How are we to understand the Israelites being commanded to wipe out all the Canaanites in Deuteronomy and Joshua? What do we make of the various Psalms that call down curses on the enemies of the writers and God? Perhaps, like me you are troubled by these things (and others) in the Bible. Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, point to these things as evidence for the moral corruption of God (who they believe is really a fiction). Christians come under attack for their beliefs in a God, whom some describe as a moral monster. Some would say how can Christians criticise the recent actions of the IS in Iraq or Syria, when the Old Testament provides evidence of God’s people doing similar things, and at the behest of God?
Let me say that this isn’t really the atheist’s problem—this is a problem that the Jews and the Christians need to deal with. For the atheist, the problem is not with God, for he/she/it doesn’t actually exist, but with the people who claim to believe in God. Their criticism is fundamentally toward religious people justifying their immoral behaviours in the name of an imaginary divine being. However, for the Christian who believes that God is real, that he has revealed himself to people, and that he is involved in human history—there are real issues to consider when it comes to trusting that God is morally pure. This is an issue that I’m keen to explore further.
In considering this matter, I’ve recently read a brief book by G.K. Beale, called The morality of God in the Old Testament. The book focuses on the commands of God to destroy every man, woman and child of the Canaanites (e.g.. Deuteronomy 20:10-18) and also on the imprecatory Psalms (e.g.. Psalms 7; 35; 55; 58; 68; 79; 109; 137) which call upon God to judge and destroy his enemies.
Beale explores various proposed solutions to deal with the difficulties raised by these passages. First, he describes how people argue that wartime ethics differ from peacetime ethics. While this may be true, it doesn’t account for the commands to kill non-combatants. Secondly, he explores the suggestion that the command to kill women and children is not meant to be taken literally, but is a metaphoric way of describing a total victory over the Canaanites. Beale demonstrates that while there may be something in both these suggestions, neither adequately explain the texts.
Instead Beale offers a fivefold approach to engaging with these issues. His approach gives important nuance and perspective to interacting with the difficult moral issues of the Old Testament.
- God’s wiping out the wicked Canaanites as a demonstration of his justice;
- God’s extermination of the Canaanites as a purifying of uncleanness of the Promised Land as an Edenic sanctuary;
- God’s self-sufficiency and independence from creation;
- suspension of ethical obligation by typology and intrusion of final judgment;
- suspension of the law of neighbour love. (p33)
Beale argues that we need to recognise the uniqueness of the Canaan episode. It does not offer a paradigm for continued activity in the Old Testament, let alone the New Testament. Instead, it should be seen as a once-only, historic actioning of God’s redemption of Israel, as the nation enters into the land of promise. This salvation/judgment event is also to be understood as a type of what is to happen through Christ’s first and second coming.
There is more to his argument than this, but he demonstrates how it is important to allow Scripture to be understood in it’s full biblical context. The critiques of Dawkins and others show absolutely no understanding of the overall shape of the Bible or the saving purposes of God in the Old and New Testaments.
I still find the matters being described troubling, but no more so than the reality of death and the promise of eternal judgment for all who dismiss God. As a Christian I need to grapple with why God allows any suffering, evil or death, and especially with the moral rightness of God judging people for eternity. It’s sobering to remember how much my own moral failings corrupt my ability to recognise what is right and true and perfect. It’s totally presumptuous (and deluded) to think that I can stand morally superior to God, and judge him for his actions. This becomes clearest to me when I am reminded that God loved the world so much, that he sent his only Son, Jesus, to die in our place, so that all who trust in him will not perish but have everlasting life. Such is the moral character of God.