17 August 2012

The Elephant in the Old Testament

Photo by Indorock
Social media is a minefield for conflict. Seldom a day goes by that I do not see some sort of heated argument appearing in my news feed. Something about being able to type out responses in an online social media format makes even the shyest person bold in sharing their thoughts and opinions. Maybe you're one of those people who loves conflict and heads into it straight on. Or maybe you'd rather avoid conflict at all costs and only post about neutral, everyday topics.

Regardless of which category you find yourself in, I know you have at some point seen what I like to call the "Holocaust argument." I would say that the Holocaust argument is the argument of all arguments in the Facebook realm. The Holocaust doesn’t even have to be directly related to the argument at hand. As long as you can somehow insinuate that someone's stance is in some way anti-Semitic, their point automatically becomes invalid.

Here's a case in point:
Owned by my own mother. ;)

In the same way, the argument to win all arguments in Christian circles is genocide in the OT. The issue of genocide is a stumbling block for both believers and skeptics/cynics alike. You can say anything about the Christian faith and someone will inevitably refute Christianity on the basis of the genocides in the Old Testament. The mass killings that God commanded make God seem untrustworthy. They make us question his goodness. How do we rationalize God’s seemingly cruel and insensitive behavior in the OT? How do we explain God’s seemingly different disposition in the NT? Is God really a good God if he ordered the killing of so many people?

There are three positions, and only three positions, that can be taken on this issue:

1. The Israelite God is an absurdly vengeful God, and Jesus is the Christians’ attempt to redeem this side of Him. Some very fundamental Christians take this view, as well as many atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. This is probably the only time that fundamental Christians and Richard Dawkins will be found in the same category!

2. The people who wrote the Bible were mistaken about God. They justified their zeal as God’s commandment to them to kill other people. Believe it or not, there were many students during my time at seminary who believed this. This is an easy answer to the problem. However, it creates many more problems. It makes the Biblical authors liars and downplays the inspiration of Scripture. If we cannot trust their account about God, how can we trust the rest of Scripture?

3. God is a God of love, but he is also a Holy God. These two traits may seem contrary, but they coalesce. The genocides in the Old Testament do not damage God's goodness but actually reaffirm it.

We are going to unpack this third position and discuss how it is Biblically accurate. The Bible tells us three different things about the genocides in the Old Testament.

1. The genocides in the OT are an act of justice.
The first thing that must be understood is that God is not a toddler who is throwing a temper tantrum because someone took what belonged to him! By commanding the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanite nations, God was administering justice.

Take a look at what God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:16. God just finished promising Abraham that he would give him and his descendants land to inhabit. But he tells him that they can't have it just yet. Why? God says, "After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.”

God does not give Abraham the land immediately because the Canaanites’ sin had not reached the “no turning back” point. God was patient with the Canaanites and even gave them opportunities to repent. Take Rahab, for instance. When the two spies entered the land at the beginning of Joshua, they came across a prostitute named Rahab who knew all about Yahweh. Somehow word reached the Canaanites about the exodus from Egypt and the people were afraid of Yahweh (Joshua 2:8-11). However, as we will see in a little bit, their Canaanite religion offered them far too many comforts for them to abandon it in favor of Yahweh.

     Finally, it must be understood that God is not guilty of ethnocentrism. God is not racist. God does not favor Israel over the Canaanites because their race is somehow more appealing to him. God orders the killing of the Canaanites out of judgment. They knew about Yahweh but refused to repent. We know that God is not racist because he later punishes Israel because she disobeys him and refuses to repent, just like the Canaanites did! Through the prophet Amos, Yahweh asks his people, "are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites" (9:7)? God is a God of justice, and he does not show partiality.

2. The genocides in the OT are an act of salvation.
This is perhaps the most difficult point because it does not fit into a neat, little package like we would like. But sometimes the easy answers are not the best answers.

It is important to remember that the commandment to kill an entire people group in the OT was a unique part of salvation history. God had the plan since Eden and the fall of humankind to redeem the world. This plan culminates with Christ. In order to bring Christ into the world, though, God had to establish Israel as a nation. For reasons we do not know, God chose Israel as the context through which to reveal his Son. By granting the Israelite's land and setting them up as a nation, God is creating the conditions necessary for Christ's Incarnation.

Although it is not perfect, as no analogy is, I like how N.T. Wright puts it. He thinks about the Biblical narrative as a drama. This drama has several different acts. It begins with the first act of Creation. It progresses to the Fall. Then Israel is introduced in the third act. The plot culminates with the Incarnation of Christ, but you cannot jump from act one to act four. You need to have Israel before you can have Christ.[i] 
As such, the instances of genocide in the Old Testament are a unique part of salvation history that are not to be repeated. Why did God choose to do act three this way? Couldn't he have done it some other way? Why didn't he give Israel a different land to inhabit? We simply don't know. We can't know. I wish I could give you an answer, but this is just simply the way God chose to do it. 
Regardless, act three is finished. We cannot use this special instance in salvation history as justification for genocide today. We now have the life and character of Jesus Christ as a model for dealing with conflict. We are not called to rage holy war; we are called to turn the other cheek.

3. The genocides in the OT are an act of hope.
Here's the big question that needs to be asked: How much does God want to save the world? The hope of salvation depends on the preservation of the Israelite faith. The Canaanite faith was deeply enticing, and if the Israelites had occupied the land with them in it they would have undoubtedly succumbed and renounced their faith in Yahweh.

You see, we tend to confuse Canaanites with “cave men.” Generally speaking, the Israelites were the “cave men.” The Canaanites were a very sophisticated and cosmopolitan civilization. They had extravagant cities, beautiful architecture, an advanced temple system. Compare this with the Israelites. They were nomads who had little material positions. They traveled in tents. They were ex-slaves. Think of how seductive the rich, prosperous Canaanite world would have been to the poor wilderness wanderers!

I always picture an Israelite boy and a Canaanite boy playing together in a sandbox. The Canaanite boy explains to the Israelite boy what his gods are like. "Our gods live in our magnificent temple. Have you seen our temple yet? It's HUGE! Our gods are rich and give us all sorts of riches too. They also live in the trees and ground and air. They give us what we want if we worship them. But they don't require us to live upright and moral lives. What are your gods like?"
The Israelite boy responds, "Well, we actually only worship one God. He's invisible. He lives in that little, grungy tent we have over there, although he does so willingly. He doesn't really give us lots of material possessions. Oh, and he commands us to be holy like he is holy."
Can you imagine the Canaanite boy's reaction? "Your god's 'invisible.' Riiiiggghhhtttt." The poor Israelite boy would get beat up.

The Canaanites believed that the divine was imbedded within creation. Their gods were not transcendent, or outside of nature, like the Israelite God was. They could see their gods and control them. Their gods granted them their immeasurable wealth. This kind of religion is extremely attractive to our human nature. We crave control without surrender. We only want what a religion can give us. We do not like to fully devote ourselves to something if we can manipulate it to our advantage.

In a very similar way, the Israelites were ready to abandon their faith in Yahweh for a false religion that promised them riches and success. If they followed the gods of the Canaanites, they could enjoy all of the benefits without having to commit to anything. The Israelites would have escaped Egypt only to get as far as Canaan before blowing it. But God was desperate to save the world. 
He was so intent on saving the world that he risked his very reputation as a good God.  He ordered the sacrifice of thousands of sinful people so that the Israelites faith would be preserved for us. He wanted me to be saved. He wanted YOU to be saved!

In Joshua 24:14-23, the Israelites have finally obtained the land God had given them. Before his death, Joshua gives the Israelites an ultimatum. "Serve Yahweh, or serve the gods of the Canaanties and Amorites." Those are the Israelites only two options. Not serving is NOT an option. The Israelites quickly choose Yahweh, and Joshua reprimands them. "You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins." 

What is going on here? Joshua just gave this amazing evangelistic speech, and people start pouring down to the altar. Instead of welcoming them with outstretched arms, as any good preacher would do, Joshua sends them back to their seats. 
You see, Joshua knew that the Israelites weren't ready for total commitment. He knew their hearts. They would serve Yahweh for a while, but then they would turn their devotion to other gods when they had something better to offer. Much like the video we just watched, the Israelites were seduced by the benefits that God would give them. It would not be long before a religion that offered something shinier and newer would replace their faith in Yahweh.

Unfortunately, we often do the same thing today. We follow Christ for what he can give us. When he does not meet our every desire, we begin following after other idols. 

Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the issue of genocide in the Old Testament not just because it is difficult to explain. Perhaps we are also uncomfortable with the issue of genocide because it makes God a God who is very serious about sin. God is a jealous God, and he takes idolatry very seriously. It would be so much easier for us if God fit into the mold we wanted him to fit into. It is so much easier when God becomes an idol that we can meld and alter according to our every whim. We want an easy-going idol who is lenient about sin. We want the God who looks the other way when we follow other gods. We don't want the God who commands the deaths of thousands because they follow other gods.

But God takes idolatry very seriously. And we don't want that kind of God. We want the idols of the Canaanites who did not demand much of their patrons. We want to serve God AND our career. We want to serve God AND success. We want to serve God AND comfort. 

Our God is a jealous God. He wanted to save us so desperately that he risked his reputation as a good God so that salvation could eventually come to us. 

God requires absolute devotion from us. Following half-heartedly is not an option. 

So choose for yourself this day whom you will serve: Whether it be a form of Christianity that meets your present desires, or the God of the Old Testament and New Testament who wants so desperately to save you from idolatry.

The issue is not whether you will serve, but whom you will serve.

[i] http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm