“However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them–the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites–as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.”
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
1 Samuel 15:2-3
I walked out of a sermon last month, because (and I quote from a later conversation), “The pastor obviously didn’t understand siege warfare techniques in the ancient middle east, or bronze/iron age warfare in general.”
I was surprised by my reaction, just as I was surprised that the church was actually tackling the tough topic of the Old Testament Canaanite conquest. Given the choice between preaching about Jesus healing the sick, and God ordering the Israelites to massacre entire cities, many pastors wouldn’t hesitate. There are whole sections of the Bible nobody preaches about, and consequently many Christians don’t even know they exist.
My father tells me that there are two major theological issues that scholars are currently struggling with in the Old Testament. The first is the historicity of Adam and Eve as real people (he’s written an article), and the second is divinely-sanctioned murder. The Old Testament includes many stories of God either killing directly or ordering his servants to kill, often with (from our perspective) mild provocation. Unlike the sanitized Jesus so often portrayed on Sunday, the OT Yahweh is a God of deep and turbulent passion, a warrior as well as a healer.
Why does it matter? It’s the OT after all, allegedly superseded and rendered obsolete by later revelation in the form of the New Testament. It’s the same Testament that forbids the eating of clams yet tolerates the keeping of slaves, and relates alien stories of hairy, incestuous camel-herders. Most readers don’t understand, and many couldn’t care less as long as they can keep their comforting picture-book memories of Noah leading animals two-by-two, or Moses confronting a burning bush.
Yet the OT does matter. It matters to us because it mattered to Jesus, because we worship the God it describes, because it tells the story both of creation, and of humankind. It matters because the textual discrepancies are obvious, the problem of divine violence a significant one, and because simply being assured that ‘God is good’ does not explain contradictory divine behavior. Our determination to ask questions is also an act of allegiance to Christianity: as Eric Siebert, author of Disturbing Divine Behaviour states, “Demanding blind obedience to religious authority is one of the warning signs that religion has become evil.”[i] To ignore contradictions is to condone a critical discrepancy in our faith tradition.
As a veteran campaigner, my familiarity with the Bible can ‘anesthetize’ me to some of its content. Having read the same stories a dozen times takes the awe out of the miraculous and the sting out of the despicable. As Siebert puts it, “The story of the worldwide flood in the book of Genesis, for example, becomes little more than a colorful tale about a floating zoo instead of a divine disaster of epic proportions.”[ii] Therefore it is important to step back and consider certain OT texts, like those pertaining to the Canaanite conquest, with fresh eyes.
Modern Christianity includes several foundational beliefs about the character of God that serve as the bedrock of our hymns, sermons, and theology. First and foremost, God is a God of love, who places incredible value on each and every human life. Second, God is about peace (or ‘shalom’), and does not condone violence. Thirdly, God is absolutely good — so good that evil is by definition simply his absence.
There are several texts in the OT that complicate these foundational claims about the nature of God, including the command to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, and the smiting of Uzzah in 2 Samuel. Still, the most problematic narrative is that in which the Israelites conquer the land of Canaan by annihilating the resident population. In this tale (related mostly in the book of Joshua), God is often perceived as a kind of “Genocide General”[iii] inciting his chosen people on a bloody crusade.
If you accept this line of thinking the Israelites are like an ancient Jewish ISIS, bent on carving out their own little kingdom as commanded by Allah (oops, I mean Yahweh). Some argue that affirming these stories as written is also to bestow Christianity with its own version of jihad[iv] and consequently a precedent for violence as the divine agent of the almighty. To reject these texts is to call into question the historicity, the inerrancy, and the inspiration of the Bible.
Christians have been sensitive to the theological problems of divine violence since the beginning of the movement, and very quickly began to propose solutions to the quandary of a God who claimed to love everyone – and yet engaged in what seemed to be mass murder. In the second century a preacher named Marcion proposed the rejection of the entire OT from the canon (beginning a heretical practice known as ‘Marcionism’). Today, most theologians waver somewhere between Marcionite rejection and literal acceptance of the most controversial texts.
The most popular solution in Anabaptist circles has been to pull the teeth from OT texts by interpreting them as allegory, metaphor, or sociological construct. According to theologian, author, and Patheos and Huffington Post contributor Peter Enns, “The stories of mass extermination of Canaanites that God ordered (Deuteronomy 7:1-5 and 20:10-20) do not depict brute historical events, but Israel’s culturally influenced way of making an important theological statement.”[v] Many theologians agree with Enns’s view that the seemingly horrific events in the OT did not happen, but we can still gain theological value from the OT.
Others suggest that we are offended by OT stories of violence because we fail to understand the cultural differences that provide reasonable explanations. While this method works well for helping to explain the divine killing of Uzzah – who seems righteous in trying to stop the Ark from falling off the cart, but is actually guilty of ignoring the Levitical requirements for its transport – the method does little to soften the meaning of texts like that of 1 Samuel 15 (above). A statement in which God actively commands the destruction of people and all their possessions and animals cannot be entirely explained by cultural differences.
Another more extreme cultural explanation posits that Israel created a theology of divine violence that automatically credited Yahweh with every battle victory. If so, then all divine actions as well as many ambiguous occurrences were attributed to God, sometimes instead of other (even evil) supernatural agents. This solves many of the more problematic divine actions in the OT (like God hardening hearts, sending down afflictions, and unleashing evil spirits), as well as explaining the bloodthirstiness of many divine commands. Many ancient peoples believed that their god fought alongside them in battle, and therefore war was an absolute struggle with both corporal and supernatural components. If a people were defeated in battle they assumed their god was weaker than their opponents, not necessarily (as we would assume) that they were outclassed tactically or strategically. In order to not ever portray Yahweh as weaker than an enemy god, the Israelite writers were careful to portray their victories as the result of divine aid, and their defeats as the fruit of divine displeasure. Just as (in this view) they attributed all other good or bad divine phenomena to Yahweh in order to honour his supremacy, the Israelites appropriated the divine voice to explain their military record as a result of God’s omnipotence.
The obvious problem with this view is that it calls into question the theological veracity of most of the commands attributed to Yahweh, making them instead the rhetorical tools of politic-minded chroniclers. This is why other scholars prefer to argue that a “radical discontinuity” exists between the OT and the New Testament, and that many of the stories of the OT (while historical) are unique occurrences native to particular place, time, and covenant.
Accordingly, the OT can teach us some things about God, about covenant, and about humanity, but it contains divine commands and situations that cannot be taken from their context and in any way be used to justify this kind of action today. The commands to massacre Canaanites found in Deuteronomy and Joshua cannot be used as precedent for any modern conflict, and instead model a form of ‘progressive revelation.’ As Yahweh slowly reveals himself to the Israelites, he also slowly softens and redeems the harsh society of the ancient world.[vi] A crusade against the Canaanites may seem like a flawed tool for an almighty God, but it was part of a greater plan that culminated in the authentic ‘human’ incarnation of God: Jesus.
For, at its heart, this discussion is about the ‘true’ character of God, or at least how a God who claims to know the number of hairs on one’s head can also order the slaughter of children. Perhaps the most popular way to frame discontinuity is to argue that Christians should take a “Christocentric hermeneutic,”[vii] by which the divine actions of the OT are interpreted through the teachings of Jesus. In John 18:36, Christ proclaims “My kingdom is not of the world. If My kingdom were of this world, than My servants would be fighting.” His commitment to peaceful transformation of individuals and society, as well as ‘turning the other cheek’ form the root of historical Christian pacifism, and are significantly more palatable to a modern audience than the OT warrior Yahweh.
A Christocentric perspective treats as historical all stories that mesh with the teachings of Jesus, while rejecting or turning to metaphor all those with conflicting divine actions (although more conservative scholars refuse to reject any texts as ahistorical). While this approach has the advantage of applying a simple set of criteria to each problematic text, it also significantly devalues the OT (about four-fifths of the Bible). As well, Jesus throws a wrench into the mechanism by playing the part of divine warrior in the book of Revelation, ‘ruining’ his gentle, pacifist image.
At the other end of the scale from the Marcionites are the neo-Calvinists led by their most prominent contemporary advocate, John Piper. The Calvinists attempt to eliminate the ethical problems of divine violence by reminding Christians that God is ultimately the giver of life and of grace, and who are we to argue if he suddenly takes it away for some greater purpose? As another conservative scholar, Tremper Longman III, argues “We should not be amazed that God ordered the death of the Canaanites, but rather we should stand in amazement that he lets anyone live.”[viii]
If God is the definition of goodness then anything God does is, by definition, good. While this view retains a deep respect for the omniscience and omnipotence of God, it also resembles a suspiciously circular argument.[ix] “History bears witness that those who envision God the way Piper does,” says Enns, “are only one small step away from forming their own Christian Taliban to be God’s agents of wrath in this life.”[x] If we accept that all deserve death, and that God may use believers as agents to deliver that death, then it is only a matter of time before Christians begin to once again participate in bloodshed.
None of the solutions mentioned above has the potential to really explain how a God of love could order the Canaanite massacres. In another post I went over the details of the conquest of Jericho and Ai and showed how the loss of life was probably much less than we imagine, but that reasoning only sidesteps the greater question concerning God’s character. Is Christianity’s ‘true God’ the jealous, vengeful figure of the OT, the benign, somewhat-effeminate Jesus of the Sunday school flannel-board…or is there perhaps another option?
Whom do we worship, O people of Zion?
If I had to give an answer (rather than simply ask questions of others), I believe that I would falter towards the Pipers, rather than the Marcions, of the world. If Christians wish to continue to see the Bible as divinely inspired, they cannot simply cut out the passages, books, or testaments they dislike, nor can they render as allegorical whatever stories don’t fit their divine construct. Both God and the ancient Israelites are somewhat alien to our limited, modern perspectives, yet the story of their covenant is the foundation of Christianity. We do not get to decide the actions of God, nor change his actions to suit our own purposes. If we claim absolute obedience to Yahweh then we must understand what absolute obedience is — absolute trust in the divine will.
YET, through Jesus it is possible to glimpse the divine character, and it does not seem to be one that takes great pleasure in the deaths of those created in his image. If perfected creation, heaven, is a place of eternal shalom, then the truest image of God must be as peace-maker rather than warrior. Yes, God picked up the sword at times in the OT, but it seems that the new covenant of Jesus fundamentally changed God’s relationship with humanity. The God of the Israelites became the God of ever nation, and in doing so rejected divinely-inspired violence against any member of the human race.
There is a time for war, and a time for peace, under the sun. There is a time for justice, and also a time for retribution, yet neither is truly the responsibility of a limited and flawed humanity. We anger too easily, and kill too quickly, seeing evil in everyone but ourselves. We must trust in our God, not judging him by our own anthropomorphic terms, but remembering his commands to be a people of both love and peace.
As Gandalf once said, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life … do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
[i] Siebert, Eric, Disturbing Divine Behaviour, 8.
[iii] Siebert’s words.
[iv] The Hebrew word is ‘herem,’ meaning to consecrate something for destruction. In this case, entire cities (like Jericho) were considered herem.
[vi] “As we move through the Scriptures we witness a moral advance—or, in many ways, a movement towards restoring the Genesis ideals. In fact, Israel’s laws reveal dramatic moral improvements over the practices of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples. God’s act of incrementally “humanizing” ancient Near Eastern structures for Israel meant diminished harshness and an elevated status of debt-servants, even if certain negative customs weren’t fully eliminated.”
Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, 61.
[vii] Siebert, 12.
[viii] Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, 185.
[ix] God killed the Canaanites because they deserved to die. We know they deserved to die because God killed them.
[x] Refer to note v.