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Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster? Part 4

Autobiographies are usually very interesting. There are good ones and others that are not so good. One of the challenges is how to know that the author is being truthful and objective about themselves. One of the ways to evaluate autobiographies is to check for consistency, or the lack thereof. If an author’s actions contradict what he says about himself, then we can reasonably conclude that he is being less than honest. If this is the case, how do we know what to believe? The author loses credibility and the autobiography proves to be unreliable. Likewise, the Bible contains God’s autobiographical descriptions of himself, his nature and his actions.
If God is the author of the Bible there should be no inconsistencies between His actions and what he has revealed about himself. Nevertheless, skeptics are quick to claim that God consistently acts in ways that are in direct conflict with his supposed attribute of being kind, loving and merciful. These are serious accusations because, if true, God loses credibility and the Bible proves to be unreliable. As such, these accusations must be given due consideration.
The Case of the Amalekites
I believe we should take God’s Word literally and believe what it says.  If God chooses to have an entire people group wiped-out He has every right to do so. As mentioned in Part 1—His role is quite different than ours which entitles him to do what we cannot. However, we still need to deal with His revelation to us and we should take any charge of an apparent inconsistency seriously.  When dealing with the violence of the conquest, not only is God’s character questioned by the critics, but also the reliability of the Bible, since there appears to be full of inconsistencies. There are no real inconsistencies, but that needs to be demonstrated to the critic. Considering a few contextual details goes a long way in refuting these charges. Consider the following clarifications:
First, when we talk about Canaanites, we are really speaking of many different people groups (all of the “…ites”) that are mentioned frequently in the books of Numbers thru Judges. The text clearly shows that God dealt with many of these different people groups in different ways. It is a common mistake to lump them all together as one group—the Canaanites.
Second, Old Testament linguists point out that two kinds of words are used to describe what was to be done with the Canaanites: “dispossession” words and “destruction” words. They note that the former are used by a three-to-one margin over the latter. In other words, some of the people groups needed to be “driven out” and some of the people groups needed to be “wiped out.”
Third, as far as wiping out the religion of the Canaanites, the emphasis of the entire Old Testament centers on destroying “their altars.”  As a matter of fact when we read the mini biographies of the kings of the both the North and the South, it seems that they were “evaluated” based in part on whether they destroyed the pagan altars or rebuilt them.
From our vantage point, we have the benefit of reading God’s commands to His people and we also get to read whether they obeyed or not. We get to see the results of the execution of God’s requests, and often we get God’s feedback as He addressed the response of His people. A problem presents itself to us when we consider that on some occasions, like in 1 Samuel 15, a people group that appears to be wiped-out shows up again at a later date. Notice the language of 1 Samuel 15,
2 Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. 3 Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
This passage appears to dictate the complete annihilation of everyone and everything. It seems the instructions could not be clearer.  Furthermore, God is angered with Saul for not carrying out the command completely. Saul spared King Agag and some of the animals.  Samuel is sent to rectify the situation and he himself kills King Agag.  Thus it appears that the Amalekites have finally been destroyed. Then you find in chapter 30 that David has to deal with the Amalekites; they are still around.[1]
How do we explain the appearance of people groups after they were supposed to have been annihilated?
Several reasonable answers can be considered and they are all, to some degree, correct regarding different people groups. First, the Israelites didn’t sneak up on the Canaanites. People had heard about the Israelites and their God Yahweh, and they had plenty of time to get out of town. Before ever crossing the Jordan River, the Israelites took a whole swath of land from the middle of the Dead Sea on the east side up to the Sea of Galilee (accounts can be read from Numbers 21 through 31). Interestingly, Rahab claims that the people of Jericho had heard about the victories given the Israelites by Yahweh and were terrified. Likewise, Amorite kings heard about the Jordan River drying up for the Israelites to cross over and “their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel” (Josh. 5:1). The inhabitants of Gibeon heard about what happened at Jericho and Ai and were so afraid they devised a deceptive scheme to protect themselves (Josh. 9).
Because of that advance warning, it is quite possible that some people abandoned their cities. Furthermore, there is no indication that the Israelites pursued people who escaped. Those who stayed, however, showed their obstinate determination to continue in their ways, and they were to be destroyed, including the women and the children who stayed behind.
Second, the Israelites did not obey God and spared many of the people groups. As it turned out, Moses’ warning in Deut. 4:25-28 became prophetic. Starting in Judges 1:27-36 we read that tribe after tribe of Israelites did not drive out all the inhabitants of the cities they “conquered”. Verse 28, for example, tells us that “it came about when Israel became strong, that they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they did not drive them out completely.”
Third, in some occasions, war language included hyperbole. It was understood by the readers as part of the genre they were reading. That does not mean the passages are not to be taken literally—it means that the Author chose to avail Himself of all types of rhetorical devices and figures of speech. It is a common misperception to think that when figures of speech are taken for what they are—rhetorical devices, we are somehow abandoning the literal interpretation.  That is not the case. When we abandon the literal interpretation for, say an allegorical interpretation, we take that everything the author said must be understood in some other sense and not literally.  For example, Isaiah uses over 25 figures of speech in chapter 1 of his book.  We understand that he needed to use the vivid language to provoke a reaction from a spiritually dead nation.  However, the literal interpretation of the passage doesn’t mean we believe he is addressing the rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah as vs. 10 phrases it. Likewise, God is described by the psalmist using figures of speech as in Ps. 91:4 “He shall cover you with His feathers, And under His wings you shall take refuge;” we obviously understand that in that genre (Hebrew Poetry) it is just an analogy to express the safety and protection we have in God; He doesn’t have feathers or wings. Likewise, hyperbole has always been an effective rhetorical device to communicate or evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression. For example, when you say, “I have called you a million times” the intention is to communicate a strong sense of frustration at having called many times. Everyone today understands that without any need of explanation. Likewise, hyperbole was often used in biblical times and clearly understood by the original audience for whom the passages were written.  Consider for example Numbers 13:33,
33 There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”
Or Deut. 1:28
28 Where can we go up? Our brethren have discouraged our hearts, saying, “The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”’   [lit. walls that reach heaven]
Where we need to be careful with this point is that hyperbole isn’t always obvious to those outside the immediate cultural context. The aforementioned examples are obvious—but some of the conquest passages are not that obvious. Thus they may be hyperboles (which would explain why they were not literally wiped-out) or they may be simply literal in which case we would have to resort to either reason 1 or reason 2 above.
The bottom line is that there is no problem with 1 Samuel 15 and other similar passages, whether they are read as plain literal language or as a passage that includes some hyperbole (or other rhetorical device). God still inspired the writing of the passages, the Bible is still true and dependable, and there are enough contextual clues to provide a reasonable response to the charge of inconsistency.
The Charge of Infanticide
What about the innocent children and infants? What if it is the case that some children and innocent people were killed in these campaigns? Would that be enough reason for us to give up on the Bible?  I really don’t think it is. From our perspective death is something terrible, something final. But from God’s perspective it is not. Even today, when children die—from God’s perspective—it’s not a tragedy.  We seem to forget that God has a way of making up for anything and everything those children may have lost.  This is precisely the point argued by William Lane Craig,
Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.[2]
Conclusion
When considered in its narrative context, the conquest of Canaan is not a case of ethnic cleansing, genocide, or infanticide.  It is the depiction of a people group transitioning from a clan to a nation and acquiring a land in which to settle.  It is the story of God’s compassion and love for his people as well as God’s judgment of sin and wickedness.  The wickedness of the Canaanites should be the focus of our anger and not the justice dealt upon them by God. In our next article we will consider four other case studies of passages that are completely taken out of context for the express purpose of attacking the character of God.
FOOTNOTES
[1] An important question to ask is why are we still dealing with them during the time of Saul? In Deut. 25 God instructs that they be completely wiped-out and yet there is no direct mention of them during the conquest. The passage in 1 Samuel occurs 350 to 400 years after the conquest.
[2] William Lane Craig. The Slaughter of the Canaanites, Q&A. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites#ixzz2MrSxwQbk Accessed 3/1/13.
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