In this recent blog post, Roger Olson tackles the age-old question of the Israelite conquest of Canaan in Joshua and Judges, with God’s apparent order for Israelites to “devote to destruction” inhabitants of many Canaanite cities. Olson assumes that God’s order amounted to genocide (I’m not convinced that’s the right word) and poses the question: If God ordered genocide back then, doesn’t that mean he could do so again? And if someone commits genocide today, as happens often enough, unfortunately, and claims that he’s acting under God’s authority, who are we to say otherwise?
It’s a strange question: We can have good reasons to believe that God wouldn’t do so today, and doesn’t do so, even as we believe that he did so long ago, when Israel was a theocracy.
But I wonder if Dr. Olson isn’t underestimating the problem. If he thinks it’s cruel, unmerciful—even wicked—on God’s part to order an Israelite to kill a Canaanite child, what does he think of a God who has the power to prevent the death of a child today yet chooses not to?
No wonder so many mainline Protestant types (not Dr. Olson, who’s evangelical and Baptist) accept some form of process theology or open theism, which says, in so many words, that God is unable to prevent suffering and death, at least to some extent, therefore he’s off the hook for it.
In seminary I wrestled with these ideas, too. But now that I’m older and wiser (which is to say I was really foolish in seminary, not that I’m very wise today), I take little comfort in the idea that God has so little control—not to mention that Bible flatly contradicts it, which matters more than my comfort (to say the least).
Even this morning, in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, I saw a fellow pastor post on social media that “God suffers with us.” For a certain theological camp, in which I believe this pastor resides, that’s about the best anyone can say, I guess: God suffers with us. Even if it’s true (and in the sense that God has compassion for us it certainly is), is that all God does?
“I hate it for you,” he would have God say, “but what can I do? My hands are tied.”
So before Olson throws up his hands and resorts to an allegorical interpretation of the Canaanite conquest, I wish he had at least wrestled with some of the principles at stake in the question: God is the author of life and even death: “just as it is appointed for man to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). Even the death of a child, therefore, happens according to God’s will. This doesn’t mean that death is good, or that it isn’t, as Paul says, the final enemy which the cross and resurrection of God’s Son defeats; it doesn’t mean that God “ordains and renders certain” the death of humanity before he created the world. It does mean that God foresaw death as a necessary consequence of creating this world and decided that a world in which people die—even his only Son Jesus—is preferable to any other world. It also means that God uses death as an instrument of his judgment, even as he has the power to redeem it, which he does all the time.
Indeed, the Bible tells us that the Canaanites were being judged for their sins. (See God’s words to Abraham way back in Genesis 15:13-16.)
One objection here is, “Yes, but what about children? Aren’t they being judged for their parents’ sins?” And the answer is, yes, they are. And this happens all the time, then as now: Take the Exodus story, for instance: Did those Egyptian children in the Passover deserve to die for their parents’ sins? We can all think of instances when children suffer and die because of the sins of their parents—or other adults. Whether God directly causes it or merely allows it to happen, the difference isn’t nearly as great as many people often imagine, as I’ve argued on this blog repeatedly.
Moreover, we all deserve death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). But we can be confident that children who die before they reach an age of moral accountability will be saved. As always, heaven is real, and any discussion of theodicy—whether, in the end, God will see to it that justice will be fully and finally done—must include an afterlife.
And do I need to point out that Good Friday and Easter mean that God loves us too much to let death have the last word?
All that to say, unlike Olson, I believe that the conquest of Canaan is literal history (because the authors of the Bible intend for us to take it that way). Is there something I haven’t considered? Do you agree or disagree? Why?