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.