If you haven’t read the two previous parts of this series, I suggest you do so before continuing here. For convenience, I will write out the salient parts of the passages we’re talking about:
2 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. 7:2 NKJV)
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)
The early church fathers’ reactions
I don’t think we can overstate the upheaval that Jesus’ revolutionary teachings had on His first century followers. From the very beginning, the New Testament writers were grappling with Jesus’ reinterpretation of Israel’s view of a militaristic, retributive deity, teaching instead that God was a restorative, enemy-loving Father.
Unlike some of our modern apologists who seem content defending the divine genocidal orders and living with theological cognitive dissonance, these early leaders couldn’t just push the “Delete” button in their brain, holding that God is love and always good…but at the same time, He’s a blood-thirsty, ethnic-cleansing warlord! Here are just a few examples of how they treated these passages.
Second-century theologian, Marcion of Sinope, responded to the revelation of God through Jesus’ life and teachings by totally rejecting the Old Testament. He and his followers did not consider the Hebrew texts as inspired Christian Scripture.
According to Marcion, the god of the Old Testament, whom he called the Demiurge, the creator of the material universe, is a jealous tribal deity of the Jews, whose law represents legalistic reciprocal justice and who punishes mankind for its sins through suffering and death. (from Wikipedia)
Marcion’s Gnostic ideas were considered heresy by the church, and rightfully so. But, as Michael Hardin points out, sometimes the heretics ask the right questions! They just come to the wrong conclusions.
Later, the church fathers began to allegorize these passages. For instance, Origen (c. 185 -254 AD), an orthodox theologian in Alexandria, said that it was impossible to read Canaan conquest passages literally.
“Unless those carnal wars were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches” (Hom. Ios. 15.1).
Bible scholar, Thom Stark, references Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), one of the Cappadocian fathers and chief architects of the doctrine of the Trinity, in his book, The Human Faces of God: When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It):
“According to Gregory, the lesson is this: “When through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil” (Mos. 2.92). Once again, the historical sense of a text about divine or divinely-sanctioned murder is salvaged by turning it into an allegory pertaining to the pious destruction of one’s own vices.” Loc. 1199 – Kindle version.
Stark also quotes John Cassian (c. 360 – 435 AD), another orthodox theologian…
“We must accept the fact that, according to the Apostle, everything that happened to them was figurative and was written for our instruction.”(Conf. 5.16).” Loc. 1176 – Kindle edition
There are obvious problems with the allegorical reading (“killing the ‘Canaanites’ in our soul”). For one, it doesn’t directly confront the text. As Stark points out, it simply disregards the historical account entirely. He also makes the point that it “diminishes the moral significance of the suffering of every victim of genocide.” Furthermore, it imagines that the original audience would’ve understood it this way (which is highly unlikely).
While it may help us symbolically in other ways, the allegorical answer renders the historical narrative meaningless, thus, we lose any benefit we might otherwise derive from it.
After the allegorical reading of the patristic church fathers, the middle ages saw a return to a more literal approach. But even the most influential church leaders of this time, like Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD), did not embrace a historical-grammatical form of literalism as we know it, as Stark points out here:
Augustine did not believe that it was possible to really know the intended meaning of a deceased ancient author. Second, and more importantly, the author’s intended meaning is irrelevant to Augustine because, as Thomas Williams explains, “what guarantees the veracity of the author, and thus the text, is the divine truth; and that same divine truth is available to us even apart from our interpretation of the text” (loc. 1222 – Kindle version).
Augustine believed that the principal truth to which scripture pointed was love, or caritas, and that this conviction must be known prior to the reading of scripture and must function as a controlling presupposition throughout the hermeneutical process (Doctr. chr. 1.40–44).” Loc. 1230 – Kindle version.
I totally agree with Augustine’s conviction in this last quote, by the way. Love (caritas) must be the “controlling presupposition” because God IS love!
With the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337 AD) came a return to an Old Testament-type militaristic triumphalism, mixing church and state. Now, the “Amalekites” and “Canaanites” were any enemies of Christendom. I wrote about how Constantine dramatically changed the face of Christianity here.
What’s interesting here is that this militaristic ideology (“Convert or die by the sword”) was almost identical to that of Fundamentalist Islam!
Then, after the Reformation, we have the rise of Christian Fundamentalism and its response to Enlightenment period historical criticism. It’s this defense of the genocidal passages we’re probably most familiar with. (Thankfully, as Bible scholar Walter Wink has concluded, the historic biblical criticism method in scholarship has been rendered inadequate and bankrupt.)
We will look at some of these post-Enlightenment arguments next time.