Today we continue in our current series on 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. In the last post we had begun approaching this topic and considered the following three point strategy for a Christian response:
a. Understanding Joshua and the wider context
b. Understanding the cultures and literature outside the Biblical text
c. Formulating an apologetic that defends the character of scripture and God Himself and which also disarms the New Atheist critiques.
Today’s post will continue laying out further considerations in framing the relevant issues that can aid in answering the criticisms of God’s goodness in His commands to exterminate the Canaanite people.
1. Ancient Near Eastern Literature outside the Bible helps us understand why the Biblical text asserted the moral and spiritual degradation of the Canaanites.
In yesterday’s post I had inserted a map of the Ancient Near East (ANE) to show the reader what the immediate world of Joshua looked like. Readers need to know that ancient literature outside the Bible records what life was like in Canaan in and around the 15th to 14th century b.c (1399-1300 b.c). http://www.bible-history.com/geography/maps/map_ancient_near_east.html
God had given ample warning, and the Canaanites ignored the warnings of societal, moral and spiritual degradation. ANE literature records all the atrocities done by the Canaanites. God devoted the land to be destroyed. There are those occasions where human beings commit such atrocities that the area in a sense becomes unfit to ever be inhabited again. In the above mentioned podcast, a modern example that is referenced is Auschwitz Germany. The evil perpetrated was so severe that it has been render a permanent memorial. In other words, it has been “devoted” or “set aside” as being no longer identifiable as a place anyone would want to live.
2. Yahweh is depicted in other Biblical texts, including Joshua, of sparing people devoted to judgment who repented.
So, do we have evidence in the Bible of cultures such as the Canaanites being devoted to destruction and yet spared as a result of their repentance? Yes. The Book of Jonah records the response of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching. In Joshua 9-10, we see God permitting the Gibeonites to live among the Israelites due to the Israelites themselves not treating the Gibeonites rightly. As one scholar points out, in a much later text when King David conquered the Jebusites (another Canaanite people group), some of the Jebusites were allowed to remain alive due to their submissiveness. If someone is going to criticize the God of the Bible, they must include the whole testimony of scripture. As philosopher and Bible scholar Dr. Paul Copan noted in an interview (see the link: https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2015/01/did-god-really-command-genocide-an-interview-with-drs-paul-copan-matthew-flannagan/ ).
“On the justice side, remember that these reluctantly-given commands are less-than-ideal (compare Ezek. 18:31). Also, God patiently waited over 400 years until judgment was ripe (Gen. 15:16) so that Israel could finally enter the promised land. Further, God is ever-willing to relent from threatened punishment upon repentance (Jonah; Jer. 18:7-8).”
3. Understanding the difference between Holy War and Genocide avoids misinterpreting the texts of Joshua and application of the text to today’s world.
Whenever we consider the details of what constitutes holy war and compare it to genocide, it is comparing apples to oranges. Genocide is a merciless, random act of ethnic purging by another people group for political purposes. Holy war in the Bible was moral purging and included an extended pre-history of God giving space for the culture to turn from their extreme wicked practices. Genocide does not include possible mercy. Holy War can be reversed if the culture repents of its ways. Jeremiah 18:8 states – “if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.”
Closing thoughts for today
The above considerations from today’s post and the last post were intended to give “hooks” upon which the reader could hang some thoughts when discussing God’s commands in the book of Joshua. In surveying the literature and listening to scholars discuss and debate this issue, the above considerations aid greatly in any discussion we have about Yahweh’s commands to “wipe-out” the Canaanites.