Imagine for a moment that you are in conversation with a person from another religion and you discover that their sacred text describes their deity as commanding genocide on entire peoples. If you’re like most people – including most Christians — then this discovery would provide a significant obstacle to you considering that religion any further.
As you may know, the Christian faces a similar dilemma since the Bible appears to depict God as commanding and commending violent actions that appear to be immoral including the mass targeted killing of entire civilian populations (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:10-20; Joshua 6; 1 Samuel 15). Historically, many Christians have not shied away from this fact. Consider, for example, John Calvin’s iron constitution as he describes the carnage that came with the destruction of Jericho:
“Indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter [of the Canaanites], making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and decrepit, might seem an inhuman massacre, had it not been executed by the command of God. But as he, in whose hands are life and death, had justly doomed those nations to destruction, this puts an end to all discussion.”
Given the emotional and ethical challenge presented by these texts, it should be no surprise that the recognition of biblical violence has come to provide an enormous obstacle to Christian belief, and one that has increasingly occupied the resources of many apologists who sought to defend the basic violent depictions, often with some important caveats.
This is certainly an important topic. And given the scope and emotional intensity of the problem, it extracts enormous resources from apologists like Paul Copan to defend the account of narratives that depict God commanding the slaughter of entire towns.
I respect the efforts of apologists like Copan, but personally I find their arguments to be poor and unconvincing. More to the point, however, is the prior question: is the defense of these narratives as such part of the ground level of Christianity? Or is it part of the secondary opinions of the second floor that is maintained by some Christians but not others?
This presses us back to a prior question. Is it part of that ground-level mere Christianity to believe that God commanded actions like the genocidal slaughter of entire peoples? I certainly do not include that claim in my understanding of mere Christianity; nor is it a feature of mainstream creeds and confessions. So why include it at all? Why not instead place it on the second floor as a secondary opinion held by some Christians but rejected by others?
I can imagine those who think this is a really essential, ground-floor belief might respond like this:
acceptance of the fact that God commanded and commended these actions is required on the ground floor because mere Christianity does include a commitment to plenary inspiration and biblical authority. You cannot take your scissors and snip out the bits of the Bible that you don’t like. Instead, mere Christianity requires us to accept the whole counsel of God!
Now I agree with the gist of that response wholeheartedly: plenary inspiration and biblical authority matter! Indeed, they belong on the ground floor of mere Christianity. But I would immediately add that we must be very careful about assuming that some particular reading of scripture is required by that commitment to plenary inspiration and biblical authority.
That said, there is a limited range of topics for which a particular interpretation of Scripture is required at the ground level. That list includes reading the Bible consistently with essential doctrines such as the Trinity and the incarnation and bodily resurrection of Jesus.
But it does not require particular readings of biblical passages that are not part of that ground level. So, for example, the young earth creationist may believe that plenary inspiration and biblical authority requires a reading of the Genesis creation as including literal 24 hour days. They are mistaken.
I’d say the same thing in this case. The ground level of mere Christianity includes a commitment to the plenary inspiration and authority of Scripture. But it does not require one to accept that God literally commanded the slaughter of entire civilian populations any more than it requires that one accept God literally created in six 24-hour days.
Now you might concede the point in principle and nonetheless worry that the pursuit of non-violent readings which depart from the literal and historical reading of those narratival details is a suspiciously modern phenomenon. Are we contorting to, as some theologians like to say, “modern sentimentalism”?
I have several responses. First, one might say that the practice of reading the Bible as repudiating slavery is also a suspiciously modern phenomenon driven by “modern sentimentalism.” But that fact doesn’t lead us to reconsider slavery readings (at least it shouldn’t!). Rather, we retain our “modern” reading while insisting that in these points, at least, the tradition that believed the institution of slavery was consistent with Scripture was wrong.
Second, the modern sentimentalism response fails to recognize just how much historical diversity there is in the Christian tradition when it comes to reading these biblical violence texts. One finds evidence of that discomfort, for example, in the fact that third-century Origen suggested adding a spiritual reading of the violent destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6:16-17). He suggests,
“This is what is indicated by these words: Take heed that you have nothing worldly in you, that you bring down with you to the church neither worldly customs nor faults nor equivocation of the age. But let all worldly ways be anathema to you. Do not mix mundane things with divine: do not introduce worldly matters in the mysteries of the church.”
It’s important to note that Origen never comes out and denies that the destruction of Jericho occurred. Nonetheless, his attempt to add a non-violent spiritualized reading shows an awareness of the moral problems that the text presents and a need to seek additional meanings to help contextualize and so interpret that violence.
An even more striking example comes with Gregory of Nyssa. While Origen’s orthodox legacy is complicated (particular views he held – though not his views on Joshua – have been judged heterodox), Gregory’s orthodox theological legacy is unimpeachable. Indeed, he is one of the most important theologians to define and articulate an orthodox confession of the Trinity in the late fourth century. At the same time, he faced biblical violence with striking candor and directness. In this passage, Gregory takes on the violence in the final plague of Egypt, that which involves the killing of every firstborn son:
“How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries, The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can the history so contradict reason?” 
This is a powerful bit of writing. Gregory is wrestling with the content of what he reads in a way that would make many an evangelical Christian blush. Rather than allow us to get away with an abstract description of the firstborn as an amorphous group, he insists on drawing a thick narrative with the picture of an innocent infant being cradled in the arms of his loving peasant mother. How could God kill this innocent child, holding that baby responsible for the sins of others?
Gregory concludes that it just cannot be so. God could not have done this. Unlike Origen, Gregory is not satisfied simply to add a non-violent spiritual layer of meaning to the text to avert our gaze from the literal carnage. Instead, he appears to propose an alternative spiritual meaning which obliterates the historical reading, as such:
“Therefore, as we look for the true spiritual meaning, seeking to determine whether the events took place typologically, we should be prepared to believe that the lawgiver has taught through the things said. The teaching is this: When through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil.
“93. For when he slays the beginning, he destroys at the same time what follows after it. The Lord teaches us the same thing in the Gospel, all but explicitly calling on us to kill the firstborn of the Egyptian evils when he commands us to abolish lust and anger and to have no more fear of the stain of adultery or the guilt of murder.”
Is Gregory correct? No doubt, Christians will debate that question. My point here is that it is part of the Christian tradition to wrestle with the biblical text and in particular the violence of Scripture.
And that noble tradition of wrestling with the biblical text as Jacob wrestled with the angel continues today. In recent years, many theologians have proposed various ways of reading and appropriating violent biblical texts. And in all these contexts, the revisionist readings are not simply a matter of biblical exegesis. Instead, they are also formed by attention to extra-biblical sources including secular history (e.g. archaeology) as well as the reader’s moral intuitions. In addition, there are internal biblical principles to guide the interpretation such as the principle that scripture interprets scripture coupled with particular principles like the interpretive priority of the peaceable Jesus in interpreting the entire Bible.
Some people will be uncomfortable with the bald acknowledgment that extra-biblical sources like archaeology can shape the reading of the biblical text. But if the appeal to science makes people nervous, the idea that we might appeal to rational or moral intuitions in our reading of the Bible is even more worrisome.
It shouldn’t be. Our rational and moral intuitions – or conscience – may not be infallible, but they are nonetheless God-given resources for seeking truth and pursuing theological reflection. Conservative Calvinist theologian is a surprising defender of the role of conscience in theological reflection. Some years ago, Piper participated in a written debate with Arminian theologian Thomas McCall on truth of Calvinism. Like many non-Calvinists, McCall has some serious moral objections to Calvinist theology. In response, Piper makes a startling concession: “Do not yet believe what I say. Your conscience forbids it. You dare not believe statements about God which, according to your own conscience, can only mean that God is what he is not.”
I admire Piper for his striking candor in this statement. And it’s worth underscoring the point that he is making. Though he believes Calvinism is both true and very important, he also believes that the individual’s conscience is even more important: thus, if you have a moral objection to Calvinism then you ought not to accept Calvinism.
That which can be said of Calvinism can equally be said of the moral violence attributed to God in Scripture. And that formational guidance from conscience provides a powerful reason for accepting some readings of the text and rejecting others. The ground level of Scripture commits the Christian to plenary inspiration and formation: in other words, all Scripture is given to teach, rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness. But Christians disagree on precisely how we should read various biblical passages in light of this commitment. And the apologist is wise to recognize that variation in interpretation.
 Cited in C.S. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003), 17.
 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker, 2011).
 Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan attempt to argue that the texts are not genocidal. Of the Canaanite occupation in particular. See Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Baker, 2014).
 See, for example, “Did God Really Command Genocide? A Review (Part 1),” (January 27, 2015), https://randalrauser.com/2015/01/did-god-really-command-genocide-a-review-part-1/
 John R. Franke, ed., Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament IV (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 37.
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 75.
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 75-6.
 See for example, Greg Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, vols 1 & 2 (Fortress, 2017); Douglas Earl, The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible (Wipf and Stock, 2011); Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (HarperOne: 2014); Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (HarperOne, 2012): Eric Seibert, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012).
 You see, according to Calvinism God elects some people for salvation while passively or actively willing those who are not so elected to experience eternal damnation. This doctrine understandably horrifies many non-Calvinists, and McCall makes precisely that point.
 John Piper, “I believe in God’s Self-Sufficiency: A Response to Thomas McCall,” Trinity Journal, 29, no. 2 (2008), 234.