The Holy Scriptures Versus The Holy God: A Theological Problem?


Can a holy God really order random genocide, slavery and rape against whole nations?

It’s astonishing how a former Old Testament professor at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) has gone so far down the so-called “slippery slope.” In 2008, the well-respected Dr. Peter Enns was asked to resign from the seminary after the publication of his book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (2005). Like all liberals who still claim to affirm inerrancy, he nevertheless charges in his book that the Bible is full of “messiness,” “problems,” and “contradictions.”

In his “Children and Virgins as Spoils of War and the Character of God,” Dr. Enns reacts against John Piper’s recent interview where Piper said,

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”

In this post, Dr. Enns has two main propositions:

First, until you are clear on what the motive is for God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites, you will not feel the true weight of the theological dilemma.

Second, if you are willing to accept Canaanite genocide as compatible with God’s character, to be consistent, you must also accept as compatible with God’s character other troubling issues that come up in those very same passages.

On the first proposition, he uses Deuteronomy 7 as an illustration:

Note that in both passages, the reason given for showing “no mercy” (7:2) is not that the Canaanites are particularly bad people, far worse than any other nation (however true that might be). They are wiped out not because they deserve it more. The motive given in the texts is that any intermingling with the Canaanites runs the risk of turning “away your children from following me, to serve other gods” (7:4).

So he argues that God’s order to exterminate the Canaanites has nothing to do with the historic Christian understanding that they were destroyed because of their iniquity. He then concludes,

The Canaanites are wiped out because they occupy the land Yahweh means to give Israel, and sharing the land with Canaanites and their abhorrent religious practices runs the risk of luring the chosen people into spiritual adultery.

If we fail to take seriously the motive for the genocide, we will not be able to grasp or address the theological problem. Conversely, we cannot assign a false motive, even if it seems to make the theological problem a bit more manageable.

This is an astonishing conclusion. Dr. Enns pits two aspects of God’s justice against each other: God’s justice against sin, and God’s justice against a people who will turn away his people from worshipping him. Was God unjust and capricious to destroy the Canaanites only because they would be a bad influence on the Israelites?

What if God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah only because they were homosexuals as we read in Genesis 19 and Jude 7? Of course, many liberals twist Matthew 10:14-15 to soften this charge (“It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” that “will not receive you or listen to your words.” It was not inhospitality that Jesus was referring to; it was rejection of the gospel.) Elsewhere, in Ezekiel 16:49-50, God says that the guilt of Sodom was that they did not practice the social gospel, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” Then in 2 Peter 2:6, Sodom was destroyed to “[make] them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.”

In the same way that God destroyed Sodom for their total iniquity, God also ordered the destruction of the Canaanites because of their iniquity. To be sure, all mankind, without exception, are sinful, and the wages of sin is death. The Lord made it clear to Israel that it was not because of their righteousness that he is destroying the Canaanites, but because of the Canaanites’ wickedness:

Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Deut 9:4-5).

Why then did God not destroy rebellious Israel in the desert, even before they arrived in Canaan? It was because his purpose for Israel was part of his overarching plan to save a people for himself—Jews and Gentiles—from sin. And his covenant with their forefathers was part of this redemptive plan. Lest the Jews think that they have a free pass because they were God’s chosen people, the Lord warned them:

And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God (Deut 8:19-20).

And at the end of Old Testament history, God’s warning became a fulfilled prophecy. Israel’s two kingdoms were destroyed because of their sins. Their destruction, together with the destruction of pagan nations, means that all unrepentant sinners will also have their day in God’s court. Noah preached repentance for 100 years before God destroyed all mankind. God waited 500 years to have his vengeance against iniquitous Amorites (Gen 15:16). And he has waited many millennia since he condemned Adam to death, but on Judgment Day, all human iniquity will finally come to an end.

The Women of Midian Led Captive by the Hebrews

The Women of Midian Led Captive by the Hebrews by James Tissot, 1896-1900 (click to enlarge)

Explaining the “other troubling issues” in his second point, Enns cites Deuteronomy 20:10-20 as God commanding the enslavement of women and children of people outside Canaan. Then he also cites Numbers 31, where he takes issue with God’s Word about killing all the male Midianites, young and old, which he calls “ethnic cleansing.” He also notes that women who seduced Israelite men into sexual immorality and idolatry were put to death, but not the young virgins! He knows for sure that the best thing that happens to young virgins who fall into the hands of Israeli soldiers and civilians is slavery.

These “other troubling issues” now trouble his conception of God, or God’s Word, or both. If God is holy, he cannot do such things, because he’s not the author of sin and he cannot violate his perfect holiness. So Enns correctly argues:

If God’s sovereignty, righteousness, justice, and holiness justify the one, they must also justify the other.

But he could not maintain all of God’s perfections from reading these stories. All of these imply for him that this “theological problem” demands only two conclusions:

God is not that holy. He orders arbitrary genocide, slavery, and rape of young girls.


The Bible is not that accurate. If God is holy, Moses must have just written this Jewish justification for Israel’s crimes. Because he has questioned the Biblical record, I assume that this conclusion is his only choice.

But the solution is this: We’re not God. We don’t know the mind of God, and we will never be able to be satisfied with any solution to this “theological problem.” Plain and simple.

So what “benefits” do we come away with in these discussions?

For those who are strong in the faith, more reflection on God’s Word.

For the intellectual, more speculation on the unreliability of the Scripture.

At the end of his article, Dr. Enns says in a disclaimer that his aim in this discussion

is not to undermine the Bible or shipwreck anyone’s faith. My aim is to understand the Bible, to account for why it says what it says, which requires looking some things square in the eye.

Nevertheless, this is exactly what he’s doing to the weak in the faith—the “benefit” is doubt and the strong possibility of descent into atheism. The former Methodist pastor, now the Public Relations Direction of American Atheists, says that her first step into atheism was her realization of “the contradictory nature of the Bible; the lack of scientific or historical foundation or accuracy… [and] that the Bible wasn’t true.”

Only time will tell which category Dr. Enns and his students will fall into.



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