• Unforgivable Inerrancy


    When I left the Christian faith, my wife was still a Christian.  About half a year later, she had left the faith too.  The intervening time was rather interesting, to say the least, but that’s a story that will have to wait for another opportunity.  One of the many topics we discussed in those days was the “Old Testament atrocities”.

    In the Old Testament, there are countless accounts of God commanding the slaughter of entire people groups.  Consider, for example, God’s command to King Saul in 1 Samuel 15 to wipe out the Amalekites to punish them for the actions of their ancestors:

    This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.  (1 Sam 15:2-3, NIV)1

    As we discover later in the same chapter, Saul did indeed kill all the Amalekites, except for their king, Agag; he also chose to keep some of the best cattle, later saying he intended to sacrifice them to God (verses 9 and 21).  But it turns out that God really did want every single Amalekite human and animal dead; since Saul had spared king Agag and some of the animals, God rejected him as king of Israel (verses 11 and 23).

    Other examples could be multiplied of Israel’s brutal treatment of their neighbours, much of it commanded directly by God.  I have no need to quote any more here, but I will list some Bible verses that the interested reader can look up: Deut 2:34, Deut 3:6, Deut 7:2, Deut 7:16, Deut 13:15, Deut 20:16-17, Josh 6:21, Josh 10:40, and that’s leaving out heaps.  (These were listed on a website I found after a google search for “genocide in the bible”.)

    Another topic we discussed in those days was the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.  Inerrancy itself is an interesting topic, and I expect I will have a lot to say about it in future posts.  Also, see my brief comments about the inherent circularity of this doctrine in The Wheel.

    Many Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant or infallible, and my wife and I were no exception in our former lives.  Many wars have been fought over the precise definitions of these words, but the main point adherents of the doctrine(s) generally wish to affirm is that the Bible is completely reliable.  You might have to be careful about the genre (so that perhaps the first few chapters of Genesis should be read metaphorically, not literally), but wherever the Bible makes a truth claim, then that claim is indeed true.

    To a person that affirms this kind of trust in the Bible, an obvious problem arises.  Accounts like 1 Sam 15 are completely at odds with our intuitive understanding of morality.  Not too many people would attempt to defend the character of somebody that would destroy (or command the destruction of) an entire nation or city, including all its inhabitants: male and female, young and old, human and animal.  Of course, in the context of these Old Testament stories, many Christian apologists do attempt exactly this,2 and these attempts serve to prove that they realise there is indeed a problem:

    How could God, who is assumed to be perfectly good, do or command something that appears to be perfectly bad?

    My wife and I were discussing these things again the other day, and she made an interesting point.  In Mark 3 and Matthew 12, Jesus speaks of the unforgivable sin, also known as the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  A quick google search shows that many a poor soul has lived in terror after reading these verses and then worrying that something they have said or thought might count as such a blasphemy.  But if you look up a few concordances, you’ll find that most theologians interpret this sin quite differently.  Citing the context of Jesus’ words, they say the issue is that the pharisees in the story accused Jesus of deriving his power from the devil.  In other words, they equated something perfect and pure, God, with something utterly evil, Satan.  According to this standard interpretation of these passages, it is a very dangerous thing indeed for a person to ascribe any kind of evil to God.

    The connection to the Old Testament stories must be obvious now.  A Christian that accepts these teachings on the unforgivable sin must tread very carefully when ascribing such commands to God.  If God did not really command Saul to kill the Amalekites,3 then to say he did is to accuse God of committing an outrageously evil act.  It seems that only a pre-existing belief in some notion of Biblical inerrancy would lead a Christian to uncritically accept stories such as God’s command that Saul completely destroy the Amalekites.  But is holding on to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy really worth the risk of committing the most feared crime in all of Christianity?

    In our discussions, my wife was unwilling to either confirm or deny that God could have commanded such acts.  To deny this would be to say that the Bible contained factually incorrect claims.  To affirm it would be to say that God was responsible for actions that seem entirely evil.  This was a first step towards my wife’s eventual rejection of Biblical inerrancy, and eventually Christianity.



    1.  Christians often say that some of these Old Testament stories were exaggerated, and maybe the Israelites didn’t really kill all those people.  But this passage soundly refutes that idea, as God is specifically recorded as saying that even killing all but one of the inhabitants was not good enough.  Interestingly, 1 Sam 30:1-2 indicates that there were still Amalekites alive and well at a later date, so the author(s) of 1 Samuel are not telling the truth in at least one of Chapter 15 or Chapter 30.

    2.  For example, see Paul Copan’s book Is God a moral monster? and also Thom Stark’s brilliant (and free) response Is God a moral compromiser?.

    3.  Archaeology has provided excellent evidence against the historicity of most, if not all, of the “conquest narratives” recorded in the Old Testament.  For example, see The Bible unearthed by Silberman and Finkelstein, or Who were the early Israelites? by Dever.

    Category: BibleChristianityInerrancyMorality


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian