Note: The reader is invited to view a more concise version of this post by the same title at http://www.growingchristianresources.com
The last few posts have been dedicated to addressing a persistent apologetic issue that deals with skeptical attacks on the character of the God of the Old Testament and the narratives of the book of Joshua. The so-called “New Atheism” is marked as not only saying it to be irrational to believe in God, but that such belief is immoral. New Atheist authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins will often cite the narratives in Joshua as “proof” that Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, was a “moral monster”. It is important at this juncture to remind readers that such apologetic considerations are pertinent to biblical exegesis. How we interpret and apply the difficult sections of Joshua that feature the commands to “wipe-out” the Canaanites is as important for the pulpit on Sunday morning as it is behind a university lectern or debate forum. Today’s post will draw to a conclusion what has turned out to be a four-part treatment on this subject.
Why the Context of Joshua Must Be Considered to Demonstrate that Yahweh is not a “Moral Monster”
Authors who regularly criticize the Old Testament narratives and call God a blood-thirsty monster never mention the times God spared those who did repent. When one studies the narratives of Joshua and the wider context of the Pentateuch prefacing the conquest of Canaan, it is clear that the Canaanite culture had went beyond the point of no return and a God who had given it centuries of time to repent (compare Deuteronomy 7; 20). Justice was all that was left. However against the backdrop of judgment stood out those multiplied instances where God showed mercy to those who humbled themselves to Him.
The wider context of the Biblical narrative suggests that this practice was commanded by God as a last resort in the most extreme cases. In many more instances, not all the people were wiped out and quite a few times we do see Canaanites folded into the covenant community (i.e the Gibeonites) in Joshua 9 and the Jebusites in the days of David centuries later.
What recent scholarship has had to say about the “holy-war” narratives in Joshua and surrounding Old Testament literature
In recent years some Bible scholars have attempted to take the wider canonical context surrounding Joshua and the ancient extra-biblical documents of the Ancient Near East (ANE) to show that the “Holy War” narratives of Joshua are written in hyperbolic language.
Matthew Flannegan points to a scholar by the name of Nicholas Wolterstorff who has advanced the thesis that phrases such as “do not leave alive anything that breathes” are hyperbolic statements that are part of the genre of “Holy War” literature.1 Wolterstorff’s efforts attempts to harmonize statements made in Judges that suggest that the cities and areas conquered by Joshua and the Hebrews, even those “wiped out” so-to-speak, had inhabitants and rulers who were still alive. In his way of thinking, if one reads Yahweh’s directives for “harem” (read above) in Numbers and Deuteronomy and the actually warfare carried out in Joshua in light of Judges; and if it is kept in mind that the texts of Joshua were written in hyperbole, then the issue of people being “wiped out” by the Israelites greatly lessens.
This blogger won’t go into the full detail of the argument, being that it appeals to parallel ANE texts to bolster it’s claims. As impressive as Wolterstorff’s proposal is, there are huge trade-offs in accepting his reading of Joshua 1-11. For one thing, if Joshua 1-11 includes “hyperbole” and “symbolic language”, then one must assume that the miraculous signs of the “sun standing still” and the raining down of large hailstones in Joshua 10:1-15 are also “hyperbole” and “symbolic” in nature, which is where Wolserstorff lands.
Admittedly, more research would need to be done in assessing the full scope of this proposal, however it seems that more is given up in trying to harmonize something that may not need to be harmonized. Granted the tensions of the issue of Joshua and the Hebrews wiping out some of the Canaanite cities must not ever be dismissed. However, if the reader keeps in mind all that has been outlined in this post, the texts in question can be dealt with in an honest and straightforward way.
Why The New Atheists’ Attempts to Show Yahweh and the Scriptures as Untrustworthy fail
As was noted at the beginning, 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
In the above considerations and proposed framing of this issue, the third proposition, “point ‘c'” has been shown to be invalid, since Holy War and Genocide are not identical. This blogger has contended that 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. When the wider context surrounding Joshua (not just a few isolated statements as typically proposed by the skeptics) is considered, coupled with the even wider ANE context, the New Atheists criticisms lose traction and the character of Yahweh and His Word remains intact. By diffusing one part of the argument, the whole argument falls to the ground.
We have spent the past few of posts wading through the thorny issue of Yahweh’s commands to destroy the Canaanites. We began by considering seven introductory considerations for approach this issue. The post then proceeded to regard a way of framing a discussion that can aid people in navigating through the Book of Joshua and answering critics who attempt to discount God and His word. What remains is the responsibility to explain the “Holy War” texts of Joshua and to understand their application to today’s 21st century world.
When God’s justice and wrath are no longer believed, the concept of deity no longer resembles the God of the Bible and the deity that is left is a god of popular culture that is not holy, not just and impersonal. The consequences for such a denial lead to either a diminishing of sin or a denial of its reality. This two fold process renders a culture susceptible to decreased vigilance in defending the sanctity of human life and denial of absolute morality/ethics which is essential for a culture to continue enriched in the practice of freedom and equity for its citizenry. History has shown that over time, the slide towards socialism, communism, tyranny and anarchy will ensue. The hope and prayer of this blogger has been that this post can aid towards shedding light on a subject that though difficult, yet is not impossible to understand. Thankfully the Holy Spirit of God ever stands to aid the Christian and the church at large in expounding and defending the scriptures and character of God in this cynical and unbelieving age.
1. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig., General Editors. Come Let us Reason – New Essays on Christian Apologetics. Article by Matthew Flannegan: Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites? Broadman and Holman Publishers. 2012. Pages 226-249