THE RELIGION GUY poses this complex historical question himself instead of the customary answer to an item posted via “Send Your Questions In” — new submissions very much welcomed. There’s been important debate on this issue recently, and a new book proposes sweeping reinterpretation of the Old Testament depiction of Israel’s “Conquest” of the Holy Land under Joshua. More on that below.
Richard Dawkins, a fervent foe of religion, indicts the biblical God for inciting “genocide” in the Bible’s conquest passages and verses like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 that direct believers to wipe out neighboring populations. Many U.S. Jews and Christians frankly admit this material is troubling.
Let’s begin with three standard Jewish commentaries on those Deuteronomy verses.
“Pentateuch & Haftorahs,” a classic Orthodox compilation by J.H. Hertz, Britain’s longtime chief rabbi, observes that Joshua informed Canaanites before the invasion so they could flee bloodshed, offered peace to all, and only waged combat if they insisted on it. (That was relatively humane for violent times 3,000 years ago.)
The quest for a homeland, the commentary observes, is part of all human history including most European nations. Israel added to that the “ethical justification” of countering Canaan’s “depravity,” for instance human sacrifice. Moreover, “the whole moral and spiritual future of mankind was involved.”
Less confidently, Conservative Judaism’s official commentary also notes Canaan’s “abhorrent” practices and Joshua’s peace offers but says “the reader recoils from seeing these demands [to obliterate entire populations] ascribed to God.” The context of such verses is said to be “the Torah’s abiding fear that these pagan nations will lead Israel astray.”
According to Reform Judaism’s official commentary, Joshua’s forces did not in fact annihilate any populations, though that “would not have offended against the usual practice of the times.” Such words were instead a “retrospective command” that meant if Israel had done this “you would not have lapsed into idolatry.” Ancient military events were always interpreted “as manifestations of God’s will,” and — notably — the Bible assailed not just other nations but Israel itself.
In Christian interpretations, pacifists say Jesus’ preaching of love eliminates all war-making by believers. Liberals and skeptics may dismiss the narratives as nationalistic propaganda not to be taken literally. Even Catholic exegete Tommy Lane of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary thinks “Israel misunderstood and misjudged God” in these Scriptures.
Conservative U.S. Protestants seek to explain God’s will as expressed in disputed conquest verses. To explore this debate in depth, consult two recent works: “Did God Really Command Genocide?” (Baker, 2014) by ethicists Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, and “Holy War in the Bible” (InterVarsity, 2013), an anthology edited by Copan, philosopher Jeremy Evans, and Old Testament scholar Heath Thomas.
Thomas, formerly director of doctoral studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and now theology dean at Oklahoma Baptist University, offers representative points in an article. Among them:
First, the few verses about annihilation use the “exaggerated” rhetoric found in all ancient war narratives. Second, the Bible put far more emphasis on dispossessing Canaanites from the land than annihilating them. Third, God’s primary concern was not such obliteration but “resolute” moral opposition to Canaan’s idolatry and sin. Fourth, God waited patiently 400 years before the conquest re-established the covenant inheritance of the Holy Land promised to Abraham’s descendants.
Warfare in the Bible is no simple matter and God is presented as ambivalent. The great King David was forbidden to build God’s Temple because his wars shed too much blood (1 Chronicles 22:8) and nearly lost his realm for conducting a military census (2 Samuel 24). God rebuked Simon and Levi for slaughtering Canaanites (Genesis 49:5-7). And so forth.
August 2017 brings a bombshell book release on all this, “The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest” (InterVarsity). Its co-authors are well-credentialed evangelicals, John H. Walton, Old Testament professor at Moody Bible Institute and now Wheaton College (Illinois) and his son J. Harvey Walton, a graduate student at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews.
The Waltons insist that the Old Testament be understood as an ancient text in ancient context. Thus they join those who say, unlike modern histories, the war narratives employ symbolism and hyperbole that ancient readers would have understood. They say for modern readers human happiness is the highest ideal, but in chaotic ancient times the greatest good was “establishing and sustaining order” as in the Holy Land conquest.
More surprising, the authors contend that the Old Testament doesn’t mostly portray the conquest as divine retribution for Canaanites’ abominations, the typical moral justification from Old Testament defenders. Instead, they say the conquest simply carried out God’s covenant promise to Israel.
Crucially, the book disputes the usual translation of the key Hebrew term herem as a command to “utterly destroy” a population. Rather, it argues, this means to remove or make off limits for human use, meaning Canaanite flight was preferable to fighting.
The book also opens a vast issue beyond the scope of this article. The Waltons say “providing us with moral knowledge is not what Scripture is for,” and cite Leviticus 18-20, a code that assails homosexual acts, adultery, incest, bestiality, and child sacrifice.
Since the book does not address how today’s Christians should view those matters, The Guy queried the elder Walton by e-mail. He explained that moral teaching shouldn’t be determined by proof texts because the Bible “does not tell us the specifics of what our moral teaching ought to be.” Instead, Christians need to carefully analyze what a practice signifies, whether it is deemed healthy or harmful, and the effect on the church’s role of “serving the purposes of God in its current place and time.”
The implications of extending that outlook from the war-making problem into Protestants’ sexuality debate seem certain to rouse intense reactions.