God said what?! – Part One

light_tunnelWe took our first brief excursion into the hidden underbelly of Scripture last time. Now, it’s time to go deeper down this murky path. This is going to be a longer, much more arduous trip, so make sure you bring plenty of water and good batteries for your flashlight!

Before we make our descent, I would like to bring us back to “red spade” post where I referenced what is known as our brain’s “Delete key.” Here’s Bible scholar, Philip Jenkins again, with a little more explanation this time. It’s rather long but I’ve highlighted the salient parts:

WE ARE HARDWIRED TO edit reality. Memory and experience teach us what to expect from the world, but on occasion we encounter facts or situations that fail to mesh with those preconceptions. At that point, a part of the brain comes into play, the component popularly known as the mind’s Delete key. (Its technical name is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC.) We suppress or inhibit unsettling anomalies, to the point that we honestly do not absorb or remember them. Within our brain, each of us has a personal censor. This does not mean that the development of moral consciousness slavishly follows some predetermined biological pattern, but we do have a natural tendency to ignore or underplay those things that do not fit our reality. Whatever our particular religious or ethnic tradition, human beings are very good at explaining away wrongful actions performed by “people like us,” while condemning identical behaviors undertaken by others.” (Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, p. 185)

delete_keyI’ve personally experienced this strange DLPFC phenomenon in my own understanding of the Bible. I went through a season where I read through the whole Bible, from cover to cover (Old Testament once, New Testament twice) every year, for fifteen years without fail. But, in all that time, I never once honestly dealt with the implications of passages like the one we will look at here (emphasis mine).

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. (Deut. 7:1-2 NKJV)

Then, later God reiterates this order in more stark terms…

16 “But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17 but you shall utterly destroy them.” (Deut.20:16-17 NKJV)

First, let me say that if these passages don’t send a cold chill down your spine, you’re probably experiencing DLPFC big time! I know I was for most of my “Bible-believing” Christian life.

And this is where the path gets steeper and murkier. Unlike last time with Ezra, where we could say that he was projecting and probably not speaking for God, God Himself is explicitly giving the orders here!

This passage is part of what’s known as the “Canaanite Conquest.” The order to “let nothing breathe” is known as a “holy ban” (herem), meaning to devote something to utter destruction as an uncompromising consecration to God.

The Canaan conquest has been wrestled with and argued by Christians since the second century. More recently, Old Testament passages like this have been the subject of much derision by skeptics and atheists. Here’s an example from atheist, Richard Dawkins:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character of all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (“The God Delusion,” p.51)

The late Christopher Hitchens pretty much summed up his sentiments with the title of his book, God Is Not Great: Religion Poisons Everything.

Now, before you dismiss their critique and push the “Delete” key in your brain, let’s pause for a moment…

Imagine if your loved ones were the victims here?

nyamata_memorial_site_13What if we could ask other victims of genocidal “holy bans” in history: from the Arawaks in the West Indies who were exterminated by the Spanish in 1493, the Jews of Hitler’s Holocaust (an ironic and evil twist of events), to the black Africans of Darfur, and the Tutsis and the Hutus of Rwanda? Or, recently, the victims of Kony’s atrocities in Uganda?

All of these people were systematically slaughtered for the cause of “God” or some ideology.

And before we press the popular Fundamentalist “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” delete button, let’s put Richard Dawkins’s argument into a logical syllogism:

PREMISE 1: Genocide is defined as: “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group….the deliberate destruction of an entire race or nation.”
PREMISE 2: God ordered Israel to kill “everything that breathes” in Canaan Land and show no mercy. This is “the deliberate destruction of a race of people.”
THEREFORE: According to a “flat” literal reading of this holy ban, God is a genocidal warlord. (He’s a warlord because He commands His people to commit genocide in an act of war.)

Logically speaking, Richard Dawkins’s argument is sound.

Morally speaking, if genocide is deplorably evil, it’s always deplorably evil.

Of course, we don’t want to conclude this about our “good, good Father” who is called Love in New Testament revelation! Nonetheless, this text creates a dilemma for us. Either God ordered Israel to do something inherently reprehensible, or He didn’t order it and the story is not true. Neither answer is good if you believe in Bible inerrancy (Inerrant means having no theological or textual errors. The Bible does not necessarily have to be inerrant in order to be inspired).

This is why Origen (185 -254 AD) said that if the Canaan conquest is to be taken literally then Marcion was right! (Marcion was a second-century heretic who rejected the Old Testament as Christian Scripture).

Over the next (possibly several) posts I will look at various ways the Canaanite conquest has been interpreted and defended by Christians. For now, I would like your input.

For discussion:

Like last time, I would love to hear your take on any or all of the following questions:

  1. What is your gut reaction to this “holy ban” given in Deuteronomy 7:1-2?
  2. How would you answer a skeptic (briefly summarize) if he or she pointed this passage out to you? What would be your rationale for telling someone like Richard Dawkins that his or her conclusion is wrong?
  3. How does this holy ban fit in with the teachings of Jesus (Sermon on the Mount), how He interfaced with sinners and explained His Father to us?

I look forward to hearing from you. Keep your flashlight on and your finger off the Delete key!

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 42 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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23 Responses to God said what?! – Part One

  1. bullroarin says:

    1. My gut reaction: I’m appalled! No matter my theology, I’m shocked. And by our twentieth century “enlightenment”, lol, these type of things should not take place. Even humanism seems more loving and gracious at times than the “angry god” we find in the OT writings.
    2. I know from experience that trying to reason with an atheist is futile. Throwing facts and scriptures around is an endless barrage; there is no shortage of counter attacks and in the end you will most likely only come through with a mild hemorrhoid, if you’re lucky. Only the Holy Spirit can change a heart, and the only language an atheist may respond to is honesty (by honesty I mean at times that I don’t have an answer for every question…or I simply don’t know why) and love.
    3. I have to conclude that if my understanding of the NT doesn’t line up with something in the OT, then the NT trumps the OT. Jesus often brought correction to misunderstandings in the OT by saying, “it has been said….” , but I say…..” or, “a new command I give unto you….”

    The “holy ban” seems to be out of character with the loving nature we see in Jesus, and the loving nature Jesus declares the Father to have (if you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father), so I feel I’m missing something or I just don’t get it.
    Quite frankly I don’t have a good argument against the “holy ban”. ~ Dave

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks Dave. I like your thoughts. 🙂

      On the first. yes, appalled would be an honest reaction. We could say this story is anachronistic and not related to us, but it still doesn’t let God off the hook.

      On your take on atheists, I would agree about those who are hard-line atheists. But the trouble is, taking an honest look at these types of passages are creating atheists out of former Christian believers. This is why we need to take on these issues head-on as people of faith who believe in a “GOOD” God and don’t have an ulterior motive to disprove God or demean His character. We can be sure that the atheist advocates like Dawkins aren’t going to let these passages be swept under the rug.

      And I totally agree with your conclusion. BEFORE we understand something like this in the OT (and we may never fully understand), we must have the conviction that Jesus explains God to us (John 1:18; Mt.11:27). And anything that clearly contradicts Jesus’ nature is suspect (at least, our interpretation is). Since the NT revelation is that God is a good Father and He is love, being genocidal doesn’t fit, therefore…

      Thanks again for being brave and commenting and a troubling subject. Blessings.

  2. Lance says:

    Mel, I think Peter Enns does a great job explaining this in his book “The Bible Tells Me So.” I can’t capture in a comment all that he has to say. But to answer your questions…Gut reaction, not God at all. Atheist or any other label isn’t the problem, the illusion of separation and the fear that creates superstition and mythologies is the problem. Jesus shows us who God is, one with us, no separation and we are like Him.

    Back to Enns and his discussion. For me, in a really small nutshell, the Nation of Israel had an agenda and they were telling the story from the perspective of Babylonian captivity (or impending captivity). They wanted to tell their national story. In this story the “competing” gods were like Molech and the like, all violent “warlords.” So Israel created a story that would justify their own agenda. Still inspired, but for the purpose of contrast. Jesus shows us explicitly that this mythology created in fear and illusion is not our Father. I could be wrong as always, but this works in my head.

    Thanks Mel for tackling the hard issues.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks Lance. Yes, Peter Enns’s book is good. For a Bible scholar, he writes very clear and that particular book is an easy read (I believe a lecture based on that book is on YouTube also). Enns is representative of the most recent scholarship on these troubling OT passages. Some other peers of his I’ve read include Thom Stark, Water Bruggermann, and Walter Wink, besides Rene Girard (technically, an anthropologist) and Michael Hardin who I’ve already referenced elsewhere.

      These, and many others, are all writing papers and books at the academic level of theology and are saying some good stuff, although I don’t always agree with them. Sometimes, they’re too academic for their own good and forget what you’re talking about, that we are IN Christ and it’s more relational than pure intellectual analysis (This is where C. Baxter Kruger can help us). But God did give us a brain AND His Spirit to think through these things and find the truth. There’s no reason to be afraid of these passages or gloss over them. Indeed, that has proven detrimental to people’s faith in recent years.

  3. Cindy Powell says:

    Hey Mel – glad you’re taking this on. Read this and your last post with interest as this is something I’ve wrestled with and not fully come out on the other side. I read Derek Flood’s book about “Disarming Scripture” and while there was a lot of great stuff, especially in the earlier chapters, I couldn’t hang with his conclusions – which, from my perspective, really did amount to “cherry picking.” There are definitely things I have “faithfully questioned” for some time, yet I also know that I know, the Bible IS a supernatural book. I think some of Greg Boyd’s thoughts are the closest to where I’ve landed so far – that the Bible is infallible in accomplishing God’s ultimate purposes (but from the little I’ve read of his stuff I’m not sure I totally agree with him on everything either!) Anyway, I know I’m not answering your questions, just sharing some thoughts. I’m not particularly troubled by having questions, because I’m secure in Him, but it is interesting stuff and I am looking forward to reading more. Blessings!

  4. Mel Wild says:

    “I’m not particularly troubled by having questions, because I’m secure in Him…”

    Awesome Cindy. Amen! That’s the healthy way we should approach troubling parts of Scripture.

    People like Derek Flood and Greg Boyd (and others who advocate peace) are going to make an argument for a non-violent God, to encourage us to be non-violent Christians, which I agree is a good thing. They make a very strong argument in line with earliest Christian thought. Before Constantine, Christian’s saw their only “warfare” was against spiritual forces, not against nations or people (imagine that! Eph.6:12) But like I said to Lance’s comments, I don’t necessarily agree with everything here, either. It’s hard to escape the preponderance of violence in Scripture; yet, it’s probably not to be understood in the way we’ve traditionally interpreted it. There are no easy answers here, so one thing we can’t afford to do is be stubbornly stuck in dogmatism.

    Also, you bring up a good point on cherry-picking. We all do it, whether we realize it or not. It would be very easy for me to stay in my favorite places like Ephesians and Colossians on our identity or John’s writings on love on this blog. That’s where I’m personally at with God. But we need to deal with the whole of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. We just need to do so through the lens of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we don’t end up with a balanced view of God but very conflicted God with untenable contradictions about His nature. The fact remains, He CANNOT be genocidal and be love. There is no universe or heavenly realm where that would be true! 🙂

    Blessing to you, too! Always appreciate your input.

  5. Cindy Powell says:

    “There are no easy answers here, so one thing we can’t afford to do is be stubbornly stuck in dogmatism” Amen–that’s really it. I don’t have all the answers, but I do love me some “Jesus lenses” and that is why I feel safe to question stuff that doesn’t look like Him. I love what Bill Johnson says: “Job is the question, Jesus is the answer.” Sometimes that is the best answer I’ve got, but in the end it is a pretty good one. 🙂

    • Mel Wild says:

      Yes. Jesus Christ is perfect theology (another Bill-ism!). He is how we know God. So we need to learn how to trust Jesus more than we trust the text. I know that sounds weird but He’s the one who gives life to the text. He IS the way and the truth. Otherwise, there no point in reading the Bible at all. So, there’s nothing to be afraid of when we question something that doesn’t sound like Him. His perfect love can also drive out our fear of being mislead.

      • Der Krieger des Lichts says:

        “Jesus Christ is perfect theology” that’s a statement from Thomas Merton (in “No man is an island”)

  6. Pingback: God said what?! Part Two | In My Father's House

  7. theologycake says:

    Your an excellent teacher, Mel. Your explanations are clear and simple for the layman (myself including).

    1. My gut reaction is curiosity. I know that God is good and His wisdom is infinite. As Paul writes in Romans 11:33, “His judgements are unsearchable” “his ways are inscrutable”.

    2. I agree with Bullroarin that unless someone’s ears are opened to hear the truth, discussion is futile. But I also agree w you that these difficult passages need to be studied and addressed. Somehow an aspect of God’s character is being shown, and if we ignore these passages we miss out on discovering more of God and we come out with a partial theology. As for convincing any individual, of course that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Salvation isn’t just an assent of the intellect, but a conviction of the spirit first. Yes, we should study and then we sow what we have been given faithfully. Then the rest is up to the Lord of the Harvest.

    3. First I must explain that my comment is exploratory rather than my definitive answer. But I do have this thought, which I suspect is probably full of theological errors and holes.

    I would approach this text in the same way I understand Romans 9-11, particularly the passage about vessels made for dishonor.

    Romans 9:22-23 ESV What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—

    How do you explain vessels prepared for wrath or for dishonor and vessels prepared for glory and honor?

    In the entire context of Chap. 9-11 Paul is talking about God’s plan for Israel. We see that God isn’t an unmerciful God, but that God is faithful to His promises and well and able to perform His word.

    In addition, how do you explain the Flood and the Ark? Is He capricious? Is He wrathful and vengeful? But again, with the right perspective, we see He is just and righteous and He is loving. He is righteous in that evil was judged. He is loving in that he preserved His people. Ultimately He preserved the seed of Christ, who would save all mankind from their sin.

    In the same thought, could not Israel have been God’s instrument of justice? Would God have been righteous to ignore the flagrant sin of a nation?

    I would surmise that these nations would qualify as vessels of wrath prepared for dishonor, as taught by Paul. Paul rightly guesses the outrage that will occur when his readers hear this.

    We read in Romans 9:11-16 ESV

    though they (Jacob and Esau) were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

    So there I think maybe the answer. In context Paul is teaching about salvation. All of humanity from Adam until the Parousia deserves God’s judgement because of sin. We assume God is cruel to put a nation under the ban, but in actuality He is just. We like to think that humanity has the right to life, when it is rather the opposite. (I am not saying that therefore man has the right to take life. It is only God.) Indeed, He is very merciful that He has kept even a remnant unto Himself in order to show His mercy. Amd that remnant of course is Israel, not of the flesh but according to faith. And that is Paul’s point. We are saved not because of anything we could do or have done, but it is entirely on His grace and mercy.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your thorough comments and thoughts here, Theologycake. Much appreciated. You bring up another hot topic in Christianity, how one becomes a “vessel of wrath,” and how does our free and God’s sovereignty play into that. One conclusion we should end up with at the end of the day is that God is good and perfect in all He does. Hopefully, we can do that without having to be in a state of cognitive dissonance, too. 🙂

  8. theologycake says:

    Sorry for the length of my comment. I’m still working on being succinct.

  9. Mel Wild says:

    Thanks for your thorough comments and thoughts here, Theologycake. Much appreciated. You bring up another hot topic in Christianity, how one becomes a “vessel of wrath,” and how does our free and God’s sovereignty play into that. One conclusion we should end up with at the end of the day is that God is good and perfect in all He does. Hopefully, we can do that without having to be in a state of cognitive dissonance, too. 🙂

    • theologycake says:

      Haha! Yes, I realized I opened another can of worms bringing up election and free will. But you are right, He is good and perfect in all He does! Human reasoning can only take us so far in our understanding of God, faith takes us the rest of the way.

      (Which sounds like a cop-out but from my perspective it’s simply the truth. Humans place to much faith in a science that is constantly evolving. Ha! No pun intended.)

  10. Mel, thank you so much for addressing this. I admit, it has been perplexing for me, and difficult to answer. “Since the NT revelation is that God is a good Father and He is love, being genocidal doesn’t fit, therefore…”
    I have never believed the Bible is inerrant or infallible, but that it is inspired, and also understand its different genres. I’m really looking forward to examining these texts and looking for the historical and cultural explanation.
    We cannot justify genocide for any reason; that is simply not who Jesus is, therefore not who our Father is – not who God is.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks Susan. That’s pretty much what motivated my journey, as I mention in part two. We must START with Jesus, and work backwards through Scripture, not the other way around. And if we get lost or confused along the way, we still have Jesus! It’s the safest way to travel. 🙂

  11. 1. What is your gut reaction to this “holy ban” given in Deuteronomy 7:1-2? I may not have liked the idea, but I always accepted it because who am I to question God.

    2. How would you answer a skeptic (briefly summarize) if he or she pointed this passage out to you? What would be your rationale for telling someone like Richard Dawkins that his or her conclusion is wrong? Psalm 89:14…Justice and judgement are the habitation of Thy throne; mercy and truth shall go before Your face. I can’t explain every detail of the Word, but this I do know…”For God so loved the world.” He is just as much a God of mercy as He is a God of judgment.

    2. How does this holy ban fit in with the teachings of Jesus (Sermon on the Mount), how He interfaced with sinners and explained His Father to us? Luke 2:14 – “Glory to God in the highest,
    And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” The good will spoken of here is the Father’s good will towards man. Jesus came for the purpose of creating this New Covenant between God and man. Jesus satisfied God’s wrath by ushering in God’s grace. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness we should live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age..(Titus 2:11-12)

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Patrick. Much appreciated. 🙂 I will comment by the numbers below:
      1. That was basically Irenaeus’ (c. 202 AD) answer. Who are we to question God? That works for me, especially when I don’t have a clear answer. It just doesn’t work for those who are troubled by it. Nevertheless, when we clearly don’t know, we need to trust.
      2. Amen. While Dawkins may never get it, and we may not get it In the end, “God so loved…” That is the ultimate truth, my friend!
      3. Yes, I agree. Jesus made us right with God and empowered us with grace. Amen. So, in that regard, some of what we see in the OT is anachronistic. The problem is, this still doesn’t let God off the hook if He did actually command these things, because there’s nothing anachronistic about Him. He does not change; He is always the same (Mal. 3:6; Heb.13:8; James 1:17). And genocide is always wrong. That’s the dilemma before us that the skeptics are not letting go of, thereby, causing some to doubt that God is good..

      As I said before, there are no easy answers here, and I may not have satisfactory answers for everyone at the end of this series. Nothing is cut and dried, or can fit in our nice little theology boxes. I think that’s why God invites us into the conversation, to wrestle with these things and go deeper than our surface understandings.
      Thanks again for jumping in the conversation. Blessings!

  12. Der Krieger des Lichts says:

    Yes, we need a Jesus shaped spirituality and theology. That’s the best response to Richard Dawkins and all our other friends.

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