In a post last week, I wrote about perceived ethical problems raised by Israel’s conquest of Canaan, which strikes modern readers like an ancient example of genocide or ethnic cleansing. In Judges, for instance, from which I’m preaching for the next couple of weeks, God punishes Israel for failing to completely drive out the inhabitants of the various Canaanite towns that Israel encountered. Adam Hamilton’s solution is to say that these events didn’t happen in the first place, or if they did, we can know that God wasn’t responsible because of God’s self-revelation in Christ.
I reject this solution on the grounds that it solves one problem while creating a much larger one. As Tim Keller writes in his Judges for You commentary:
The main reason that we consider the conquest of Canaan problematic is because it breaks the sixth commandment (“You shall not murder,” Exodus 20:13) and the eighth commandment (“You shall not steal,” Exodus 20:15). But the the Ten Commandments are in the Old Testament! So if we reject the Old Testament as God’s true revelation, then on what basis do we object to the “immorality” of the conquest? It is arbitrary to say I like Exodus 20 if we then also say I don’t like Judges 1. If the Old Testament is not God’s word, then who’s to say that one chapter is better than the other? To deny the authority of the Old Testament in order to “solve” this issue is like burning down your whole house in order to kill a rat that lives in it. If the Old Testament is not God’s word, then we must find a totally different basis for what is right and wrong… But we can’t quote the Ten Commandments anymore; so what is wrong with a little imperialism?
Of course, many progressive Christians would say that the “totally different basis for what is right and wrong” comes from Jesus. They affirm those parts of the Old Testament that Jesus affirmed. One liberal Catholic scholar I read recently thought he made his case against the conquest of Canaan by pointing out that Jesus “never quoted Joshua or Judges.” QED, I guess?
The problem, as Andrew Wilson pointed out not long ago, is that the fully formed portrait of Jesus that emerges from the gospels, unlike the “progressive-y red-letter” Jesus based on a highly selective reading of them, is that “Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to.”
As I implied in my earlier post, the only thing worse than hell on earth is hell in eternity. And Jesus talked about that more than anyone!
Old Testament scholar John Goldingay prefers to take the Bible at face value. He assumes that if we have a problem with it, the problem lies with us, not God or his Word. He sheds light on God-sanctioned violence in his For Everyone commentary on Joshua. He doesn’t waste a word in the following three paragraphs:
Many modern people don’t like the way the book portrays Joshua’s leading Israel in killing many Canaanites, but there is no indication that the New Testament shares this modern unease. The New Testament pictures Joshua as a great hero (see Hebrews 11) and portrays God’s violent dispossession of the Canaanites as part of the achievement of God’s purpose in salvation (see Acts 7). If there is a contradiction between loving your enemies and being peacemakers on one hand, and Joshua’s undertaking the task at God’s command, on the other, the New Testament does not see it.
We need to separate two issues in considering the questions all this raises. One is that the Old Testament sees the Canaanites as under God’s judgment for their wrongdoing. The idea that God judges people for their wrongdoing runs through both Testaments; Jesus is tougher about it as he pictures God sending people not merely to early death but to hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In the context of modernity, we do not care for this idea, but we need to note its prominence in Jesus’ thinking.
The other issue is that the Old Testament sees God as using the Israelites as the agents of judgement. I’m not sure why we don’t like this idea, but the concern people often express is that it could become the basis or justification today for making war against other people. But Israel itself never saw God’s commission to dispose of the Canaanites as a precedent for its relationships with other people. Nor does the book of Joshua imply that Joshua’s action was a pattern for Israel’s future practice. Occupying Canaan and being the means of bringing God’s judgment on the Canaanites was a one-time event from the beginning of its story.
1. Timothy Keller, Judges for You (The Good Book Company, 2013), 211-2.
2. John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 3-4.