The Bible Tells Me So Review: God Did What?!
This will probably be the longest blog post I write in this series, because the issue of violence in the Old Testament carried out in the name of God has been one that has plagued me for years. It caused me to fear the Bible, to question the nature of God, and live in the apprehension of one, hard question that I couldn’t shake: What if I just can’t stomach a God like that?
Ever since I read these stories for the first time, it has boggled my mind that so many faithful readers of scripture stand by these stories and insist on believing that they reflect the God of the Christian faith. When I truly read these stories and let them rest in my heart, I found that I just couldn’t grasp them in the way I was taught to grasp them.
These stories felt barbaric and archaic to me, so far removed from the picture of God that we see in the New Testament person of Jesus Christ. And they are supposed to be one and the same, are they not?
Reading how Peter Enns tackles these troublesome verses in The Bible Tells Me So was such a comforting experience for me. Here was a reading that was genuine, and did not attempt to gloss over these violent texts with an explanation that justifies God’s choices. Here was a reading I could believe.
Enns uses the most famous example of genocide in the Bible—the genocide of the Canaanites by Joshua and the Israelites—as an example for how to read such stories. He outlines the views on Canaan depicted in the Bible, beginning with the curse of Canaan that occurs in Genesis 6, and continuing with example of how the Canaanites seemed to be doomed for destruction every time they are mentioned in Genesis.
The next section proceeds to summarize in detail the gory details of the destruction that Joshua and the Israelites inflict on the Canaanites, including conquering thirty-one towns, beheading kings without mercy, and slaughtering surrendered enemies. This is all trotted out as the methodical fulfillment of the convenant God made with Abraham. Enns writes:
“Bottom line, the extermination of the Canaanites is not an afterthought. According to the Bible, Israel’s God planned it from the days of Noah and the flood, and he carried out the plan with bracing determination and precision, patiently encouraging and even training the troops to get it done.” (p. 40)
After laying the groundwork facts, Enns then goes on to outline several different approaches for how we can fit this story into the larger narrative of the Bible, and a God who in later OT passages and often in the NT is a God of peace and mercy who charges his followers with turning the other cheek when met with violence.
One argument that Enns lays out claims that God has a “nice side”, and that the compassion of God is the overriding theme of scripture. The destruction of Canaan is just an exception to the rule. And yet if that is your perspective, does it really justify that one instance of violence? If a man is benevolent his entire life, and in a moment of passion commits a murder, is that murder any less egregious because of his blameless life up to that point?
The most common way that people justify this story and others like it is to point out that the Canaanites deserved retribution because they had been living irredeemably wicked lives. God had to make an example of them and purge them from the land he had promised to Israel as a way of maintaining the purity of his chosen people and as a lesson for us about the seriousness of rebellion against him.
Ultimately, though, this argument also breaks down when you study scripture carefully and within the context of everything Enns has laid out about God’s covenant thus far. He writes:
“They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them.” (p. 51)
There was nothing special about the Canaanites themselves, and everything special about the particular land they occupied. We would be reading of God’s wrath if any other people group had settled there, and that group would have likewise been transformed in a scapegoat to justify the manner in which God fulfilled his covenant to the Israelites.
There is more. In the Old Testament narrative of Joshua’s conquest, there are instances when the Israelite army encounters towns of non-Canaanites. There is no indication that these towns are subject to the judgment of God in a manner similar to the Canaanite. Yet under God’s command, these people are to become slaves of the Israelites if they surrender. To be internally consistent in a “Canaanites are wicked” approach, you must also contend that it is God’s divine judgment to divide up innocents as spoils of war (For an example of such an occurrence, see Deuteronomy 20:10-15).
If we read the exact same stories in the Koran or any other religious text, we would denounce that god as utterly reprehensible, or at the very least archaic and irrelevant. Likewise, we must contort the biblical texts in order to defend God’s genocidal commands in our scriptural canon.
After laying out all the wrong ways to approach Old Testament violence, Enns spends his final sections of this chapter describing how we can apply an informed, holistic reading of these texts that takes cultural limitations into account.
We cannot pull these texts out of their historical context and treat them differently, despite being part of the canon of scripture. Enns writes:
“So much of Israel’s culture looks very similar to what we see elsewhere in the ancient world. Israel’s system of laws, worship practices, notions of kingship, style of poetry, attitudes toward women and slaves, ideas about how the cosmos was created, and on and on, were unquestionably shaped by its time and place—which is to say, Israel’s culture developed the way every other culture in the history of humanity developed: as part of a larger cultural environment.” (p. 56)
This larger cultural environment that Enns refers to is one in which you must conquer or be conquered, kill or be killed. It was a violent world in which mass slaughter was rampant, and a victory in battle was often attributed to the power of the god the conquerors believed in. Read in this light, it makes perfect sense that the story of Israel and its conquest of Canaan unfolded the way that it did.
Essentially, the Israelites wrote their own version of history that glorified the God they served and created an identity for themselves: God’s chosen people, inheritors of a land where they could establish themselves as a nation with roots. In the pages of the Old Testament, we see a perspective of God that is limited by the perspective of His chosen people. God let his children tell their own story about Him in a language they could understand, a language heavily influenced by their own cultural understanding.