Note from CM: When I have a question about reading the Hebrew Bible, one of my first stops is Pete Enns. We reviewed his great book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, a while back, and since one of its emphases is on helping Bible readers understand its portrayal of the violent, genocidal God portrayed in many OT texts, I thought we should hear from him on this week when we’re considering Mr. Boyd’s new book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.
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God killing people, both Israelites and others, isn’t a last-ditch measure of an otherwise patient deity. It’s the go-to punishment for disobedience. To put a fine point on it, this God is flat-out terrifying: he comes across as a perennially hacked-off warrior-god, more Megatron than heavenly Father. We’re not the first ones to be puzzled and bothered about God’s violence in the Bible; both Christians and Jews have worked on this issue ever since there’s been a Bible.
• Peter Enns
Let’s focus on one particular issue of the Warrior God in the Hebrew Bible — his treatment of the Canaanites.
Pete Enns reminds us that the Canaanites are toast from the beginning of the Hebrew Bible. Right after the Flood, Noah’s son Ham treats his drunken, naked father with disrespect. In response, Noah goes ballistic, cursing Ham and all his progeny forever. Turns out that means the Canaanites. Right from the beginning. Long before we ever get to Joshua and the conquest, we have been forewarned that “Canaanite” is a dirty word, and that they are doomed from the start.
Later, in preparation for the conquest, here’s what the author of Deuteronomy recorded as God’s instructions to the invading Israelites:
But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.
• Deut 20:16-18
Enns comments on our impulse to vindicate God for these horrific commands.
Many Bible readers feel the strong impulse to get God off the hook for acting this way, which means finding a good way to end the following sentence: “It’s a perfectly fine and right thing for God to order the extermination of Canaanites and take their land because . . .”
Over the course of several chapters, he discusses a few of the most common, unsatisfying answers people give and responds to them effectively, showing that they really don’t hold up.
- God is the sovereign king of the universe, and his unfathomable will is not to be questioned by puny mortals, so shut up about it.
- Sure, Jesus talks about loving your enemies, but Jesus also talks about throwing sinners into hell to burn forever.
- Sure, God killed Canaanites, but we have to balance it out with those parts where God was nicer.
- The Canaanites got exactly what they deserved because they were utterly morally corrupt.
Then Peter Enns suggests a different approach.
He starts by suggesting that we respect the Bible’s ancient voice and realize that we are hearing stories from a very old time, place, and cultural context. The Israelites shared with their neighbors a common tribal view of the world — “Taking land and defeating enemies with the blessing of the gods was as common in the ancient world as Dunkin’ Donuts in New England.”
Second, he reminds us that, at least at this point in our understanding, archaeology does not support that the “conquest” of Canaan by the Israelites happened as the biblical narrative tells us. It appears that, whatever happened, the tales became exaggerated so that, for Israel, these narratives were transformed into great war sagas of battles with the Canaanites.
Third, being the ancient tribal people that they were, telling stories of their tribal past and glorifying tales about being led into battle by a warrior God against a God-cursed enemy is what we should expect if God let the Israelites tell the story. As Enns puts it:
It’s not like the Israelites were debating whether or not to go ahead and describe God as a mighty warrior. They had no choice. That’s just how it was done— that was their cultural language. And if the writers had somehow been able to step outside of their culture and invent a new way of talking, their story would have made no sense to anyone else.
The Bible looks the way it does because “God lets his children tell the story,” so to speak.
…I think at least parts of the Bible work something like that. It may be hard— sometimes impossible— to see the history in Israel’s stories, but we do get a good picture of how these ancient Israelites experienced God.
Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away.
Reading scripture this way means not reading it “flatly,” as though everything we find in it is to be equally accepted and endorsed — even things its authors say about God and/or historical events. The Hebrew Bible is not a “book” but an compilation of writings that is characterized by an ongoing conversation. There are debates between different perspectives going on within the scriptures themselves concerning Israel’s history and what it means. The story of the conquest is actually a great example of this, as the books of Joshua and Judges set before us two entirely different accounts of the “conquest.” We can’t reconcile them; we are meant to read them side by side. This forces us to think, to become part of the conversation, to seek wisdom.
Reading scripture this way also means, as Enns says, “the ancient tribal description of God is not the last word.” The Hebrew Bible portrays an ancient tribal nation that acted like one and for whom capturing land and keeping their enemies at bay by violence, slavery, and extermination was a way of life and survival. But in the ongoing conversation, other voices are heard. One further example of this is the conversation going on between books like Jonah and Nahum. One pronounces doom upon the city of Ninevah and the Assyrians while the other rebukes Israel for not understanding that God’s mercy is to be extended to those same “enemies” — “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11)
For Christians, we see this ongoing conversation as moving to a point of resolution in the good news of the Messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In a context of military occupation by foreign enemies who had seized the land God promised to Abraham, Jesus encouraged his followers to love their enemies not destroy them. And rather than exerting violence against those who opposed him, he ultimately absorbed the violence within himself and laid down his life for them.
Jesus, Israel’s final prophet, is the ultimate voice in the conversation. As Peter Enns affirms: “And for Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read— which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word.”