If God-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament is a problem, Jesus is unaware of it

September 2, 2014

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?[1]

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.[2]

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.

10 Responses to “If God-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament is a problem, Jesus is unaware of it”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree with all this. I think the “force” of the “counter-argument,” though, is likely the “innocent children” who were killed, as opposed to the “reprehensible adults.” That’s tougher. I think the best solution to the dilemma is that this life is not the end. If any children who were killed were “innocent,” then God will look out for them in eternity in the same way that he does a child killed by a drunk driver today. (Not as though Israel was like drunks–just, any death that may have been “unjust” insofar as the person killed was concerned, will be “taken care of” appropriately in the life to come.)

    So why the “total” annihilation? Tough situations call for tough remedies, and the fact that some innocents may be “caught in the crossfire” is just part of life on earth as we know it. In fact, very few actions that people take avoid having some consequences to some people which those people might not otherwise desire (or even deserve). Again, eternity is the solution to that. Meanwhile, we discern God’s guidance as best we can, knowing that, in fact, sometimes that may call for harsh action. I think, for example, of the atomic bombs on Japan. Multitudes of people killed, many undoubtedly “innocent,” but it ended a war which, if continued, would have taken many more lives and involved more atrocities. Likewise, many more people would have led lives which were offensive to God had the Canaanites not been obliterated, with eternal consequences.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes… Eternity more than compensates for the loss of innocent life. As I said in last week’s post, God takes innocent life all the time. The difficult thing about Joshua and Judges is that he uses human agents as opposed to sending a flood or plague or whatever. The principle is the same, though. Besides, he uses human agents to punish Israel time and again too.

    • brentwhite Says:

      In a sense, whenever someone dies, God is taking a life.


  2. Pastor White, I disagree with you on this one. In fact, the brand of prosperity message – I can’t call it “prosperity Gospel” since it’s hardly good news for the church – is rampant all over Africa, in many countries where I visit. It preys on poverty and empties pockets that have already far too little. A thousand preachers across Nigeria turn the church into a business, taking away the Cross, which is the essence of Christian faith. The damage done to the vulnerable is incalculable and has inoculated too many to the biblical message of costly discipleship. Further, the incongruity of their message at the same time that we are receiving reports of Christians being beheaded and crucified in Syria and Iraq is startling. They will receive no sympathy from me until the scales fall off their eyes and they offer an apology to the martyrs and to the suffering church around the world. Shame on them.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’ve watched exactly one Joel Osteen sermon (in seminary, for a class). This particular sermon didn’t have any trace of prosperity gospel. In fact, he did talk about “suffering for the Lord” in the sense of standing up for your beliefs even when it’s unpopular to do so.

      I was only judging the Osteens based on this one particular comment, which, while in need of qualification and some nuance, wasn’t all bad.

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, while we are on this topic on the “wrong post,” I might add that I am somewhat of a similar mind to Greg. I certainly agree that there is benefit to ourselves from following God, and it is not illegitimate to consider that. “Great is your reward in heaven.” Why say such a thing were we not to be motivated by it? But I can’t go with a view which virtually “leaves God out of the equation” and focuses virtually solely on what we can get from God in the “here and now.” We may well get NOTHING in the here and now if we follow God. In fact, we are virtually promised tribulation of one type or another if we are following God closely. So, any “What’s in it for me?” mindset has to be examined carefully, at a minimum, and I doubt the Osteens have the right outlook on that subject or are teaching it.

    • brentwhite Says:

      The Osteens might not. I have no idea. I’m only judging her on the basis of these particular words. But even if we get nothing in the here and now, how many of us would prefer this godly kind of “nothing” to what the world has to offer? On my best days, I certainly would.


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