God Wants Scorched Earth Warfare

burned tree

Although most Christians will not only permit but encourage atheists to read the bible at least some of them regard as "holy," they would generally prefer we keep our thoughts about it to ourselves. After all, this is no ordinary book; it is one that must be believed before it can be understood. And that generally means that Christians will be quick to dismiss anything an atheist might wish to say about their bible. Still, I think there are some good reasons for atheists to read this bible.

Regardless of what you or I might think about the veracity of this book, it is impossible to deny that it has been tremendously influential on Western civilization. Perhaps learning about what it says will help us understand our Christian neighbors and why they do some of what they do. Even if you are tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a fairy tale, that might be enough of a reason to read it. Of course, the obvious rebuttal to this is merely to note how few Christians have bothered to read it, even as they insist that it is "holy" in some way.

For me, one of the things that has always stood out about this particular book is how much of what it says was never mentioned in church. I can't claim I've ever particularly enjoyed reading it. I have to be in the right mood, and that even then, it is slow going. But it never seems to take long to discover a hidden gem, something I'm fairly sure many Christians are completely oblivious to (and we should be very glad they are).

The last time I read Judges, I was struck by an emerging pattern evident across several Old Testament books in which the Israelites repeatedly committed evil acts in the eyes of their god. We see them punished in a variety of ways, ranging from famine to enslavement by foreign nations. Each time misery befalls them, it is because their god punishes them directly or punishes indirectly by withholding protection of some sort. Clearly, this is the sort of god that holds grudges.

I suspect most readers can sympathize with poor Gideon when he asks one of god's prophets, "But sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian" (Judges 6:13). He seems to be asking why the miracles he heard about in his youth have dried up and how a supposedly loving god could permit such horrors to befall his people. It is an intriguing question. Inexplicably, this god returns to lead Gideon to greatness after some groveling and animal sacrifice. This is a bloodthirsty god.

Considering the historical context, I suppose the intensity of the superstition at the time shouldn't be surprising. Even human sacrifice was sometimes needed to satisfy the monstrous god created by these ancient people. In exchange for its help in his military campaign, Jephthah sacrifices his own daughter (Judges 11:29-40).

In Judges, we also see another mention of the scorched earth sort of warfare utilized by god's chosen people at its direction. They kill every last one of their enemies, including their livestock, and burn their towns to the ground (Judges 20:41-48). But the atrocities do not stop here, for the conquering Israelites also kill the women and children, saving only the female virgins (Judges 21:10-11). After all, they need to capture wives.

One can hear the protests of modern Christians: their god would not condone such practices! Except that it did. At least, it did if the contents of their bible are to be taken seriously. The god it describes not only condoned but commanded these war crimes. When the Israelites refused to kill sheep and cattle which they might actually be able to use, they were severely punished (1 Samuel 15:7-34).

But what about the historical context? It is clear that human morality has changed a bit since those days. Much of what our ancestors regarded as normal is intolerable today. But what does this say about the morality of the god that demanded all of this? Did it make a mistake, change its mind, or is it even the same god?

That so many biblical atrocities were ordered by the same Christian god whose name is tossed around today in the context of "family values" should give pause to even the most rabid believer. Considered against this context, atrocities ranging from the Inquisition to Dick Cheney's campaign of torture take on a new meaning. This book has much to teach us about a segment of humanity and what it believes, including some things I am starting to wish I didn't know.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2008. It was revised and expanded in 2020.