God said what?! – Part Six

light_tunnelWe will look at two more common answers given in response to the genocidal implications of the Canaan Conquest before heading out the other side of this theological rabbit hole.

If you haven’t read the previous parts of this series, I suggest you do so before continuing here.

Here are the passages we’ve been looking at:

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)

a-long-time-agoIt’s anachronistic to judge by today’s standards

This answer goes something like this: That’s what the violent and bloody ancient world was like, but it’s totally inappropriate to judge what was done in those times by our modern sensibilities.

This answer has some merit. There were a lot of things done back then that are anachronistic to our modern world.

The world of Moses and Joshua was a very bloody and violent one. Worship looked more like throwing your virgins into the volcano so your god wouldn’t burn your village. Slavery, polygamy, and treating women as property were the norm, even codified into the Mosaic Law! By our standards, human life was very cheap in this barbarically cruel world. Genocide, while not common, would not have been thought a reprehensible act like how we see it today.

But there’s one big problem with this answer. God is the one supposedly speaking here, and there’s nothing anachronistic about God! Not only does He exist outside of time and space, unlike us, God never changes.

“For I am the Lord, I do not change” (Mal. 3:6a NKJV)

17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17 NIV)

So, while this answer might work for Israel’s actions as an ancient tribal people, it falls flat for God. He never changes, so He’s still on the hook here for committing genocide. (That is, if He actually ordered it.)

God_FatherWho are we to question God!

The last answer we’re going to look at is actually one of the first given by the early church. Irenaeus (c. early second century – 202 AD), who said this when confronted with the morality of the text.

“Who are we to question God” sounds like a humble and biblical answer on the surface, but it’s really more an avoidance tactic when one doesn’t want to deal with the implications of difficult passages. We just throw up our hands and say that God can do whatever He wants. He is God, after all.

Bible scholar, Philip Jenkins, in his book, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Violent Verses, talks about how this defense was central to John Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity.

“Through original sin, humanity was utterly fallen and consigned to damnation, and that fall, that depravity, polluted all human perceptions….By human standards, such a theology might appear monstrously unjust, even diabolical; but that very perception, said Calvin, just showed how flawed human values and attitudes were, when set against the perfect justice of God. Human beings had no basis to complain of God’s harshness under any circumstances, even when he eliminated whole nations. ” (p. 108)

Later, Jenkins mentions nineteenth century father of Fundamentalism, R. A. Torrey, channeling Calvin and Augustine…

“who turned back to Augustine and Calvin in asserting that God the Creator can rule as he wishes, and rather than blame God, we should be grateful that he does not visit on us modern-day sinners the fate he inflicted on the Canaanites.” (p. 114).

Okay, so just shut up and be grateful that God doesn’t just come down and slaughter all of us? That’s a valid answer? We’re so utterly depraved we’ll never understand this particular aspect of God’s righteousness that, under any other circumstance, would unequivocally be considered genocide? After all, according to Jonathan Edwards, we’re just  “loathsome insects”(“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). What would loathsome insects know about it?

Dutch Reformed theologian A. van de Beek argued, “the more one wants to let all Scripture speak for itself…the more unclear the Bible becomes. The more we believe that the whole Word is revelation, the less we know about God.” (Why? On Suffering, Guilt, and God, p. 278). But could it be that our theology only becomes incoherent because we’ve been cornered by the need to hold on to the notion of biblical inerrancy?

I will again refer to Romans 2:14-15 (see part five). One of the ways we’re to worship God is with all of our mind. Human beings have been given a brain and a moral conscience for a reason. The truth is, we all instinctively know when something is good, and when something’s unspeakably evil. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck….

By the way, John Wesley had a very different take than Calvin on these passages, as C.S. Cowles points out:

John Wesley said that to attribute such atrocities to God is an outrage against His character and makes Him “more false, more cruel, and more unjust than the devil…God hath taken [Satan’s] work out of [His] hands…God is the destroyer of souls.” ( John Wesley, “Free Grace.” Quoted from C.S. Cowles, Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, loc. 214, Kindle version.)

The point is, we don’t need to short-circuit our brain or cauterize our conscience in order to understand these passages. But we probably do need to change how we read them.

jesus_sinnerHow does this line up with Jesus?

While we certainly won’t understand everything about God, and we may never answer this issue to our complete satisfaction, we can know God’s true nature. We can know this through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ…how He treated sinners and what He taught us about our enemy-loving Father.

When we look at the Canaanite genocidal directive in Deuteronomy, how does that line up with Jesus’ description of His Father? (Emphasis added)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt.5:43-45 NIV)

And consider that the the only way we can truly know God is by Jesus revealing Him to us:

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt. 11:27 NIV)

Jesus came to reveal to us that to know God is to know love (John 3:16; Rom.5:8; 1 John 4:7-8). And anything that’s not like love is not like God. I don’t think slaughtering “everything that breathes” and “show them no mercy” sounds like Love, do you?

I will argue next time that these stories are given to us precisely so we do faithfully question them, for as Thom Stark put it, it’s precisely this struggle through moral uncertainty that makes us moral beings.

See you at the end of the tunnel!

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 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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19 Responses to God said what?! – Part Six

  1. I am talking with a fellow who is all wrapped up in compatabilism and determinism. To me compatabilism and determinism are nothing more than philosophical “slight of hand” used to divert attention from the real issues at hand. In this case, God’s Absolute Sovereignty and the removal of free will would be the end all answer and nothing else.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Yeah, I don’t like to get into those endless debates. To me, free will is required for love to even exist. But this free will is not in a vacuum. We are relational beings and affect each other. God is love so, in His absolute sovereignty, He sovereignly chose to give us free will to choose Him or not choose Him. To say we didn’t have a choice is just irresponsible and blame-shifting…blaming God for evil in this case.

      Deterninists love to quote Romans 9, but they’ve taken the text terribly out of context. In the original story (Jer.18), the potter shapes the clay based on its response. This whole chapter in Jeremiah is about giving choices and God responding accordingly. If these nations actually didn’t have free will, there would be no choice to make. It would just be a sadistic joke that God was playing on them. That is NOT the God I know!

  2. Jeremy says:

    I’m loving how this series is stretching me. C.S. Cowles was a professor of mine at Point Loma Nazarene University… what an awesome man of God. Anyway thanks for the fresh perspectives, I’m having a hard time with your take on substitutionary atonement but it’s hard in a good way.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks Jeremy. It’s good to be stretched. That’s how we grow, 🙂 As I said in part two, I have been questioning these popular assumptions for several years now because the God I personally encountered was nothing like the God of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) or of the traditional reading of the Canaan conquest. It was like the proverbial pimple on the brain! I bothered me so much that I started researching it and found that this “rabbit hole” goes very deep, and that there have been other compelling views out there for a long time that are more consistent with God’s nature (the Eastern Orthodox have never endorsed PSA). And the reason I bring it up here on this blog is because I think we’ve painted our heavenly Father with a very dark brush and it’s been detrimental to our relationship with Him and witness to the world. It’s nothing like how Jesus described His Father.

      Thanks for reading and hanging in there with me. I wish you all the best on your own journey. Blessings.

  3. It’s so important we in the Western World open our point of view in everything to other world views – especially to our views on God. Jesus, after all, was not American or European. We must begin to see Him and the rest of Scripture in light of the world in which He existed and in which it was written. We have much to learn from historical context, if we will only open ourselves to listen.

    • Mel Wild says:

      So true, Susan. We tend to read the Bible through our cultural lens, not understanding the very different culture it was written in. We (Americans) also tend to see it from our personal perspective as individuals, but the New Testament has no such concept. The “you” is usually in a corporate context of the whole, in relationship to one another. When we see ourselves separated from each other, we can create factions and divisions (“us” and “them”) that shouldn’t be there. This can ultimately lead to doing some of the same reprehensible things that were done in Scripture. Especially, when we attribute such evil things to God! It gives us license to do the same. Sadly, it has happened in church history.

      • Yes it has, and has happened in our own American history, though we either don’t like to acknowledge it or we rationalize it. The reasons are the same – land and greed.
        We really do need to get back to the words of Jesus, to study them and go deep so we truly understand them.

        • Mel Wild says:

          That’s what René Girard calls our cultural myths. The victor always writes the story. We kill the “scapegoat” (the problem) and hide the bodies (the atrocities are omitted from the narrative). This becomes the “state propaganda,” or the official history. This has been going on since Cain killed Abel; America is no different. We have our “manifest destiny” myths with a lot of “bodies” hidden (killing and/or driving out the Native Americans, slavery, lynching, reneging on treaties, etc.) And of lot of this was done in the name of Christ! After all, we’re a “Christian” nation, right?
          So, yes, we definitely need to follow Jesus instead! This is why Christianity has gotten such a bad name. We haven’t actually been following Him.

        • No, we haven’t. And truthfully, I didn’t even learn about the extent of manifest destiny, or even Japanese internment camps until I was in college to get my teaching credential because it wasn’t in history books until then! That’s when I began doing my own extensive research. More people need to do that – especially around elections.
          Enough said. :-/

  4. Arkenaten says:

    How do react to the archaeological consensus that the Pentateuch is nothing but historical fiction?

    • Mel Wild says:

      I’m fully aware of these archeological claims and higher criticism’s aim to dismiss Scripture, but I would not say this is subjective and unbiased. As Walter Wink has said about it, “higher criticism has gone bankrupt.” We now know that there is no such thing as disinterested, unbiased observation, which was thought possible in the Enlightenment movement. In other words, we see what we want to see. We must make our conclusions knowing that we have affected its outcome in some way. But that doesn’t mean that we should just ignore the archeological evidence. It’s just means that these conclusions are honestly disputed and won’t bring anyone to faith either way.

      • Arkenaten says:

        No, I am referring to the carbon dating of Jericho by Kenyan for one and the subsequent confirmation from numerous other datings.
        And also the evidence put forward for the internal settlement pattern put forward by people such as Finkelstein.
        This is accepted pretty much throughout scholarship and archaeology even if the absolute minimalist position is still not accepted by all.
        certainly no one other than fundamentalists and evangelical Christians beleive there is any serious veracity to the biblical tale of Exodus and conquests and as already stated, the evidence refutes the biblical claims.
        You surely do not believe 2 million people left Egypt and camped at Kadesh Barnea for 30 for
        some years surely?
        Furthermore, the character Moses is not regarded as an historical figure other than by fundamentalists and evangelicals either.
        Eve as far back as Marin Noth considered him merely a sort of composite figure.

        • Mel Wild says:

          Again, I’m familiar with the archeological disputation, and have even mentioned it here. I have no problem with these findings. But as I told you on the other post, this series was written for believers not skeptics. In this series, you will see a summary of how I posit understanding the narrative. For better academic analysis and response to what you’re talking about there are works by theologians: besides Walter Wink, going from evangelical Peter Enns, to Catholic, Michael Hardin. These theologians specialize in Old Testament theology, history, language, and culture, and address these issues head on. There’s also Michael Stark (mentioned in this series), Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, F.F. Bruce and many Jewish scholars.

          As you know, I do believe in miracles and supernatural intervention. As to events like the Red Sea crossing, there’s a difference between “if” something happened and “how” an event might’ve taken place. Answering these questions doesn’t negate the veracity of Scripture if we understand why these stories were written.

          It seems the biggest problem we have is in trying to understand the Bible, which are ancient Semitic writings, with our 21st Century Western mindset. As I’ve said before, the Bible was never written to provide a verbatim history book or science manual. It’s written to answer very different questions, using stories and even changing them in the re-telling, to answer questions at the time. Unlike other literature, these writings span at least 2,000 years, with many authors under very different conditions, and in at least four different languages. It was written to give a national identity, not too much different than some of the stories written about our own nation’s founding. It would be fallacious to take them with wooden literalism or even assume the theology is sound (of course, people have done that and have committed many atrocities thinking they were serving God). We can reasonably find out how to interpret them by various hermeneutical means. Even then, there’s honest disagreement.

          If Plato or Aristotle had been told to write the Bible, I’m sure it would’ve been brilliantly structured and nuanced for intellectuals to digest, but it would’ve been unintelligible to most people! It wasn’t written that way. It was written to the lowest common denominator, addressing a people where they were at in a very primitive culture. Ancient cultures didn’t understand “love your enemies” or being “compelled by love.” they only understood threats and punishment. In addition to this, the writers were not omniscient. They were inspired, but telling the story from their limited human perspective and understanding. One thing we see throughout Scripture is God acquiescing to us, like a father would to his two-year old child, playing on the floor, speaking a “childish” language that could be understood by the object of his affections. That’s why I say it’ anachronistic to apply this language literally to where we are in the human trajectory. You might say, we’ve grown up as a human race since then. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve outgrown God.

        • Arkenaten says:

          First: For what it’s worth, it was the Reed Sea (Sea of Reeds) although I’m pretty sure you know this, yes?

          Second: As archaeology and science have refuted the Pentateuch what, may I ask, is the point of attempting to read anything into it, other than to acknowledge it is historical fiction?

        • Mel Wild says:

          Yes, I know that about the Reed Sea.

          Just to go with your argument (not necessarily agreeing with it). Even a fable can teach us truth and inform us how to life rightly. I don’t think for a minute that the Old Testament is total fiction, but it does have its own internal debate and critique, which is unheard of in religious writings. You have the priests giving the “propaganda” if you will, and the prophets (embedded reporters?) telling them they’re full of it.

        • Arkenaten says:

          I said the Pentateuch was Historical Fiction . You know the term of course and probably just misread.

        • Mel Wild says:

          Sorry…got to go. I was using “we” as we humankind. I think I can prove that people are “crucifying” Jesus every day, just not with nails.
          Talk to you later.

        • Arkenaten says:

          I’ll settle for you merely proving the character Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed in the bible was a real historical figure.

          Take it easy ….

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