The Wars of the Lord 6

Someone responded to the last post with, “OK, so now what?  How do we read these texts in light of some of this stuff?”

Let’s try to get to that in this post.  I think this is our last one on the subject.  (For now!)

First a bit of review.

Moral Dilemma

One major opposition to these texts is the moral one.  It just seems wrong to kill a lot of people, particularly women and children.

If the Nazis had won World Word II, and were the ones who wrote history and textbooks and set the ideology – even if all this had happened, we would say that “Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong.”  William Lane Craig says as much in his defense of moral objectivism.  He says that it was wrong “even though the Nazis who carried out the holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.”

What does this have to do with the texts in Joshua and elsewhere?  Stark says, “In the same way, I have argued that the genocides perpetrated by the ancient Israelites were morally wrong, even though the Israelites who carried out the genocides thought that they were good; and they are still wrong even though the Israelites produced scriptures that succeeded in brainwashing objective moralists who would otherwise disagree with them.”


A second major challenge is the historical one.

“The archaeological evidence contradicts the claims of many of the conquest stories.  Some of the claims made in these stories are also contradicted elsewhere in the Bible itself.”

Big relief, right?

“But the fact that some, if not many, of these genocides never took place should not bring too much relief to those of us who find ourselves wishing they never happened.  We are still at the very least left with the fact that some of the authors of our scriptures thought it reasonable to attribute such atrocities to God.  Moreover, the archaeological record suggests that some such battles did occur…”

He concludes:

“My contention is that God never did command the Israelites to slaughter entire peoples wholesale.  These accounts reflect a standard imperialistic ideology that Israel shared with many of its ancient neighbors, and I read them as products of ancient culture, not as products of pure divine revelation.  Therefore, my claim is not that I know better than God, but that, by God’s design, we all know better than those who wrongly killed women and children in God’s name.”

cut and paste?

The question raised to our previous post still remains – OK, so now what?  These texts are in our Bible, so do we throw them out, á la Marcion?  Do we just avoid them?

All good questions.

Into the Looking Glass

The final chapter of Stark’s book is entitled: “Into the Looking Glass:  What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong”.  He notes, as we said earlier, that if we ignore or endorse these texts, we are liable to repeat or endorse such actions today.  He attempts to find a way in which ‘problematic texts’ can remain as “useful for teaching, for censure, for correction, and for training in the exercise of justice” (2 Tim 3:16).

“The question looms:  what are we to do with those texts we find ourselves wanting to condemn?  While the scriptures advocate monotheism, the dissolution of the sacrificial system, and the love of enemy; they also advocate a polytheistic tribalism, human sacrifice (!), and religiously motivated genocide, among other deplorable things.  What should our strategy for dealing with these damnable texts be?  Should we simply ignore them?  Should we excise them from our canon?”

What do you think?  Some of you are saying, “OK, OK, give us the answer!”

Here goes:

“The only honest answer to the question I have been able to come up with is this:  they must be retained as scripture, precisely as condemned texts.  Their status as condemned is exactly their scriptural value.  That they are condemned is what they reveal to us about God.  The texts themselves depict God as a genocidal dictator, as a craver of blood.  But we must condemn them in our engagement with them – sometimes with guidance from other passages of scripture, sometimes without.  That they stand as condemned is what they mean for us as scripture.”

Some of you are wondering exactly what this means or looks like.  He continues:

Peering within

“Why this?  Why not simply excise them from the canon?  Why not flatly ignore them?  The answer is that to do so is to hide from ourselves a potent reminder of the worst parts of ourselves.  Scripture is a mirror.  It mirrors humanity, because it is as much the product of human beings as it is the product of the divine.  When we peer into the looking glass and see the many faces of God, we see ourselves among them.  The mirror reflects our doubt and our mediocrity.  It mirrors our best and worst possible selves.  It shows us who we can be, both good and evil, and everything in between.  To cut the condemned texts out of the canon would be to shatter that mirror.  It would be to hide from ourselves our very own capacity to become what we most loathe.  It would be to lie to ourselves about what we are capable of.  It would be to doom ourselves to repeat history.”

And that’s a wrap.

Stark has more to say on this, but you’ll have to get the book to get the goods.  I am grateful that Thom has been very generous in letting me liberally excerpt from the book… and we have really only delved into one chapter of what is a great book.  If you’ve enjoyed these posts, he gets into many other challenging texts in the Bible, including David and Goliath and Jesus’ predictions of his second coming.  His opening and concluding chapters are alone worth the price of the book.  Again, you may not agree with all of his conclusions or approaches, but you’ll have to agree that he has done his homework.

That’s it for the post, but I want to repeat a couple responses to the prior post, because they are worth reading, and you may not have seen them.

Andy, a fellow pub theologian, noted the following:

“The power of myth is not in historicity but in their formative power for the present. Carlos Fuentes said that myth is “a past with a future, exercising itself in the present.” If these annihilation stories are formative myth (myth in Tolkien’s sense, not in fact/non-fact dualism), then they are meant to be formative and even instructive for our current behavior. Yet, I do not get the impression from the New Testament (or even later Old Testament and Intertestamental writings) that the annihilation stories are the central myths to Israel. I would count the call of Abraham (“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”), the Exodus (“the God who brought you out of Egypt”), and others. Rarely do I see the conquest narratives used in such a typological way.”

Very good.  It is helpful to focus on the broader narrative, the bigger picture of what God was doing, but also, what were the stories that sustained the people regarding what God was doing in their midst?  Certainly conquest narratives would give some encouragement, but these others he mentioned do seem more central, particularly as we get into the first century.

However, it is not enough to simply worry about how these stories were understood and used later on.  Their very origins are of crucial importance.

Thom Stark himself responded in this vein:

“Andy, the Book of Hebrews uses Joshua in a typological way, of course. But what is relevant is not how it was used later, necessarily, but how it was used at the time of its composition. Josiah was under pressure from the empires to the north and south; he had recently gained a modicum of independence from Assyria, and was looking to consolidate power as quickly as possible. The writer of the Deuteronomistic History said the same thing about Joshua as he did Josiah, that he “turned neither right nor left from the book of the law,” and Josiah and Joshua are the only two figures about whom this is said. Moreover, Josiah’s reforms were about eliminating the contagion of idol worship in Judea, which was really actually about centralizing religion within Jerusalem in order to destabilize local institutions of authority. This also secured a significant increase in revenue for the Jerusalem temple regime, since all the sacrifices were now to be made only at the temple, and no longer in every man his own backyard. But to institute these reforms, Josiah embarked upon a campaign that was extremely violent, slaughtering all the local cultic leaders (which are presented in the text as worshipers of false gods but were much more likely worshipers of local manifestations of Yahweh–at least some of them). Significantly, Josiah began his campaign in the same region that Joshua did (according to the narrative)–Jericho and Ai. Significantly, Jericho and Ai are both cities in the conquest narratives the destruction of which the archaeological record does not at all support. Go figure.”

Thanks all for your comments, thoughts, and feedback!  I look forward to the conversation continuing!

The Wars of the Lord 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the wars God commanded the Israelites to fight against the Canaanites, guided by some excerpts from Thom Stark’s excellent book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (2011, Wipf and Stock).

Some great responses to my earlier posts – I appreciate some of the pushback as well as some of the alternate possible understandings.  The issue no doubt merits further review, and I should clarify that I’m not sure where I fall on this whole discussion, as I’ve been by and large presenting the views in Thom Stark’s book.  I think he raises some very valid questions, and isn’t willing to settle for the usual answers or simple solutions.  That said, I may not agree with him everywhere, and some of you have noted excellent other possible approaches as voiced by Greg Boyd and Walter Brueggemann among others.

One respondent to the first post noted the following possibilities:

— Maybe the [Israelites] (or their power-hungry leaders) made up the stuff about how God told us to do x, y, and z to get the people to do things they would ordinarily find repellent.

— Or, this is the usual revisionist history to boost morale, legitimize past war crimes and maintain the new dominance.

— Or, more specifically, as one of my Calvin profs barely hinted at, maybe all this stuff about violently defeating their enemies was an attempt to glorify (in a war-glorifying world) what was actually a gradual immigration involving a somewhat boring and dishonorable out-reproducing of the natives, cultural and genetic assimilation and religious syncretism.

In this post I want to focus on the third possibility that he raises, and we’ll find that we may wind up looking at the first two as well.

The question is: did these brutalizing campaigns and slaughter of the people of Canaan and elsewhere actually happen?

I suppose many of us would initially respond to that question with, “Of course it happened – it’s in the Bible.”  But I wonder if it’s that simple.

Thom Stark notes that “the conquest narratives face serious problems with regard to historicity.”

In other words, did they really happen?  Or at least happen as depicted in the text?

Inventing Genocide?

It appears that “many of the conquest accounts depicted in the biblical narratives are in fact contradicted both by archaeological and internal textual evidence.”

For example:

In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites head east across the Negev and arrive at Edom, where, according to the text, they are refused passage by the king of Edom.  Yet the archaeological record indicates that at this period, there were only a meager number of nomadic tribes in the region of Edom.  Israel could not have been denied access by the king of Edom, since Edom did not attain statehood until the seventh century BCE, approximately 600 years after the events depicted in Numbers.  There was no king to deny them access!

Further, Num 21:1-3 narrates that Israel destroyed all the cities of the northern Negev, in the region of Arad.  One of the cities they subsequently renamed “Hormah” (meaning ‘destruction’).  Contrary to this, excavations in the 1970s found that no Late Bronze Age occupational levels exist in this entire region.  In other words, at the time of the supposed Israelite attacks, nobody was home.  With regard to the city of Arad in particular, it was not founded until the tenth century BCE, about 300 years after the events described in Numbers.  Furthermore, the tenth century city of Arad was built upon the ruins of an Early Bronze Age settlement, which was abandoned at around 2600 BCE.  Thus, at the time the Israelites are said to have destroyed it, Arad had already been a ruin for over 1,300 years.

But how accurate is the archaeology, you may ask.  Or do the archaeologists have an agenda to disprove the biblical account?

From 1968-1976, the site of ancient Heshbon was excavated by a group of archaelogists who also happened to be confessing Seventh-day Adventists.  They had set out to prove the accuracy of the Bible.  What they found instead was no evidence of any Late Bronze Age settlements.  In fact, according to their results, the city of Heshbon was not founded until the Iron II period – at the earliest, 250 years after the events depicted in Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Apparently not an isolated incident.  The Moabite city of Dibon was excavated by a group of Southern Baptist scholars in the 1950’s, a city which according to Num 21:30 (and 32:3) was besieged and subdued by the Israelites.  They were expecting the biblical claims to be validated by the archaeological record.  Their excavation resulted in the discovery of the sparse remains of a city from the ninth century BCE, some 400 years after the time of the conquest, and no Late Bronze Age residues.  Once again, Israel had sieged a city that wasn’t there.

There are more examples.  One archaeologist, Joseph Callaway, a conservative Christian and a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary set out to reexamine several biblical sites, hoping to vindicate the biblical record against earlier findings.  Instead, he too confirmed the earlier findings and conceded the historical inaccuracy of accounts like Joshua 7-8.  Callaway wrote, “For many years, the primary source for the understanding of the settlement of the first Israelites was the Hebrew Bible, but every reconstruction based upon the biblical traditions has foundered on the evidence from archaeological remains.”  After this, Callaway took an early retirement from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Stark notes that some of these facts actually seem to be reflected in the biblical accounts themselves.  For example, the city of Ai mentioned in Joshua 7-8 literally means “ruin.”  Most scholars believe that the account of the destruction of Ai was an etiological narrative, explaining how the ruin came to be such.  That it is known in the Bible by no other name than “ruin” suggests that it was already a ruin by the time the Israelites arrived.  Interesting, isn’t it?  This is in fact what the archaeological record shows, a fact that is quiet problematic for inerrantists, who concede that a solution to the ‘Ai problem’ continues to be elusive.

One of the few sites at which excavations have shown evidence to corroborate a biblical conquest account is Hazor, which was excavated by Yigael Yadin from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  They have found destruction levels dating to the thirteenth century – the period of the conquest.  This means that the account of the destruction of Hazor is most likely based on a tradition with a historical kernel.

Stark concludes, “In light of this overwhelming evidence against the historicity of the biblical conquest account, some conservative biblical apologists have begun to attempt to use this to their advantage.  For instance, Paul Copan argues from the archaeological evidence that the Canaanite conquest did not occur, thereby exonerating Yahweh an the Israelites from charges of genocide.”

I wouldn’t mind this conclusion.

Yet Stark notes that for inerrantists, this is hardly a defensible strategy: “Apart from conceding the loss of biblical inerrancy, it continues to ignore two facts.  First, such annihilations most likely did occur, as the archaeological record at Hazor and some other sites seem to confirm.  There is no reason to doubt that early Israelites did engage in such warfare.  Although Ai, Jericho, and other genocidal battles probably never occurred, it is not likely that such stories were invented whole cloth.  They would have been rooted in the historical memory of similar battles, although probably much fewer in number than the account in Joshua claims.  Second, even if the genocides never took place historically, that does not remove the problem that they are presented as Yahweh’s ideal in the scriptures.  Even if it is merely rhetoric, it is evil rhetoric.”

Stark goes on, “Apologists taking this tack have unwittingly conceded to my own position: that a loving God could not have commanded genocide, and our scriptures are therefore deeply problematic.”

There are later textual discrepancies that note the Israelites wiped out the Midianites (in Deut and again in Joshua 13:21), yet Judges 6 tells us that a few generations later, the Midianites are not only alive but are powerful and numerous enough to have been Israel’s oppressors!  Stark asks, “How did this occur?  Did the surviving virgins who were assimilated into Israel’s ranks conceive from their Israelite husbands and secretly raise a Midianite army?”

Inerrantist biblical scholars acknowledge these discrepancies, but dispense with them by claiming that descriptions of slaughter of “everything that lives and breathes” were “not necessarily intended literally.”  Stark notes that “this is a classic example of the unwritten inerrantist hermeneutical principle that historical texts must be interpreted literally unless or until a literal interpretation creates a factual discrepancy, in which case it obviously must be taken metaphorically.”

So we’re still stuck – the biblical stories seem exaggerated beyond what plausibly took place historically, yet they do in fact represent some historical events, even if not to the same scale.  So where does that leave us?

The Empire Strikes Back

Here’s where we get into the first two points raised earlier.

Lawson Younger, an evangelical scholar, has done work on ancient conquest myths and has compared the accounts in Joshua to Hittite, Egyptian, and Assyrian conquest literature.  He concludes that “the historical narrative in which Joshua 9-12 is cast utilizes a common transmission code observable in numerous ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, employing the same ideology.”

He goes on: “The ideology which lies behind the text of Joshua is one like that underlying other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts – namely, imperialistic.”

In other words, Stark summarizes, “The literature reflects the attempt of rising empires to express their hegemony through origin stories that crystallize their present-day claims to power.  These origin myths present the young nation as an unstoppable force, specially empowered by the deity whose strength far outstrips that of other tribal deities.  The myths serve to crystallize and legitimize the nation’s rise to power.”

Aren’t we jumping the gun here though?  Can we just automatically make the leap that because we have comparable literature from other nations, it means Israel was doing the same thing?  Good question.

I think we need to again consider the timing of when these accounts were written.  It is important to note that the conquest accounts in the Bible reflect almost no knowledge of thirteenth-century geography; instead the geography reflects the vantage point of a writer from about the seventh century BCE.  A large number of critical scholars believe it is likely that many of these accounts were written during the reign of King Josiah, whose unprecedented (and extremely violent) reforms consolidated religious and political power within Jerusalem.  Stark notes that “Joshua, the ideal leader, would thus have been read as a type of Josiah.”

He goes on to note that the narrative functions as a type of propaganda, helping legitimize Josiah’s consolidation of power in the name of national unity and faithfulness to Yahweh.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm notes that “traditions which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.”

Legitimating Empire

Such invented or partly-invented origin myths are not anything new to us, notes Stark.  For example, he notes, search any Texas high school history textbook, in which we learn about the “hostile Indians” and the “brave Americans” who made the land secure for peace and prosperity.

“The ‘othering’ of national enemies is a ubiquitous feature in these national origin myths.  This kind of history-making is found wherever there is power, and especially where there is militaristic power with imperialistic pretensions.”

So is it possible that some of the history in our own Scriptures fall under this category as well?  We may not like to think so, but I think, given the historical record and the textual evidence, we have to grant that it is at least a possibility.

Stay tuned for perhaps one more post on the subject…

The Wars of the Lord 3

Worth a read

This is the third in a series of posts about the wars God commanded the Israelites to fight against the Canaanites, guided by some excerpts from Thom Stark’s excellent book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (2011, Wipf and Stock).

In our last post we looked at the possibility that God was simply working within a warring culture and showing improvement amidst that.

On further review, it seemed that perhaps that wasn’t entirely true, particularly in instances where God instituted what is called ‘the ban’ – the ancient practice of committing an entire city or town to utter destruction on behalf of a god, as an act of sacrifice or dedication.  This was a practice other ancient cultures also did in the names of their gods.  So much for improvement.

We ended by saying that perhaps we need to understand it another way, within the broader framework of God’s overarching plan for Israel, expressed in the form of his promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

I think many of us resonate with this, because it seems to echo so much of what we see in the life of Jesus and the early church in the New Testament.

One theologian, Christopher Wright, puts it this way: “the overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.”

The challenge is seeing how the texts endorsing slaughter in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua support that, (let alone the rest of the OT).  In fact, Thom Stark notes that “the number of texts in which Israel is pitted against the nations far outnumber those in which Israel is for them.”

But perhaps we could see this as Israel’s failing, rather than God’s, as the prophets so often reminded them.  God wanted them to be a blessing, but they didn’t live up to it.  I think that is very often the case.

But that still doesn’t explain the texts in which they are commanded, by God, to destroy some of these nations they are supposed to bless.

“Imagine the Israelite soldier consoling the young Canaanite girl, just before running her through with the sword: “Not to worry, young lady.  In the overall scheme of things, my people are going to be a blessing to people like you.”


But what about the idea that through Israel would come the Messiah, and so God needed to protect and preserve Israel to bring the messiah into the world?  Stark asks, “How is it that an omnipotent and omniscient God – who is powerful enough to fashion the world with a few words and to bring the dead back from the grave – could not think of any way to bring the messiah into the world than to kill helpless Canaanite children?”

Some of you responded to the last post questioning whether these texts simply represent the human element of what was happening more so than a divine stamp of approval.  It is worth considering (we’ll get to this momentarily).

This protecting-the-messiah tack is “essentially a utilitarian argument: the end justifies the means.  It is at this point that the Christian apologist’s fervent defense of the idea of absolute, objective morality is tossed aside in the name of biblical inerrancy.  The claim is ultimately that although genocide is morally wrong, God had to do it in order to protect the lineage of one Jesus of Nazareth.”

Old and New

But if we go this route, we have to be prepared for the consequences:  that this kind of argument will be used again.

Stark explains: “This end-justifies-the-means mentality has manifested itself elsewhere in history.  An immediate example would be the United States of America.  Like ancient Israelites, early European Americans believed they had a special calling from God, a calling to be a light to the nations.  To them, their destiny was plainly manifest.  God had brought them to this bountiful new land, flowing with milk and honey, and although it was necessary to eradicate the malignancy of the savage natives, in the end, the blessings the United States had to offer the world would far outweigh any necessary evils committed along the way.”

This really was the mentality.  Listen to one American writer waxing just so in the 1800’s:

“Our annals describe no scenes of horrid carnage, where men were led on by hundreds of thousands to slay one another… This is our high destiny, and in nature’s eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect, we must accomplish it.  All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man – the immutable truth and beneficence of God.  For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen.”  (John O’Sullivan, “Great Nation of Futurity”, 427, 430).

We might not like this honest assessment of our own history, but who of us cannot read this and cringe?  It’s true – we committed indefensible evils in our treatment of the Native peoples, and did it in the name of God.  And then, centuries later, it was conveniently seen as the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world.

Rereading the Bible

Isn’t it at least possible that ancient Israel did exactly the same thing?  Committed atrocities as a growing nation and in retrospect credited it to God?  (The Scriptural accounts were written down much later than the occurrence of the actual events).  You may not like this approach, and I’m not sure I do, but we have to at least grant that it’s a possibility.

Are people any different today than they were then?  Maybe in some ways, but not in every way.  We want to make an exception, because “it’s in the Bible.”  I certainly want to.  But if you’re not willing to at least grant the possibility, you may be defending an idea about the Bible that may not actually be the case about the Bible (but that’s another blog post).

Some will say that this devalues the Bible.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It is interesting that some will prefer to defend the Bible than to defend God.  I’m not so sure a perfect Bible is more comforting than a perfect God.

This approach actually gets God off the hook for some pretty heinous stuff.  Shouldn’t we consider it, or perhaps even embrace it?  Who wants to worship a God who looked exactly like the gods of Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylon?  If the God the Germans worshiped in the 1930’s and 40’s endorsed the holocaust, and it was in our Scriptures, would we just swallow common sense and say, ‘Well, God said…’?

Fell From Heaven?

Is there room in our assessment of Scripture to say that it is a product of humanity?  There has to be. Can anyone even argue this is not the case?  No one that I know argues that the original manuscripts were some golden tablets that fell from heaven discovered in the hills somewhere in Galilee (or upstate New York).  That would be a different religion.

Humans wrote the Bible.  And humanity, as we know, is incredibly flawed.  That does not mean God was not involved in the writing of the Bible.  I believe he was.  But I don’t believe the Bible fell from heaven, or was directly dictated to people who were little more than robots.  The evidence doesn’t support such a claim.  In fact, a Reformed view of the inspiration of Scripture is that it was organic.  In other words, it was a cooperative effort between humanity and God.  I think too often we fail to allow this view to fully develop.

People were involved.  So is it really beyond the pale to assume that on some occasions people put their particular spin on events of history?  Or even that in some cases they put words in God’s mouth?  People certainly do it today, and we tend to be skeptical when they do.  Someone will say “God told me that you need to _____.”  We hear that and are generally skeptical.  But when we read that in the Bible, even when the words are scarcely believable, we believe it anyway.

[But, again, this is getting into another future blog post on the idea of inspiration, and what is the Bible, and all of that.]

Sleight of Hand

Back to killing people, and how we make it OK in one instance, and abhor it as evil in other cases:

“To argue, then, that the extermination of the Canaanites must be seen as part of the larger picture of Israel’s calling to bless the nations is, in effect,” notes Thom Stark, “just a sleight of hand trick: ‘Don’t look over there.  Look over here.’  Or as Barack Obama said when queried about the possibility of an investigation of past U.S. human rights abuses, “I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards.”  Buried beneath layer upon layer of such rhetoric lie the victims of those who just want to get on with things.  But as Obama said when queried about the possibility of an investigation of past Indonesian human rights abuses, “We can’t go forward without looking backwards.”


As with this version of United States history (‘selective perception’), so with us when we want to focus on all the good bits of Israel’s history, while ignoring the rest.

Blessed to Be a Blessing

We are to be a blessing to the nations.  I believe that.  I also believe that means owning the places in our own Scriptures where God’s people failed to be that, and being open to the possibility that there are instances where they gave the credit for that to God.  Adam blamed God for putting Eve in the garden with him.  Is it so unbelievable that later Israel wanted to blame God for the actions of their own hands?

I find it nearly impossible to believe that a God who calls us to “act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him”, to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke”, and to “share food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter”, is the same God who calls for wholesale slaughter of men, women and children.

I love the Bible, and I believe in its pages I discover God himself.  But I also believe that uncritical readings of Scripture, and inappropriate appropriations of it can lead to some of the terrible things done in history in the name of God, and it’s time we own that, and seek to do otherwise, that we might indeed be a blessing.

The Wars of the Lord 2

In my last post we wrestled with difficult texts in the Bible, particularly ones in which God commands the Israelites to annihilate certain people groups, which today we would label as genocide.  How are we to understand these texts?  Is it possible to square these texts with other biblical presentations of God as a God of love, mercy, and compassion?

Possibly, but it isn’t easy.

One possibility raised to my last post was that God was showing people, in a warring culture, how to act in war.
1.  Offer terms of peace.
2.  Spare the women and children and cattle (who doesn’t love being lumped in a group?)

And all of this was part of a plan:
3. God was giving the Israelite people a new identity and land.

I like this approach.  I really like it.  This was a different era in history, a different time and culture and context in which warring between nations was a common reality.  Perhaps God was merely working within that culture, and even presenting some improvements on how things might normally be done.

These are some good thoughts.

The trouble is that the first two points above didn’t apply in every case for Israel.

When we look at Deut 20:10-18 as we did in the last post, we find that that “a distinction is made between the way Israel is to treat those within ‘their’ land and the way Israel is to treat those outside those borders.  Those inside the borders are to be utterly annihilated with no exceptions.  No peace treaties are to be made with them.  Every last living thing that has breath is to be extinguished.  On the other hand, those outside the demarcated borders are to be offered terms of peace.  Israelite men may take women from outside the borders as wives and concubines, if they so desire.”  So notes Thom Stark in The Human Faces of God.

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho...

So they weren’t always to offer terms of peace.

[And in fact, when you read the stories of when Israel did offer terms of peace, the text generally notes that God inclined the other nations to not accept the terms of peace but rather be provoked to fight, so in some ways, the offer of peace was a bit of a sham. See Deut 2:24-34 or Joshua 11:18-20, where it says, “In the end not even one city made peace with Israel… because Yahweh hardened their hearts so that they could not do otherwise than to meet Israel in battle.  This way they would all be utterly destroyed and none of them would get any mercy.  They were to be exterminated, just as Yahweh ordered Moses to do.”  Exterminated?]

Why the differentiation of those inside and outside the borders?

Some say that perhaps it was due to the sinfulness of the various nations, and that they were getting the punishment they deserved.

Stark continues: “Did it just so happen that only the tribes living inside Israel’s borders happened to be sufficiently wicked to annihilate, whereas it also just so happened that everybody outside those borders were only slightly wicked, but not enough to merit annihilation?”

Hmmm…  As the church lady would put it, “Isn’t that convenient?

So Stark: “The convenience of this picture exposes once again that the appeal to “divine punishment” in order to justify the Canaanite genocides is another attempt to conceal the real motivation: the acquisition of land and consolidation of power.  If Yahweh wanted to use Israel to punish wicked nations, why did such a crusade conveniently terminate precisely at Israel’s borders?”

Really good questions.  Tough questions.

The third point above was that God is giving Israel a new identity and a new land.  It seems he was, but man, it certainly wasn’t an easy step, and you wonder if the opposing nations deserved what they got or if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But perhaps we need to understand it another way, within the broader framework of God’s overarching plan for Israel, expressed in the form of his promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

One theologian, Christopher Wright, puts it this way: “the overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.”

I certainly prefer this approach, and we’ll explore it more in the next post.

The Wars of the Lord

The Wars of the Lord

What do we do with the hard texts of the Bible, like the ones where God tells the Israelites to kill everyone in a certain town, or of a certain people group, including women and children?  The biblical record denotes that the Israelites were to wipe out the Canaanites as they entered the Promised Land, and do it in obedience to God.

We could ignore them, or pretend they aren’t in there…  Or focus on other texts.  But eventually, we come across them.

For example:

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.  If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.  If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.  When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the man in it.  As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.  And you may use the plunder Yahweh your God gives you from your enemies.  This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

However, in the cities of the nations that Yahweh your God is giving you for your inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  You shall devote them to utter destruction… just as Yahweh your God has commanded.  You must kill them all, or else they may teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, causing you to sin against Yahweh your God.

–      Deut 20:10-18

is this obedience?

Let’s get this straight.  They had to wipe out entire peoples because otherwise they would  ‘do the abhorrent things they do for their gods’?  Like kill an entire town, including the men, women and children?  Like ‘use the plunder’ including women and children, which in the ancient world meant forced marriage, rape, and slavery?

Is there actually anything worse the other gods could ask their people to do?

How do we deal with texts like this that portray God as commanding atrocities that today we immediately denounce anyone doing?  Is it OK because it was a long time ago?  Is it OK because Israel was special?

Spiritual Wars
The church father Origen approached it this way:
“As for the command given to the Jews to slay their enemies, it may be answered that anyone who looks carefully into the meaning of the passage will find that it is impossible to interpret it literally.”

It’s impossible to take it literally, he says.  So then what do we do with it?

Origen chooses the path of allegory:

“In his Homily on Joshua, Origen reiterates this position. Referring to the genocidal narratives in the book of Joshua, he stipulates that “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).” (quoted from The Human Faces of God).

So it’s really not about actual historical wars, but about the spiritual battles we all face in removing evil from our own lives.  It’s an interesting approach, but probably one that will not satisfy most biblical readers.

Surgerical Procedure
Some, defending a position of inerrancy – that the Bible always communicates history, theology, science and culture 100% accurately – take this approach:

“Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient’s body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society.”  So says Gleason Archer, apologist and biblical inerrantist.

In other words, the women and even children (and infants!) were not fit to live.  They embodied some sort of evil.  Perhaps allowing these children to live would have resulted in the Israelites following other gods, even if the children were raised in Israelite households.  To me that might say more about the Israelite parenting than anything else.

But if these people were so evil, why did God not give them a chance to repent, ala Jonah and the Ninevites?  They were also enemies of Israel.  So certainly God elsewhere allows people the chance to repent of their ways without immediate retribution.

Shortcut to Heaven?
William Lane Craig notes that it’s actually better for the children to die than be raised in these pagan households, because children who die ‘automatically go to heaven’.  So the Israelites were doing these children a favor by running them through with the sword.    Seriously?  If that were his actual position, why would Craig not be behind a wholesale implementation of abortion?  Why let any child live and take the chance it might not go to heaven?  Abortion should be the first option, not the last.  Yet no doubt Craig is a strong pro-life advocate, who in actuality doesn’t really believe what he is saying, but is grasping – like all of us – to understand these difficult texts.

The reality is that if a text like the above was in the Koran, we would immediately denounce it as evil and unjustifiable.  When such things happen today, we are horrified and speak out against it, even if the person was doing it as a Christian ‘in the name of God’.  We would say they were misled.   Yet when it is in our own Scriptures, we hesitate to denounce it as such.  A quandary indeed.

I will raise some other possibilities in my next post, but for now am wondering your thoughts:

Are you satisfied with any of these approaches?  Do you have another suggestion?

Post your thoughts below.