Continued from “what about the canaanites”
What can you do about all the violence in the Old Testament? That is the question, and we are right to struggle with it. If it is hard sometimes to understand God in the midst of the things that happen in our own day or in our own lives, it is just as hard to understand why God said, did, and commanded some of the things recorded in the Old Testament.
There are various ways in which people try to lessen the difficulty, but we will limit ourselves to just three. Some people are happy to leave the problem in the Old Testament itself and imagine that the New Testament gives us a very different and “right” approach. Some people like to think that it was all a matter of mistaken zeal and primitive understanding of God on the part of the Israelites, and we can thankfully discern their mistakes, leave all that behind, and follow more enlightened ways. And there are those who simply let their feet float off the surface of the text out of the real world and into the much less troublesome world of spiritual allegories and nice moral lessons. But none of these, can really solve the problem and only end up in partial or distorted understanding of the Bible as a whole.
It’s an Old Testament Problem, Which the New Testament Puts Right
Possibly the easiest and most popular way out of the difficulty is simply to pit one Testament against the other. These things all happened in the Old Testament, but, thankfully, we are New Testament Christians and we now know either that God was really never like that (though the primitive Israelites imagined he was), or that God has radically changed the way he deals with us now that Jesus has come and shown us a better way and fuller revelation.
This kind of solution goes along with one of the commonest misconceptions of the Bible that exists among believers and unbelievers alike, namely, the assumption that the so-called God of the Old Testament was all fire and brimstone, war and vengeance, blood and punishment. The so-called God of the New Testament is much nicer altogether. Jesus (for the first time, on this view), shows us that God loves us and cares for us, pardons and forgives us, and calls on us to do likewise.
Through this process we get over our embarrassment with the Old Testament by turning in relief to the New Testament. Perhaps, we might think, God had to do some of that Old Testament stuff at the time, but Jesus has shown that he really prefers to do things differently now. So we allow our New Testament simply to cancel out the Old Testament and consign its most unpleasant parts to the dustbin of history (and theology).
This, however, simply will not do – for three reasons. First, because the Old Testament has as much to say about the love and compassion of God as the New Testament does. Second, because the New Testament has as much to say (and more in fact) about the anger and judgment of God as the Old does. Third, because Jesus and the writers of the New Testament never seem to be embarrassed by Old Testament stories, nor do they reject or even correct them (though they do move beyond them).
Let’s pick these up in turn. As we do, I think we will find that it is really a superficial and distorted view of the Bible to try to use the New Testament simply to reject the Old. Nevertheless, there are ways in which the New Testament calls us to go beyond the Old in the light of the coming of Christ and his life, teaching, death, and resurrection. But first, let’s correct the misunderstandings within this view.
The Old Testament and the Love of God
The popular idea (starkly summarized by the quotation from Richard Dawkins) that the so-called God of the Old Testament stands for unrelieved anger and violence ignores a massive amount of Old Testament teaching that seems never to have found its way into the popular consciousness, or seems to have been filtered out by the dominant prejudice. Here are just some examples.
Abraham, interceding with God on behalf of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, found God willing to be far more merciful than he expected, only too eager to spare whole cities for the sake of a few righteous – if only they could be found, which clearly they could not. Abraham’s confidence in God’s justice was matched by his awareness that the justice of God was infused with mercy (Gen. 18).
Moses, even in a narrative that speaks of God’s anger against his people, hears God declare his own name and character in these words:
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.
— Exodus 34:6 – 7
This is one of the earliest and also most pervasive definitions of the character of God in the Bible. And it shows clearly that the “weight” of God’s character is toward compassion, grace, and love. Love is “abounding”; anger and punishment are “slow”. Love is for thousands; punishment is for “three and four”. [ Note: “Thousands” here probably means “thousands of generations” as it clearly does in Deuteronomy 7:9-10. The contrast is between God’s faithful love that is virtually limitless as it flows through human history, and the temporal nature of his acts of judgment. Most Israelite families would have been three-generational and some would have four generations living together. When the head of a household sins (especially in idolatry, breaking the second commandment), the whole family is affected. God’s punishment similarly affects the whole family. This is a principle of divine judgment, not for human courts (see Deut. 24:16). ]
The psalmists knew full well the anger of God against the wicked, but they revel most in the compassion, forgiveness, love, grace, and generosity of God. Have those who think of the Old Testament God as all rage and violence ever read these texts?
The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
— Psalm 103:8 – 14
The LORD is good to all;
he has compassion on all he has made. . . .
The LORD is trustworthy in all his promises
and faithful in all he does. . . .
The LORD is righteous in all his ways
and faithful in all he does.
— Psalm 145:9, 13, 17
Jeremiah and Hosea, who both had uncompromising words to say about the anger of God against Israel’s wickedness, had even more moving words for the love of God that drew his people back into his warm embrace. They talk about the self-sacrificial love of God, willing to pay the cost of forgiveness and restoration.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
— Jeremiah 31:3
“Is not Ephraim my dear son,
the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I have great compassion for him,”
declares the LORD.
— Jeremiah 31:20
The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites.”
— Hosea 3:1
Ezekiel probably had the most sensationally severe portrait of Israel’s sin among all the prophets. But he balanced it with the most poignant evangelistic appeals for repentance, based on the loving heartbeat of God himself.
“As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”
— Ezekiel 33:11
Deuteronomy, the very book in which the conquest of the Canaanites is anticipated and commanded, also has some of the clearest teaching about the love of God, not only for his own people Israel (Deut. 7:8 – 9), but also in a universal sense for the needy (10:17 – 18).
So we cannot dismiss the problem just by saying that it’s typical of the hateful God of the Old Testament. For the Old Testament defines Yahweh as gracious and compassionate and not only teaches us about God’s forgiving love but even provides us with the vocabulary to understand and appeal to it.
The New Testament and the Wrath of God
We must turn to the other side of the coin, however. Is it true that the New Testament speaks only of a God of love? Are all concepts of divine wrath and punishment now superseded? Far from it.
The fact is that Jesus spoke more about hell than anybody else in the New Testament. “Hell” usually translates the Greek gehenna – a Jewish term for the burning rubbish dump outside Jerusalem. The word is only used twelve times, and eleven of them are in the Gospels spoken by Jesus as a metaphor for the fate of the unrepentant wicked. But Jesus also spoke the most sober warnings about the day of judgment (Matt. 10:15), eternal fire (25:41), terrible remorse (13:40 – 42), outer darkness (22:13), and tormenting imprisonment (18:34). This language comes from Jesus as the language of loving warning, but it shows how seriously he understood God’s anger against sin.
Outside the Gospels, other New Testament writers graphically describe God’s judgment as the terrifying context for understanding the good news of God’s redeeming love. Paul explains it in the devastating logic of Romans 1:18 – 2:16. James and Peter are both equally emphatic (James 2:13; 1 Peter 4:17; 2 Peter 2 – 3). And Revelation uses all the Old Testament imagery available to depict the final exposure, defeat, and destruction of all that is evil and of all who unrepentantly persist in doing evil. Indeed, if we are thinking about comparing the Old Testament and the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews compares God’s judgment with the punishments prescribed in the Old Testament law and says it will be much worse!
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think those deserve to be punished who have trampled the Son of God underfoot, who have treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who have insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
— Hebrews 10:26 – 31
So the idea that the New Testament has left behind some primitive perception of an angry Israelite deity for a more congenial view of a nice loving Christian God is simply false. Indeed, as John Wenham puts it, the New Testament goes beyond the mainly historical, “this-life” perspective of the Old Testament and speaks of God’s judgment mostly in terms of eternity.
It is fallacious to regard this as essentially an Old Testament problem, and to set the “bloodthirsty” Old Testament over against the “gentle” New Testament. Possibly the phenomenon is more crude in the Old Testament than in the New, but of the two the New Testament is the more terrible, for the Old Testament seldom speaks of anything beyond temporal judgments . . . whereas the Son of man in the Gospels pronounces eternal punishment.
The New Testament Accepts the Stories of the Old
A third reason why it won’t do to set the New Testament over against the Old (at least as regards the stories in the Old) is that the New Testament itself never does so. Of course, Jesus went beyond the Old Testament in his teaching. Yes, he did bring new wine that could not simply be contained in the old wineskins. But never did Jesus or any of the New Testament writers critique the words or actions of God in the Old Testament or suggest that the stories were immoral in their own context. On the contrary, even some of the horror stories are included in the lessons of faith in Hebrews 11 (a fact that does not whitewash evil actions done by some of them; people who are models of faith were also sinners and failures in many respects). Others are recalled as examples and warnings: the flood (Matt. 24:36 – 41; 2 Peter 3:3 – 7); Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:15, 11:23 – 24); Korah (Jude 11); the wilderness plagues (1 Cor. 10:6 – 10), and even the conquest itself (Heb. 11:31). In all these cases, the historical, earthly judgments of God in the Old Testament are used as case studies and warnings in relation to the even worse judgment to come. The New Testament also teaches us about the jealousy and vengeance of God (Rom. 12:19; 1 Cor. 10:22) and can utter the most solemn curses (1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:9).
So as we struggle to understand this problem, let’s at least agree that it will never be helpful to set the New Testament antagonistically against the Old. Admittedly we must take into account the historical dimension of God’s self-revelation. There are many ways in which we will find that the New Testament sets the Old Testament in a preliminary or provisional place as compared with the finality of what God said and did through Jesus Christ. But we cannot dodge difficult problems with a casual, “Oh, but that’s only in the Old Testament.” If we do, we will probably be guilty of misunderstanding not only the Old Testament but also the New Testament.
The Israelites Thought It Was What God Commanded, but They Were Wrong
Another way “around” the problem of the violence in the Old Testament is to dissociate God from it altogether. It was the Israelites themselves who attacked and drove out the Canaanites and then took over their land. This was a necessary action from their point of view, since they had to live somewhere and could hardly survive indefinitely in the wilderness. So either they conquered the Canaanites first, and then, naturally enough, they later rationalized it as the will of their God, Yahweh; or they believed in advance that it was the will and command of Yahweh that they should take such action. Either way, all the talk about “God commanding” the conquest comes from the Israelites’ own understanding, not actually from God himself. They did what they thought God had commanded – but they were wrong.
The neat thing about this “solution” is that we can now blame the Israelites for the slaughter of the Canaanites but not blame God. God is implicated only by the Israelites, but we need not accept their interpretation.
At first sight this approach appears to have some biblical support. There are certainly cases in the Old Testament where people thought something was what God wanted and then found out later they were mistaken. Sometimes this may be rather ambiguous in the text – as, for example, when Moses killed the Egyptian, probably thinking it was the right thing to do, and ended up fleeing for his life. But sometimes God explicitly corrects a wrong interpretation of his mind – as, for example, when Nathan told David that God was happy for him to build a temple, only to have God correct him that same night (2 Sam. 7:1 – 4). Furthermore, there are examples in the Old Testament where God rebukes excessive violence, even when the one doing it thought he was acting on God’s command. Jehu, for example, was anointed by Elisha with a commission to destroy the apostate house of Ahab and Jezebel (2 Kings 9:6 – 10). He turned it into a bloodbath and exterminated all the priests of Baal. Later, Hosea condemned this action (Hos. 1:4).
So we might think there is some justification for this view – blame the Israelites and keep God’s hands clean.
But again, this really won’t work. First, when people did get it wrong (as in the isolated cases mentioned above), the Old Testament does include the record of God correcting the misinterpretation of his will. If the conquest of Canaan had actually been such a massive and mistaken misinterpretation of God’s will, we should surely read some corrective word later in the Scriptures – if not within the Old Testament itself (where the other corrections occur), then at least in the New. But we find none. There is no hint anywhere in the Bible that the Israelites took the land of Canaan on the basis of a mistaken belief in God’s will. On the contrary, the refusal of the exodus generation to go ahead and do it (in the great rebellion at Kadesh Barnea in Numbers 14), and the failure of the following generations to complete the task properly, are condemned as disobedience to God’s will (Ps. 106:24 – 35).
But the main problem with this view is that everywhere else in the Bible the conquest is never explained away as a colossal mistake; on the contrary, it is anticipated, commanded, achieved, and remembered as something that accomplished God’s will.
God promised Abraham that he would give the land of Canaan to his descendants (Gen. 15:18 – 21). So the conquest is linked to the Abrahamic covenant. God promised the Israelites in Egypt that he would not only rescue them out of that oppression but also bring them into the land promised to Abraham (Ex. 6:6 – 8). So the conquest is linked to the exodus redemption. God gave Israel promises and warnings about their future life in the land, depending on their response to his law (see Deuteronomy). So the conquest is linked to the Sinai covenant.
The book of Joshua finishes the story of the conquest by saying that it was Yahweh himself who fought for the Israelites and gave them the land (Josh. 23:3 – 5, 9 – 10). Psalmists affirm that the conquest was not really the work of human hands at all, but the power of God (Ps. 44:1 – 3). Prophets saw the conquest as one of the great acts of God and used it to accuse Israel of ingratitude (e.g., Amos. 2:9) or to woo Israel back to a restored covenant relationship with God (e.g., Hos. 2:14 – 15). Even in the New Testament both Stephen and Paul refer to the conquest simply as an act of God’s sovereignty (Acts 7:45; 13:19).
So the conquest is placed firmly within the whole unfolding plan of God in the Bible.
We cannot simply say that Moses and Joshua made a sincere but serious error of judgment in thinking (wrongly) that the attack on Canaan was a matter of obedience to God’s command, and then imagining that their success in the conquest was the victory of God himself. For if they were so misguided about it, then so were all the other Old Testament speakers and writers who describe it in the same way. You simply can’t surgically remove the conquest alone from the great sweep of Bible history, saying that it was merely the bloody actions of deluded warriors, while leaving all the rest of the story intact within the sovereign will of God. At least, you can’t if you treat the Bible seriously as a whole.
It Is All Meant as an Allegory of Spiritual Warfare
Finally, we can always resort to a piece of fancy footwork that many preachers use to dodge the offence of the Old Testament. To be honest, many of us do the same when reading the Old Testament by ourselves or in a Bible study group. You can always get a spiritual lesson out of it somewhere. The Old Testament is simply there as a big storybook from which we are meant to learn spiritual truths, perhaps about Jesus, or about heaven, or about the Christian life. For example, the exodus can be a picture of God releasing us from the slavery of sin, the wilderness a picture of the trials and temptations of our spiritual pilgrimage, and the conquest a picture of our battle with Satan and the spiritual hosts of darkness. In this way, the language of “conquering the land”, “drawing swords”, and “tearing down strongholds” can all be sanitized for spiritual exhortation and even for writing vigorous songs with a good marching beat.
Now I don’t want to dismiss such spiritualizing out of hand. Clearly the Bible itself makes use of its own great narratives for the purpose of warning, encouragement, challenge, and hope. Yes, the defeat of God’s enemies is certainly used, in both Testaments, to strengthen believers in the face of hostility – human or satanic. Moreover, the New Testament uses the language of Old Testament warfare to describe the ultimate victory of God through Christ, both through his cross and resurrection and in his final cosmic reign. In addition, the destruction of the Canaanites is used in the Bible as one of several historical signposts pointing to the terrible final judgment. However, we must remember that this kind of spiritual use of Old Testament narratives is secondary and derivative. Their primary form is simply historical narrative. In other words, we are not really dealing with allegory here at all.
An allegory is a totally fictional narrative, deliberately and consciously created and written for the primary purpose of illustrating some spiritual truth or truths. The spiritual truth is primary, and the narrative content of the allegory is secondary. When you read Pilgrim’s Progress, you know that John Bunyan is teaching you spiritual lessons about the “journey” of the Christian life, that the story itself comes entirely from his imagination, and that it breaks even the possibilities of any normal factual history. But as we read the down-to-earth narratives of the conquest of the Israelites over the Canaanites, we know we are not reading allegory but an unvarnished account that the writer asks the reader to receive as a portrait of events that took place on the soil of Palestine. The people in the stories are not allegorical fictions but are presented as historical. It was not allegorical Israelites who attacked or allegorical Canaanites who died.
So whatever spiritual lessons we may choose to draw from the narratives of the conquest (and there are plenty, as the Bible shows), we are still left with the earthy realism of the story itself, and we need better ways of looking at the problem it creates in our minds.
In the next post we will see a more plausible explanation