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:
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)
It’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.)
Who 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.
How 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!