Note: To see a shorter version of this post, the reader is invited to explore the other blogsite at – http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2016/11/part-one-why-god-is-still-good-god-in.html
Whenever one reads through the narratives of Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges, do the Divine commands for the Hebrews to destroy the Canaanites undermine the goodness of God? The so-called “New Atheists” (typified by such authors as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) raise such questions in their attempt to demonstrate not only the alleged irrationality, but also the immorality of believing in the Christian God. Their indictments of God being a “Moral Monster” and the immorality of the biblical text justifying such practices as “ethnic-cleansing” and “genocide” comprise the basis of their criticisms. The point of today’s post and the next couple is to better grasp the Biblical texts that portray Yahweh commanding the Hebrews to exercise Holy War on the Canaanites, as well as to determine the plausibility of the New Atheists’ criticisms.
How does one address the criticisms of God being a moral Monster in the Bible?
A. First and foremost, one needs to understand not only understand God’s commands to “wipe-out” the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua, but also in the wider context of the other Old Testament literature preceding and following Joshua (namely the books of Genesis to Deuteronomy and the book of Judges).
B. Second, after surveying the wider canonical context in which Joshua occurs, we will then consider other ancient literary works written in the time frame of Joshua. The wider region of Canaan and the surrounding cultures of the ancient world in the Old Testament is referred to as the “Ancient Near East” (or abbreviated “ANE”). Note: Click on the link to the map below (from the site: http://www.bible-history.com/geography/maps/map_ancient_near_east.html ).
With proper attention to the wider context of Joshua, the Old Testament and relevant ANE literature (ancient extra-biblical texts composed in the same era as Joshua), we can better understand the language of the conquests.
C. Following the survey of the relevant Biblical texts and related issues, we can then offer an apologetic to demonstrate why God is still a Good God in light of the commands we find in Joshua, but also why the New Atheist’s accusations are implausible.
How do we make sense of Yahweh’s commands to “wipe-out” the Canaanites in Joshua and its wider context?
We will consider four thoughts below that will clarify what is going on in the Biblical texts of Genesis to Deuteronomy; Joshua and Judges relative to Yahweh’s commands for Joshua and the Hebrew nation to attack the Canaanites. In the next post we will consider three additional considerations.
1. Diffusing the logical of the New Atheists critique of the character of the Biblical text and Yahweh.
First, we need to understand the particular problems being raised by the New Atheism against the Biblical text. In the Dallas Theological Seminary podcast, “The Table”, a panel of Biblical scholars (Dr. Gordon Johnston and Dr. Robert Chisolm, with host Dr. Darrell Bock) discussed the accounts of the book of Joshua and the accounts of the Israelites holy wars with the Canaanites. In the podcast, Dr. Darrell Bock outlines the typical logical argument made by the New Atheists and Skeptics against the character of God and the Biblical text:
a. Yahweh is portrayed as a Good and Just God
b. Any form of human genocide is evil and unacceptable and morally monstrous
c. The Bible records Yahweh issuing commands to Joshua and the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites in holy war so as to take up residence in the land of Canaan
d. The Bible avows the character of Yahweh and the actions of the Israelites, and therefore the Bible and Yahweh are morally monstrous
Per the podcast’s main point: if it can be shown that Yahweh’s command of holy war is different from genocide and if it can be explained why the Bible avows Yahweh’s character and the Israelite’s actions, then the above typical logical argument will be shown to be of no affect. The link to the podcast is here and gives a very effective presentation in disarming the New Atheists’ objections: http://s3.amazonaws.com/dtsfeeds/thetable/mp3/thetable_201411_genocideinot_01.mp3.
2. Getting at the meaning of “Holy-War” in the Old Testament texts and how one’s worldview understands such meaning
This blogger does not want to minimize the difficulties raised by the texts. The commands issued forth by Yahweh to Moses, Joshua and the Hebrew people were real and true commands. At issue of course is not only what was commanded, but more importantly, the meaning of what was commanded. With that said, there are differences between genocide committed by one group of human beings against another versus the concept of Holy war. Those that criticize the God of the Bible and the text of Joshua do so from a particular worldview. Oftentimes that worldview will be an “agnostic” or “secular worldview” that prizes rationalism, the scientific method and a materialistic view of the universe. To attempt to understand the Holy War texts apart from Yahweh as a Holy, Just and merciful God renders the Book of Joshua indecipherable. Whenever God is no longer regarded as Holy, and whenever the dual concept of the holy vs the profane is taken out of the picture, texts such as the Book of Joshua will not make sense.
3. The Book of Joshua and the wider Biblical context portrays God’s incredible mercy and long-suffering
Thirdly, we must take into consideration the arguments raised by critics and the meaning of the Biblical narratives in such issues as “Holy War”, but also how much space God gave to the Canaanites to repent and amend their ways. It may surprise people in the course of such discussions to discover how much of God’s mercy is found in Genesis to Judges. For example, in reading through Joshua we find at least two occasions where it was clear that the Canaanites (the people of Jericho in those instances) were aware of what God did in Egypt. There was even a wave of fear that spread through the culture. Rahab the prostitute was the only one who responded in faith to God, and she was spared. The point being that the people had at least 40 years to amend their evil practices of child sacrifice and senseless killings. To say God gave them no warning nor time to repent is simply inaccurate.
4. The Canaanites were not an innocent people but were a culture that disregarded Yahweh’s repeated warnings to repent.
Fourthly and finally for today, as one continues reading the wider Biblical context, we discover in Genesis 15:16 that God told Abraham that his descendants would not return to the land of Canaan until the sins of the Amorites (another Canaanite people group) had reached the point of needing to be judged. Contrary to the “New Atheists” and other skeptics, the Canaanites were not an innocent, hapless culture of poor defenseless people. The Biblical chronology indicates God had given the immoral and violent Canaanite culture multiple centuries to amend their ways. The wider context suggests that God’s actions of holy war against the Canaanites was not a capricious, random act of violence. If anything, Yahweh’s efforts were a moral purging of the land which had been polluted by the extreme sin of the people. If anything, God’s Holy justice is balanced by the enormous amount of space and mercy He gave to a culture that en toto ignored what they heard about Him through the centuries.
Today we began understanding how to answer the criticisms often leveled against the God of the Bible and the commands given to “wipe-out” the Canaanites in the book of Joshua. We first of all suggested a three point strategy for a Christian response: understanding Joshua and the wider context; understanding the cultures and literature outside the Biblical text and then formulating an apologetic that defends the character of scripture and God Himself and which also disarms the New Atheist critiques.