Is the conquest of Canaan only an allegory?

March 22, 2016

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?

5 Responses to “Is the conquest of Canaan only an allegory?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    “[I]t 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.” Agree with the second part. The “love universe” is better than any other possible one, despite the pain and suffering, even the “undeserved” type, that it entails, so it is the “right” universe for God to have chosen.

    But did God “foreordain” death? He may not (or he may) be the “actor on the stage” bringing death to fruition in a given case (for examples of “may,” see the Flood and God “striking” Herod with worms so he died because he “did not give glory to God,” etc., etc.). Either way, though, God certainly “foresaw” not only that death would result, but also who would die when, from before the beginning of creation (Christ was “slain before the foundation of the world”). When God “flipped the switch,” he was relegating death to those who die, and when they die. This is another reason why I believe in “Molinism.” God does make this prior and original choice, but he does not do so in some arbitrary fashion “just because he is God.” He does so because of what he foresees a given person will “be like,” of their own choice.

    And, as you say, ultimately we have to take eternity into account to decide “the fairness of it all.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      This “ordaining and rendering certain” part is language that Olson often puts on the lips of Calvinists. It’s a way of saying that not only does God foreknow evil as a consequence, but he designs and causes it for his purposes. That’s what I mean.

      I’m with you: Given that the “love universe” is the one that God wanted, death is a necessary consequence. God accepts death and redeems it, which isn’t to say that death is good per se. On the contrary.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I totally agree that “death is bad,” and that it would be intolerable unless redeemed, deserved, or recompensed. So I think we are in agreement. I simply note that sometimes “bad things” must be “allowed” to exist (which means that God in his foreknowledge “ordained” they would exist) in order for some other “better things” to exist. Without suffering, there can be no “rushing to the aid” of those who are “injured” out of love. Indeed, without sin there can be no “redemption” of sin by Christ.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I’m fine with this argument so long as we don’t make God the author of evil, as opposed to “allowing it for a good reason.” I agree that even heaven will be made sweeter because our present world knows evil, sin, and death. Did it have to be this way? Not in the sense that Adam and Eve had the freedom not to sin.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I think this verse couplet summarizes my view on this issue. “For the creation was subjected to frustration, NOT BY ITS OWN CHOICE, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Romans 8:20-21 (NIV). Which I take to mean, not that we “have no choice” about how we end up, but that we did not choose this “type of universe” where death is unavoidably prevalent. Instead, God did, that the REDEMPTION through Christ might occur (that greatest act of love). I agree that Adam and Eve had the “choice” not to sin (God does not “force” anyone to choose sin; he is not the author of iniquity; let no man say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”), but God certainly foreknew that they would sin before he created them, and proceeded because the “love universe” that he desired (because it was ultimately the best) could not otherwise exist.


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