Did God Command Israel to “Show Them No Mercy?”

Did God Command Israel to “Show Them No Mercy?” February 23, 2023

Did God Command Israel to “Show Them No Mercy?”

I have visited this issue before, but it still intrigues me. I’m a strong believer in the inspiration of the Bible even if not in its absolute, technical inerrancy (mainly due to all the qualifications one has to make). I prefer “infallibility” to describe my view of the Bible’s accuracy and authority: “Perfection with respect to purpose.”

Every once in a while I come across another book about the “texts of terror” especially in Deuteronomy and Joshua. I want here to thank InterVarsity Press for supplying me with two complimentary copies of this new book by Regent College (Vancouver) associate professor of Old Testament Matthew J. Lynch. The title is “Flood and Fury: Old Testament Violence and the Shalom of God.”

It helped pique my interest that Lynch quotes me and seems to approve of some things I have written here and in at least one of my books. He gives me credit, which is nice.

So what about this approach to the texts of terror in the Old Testament?

Lynch goes into great detail about the history of Israel, documents from ancient Canaan and Egypt about warfare, the meaning of the Hebrew word “herem” and many other relevant matters for interpreting especially Joshua’s texts of terror.

His basic conclusion is found on pages 146 and 154. “The ‘herem’ language exaggerates the extent and severity of killing, as was common in ancient warfare” (146) and “If the destruction of Jericho didn’t happen exactly as Joshua reported—with men, women, children, animals all destroyed—then perhaps the entire conquest [of Canaan] wasn’t so straightforwardly genocidal. My confidence in the Old Testament as Scripture didn’t come a-tumblin down [sic] if one event didn’t happen as straightforwardly as reported.” (154)

Well, okay, then. The whole book is a detailed attempt to support and justify those conclusions. I would like to agree with Lynch, as I wanted to agree with Greg Boyd (“The Crucifixion of the Warrior God” that I reviewed here earlier). What I wonder though, is why it is necessary to go to so much trouble (in both cases)? Why not just say the Israelites who wrote Joshua blamed God for what they did? How is that theologically different, in terms of the doctrine of scripture, from saying they exaggerated what they did and didn’t really do what is reported?

Now, to those who disagree with Lynch, Boyd and me, I always ask the same question. IF God commanded Joshua and Israel to slaughter Canaanite children, women, elderly, animals and “show them no mercy,” how can we say with any degree of assurance that God did not command that later? Even today? In the future?

In one day, Emperor Charlemagne slaughtered about 4,500 men, women and children for not converting to Christianity and being baptized. How do we know God didn’t command him to do that? Surely he thought he was obeying God and no doubt used the Old Testament texts of terror to justify it. And I could mention many more examples of “Christians” committing horrific acts of murderous slaughter of innocent people, including children, because they thought God commanded it.

But let’s just go with the one example I cited above—Charlemagne who was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the pope on Christmas Day, 800 A.D.

My point, for your consideration, is simply this: IF God commanded Joshua and Israel to slaughter innocent, non-combatant Canaanites, including children, on what grounds can we say that God never commanded it again, does not command it today, and will not command it in the future?

Lynch’s book is very interesting; I learned a lot about the cultural contexts of the texts of terror, but I read the book mainly looking for his solution to the question of God and “Flood and Fury.” (I know I haven’t addressed his discussion of the alleged universal flood of Noah here, but you can read that in the book and I strongly suggest you buy it and do just that!)

My own hermeneutic is Christocentric. I interpret the Old Testament as well as the New Testament in terms of Jesus Christ as the perfect revelation of God’s character and will. Jesus said to let the little children come to him because “of such” is the kingdom of God (or heaven).

Here is my version of an old Sunday School song. I sang this to a congregation when I preached on Jesus as God:

“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and Amalakite, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

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