How Could God Command Killing the Canaanites?
“Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God”(Deuteronomy 20:16–18, NASB).1
Such texts have troubled Bible believers and unbelievers alike. In his book, The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins asserts that Israel engaged in “ethnic cleansing” — those “bloodthirsty massacres” carried out with “xenophobic relish.”
How should we make sense of these kinds of texts? I have written a book on Old Testament ethics (Is God a Moral Monster? — forthcoming with Baker), including four chapters on the Old Testament and violence. I can only here briefly summarize my response to this perennially perplexing question. Keep in mind that I am offering an alternative to the Sunday School version of the Canaanite question.2 First, I will make a few introductory remarks. Then I will sketch out the key points as a preview of the warfare discussion in my forthcoming book.
Is it Stupid to Believe in Miracles?
In my previous blog I defended the notion that it’s not stupid to believe in the creation of the universe by God. It seems fitting in this Christmas season to also look at another claim derided by skeptics – the possibility of miracles. Here is how Richard Dawkins puts it:
“The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know that it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked.”
There certainly are educated, intelligent, science-respecting modern-day Christians who unashamedly believe in these miracles. There is nothing irrational or anti-scientific about the possibility of miracles unless one can disprove the existence of anything supernatural which certainly has not been done. Contra Hume, I don’t see a non-question-begging in-principle argument against the mere possibility of miracles. In previous blogs, I’ve argued that the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of nature to support life constitute evidence for God. There are many other philosophical arguments for a transcendent God capable of acting on nature – which is all I take a miracle to be. Miracles don’t break the laws of nature but merely represent God acting in the universe. If we have evidence of intervention at such fundamental levels as creating a universe, setting up its initial conditions, and setting fundamental parameters to precise life-permitting values, then why think it irrational that God could create a sperm to fertilize Mary’s egg? The skeptic needs to interact with these and other arguments and should not merely dismiss the possibility of miracles by ridiculing believers – as Dawkins advocated when he said “Mock them. Ridicule them. In public.”
I’m not complaining about considering a miracle claim a priori unlikely – I actually encourage that since miracles should be expected to be rare if they occur at all. Rather, I argue against a dismissive attitude characterized by ridiculing the possibility of miracles without interacting with the evidence or arguments for God’s existence. Merely scoffing at the potential implications that miracles are possible if God exists does not disprove the hypothesis that God exists.
Even leading scientists and philosophers who are skeptical about God propose a number of speculative theories with some rather surprising implications. I likewise argue we should not dismiss the possibility that these theories are true merely because of even bizarre consequences, which in some cases are more radical than the possibility of God acting in the world. Consider the following theories:
Evidence for the Empty Tomb
What is the most significant difference between Christianity and the other world religions? Yes, we could say that 1. It is not a religion at all, but a way of life centered on a personal relationship, and yes, we could say that 2. It is the only “religion” that shuns earning one’s salvation and instead presents the gift of grace as the path to righteousness, and yes, we could say that 3. Jesus states very clearly that He is the way – the only way – to salvation, and yes, we could say that 4. Jesus is the only leader who claimed to be God – and, yes, all that is explicitly true. I am even willing to stake my career on it- which, by the way, I did.
But the above are what I would call “insider insights.” I mean by that these are beliefs that may seem clear to Believers, but remain murky to those on the outside of Christianity looking in – at best murky, and more likely narrow minded, or simple-minded, bigoted, or just plain weird. (I might also add that to many who are in church on most Sundays, these may be so familiar that they may have become … unfamiliar in their significance. )
Why do so many hold that “all religions lead to the top?” Why do so many feel that all the religions teach pretty much the same thing, and that if we would just live out our beliefs, no matter the particular religion, the world would be fine? The simple answer is because from the outside looking in they all do appear to teach the same principles.
Now from my perspective, as an apprentice to Jesus, His teachings are very different from Mohammed, Confucius and Buddha. Jesus is a maestro, producing Life to the Full. (John 10:10) The others have, well, some positive and soulful things to say, and some … not so much. But, from the world’s perspective? Pretty much the same.
So, again, the question: What is the most significant difference? Is there an undeniably separating fact to which we can point and say, “Okay, that is cosmically unique; that is indeed a tangible difference that cannot be “just part of the pack?”
Clearly that most significant difference is the fact that there is an empty tomb in Jerusalem.
Can that little detail be explained away? If one happens to think Jesus was a great man, a prophet even, someone we should certainly emulate, but maybe not this Son of God stuff, please help me overcome the fact that I cannot find anyone with a plausible explanation for no Jesus body … anywhere.
By the way, there have been several brilliant, but spiritually skeptical men – respected scholars and lawyers – who realized the overwhelming significance of this little detail. They set out to disprove the resurrection, utilizing legal and/or scholarly approaches; and lo and behold, became born again Christians in the process. C.S. Lewis being perhaps the most well known.
Why Didn’t God Keep Satan Out of Eden?
One of the most frequent questions I get from children is, why didn’t God keep Satan out of Eden? It’s not just a question I get from children. I hear this question at nearly every one of my speaking events. I especially hear the question when I speak to an audience of highly educated atheists and skeptics. Highly educated atheists and skeptics frequently assert that if Satan actually entered the Garden of Eden and successfully tempted Adam and Eve to rebel against God, then Christianity at a minimum is inconsistent and more likely is plainly false.
Both children and highly educated atheists and skeptics employ the same assumptions and line of reasoning. They note or have heard that the Bible repeatedly declares that God is more powerful than Satan. They recognize, too, that God’s greater power is consistent with the Bible’s claim that God created Satan. They also acknowledge the Bible’s proclamations that God is always perfectly good and always perfectly loving. They see the description of Adam and Eve’s life in the Garden of Eden as idyllic beyond imagination. It seems unfathomable to them, therefore, that an all-powerful, all-loving God would not intervene to prevent Adam and Eve’s loss of paradise in Eden.
Evidence of Exodus
Is there any tangible, non-Biblical support for the story of the Exodus? Or has archaeology proven such a thing never happened? Many critics claim there is no evidence of large slave populations in Egypt, or bones of Israelites in the desert near Sinai, from the necessary time periods. As usual, those claims have no basis in fact, and there is substantial archaeological evidence which fits nicely with the Biblical narrative.
Note, of course, the phrase "ancient historical proof" is almost a contradiction in terms. This is especially true when the events in question are more than three thousand years past. The best a reasonable person can hope to find is a combination of supportive documentation and tangible remnants. The scriptures are one written record, and, as it turns out, there is other evidence available, even for the Exodus, for those who aren't committed to rejecting it out of hand.
We need to be especially careful about the difference between traditions, assumptions, and Biblical statements. For instance, fictionalized accounts such as The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments often use "Rameses" as Pharaoh's name. But the Bible never identifies Exodus' Pharaoh using that name; that association is a product of tradition and assumption. If a person looks for evidence of the Exodus during the reign of Ramesses II, they're not actually vetting the Bible, they're chasing a pop culture assumption. As a result, many people are looking not only in the wrong places, but in the wrong time periods.