Recently, I’ve been asked about difficult passages in the Old Testament. Namely, the accounts of God prescribing the mass killing of entire nations. The argument usually goes something like this, “What about the parts of the Bible where God commands that the Israelites wipe out the Canaanites? How could God command this? If God is like that I would not want to follow Him.”
Certainly, these are difficult passages and no one should feel wrong for seeking answers to such issues. Christian apologist William Lane Craig said, “these stories offend our moral sensibilities.” However, it is interesting to point out that in many cases those who will bring up such arguments against God also want to borrow from a Judaeo-Christian worldview by claiming objective moral values. In any case, it’s important to keep in mind a few points when trying to understand one of these difficult texts:
- Events in the ancient Near East need to be taken in their historical contexts. Our postmodern world is different from the one experienced by those in Scripture. They had different customs, rituals, and ways of life.
- The accounts in the Old Testament need to be taken in the larger context of God’s meta-narrative (the Bible as a whole). The overall theme of Scripture is focused on Jesus and God’s redemptive work for all of human kind.
- If God is the author of human life, He is the determiner of a person’s fate. *If one declares that God was wrong, one is acknowledging moral values, which necessitates the existence of God.
I had the privilege of sitting under the teachings of Paul Copan while at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He has written extensively on the topic and he proves to be helpful in dealing with these issues. In fact, his most recent book, Is God a Moral Monster?, was just released this year by Baker Books and deals with this topic. Here are some of the points we discussed in class as it pertains to the Canaanite issue:
- People who object to the command to kill Canaanites must first ask about the source of their moral standard; typically, this turns out to be the God of Scripture.
- God’s purposes are ultimately to bring salvation to all the nations through Abraham and his offspring (Gen. 12:3) – even if this involves punishment in the meantime.
- War was a practical reality in the ancient Near East (ANE). Like all other nations back then, Israel had to fight to survive.
- God, who is the author and giver of life, is cheating no one by taking his life up again (What about infants and children? They would actually go to heaven and be delivered from this morally-twisted culture).
- In many cases, Israel’s enemies struck first, not Israel.
- Because God is holy, there comes a time – whether in this life or in the life to come or in both – when God must deal with the unrepentant, wicked persons for the sake of his righteous character.
- Yahweh directly punished the morally corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), but he indirectly punished the morally corrupt Canaanites by using Israel.
- In the book of Joshua, the biblical text indicates that the conquest of Canaan was far less sweeping and harsh than many assume (e.g. God’s command to the Israelites to not marry any of the Canaanites – could not have been total obliteration).
- The “military motif” may not be the only one to consider in Israel’s taking Canaan; other factors need to be considered (such as infiltration and internal struggle).