I stand before a group of God created people, with the command to lead an army to utterly destroy those people, men, women, and children. Everything in me screams out for the justice of God and the protection of the innocent, and yet through the messengers of God, the very anointed ones which we follow, I am told to kill, and to kill mercilessly. Should I doubt the anointed ones? Should I go rogue? Should I begin an insurrection amongst my own people in order to change the course of history? Or should I do as my leaders have commanded? I mean, it is “our” promised land, the land which God had sworn to our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet, there are women and children in that land, unsuspecting women and children who will die by my sword… if I obey. How do I know that God has spoken these things?
One of the most troubling sections of scripture to most believers is the conquest of the Holy Land by Israel. I think we tend to approach the text, placing ourselves in it, and have emotions elicited that follow the path of the paragraph above. It is impossible to simply spiritualize the hostile takeover and still respect the scriptures themselves. The Hebrew texts present this take over as historical text, and you would be hard pressed to read it as allegory. Many well-meaning pastors have tried to turn this historical text into a mere life lesson about overcoming hardships, or claiming God’s promises. In doing this the pastor, knowingly or not, is attempting to make a beeline past the history itself in hopes that nobody will notice. The people of Canaan simply become ‘obstacles in our lives’ the land simply becomes ‘our idealized Christian existence’ and the carnage is quickly sterilized into mere addictions and habits that have fallen by the wayside. We do this sort of thing with the cross as well, but that is another topic altogether. The question is how do we deal with the history itself? I suppose we could ignore it in favor of platitudes about victory. We could do the opposite and celebrate it and find some sort of twisted pleasure in God’s vengeance. We could write it off as God becoming progressively nicer, I mean the slaughter of Canaanites is certainly not as drastic as the flood account so God must be getting gradually nicer… right? We could, in the same vein as Brian McLaren, view it as the people of God gradually becoming more aware of the mercy of God, and choose to see this hostile takeover as progress from seeing the flood as an act of God, but not yet seeing the fully realized mercy and inclusion we find in Christ. There are a lot of ways to look at. The spiritualized way is to ignore the history. The ‘joy in the vengeance of God’ is a way to affirm the history, while ignoring all the other attributes of God which we cherish. The ‘progressive understanding of God’ method acknowledges the history but denies God’s action in or authorization of it. Where is a good place to stand?
I tend to think that we come to this section of scripture with some pretty faulty presumptions. First we presume that these people of Canaan were relatively innocent, believing they were ‘sort of’ bad, but the women and children surely must have been innocent. We give the benefit of the doubt, but on what is that founded? Recall in the whole account of Sodom and Gomorrah, “yea if I find just 5 righteous men I will spare the city.” To deny God’s patience is a mistake. What was so horrific about these people that they needed wiped out? Or was it merely the manifest destiny of Israel and these Canaanites were innocent by-standers?
I think we ought to at least consider the possibility that the people of Canaan were violently opposed to God, violently opposed to mercy, and violently opposed to life and creation, and that maybe, just maybe, they were getting the just rewards of their actions. Recall that God waited until their ‘iniquity was fulfilled’ before sending in the troops so to speak. We are back to Genesis “If I find 5 good men, I will spare the city.” The question I ask is what ought to be done with a people who heat up bronze statues till they glow, and then place their infants in the hands of that statue in the belief that they could please their gods? Moreover to consider that the reason they were trying to please their gods was so that they would have better weather and be able to grow more crops for themselves? Ought a nation, or religion like that be allowed to continue? Would we not cry out for the justice of God against such a people? Yet now we read of God carrying out his justice against such a people and we bristle at the thought that God would order the death of anyone. Don’t leave this completely in the Old Testament either, lest you stumble across Ananias and Saphira in Acts.
I am not about to say that I am comfortable with the conquest of Canaan, or that I have some warm fuzzy feeling about it, or that I have reconciled the carnage in my mind. I am not about to say that this portion of scripture fits neatly into my understanding of God, and ultimately of the grace of Christ toward the world. It doesn’t fit neatly at all. At the same time few people cried “injustice!” when storm troopers offed Nazis who saw it a duty to their god to mercilessly kill infant Jews and other minorities. In fact if anything it seemed an injustice that many survived.
It’s good that we are troubled by death and conquest. It is good that we are not comfortable with the conquest of Canaan, I don’t think God would want us comfortable with it. At the same time, we ought to look more objectively at the people conquered, and be willing to see that there was a lot more justice in the whole thing than we tend to be willing to see. Moreover as we look at the failing of Israel to fully carry out these gruesome commands of God, we see the very injustice of the Canaanite people infecting Israel themselves as they begin to make the same hideous offerings once made only by the people of the land.
I’m optimistic. I think when Christ came, announced His kingdom, lived died and rose for the world, that things have gotten better. I believe things will continue to get better, at least in regards to Canaanite-like death worship.
As we approach the conquest portion of scripture, at the very least, let us not minimize the culture of death which Israel was called to eradicate. It is also critically important for us to see that post- life, death and resurrection of Christ for the sin of the world, there is no place whatsoever for militant conquest of a people. The conquest was finished on the cross. Nonetheless we ought to be a bit more objective regarding the conquest narrative of the Old Testament before we raise our fist at God and cry out ‘that’s not fair! My god wouldn’t do that!”