The Wars of the Lord 4

 This is the fourth 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).

Some readers no doubt remain dissatisfied with our attempts to understand the conquest narratives in the Bible, in which it appears God is commanding wholesale warfare and destruction.

So what to do?  Perhaps we should ignore such texts.  Perhaps we should shrug our shoulders and just say, “I don’t know.”  (This might be the best idea).

Some would prefer to say, “God is so holy and beyond our understanding that it is not our place to question him or his Word.”  (I can hear some “Amens” at this point).

Eugene Merrill puts it this way: “If God is all the Bible says he is, all that he does must be good – and that includes the authorization of genocide.”  (OK, was I the only one who cringed there?)

Daniel Gard says that “what appears to the human mind as ‘evil’ acts of God are in fact not ‘evil’ acts at all since they come from the Lord himself.  There simply comes a point in which human reason must bow to the divine and recognize that his ways are truly not ours and his thoughts are truly above our own.”

In other words, God is inscrutable.  He is the source of morality, so whatever God does is justified, even if it appears otherwise.  There is a lot to be said for this approach  (despite that it may lead to cringe-inducing statements).

William Lane Craig notes that we humans are subject to a certain code of morality, as constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.  But this doesn’t apply to God, “Since God doesn’t issue commands to himself, he has no moral duties to fulfill.  He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are.  For example, I have no right to take an innocent life.  For me to do so would be murder.  But God has no such prohibition.  He can give and take life as He chooses.”

What Craig is saying is that human morality consists of God saying to us, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Morality is whatever God tells us to do.  But since there is no one to tell God what to do, God is, as it were, above morality, and is free to do otherwise than what God has commanded us.

Yet elsewhere Craig maintains that God does not arbitrarily choose what is good and evil.  “Christian theologians believe God to have certain essential virtues, such as love, fairness, impartiality, compassion and so on.  These are as essential to God as having three angles is to a triangle.”  He also notes that the commands God issues to humankind “are not arbitrary but grounded in the nature of a just and loving God.”

Thom Stark summarizes:  “God cannot be other than what God is, and God’s commands to humankind are directly derived from what God is.  Therefore, God cannot go against God’s own commands.  If God tells us that we cannot kill an innocent person, then it would be a contradiction of God’s very nature for God to kill an innocent person.  Craig cannot have it both ways, that God makes morality, and that God has at his core ‘certain essential virtues’.”

The inerrantist position as articulated by others is that, “What goodness is at a specific moment is determined by the action of God at that moment.  And if today God acts differently than yesterday, goodness today is different from what it was yesterday.  God is the criterion for good and evil… There is no authority above him to which he could be subject.”  In other words, God is not subject to what we would call morality.  But you see the problem here (and the biblical record certainly denotes that God acts differently in various situations):  God literally makes and remakes morality with God’s every action.  In the end it seems Craig rejects this position, because, per Stark, “if God has no consistent character, then God’s self-revelation would be meaningless, because anything we learn about God could potentially be contradicted the moment God chose to be otherwise.”

Stark observes:
“To say that God is good when God does precisely what God has told us is evil is to render the language of good and evil meaningless.  If God commanded genocide, then to say that God is good is to render “good” utterly unintelligible.  C. S. Cowles puts the matter this way: “If the indiscriminate slaughter of human beings for any reason can be called a ‘good’ and ‘righteous’ act… then all moral and ethical absolutes are destroyed, all distinctions between good and evil are rendered meaningless, and all claims about God’s love and compassion become cruel deceptions.  It represents the ultimate corruption of human language and makes meaningful theological discourse virtually impossible.”

Eric Seibert agrees: “If God’s standard of justice is so fundamentally different from ours that physical abuse and the slaughters of babies can be considered just, then it no longer seems possible to have a meaningful conversation about what constitutes justice.”

Stark again:
“Thus it seems clear that, once again, the foremost apologists for an absolute morality rooted in God’s nature have chosen to abandon the cause in the name of biblical inerrancy.  Take for instance the issue of abortion.  In most cases, these same apologists take the view that abortion is a damnable species of murder and that their God condemns it.  They believe the Bible teaches a consistent principle of the sanctity of human life.  Yet they also affirm that this same God commanded soldiers to kill pregnant women and the unborn children inside them.  They can’t have it both ways.  Either their God condemns the killing of unborn children or he condones it.  Yet they are generally oblivious to the way their modern-day moral and political positions are frequently undermined by the very Bible in whose inerrancy they profess to believe.”

“Admittedly, there is a certain element of well-intentioned piety in the claim that God’s goodness is beyond our comprehension.  This attitude is meant to glorify and honor God, and to keep ourselves from arrogantly setting ourselves up in God’s place as ultimate moral arbiters.  Yet as Seibert remarks, “Rather than glorifying God, this approach actually dishonors God by suggesting God sometimes acts in ways that are incongruous with our most basic beliefs about what is right.”  It is not that we think our “most basic beliefs” are more important than God.  It is just that we have good reason to think that it is much more likely that imperfect human beings killed other human beings in God’s name than that a God who is good somehow determined that it was necessary to kill children for their parents’ misdeeds.  One is almost an everyday occurrence: human beings have forever been killing in the name of their gods.  The other is a logical impossibility.”

In conclusion:
“Of course, it is at this point that some apologist for biblical inerrancy will resort to the old cliché: ‘God is mysterious.  The answers are not clear to us now, for now we see dimly.  But they will become clear on that day, for then we shall see face to face.’  This is of course partly right.  How it is possible to affirm both that God committed genocide and that God is good – that is a mystery.  Whether it’s a profound mystery or a convenient one is up to you to decide.”


Stay tuned for the next installment, where we explore the historical reliability of the conquest narratives.


4 thoughts on “The Wars of the Lord 4

  1. It seems that earlier annihilation stories in the Torah (namely the flood narrative, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Amalekites) indicate a certain “battlefield” typology:

    1. The annihilations are judgments.
    2. These judgments are for publicly-recognized (indeed, international and cross-cultural in scope!) cruelty and violence of an EXTREME and WIDESPREAD nature.
    3. These judgments are preceded by LONG PERIODS of warning/exposure to truth (and therefore, opportunity to “change outcomes”).
    4. Innocent adults are given a ‘way out’
    5. Household members share in the fortunes of the parents (for good or ill).
    Somebody ALWAYS escapes.

    While most of us are familiar with flood story as well as that of Sodom and Gomorrah– take a closer look at the invasion of the Amalekites:

    1. The Amalekites are a predatory, raiding, and nomadic group; and are descendants of Esau (and hence, distant cousins to Israel).

    2. They would have been aware of the promise of the Land to Israel, from the early promises to Esau’s twin Jacob.

    3. They did NOT live in Canaan (but in the lower, desert part of the Negev–a region south of where Judah will eventually settle), and would NOT have been threatened by Israel–had they believed the promises of God.

    As soon as Israel escapes Egypt–before they can even ‘catch their breath’–the Amalekites make a long journey south(!) and attack Israel.

    5. Their first targets were the helpless:

    Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut 25.17-19)

    Before the attack on Amalek is initiated by Israel, the innocent are told to ‘move away’ from them:

    Saul went to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the ravine. Then he said to the Kenites,”Go away, leave the Amalekites so that I do not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites moved away from the Amalekites. (I Sam 15:5-6)

    This action would have also served to give the people of Amalek plenty of notice (i.e., time to ‘move away’ themselves), and the impending attack by Saul–especially with the troop counts reported!–would hardly have been a surprise. Some of them would likely have fled–we KNOW all of them were not killed, since they ‘lived to fight/raid again’ in David’s time (I Sam 27,30) and even in Hezekiah’s time 200-300 years later! (1 Chron. 4.43).

    Are not many of the conquest narratives told in similar fashion?

    Don’t mistake my intentions here. I am not justifying the warfare that Israel undertakes, or the language it uses to describe them. Scripture is more than mere reportage–it is advocacy of a particular history and as such details its past in memory of a set of unique covenantal commitments. I think this Scripture (at least on one level) is best understood as the literature of a desperate liberation movement that longed to be aligned with and be endorsed by the God of all social transformation.

    Great post Bryan. I love the challenges you place before us.


    1. Nice thoughts, Mike. It is good to look for the ways in which transformation is happening through obedience to God, and the Amalekites are an interesting example. Yet I wonder if it could just as easily be said of the early Israelites that they were also a “predatory, raiding, and nomadic group.” No doubt the Amalekites were following their god, and Israel was following theirs.

      The connection to Esau is perhaps etiological more than historical, and thus sets up an easy “us vs. them” scenario explaining why the Amalekites were such a threat. “Not only did they attack our forefathers coming out of Egypt, but they descend from Esau!” Boom. Instant dislike, and no trouble getting any one pumped up for the attack.

      The story from the Amalekite perspective could well have been, “Those Israelites descend from Jacob, the double-crossing trickster who stole what was really ours! We’ll show them.” And in that sense, they wouldn’t be wrong.

      All that said, I do really like your approach, and would be interested in reading more of Brueggemann’s take on what he takes the term “Canaanite” to be referring to. I definitely need to read more background/perspectives on this stuff, and Stark doesn’t necessarily have the ‘answer’ any more than anyone else. The approach you present does seem to me to be a bit of wishful thinking, and I’m not actually sure the question you pose – “Are not many of the conquest narratives told in similar fashion?” – actually bears out.

      That said, I appreciate any push back on what’s presented here, and again, this is mostly Stark’s take, which I find very intriguing, but my own opinion is still in process. 🙂

      My next post (maybe tomorrow?) will look at the historicity of some of these narratives, which perhaps will bring some clarity, or throw another wrench into it.


  2. Great post.
    The intrinsic, incongruent ‘faces’ of God (or scripture for that matter) has always befuddled me, especially when approaching God and scripture thru an inerrancy mind-set. I agree the trump card has always been, “His ways are higher than ours” or “the mystery of God is beyond our understanding.” Though both ideas are true, how can we simply overlook the incongruencies…. where and how does that way of thinking (assigning what seems to be pure evil to God) end up manisfesting….seems dangerous to me. On the other hand, is there something we take away from God when we say he is subject to his own moral character, and that character is unchanging?


  3. I think the historical reliability of the conquest narratives is a good place to head. It is the victorious who get to write the history, right? I would like to hear what is known about the Isrealite conquests and what (if any) non-Isrealite historical sources corroborate with them.


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