The Biblical Literalism of ISIS


It has happened again. A violent group of religious extremists has invaded enemy territory, slaughtering a large group of men and taking captive the women and children. Despite pleas for mercy and for the release of the women and children, the captors refuse. They claim a divine mandate to keep the children as their own, the women as their wives.

These events have become all too common in our day, but the event I’m describing is not recent. It happened thousands of years ago somewhere in the Judean wilderness. Judges 4 describes the event of the armies of the tribes of Israel rising up against a Canaanite oppressor named Jabin. The Israelites were led by the woman judge Deborah, an event so unusual she limited her leadership to strategy and recruited Barak to be the actual leader of the armies. Once their victory was achieved, Deborah and Barak let loose with a song of victory, recorded in Judges 5. Pay attention to what happens in verse 30:

‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?— A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed materials for Sisera, spoil of dyed materials embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?’

The spoils of war, celebrated in this hymn by Deborah and Barak: a womb of two for every man. Whatever may (or may not) have been their views on monogamous marriage, it was only expected that they would capture for themselves the women of their adversaries. It is a given that the desires of these women did not factor into the equation. They were the spoils of war, to be taken and used by their captors. They were mentioned alongside cloth works as though the women were of no greater value than a dyed shirt or scarf.

Such an attitude should not surprise us. After all, it was the God of Israel who commanded the Israelites to go into the cities of the “Promised Land” and kill all the men, capturing the women and children. For instance, see Deuteronomy 20:13-14:

And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.

Kill the men, enjoy the rest as spoil to do with as you please. They may be people, but they are also plunder.

This was the norm for Israelite conquest of the Promised Land, but there were exceptions. Jericho was one. We know the story of Joshua and the army of Israel marching around the walls of Jericho until the walls fall down. One minor detail left out of most children’s storybook Bibles is what happened next, the verse after the walls collapse, Joshua 6:21:

Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.

Men, women, children, infants – all put to the sword by the righteous armies of Israel doing what their God had commanded them.

These are the atrocities of the Bible often glossed over or explained away by Christians. Some who claim the name Christian are honest about such texts – bishop John Shelby Spong (a man who is really Christian in name only) preached a sermon on these called “The Terrible Texts of the Bible”.

Well-known atheist Richard Dawkins refuses to publicly engage anyone claiming to be Christian who also defends these texts. Christian apologist William Lane Craig has often attempted to engage in public debates with Dawkins, only to be turned away. Craig’s supporters have claimed that Dawkins is afraid of such an encounter, but Dawkins has offered another explanation: he will not engage anyone who defends genocide.

Christians defend such actions as God’s righteous judgment. God raised up the Israelites to punish those wicked Canaanites. After all, isn’t this what he told Abraham in Genesis 15:16? God did not permit Abraham to go into the Promised Land right then and there because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” In other words, they had to sin a bit more to make God enough to bring down genocide upon their heads.

Christians claim this is just the judgment and justice of God at work, yet have difficulty explaining why such things could not happen today. Why wouldn’t God command a group of people today to bring about his judgment on another group? The general answer given is usually along the lines of, “Jesus came, so God doesn’t do that any more.” But nowhere – neither the Old Testament nor the New – do we have God saying this old way of doing things has come to an end. True, we no longer have a theocratic nation with boundaries on earth and human representatives of the divine (unless you are Catholic, of course, in which case the Pope is the human representation of the divine Christ), but now we have Jesus himself as our king. Christians have a rich language of warfare: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!” was one of my favorite hymns as a child. But such warfare is described in spiritual terms, a battle against spiritual forces rather than flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12).

Even so, there is no clear reason to think that God would not at some point speak to a new Joshua and say, “Put that city to the sword, they have offended me long enough.” Indeed, many conservative Christians are convinced – Convinced! – that God will bring judgment upon America for various and sundry sins. Such judgment is often described in nebulous terms – perhaps increased storms (it’s not global warming, it’s God’s judgment!) or leaders perceived as unjust or incompetent (I’ve heard some say that democrats – chiefly Obama – are God’s judgment upon America). Some see terrorists as God’s judgment, which harkens back to the Old Testament ways when Israel was called to be God’s sword and when Israel herself “turned away” it was the Assyrians and the Babylonians who became “the servant of the Lord” to bring judgment against a disobedient Israel.

So many children slain, so many men slaughtered, so many women raped and taken into slavery, all in the name of the God of love.

When ISIS enters a village and slaughters 80 men, taking captive the women and children for themselves, they are only showing themselves to be biblical literalists. After all, has not God called them to bring about his judgment on the godless heathen, exactly as we see throughout the Old Testament? Or maybe, just maybe, we should recognize all this atrocity for what it is and we can finally stop speaking about the Bible as God’s love letter to us or Christianity as the religion of love and peace. The slaughtered children of Jericho and raped wives of Canaan might not agree with those descriptions.

  • Ron

    Good report on the savagery of the OT Hebrews. Christians may have surpassed them in the Crusades where Richard II (Lionhearted) executed three thousand Muslim prisoners in one day because he didn’t have enough supplies to feed them.

    Also, in the Fourth Crusade, they never got to “the holy land.” They attacked the Christian City of Constantinople and raid, looted and raped at will. More people were killed in the Fourth Crusade than all the other crusades combined, AND none of them were Muslims; they were all Christians. “People of the Bible” should not express horror at modern day terrorists when both Christians and Jews have had even more blood on their hands throughout out their history.

    • The reason I don’t point as much to something like the crusades is that Christians today will generally agree that the crusades were terrible, brutal crimes against humanity. Protestants will respond with, “That was the Catholics, and they aren’t true Christians anyway.” Either way, most people – Christian and otherwise – will see the crusades as indefensible. On the other hand, the Old Testament atrocities are contained in the very holy book that is claimed to be inspired and inerrant. No way to wiggle around those without greatly downplaying the “authority of Scripture” (which is the route taken by Bishop Spong).

  • Phil

    The Israelite invasion of Canaan was specific to that time only and only to that people. Any Christian who uses those scriptures to justify their own violence and killing is misusing the Bible.
    Jesus told us blessed are those who are persecuted on account of Him. He also taught us to love our enemies and pray for them. There is simply no room for a Christian to justify the use of violence or killing.

  • Ron

    “Dawkins has offered another explanation: he will not engage anyone who defends genocide.”

    but is cool with infanticide

    I’m curious have you returned all the money you took from the church over the years?

    • While granted there’s a definite difference between the God-ordained rape and slaughter of men, women, and children in the OT and what Dawkins is advocating, nonetheless that is one place where I would certainly disagree with Dawkins.

      And what money did I take? Surely you don’t mean the small paycheck I received for fulfilling the obligations and expectations of my job. Note that comments of this sort are completely irrelevant and any more will find their way into the trash.

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