Profitable Discourse

The Pursuit of Theological Clarity

THE CANAANITE CONQUEST & THE MORALITY OF GOD


INTRODUCTION

“You shall not leave alive anything that breathes”

     A chilling order of elimination from the alleged God of love. What are we to do with this? Could the God of love ever command such a thing? Could this ever be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus? Our dilemma is that God issued an order in Deuteronomy requiring every single Canaanite to be killed; and that his wishes were later carried out by the military forces of Joshua. Genocide, we’re inclined to call it; an intolerable and indefensibly immoral act of slaughter. This is the issue by which we are currently confronted, and we would do well not to ignore it. 

    The problems for which this text could possibly be held responsible are great in number, yet I will attempt to specify those which bear the most significance. Some argue that this text resolutely ascribes iniquity to the God from whom virtue itself is supposed to flow. Others claim that this text is primarily an encapsulated expression of a culture’s rhetoric as opposed to an accurate historical or theological account. Still others insist that this text reveals a portrait of God which cannot be reconciled with the love of Jesus. Now I think I have somewhat of a solution to these problems, but it is not simple in the least. I do not want to pretend as if, in the end, this text does not really generate any problems, and yet I also do not wish merely to discard it as if the problems were insurmountable. The two primary avenues to which I am opposed are therefore an uncritical acceptance on the one hand and a rejection of the inspired text on the other. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. It is my desire to respond to the arguments put forth by those who view this text as a sort of decisive failure within Christian theology and Scriptural reliability, so that they need to be restructured as a result. And while I am thereby addressing all who reside in this realm, I will specifically respond to the arguments of the Old Testament scholar Peter Enns. This will provide us with a sensible and reasoned basis upon which a response might be made.

    I will begin with an investigation of the primary moral question, moving from there onto a critique of Enns’ alternative, and then will close with an attempt at a solution to the problem.

I

THE PROBLEM OF MORALITY

    “How is this event possibly compatible with God’s character?” Of the many questions that long for an answer, we might place this at the forefront. Yet this necessitates that we seriously investigate our moral theory, for only then can we begin to make sense of this. Can we justifiably charge God with immorality? Is there some moral structure over him, according to which he must conduct himself in obedience? Few of us, I am sure, would claim such a thing. Rather, we might say that our moral structure has its basis in the character of God, from which he makes pronouncements as to the way in which we ought to live. This sort of philosophic reflection is admittedly dry and at times seemingly cold, but remain with me for a moment. Certainly since God does not issue orders to himself, then God does not follow moral statutes identical to ours. Neither can he be held responsible to anyone, since responsibility presupposes accountability, and there is no one higher than God to whom he might be held accountable. This means, therefore, that while it is patently immoral for us to kill individuals on account of our own authority, it is not for God. It is not even murder to begin with; it is as though, since God is the creator and sustainer of all that is, life is his to do with as he pleases. But this certainly does not mean that God committed actions that were murderous and that we just cannot hold him accountable for them. But neither does this mean that, since God retains ultimate authority in moral matters, that he is therefore morally reckless and irresponsible. Let us not forget that he is the God of salvation as much as, or even more than, he is the God of supposed genocide.

    Yet some might say this moral theory with which we are presently concerned sounds too much like the divine command theory, and they might not ascribe to that. Do they not? If so, then they are required to relinquish one of the most powerful arguments against God’s having commanded the elimination of the Canaanites; namely, that Jesus commands us to love our enemies and not to kill them. That, my friends, is divine command theory and nothing less. They do believe it; except only the version they enjoy the most. But if such is the case, then this is no longer an issue about moral visions competing for the truth, but competing for our affinity. We become the authority by which moral statutes are established, rather than God. Christian morality might be elaborate and complex at times, but it certainly is not supposed to work that way.

    Therefore, if God maintains the authority to do as he pleases, then there is no moral problem regarding his killing the Canaanites. But let us not pretend as if it is that simple. The problem, at least in my analysis, immediately moves to the notion of God’s commanding the Israelite soldiers to be the instrument of his judgment. So though we might agree that it is morally justifiable for God to kill the Canaanites, it is not morally justifiable that he make the Israelites kill them. His commands amount to murder, do they not? Unfortunately, it still is not that simple. Since our moral duties are grounded in God’s pronouncements, then how could they be exempt in this case? Like I reasoned earlier, if someone kills another on their own authority, apart from God’s pronouncement, then they undoubtedly sin. But if they kill another on God’s authority, it is no longer sin. It simply cannot be. This does not make the problem any less disturbing, but it shows that God himself remains justified regardless of what apparatus he employs in accomplishing his purpose. But further than that, humans live in accord with God on the basis of his commands, and if God therefore commands a conquest, then, strangely enough, we might conclude that it is through conquest that they live in accord with him. One logical path out of this is to conclude that morality does not originate with God, but rather finds its source elsewhere, and that it is such that God can be judged according to it. Another is to conclude that God never commanded this and that he would not (but then what about the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, Uzzah, and the rest of the violence in Scripture?). But this does not make it much less difficult. As William Lane Craig rightly inquires, “Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.”1 This is very true, and while Craig and others contend that this is understandable on the firm grounds that, as soldiers, these Israelites were already well-accustomed to killing, I would like to try another route. 

    My problem with God commanding the Israelites to kill the Canaanites is that it simply causes so much suffering on the part of his people. I find myself honestly asking how in the world God could do such a thing to those whom he loves, and how he could possibly achieve good by doing so. I understand that it is not my place to be the judge of God’s actions, as if I might rest comfortably only when he has presented sufficient reasons, but that does not make the problem disappear. And yet I have realized something else, a strange aspect of God indeed. I ask how he could cause those whom he loves to suffer, yet immediately there flows into my mind the sufferings of Jesus, the sufferings of Job, the sufferings of the martyrs. Paul suffered in countless ways and even claimed, in his epistle to the Philippians, that suffering is granted by God to those who believe in him. Yet he always counts suffering as a source of joy and renewal. Job, in explicit clarity, experienced suffering because of God and yet as a result his relationship with him became more rich and intimate. Jesus as well, to whom was given the cup of wrath, was consciously subjected to suffering in accordance with the will and plan of God. Sure, some will object that “Job is obviously an epic parable” and “the gospel accounts got it wrong” implying that Jesus never suffered as described in them. Well I would need another essay to address the historicity of Job, but even if that is right, it still works in my favor, meaning the narrative claims it is within God’s constitution that he would cause those whom he loves to suffer. Maybe he did not do it in that historical instance, but parables, if you remember, are intended to convey theological truth. But what if the gospels got it wrong? Let us not get into the ensuing consequences, especially the fact that if the gospels cease to be reliable history, well then let us relinquish their supposed superior moral theory as exemplified by Jesus and just put them on the same level as the Old Testament: pick the one you like best, at the expense of any intellectual integrity. Therefore, as soon as one says, “God would never cause someone to suffer,” the testaments refute them. And the argument that suffering cannot serve as a means employed by God to attain some good also fails, since the sufferings of Jesus not only brought about good, but the greatest good ever wrought in reality. Indeed, such good as to cast the entire Canaanite conquest deep into its shadow. 

    I am not saying that this passage is not a problem. If we were not deeply offended by this passage, then something would be seriously wrong with us. The irony is that the very reason for which we have a problem with this Old Testament God is most likely because of the rich morality of this same God. The assumption of the sanctity of life, in reaction to which the offense is often generated, is actually a significant component of Yahweh’s revealed morality. Nevertheless, I believe that our emotions ought to be informed by morality, and not the reverse. The answer I am providing, therefore, is not necessarily satisfying nor does it even need to be. I am rather proposing that this might likely be who God is, whether we like it or not. In fact, as Timothy Keller so insightfully acknowledges, one of the primary ways we can be sure we have met the real God is precisely in those times at which we disagree with him; otherwise, we risk concocting a god ourselves who so conveniently happens to be the way we want him to be.2  So let us continue.

II

AN INCONCLUSIVE ALTERNATIVE

   Peter Enns, the Old Testament scholar with whose writings I will interact, has contributed extensively to this issue. I applaud him for his insistence on taking the Bible seriously, always considering relevant historical details, and being forthright about the problems he discovers in the text. I certainly agree with him when he says, “God does things in the Old Testament that cause theological problems for Christians, and so we have to think about what to do about them.”3 His conclusion to our issue takes the following form: “My own approach is simply to acknowledge that the Israelites were an ancient tribal people and thought of God the way other ancient tribal peoples did–as a fierce warrior who goes to battle with his people, assured of victory if they are on good terms with the deity but suffering defeat if not.”4

    Thus Enns’ primary argument, with which I will spend most of my time, is that the Canaanite conquest is simply an expression of Israel’s cultural rhetoric, which means that Yahweh is an historical portrayal of a tribal deity who achieves victory on behalf of his people. Out of the many ways in which I will respond to this claim, I would like to begin with examining the reasoning as to the validity of this judgment. Oddly enough, Enns’ justification for this conclusion is actually the weakest portion of his argument. He claims that it is justified because Israel’s view of God is not unique in the historical context of surrounding tribes. He writes, “Once we see that Yahweh’s actions toward the Canaanites are like that of the gods of other nations toward their enemies, the discussion cannot continue as before… Yahweh’s actions are not unique but seem part of an ancient way of thinking… we know that the rhetoric of a patron high god fighting for his people and insuring their military successes (and failures if they are unfaithful) is a common ancient manner of envisioning the activity of the divine realm…placing the biblical accounts of military conquests next to those of other ancient peoples leads to the following reasonable and commonly accepted conclusion: how Israel described God’s activities was influenced by cultural givens.”5

    I hope everyone else sees the problem with this argument. It isn’t one. Every time Enns formulates his thesis that Israel could not help but create a story reflecting a cultural commonplace, he just states it. He simply concludes that, since Israel’s stories resemble other cultures so closely, they must be understood as supposed fabrications instead of faithful accounts. But why must we conclude that Israel is not permitted to resemble other cultures? Or why must we assume that there is a conflict between inspiration and cultural resemblance? Where is the argument that traces reasons from the data to the conclusion? Enns seems to be implying, as he does elsewhere in his works, that if the Bible lacks uniqueness, then to the extent that it lacks uniqueness, its inspiration ought to be questioned. The conclusion being that if it is not inspired, then we ought to treat it as a product of potentially misguided human effort, similar to any other ancient work. John Frame responds to this line of reasoning in his review of Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation. Frame discusses Enns’ concern that since Israel’s law resembles other ancient laws, we do not seem to have any reason to consider the law as anything more than Israel’s idea. But Frame responds, “God wanted his people to have a well-functioning legal system, geared to its life in its ancient environment. For this purpose, there was no need to re-invent the wheel. The Code of Hammurabi and other ancient codes addressed that same need, in similar cultures, and so it should be no surprise that God’s laws reflected the legal tradition of which Hammurabi’s Code was an instance. Moses, or some source he made use of, may well have found in a pre-existing set of laws, statutes that would fit Israel’s situation. The traditional doctrine of organic inspiration says that there is no contradiction between divine inspiration and human efforts to determine the right thing to say. The former often makes use of the latter.”6

    Enns continues this sort of thinking concerning the Canaanite conquest. I can hear him asking, “If the Israelite record of Yahweh resembles other cultural records of other gods, then how can we consider Yahweh to be special?” Why not? The other gods are false and Yahweh is not. Is it so strange to think that people would want their god to fight on their behalf, and that the true God actually did? Yahweh’s lack of uniqueness does not entail the falsity of any account recording him as such; the one does not logically flow from the other. If it was a cultural custom in Jesus’ day for religious leaders to die for their followers’ sins, would we then conclude that the narrative of Jesus was just an invention of an ancient culture? Enns would have to agree, in fact he is constrained to do so by virtue of his argument. But this is nonsense. And even if this were the case, our argument to the contrary would be simple: Jesus was really divine whereas the other leaders were not. Enns says there is an argument when there is none; he seems to just arbitrarily select one conclusion regarding a piece of data from which multiple conclusions could reasonably be drawn. One needs to argue from the data to a particular conclusion, but Enns curiously leaves this process out every time. 

    Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer approaches Enns’ view of the Canaanite conquest from another angle, writing: “What is Enns’ alternative suggestion? His solution to the problem of genocide is to read the texts as ‘the rhetoric of a tribal people’ that understand gods to be warriors who fight on their behalf. Is Deuteronomy 20 therefore true or false (or something else)? He doesn’t say…Can Enns, an Old Testament scholar, really be advocating a Marcionite view, according to which Yahweh (or at least Israel’s understanding of Yahweh) is time-worn, primitive, and obsolete, while the early church’s understanding of God is theologically developed and morally advanced? I was flabbergasted to see Enns chalk up the alleged lack of appreciation for the universal scope of God’s love in the Old Testament to ‘the ubiquitous tribal culture at the time.’ I am all for seeing development in the history of redemption, but I dispute any suggestion that the Old Testament reflects an inferior doctrine of God because its authors were part of a tribal culture. Talk about chronological snobbery.”7  The consequences of this chronological snobbery are quite troubling. For while many can be charged with chronological snobbery on account of giving precedence to a certain era’s perspective (the Reformation, anyone?), Enns does not argue as to the invalidity of the Israelites’ account but just assumes its invalidity since it is product of an ancient tribal culture. If this is how he thinks that ideologies develop and function, which is that cultures express societal ideas without any hope of being able to work outside of them, then what does this say about the New Testament writers or even himself? Enns might think Jesus and Paul have a more developed theological and ethical perspective, but surely their vision of the Christian worldview is completely at odds with much modern philosophy and scholarship. If their ideas were determined by their socio-temporal setting, being part of a pre-modern and pre-scientific culture like the Israelites’ were of a tribal culture, then should we not treat them as another form of ancient rhetoric?

    In addition to his primary thesis, Enns also argues that God’s motive as revealed in the text is not a morally sufficient reason for carrying out the Canaanite conquest. He writes, “Let’s be clear on the motive for why God wants the Canaanites annihilated…They are wiped out not because they deserve it more. The motive given in the texts is that any intermingling with the Canaanites runs the risk of turning ‘away your children from following me, to serve other gods.’ That is the reason.”8  He says that the conquest apparently had to occur because, “allowing any Canaanite to live runs the risk of leading the Israelites astray to worship other gods…God’s command, in other words, is not rooted in a moral judgment against the Canaanites’ unprecedented degree of sinfulness…They occupied the land to be given to Israel, and they had to be exterminated to prevent their impure, sinful behaviors from leading the Israelites astray to worship other gods.”9

    So while some might claim that God’s morally sufficient reason for carrying out the conquest is that the Canaanites were sinners, all of whom deserve just punishment, Enns argues that this passage is not about that. He rather claims it is about the Canaanites leading the Israelites astray, a charge for which they ought not be exterminated. But first, why is the conquest not permitted to be about both? He actually admits that both reasons are in effect when he writes, “True, other passages cite Canaanite sinfulness as the reason for God’s command (Gen. 15:16, Deut. 9:4).).”10  But if that is the case, then I am at a loss as to what is being argued. I understand that the problem sprouts from God’s apparent lack of moral justification for killing the Canaanites. But if sin is not a morally justifiable reason, then what is? Is there any place in either testament where God cites a greater reason for divine punishment than sin? Need there be another reason? Imagine a man who has committed murder. He is, morally speaking, guilty and deserving of punishment. But let us say his murder cannot be proven and that he is therefore never punished. Detectives watch his every move, and at the next slip, they arrest him on account of another crime. If he is punished on account of this new crime, is he no longer guilty of the previous one? Or if for this current crime he is shown to be framed, does his moral status suddenly change from guilty to innocent? It’s as though Enns’ is arguing that God can have only one morally sufficient reason for his actions at a time, each one canceling out the previous one! But the Canaanites are not portrayed as innocent, but as sinners like the rest of humanity. And this is not a case of abstracting the story and just applying systematic theological categories upon it so as to ignore the nuances of the text, as Enns warns about when he writes, “This is no abstract matter of ‘sinfulness deserves punishment.’”11 First, let us not naively assume that anyone can come to this text without a moral theory and certainly without a corresponding theological outlook. We might not all agree that the Bible conveys similar theologies at similar times, but we do agree that it conveys theology. It is therefore not speculative at all to say that the Canaanites were punished because of the way in which God deals with sin, as if that is a total mystery in the Bible. Jesus aligns with God’s way of dealing with sin, I might add, and we have no problem systematically applying his moral pronouncements to circumstances outside of his immediate contexts (in fact they are actually imposed upon this text by Enns, who views Jesus as a reversal of this pattern of exclusion and violence). Secondly, God said he would punish the Canaanites because of their sin. Don’t like systematic abstraction? Well, the story has it there for us. This means that even if one shows that God’s immediate reason for the conquest of the Canaanites was unjustified, God would still remain justified on the basis of other reasons, reasons for which he explicitly said he would punish them! The distinction turns out to be useless. Yet more than that, how ought we reason that luring Israel astray into idolatry is somehow not very sinful, or at least not deserving of punishment? As Timothy Keller remarks regarding this part of the issue, “God alone has the right to judge people—only he knows what they deserve and what they will do if not stopped.”12  And do we not know how reprehensible idolatry is, especially how sinful it is depicted in the Old Testament? The New Testament writers agree, by the way, and it might not be an overstatement to describe Paul’s entire ministry as the effort to turn individuals from idolatry to believing in Jesus Christ as God. But perhaps some might say, “Jesus would never punish someone for such a thing.” Really? Then I find it strange that he said, “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Whatever grounds on which the objection is raised, those same grounds are foreign to either testament.

    Now some might say that, up until now, I have only spoken theologically and philosophically, but not historically. This might pose a problem, for after all, Enns is sure to declare that “the question, ‘Why would God command the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites?’ cannot be addressed in an intramural theological back-and-forth,” but rather must include the implications of history.13  Yet he is being theological, contrary to his own advice. Vanhoozer realizes this when he writes, “Why is Enns in such a hurry to capitulate to the prevailing scholarly consensus? Theories, consensus opinion, and schools of thought all come and go. Christians are not to be blown about by every wind of academic fashion. I wonder: does he think, in light of the problem of evil, that we should concede that God does not exist?…Should we therefore reframe our doctrine of God to fit the prevailing extratextual ‘evidence’?”14  Vanhoozer, it seems, is concerned that Enns has already chosen, before any investigation, what his theological authority will be. This authority appears to be, in part, scholarly consensus; and it is this very assumption which Vanhoozer challenges. It shows that Enns already has theological predispositions upon which his beliefs are being formed, and those also need to be brought into the discussion. It’s unfortunate that they aren’t, because all too often Enns’ suggestion is that if one just looks at the history, they will see the answer clear as day. It’s as though he is saying, “See everyone, this part of the Old Testament is just an example of tribal rhetoric. So let us put away this silly business of treating it like unique revelation in the midst of other ancient documents.” But then also, Enns is just blatantly theological. His conclusion regarding the rhetoric of tribal Israel is not enough on its own; he always dismantles the conquest text by appealing to the ethic of Jesus and common decency,15  to which it stands in contrast. Do you see? The argument is not just that Israel wrote a piece of rhetoric, or else some might simply suggest that we should start reading the Bible that way as a hermeneutical advancement. The argument is that the rhetoric portrays a God contrary to Jesus; that is the argument. But that is also not historical but theological, as it clearly presupposes a moral standard which the God of the Canaanite conquest miserably fails to meet. So though Enns is entirely right to say this discussion is not just theological but historical, he himself also proves that it is not just historical but thoroughly theological. This brings me to my next point.

    I believe that the greatest argument against Enns’ thesis is, surprisingly, Jesus. This is because, while we apparently ought to see Yahweh as an abhorrent warrior god, Jesus devotedly loved and served him. He constantly refers to Yahweh not as a bloodthirsty tribal deity, but as his loving Father. Jesus says of him, “‘He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world….I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me,’”16  and, “‘If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him…Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?’”17

    And Jesus not only accomplished his ministry as commissioned by his Father, but he also was crucified in accordance with the Father’s will and plan, as he prays in Gethsemane, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now some will be eager to respond by arguing that Jesus did not conceive of God as he is portrayed in Deuteronomy, or that he did not know about this portrayal. Well he apparently did, since the text within which the Canaanite conquest is outlined is the same text Jesus constantly references in the Gospels, such as when teaches that we ought to love our Lord God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves.18  So while one might object that Yahweh stands contrary to the ethics of the gospel, that very standard of ethics is derived from the same source as that from which the Canaanite conquest is drawn. It is also the same text from which Jesus argues that we might live by the word of God rather than by bread alone, and that we ought to serve and obey him fully. Jesus believed in Yahweh and loved him; he gave his life in accordance to the Father’s will and chose his Father’s will in place of his own.

    Therefore this is my argument: If Jesus loved and served this genocidal object of folklore as if he were God, then why believe Jesus? Surely we must not trust the Israelites due to their culturally-formed beliefs about God, so if Jesus had the same beliefs, then why trust him? Why is he completely oblivious to the atrocities that are so clear to us, most of all to Enns? Sure, Jesus certainly overturned violent patterns of thought by insisting that we love our enemies rather than exterminate them, but the problem lies not with the Israelites’ actions but with Yahweh’s command. Jesus explicitly says that we should love, serve, obey, and swear by the God of the Canaanite conquest, and that we should never put him to the test. And if we are to conclude that the conquest never happened, that God never said these things, that Yahweh is a formulation of societal rhetoric, then what does that say about Jesus who considered this God to be the basis of his mission and purpose? If we are to believe that Jesus was the real incarnate God and not a social fabrication of his time, then what does it say to conclude that he was just fulfilling the purpose of some ancient peoples’ invention? For anyone using Jesus in their argument, this is a serious problem.

III

AN ATTEMPT AT A SOLUTION

     Returning to the outset of this essay, there is still one central objection that has yet to be answered. This is that, while God might have the right to act the way he did regarding the Canaanite conquest, it is not in accordance with his character that he would. Indeed, we have to consider how the violence of God’s actions in the Old Testament can possibly be reconciled with the ethics of the gospel.19  The way I will attempt to solve this will revolve around showing how the differences between Yahweh and Jesus are often far too overdrawn and simplified. Though this will have to be brief, in crafting a more comprehensive and exhaustive conceptualization of these two apparently opposing portrayals of God I hope to show that there is harmony with God between the testaments.

Yahweh

    In Genesis 15 we can see a glimpse of Yahweh’s unexpected grace and promise of self-sacrifice on behalf of those in covenant relationship with him. Abram is in the desert establishing a covenant with God, and he is commanded to split some animals in half and lay out a path between them through which to walk. Robert Alter, a great Hebrew scholar, elucidates the meaning of this covenantal practice when he writes, “Covenants in which the two parties step between cloven animal parts are attested in various places…The idea is that if either party violates the covenant, his fate will be like that of the cloven animals.”20  This is a beautiful moment, for when night falls God appears as a smoking flame and passes through the parts of the animals. Given the ancient ceremonial process of establishing covenants, Abram most likely thought he alone would walk through the pathway. This is because he was the servant and Yahweh the king, and the king was rarely required to take part in the ceremony. But in a shocking act of grace, God passes through without asking Abram to do so, and thus God adopts this fate on account of them both, essentially promising, “If I break my end of the covenant, let me be split apart like these animals. But not only if I, but even if you break your end of the covenant, still let me be split apart.”

    In Deuteronomy 7, we see Yahweh’s gracious disposition towards Israel, wherein he says, “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers.” This is unprecedented for ancient cultural understandings of the divine, for Yahweh explicitly excludes any attractive element of Israel as the reason for which he loves them. Rather, Yahweh insists that he just loves his people unconditionally according to grace. Indeed Yahweh actually states that he loves his people in spite of the fact that he has reason not to value them, since they are “the fewest of all peoples.” This is not the admission of a capricious deity, but of a loving God, whose disposition toward those whom he loves might be summarized by the following: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”21

    In II Samuel 7, we see an exemplification of Yahweh’s grace and provision, and in an especially important way. Though Enns continually insists that “Yahweh’s actions are not unique but seem part of an ancient way of thinking,” in this passage we see a radical reversal. For the ancient tribes surrounding Israel during their time, relationships with deities were often transactional in nature, as Enns describes well when he writes that the followers of warrior deities were “assured of victory if they are on good terms with the deity but suffering defeat if not.” Following this pattern of thought, it was common for a king like David to render such services as building his deity a temple with the expectation that he would be assured further victory and success. Thus, being thoroughly enveloped in this ancient way of thinking, David decides to build Yahweh a house, having found it strange that the king of Israel dwells in a cedar home while the God of Israel dwells in an aged tent. 

    But Yahweh, unexpectedly and entirely out-of-character, refuses David’s offer, as if he were offended at the idea. He exhorts David, inquiring, “Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt, even to this day; but I have been moving about in a tent, even in a tabernacle. Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel, which I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’”22  We find in this passage a rare expression in ancient thought, for not only does God refuse the transactional basis of relationship, but he also explains that he intended to humbly dwell within a tent like his people. This desire of Yahweh is his pre-Messianic embodiment of the incarnation, through which he believes that since his people dwell in tents and not luxurious homes, then he will dwell there with them. This is not the way ancient deity relationships were supposed to work. 

    But reaching further out of the pattern, Yahweh tells David that not only will he not permit him to build a divine house, but He will build David an even greater house. Yahweh is attempting to demonstrate that, in opposition to other deity relationships, his covenant is based on grace rather than mutual exchange. He reminds David that he raised him up from the time he was young, that he has since established him, and that he has sustained his people Israel; all on account of his grace. And in this passage Yahweh establishes the Davidic Covenant which anticipates the everlasting kingdom of Christ, still on account of his grace alone. David’s reaction to this unprecedented form of relationship is appropriate: “For the sake of Your word, and according to Your own heart, You have done all this greatness to let Your servant know. For this reason You are great, O Lord God; for there is none like You, and there is no God besides You.”23  So while we have already shown that Israel's resemblance to other ancient cultures does not cause any problems in the least, at crucial points in their history they bear no resemblance at all. Thus it is far too hasty to conclude that Yahweh is just a piece of ancient cultural rhetoric. Yahweh does not present himself as simply a warrior deity who fights for those who do good by him, but a loving and caring father who provides for his people even when they do not deserve it.

Jesus

    Jesus, in providing supposedly the weightiest argument against the validity of the Canaanite conquest, stands in our minds as the moral exemplar of boundless love. But while of course he is, this aspect of Jesus is often usurped into the modern idea that judgment or sternness is irreconcilable with love. Yet Jesus refutes this conviction, not least in his Olivet discourse, which Vanhoozer rightly notes is “every bit as violent as the Old Testament”24  Within this discourse, which is set at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says the following:

    “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world... Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels... These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”25

    We must acknowledge here that the Jesus who apparently would never do anything consonant with Yahweh’s actions nevertheless declares unbelievers “accursed” and subject to “eternal punishment.” This is also not an instance of Jesus describing the Father’s decisions, but his own, as the just King who renders proper judgment.

    In the third chapter of John, Jesus says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”26  So the Jesus who seemingly contradicts Yahweh says that anyone who does not obey him will be made an object of God’s wrath? This does not contradict Yahweh, it contradicts the picture of Jesus painted by those who would use him as an argument against the Old Testament. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus explains his parable of the tares among wheat by saying, “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”27  Again, this is more similar to the justice of Yahweh than to some flattened view of Jesus. Like Yahweh, Jesus believes that sin ought to be punished. Thus Michael Bird rightly says, “The God who smote the Canaanites is the same God who sent Jonah to Nineveh. The Jesus who told us to love our enemies is the same Jesus who will tread the winepress of the fury of God’s wrath in the future.”28

    Hence Yahweh directly prefigures the work of Christ, so that he ensures self-sacrifice, establishes an undeserved covenantal relationship, embodies incarnation, and loves graciously. And Jesus continues the unbroken pattern of Yahweh, zealously insisting that judgment be rendered, that sin be punished, and that obedience be furnished. These are not two different conceptions; they are the marks of the very same God.

    As I argued before, the reason why an argument against the Canaanite conquest by recourse to Jesus cannot work is because Jesus only loves and serves the God who is responsible for it. But more than this, he also loves others in the very same way that Yahweh did. Just as in II Samuel 7, Jesus became incarnate so as to live within the midst of those whom he loved. In love he established and fulfilled the Davidic Covenant as the true King and Son of God. Just as in Deuteronomy 7, Jesus did not pour out his love because his people were so great in number or pure in righteousness, but just because he graciously loved them. Just as Yahweh loved his people Israel though they were disobedient, so Jesus loved his people even while they were his enemies. And just as in Genesis 15, Jesus became the cloven sacrifice, lovingly taking upon himself the punishment of his people’s covenant violation. 

The Cross

    The Cross is the place at which God’s love and justice fully intertwine, and I believe that this will help us comprehend the unity of God between the testaments. In Jesus we not only find a love for Yahweh and the continuation of his work, but we find Yahweh’s violence wrought again, though in a radically different form. In Jesus, the violence of God is directed at the cross, so as to accomplish and fulfill what Yahweh’s previous violence anticipated. As in Deuteronomy 20, violence is wrought on the cross so that nothing is left breathing, as Jesus “breathed his last.”29 As in Deuteronomy 20, violence is wrought on the cross to deal with sin by clearing away a new holy space in Jesus for the people of God. As in Deuteronomy 20, violence is wrought on the cross to end the power and spread of sin, so that all who believe in Jesus become part of a new familial line impervious to the blemish of sin. As Vanhoozer writes, “The violence we see in the Old Testament, though real, is also typological, an anticipation of the bloody violence directed to Jesus on the cross, and thence of peace for all the nations.”30

    N.T. Wright has a brilliant passage concerning this difficult subject that is worth quoting in full:

    “We look back from our historical vantage point—and post-Enlightenment thought has looked back from its supposed position of moral superiority—and we shake our heads over the whole sorry business of conquest and settlement. Ethnic cleansing, we call it; however much the Israelites had suffered in Egypt, we find it hard to believe that they were justified in doing what they did to the Canaanites, or that the God who was involved in this operation was the same God we know in Jesus Christ.

    And yet ever since the garden, ever since God’s grief over Noah, ever since Babel and Abraham, the story has been about the messy way in which God has had to work to bring the world out of the mess. Somehow, in a way we are inclined to find offensive, God has to get his boots muddy and, it seems, to get his hands bloody, to put the world back to rights. If we declare, as many have done, that we would rather it not so, we face a counter-question: Which bit of dry, clean ground are we standing on that we should pronounce on the matter with such certainty? Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that the primal sin of humanity consisted in putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God. That is one of the further dark mysteries of Genesis 3: there must be some substantial continuity between what we mean by good and evil and what God means; otherwise we are in moral darkness indeed. But it serves as a warning to us not to pontificate with too much certainty about what God should and shouldn’t have done.”31

    Thus the story of Scripture is not about a blood-thirsty and capricious tribal deity, but about the loving and holy God who is so determined to defeat evil that he engages in violence; even to the point of becoming its victim.


     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.


1 William Lane Craig, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites.

2 Though I know Keller has mentioned something along these lines, I cannot find it in any of his works. I guess he said it somewhere in a sermon or the like, but trust me, he said it.

3 Peter Enns, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/07/more-on-canaanite-genocide-or-taking-a-step-back-because-what-we-have-here-is-a-communication-problem/.

4 Peter Enns, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/10/the-best-way-of-getting-out-of-the-whole-canaanite-genocide-thing-and-it-comes-right-from-the-bible-but-you-may-not-like-it/.

5 Peter Enns, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/07/john-piper-on-why-its-right-for-god-to-slaughter-women-and-children-anytime-he-pleases-and-why-i-have-some-major-problems-with-that/.

6 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 501.

7 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 134.

8 Peter Enns, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/07/children-and-virgins-as-spoils-of-war-and-the-character-of-god/.

9 Peter Enns, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 107-108.

10 Peter Enns, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 108.

11 Peter Enns, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/07/children-and-virgins-as-spoils-of-war-and-the-character-of-god/.

12 Timothy Keller, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-you-need-judges-tim-keller-on-a-provocative-pivotal-pertinent-book.

13 Peter Enns, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/04/on-creation-and-killing-canaanites-one-simple-hardly-worth-mentioning-but-i-feel-that-i-should-thought/.

14 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 134.

15 Peter Enns, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 105.

16 John 8:26, 29.

17 John 14:7-8, 10.

18 The ethic Jesus provides here is drawn from Deuteronomy 6, while Yahweh’s order of the Canaanite conquest is in Deuteronomy 7 .

19 Peter Enns, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2012/07/more-on-canaanite-genocide-or-taking-a-step-back-because-what-we-have-here-is-a-communication-problem/.

20 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), 75. In addition, many of the following Scriptural insights are indebted to the work Tim Keller, who first led me to the significance of these passages.

21 Deuteronomy 14:2.

22 II Samuel 7:5-7.

23 II Samuel 7:21-22.

24 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 135.

25 Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46.

26 John 3:36.

27 Matthew 13:41-43.

28 Michael Bird, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 127.

29 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 232.

30 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 233.

31 N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2006), 58-59.

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