Monday, 9 January 2012

War in the Old Testament

What about the Canaanites?


Those of us who adhere to a classic form of belief in God — God is good, holy, loving, sovereign — have a problem: evil. Evil is a problem for any thinking Christian — a serious problem. Simply put: if God is good, we have to ask why there is evil. If God is sovereign, we have to ask why there is evil. And if God is good we have to ask if God is sovereign.

False Views

1. Setting the Two Testaments Against Each Other

This view goes back to Marcion, 2ndCentury:
‘All these nasty things happened in the OT, but now we are NT Christians we know God was never like that (though the primitive Israelites thought he was) or God has changed in the way he engages with us as seen in Jesus.’
This won’t do:
It is a caricature of the OT which has much to say about the love of God.
It is a caricature of the NT which has much to say about the judgement of God.
It caricatures Jesus and the NT writers who do not reject the OT but fulfil it.

Bono on OT vs. NT

There's nothing hippie about my picture of Christ. The Gospels paint a picture of a very demanding, sometimes divisive love, but love it is. I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery. The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that's why they're so relatable.
But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend.
When you're a child, you need clear directions and some strict rules.
But with Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.

OT vs. NT

There probably are some differences between the OT and the NT
But God is the same throughout the Bible
The New Covenant does not replace the Old Covenant, rather it fulfils it

2. The Israelites Misunderstood God

Israel did the violence and attributed their actions to God’s will. In other words, the ‘God told me to do it’ defence of the indefensible.
Alternatively God spoke the words as hyperbole but the Israelites took them literally e.g. ‘We’re going to kill the opposition’ (before a game of basketball).
This neatly gets God off the hook and the Israelites on it.
The problems are:
There is no hint anywhere that the conquest of Canaan was a ‘mistake’. In fact the opposite is true, the refusal of the Exodus generation to go ahead are acts of disobedience
All through the Bible the Promised Land is celebrated as just that – a fulfilled promise of God to his people.

3. It Should All Be Interpreted as an Allegory on Spiritual Warfare

To dilute the reality of the Canaanite conquest by spiritualising the whole event. The story becomes a reservoir of spiritual lessons:
Victory over spiritual enemies
Release from slavery to sin
Overcoming a wilderness experience
God fulfilling his promises
The arrival of Israel in Canaan is not an allegory but a historical narrative. ‘It was not allegorical Israelites who attacked or allegorical Canaanites who died.’ Chris Wright
 “There are days I wish,” he says, “this narrative were not in the Bible at all.” Wright’s approach is to examine this issue in the context of three biblical frameworks — frameworks that do not “explain away” but do “set in context.”
Framework of the OT story
‘Yahweh war’ not holy war
Unique event in history
Framework of God’s sovereign justice
Canaanites were sinful
This doesn’t mean Israel was altogether righteous
Framework of God’s plan of salvation
Blessing the Nations
The Nations will Praise God


It is hard to reach firm conclusions
Any easy answers in this area (or in the area of suffering/evil) will just sound pat
Is it possible that we aren’t able to comprehend this issue from God’s point of view? We are finite, He is infinite. We are limited, He is limitless…


C.J. Wright ‘The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith’ Zondervan 2008 (and available on Kindle)


Anonymous said...

"If God is sovereign, we have to ask why there is evil. And if God is good we have to ask if God is sovereign."

Because you're all too stupid to know what 'sovereign' means. Does a king control everything in his domain? He may punish evil doers but he cannot completely stop them from doing the evil, cannot prevent it entirely. Such micromanagement is impossible to him. To you a 'sovereign' means 'one who micromanages literally everything in the universe' but to a normal person 'sovereign' just means 'king' and there is your problem.

But as to the Caananite genocides, its obvious that the priests blamed on God what was their own idea as priests often do. Any view of scripture that would force people to believe God commanded genocide is just plain ignorant. Scripture is useful, not perfect. The famous passage by Paul saying all scripture is inspired and all that itself does not mention anything about it being inerrant or infallible, but only "profitable to" certain things -- in other words, useful but not perfect. There are intentional changes by scribes and there are error in transmission, and yes many of them DO affect the sense -- many of them are evil, like the Caananite genocides and Romans 9 -- just learn to accept the good and reject the bad. Interestingly enough in the 2nd century there were Christians who viewed it this way; in the Pseudo-Clementine literature Peter is represented as explaining a saying of Jesus 'be ye wise moneychangers' as meaning that there is true and false material in the scriptures and our job is to learn to tell the true coin from the counterfeit. That saying 'be ye wise moneychangers' interestingly enough was used quite often by the church fathers for centuries -- yet you've probably never heard of it.

Anonymous said...

"There is no hint anywhere that the conquest of Canaan was a ‘mistake’. In fact the opposite is true, the refusal of the Exodus generation to go ahead are acts of disobedience"

I don't recall anywhere in the prophets that chides the people for not murdering their neighbors.

When you say that scripture chides the people for not pulling the trigger, you are obviously referring to the political literature, to Samuel and Kings. Why would anyone be foolish enough as to put political literature on the same level as the prophets?

Anonymous said...

By the way, even if the God of the Old Testament had commanded the people to commit genocide -- the God of the New Testament would still make him look live a novice at evil. If you take the OT too seriously, then the God of the OT had thousands of people killed. But the God of the NT is going to have trillions of people broiled in hell for all eternity! (Hell in the sense of eternal punishment is a New Testament invention; you won't find it in the OT which in the end of Isaiah describes 'corpses' floating in fire, not conscious beings.)

The writer of Hebrews makes the comparison of the NT and OT gods explicit when he says in chapter 10:

He who broke Moses law died without mercy at the hand of two or three witnesses, but how much worse punishment do you think he is worthy who breaks the NT?

Hebrews is all about how the NT is a "better covenant built on better promises" -- but here, he lets the cat out of the bag that it is a worse covenant. At least under the OT, if you broke the Law, its God just had you killed. Under the NT, if you don't tow the orthodox line perfectly, the Almighty Pre-Cog will know, and Minority report your sorry self to hell forever and ever and ever and ever for a thought-crime. In other words, Marcion had it exactly backwards: compared to the NT god, the OT God is a saint!

DaveG said...

Interesting thoughts, though I'm not sure I can agree. It does, of course, depend on your view of the inspiration of scripture. I don't hold anything close to an Islamic view of dictation, but on the other hand I think God did make sure that the message(s) of scripture is one that reflects his nature. The human authors were allowed to express what they believed in the context of the culture of the time, and God overruled to make sure that what they wrote was helpful for teaching etc. And on that note, I actually prefer Peter's passage on scripture, as being more poetic, and encompassing more salvation history:
16 We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”a 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
19 And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
I hope that's helpful, Famillelagrise