As Brookside Church has been reading through the Bible in 2016, one of the questions I've gotten numerous times relates closely to this question: "What's Up with All the Violence in the Old Testament?"
Earlier this week, I taught a Brookside Institute seminar on this topic - giving others the opportunity to dig more deeply into it and interact about it. Below I've included the audio from this seminar.
Or, if you're interested in a text version of what was covered (things will be pretty similar to the audio, though not identical) keep reading below. At the very end of this post I've include a PDF "Answer Key" of the handout I made available.
When most people hear about the topic of “Violence in the Old Testament,” the place their minds go first is God’s command for His people to take over the land He’d promised them way back in Genesis (12:1-6; 13:14-17; 15:7, 13-16, 18-21). And if you’re familiar with the Old Testament (even if only vaguely), you know there’s violence involved in this command.
Because this is where our minds tend to go first when we think about violence in the OT - and because this is such a vivid example of the violence we read about in the OT - this is where I’m going to focus our attention in this seminar: “What’s up with this extreme violence we see commanded by God for His people to take over the land of Canaan at the expense of the Canaanites?”
A number of passages make this issue a vivid one, including Deuteronomy 7:1-6, 22-26; 20:16-18; Joshua 6:21; 8:24-29; 10:28-43; 11:1-23.
People often respond to passages like this in one of three ways:
First, there's the antagonistic approach.
This approach says that these passages provide further evidence that religion is damaging and the Old Testament God isn’t worth following. Richard Dawkins is representative of this approach, as evidenced in this famous quote from his God Delusion (p. 232). You'll notice that many of these descriptions Dawkins ascribes to Yahweh are likely motivated by how he understands these Old Testament "Canaanite Conquest" commands.
"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Second, there's the avoidance approach.
Rather than grappling with the issue these Old Testament passages present, the inclination here is to skip the “messy” parts of the Old Testament and "jump ahead to Jesus." And while we certainly don't want to neglect Jesus (we'll come back to this later), we can't recommend the avoidance approach for at least two reasons. On the one hand, more and more people are asking the question, “Does religion cause violence?” We can’t ignore this question as we seek to represent Christ today, and so we can't ignore these texts that can lead people to wonder if religion DOES cause violence. On the other hand, we can't recommend the avoidance approach because we don't want to get in the habit of skipping over parts of Scripture, and only going to those passages that “sit well” with us!
Both of these approaches we've looked at so far are misguided, but they show us what’s at stake with this. If we swing and miss with this issue, we can start to cultivate some strong anti-God views, or we make Christianity in our own image and stick with what’s comfortable to us. Instead, what I want to be all about is acknowledging that this Book is good and worth reading and steers us well and is God-given and trustworthy - even if there are some things we can only kinda understand. This brings us to a third approach, the one I'm advocating:
Third, there's The "at-the-same-time" approach
I'll be honest - I’m not sure if I love this label, but it starts with “A” and I think it’s got explanatory power. Here’s what I mean by it: The “at the same time” approach doesn’t ignore these difficult passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua that we listed earlier, but it doesn’t isolate them either, focusing only on these passage. Because let’s be honest - if all we had was verses where God tells His people to destroy things - it’d be kind of understandable to think Christianity does advocate violence. But these verses aren’t all we have. Instead, what I want us to do is consider what else we know about what’s going on here, besides God just telling Israel to “smash” (there's a veiled Avengers reference there if you caught it...). In other words, at the same time as we wrestle with difficult passages, we also factor in everything else we can know from what else God has revealed in His Word - about who He is, what He's doing, etc.
All I'm advocating, then, is just good Bible study.
I want us to look closely at some of these passages we’ve already read (and others that are related) and see if there are things there that we want to learn - things there the biblical authors wanted to get across - that go beyond a simple "destroy switch." I want us to apply good Bible study practices and see what we can learn from other passages in the Bible (always our ultimate authority) and Christian scholarship. I want us to think theologically about this issue and factor in what else we know about who God is and what He’s doing, that should shape how we think about this issue.
In all this, we’ll end up just asking good questions about this issue of the Canaanite Conquest, and then looking to the Bible to shape a response. We’ll ask (1) WHY these commands are even there in the first place, (2) HOW the events occurred and how these passages should be understood, and (3) WHO the God is, who is commanding these things. The things we'll discover can become "lamp posts" that offer some light to help keep us moving down the path of reading the Bible and looking to the God who revealed it.
Let me say one more thing before we move on: Even while I want to help us set up these “lamp posts” that offer guidance, we’re not going to make this scenario “neat.” My goal isn’t to make the Bible palatable. I resonate with this quote from Old Testament scholar Christopher J.H. Wright:
I have wrestled with this problem [i.e., the conquest of Canaan] for many years as a teacher of the Old Testament, and I am coming to the view that no [completely satisfactory] ‘solution’ will be forthcoming. There is something about this part of the Bible that I have to include in my basket of things I don’t understand about God and his ways. I find myself thinking, ‘God, I wish you had found some other way to work out your plans.’ There are days I wish this narrative were not in the Bible at all (usually after I’ve faced another barrage of questions about it), though I know it’s wrong to wish that in relation to the Scriptures. God knew what he was doing - in the events themselves and in the record of them he has given to us. But it is still hard” (The God I Don’t Understand, p. 86).
OK, with all this in mind - the desire to learn what we can and think carefully about this on the one hand, and the acknowledgement that we won’t neatly “solve” this tonight on the other, let’s see what we can learn that will help us navigate this issue. When we piece all of these lamp posts together, they form a cumulative argument that helps us navigate this issue in what I think is the right light.
Three "Lamp Posts" that Can Shed Some Light on this Difficult Issue
Factoring in WHY these commands were given
What I want us to see here is the REASON behind these commands we read in Deuteronomy. These commands to destroy the Canaanites aren’t some sudden and capricious mood swing by God. Scripture very clearly provides reasons for these “Canaanite conquest” that we need to see and grapple with.
One reason is the bold, stubborn sinfulness of the Canaanite peoples.
All the way back in Genesis 15:16 in one of God’s early promises to Abram to give him the land - hundreds of years before Deuteronomy and Joshua - we learn that the pot of Canaanite sinfulness is already starting to heat up - even though it hasn’t yet boiled over. Or look at Deuteronomy 9:4: “After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you” (bold emphasis added).
And then as we keep digging, we see some specific and bold ways this sin was manifest in Canaanite culture. Their sin was manifest in a mixture of idolatry, sexual sin (cf. Leviticus 18, esp vv. 24-28), and disregard for human life (see Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:29-31).
But Canaanite sin wasn't only bold. It was also stubborn - refusing to respond to Yahweh's identity and His works. How do I say this? Tucked into the story where Israelite spies interact with a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab, we find Joshua 2:8-11. Here we discover that the Canaanites are aware of Yahweh’s identity and His works! Rahab responds to this rightly - by placing her faith in Yahweh (cf. Hebrews 11:31). The picture we get as we continue the story, though, is that other Canaanites - who are aware of Yahweh! - won’t acknowledge him. There’s a stubborn refusal to “bend the knee” to this deity.
This stubborn, bold sin eventually invites (and warrants) God to act in the way that He does. Theologian Miroslav Volf helps us feel the "rightness" of God's intervening judgment in dark situations like this, in his book Free of Charge (pp. 138-39):
“I used to think that wrath [or judgment] was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people killed and over 300,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”
So the first reason for the "Canaanite Conquest" was stubborn, bold sinfulness. Another reason is God's concern for purity in worship.
We’ve already seen how idolatrous the Canaanites were and how this took shape in their society. And as Israel moved into the land God had promised them, God didn’t want these idolatrous influences to pollute true Israelite worship. You see, God cares about how He is worshipped (cf. the first two commandments in Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5; also the book of Leviticus!) and He knows idolatry threatens that. A few passages that bring this out very clearly are Deuteronomy 12:29-31 and 20:16-18. The concern, then, is not ethnicity but idolatry!
The bottom line? God is holy - that means He’s not going to tolerate stubborn, bold sin. And God cares how He is worshipped. Our “theology of God” needs to factor in these truths about Him.
Understanding these reasons WHY God commanded what He did isn’t only so we can make sense of what happened to them, then [i.e., the Canaanites]. This also has implications for us. Throughout these first five books of the Bible, we repeatedly see God warning His people, that if they follow in the footsteps of the Canaanites - stubborn sin and careless worship - these same judgments will fall on them. Cf. esp. Lev 18:28 and Deut 28:25-68; also Numbers 33:55-56. The lesson? Let's remain careful and thoughtful about how we live as the people of God today.
Our first lamp post reminds us to factor in the reasons WHY strong commands were given. Let's move on and see how a second lamp post adds further illumination to this difficult topic.
Taking a closer look at HOW "Canaanite Conquest" events actually occurred, and how some of the texts should be understood
I wonder if it can be easy to imagine that the entire conquest of Canaan was some “shock and awe” campaign that was brutal without exception. (Again, think of Hulk "smashing" in the Avengers.) And while there is brutality here and much that challenges our sensibilities, a close reading of the Bible points us towards at least some closer level of nuance that we’d do well to factor in as we think about the Canaanite conquest.
Let me mention five insights that help us think about HOW the move into Canaan actually happened. While each of these insights can be weighed on their own, their cumulative force shows us that - even if one or two of these may be quibbled with - there is still insight here we want to keep in mind.
So as we wrestle with this issue of the Canaanite Conquest, we need to remember WHY these commands were given. And we need to read the Bible closely enough (benefiting from the help of biblical scholars who share a high view of the Bible) to see HOW the move into Canaan happened. And there's a third lamp post we don't want to miss as well.
Remembering WHO the One who’s giving these commands is, and what else we know about Him
We need to remember that God is sovereign. From the very beginning of the Bible (Gen 1) we learn that God is the One who created the heavens of the earth, and from the lips of Rahab it’s affirmed that He is “Lord in heaven above and on the earth below.” Our modern sensibilities like to make God in our image, and when we read things like we read in parts of the Torah and Joshua, we think “God can’t be like that!”
Hopefully this material already has shown us ways we need to approach the Canaanite Conquest carefully - and this should influence how we understand God. God is not a “malevolent bully” to use the words of Dawkins. What we’ve seen so far has shows that. But neither is God “tame” and “neat.” We can’t forget that God is sovereign.
We need to remember that God is good. We can't read Deuteronomy 7 or Joshua 10 and 11 and think that exhausts who God is. Instead, we need to let God introduce Himself to us throughout the Bible. Let's let God introduce Himself. For a great example of that, check out Exodus 34:5-8.
God has a plan for the world that includes all the nations. God isn't "pro-Israel" and "anti-everyone else." Check out Genesis 12:1-3; Psalm 22:27-28; Psalm 67; Isaiah 2:1-5; Isaiah 45:14; Zechariah 2:10-12; Matthew 28:19-20; Revelation 5:9; Revelation 7:9.
Look at Jesus. I said earlier that we don’t want to avoid these difficult Old Testament passages and skip too quickly to Jesus. But, neither do we want to ignore Jesus! Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15) and the exact representation of His being (Heb 1:1-3?). Jesus makes an “invisible” God known (John 1:18)! And so if we want to know what God is like, we need to look at Jesus! From His teaching and actions, we know Jesus advocates loving our enemies! From His sacrifice for sin on the cross, we know Jesus has borne God’s wrath in His body. In Christ, God’s wrath has been satisfied, so we can point sinners to the hope and life that’s found a relationship with Jesus through faith. Jesus’ final command is not against the nations but for that nations (Matthew 28:19-20).
Any discussion of the Canaanite Conquest eventually needs to "zoom out" from God's judgment being meted out on sinners, to God's wrath being satisfied in Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.
We likely didn't "solve" the issue of the Canaanite Conquest here today. This isn't an issue we can sanitize and make "neat" to fit our modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, I hope we did erect some lamp posts that can light our way and keep us moving ahead on the right path - further into the Bible, and trusting its sovereign, good Author.
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