Tag Archives: genocide in the Bible

Book Review: Paradoxology

I’ve spent the last year having my mind blown by four big ideas.

One. The story of the Bible, centred as it is on the death and resurrection of Jesus, required an incredibly intricate amount of planning and execution, which I think is the mark of a truly sublime story.

Two. The way the Bible’s narrative becomes richer if you see the Image of God as a vocational calling to be the living God’s living ‘idols,’ such that turning to, and being shaped by, dead idols is a fatal mistake that undermines the foundation of what it means to be human, and turning back to God, via Jesus, who carries out this vocation perfectly, is where we rediscover what it means to be truly human. Like the people we were made to be. The whole Old Testament seems to explore what happens to people when they live like the God who brings life calls them to — as his representatives — or forget who they are made to be, chasing after things that are sources of death, not life.

Three. What happens to a bunch of theological questions — especially surrounding the Cross, and the questions we want to throw up as objections to God — when you grapple with the concept of infinity, and the idea that God is infinite and we are not.

And four. Just how essential paradox is to Christian theology — which is especially cool when paired with a growing sense I get when I try to understand crazily intelligent scientists (of the Quantum Physicist variety) that being comfortable with paradox is foundational to heaps of modern science.

I’ve thought about other things too. And thinking almost always blows my mind. But these are incredibly untapped wells. Thinking too much about paradoxes and infinity hurts my head, in a way that gives me hope that I’m on the right track… But I do think there’s a whole lot of meaty thinking in these two areas both for Christians and skeptics alike. When we fail to defend Christian belief without these two head-hurting ideas in the mix I think we’re selling our belief short. Think about the essential paradoxes at the heart of Christianity. The Trinity being one God in three persons. Jesus being fully human, and fully divine. The Bible being fully human, and fully inspired. God being fully in control of creation, but our experience suggesting we are fully in control of our own decisions… these go on. And on.

There are also heaps of really tough questions Christians need to, I think, be able to answer. For ourselves, even if not for others. Questions about God’s character and actions in the Old Testament and at the Cross (I tried to articulate my view on this question here), the question of why evil exists at all in a world where God is said to be infinitely good, and infinitely in control (I had a stab at saying what I think on this question here). I don’t think science is a good reason not to believe in the God of the Bible —  but I think these questions, and others like them, might be. If we can’t answer them. I can certainly understand people who choose these objections as reasons to walk away from God. Another challenge is, of course, why the church — the people of God — are so very disappointing on so many fronts, from institutionalised abuse, through to the ongoing existence of the brokenness that pervades all our relationships still existing in this community that is meant to have things more together.

Enter Krish Kandiah’s ParadoxologyHere’s a video promo.

It’s a pretty sensational book, I enjoyed its honesty and its humanity. Its willingness to ask questions. I want to say, right from the start, that I would absolutely and wholeheartedly recommend reading it, buying a few copies, and lending it to people. I’d give it to people without expecting to need to have massive conversations defending the content of the book — but there were just a couple of points at which my own personal idiosyncrasies meant I wasn’t quite satisfied with his answers. We’ll get there below.

I love the weight given to the book by Krish’s real life examples. The questions aren’t asked in isolation from real life — each chapter, each paradox, includes examples from Krish’s experience, both as a convert from a largely non-Christian family, in his own family life, and from his ministry. He seems like an absolutely stand up guy. I have no experience of this other than reading about him online, but the presentation of his life, in pixelated form, suggests he embodies the life this book calls us to live. His willingness to ask questions, and to deal openly with alternative answers to some of the paradoxes he raised, demonstrates the kind of intellectual integrity that I think is absolutely essential to any sort of ethical persuasion. I won’t deal with everything he deals with in depth — suffice it to say, the paradoxes mentioned above are all dealt with, with charity, humility, and grace. The book moves from paradoxes raised in the Old Testament to paradoxes raised in the New. There are crossovers, of course, where some paradoxes are only truly resolved by the paradox at the heart of the Bible’s story — the incarnation, where Jesus, the divine son, a person of the Trinity, becomes human. And is executed. I felt a little like this was a weakness — I had to read all the way through to that chapter to really get a satisfactory (at least for me) answer to the what Kandiah calls the Abraham Paradox and the Job Paradox. But that’s a minor quibble, when you think about it, because the Bible functioned in the same way for people who read the OT before Jesus arrived on the scene.

I highlighted 357 passages in the book. According to my Kindle stats. And I’m looking forward to revisiting them as I preach, write, and think, about some of the questions Kandiah tackles.

I’m never sure how useful any book is going to be in actually persuading people to shift their thinking on the question of God. There are plenty of times in Paradoxology where I felt like I was convinced, or had my beliefs reaffirmed, because I already accepted a bunch of the categories Kandiah was operating with, but I wasn’t sure how useful some of those categories would be for people who’ve thrown the theology baby out with the theistic bathwater. If, like Dawkins, a reader thinks all theological categories are hogwash until proven otherwise, this book doesn’t necessarily undo that thinking. It does present Christianity as intellectually coherent, and stimulating, and I think it does a pretty good job of removing theology from abstraction and showing how belief in God and acceptance of a bunch of Christian categories for thinking about the world does have a real pay off for how we live. I think the real benefit for de-churched readers is that Kandiah tackles many objections that people who have a familiarity with Christianity might bring to the table in a winsome no-holds-barred (or no-questions-barred) way, quite removed from a defensive group-think mindset that some might be expecting. While, for the unchurched, or those of other faiths, Kandiah frequently compares his robust Christian account of a paradox with alternative attempts to reconcile the same observations of the way the world is (and various senses of the way the world ought to be).

Again. This is one of the books I’ll be having on hand to work through with people — probably particularly Christians who are struggling with concepts of God that feel too black and white, or simple, but also with people who are prepared to give Christianity some serious thought, the kind of thought where one is prepared to entertain mystery and paradox without needing to resolve them into a neat package.

There were heaps of passages I really enjoyed in the book. Here’s a sampling — and one or two very minor quibbles.

I love this definition of faith.

“The belief that faith is by definition a blind leap into the unknown is so prevalent that often unbelieving friends will say things to me like, ‘I wish I could believe like you do, but I think too much.’ This might sound like a gracious compliment but it is actually an insult – perhaps unwitting – and might be better phrased: ‘I respect your faith, but I’m just not as gullible as you.’ They may as well have said: ‘I used to believe in the tooth fairy too.’ Many people have described faith as believing what you know isn’t true. Richard Dawkins, the vocal atheist and zoology professor, dismisses it as ‘the process of non-thinking called faith’. But the Bible refutes this. Looking more closely at Abraham’s story, there are three things that we can establish about the nature of true faith. First, faith is not a leap in the dark. The Bible’s stories, including this episode in Abraham’s life, are all intended to refute this mis-definition of faith. The Bible is full of testimonials that present reasons for trusting in God. Jesus himself described his words and his miracles as ‘evidence’ for belief. The step of faith is an informed decision. This may sound like a paradox, but it is one we live with every day. Take, for example, the mundane but potentially life-changing decision to cross a road…

…When it comes to crossing a road, we gather evidence with our eyes and ears, and when we are reasonably confident that it is safe, we step out in faith and aim for the other side of the road. Similarly, when as Christians we take a step of faith, we use judgement based on gathered evidence and previous experience, and, trusting in our convictions, we move forward. Abraham had his eyes wide open when he decided to lead his son to Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. He had evidence that God would fulfil his promises. He had already experienced the miracle of God’s provision of Isaac. He had seen that God could bring dead things to life. He knew that his future was safest in God’s hands. So it was an immensely challenging, but not an intrinsically irrational, step to keep trusting God.”

His most powerful chapter — perhaps because it’s the question I personally find most vexing — was the Joshua Paradox, an exploration of the Canaanite genocide. Coupled with the Job Paradox, an exploration of the question of suffering, you’ve got two chapters which, by themselves, are a reason to buy the book. These are the questions he sets about answering:

How do we reconcile the paradox of a God who has compassion on the Jewish nation through all their failures, but then commands them to show no compassion towards other nations? How can a God of love order the annihilation of a whole people-group, the mass slaughter of men and women, old and young, and even animals too?

“Whether we are forced to watch the suffering of others, or experiencing suffering in our own lives, we desperately want to know ‘Why?’ Why does God stand passively by when there is so much suffering going on all the time?”

I like his answers. But I do wonder if one aspect of the answer to the question of how we’re meant to feel in the face of the Canaanite thing is similar to how Job is told to feel, by God, in the end of the Book of Job. It’s not just, as Paradoxology suggests, that God is judge, that the people of Canaan are being judged justly, that our very existence (in the face of universal condemnation for sin) is a merciful gift from God, and that God accommodates people and achieves his purposes by using the only kind of war available at the time — though I think these are all true. There’s also the sense that we’re meant to be uncomfortable in the face of these stories. We’re meant to react as humans. To be compassionate rather than robotic in the face of pain. To empathise with those facing God’s judgment — judgment we also deserve.

Even as God continues to use war and evil to carry out his purposes— assuming that’s how the Romans 13 reality operates, where Governments are appointed by God —we’re meant to do what we’re called to do, as people who follow Jesus, love God, and love our enemies as we imitate our crucified king. We should be moved by compassion, and a sense of injustice and horror about the reality facing other humans, even if this reality is tied up with God’s judgment. I think Kandiah is right, in the video, and the conclusion of the book, to remind us that a properly robust relationship with God includes being prepared to voice our feelings, and our protest, and that this is part of not being crippled by paradox.

It’s nice that Paradoxology deals with Joshua and then Job. Because Job is kind of the human reaction to suffering on a micro-level, rather than a whole nation suffering, we get Job suffering. And asking questions. And being comforted by a bunch of ‘wise’ friends.

I love Job. It’s taken me a while to get my head around exactly what’s going on. Job’s friends spout a bunch of worldly wisdom at Job. They look like they’re doing the right thing, and what they’re saying could have come out of the pages of Wisdom Literature from around the Ancient Near East. They think they’re being Job’s friends. But they’re not. They’re saying a bunch of stupid stuff. The importance of understanding the nature of their ‘friendship’ will, hopefully, become clear in a moment.

Kandiah suggests one of the dilemmas presented and resolved in Job is the question of where God is in suffering.

“Why does he criticize our tendency to walk on by on the other side of the road when we see people in need, when he himself sees all suffering and yet chooses to do nothing? Does God not care? Does God not understand? Or perhaps he is, after all, incapable of stepping in? God’s deliberate policy of not fixing things when we are suffering highlights one of those universal paradoxes – we believe that God is active and powerful, so if he does not intervene, we are forced to conclude that this God is actively choosing to be passive”

Again. The Job Paradox is a stirring chapter. But here’s something I wondered as I re-engaged with Job, and read this chapter. What if Job’s friends acted like Jesus? What would that do to the Book of Job’s approach to the paradox of human suffering and God’s apparent absence?

Here’s how Kandiah sums up the story of Job.

“The book of Job challenges the premise of the paradox that God is either too weak to stop suffering or too mean to bother to do so. This book asserts that there are circumstances when an all-powerful and all-loving God might allow suffering to take place. Acknowledging this point is very difficult to grasp, most of the book of Job argues the opposite case.

Job receives a seemingly endless cycle of visits and lectures delivered by his so-called friends Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu. They all assume more or less that ‘if you sin, you will suffer’ and equally, ‘if you suffer, you have sinned’. They spend hour after hour, page after page, repeating this line of reasoning. Sometimes it feels that Job’s counsellors might be just trying to wear him down with their many words. It makes the book difficult to read, let alone understand. Perhaps the exasperating experience of reading the book of Job is intentional, as we encounter the obtuse and yet insistent counsellors.

Maybe finding Job’s friends infuriating acts as a warning to us to avoid their mistakes. They are earnest and well-meaning, but they are almost completely wrong in what they assume about God, Job and the universe. Perhaps too we may be reminded of the need for genuine humility, the need to be slow to speak and quick to listen. If we follow this advice we will be able to avoid causing some of the pastoral and emotional damage that Job’s friends bring.”

What if Job’s friends had come to Job with wisdom beginning with the Fear of the Lord — exactly the wisdom God confronts Job with at the end of the book. The sort of wisdom that the Israelites who read the finished book of Job hopefully picked up, and carried with them, as they comforted friends and family members (and neighbours) in the midst of real suffering? Surely the real way to be a friend in suffering is not to speak empty words, but words of real comfort (or to just sit, and speak no words at all). Surely the real way — later modelled at the Cross — is to enter into, and share in, the suffering of another, in order to alleviate it.

I love the link Kandiah draws between Job and Jesus… he hints towards what I think might be a profoundly challenging answer to people asking where is God when people are suffering…

“The book of Job points us to another time when an innocent suffered because God’s honour demanded it. The paradoxes that trouble us in thinking about God’s character coalesce around what we as Christians believe to be the most important events of human history – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross we see the perfectly innocent and blameless Jesus suffering due to no fault of his own. What Job was asked to do involuntarily, Jesus volunteered for. Satan was not allowed to touch Job’s life – Jesus gave up his life.

Ultimately, God has not been passive about the evil in the world: he has actively submitted himself to suffer on our behalf. As we shall see in the paradox of the cross, it is because of Jesus’ death that the sin and suffering of the world will be finally resolved. This has two important implications, which help us with the paradox of pain. First, when we suffer we are not further away from but rather drawn closer to the one who suffered for us. Second, when we reach out to relieve the suffering of others we are most like God, because God did everything that was necessary to deal with the evil and suffering in our world.”

If the church is the body of Christ, if we’re united to Christ, if we’re being conformed into his image by the Holy Spirit, then surely part of the answer to the question “where is God in suffering” in our world, is that God is there wherever the Church is seeking to provide comfort in a wise way. God is not absent unless we choose to make him absent, by absenting ourselves. I think God can certainly be present without his church, but our responsibility is to really love our neighbours, like Jesus did, not like Job’s friends did. This was one of the points at which it might have been structurally helpful for Paradoxology to have front-ended the Jesus Paradox. The fullest account of all the other paradoxes is shaped at the foot of the Cross.

It’s a great book. Buy it. Read it. Give it to your friends.

Here are some other bits that I loved.

“…It is only because of our limited time-bound vantage-point that God appears to be unpredictable, when in fact his actions are entirely consistent with his character. We only see a glimpse of what God is doing. Our lives are like a screen-grab from a movie. We can only comprehend a tiny fragment of the total picture, so it is hard for us to understand what God is doing. Imagine that you had never seen the classic Disney Pixar movie Finding Nemo, and you were given a single frame of the film and asked to guess the storyline. In this single image is a tiny orange clown fish talking to a huge shark. You can marvel at the colours, at the amazing graphic skill the digital artists have achieved, and the strange posture of a hunter communicating with his prey. But you couldn’t know whether this is the end of the film or the beginning. You couldn’t tell whether the shark is about to eat the clown fish, or if the clown fish has managed to talk down his aggressor. There is certainly no way of telling that the shark is a jolly aspiring vegetarian who is deeply moved by the clown fish’s story of loss and determination. One picture cannot possibly give enough background information to guess what happens next. Compared to the eternal purposes of God, even a decade of our lives is like that freeze frame in a movie. Of course, God can zoom in and know every miniscule detail of our daily lives, but we are incapable of zooming out to see our lives with the advantage of distance, bigger context or retrospect.

So what should we do when God’s actions (or his inaction) seem unpredictable or irrational? God’s response to Habakkuk is to tell him to … wait for it … yes, to wait for it…

Waiting is difficult, though, because we like to feel we are doing something. But the waiting that God asks for is not tedious passivity – he encourages us to wait actively, giving ourselves to God’s purposes in the world. Waiting involves continually living by the values of the coming kingdom, knowing that one day they will be vindicated by God himself. Waiting is also difficult for us because the more we have to do it, the more we are inclined to give up hope. But waiting can be a powerful testimony of our true allegiance.”

And, on the Cross…

“Imagine watching the ultimate heist movie with, of course, a priceless diamond arriving at a museum. The alarms are set to cover every inch of the display hall, and weight sensors are sensitive to the nearest gram. Extremely careful planning is necessary by the prospective thieves so that at the decisive moment an unnoticed switch or substitution can occur. The diamond has to be replaced by something that is exactly its weight, or all the alarms will sound and the caper is over. This image gives us an inkling of what was going on when Jesus died on the cross. This particular substitution had been planned in minute detail since before the beginning of time itself, and signposted throughout the Jewish Scriptures. You can see those signposts from the moment that sin entered the world. God had promised that if humanity sinned, death would result, but in the Garden of Eden the first thing to die after the fall were not sinful human beings but animals, sacrificed to provide fallen people with the clothes they needed to cover over a nakedness that was no longer appropriate in a world contaminated by sin…

God was building up to the exact moment that his Son Jesus was born in Israel, at a time when the country was under Roman occupation. The death of Jesus involved the ultimate substitution. Jesus’ death did not just satisfy but fulfilled the sacrifice system set up in the Old Testament.

The cross of Jesus is the place where all of God’s plans come together. X marks the spot: this place, this time is where God is resolving the great paradox of history. God uses the tiny details of history to solve the riddle of the universe, demonstrate his perfect love and redeem his broken world.”

Dealing with genocide in the Bible

I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.

I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.


Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30

So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?

I think he did. And I think it does.

But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.

This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…

The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.

The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?

What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”

But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.

I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.

And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.

Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.

Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.

Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.

And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.

Bigger than we can grasp.

We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?

Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.

Anyway. If you want to read on…

Continue reading

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Violence in Joshua (redux)

Luke posted a summary of Mikey’s sermon on the Canaanite genocide. I haven’t listened to it. But I did finish the essay I mentioned in my previous post. This is an experiment in posting essays with footnotes on WordPress. Feel free to tell me why my apologetic for God’s violence is heinous and inappropriate, or to just skip this post. It’s long (I went over the 1,500 word word limit).  Does anybody know if there are rules against posting such things before they are marked? I hope my esteemed lecturer reads this before running my text through a plagiarism checker and finds this page online. It is all my own work…

Violence, Joshua and the Christian

Abstract

The question of violence in the Old Testament is a source of consternation for many – from the rabid “New Atheists” to Christians seeking to synergise the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, with God’s actions and commands in the Old Testament.

We will explore the violence in Joshua, engaging with scholarly and theological interpretations of the Canaanite “genocide,” and its moral and ethical implications for the Christian.

Concluding that violence described in Joshua was not genocide, but the destruction, largely through dispossession, of an immoral culture, and there is no conflict in this issue for the Christian.

Introduction

Understanding Biblical violence, especially in Joshua’s conquest narrative, is a difficult task. Some use it to dismiss the notion of God altogether. Richard Dawkins describes the God depicted in the Old Testament as “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.”[1]

As readers struggle to reconcile the “Yahweh of Armies” in the Old Testament with Jesus the lamb in the New Testament, they apply different interpretive schemas to the Joshua narrative. Some assume intertestamental discontinuity, others read violent rhetoric as a boundary defining sociological device,[2] others use it to derive a “Just War” doctrine.[3] Calvin did not see Joshua as a paradigm for “Christian” warfare, suggesting if not for the “command of God” it was an atrocity.[4]

While acknowledging the work of scholars who argue for an ahistorical interpretation of the conquest account,[5] this piece considers the violence as written, that it occurred as described against the backdrop of Deuteronomic commands to occupy the Promised Land. The question of historical veracity is secondary to this discussion[6] and will only be discussed as it relates to the interpretation of violence in the narrative. This seems the most pastorally valuable approach, as the narrative’s affirmation of violence presents a moral dilemma for the Christian. If we can reconcile ourselves to the notion of actual violence, it becomes easier to justify its use as literary or sociological tool.

Violence in (and around) Joshua

The violent events in Joshua, including the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6:20-21), Ai (Joshua 8:21-26), and Southern and Northern Canaan (Joshua 10-11), are the culmination of God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 12, 15), and subsequent commands regarding the land throughout the Pentateuch (eg Exodus 23:23-30; Deuteronomy 6:10-19; 7:1-6, 20). The Joshua narrative is framed as a sequel to the Pentateuch through the repetition of the Deuteronomic account of Joshua taking over from Moses (Deuteronomy 31:23, 34:9, Joshua 1).

We read disturbing accounts of Israelites exterminating cities (Joshua 8:24-26, Joshua 11:10-11), with the Lord hardening Canaanite hearts to prevent their retreat (Joshua 11:20). Yahweh participates in warfare, toppling city walls (Joshua 6) and hurling hailstones from the sky (Joshua 10:11).

The mandated annihilation of the Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) contrasted the way Israel was to treat other conquered people (Deuteronomy 20:1-16). Israel was to practice חרם (herem).[7]

The “completely destruction” of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:17) was not without reason. They were wicked. Leviticus 18 instructs Israel not to behave like the Canaanites. The list of prohibitions includes child sacrifice, incest, and bestiality, finds a corollary in Canaanite culture. If Israel failed to stamp the Canaanites out they would be led astray (Deuteronomy 20:18), and would face their own cursed expulsion from the land (Deuteronomy 28:25-68). The Canaanites were forewarned of Israel’s impending arrival, and some chose to “melt away” (Joshua 2:9, 24), Millar argues that the “whole world” was watching Israel’s journey with God (Deuteronomy 2:25)[8] – the nomadic occupants of the land had ample time to escape.

At the heart of moral objections to God’s command of “genocide” is the assumption they involved the murder of innocents. The commands themselves are Biblically framed as God’s judgment on the wicked. Canaanite culture was seeped in immorality (Deuteronomy 9:4, Deuteronomy 18:12, Leviticus 18:24-25), the people “hate God” (Deuteronomy 7:10). God’s promise to Abraham came with a four-generation caveat on the basis that the iniquity of the occupants had not yet reached its full measure (Genesis 15:13).

Two seemingly contradictory notions operate regarding the occupants of the land. Israel is to devote those they find to destruction, but the occupants will be driven out (Exodus 23:27-33, 24:34, 33:2, 33:52, Leviticus 18:24, 20:23 Numbers 21:32, 33:52, Deuteronomy 4:38, 6:19, 9:3-5, 11:23, 12:29, 18:12, 33:27). Removal from homelands was a common method of destroying ancient cultures.[9]

This apparent paradox is resolved for us in the case of the Anakites, who were totally destroyed in the Promised Land, but survived in other nations (Joshua 11:21-22). This is not genocide.

The potential injustice is not the punishment of the Canaanites, but the mercy shown to Israel, whose continued occupation of the land depends on obedience (Leviticus 18:28, Deuteronomy 28:36, 63-64, 29:27-28, 30:17-18), they too faced חרם for disobedience (Joshua 7:11).

Understanding חרם in the Promised Land

The interpretation of חרם is controversial. Von Rad (1965) identified it as an integral part of “holy war.”[10] Longman (2003) calls it the climactic aspect of divine warfare.[11] He ties obedience with success in battle against strong enemies, and failure against weak – citing victory in Jericho (Joshua 6:21), and failure in Ai (after Achan’s sin) as didactic moments.[12] Crouch (2009) interprets the command as a socio-rhetorical device brought about as a response to foreign threats.[13]

Rowlett (1996) frames the discussion on חרם and “holy war” at length, concluding that there is nothing culturally unique in Bible’s presentation of divine participation in written accounts of warfare.[14] Lilley (1983) argues that for theocratic Israel all war was “holy,” as was the case for many ancient societies.[15]

Millar (1998) argues for a theological understanding of חרם,[16] he interprets commands to violently dispossess the Canaanites as rabbinic hyperbole,[17] not about warfare, but the need to remove their influence,[18] dismantling the nation.[19] He acknowledges that the command (Deuteronomy 20) is “startlingly literal” – but suggests that the instructions are not simply about military victory but the annihilation of a culture.[20]

A study of Deuteronomy 7 leads to this conclusion. God says he will drive the nations out ahead of them (Deuteronomy 7:1), that the Israelites are to “completely destroy them” (Deuteronomy 7:2), but then provides instructions for living with survivors (Deuteronomy 7:3-5). This would suggest genocide is not the intention, but rather a destruction of Canaanite identity.[21]

Violence in Joshua: A question of discontinuity

In order to reconcile the “immoral” commands and actions God justifies in the Old Testament some scholars, like Seibert (2009), require a separation of the “textual God” and the “actual God”.[22] Cowles (2003) suggests the חרם order came from Satan and was mistakenly applied to Yahweh through Israel’s primitive theology.[23]

These arguments suggest a discontinuity between Yahweh’s Old Testament commands, and Jesus’ words in the New (Matthew 5-7). Death is the punishment for sin (Romans 6:23). It is not out of character for God to be acting as judge over the Canaanites.

Craigie (1978) argues that the violent account was not produced by “barbarous times.”[24] He argues this narrative is pivotal to the Old Testament,[25] and that New Testament writers affirm the Old Testament’s authority.[26]

Violence in Joshua: A question of sociology

Rowlett (1996) and the “German school” require a sociological reading of Joshua’s violent rhetoric at the expense of historical truth, comparing Joshua to Shakespeare.[27] Von Rad (1957) suggests that commands to avoid Canaanite cultic practices follow a long history of Israel “going to school with Canaan.”[28]

Brueggemann (2009) argues against a historical-critical study of Joshua, suggesting that its picture of history is subjective[29] and that the story should be considered sociologically and literarily.[30] His view is that Joshua was both identity building for an oppressed people,[31] and the divine sanction of a new social possibility.[32] Brueggemann accepts that God mandated actual historical violence as “a tightly circumscribed in the interest of a serious social experiment” to end dominion and foster an egalitarian society.[33]

Rowlett’s reading of Joshua in the light of a “thinly veiled Josiah provides” insight into the use of conquest rhetoric similar to surrounding nations in order to develop Israel’s national identity.[34] One may dismiss Rowlett’s conclusions on historical veracity while recognising that the narrative had an identity developing function.

Violence in Joshua: A question of history

Questions have been raised regarding the historicity of events in Joshua and the manner in which the Israelite nation emerged. Noth (1960) argues that Old Testament historical accounts are vieldeutig (capable of more than one meaning).[35] Gard (2003) highlights the divergent interpretations of this violence – after Von Rad (1965) suggested that “holy war” was a product of late theological interpretation of history.[36]

Conversely, Gard’s study of ancient warfare led him to interpret the violence is representative of historical events.[37] Craigie (1978) argues that the violence is historical and essential for establishing a nation in a hostile environment. Goetz (1975) suggests a Utopian vision required a clean slate.[38] Establishing a nation was the purpose of Yahweh’s intervention in history.[39]

Violence in Joshua: A question of theology

Woudstra (1981), like Millar, argues the purpose of the violence in Joshua is theological, suggesting “all dualism between faith and history, and between theology and exegesis should be avoided,” and interpretation should flow from a base of Christian theism, not literature, objective history,[40] or sociology (as advocated by Brueggemann[41]).

Woudstra identifies a schism between those who construct hypothesis on the assumption that God’s intervention in history, and those who assume none.[42] Historical interpretations derived through the latter category will inevitably produce theologically anemic results.

Violence and God: A question of morality

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”- Socrates, Euthyphro, 399BC

This Euthyphro dilemma is significant moral question for Christians responding to God’s violent actions. Divine special pleading is not required to justify these actions. The Biblical account leaves no room to question the morality of God’s actions, they are affirmed throughout as just. While one might dismiss the text, one cannot argue that God’s actions are immoral on the basis of the written account.

Goetz (1975) suggests the framework that all deserve death, with mercy an act of grace allowed Calvin to dismiss any analysis of God’s morality vis-à-vis the Canaanite situation “out of order.”[43] Calvin argues it is God’s decision who deserves death, and at what point.[44]

Wright (2004) argues the conquest was a limited event,[45] employing conventional warfare rhetoric, described as an act of God’s punishment, with a promise of equal treatment for Israel in response to disobedience, and that the conquest anticipated the final judgment.[46]

The utilitarian use of violence is not morally normative for the Christian. Neither is all violence necessarily evil.[47] Joshua’s violence serves to fulfill God’s promise to establish a nation. The atonement pivots on an act of violence, which has implications in determining the permissibility of violence.[48] Goetz suggests that the cross should be understood as the focal point of rage between humanity and God.[49] Mouw (2003) concludes Christians are to suffer violence, not enact it.[50]

Rowlett, while arguing for a non-interventionist understanding of Joshua identifies a conundrum for the Christian pacifist – “placing emphasis on divine involvement in conquest stories, rather than human agency, involves the deity in complicity with violence.[51] Syllogistically, if Yahweh is perfect and just (Deuteronomy 32:4), and complicit with violence, then violence can be just. Furthermore, Jesus simultaneously affirms peacemakers, and the Old Testament (Matthew 5:9,17). Questioning the morality of God’s dispensation of justice in the Old Testament must also raise questions about the morality of his right to judge.

We have rejected both the views of those who see discontinuity between the God who destroyed nations and humbled himself to a violent death, and non-interventionist views of violent accounts. So far as the New Atheists are concerned, interpreting the “God of the Old Testament” without the external criterion of the teaching of Jesus may indeed prove troubling,[52] but in this light Christians can rightly affirm instead the “God of the whole Bible” as perfect, just, faithful and upright (Deuteronomy 32:4).


[1] Dawkins, R, The God Delusion, (London:Bantam), 2006, p 31, “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.”

[2] Rowlett, L.L, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence: A new historicist analysis, (Sheffield:Sheffield Academic Press), 1996, pg 181

[3] Boettner, L, ‘What the Old Testament Teaches Concerning War,’ The Christian Attitude Towards War, (New Jersey:Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 3rd Edition, 1985, pp 12-17

[4] Goetz, R, ‘Joshua, Calvin and Genocide,’ Theology Today - Vol 32, No. 3 - October 1975, p 264

[5] Dever, W.G, Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From, (WmB Eerdmans:Michigan), 2003, pp 37-48

[6] Wright, C.J.H, ‘What about the Canaanites?,’ Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Leicester:InterVarsity Press), 2004 pp 472-473

[7] חרם (herem) : To devote or consecrate to destruction.

[8] Millar, J.G, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, (Leicester:Apollos), p 149

[9] Ahlstrom, G.W, The History of Ancient Palestine (Minneapolis: Ahlstrom, G. (1993). The History of Ancient Palestine. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.Fortress Press), 1993, p 601

[10] Von Rad, G. Der Heilige Krieg im alten Israel, (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 1965

[11] Longman III, T, ‘The Case for Spiritual Continuity,’ Show Them No Mercy: 4 views on God and the Canaanite Genocide, (Michigan:Grand Rapids) 2003, pg 172

[12] ibid, pg 173

[13] Crouch, C.L, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in the Light of Cosmology and History, (Berlin:Walter De Gruyter GmbH and Co), 2009, pg 183

[14] Rowlett, ‘Divine Warfare,’ Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence, pg 65

[15] Lilley, J.P.U, ‘Understanding the Herem’, Tyndale Bulletin, 44 no 1 My 1993, p 169-177, cf Crouch, C.L, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East, pg 189

[16] Millar, J.G, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy, p 156

[17] ibid

[18] ibid, p 158

[19] ibid, p 159, “This is theological preaching, urging Israel on to wholehearted obedience. In this context we should expect some hyperbole, at least,”

[20] ibid, p 159

[21] ibid, “Throughout this chapter, it is clear that the Mosaic Preaching is concerned to bring the Israelites to the conviction that shattering the structures of Canaanite society is a theological necessity. This is expressed not in terms of driving out or dispossessing the Canaanites, but of destroying them.”

[22] Seibert, E.A, Disturbing Divine Behaviour: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, (Minneapolis:Fortress Press), 2009, pp 169-182

[23] Cowles, C.S, ‘The Case for Radical Discontinuity,’ Show Them No Mercy, 2003, p 40.

[24] Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Oregon:Wipf and Stock), 2002 [orig. 1978], pp 34-35

[25] ibid, pp 36-37

[26] ibid, pp  37-38

[27] Rowlett, op. cit, p 163

[28] Von Rad, G, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s historical traditions, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, 2001 edition), 1957, pp 24-25

[29] Brueggemann, W, Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualising the Book of Joshua, (Colorado Springs:Paternoster Press) p. X

[30] ibid p. 4

[31] ibid, p. 26

[32] ibid, p. 30

[33] ibid, p. 39

[34] Rowlett, op. cit, p 181-182

[35] Noth, M, The History of Israel, translated by Stanley Godman, (New York: Harper & Row) 1960, pp. 48-49

[36] Von Rad, G. Der Heilige Krieg im alten Israel, (Gottingen:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 1965, pg 18, cf. Gard, D.L, ‘The Case for Eschatological Continuity,’ Show Them No Mercy, 2003, p 119

[37] Gard, D.L, op cit, p. 119

[38] Goetz, op. cit. p 273, “Utopian revolution without extermination must degenerate into mere reform-and mere reform compromises with the evil it seeks to redress.”

[39] Craigie, P, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, pp 69-74

[40] Woudstra, M.H, The Book of Joshua, (Grand Rapids:Wm B Eerdmans), 1981, p. 21

[41] Brueggemann, op. cit, p. 3

[42] Woudstra, M.H, op. cit, p. 19

[43] Goetz, R, ‘Joshua, Calvin and Genocide,’ Theology Today, Vol 32. No 3, October, 1975, p 266

[44] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua. Trans. Beveridge, H (Grand Rapids:Wm B Eerdmans), 1949, p 163, “There is no more ground for obloquy against him than there is against those who pronounce sentence on criminals. Even though in our judgment, children and many women were without blame, let us remember that the judgment-seat of heaven is not subject to our laws… Certainly any man who will thoroughly examine himself, will find that he is deserving of a hundred deaths. Why, then, should not the Lord perceive just ground for one death in any infant which has passed from its mother’s womb? In vain shall we murmur or make noisy complaint, that he has doomed the whole offspring of an accursed race to the same destruction; the potter will nevertheless have absolute power over his own vessels, or rather over his own clay.”

[45] ie. they were not normative of the Old Testament or Israel’s approach to its neighbours

[46] Wright, C.J.H, ‘What about the Canaanites?,’ Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (Leicester:InterVarsity Press), 2004

[47] As Christian pacifists are wont to do – for example Millbank, J, ‘Violence: Double Passivity,’ Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice and Theology, edited by Chase, K.R and Jacobs, A. (Michigan: Brazos Press), 2003, p 183

[48] Mouw, R.J, ‘Violence and the Atonement,’ Must Christianity Be Violent?, 2003, p 163
“If it is true, as reformed theology has put it, that the transaction of the cross necessarily required that Christ experience the wrath of the Father, then Reformed thought does indeed insist that violence is an essential feature of the atoning sacrifice of Christ – an insistence, they might go on to point out that has clear implications for questions about the permissibility of violent activity.”

[49] Goetz, op. cit. pg 274, “The cross not only is the focal point of divine wrath against us; it is also the focal point of human rage against God. The human comedy has stored up a reciprocity of outrage that only the trial and death of one who was both the son of God and the son of man can suffice.”

[50] ibid, pp 165-166

[51] Rowlett, Joshua and the Rhetoric of Violence, pg 67

[52] McGrath, A, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, (London: SPCK), 2007, pp 58-59