live there and serve YAHWEH.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now others, there's a fourth group that takes these texts as something akin to a literal genocide, and then their task is more a philosophical one as opposed to an exegetical one where their task is really to justify this on moral grounds. How is that normally done?

Charlie Trimm: There's a variety of different arguments here. One common one is to emphasize how the Canaanites are evil, and so this is discussed in books like Leviticus and so on. And so therefore this judgment is not random, but it's specifically for them because they are evil. The flood parallel has already been mentioned, so that's an important one as well. The idea that it's not the Canaanites who are the enemy but sin, because when Israel starts acting like Canaan, God treats them the same way. So we see this in the book of Judges. And so it's not an ethnic thing, God's going to fight sin wherever he finds it, including among his own people. And so there's a variety of arguments like that that defend God for this particular seemingly very violent act.

Sean McDowell: Do you have any sense, this might be outside the scope of your book, how throughout history have most church historians and philosophers and theologians addressed this, or is it more of a modern issue in the past 100 and 150 years that people were not wrestling with just given how culture has changed?

Charlie Trimm: No, this has definitely been something that the church has struggled with in a variety of ways. So some of the early church heretics who rejected the Old Testament, this is very much on their minds, Marcian for example. And people have suggested views similar to these throughout church history. View three, the hyperbole one, might be the least common throughout church history, but the other three are amply represented throughout church history in a variety of ways.

Sean McDowell: Could there be more of, for lack of a better term... I was having a conversation, I believe with Frank Beckwith maybe seven or eight years ago, and he goes, "You know, the older I get, the more I just think if Jesus, we look at his view of the Old Testament, is okay with this and he sees things clearly, then I'm okay with it. I don't know why, but if Jesus is good and we see through a glass darkly, I'm okay with that." And Frank, sorry, it's been eight years, if I didn't perfectly access your point, but I remember thinking, "Well, that's interesting." Would that be a fifth position or how would you fit in that kind of a response to this approach?

Charlie Trimm: I think that could go with several positions, perhaps most easily with category four. Most proponents of category four talk about how they don't feel fully satisfied with it, but they often end with something like this. And so I end my book with a variety of things like that. One lament, where you bring your complaints to God, and laments are usually like my life is not going well, God, why have you abandoned me, and so on. But I think you can make an argument that sometimes biblical text, you could bring to God and say, "God, I don't like this text. Why'd you put this text here?" And then wrestle with God over this text.

Charlie Trimm: And the essential part there is, of course, you're still in communication with God about this. The New Testament text that helps me the most, I think, is John 6 where Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and large numbers of people leave and he turns to his disciples and says, "Are you going to leave too?" And Peter's response is, "You have the words of life." And I think the subtext there is Peter is saying, "I have no idea what you're talking about. I really don't like it, but where else am I going to go? You have the words of life."

Charlie Trimm: And I think this is the response for many in category four, as well as some other categories as well, of I think this is the best answer for me but there's still some sense of mystery, I'm not quite sure what's going on, but God, you have the words of life and I'm going to continue following you with that. And to keep that intention in a sense and be okay with not having all of the definitive answers to solve all your problems.

Sean McDowell: Obviously at Biola were committed to inerrancy, inspiration of scripture, the historical reliability of the New Testament and the Old Testament, but as you look at these four options, obviously option number one is out for any kind of mere Christianity because it rejects the existence and goodness of God. Would you say the other three are at least live options for somebody who's a Christian and a follower of Jesus, even if we would differ with them over inspiration, inerrancy and important topics, or would any of them you say, these are actually out of bounds for a broadly speaking Christ follower?

Charlie Trimm: Thinking of big tent Christianity, I think any of those three are valid options. There's problems with each of them, but I think in big tent terms, any one of those three is a valid option.

Scott Rae: You've said now that the book is out, you're less reluctant to state your own view of this. Are you open to telling our audience here what view you think is the most plausible here?

Charlie Trimm: Sure, I can do that. I've been on several podcasts and no one has asked me that yet. So this will be the first one.

Sean McDowell: How interesting.

Charlie Trimm: As Sean just mentioned, I'm here at Biola and I share Biola's beliefs about scripture, and so therefore category two does not appeal to me because of the various moves required to make with scripture. So I personally would reject category two. Once again, I think it's a valid option for Jesus followers but it's not one I follow myself. I think the hyperbole option is certainly a good one. Hyperbole is clearly in the text and I think it's really helpful when thinking about this, but I also don't think that it solves a problem by itself because basically what we end up with is instead of genocides you have ethnic cleansing of a nation being removed. So we might have lowered the ethical problem but the ethical problem is still there. More work needs to be done to defend what God is doing. And so I then turn to category four and some of those arguments, the one that I find most helpful is eschatological judgment.

Charlie Trimm: So in a sense, it's a picture of the judgment we all face. The land of Canaan becomes in New Testament and various traditions a picture of heaven, crossing the Jordan, going to new Jerusalem and so on. And so this, the conquest of Canaan, is the opposite side of that eschatologically, where you have the eschatological judgment then enacted in history against the Canaanites. And so in a sense, this is eschatological judgment breaking into history in a way that's early. And so the Canaanites are evil, they're not innocent bystanders, but I find this to be one of the more helpful ways of thinking about what's happening in this particular incident.

Sean McDowell: Charlie, some apologetic and theological issues, I think, are pretty tidy. We have pretty straightforward, for lack of a better term, just clean responses that are reasonable. This is not super tidy. How do a lot of your students respond? Do they appreciate that like, "Oh, I don't have to have it nailed down and I have these different options," or is it like, "Wait a minute, we don't know definitively," how do they tend to respond to this approach?

Charlie Trimm: There are definitely some students who get upset with me because I don't tell them the answer. I make them read books and sort through things and discuss it in class long before I tell them what I actually think. I do tell them eventually what I think. But they want a much more definitive answer. They want me to tell them the answer, and my guess is this is going to be the major critique of the book, is that I don't tell readers what the answer is because I'm bringing them on a journey. I want them to see the options and sort through it themselves and so on. But many students respond well in the sense of they appreciate, as you were saying, the difficulty of the topic and knowing that there's different options and having the freedom to sort through it for themselves, even within category three and four, there's several different legitimate ways of doing it, of looking at this issue. And so, I find students tend to resonate pretty well with this approach of bringing them along the journey and helping them think through it for themselves.

Scott Rae: Charlie, this approach, I think, is really helpful. And Sean, I appreciate the question because this really is not neat and tidy.

Sean McDowell: It's not.

Scott Rae: There's not one answer that satisfies everybody or is entirely without its demerits. But overall, you're really... in this book... you're doing in the book what I think you do in your classes a lot of times, you're taking students on an intellectual journey. And what do you want readers of this ultimately to take away from this particular intellectual journey that you've had them on?

Charlie Trimm: My goal would be obviously to think through the issues, not necessarily to come up with a definitive answer but to know that there are possible answers. And sometimes in some of these seemingly intractable issues, that might be the best that some people can do, just to know that there are possible answers and not be entirely sure which one is correct, but knowing there's a variety of possible answers is sufficient grounds for continuing to trust that Jesus has the words of life. And so to participate in the journey, to think through the options, to have their faith strengthened, perhaps to come to a definitive answer for themselves, these are all things I would hope readers would engage in and perhaps do more reading. The footnotes are full of other books. Perhaps find one that you resonate with, perhaps find one you disagree with, and dive into the topic more for those who are interested.

Scott Rae: I think that's helpful too, because you're not pretending that this is the last word on the subject by any stretch, but it is a really good place to start for somebody who wants to get an introduction to this very sticky wicket when it comes to our understanding of God in the Old Testament in particular. So I want to commend to our listeners, Charlie Trimm, The Destruction of the Canaanites, subtitled God, Genocide and Biblical Interpretation. It's a really good work done by a first grade scholar. And Charlie, I appreciate the intellectual journey that you're going to take people on. And just remember, as you pick up this book, if you're looking for one definitive answer then you're asking Charlie to do something that he hasn't set out to do in the book. So we hope you find it useful and profitable. We'd highly recommend it for you. So Charlie, thanks so much for joining us, it's been a really good conversation and I especially appreciate the way you framed this for us and helped us see the issues clearly and what the options are and where they are plausible and where they have shortcomings.

Charlie Trimm: Thanks for the conversation.

Scott Rae: This has been a great episode just to get a chance to talk through what I think is one of the trickiest, most difficult subjects in all of apologetics and biblical study. So this has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian apologetics now offered fully online. My cohost Sean teaches in that program regularly and actually covers subjects like this in some of his classes. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our colleague, Dr. Charlie Trimm, please give us a rating on your podcast app and feel free to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.