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]


Daniel Hill said...

This essay by a member of Stephen Rees's church in Stockport won a recent competition for a short essay on this topic:

Daniel Hill said...

It seems to me unfortunate for his case that Cowles says `Isn't Christianity meant to be centred on the cross?' -- after all, the cross shows that sin is so serious that it can necessitate the death of God's own son. That surely makes it less surprising if it necessitates the death of others, such as the Canaanites?

John said...

Well - quite. I go there in part 4...