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Reconciling the God of Love with the God of Genocide?

David T. Lamb, author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, has written an article in the September/October issue of Relevant on the alleged incompatibility of the Old Testament wars and the Christian God. He shows why two common responses fail to resolve the problem (one offered by liberals, one offered by conservatives) and then offers five arguments that take both the problem and the text seriously.

Read it here (jump to pages 108-111).

New Atheism and the Canaanite Campaign

Clay Jones:

“The problem with new atheist divine genocide claims is rather simple: God hates sin, but the new atheists do not.” (Killing the Canaanites: A Response to the New Atheism’s “Divine Genocide” Claims, Christian Research Journal, 33:4, 2010).

Read the whole article online here.

Video from the Bradley v Flannagan Debate

The video footage of the Bradley & Flannagan Debate entitled “Is God the Source of Morality? Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?” is now available for viewing on Youtube. Held at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, on 2 August, 2010, many people have been eagerly anticipating watching this entertaining and important debate between atheist philosopher, Raymond Bradley and Christian philosopher and blogger, Matt Flannagan. (over 100 people have viewed Part 01/12 before the Part 12/12 is loaded and anyone pointing out it was there.)

Apologies to those to whom the wait has been unbearable.

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 01/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 02/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 03/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 04/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 05/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 06/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 07/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 08/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 09/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 10/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 11/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 12/12

This debate was brought to you by the Evangelical Union and the Reason and Science Society with the support of Thinking Matters. Written forms of the opening statements and first replies can be found at MandM.

Did God order genocide in the Old Testament against the Canaanites?

One of the most difficult episodes to understand in the Old Testament is God’s command for Israel to kill the Canaanites. Paul Copan, a philosophy and ethics professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, has made available an article, due out in the next issue of Philosophia Christi addressing this topic. The President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society (he also blogs at Parchment and Pen), Copan evaluates the passages in the context of archaeology and Ancient Near East literature  and argues that the evidence suggests that  the Canaanites who were killed were combatants rather than noncombatants (“Scenario 1”) and that, given the profound moral corruption of Canaan, this divinely-directed act was just.” Should this scenario be shown to be false, he also maintains that “even if it turns out that noncombatants were directly targeted (“Scenario 2”), the overarching Old Testament narrative is directed toward the salvation of all nations–including the Canaanites.”

The Canaanite campaign jars our moral sensibilities and jeopardizes our confidence in the Bible as a supernaturally inspired interpretation of history. Christians therefore have an obligation to try to understand this episode and Copan’s article, as a follow-up to his eariler essay on this issue (“Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics”), is very helpful in this regard.

I have tried to summarize the main points but if you’re interested in the topic, I strongly recommend that you read the whole thing.

Firstly, Copan argues that God’s judgment on the Canaanites was not only morally just but that evidence also indicates that the Israelite campaign was directed primarily at military combatants (Scenario 1):

1. The Canaanites were morally corrupt.
There was a profound moral corruption amongst the Canaanites that called out for God’s justice, in keeping with His salvation historical purposes. The divine judgment enacted upon the nation was consistent with God’s oracles against other nation states that had crossed moral thresholds. The Canaanite campaign is also, in a sense, anticipatory of the final judgment where justice will be firmly established on a cosmic scale. (Also see Clay Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 53–72.))

2. The Canaanites were morally culpable.
God has made available moral ideals and insights through general revelation to Gentile nations such that they are sufficiently accountable. Prophetic warnings as in Amos 1 -2 demonstrate that God can hold other nations responsible for stifling compassion, suppressing their consciences, and carrying out particularly heinous acts. The language used in the New Testament of the Gentile population also confirms this (“disobedient” (Heb. 11:31)–a term indicating a moral awareness of wrongdoing but a refusal to turn from it and also Paul’s affirmation of those outside the Sinai covenant who possess the capacity (through conscience) to distinguish right from wrong (Rom. 2:14–15))

3. The preservation of Rahab’s family demonstrated the possibility of amnesty.
Rahab’s embrace of Yahweh and discovery of salvation exhibited both the compassionate character of Yahweh and His to relent from judgment, whether Canaanite, Ninevite (Jon. 4:2) or those from any “nation” that “turns from its evil” (Jer. 18:7–8). It is Yahweh’s desire that the wicked turn rather than die (Ezek. 18:31–32; 33:11) but once a nation surpasses a point of no moral and spiritual return, God will intervene (as He did even upon Israel and Judah (2 Chron. 36:16; cp. 2 Kings 18:11–12; 1 Chron. 5:23) ).

4. The Canaanite campaign was not motivated by racial hatred or ethnic superiority.
Yahweh repeatedly commands Israel to show concern for strangers and aliens in their midst (for example, Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18–19) and throughout the Old Testament this theme is evident in the way enemies of Israel are shown as eventual objects of His salvation and are consequently incorporated into the people of God (Ps 87). Yahweh’s concern for the nations and His continual reminder that the taking of the land is not due to Israel’s intrinsic superiority (“indeed, the Israelites are “a stubborn people” (Deut. 9:4–6)”) hardly supports a Gentile-hating, arrogant ethnocentrism.

5. The religious dimension of Israel’s campaign cannot be equated with the sanctioning of human sacrifice.
The OT passages that treat Israel’s motivation for the campaign highlight punishment against idolaters (especially those who have lead Israel astray or committed injustice against her), the total destruction of warriors and the consecration to God of everything that was captured. Further, the OT strongly condemns child sacrifice as the epitome of anti-Yahwist and anti-social behavior. Even to take certain (dubious) readings as demonstrating the act of sacrifice is to forget that not all behavioral examples included in Scripture are good ones (cp. 1 Cor. 10:1–12) and in fact the theology of Judges emphasizes the nadir of Israelite morality and religion.

6. The rhetorical devices common to Ancient Near East (ANE) literature must be taken into account when understanding the passages that talk of total obliteration.

The phrase “all that breathes” is a standard ANE expression of military bravado and refers to total victory and the crushing defeat over one’s enemies. The accounts made clear that many inhabitants remained in the land and prescriptions against alliances and intermarriage with them actually assumed this.

7. Following OT scholar Richard Hess, it can be argued that the Canaanites targeted for destruction were the political leaders and their armies rather than noncombatants. The language employed appears to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region, without forcing the reader to conclude anything further about their ages or even their genders.

8. Both the language and archaeological evidence point to Jericho, Ai, and the other targeted cities in Canaan as military forts, lacking civilian populations.
The actual battles in Joshua do not mention noncombatants and excavated physical evidence show that,  for example, Jericho was a military settlement and therefore all those killed were warriors.

9. The methods of Israel’s warfare demonstrate restraint and lack the bloodthirsty fervor of similar ANE annals.
Many battles were defensive and in response to calculated assaults and attempts to lead Israel into immorality. God often prohibited Israel from conquering other neighbouring nations.

10. The Canaanite campaign did not set down a pattern or legitimize similar action for later Israel or even professing Christians.
The killing of the Canaanites was deliberately limited in scope and restricted to a specific period of time. Neither Deuteronomy nor Joshua imply the campaign as precedent-setting and successive OT leaders did not take it as such. We see do not see Saul, David or the other leaders of Israel and Judah undertaking similar action against Assyria, Babylon, Persia, or the local equivalents of the Canaanites in the Second Temple period. Christians that have sought to justify their military campaigns with the killing of the Canaanites ignore Jesus clear own kingdom teaching (Matt 26:52; John 18:36).

However, even if the evidence was overturned and it could be shown that women and children were explicit targets of the campaign (Scenairo 2):

1. For the Israelites, the killing of the Canaanites would have been a grim task but in the ANE, warfare was a way of life and a means of survival.
Combatant and noncombatant would not have been easily distinguished and in combination with the hardness of human hearts (Matt. 19:8) and human moral bluntedness in the ANE, would have likely rendered such actions considerably less psychologically damaging for the Israelite soldier.

2. The Canaanite campaign must be set within the context of God’s overarching goal to bring blessing and salvation to all the nations, including the Canaanites, through Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 22:17–18; cp. 28:13–14). The killing of the Canaanites is not the norm but a troubling exception, apart of a background of Yahweh’s enemy-loving character and worldwide salvific purposes. While simultaneously punishing a morally wicked people and seeking to establish Israel in the land, God was certainly willing to preserve any who acknowledged his evident lordship over the nations, which was very well known to the Canaanites (Josh. 2:8–11; 9:9–11, 24; cf. Exod. 15:14–17; Deut. 2:25).

3. We should expect God’s purposes to be often unclear and even baffling, but not let this eclipse the overwhelming revelation of God’s trustworthy character.
We cannot measure God by our own defective standards, afterall, humanity is incapable of refereeing God’s actions. Apart from God, we have no transcultural standpoint to assess the moral fitness of a culture, least of all, judge God Himself and His purposes in judgment. We must remember both His “kindness and severity” (Rom. 11:22) and realize God’s unique cosmic authority will seek to correct our profoundly selfish human ways, even in civil contexts. Given the inadequacy of our “cognitive position”, and the recognition that even in human relationships there must be room for trust, the full picture of God’s purposes may not always be available to us.

Response to the SaviorOfLogic

SaviorOfLogic has replied to a comment on YouTube video Atheists should not criticize Hitler:

If whatever God commanded be good, then murder (assuming an Abrahamic belief system) is always evil, and should be punishde by death, but what if I went back in time and killed Hitler, is that good or evil? What if God forbid’s murder, but then commands you to kill (such as in the promised land), is killing or not killing them the moral action?

My reasoning is that almost every single action can be both good and evil, depending on the circumstances, and we don’t need a deity to tell us that.

ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) says

Hello, SaviorOfLogic. You have some good questions here which I am interested in answering them. But the format here on YouTube is not so good for questions such as these, and I do not think I can do them justice in the short time I have available now. Please check talk.thinkingmatter.org.nz where I’ll blog on this topic, hopefully in the next week.

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My promised response follows…

I think you might want to be talking about the Mosaic Law (not the “Abrahamic belief system”), which states “Thou shalt not murder.” 

You start with the word “If,” and as I already mentioned in my response UppruniTegundanna (though you may have missed it due the lengthy comment section), that the “if…” is something I am not willing to grant. 

Here is what I had to say concerning the Euthyphro Dilemma. 

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ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) says

The ethics developed on the theism finds a transcendent ground in God. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma, that is to say those are not the only options. The third option that splits the arguments horns is that God is the standard. Rather than the good being good because God said so – thus arbitrary, or the good being above God – thus God is not the ultimate, the good flows from his nature – the good is good because God is good.

UppruniTegundanna responds

If I accept the third option, can I say that it is in fact a false trilemma, and that there is an additional option that we are being deceived into our beliefs about what is good or not by an evil force? 

ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) responds

As for the third option – you could say that it is a false trilemma because there are more than three options – but all I need to do is split the horns of the dilemma. I don’t even need to argue that the third option is true, it just needs to be an option. But I do think that the third option is plausibly true – we have for instance biblical grounds for declaring it true, and we have good philosophical grounds as well, as God is defined as the ultimate being and morality is a perfection.

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What if God forbid’s murder, but then commands you to kill…

I don’t equate murder with killing. Killing is any action performed that results in the loss of a life. Murder is killing with that added moral component that makes the action wrong.

The distinction between the two is very interesting I think, but for now let us not get distracted by it.

is killing or not killing them the moral action?

Because I think that our moral duties come from God’s commands and flow directly from his nature, not killing them would be immoral. Whereas killing them in the absence of God’s command would be immoral. I know at this point my answer seems incredible to you, so before I go on, its worth pointing out that the consistent atheist has to adopt a far more radical position. 

He or she must deny there is such as thing as evil, good, and objective right and wrong. Should and shouldn’t should be wiped from their dictionary. Morals become the equivalent of personal preference akin to which way I choose to part my hair in the morning – totally subjective and amoral. On atheism ethics is as philosopher Dr. Michael Ruse says is “illusory.”

In the absence of a deity, in order to discourse with meaning on ethics, you need to give a basis for how we determine what is right and wrong, good and evil. 

I hold to Divine Command Theory. This is the theory that says our moral duties are given by the decrees of God.

(such as in the promised land)

The questions I think you are really asking are; (1) How can you consider the conquest of Caanan moral? (2) Is the God who commanded them to kill Himself moral?

C.S.Lewis said when critiquing a worldview you have to do your best to step inside that worldview and assess it from the inside, or run the risk of arguing against a straw man. So step inside…

First observation is that both these questions assume the Bible is factually accurate. So its not really a critique from the outside, but an internal matter of consistency. Therefore, at most what is at stake is the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy – not the existence of God, and not even the moral perfection of God.

As I’ve distinguished between the act of murder and killing, mush of the force of (2) is already gone. Question (1) remains.

The conquest of Caanan comes set against the backdrop of Sodom and Gomorra. Abraham has a discussion where God tells him that he is going to destroy these two cities. Like a middle-eastern bargain hunter, Abraham says “will you still destroy the city if a hundred righteous people live there?” God says “No, I will not.” Abraham comes back again and again, getting lower and lower, and always receives the same answer – “No, I will not.” Eventually Abraham dare not go any lower. 

The LORD does indeed rescue Lot, Abraham’s nephew, from Sodom before it is destroyed. The implication is that God would not judge a whole city if there was one righteous person who lived there. So we see the great holiness of God, the great length he will go to deliver those who seek to obey him, and judgement of a wicked and perverse people. 

The fire and brimstone that reigned down on those two cities represented God’s judgement on them. As the supreme, infinitely holy being who first gave them life, God has every right to take their lives, and is under no obligation to prolong their life. Also as an omniscient being he is also capable of knowing the amount of evil that would have resulted had he not judged them in this way. It is also possible that God could have known there were no circumstances in which they would have repented if given the opportunity. 

It is around this time that Abraham receives a promise that the land will be his inheritance for descendants. But does God send them in immediately. The answer is no. He stalls over four hundred years to wait for “their iniquity is not yet full.”

Fast forward to Israel exiting Egypt and the desert wandering: promised the land but unable to take possession of it, waiting for God’s command to come. When it does the command says kill every person you find there. You and I in modern times thinks that’s pretty harsh, but remember we are talking about God giving the command. Our moral duties come from his command and perfectly reflect his nature, which is pure and holy, perfect in morals and in judgement. So the command represents God’s judgement upon that nation, and this time instead of fire and brimstone, the instruments of His judgement are the Israelites. 

Because God is not accountable to anyone or any over arching principle called “good” he literally cannot sin, as his own commands that flow from his perfect nature are not binding on him. We however, as his creations, are recipients of those commands and we are to be held responsible for breaking them and, if he wishes it, rewarded for obeying them. 

It must be remembered that the Canaanites were not innocent victims. With the background context of Sodom and Gomorra fresh in our mind, there was probably not one righteous person among them, accept Rahab and her family who were rescued much like Lot. The people who lived in Caanan were reprobates and full of all types of wickedness and debauchery. Temple prostitution was one of things that were common practice, as well as child sacrifice. 

One reason God may have given this command was He knew that if these tribes and nations had been allowed to continue to live there would have greater evil as a result. An omniscient being is in the perfect position to decide that the lives of a few thousand now is better than the lives of untold millions later. 

Also, on the Christian view, the children who were killed in the conquest of Canaan would go to heaven, whereas had they been allowed to live and grow up they might have been placed in circumstances where he knew they would have rejected him. So actually when God decreed that even the children should be killed, He was doing them a favour. And when it comes to the salvation of the adults, it is at least possible that God knew that there was not any possible set of circumstances that would elicit from those people true repentance and salvation. 

One reason the Bible gives for God giving this command is so the Israelites would understand the importance of being set apart from the nations that surrounded them. God knew that if these people were not exterminated then Israel would latter fall into apostasy. And if you follow through in the history of Israel, that is exactly what did happen. The very people that Israel spared were the people that latter led them into idolatry and sin. Later God used those same people to discipline Israel in turn to keep them a separate and holy nation. 

The conquest of Caanan helped to shape Israel’s national identity. It is entirely plausible that God understood that an immeasurable good would result from their separated and unique identity. And in the gospels we see that God was right, for from Israel there came a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who built a bridge between sinful man and a holy God, that the whole world can be reconciled Him. A good that would not have been possible had Israel been just another heathen culture. 

So we have see that given God’s moral greatness and superlative attributes that Christian monotheism is internally consistent and logically on sound ground. Whereas atheism is not logically sound if one wishes to discourse on ethics with real meaning, and is internally inconsistent as it is completely unliveable. Based on all the above, God is not only in the very centre of how we determine what is moral, but He gives us the only logical ground to affirm that both good and evil exist. 

I put it to you, who is the more reasonable? The one who sees the atrocities of Hitler’s Nazi regime and says “I don’t like it, but I can’t say it’s wrong because my atheism won’t allow me to,” or the one who says “This was really evil.” 

Thank God that He is the true “Saviour of logic.” :-)