THE DIVINE COMMANDS to commit genocide found in the Old Testament are some of the most difficult and disturbing parts of scripture. Consider God’s decree against the Amalekites: “Totally destroy everything ... Do not spare them; put to death ... children and infants” (1 Samuel 15:2–3). Such passages have been used repeatedly to justify bloodshed in the name of God, beginning with the Crusades and continuing right up through U.S. history, where texts were used in sermons to justify the slaughter of American Indians.
In seeking to defend the Bible, many well-meaning commentators have become inadvertent advocates for these atrocities. But do we really need to defend and justify violence in God’s name in order to remain faithful to scripture? Is that what God desires of us? I’d like to propose that there is a better way—a way found in learning to read our Bibles as the apostle Paul read his.
To understand how Paul read scripture, it is important to first understand his conversion to Christ, which Pauline scholar James Dunn describes as a conversion from a version of religion characterized by “zealous and violent hostility.” In other words, Paul did not see himself as rejecting his Jewish faith or Israel’s scriptures, but rather as rejecting his former violent interpretation of them. While Paul could boast that his observance of the Torah was “faultless” (Philippians 3:6), at the same time he describes himself as “the worst of all sinners” and “a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15). He confesses painfully, “I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).