The question of divine goodness and justice in light of the deep problems raised by the biblical commands concerning the slaughter of the Canaanites seems to be the hot topic right now. Philip Jenkins writes on the subject of the Bible’s violent texts in the Huffington Post. John Piper has recently made some remarks on the subject. The subject has also come up in several conversations on Twitter that I have seen or been involved in over the last few days.
John Piper takes the God owes us nothing approach to the question, making the startling and, frankly, appalling statement that ‘It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.’ Such a proposed solution to the problem seems to be founded upon a profoundly nominalistic conception of God, which conceives of God in terms of will, right, and power, to the exclusion of or in detachment from his goodness, beauty, and truth. In order to resolve the moral conundrums raised by the slaughter of the Canaanites, we open up a far more concerning set of problems in the very heart of our understanding of God’s character. In order to expel the horror of the Canaanite genocide, we admit a far more terrible horror into our doctrine of God.
‘Wrestling’ Rather than ‘Solving’
Any approach to these problems must maintain the connection between the justice, will, and power of God, and his goodness, mercy, truth, and beauty. If God desires something it must be good, because God is good: if something is not good, God cannot desire it. Any approach to these problems must also take the biblical witnesses to God with full seriousness. Any attempt to Procrusteanize the text to fit our doctrine of God is to be rejected, just as any attempt to butcher our doctrine of God to make it sit easily with the troubling texts of Scripture is impermissible.
I believe that our approach to such problem texts should be one of ‘wrestling’ rather than ‘solving’. Such texts are part of the biblical witness to God and, for that reason, can’t simply be rejected, no matter how much we might want to do so on occasions. Nor are we to employ subtle but facile rationalizations or justifications, to dull their force, or airbrush the appalling elements of the picture away. The Bible is a text that scandalizes us in many ways and part of our task as faithful readers is to grapple with the scandal of Scripture to the full extent of our capabilities: the text must never be rendered less scandalous than it actually is. Such texts are wounds that must be kept open, upon which no clean cicatrix may form. They are the aporiae that resist all of our attempts at tidy systematization.
It is in the difficult texts of Scripture that God meets us, as if as an enemy, wrestling against us. Our duty as Christians is to wrestle back, and not let go until God blesses us through those texts. We should, however, be aware that wrestling with such texts, while it can bless us, will leave us with a limp. As we faithfully engage with such difficult texts, we lose the jaunty gait of those who avoid such struggle.
The ‘Trajectory’ Approach
One popular approach to such passages is to appeal to theological ‘trajectories’ in Scripture (claims about cultural ‘accommodation’ are not dissimilar, and can be subject to many of the same criticisms). It is by no means clear to me that such an approach really solves our problems, without opening up a problem in our understanding of Scripture as a witness to God’s character. The ‘trajectory’ approach is all too often employed to nullify words and actions of God witnessed to by the text, and often in order to domesticate God to some contemporary moral understanding, such as the prevailing morality of contemporary liberal thought. Such a trajectory approach wrongly disavows the scandal, rather than living with it.
This is not to deny the importance of some sort of a trajectory approach in such contexts. God’s work is all about maturation on many different levels. The form of the kingdom matures and the form of God’s moral revelation matures (from Law to wisdom, from wisdom to prophecy, from prophecy to incarnation by the Spirit). Imposing an old form upon a new reality can be strongly condemned by Scripture, even though the old form was right and proper in its own place. The second part of the last statement is crucial: the old word is not nullified but fulfilled and surpassed. The old word does not cease to be a divine word in its own time and place, and we cannot therefore escape the duty of wrestling with it. As a divine word we cannot exclude it from the biblical testimony to God’s character, truth, goodness, and justice, no matter how troubling we might find it. While such texts must not be permitted to overrun or take precedence over clearer texts, most particularly the revelation of God’s character in Jesus Christ, the tensions that they create cannot be abandoned.
Some Wrestling ‘Moves’
All of the above remarks are preparatory for the following comments. I want to make clear that the following thoughts are not intended to provide a solution to these problem texts. Rather, they are some of the insights that have arisen as I have wrestled with these texts over the years (many of my comments about wrestling with Scripture above rehearse arguments already made in this post). I believe that these insights can help us in our wrestling, perhaps giving us an upper hand on certain of the problems that the texts throw at us, but without thereby ending the struggle.
The History of the Canaanites
First, we need to recognize that the invasion of Canaan does not occur in a historical vacuum. In Genesis 15:16, God indicates that the deliverance of Canaan into the hand of Abraham and his seed will not occur until the wickedness of the Amorites (and presumably the rest of the Canaanites) has reached its full measure. Such a process takes centuries, each successive generation continuing in and intensifying the wickedness of the one that preceded them. We are told that it was on account of the bloodthirstiness and wickedness of the Canaanites that God determined to purge the land of them. The land vomits out the nations that have defiled themselves and it with innocent blood and sexual immorality (e.g. Leviticus 18:24-30; Deuteronomy 9:5).
This is a point that the biblical text continually underlines: the Canaanites were not innocent and mild-mannered nations minding their own business, but brutal and bloody oppressors of other peoples, nations who perverted and defiled the image of God through all forms of sexual immorality and unfaithfulness, nations steeped in injustice and involved in the enslaving and subjugation of others, worshippers of cruel gods who demanded child sacrifice. This is the rationale that the Bible gives for the complete eradication of their culture. The Canaanites were perceived in a manner that made them the Nazis of their day, a society so evil and depraved that it had to be completely uprooted, and no form of compromise made with it. No tears were to be shed over the death of anyone who fought to defend that culture and the wickedness that it represented and perpetrated.
Second, these nations also had forewarning. The Canaanites were well aware of what had happened in Egypt (Joshua 2:9-11), where YHWH had proved his might over all of the gods of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:12; Numbers 33:4), and demonstrated that he was the God of heaven and earth. In fighting against the Israelites, the Canaanites knew that they were taking up arms against the Most High God, the God who had brought the empire of Egypt to its knees, humiliating all of its gods, and not just some petty tribal deity. Seen in this light, their resistance to the Israelites was a suicidal determination to fight a war against the God above the gods. The Canaanites are presented as a terrifyingly cruel civilization driven by a death wish and unwavering opposition to the God who sets free the captives.
The Canaanites’ Options
Third, the Canaanites had options open to them. They were to be eradicated from the land. However, there was nothing stopping them from fleeing from the land. Nor, far more importantly, was there anything preventing them from converting to YHWH. The Gibeonites tricked the Israelites into making a treaty with them and were protected for that reason. We also see Rahab converting to YHWH in Joshua 2. Even while declaring the complete destruction of any who resist, God’s declaration of judgment upon a people always left open the possibility of repentance and protection for those who will turn. For instance, in the Exodus, the Israelites were accompanied by a ‘mixed multitude’, among whom we may presume were many Egyptians and other formerly oppressed peoples fleeing from Egypt.
What God commanded in the conquest was the eradication of a series of cultures from the land of Canaan (the focus in the text is less upon annihilation of people groups as on utterly dispossessing them of the land). This could be achieved in a number of ways. The members of the cultures could eradicate their own cultures by converting to the God of Israel. The cultures could remove themselves from the land by mass migration or through a tribal diaspora, as the Israelites migrated from Egypt. The final option, and what for the most part seems to have taken place, was sanguinary removal from the land by conquest.
Hyperbole and History
Fourth, we need to take care to read these narratives within their literary context, and in terms of broader evidence. For instance, God speaks of Israel being ‘annihilated’ and ‘destroyed’ in Deuteronomy 28:63, the same verbs as are used of the Canaanites, but it is clear that not all were killed, and many would have remained in the land under foreign rule, while the ruling classes would have been utterly removed or exiled, and all military and cultural power broken.
There is also the fact that not all cities were utterly destroyed (e.g. ‘I gave you … cities that you did not build’ – Joshua 24:13), even though the commandment was spoken of as having been fulfilled. The focus seems to have been on the defeating of citadels (which archaeology suggests were distinct from the civilian populations of their surrounding countryside), military centres and outposts, and their ‘kings’, not upon the indiscriminate wiping out of all, combatants and non-combatants alike. The strongholds were eliminated, not the population centres. Jericho wasn’t a big city and population centre (a claim supported by archaeology), but a military stronghold, small enough to walk round seven times in a day with time left to wage war against it. The inhabitants would almost all be combatants, with a person like Rahab as an exceptional case. The cities would not be civilian centres, and the language of destroying all including woman and children, or ‘everything that breathed’ is similar to conventional ANE hyperbole.
The Liberation of the Captives
Fifth, the entire Hexateuch is filled with God’s concern for releasing the slaves and the oppressed, and his humiliation and defeat of oppressors. It would be remiss of us suddenly to forget this theme as we start to deal with the conquest (much of the following comes from Peter Leithart’s stimulating comments on the subject). The conquest begins with sequences of sevens and the blowing of trumpets, much as the Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-17. Much as in the book of Revelation, an oppressive and bloody city is defeated with the blowing of seven trumpets, which announces the release of captives, the destruction of oppressors, and the establishment of liberty. As the Bible presents it, Joshua’s conquest is a liberation movement.
This reading can be strengthened by observation of the way that Joshua’s conquest is picked up as a theme later in Scripture. We see a pattern of ‘desert ministries’ followed by ‘land ministries’, marked off by the crossing of the Jordan. Moses leads the people in the wilderness, before handing off to Joshua on the far side of the Jordan. Joshua crosses the Jordan and leads the conquest of the land. Elijah is a prophet associated with the desert, spending much of his time in the wilderness, hiding from Jezebel and Ahab. In 2 Kings 2 he is succeeded by Elisha on the far side of the Jordan. Elisha miraculously crosses the Jordan and begins a ministry of miracles and healing within the land, setting the stage for the complete shake-up of Israel’s power structures. Jesus is baptized by John (the Elijah that was to come) in the wilderness on the far side of the Jordan. He then (after his temptations) enters the land and declares Jubilee (Luke 4:16ff.), casting out demons, healing the sick, and preaching deliverance to the poor and oppressed. In other words, the theme of conquest is fundamentally one of liberation.
Returning to the analogy of Nazi Germany, we can see that we tend to perceive the events of 1945 in much the same way. Germany eventually capitulated, and incredible suffering and deprivation were experienced by its inhabitants, but it was fundamentally a liberation that occurred. Germany suffered a gruesome death toll, but the images that most haunt us are the gaunt figures in liberated concentration camps, and though we may be appalled at the German loss of life, we know that the utter removal of Hitler’s power and the eradication of Nazism was morally necessary. The downfall of that evil power was something to rejoice in and few people are ashamed of having played a part in its destruction.
The Gospel Trajectory of Holy War
Sixth, and most importantly, we see a progressive development in the way that the theme of Holy War functions in Scripture. As I have argued above, this ‘trajectory’ does not entail a nullification or disavowal of earlier stages, but the progression to something more advanced. The Church is still called to engage in Holy War, but this war occurs by different means.
Already in the book of Joshua we see hints of what Holy War might develop into. The victory over Jericho fundamentally occurs by means of a liturgy and an act of worship. It also involves a prominent conversion in Rahab, who becomes part of the line of Jesus.
Where the Levites killed 3,000 of their brethren in Exodus 32:26-28, and are then set aside for their tabernacle ministry, at Pentecost, Peter’s sermon ‘cuts’ 3,000 hearers ‘to the heart’. Both Elijah (1 Kings 17:9-24) and Jesus (Matthew 15:21-28) exercise their deliverance ministries for poor Canaanites. While the evil Pharaoh-like king of Israel, Ahab, is being plagued with drought, God ministers to the poor Canaanite widow of Zarephath. Whether we should read this as a parallel with the way that God sought to deliver oppressed Canaanites from wicked rulers, or in contrast to the destruction of the Canaanite cities is not clear to me. However, what is clear is that the accent of Holy War shifts from physical military means, to those of prayer, the casting of demons, the proclamation of the gospel, and the various deliverance ministries of healing, feeding, release from debt and captivity, etc.
The old covenant order was one where the Spirit was not operative to the same degree or in the same manners: it is only through and in Christ that the fuller measure of the Spirit’s work is enjoyed. Whereas Joshua defeated the oppressing nations largely with physical weapons, albeit empowered by God, within the new covenant the weapons of our warfare are not those of this world, but are far more powerful (2 Corinthians 10:4). Our nations seek to wage wars of hearts and minds, but lack the necessary weapons, so must resort to brute force. The gospel, however, is capable of conquering hearts and minds, and bringing them under Christ’s rule. Holy War becomes mission. The commission that our ‘Joshua’ gives us is greater than that Moses gave to the first Joshua. Joshua was called to go into the land and wipe out the Canaanites by the sword: we are called to go into the whole world and cut every creature to the heart with the two-edged sword of the Spirit. The Church’s prayer, worship, and gospel proclamation is the means by which the whole world will be brought into Christ’s blessing.
Some care is needed here, as the New Testament doesn’t altogether leave behind the idea of the destruction of wicked and bloodthirsty oppressors and absorb everything under the idea of conversion. However, the defeat of the oppressors occurs by means of the worship, prayer, and mission of the Church, rather than through force of arms. This is especially seen in the book of Revelation, where divine judgment and victory over the bloody persecutors, vindication of the martyrs, and release of the oppressed occurs through worship and liturgy. In place of Joshua’s military campaigns, we have Paul’s missionary journeys (notice that Paul takes the Nazirite vow – a sort of holy war vow – at least once in connection with his missionary work, much as Jesus took a Nazirite-like vow in abstaining from wine prior to and while on the cross). There are judgments upon wicked persons along the way, but it is deliverance and conversion that dominate the narrative, not judgment.
As I have argued, the theme of Holy War is not left behind in the New Testament, but elevated to a higher level and intensified. The world, not merely the land, is now the site of the war. No longer are our enemies primarily flesh and blood individuals, but rather the shadowy spiritual forces behind them. We have grown beyond fighting with physical swords and have now been entrusted with the heavy weaponry – the word of the cross, which can tear down strongholds and powers (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; cf. Jeremiah 1:9-10).
In conclusion, I want to reiterate that the above comments are not intended as a ‘solution’ to the problems of these texts, which remain deeply uncomfortable. However, they may serve to clarify these problems somewhat and knock certain of them down to a less terrifying size. I would love to hear any further thoughts that people might have in the comments.