The Conquest of Canaan & Context: Violence in the Old Testament Part 3
The next group of articles on Violence in the Old Testament will be a bit like baking a cake. It takes more than one ingredient to bake a cake and, similarly, it takes more than one answer to respond to the charge of the immoral nature of God as reflected in the violence in the Old Testament. There is no particular order of importance to most of the articles, but I will begin with what I perceive to be one of the most serious errors made by the new atheists.
We are all familiar with the modern media taking the words or actions of someone out of context in order to create a sensational story. This is a chief complaint among celebrities and justifiably so. It often becomes difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. Conspiracy theories are also in vogue, and it is interesting how many “facts” can be dug up (or misconstrued) to “prove” or “disprove” something. Though some people like a good gossip story whether it is true or not, if we are honest we must admit how unfair and unethical this practice is. Much the same tactic is used in criticizing the God of the Bible. As I mentioned in my last article, even the church can sometimes be guilty of giving God a bad press. Removing biblical statements and stories from their surrounding context is a favorite tool of the new atheists and those who parrot their position. Whether this is done intentionally or out of ignorance (and I suspect a little of both), it is bad scholarship.
The Conquest of Canaan
One of the most serious attacks by atheists concerns the Conquest of Canaan under Joshua. The new atheists wonder how a God who orders the extermination of a people can be considered good.
The God of the Old Testament is disparaged as a bloodthirsty genocidal xenophobic Being. We cannot deny that a command such as the one found in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 to “utterly destroy” the nations that dwell in Canaan, seems particularly harsh. So are the new atheists right? In future articles I will offer other explanations for the Conquest of Canaan, but in keeping with the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the importance of being faithful to the context.
Accusing God of ethnic cleansing is an example of how a passage is quoted without considering the context in which it occurs. This context is actually quite broad. It involves understanding the story that begins in Genesis and extends all the way through 2 Kings. This large block of material may seem quite excessive for considering this question, but in reality the “big picture” is necessary for a proper interpretation.
For example, Elizabeth Bennett’s rebuff of Mr. Darcy’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice is similar to that of the atheists toward God. Given the facts she has at her disposal, Mr. Darcy seems to be a loathsome human being, and, at the point of her rejection, we as readers are in agreement with her. However, the more Miss Bennett learns about the true Mr. Darcy, the more she admires and loves him, and so do we as readers! The point is, we have to read the whole story to come to appreciate and understand Mr. Darcy. The same is true for God and the Conquest of Canaan. For our purposes here, I will narrow the context to the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, in order to demonstrate how a knowledge of even the immediate context (not to mention the broader context) changes our perspective.
The Immediate Context of the Conquest of Canaan
The first thing we learn, only a few verses later (Deut. 7:7), is that God has not amassed some great war machine to fight the inhabitants of Canaan, but has actually chosen a very weak people. The biblical accounts are very consistent in testifying to the fact that Israel is constantly “out-manned” and “out-gunned” by the superior fighting forces of the Canaanite peoples (e.g., Num. 13:28; Deut. 1:28). In fact, the biblical context declares that the reason the Israelites did not immediately march to Canaan and begin the conquest was because of their fear of the might of the Canaanites.
While this argument doesn’t necessarily justify the slaughter of Canaanites, it does help provide the proper context for the story which insists that God did not prepare a master race of killers to destroy the Canaanites. This is important because, Israel is often pictured as the bully on the block intimidating the “90 lb.” weakling Canaanites. The Israelites are often vilified by atheists as being some merciless military machine wiping out the poor defenseless Canaanites. Biblically and historically (verified by archaeological finds), this is far from the truth.
Two chapters later, we read of God’s reason for destroying the Canaanites. Deuteronomy 9:4-6 emphasizes that it was the wickedness of the Canaanites that prompted this action. In fact, not only is the Canaanites’ wickedness emphasized, so is the unrighteousness of the Israelites! In other words, the conquest has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but with righteousness and sin. The Conquest of Canaan is not an attempt at genocide. God’s motive is not that He is prejudice against the Canaanites, but rather that He is judging the Canaanites for their sin. This is also evident based on several other observations. First, if God hated Canaanites because of their race, He would never have allowed Joshua and Israel to spare Rahab and her family (Josh. 6:22-25) or the Gibeonites (Josh. 9). Both stories emphasize that Canaanites who confessed faith in the God of Israel would be spared (Josh. 2:9-14; 9:24). Rahab and the Gibeonites are not only spared, they become a part of the nation of Israel. In fact, they become a very important part. Rahab becomes an ancestress of Israel’s greatest king (David) and also a link in the chain that leads to the Messiah (Matt. 1:5), while the Gibeonites become servants of the tabernacle, and later of the temple (Josh. 9:26-27).
Second, the account of the Conquest of Canaan is told in a very unusual way which is uncharacteristic of ancient battle accounts. On the eve of the first battle (Jericho), Joshua is confronted by a mysterious figure called “the Commander of the Lord’s army” (Josh. 5:13-14). Joshua asks Him a very important question, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?” The response that we as readers might expect is, “I’m for you Joshua and all of Israel.” However, the response Joshua receives is “No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” In other words, God is not into playing favorites; He is true to Himself and His purposes. As we have seen from the passage in Deuteronomy 9:4-6, His purpose is to judge the sin of the Canaanites and give the land to Israel, but this does not mean that God has an “us against them” mentality. Archaeologists have never uncovered an ancient battle account of a victorious nation similar to this. The enemy is always put in the worst light possible, while the victorious nation sings of the virtue of its people, king, and god(s). No people in the ancient Near East would claim that their god(s) gave them victory even though they were unrighteous and stubborn! Furthermore, these accounts are always told from the point of view of the victorious king or people, but the account in Joshua allows us at times to see the Conquest through the eyes of the Canaanites (Josh. 2:8-13; 5:1). This creates some sympathy for the Canaanites, something other ancient battle accounts would never do for the enemy.
God is Not Genocidal or Xenophobic
Against this background, it cannot be claimed that God is commanding genocide, especially if by that term we are indicting God for being racially prejudice toward a particular people. The claim that God is xenophobic also cannot be sustained. Not only do Rahab and the Gibeonites show God’s welcoming of foreigners, but the Old Testament itself demonstrates time and again God’s compassion for the stranger and alien in Israel (e.g., Deut. 31:12; Josh. 8:33, among many other verses). The fact is that words like “genocide” and “xenophobic” are very hot politically incorrect terms in our society designed to invoke a negative emotional response when used. Not only does the Old Testament context not justify the use of these terms, it is unfair of the new atheists to use them for the purpose of creating a negative response in the heart of their readers.
Many other objections remain to be tackled. We will certainly return to the problem of the Conquest of Canaan, there are other responses that need to be made. The purpose here is to plead for the importance of context. If atheists are going to attack the God of the Old Testament by using the Old Testament, then, to be honest, they must take the context seriously. It will not do for anyone to lift a text out of the Scripture and create their own meaning for it. No one would do this with other literature and be considered a legitimate critic. Why should atheists not be held to the same standard of interpretation when it comes to the Bible? Furthermore, it is not only unfair to create one’s own meaning by removing a statement from its context, it is also manipulative to use inaccurate buzz words that create a negative emotional response clouding the judgment of the reader.
So far our cake has only one ingredient, in my next article I will look at other responses related to the Conquest of Canaan and Violence in the Old Testament.