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Show Them No Mercy: Book Review

Continuing our love affair with the Zondervan Counterpoints series, we picked up three new books (for the price of 2!) at Koorong a few weeks ago: 4 Views of Salvation in a Pluralistic World, 4 Views of Moving beyond the Bible to Theology and Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide. I read ‘Show Them No Mercy’ this week.

Here’s the deal: God tells his people to show no mercy to various nations when they drive them out of the Promised Land. It comes up in Deut 7, Deut 20 and then gets repeated at various points. Sometimes the people obey, sometimes they don’t and God’s responses to this appear to be inconsistent at times. But even more problematic is the question of whether God endorses genocide. Or if he did at one point, does he still endorse it now? Is ‘holy war’ justified?

This is more than an academic argument for four reasons:

  1. Genocide continues to be real in our world today. The Holocaust continues to loom large in public space, even 65 years on. But there are modern examples too – Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo.
  2. Since 9/11, the language of holy war is real and political. It seems that the commands in the Old Testament are no different from what Muslim extremists purport today. Is there any difference?
  3. It’s a big apologetic question. The Canaanite genocide is a favourite of atheists to show that God is immoral. How do we answer that as Christians? And how do we come to terms with it ourselves?
  4. It raises the question of the relevance of the Old Testament. What do we do with passages like this that are so repulsive? Can we dismiss this? And if not, how do we reconcile them with the New Testament?

The four contributors are CS Cowles, Eugene H Merrill, Daniel L Gard and Tremper Longman III. They all write an essay outlining their view and then the other three each critique it. None of them think that holy war is justified today. Here’s a brief outline of what they each argued and what I found persuasive or weak.

Cowles

argues that God is most fully revealed in Jesus. So if we’re going to understand the Old Testament God, we need to do it by looking at Jesus. He sees Jesus as non-violent and one who doesn’t punish. Because of this, we need to see that the God of the Canaanite genocide is not the God of the New Testament. Either Joshua misunderstood God’s instructions or the Bible writers accidentally attributed to God characteristics that the should have attributed to Satan.

Pro: The great strength of Cowles’ argument is that he feels very deeply the horror of genocide. He is by far the most compassionate of the four authors and the one who portrays the strongest conviction that modern day genocide is evil. I also liked his determination to understand the Old Testament through Jesus, though I think he overplays it.

Con: Cowles’ depiction of Jesus is deficient – he avoids the passages in Revelation that portray Jesus as a warrior for example. He also raises serious questions about the creditability of the Old Testament witness, like the Old Testament somehow gets God wrong – which ends up making the Old Testament not inspired or not scripture.

Merrill

does not believe that genocide is intrinsically evil – because it is commissioned by God it can’t be. He points out, though, that it isn’t primarily human slaughter which is on view but God’s victory over the false gods of the other nations. He sees the Canaanite genocide as deicide rather than homicide. He gives a number of reasons for why it is justified: because it was a practical necessity (so that the people wouldn’t live alongside pagan nations and be lured into their ways); it was part of God’s salvation strategy (giving the land entirely to the people); it projected his sovereignty and displayed his power and glory. While he doesn’t think these reasons apply to the church today, he does think they will apply at some point in the future: the millennium.

Pros: Merrill works hard to show that pagan nations worship gods that are opposed to the one true God and are counted with them. They are not amoral or innocent. He shows that God’s action towards the Canaanites was not unjust and thus is consistent with God’s character.

Cons: Even though Merrill’s point about deicide rather than homicide is a helpful one, he overstates it – there was still a massive loss of human life. Also, his view is largely based in a dispensationalist (similar to ‘Left Behind’) view of history. That’s not a view I subscribe to and without it, his argument falls apart so I didn’t find it very convincing. Sometimes Merrill’s categories are too neat and overlook inconsistencies in the text.

Gard

takes an eschatological (end times) view. He sees a shift in the Old Testament from talking about holy war as against physical enemies earlier on to taking on more cosmic proportions in Chronicles and the inter-testamental literature which is developed in the New Testament. As the Israelite state dissolves and the church becomes the people of God, there are no territorial or political boundaries on view. No human can impose holy war because it is only ever instituted by God and God is now apolitical. (He gives rulers a sword but only for justice, not for aggression.) So the war is spiritual rather than fleshly.

Pros: I think that Gard ends up in the right place. In contrast to Merrill, his focus is on the return of Christ rather than on a re-gathered Israel waging war.

Cons: I wasn’t convinced by Gard’s movement through the Old Testament. That’s partly because the whole Pharaoh and the Egyptians and the Red Sea is a very early account of holy war language and it’s described in cosmic proportions so it doesn’t seem to fit the idea that the cosmic stuff came later. He has some typology that seems pretty forced and because he sees the movement in the intertestamental period, he doesn’t really talk much about what difference the cross makes.

Longman

pretty much has the same conclusions as Gard, but his way of getting there is much more convincing. He was also the best structured and most lucid of the four writers, in my opinion. He draws together the best things about the other points and makes them coherent. Like Cowles, he is compassionate and focuses on christology; like Merrill he maintains the justice of God punishing those in rebellion against him; like Gard, he’s interested in the development of God’s action through the biblical narrative. Thus “the war against the Canaanites was was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to it climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgement.” Jesus fought the spiritual powers and authorities on the cross and he will finally put down all his enemies, both spiritual and physical when he returns. In the meantime, we are invited in places like Eph 6 and 2 Cor 10:3-5 to join in the former.

Conclusions

One question that remains outstanding from all four contributors is why the Canaanites were slaughtered when other (arguably equally evil nations, including Israel) were spared. You can go all Calvinistic if you want and I think there’s some merit to that. However, Longman maintains, rightly, I think, that this question is unanswered.

The thing I appreciated about this book was that it helped me to clarify not just what I think but how I think. Basically the last three writers all think that ‘holy war’ today is spiritual rather than physical – but they all get there different ways. Reading them, I realised how fuzzy my own ideas were. I had the spiritual rather than physical thing but wasn’t sure how exactly the NT related to the OT on this issue.

To answer the four issues I started with:

  1. Genocide is unacceptable in our world today. The ‘people of God’ nation-state no longer exists and the battle is spiritual, not fleshly.
  2. There are many similarities between Muslim holy war and the Old Testament. But one key difference is that God’s honor is the primary focus, not the vindication of his people. That’s the deicide vs homicide idea. God doesn’t fight against Israel’s enemies but his own – and in the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, that includes Israel. God’s honor trumps any people group.
  3. The apologetics must come back to an understanding of sin and God’s justice. If the people are innocent, then maybe you could start to build a case for God as immoral (although you’d hit a snag with the book of Job). But if they’re not innocent, then God is completely moral.
  4. It’s a false dichotomy to have a violent OT God and a mild NT God. The images of Jesus in Revelation just don’t let you get away with that. The better we understand the NT God, the less foreign the OT God will seem. We’ll see the OT God’s longsuffering in that he doesn’t kill all nations. And we’ll see the NT God’s commitment to justice in Jesus’ death on the cross and his return.

Categories: Bible Book God Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

5 replies

  1. I would probably write this pretty differently now, but I wrote an essay which drew on that book and a few other ideas at the start of the year (posted here). It’s an interesting book, which, if nothing else, presents interesting insights into the outworkings of different heremeneutics (with a dash of Marcionism for good luck).

    The Pentateuch does kind of make the point that the Canaanites weren’t just like anybody else – they were particularly abominable, and based on the conquest narrative they had plenty of time to leave the land (eg Rahab knew they were coming)…

    Gary Millar made a point about some of the language in Deuteronomy, that it may in fact be hyperbolic pre-war exhortation, and that it was never intended to be carried out as genocide per say, but rather Holy War with willing combatants from both sides… I don’t know if I buy that, but he supports it by the application of the commands, they never really get carried out properly across the promised land, and Israel is quite happy to accept surrender (Rahab and the Gibeonites (it is the Gibeonites isn’t it? I can’t be bothered looking it up).

  2. An interesting point about the advisability of obeying God when He told them to eradicate a tribe is illustrated in the story of Queen Esther. Haman was a descendant of Amalek who God had wanted to destroy. Had the Jewish people destroyed the Amalekites as God had wanted, then Haman would not have been alive and ready to wipe out the Jewish people.

    Life in the OT was different because when they were spiritually overtaken with evil, there was no way to heal them of it, as there is today via Jesus.

  3. Thanks Tamie, this is a very pertinent and important question. Nathan and I had quite a lively debate about it back when. As you point out, none of these views is without its problems. My key problem is with point 3 of your conclusion – the idea that God’s genocide is just because people are not innocent. That’s all very well, but leads to the conclusion that God is arbitrary – he ordered the slaughter of the non-innocent inhabitants of Canaan, but only the selective slaughter of the equally non-innocent inhabitants of Egypt (why only the first-born?) and no slaughter of the also non-innocent Hebrews – and so on ad infinitum. Also, his genocide was not limited to the adults, it included the infants and even the sheep. This suggests that what is being described is not an act of justice, it’s an act of sacrifice. I remember reading that one of the possible translations of the term used to describe God’s command to Joshua to destroy is that it means “devoted to the Lord through destruction” – could be talking through my hat about that though. Based purely on your description (not having read the book) I think this leaves me closer to Cowles – in the New Testament, the symbolism of the Old is reinvented in a new, inclusive and non-nationalistic way and the two are not consistent in the way you define consistency.

  4. Thanks for this Tamie. I haven’t read the book. As far as I can tell, the conquest of Canaan, and associated destruction of its inhabitants and their Gods, always seems inexorably tied with concepts of purity within God’s people (eg. Deut 20:18). This is generally the motivation given for the complete obliviation of Canaanite people and culture, and impurity is the consequence when the israelites fail.

    Given this, is it reasonable to interpret these passages in a less nationalistic, and more religious context? particularly bearing in mind that Israel at this time included ethnic Egyptians (Ex 12:38, for example), and that (as mentioned above) Rahab and the Gibeonites were spared.

    Just a thought….

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