Monday, January 30, 2012

Free to Be Guilty?

I don't know if you've been following the story of the Costa Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy. It's one of those stories that has a kind of morbid fascination for many. At the heart of it is the captain, Francesco Schettino. It seems that he told the coastguard he would be the last person to leave the ship, but that he left 4 hours before some of the other survivors, then claimed that he had “tripped and fallen into a lifeboat” and refused to go back onto the ship.

Perhaps what is most striking about Schettino are his pathetic attempts at self-justification. It seems fairly clear that it is his fault the ship was too close to the island, his fault that they were so slow to start the evacuation of the ship, and his fault that he left the ship before that evacuation was complete. And yet he keeps trying to find excuses and shift the blame. Or maybe that's just the way the media presents it...

We criticise Schettino for his behaviour, and rightly so, but it seems that so often we do the same things. We say “I'm sorry I'm late – I got stuck behind a really slow driver” or “The food's burnt because you distracted me while I was meant to be cooking.” We shift the blame because we don't like the reality that we are guilty, and we'd rather make it sound like someone else's fault. Or is that just me?

The Gospel, however, paints a very different picture. Jesus died for us so that we could be forgiven. Or, to put it another way: We as individuals are so guilty that the only way we can be forgiven is for the Son of God himself to die for us. I am so guilty that I needed Jesus to die for me, and you are just as guilty as I am. There is no room for self-justification; there is nowhere left to hide.

What does self-justification say about us? It actually says that we don't like the gospel. We don't want to admit that we are so guilty that Jesus had to die so we could be forgiven. We would rather try to cling to the dirty rags of our own self-righteousness than accept the new clothes that Jesus offers us.

The gospel is good news. It is the news that God loved us so much that he gave his only son to die and be raised again so that we can be forgiven; that we can have a righteousness that is from God by grace through faith because our own self-righteousness can be never be good enough; that we can know God and need never be ashamed because he offers us a new life.

So let's feel free to be guilty! When we mess up, which we do and will go on doing, let's be honest about it. Let's not try to find any more pathetic excuses, but be honest with one another, repent genuinely and forgive one another from the heart. Let's trust that we are righteous because of God's righteousness given to us rather than because of our own attempts to be good. If we rely on our own goodness, we will fail. But if we rely on God's goodness to us in accepting us, forgiving us and transforming us, then he can never fail.

Then maybe we will learn not to look a fool like Captain Schettino, and will have more of the open, honest and forgiving community that God calls us to be.

(first published in church magazine)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Managing God's Money - Randy Alcorn

This is the best book I have ever read on how Christians should relate to money.

As you'd expect, there's plenty on giving, and it avoids the dangers of legalism and ignoring tithing - I love his picture of tithing as being how God trains people to give. But there's also plenty on when saving is good (and when it isn't), the dangers of legacies, training children to have a good attitude to money, dealing with debt, and so on. But practice is always rooted in good theology.

If I were going to come up with one criticism, it's that his section entitled "Is it right for Christians to have material possessions and enjoy them?" gives the right answer but underplays it. There is a real danger in some cases of people feeling guilty for enjoying anything when they feel they should give more. Admittedly, the danger for far more people is that they assume that they should be comfortable and only give God what is left over.

Oh, and it doesn't mention Fairtrade stuff either.

Great book. Highly recommended. If you know of better money-related books, I'd love to know!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Part 4

4. How can the God of Joshua be the God of Jesus?

And so we get back to the key question – how can the God of Joshua also be the God of Jesus? A few thoughts.

  • Jesus is the one who takes the punishment that we deserve so that we don't suffer the same fate as the Canaanites. He is the solution to the problem of how there can be any hope for those who commit treason against the rightful and righteous rule of God. And he solves it by being God and bearing God's own righteous anger against our sin.
  • Some people say that God could not order the destruction of the Canaanites. But if that is so, why did Jesus need to die? If the punishment that we all deserve for our sin was any less than death, God need not have paid that price for us. But he did.
  • What happened with the Canaanites shows us where the natural trajectory of our lives leads. Jesus offers us transformation that leads away from cosmic treason and judgement and into following the Prince of Peace.
  • Jesus is the one who will ultimately judge the world. He will return in glory to judge the living and dead, as the Creed says. Longman points out that those who have a problem with the Canaanite genocide are likely to have far more of a problem with the Last Judgement. But as the last judgement is something carried out by Jesus, the problem is not in reconciling the God of Joshua with the God of Jesus, but reconciling Christ as Saviour and Christ as Judge.
  • Christ can be Judge precisely because he is also Saviour. He has offered us salvation; he has paid the immense price for that salvation. And so if we reject that salvation, we have offended him. The God most of the Canaanites rejected is the same God who died to redeem the few who turned to him, and is the same God who judged them for their rejection of his offer of salvation.
[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Part 3

3. How do we know we aren't going to be called to something like that today?

The key point in answering this question is made in the book by Gard. He points out that the God's people today – the church – are a theological entity, not a political one. There isn't a country now that is “God's country” more than another, so wars like the one in Joshua can't happen today.

This means, among other things, that fighting for God isn't physical fighting any more. Longman points to Ephesians 6.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
(Ephesians 6:10-20, NIV)

Christian warfare is fought by praying, with weapons like truth, faith, righteousness and God's Word. It isn't about physical political battles any more, because God's people are a spiritual unity rather than a political one and our enemies are spiritual rather than physical.

And though there are battles in the book of Revelation, God's people don't fight them. When they win, they do so by speaking about Jesus, and not running away from death (Rev 12:11). The description of the great final battle is of a huge army coming against God's people to fight against them, “but fire came down from heaven and devoured them.” (Rev 20:9). God's people don't have to fight.

There's a different debate here about whether it's appropriate for Christians to serve in the armed forces. That's not the question here – the point is that “holy war” is no longer fought with the weapons of this world, because God's kingdom is not of this world.

[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Part 2

2. Why Isn't It Really Genocide?

The so-called “Canannite Genocide” mostly takes place in the book of Joshua. I'd like to look at three short stories from the book of Joshua to show that not everything is as we might expect.

a) The Story of Rahab

Rahab is a Canaanite prostitute, who starts out living in Jericho. Right at the start of the conquest, before anyone dies, Joshua sends some spies out to investigate the land. They comes to Jericho, and meet Rahab, but are spotted. In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the Bible, Rahab then lies to her own people to protect the Israelite spies, then says this:

“I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” (Joshua 2:9-13, ESV)

The spies escape; Jericho is destroyed; Rahab and her family are saved.

There are several remarkable things about this as we consider the Canaanite genocide.

  • Rahab was a Canaanite, but she decided to side with the Israelites.
  • She is spared. No-one even questions whether it was wrong to make an agreement with her or whether they should go back on it (both arguments are used later with the Gibeonites).
  • God approves of her being spared. As we will see in the second story, God punishes all of Israel because Achan kept some of the plunder from Jericho, but he does not mention Rahab and her family being spared as a problem at all.
  • Rahab is not subsequently treated as a Canaanite. According to Matthew 1:5, she is the mother of Boaz and hence an ancestor of both David and Jesus. None of the laws against intermarriage apply to her (e.g. Deut 7:3); none of the laws against her descendants being allowed into the temple apply to her. The same is true of her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. Why not? I suggest it is because her profession of faith in the God of the Israelites means that she is no longer treated as a foreigner but as one of God's people.

What can we therefore learn about the “Canaanite Genocide”? Simply this – it's about punishment and idolatry. If people repent and decide to worship the true God, they can be spared. It might mean treason against their own people – it does for Rahab - but it means loyalty to the higher and more legitimate authority of God.

b) The Story of Achan

Achan stands in stark contrast to Rahab. She was the Canaanite who became part of God's people; he was the Israelite who was excluded from God's people and suffered the same fate as the Canaanites. We read about him in Joshua 7.

When Jericho was destroyed, the Israelites were not allowed to take any of the plunder for themselves – it was all to be destroyed or put into God's treasury. But Achan stole some and hid it under his tent. As a result, God was angry with Israel and they lost their next battle. Achan's actions come to light, and he is treated the same way as Jericho was (Josh 7:15 c.f. Josh 6:24).

What do we learn from this?

  • The division between those whom God destroys and those whom God spares is not ethnic. It is to do with whether or not they serve him. So rebellious Israelites are put outside, and obedient Canaanites are included. Echoes of Romans 11...

c) The Story of the Gibeonites

After the next battle, at Ai, Joshua has some more visitors. These visitors have a confession of faith that sounds like Rahab's, and they claim not to be Canaanites.

From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the LORD your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. (Joshua 9:9-10, ESV)

Joshua doesn't check it out with God, but makes peace with them. Of course, it turns out that they are actually from a nearby city. Squabbling ensues, but the Gibeonites join the list of Canaanites who are safe.

On the rare occasions when this passage is preached, it is usually applied by pointing out Joshua's foolishness in not asking God before signing the treaty. And that is there, but what is more striking to me is the Gibeonites' cunning in wanting to be part of God's people. It's a great illustration of Matthew 11:12. This is thrown into even clearer focus a couple of chapters later when the prophetic author of Joshua comments on the other Canaanites.

There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the LORD's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:19-20, ESV)

In the Bible, when God hardens people's hearts, it always describes the same process as them hardening their own hearts against him. The Canaanites harden their own hearts, but God is sovereign over it and uses their hard-hearted rejection of him to bring them to destruction.

But the crucial implication of that passage is that God approved of the Gibeonites trying to avoid destruction. It was the right thing for them to do, and stemmed from hearts that hadn't been hardened. Despite their lies, it seems that they really believed what they said about God. When Joshua confronts them with their lies, they reply:

“Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the LORD your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you--so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.”

So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them. But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the LORD, to this day, in the place that he should choose.

(Joshua 9:24-27, ESV)

What can we learn from the Gibeonites?

  • Where the Canaanites were not hard-hearted towards God, it was quite possible for them to remain in the land and escape destruction. All that they needed to do was strive for it and be willing to serve God rather than their idols.

Three short stories set during the conquest of Canaan, and each of them radically changes our perspective on what happened.

[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Friday, January 20, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Part 1

Continuing a series which I started yesterday...

1. How Can God's Instructions About the Canaanites Possibly Be Justified?

God commanded Israel:

But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded. (Deut 20:16-17, ESV)

The Bible itself gives several justifications for this command:

  • The picture the Bible paints of God is of an all-powerful sovereign. He owns the whole world, including the land of Canaan, and chose to give the land to Israel. He is therefore perfectly within his rights to expel squatters. Strikingly, that's almost exactly the language used in Joshua 3:10 – God is “driving out” the Canaanites from the land. Only the ones who stay and fight get killed.
  • God originally promised the land to Abram, 400 years earlier. But he does not give the land to Abram immediately. Instead he says “[your descendants] shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen 15:16). In other words, there is a strong element of punishment in what happened to the Canaanites. God is removing them from the land in punishment for their sin.
  • One aspect of the Canaanites' sin which was particularly heinous was their idolatry, which God wanted eradicated. “The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. You shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination to the LORD your God.” (Deut 7:25) There are strong indications elsewhere in the Bible that Canaanite idolatry included child sacrifice.
  • Linked to this is the idea that the Israelites needed to be protected from idolatry. After the verses quoted above, Deuteronomy 20 continues “... that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God.” God wanted his people to be free from any of the evil influences of Canaanite religion, therefore he required that it be completely eradicated, which meant eradicating all of its adherents. Of course, what eventually happens is that the Israelites don't wipe the Canaanites out, they do end up copying the Canaanite religion, and so they do end up rejecting God. So God's concern at this stage turns out to be completely justified.
  • This is all a part of the big picture of God's mission. The overarching storyline in this part of the Bible is that God has promised that he will bless all nations, and do so through establishing Israel as a nation which serves and honours him, and then shines as a light to the world. That requires them to be a nation, in a land, and living faithfully to him. All of which requires the removal of the Canaanites.

It's easy to kick against the idea that sin deserves death. We live in a culture which so often refuses to face up to reality in this area.

Most countries seem to agree that the most serious crime is treason. It was certainly one of the last crimes to carry the death penalty in the UK (abolished 1998). Treason is essentially an act of war against one's own country, particularly plotting to kill the rightful ruler. And it seems fairly clear that the better the ruler is, the worse the treason is. So Claus von Stauffenberg plotted to kill Hitler but is widely regarded as a hero, whereas William Joyce (aka Lord Haw-Haw) collaborated with the Germans during WW2 and is viewed as a villain, though both were convicted of treason. The better the ruler, the worse the crime.

What we seem to miss is that we are all guilty of treason against the best, the wisest and the most rightly sovereign ruler of all – God. We take all the good things that he has given us and try to declare our unilateral independence from him. And even while he continues to sustain us and bless us, we use our abilities to sing the praise of other gods, who are no gods at all. The Canaanites sacrificed their children, whom God had given them, to his rivals who were nothing more than statues.

They were all traitors, and all therefore rightly deserved death. Longman writes:

In conclusion, we must point out that the Bible does not understand the destruction of the men, women and children of these cities as a slaughter of innocents. Not even the children are considered innocent. They are all part of an inherently wicked culture that, if allowed to live, would morally and theologically pollute the people of Israel. (p.201)

But so are we, and that should be the real surprise of the Canaanite genocide. It was only the Canaanites who got destroyed, and not us too. We all deserve it – but they were the only ones to get what they deserved.

The important question is not so much why certain nations were destroyed but rather why all nations, including Israel, were not. By YHWH's standards of holiness, not even the most righteous of humanity could remain alive. (Gard, p.103)

Longman cites Meredith Kline's helpful idea of intrusion ethics – that what we see at the Canaanite genocide is God's final judgement on the Canaanites, but brought forwards from the end of time to the time of Joshua. What happened to the Canaanites is what should and will happen to all of us by rights. So it's just as well there's a way out...

[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Jesus and Canaanite Genocide - Introduction

I recently finished reading Show Them No Mercy – Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide in the excellent Counterpoints series (Zondervan, 2003). For anyone not familiar with the series, they find a controversial topic – in this case the Canaanite genocide partially carried out in the book of Joshua – and ask 4±1 scholars to write an essay on it. The scholars are selected because of the fact they hold differing views on the topic, and they get a chance to write responses to each others' essays as well. The result is a book that does a good job of presenting the different points of view on a difficult topic, which can be very useful as a starting point either for understanding the debate or for formulating one's own views.

Show Them No Mercy is a slightly unusual volume in the series because three of the four scholars end up in substantial agreement with each other, with only C.S. Cowles dissenting. Cowles kicks off the book with an essay where he argues that “love as it is revealed by God in Christ [should be] our criterion for interpreting Scripture”1. The difficult question is then this “Given that God has revealed himself supremely in the person of Jesus Christ, what does it mean for Scripture to record him commanding genocide in the case of the Canaanites?” Having raised the issue well, Cowles doesn't answer it anywhere near as convincingly. He tries a fusion of Origenistic allegorical interpretation and arguing that the Biblical authors' understanding of the nature of God develops with time, essentially saying “God didn't command it; God wouldn't command it; but Moses, Joshua and so on thought that he did because they didn't know God as well as we do now.”

Cowles' problem is that his understanding of Scripture doesn't hold together. He keeps appealing to Jesus, but ignores Jesus' understanding of the Old Testament passages as literal, and especially his claim that they are fundamentally about him (e.g. Luke 24:27). He ends up ignoring large swathes of the Bible (including Revelation and most of the OT) because they don't fit with his picture of what God is like. The three other authors rightly take him to task for this, and go on to make some very good and important points about how God could permit and even command the Canaanite genocide. And Cowles keeps coming back, saying “What about Jesus? Isn't Christianity meant to be centred on the cross?” He never really gets to grips with his own understanding of Scripture but I don't think the others ever really get to grips with his main point either. How can the God of Joshua be the God of Jesus?

Over the next few days, I'm going to try to post some of my thoughts about God and the Canaanite genocide. They lean massively on the authors of Show Them No Mercy, especially Tremper Longman III, but I'm adding some bits of my own thought too. I'm aiming to answer the following questions:

  1. How can God's instructions about the Canaanites possibly be justified?
  2. Why isn't it really genocide?
  3. How do we know we aren't going to be called to something like that today?
  4. How can the God of Joshua be the God of Jesus?
[intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]