This is the third in a series of posts about the wars God commanded the Israelites to fight against the Canaanites, guided by some excerpts from Thom Stark’s excellent book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (2011, Wipf and Stock).
In our last post we looked at the possibility that God was simply working within a warring culture and showing improvement amidst that.
On further review, it seemed that perhaps that wasn’t entirely true, particularly in instances where God instituted what is called ‘the ban’ – the ancient practice of committing an entire city or town to utter destruction on behalf of a god, as an act of sacrifice or dedication. This was a practice other ancient cultures also did in the names of their gods. So much for improvement.
We ended by saying that perhaps we need to understand it another way, within the broader framework of God’s overarching plan for Israel, expressed in the form of his promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
I think many of us resonate with this, because it seems to echo so much of what we see in the life of Jesus and the early church in the New Testament.
One theologian, Christopher Wright, puts it this way: “the overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.”
The challenge is seeing how the texts endorsing slaughter in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua support that, (let alone the rest of the OT). In fact, Thom Stark notes that “the number of texts in which Israel is pitted against the nations far outnumber those in which Israel is for them.”
But perhaps we could see this as Israel’s failing, rather than God’s, as the prophets so often reminded them. God wanted them to be a blessing, but they didn’t live up to it. I think that is very often the case.
But that still doesn’t explain the texts in which they are commanded, by God, to destroy some of these nations they are supposed to bless.
“Imagine the Israelite soldier consoling the young Canaanite girl, just before running her through with the sword: “Not to worry, young lady. In the overall scheme of things, my people are going to be a blessing to people like you.”
But what about the idea that through Israel would come the Messiah, and so God needed to protect and preserve Israel to bring the messiah into the world? Stark asks, “How is it that an omnipotent and omniscient God – who is powerful enough to fashion the world with a few words and to bring the dead back from the grave – could not think of any way to bring the messiah into the world than to kill helpless Canaanite children?”
Some of you responded to the last post questioning whether these texts simply represent the human element of what was happening more so than a divine stamp of approval. It is worth considering (we’ll get to this momentarily).
This protecting-the-messiah tack is “essentially a utilitarian argument: the end justifies the means. It is at this point that the Christian apologist’s fervent defense of the idea of absolute, objective morality is tossed aside in the name of biblical inerrancy. The claim is ultimately that although genocide is morally wrong, God had to do it in order to protect the lineage of one Jesus of Nazareth.”
Old and New
But if we go this route, we have to be prepared for the consequences: that this kind of argument will be used again.
Stark explains: “This end-justifies-the-means mentality has manifested itself elsewhere in history. An immediate example would be the United States of America. Like ancient Israelites, early European Americans believed they had a special calling from God, a calling to be a light to the nations. To them, their destiny was plainly manifest. God had brought them to this bountiful new land, flowing with milk and honey, and although it was necessary to eradicate the malignancy of the savage natives, in the end, the blessings the United States had to offer the world would far outweigh any necessary evils committed along the way.”
This really was the mentality. Listen to one American writer waxing just so in the 1800’s:
“Our annals describe no scenes of horrid carnage, where men were led on by hundreds of thousands to slay one another… This is our high destiny, and in nature’s eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect, we must accomplish it. All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man – the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen.” (John O’Sullivan, “Great Nation of Futurity”, 427, 430).
We might not like this honest assessment of our own history, but who of us cannot read this and cringe? It’s true – we committed indefensible evils in our treatment of the Native peoples, and did it in the name of God. And then, centuries later, it was conveniently seen as the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world.
Rereading the Bible
Isn’t it at least possible that ancient Israel did exactly the same thing? Committed atrocities as a growing nation and in retrospect credited it to God? (The Scriptural accounts were written down much later than the occurrence of the actual events). You may not like this approach, and I’m not sure I do, but we have to at least grant that it’s a possibility.
Are people any different today than they were then? Maybe in some ways, but not in every way. We want to make an exception, because “it’s in the Bible.” I certainly want to. But if you’re not willing to at least grant the possibility, you may be defending an idea about the Bible that may not actually be the case about the Bible (but that’s another blog post).
Some will say that this devalues the Bible. Maybe. Maybe not. It is interesting that some will prefer to defend the Bible than to defend God. I’m not so sure a perfect Bible is more comforting than a perfect God.
This approach actually gets God off the hook for some pretty heinous stuff. Shouldn’t we consider it, or perhaps even embrace it? Who wants to worship a God who looked exactly like the gods of Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylon? If the God the Germans worshiped in the 1930’s and 40’s endorsed the holocaust, and it was in our Scriptures, would we just swallow common sense and say, ‘Well, God said…’?
Fell From Heaven?
Is there room in our assessment of Scripture to say that it is a product of humanity? There has to be. Can anyone even argue this is not the case? No one that I know argues that the original manuscripts were some golden tablets that fell from heaven discovered in the hills somewhere in Galilee (or upstate New York). That would be a different religion.
Humans wrote the Bible. And humanity, as we know, is incredibly flawed. That does not mean God was not involved in the writing of the Bible. I believe he was. But I don’t believe the Bible fell from heaven, or was directly dictated to people who were little more than robots. The evidence doesn’t support such a claim. In fact, a Reformed view of the inspiration of Scripture is that it was organic. In other words, it was a cooperative effort between humanity and God. I think too often we fail to allow this view to fully develop.
People were involved. So is it really beyond the pale to assume that on some occasions people put their particular spin on events of history? Or even that in some cases they put words in God’s mouth? People certainly do it today, and we tend to be skeptical when they do. Someone will say “God told me that you need to _____.” We hear that and are generally skeptical. But when we read that in the Bible, even when the words are scarcely believable, we believe it anyway.
[But, again, this is getting into another future blog post on the idea of inspiration, and what is the Bible, and all of that.]
Sleight of Hand
Back to killing people, and how we make it OK in one instance, and abhor it as evil in other cases:
“To argue, then, that the extermination of the Canaanites must be seen as part of the larger picture of Israel’s calling to bless the nations is, in effect,” notes Thom Stark, “just a sleight of hand trick: ‘Don’t look over there. Look over here.’ Or as Barack Obama said when queried about the possibility of an investigation of past U.S. human rights abuses, “I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards.” Buried beneath layer upon layer of such rhetoric lie the victims of those who just want to get on with things. But as Obama said when queried about the possibility of an investigation of past Indonesian human rights abuses, “We can’t go forward without looking backwards.”
As with this version of United States history (‘selective perception’), so with us when we want to focus on all the good bits of Israel’s history, while ignoring the rest.
Blessed to Be a Blessing
We are to be a blessing to the nations. I believe that. I also believe that means owning the places in our own Scriptures where God’s people failed to be that, and being open to the possibility that there are instances where they gave the credit for that to God. Adam blamed God for putting Eve in the garden with him. Is it so unbelievable that later Israel wanted to blame God for the actions of their own hands?
I find it nearly impossible to believe that a God who calls us to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him”, to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke”, and to “share food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter”, is the same God who calls for wholesale slaughter of men, women and children.
I love the Bible, and I believe in its pages I discover God himself. But I also believe that uncritical readings of Scripture, and inappropriate appropriations of it can lead to some of the terrible things done in history in the name of God, and it’s time we own that, and seek to do otherwise, that we might indeed be a blessing.