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, filiacidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
~ Richard Dawkins
This statement has become a battle cry for the new atheist movement. And honestly, when it comes to the conquest of the Canaanites, most Christians are left simply wondering how our good God could order the destruction of every man, woman and child in much of the land.
Yeah, we throw out statements like, “But He knew what the Israelites would do, and He needed to keep them ‘pure’.” But isn’t that the very definition of ethnic cleansing?
So what’s a Christian to do with the Yahweh of the Old Testament?
Three Dead Ends
Whether or not we can completely answer these questions, we must first address the ways that we (incorrectly) rationalize the issue.
- It’s an Old Testament Problem, Which the New Testament Puts Right
Sometimes we paint a picture of an Old Testament God as being angry, but the problem with this view is that He actually shows up more as a loving and sacrificial God throughout the Scriptures. Not to mention that the New Testament refers to and accepts the stories of the Old. It would be inconsistent to write it off as a problem that’s later corrected.
- The Israelites Thought It Was What God Commanded, but They Were Wrong
Aside from the fact that the Scriptures never show God’s correction to what we would call a mistake, it’s referred to as an act that accomplished His will of the Israelites obtaining the land promised to Abraham. If they misinterpreted the direction from God, there would’ve certainly been some sort of judgement for a mistake of that magnitude.
- It Is All Meant as an Allegory of Spiritual Warfare
This one actually hits at one of my hermeneutical pet peeves… the allegorizing of Scripture. The passages in which these records occur are historical narrative documents. It’s a reporting of the events as they happened. It means what it says.
As it relates to Bible interpretation, context is everything. One of the things that I love most about Wright’s book is how he brings context to help us understand.
- The Framework of the Old Testament Story
One thing that we need to understand is that at any given time, God would need to work through cultural understanding. The kind of warfare that was engaged in was not uncommon for the period during which it occurred. If God told us to do something today that didn’t fit within our understanding of how things happen, then we’d likely dismiss it completely. Like it or not, the act was historically relevant, and unique in the Scriptures to that conquest.
- The Framework of God’s Sovereign Justice
This hits at the idea of ethnic cleaning (genocide). One thing that the Bible is very clear about is that it had nothing to do with racial superiority, but more to do with judgement for wickedness. It’s also important to point out that this doesn’t mean (nor does Scripture imply) that the Israelites were more righteous than anyone else.
- The Framework of God’s Plan of Salvation
Finally, the conquests must be kept within the context of the overall message of the Bible… God’s plan of redeeming all nations. God’s heart is against violence that is the result of wickedness, and He longs for redemption of all of humanity.
While clearing up the misconceptions and establishing good framework may not completely answer all the ‘whys’ we have about the issue of the Canaanites, it certainly opens us up to the idea that we don’t serve a God that’s described the way Dawkins describes Him.