My sermon texts for the next three sermons come from the Book of Judges, a famously violent book in which even God’s people often do morally reprehensible things—and increasingly so as the book goes on (which is part of its point). Judges mostly reports these events without passing judgment, until its final, thematic verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
In other words, the recurring cycles of apostasy and moral anarchy that Judges reports are the reason that Israel needs a king to restore order.
All of that is well and good: we don’t need scripture to tell us that Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter was wrong in order for us to know it’s wrong. The Bible condemns child sacrifice unequivocally.
The larger issue is the episodes of violence that are ordered by God himself. In fact, one recurring problem that Judges reports is that the Israelites failed to wipe out the peoples living in the land of Canaan—including every man, woman, and child—as God had commanded them in Deuteronomy and Joshua.
What do we make of that command and the stories in Joshua and Judges associated with the conquest of Canaan?
Fellow United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton tries to answer this question first by creating a false dichotomy:
The first—and the only option as I see it, for those who hold to verbal, plenary inspiration—is to accept that these commands and stories accurately capture what God said, what God did, and what God commanded his people to do. Then the task is to explain how the character of God revealed in these seemingly harsh and violent texts is consistent with the character of God revealed by Jesus Christ.
“Verbal, plenary inspiration” is language of inerrancy: it means that while God’s Word is mediated through humans, every word of scripture comes directly from God, as if the Bible writers took dictation. While I respect my fellow Christians who are inerrantists in this way, I’m not one of them. I reject inerrancy in part because it accepts modernity’s definition of what counts as an “error.” For example, while I don’t believe that God created our universe in six literal days, I also don’t think that that counts as an error. Discrepancies between the gospels over the number of angels at the tomb or the names of the women who showed up on Easter Sunday hardly mean the Bible isn’t telling the truth about resurrection.
Nevertheless, Hamilton is kidding himself if he thinks that only “those who hold to verbal, plenary inspiration” would have a problem with his solution: which is to say that the events of the conquest couldn’t have happened mostly the way the Bible reports it because, after all, God’s command to slaughter men, women, and children is inconsistent with God’s character as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Before I offer a solution, let me amplify the problem for Hamilton: even if God didn’t really order the deaths of the Canaanites, look at all the other deaths in scripture that God does order or directly cause. How much of the Bible would we have to throw out if we decided that God doesn’t have the right to take the lives of human beings? The flood narrative, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Passover come to mind immediately. The Book of Esther. Or what the New Testament: Ananias and Sapphria in Acts; nearly the entire book of Revelation. What about Jesus’ affirmation not only of the Old Testament’s truthfulness, including its texts of violence and judgment, but of God’s violence in Final Judgment?
You know what’s worse than hell on earth? Hell in eternity. And most of what we know about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself.
I hope I’ve made the problem clear. If Hamilton is right, then God doesn’t have the right to take the lives of human beings. While Hamilton seems to object to the scale of the killing in the Canaanite conquest, and the manner in which it’s carried out, he’s not being logical: as C.S. Lewis said, “There’s no such thing as a ‘sum of suffering’ because no one suffers it.” If we’re bothered that God permits the deaths of 200,000 from a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, we should be no less bothered that God permits the deaths of two from a tornado that hits a trailer park. It’s also not clear to me why dying of a plague is better than dying by a sword.
All that to say, I hope that God has the right to take human lives because the Bible teaches that he does it all the time! “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Job’s tragic words after learning of the deaths of his children are nevertheless true: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
God may also exercise his right to take human life using human agents—as he does in Joshua and Judges. Resorting to reductio ad Hitlerum, as Hamilton does when he says that the biblical text risks justifying genocide in other cases, including Hitler’s, is beside the point.
Do I need to say it? The Canaanite conquest is a unique, one-time event, ordered by God alone and carried out under God’s authority alone. If any human ruler claims that his genocide is also divinely sanctioned, we can be confident from God’s Word that he’s lying or badly misguided.
There is an important principle at stake here: every moment of life—every heartbeat, every breath—is an ongoing gift from God. If God ends my life today, or next month, or even 50 years from now, he is justified in doing so. I would be deeply ungrateful to complain.
There’s much more to be said. Check out my earlier words about Andrew Wilson’s “Jesus Tea-Strainer.” Read this fine essay by William Lane Craig on the subject of the conquest of Canaan. Here’s another Wesleyan perspective on Hamilton’s words, which I also appreciate.