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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

What Changed My Mind About the Old Testament Conquest Narratives

Published Wednesday, June 1, 2022 By Caleb Miller

“In all these divinely ordered massacres, the action was so horrific, and death on this scale by primitive weapons so fearsome, that we are forced to ask what we are to make of it as revelation.” These words from Derek Kidner capture well what was going through my mind in late 2008 as I wrestled, as so many have, with the moral implications of the Bible’s conquest narratives (Deuteronomy 7, 20; Joshua 2-11; 1 Samuel 15). The exercise nearly left me irreparably agnostic. I had grown up in a Christian household and sat under rich expository preaching for most of my life. Yet when I first started to inquire how it could ever be right for invading Israelites at the command of God himself to “show no mercy” to indigenous Canaanites, I was at a loss. I annoyed many friends and pastors looking for answers.

Many vague statements masquerade nowadays as the “problem of the conquest” or “the ethical question” but bear little resemblance with what tripped me up at that time. Even today, the most searing talking points of the loudest critics turn out to be the easiest to address directly—giving apologists and their followers false assurance while the best and most troublesome arguments often go ignored and unanswered.

It was not that I was questioning everything. I could believe in God and a universe without accidents. I was not troubled by proof of God’s severity or wrath, or worried about a contrast of Old and New Testament ideals or portrayals, as these do not bring out the unique pain point the conquest represents (as opposed to, say, the Flood or penal substitution). I had accepted the reality of hell, could wrap my mind around God’s divine right as Creator and Judge to take human life. I had personally seen the effects of sin in my own life, I had no preconceived notions of humans starting from a place of innocence or neutrality. I did not believe war or killing was always wrong, and was not particularly troubled by dark episodes in church history in which violent texts were quite wickedly misused. The Devil himself has twisted Scripture (Mt. 4:6), and humans are prone to take the Lord’s name in vain; abusus non tollit usum holds true even when the proper use is not comprehensively known or provable.

Crucially, I saw evidence that Jesus’ claims to be Messiah and Son of God were not only justifiable, they were compelling—his fulfillment of prophecy, the authority and eloquence of his teaching, the many apostles, disciples and other martyrs who went to their deaths swearing he was raised from the dead at great cost and pain to themselves. This body of evidence was enough to convince me that Christianity was more than a fairy tale or delusional just-so story.

Even so, there was something about the commands of Deuteronomy 20 and the episodes of severity in Joshua 1-11 I could not handle. The reality of being an object of God’s wrath was one thing; the prospect of ever being a vessel through which that wrath is poured on someone else, it seemed to me, constituted a greater problem. No matter how I rearranged to look from another angle, the glaring mismatch between what I wanted to believe about God’s mercy and the frightening implications of God’s command to kill remained. I could not categorically rule out acts that, according to every contemporary international standard, constituted war crimes. When confronted with scenarios in which a person claimed God told them to attack another human being, I wanted to be able to say “God would never do that.”

Fast-forward twelve years or so, and I am a chaplain working daily within the orbit of military personnel grappling with similar questions. Close friends have occasionally asked me what changed my mind, but articulating this in any compelling and succinct way has almost been just as challenging as wrestling with the issue to begin with. This challenge is borne out in the search for resources, which are mostly academic. Books on the subject are clearly written, but not the sorts of books that one would play as an audiobook in the car; perhaps they never could be.[1] The need persists for the sorts of explanations we might give our neighbors, coworkers, friends or our own children. The unsettling reality of killing noncombatants remains, and heady theological concepts do not always match the actual reassurances that help a person sleep at night.

To this day, I lack any neat and utterly convincing explanation that ties up all loose ends. But progress came with a closer look at the nature of the problem itself and the way the Bible maintains its own plausibility.

The Four-Sided Problem Set

As Charlie Trimm has helpfully outlined in his summary of this issue: one can re-evaluate God, but one can also choose to reevaluate the Old Testament, Old Testament interpretation, or Old Testament violence (The Destruction of the Canaanites, 49-51). These can be described as four competing problems:

  1. The problem of indiscriminate killing. For historic, orthodox, confessionally-minded Christians the mechanics of the resounding moral problem associated with the conquest has gone something like this: if the commands of Deuteronomy 7 and 20 genuinely reflect Moses’ teaching, and if the narratives of Joshua 6 or 10-11 faithfully report a historical military campaign, there exists at least one set of circumstances in which it is justified, even encouraged and required by God, for believers to kill everyone in a house or district or town without distinguishing combatant from noncombatant, young from old, able-bodied from disabled, or between men, women and children.
  2. The problem of divine prerogative. Anyone who wants to critique God’s actions must find a basis upon which to do so. It usually requires that they hold God’s actions up to some other standard. A parallel can be drawn to the arguments over the problem of evil and suffering. It is easy to assert that an omnipresent, omniscient, good God would do something; it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for an all-too-limited, morally corrupt human being to demonstrate that claim without appeal to special revelation. It is fair to ask: are modern legal standards a final authority? Are contemporary sensibilities without error or contradiction? Are these not also under constant revision, such that in 100 years with new technology or perspective, international law may look different? As the disputes over the exact legal definition of “genocide” demonstrate, it is much more difficult to condemn something without qualification than is sometimes supposed.
  3. The problem of re-appropriation. Those who appeal to non-literal readings of the text must also find a basis for their interpretation. Whether the conquest is cast as symbolism, allegory, mythology, or through the lens of some modified “Christocentric” lens, the hurdle to overcome is a paralyzing subjectivity. How can we be sure that we are not simply retaining the parts of the text that we like and remaking God into our own image? More importantly, what prevents others (who may want to use the texts for wicked ends) from doing the same thing?
  4. The problem of divine violence. This is the version of the problem most pressing to pacifists focusing on the divine actor rather than human participants. Whether the conquest is a highwater mark of violence or just one more example, the pacifist must account for what appears to be God’s complicity in acts of violence. .

What “changed my mind” (to the extent that reason alone played a part) is when I realized that everyone is forced to reconcile with one of these problems, and none of them yield satisfactory solutions. There is no graceful way out that I have found, only complicating factors as we trade one problem for another. In the absence of any clear or emotionally satisfying answer, what keeps me wrestling with the problem of indiscriminate killing is the recognition that a holy and righteous God might surprise me and that I remain committed to some external, objective notion of the worth of human beings.

The longer I search, the more I am convinced that it is only a return to the question of what makes killings or massacres so wrong and offensive in the first place, a focus on what precisely makes protecting the most vulnerable and defenseless among us so vital, that provides any way forward. It is telling how many critics or pacifists strain to turn the Bible against itself. The most straightforward and robust defense against the unjust infliction of pain or taking of life, and the clearest articulation of human rights, comes from within the Bible itself. Will there ever be a better basis for human rights than the imago Dei?

Plausibility Structures

Many of the Church’s great exegetes and theologians have examined the conquest narratives and wrote about them at length. Christians can be proactive in arguing for the following:

  1. The God of the Bible does not have a split personality. There is a basic and fundamental harmony to the story and portrayal of God in the entire Bible.
  2. Every person in human history, by consequence of willful sin and rebellion against a holy God, deserves treatment similar to that faced by the Canaanites. The fact that we are temporarily spared is evidence of a profound mercy called common grace.
  3. What happened to the Canaanites in history is relevant whether we favor an early or late date for the exodus, and historical-grammatical exegesis has meaning and merit even if allegorical, typological, spiritual or “sacramental” interpretations also have meaning and merit.
  4. God really is love, and this was demonstrated in the self-sacrificial act of his Son on the cross of crucifixion. This is not contradictory to wrath or justice. God fiercely protects and avenges what he loves.
  5. Christ is the full embodiment and revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-3, Col. 1:15-20; 2:9), but he was not a pacifist, nor did he shy away from discussions of war, the death penalty, hell, divine vengeance or the final judgment. The book of Revelation rounds this out with similarly harrowing images of plagues, wars, and lakes of fire. 
  6. God’s purposes in history were not just centered on the destruction of the wicked (though that would have been perfectly just) but on the redemption of people from every nation and tribe, to include one day even the Syro-Phoenician woman.  
  7. There was profound wickedness and depravity among the Canaanite population such as sexual deviancy and child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; 2 Ki 16:3; 21:6; 23:10; there is further evidence of this in Carthage and in the accounts of Greek and Roman historians).
  8. It is possible that the conquest was an “intrusion” of final judgment on these practices, a suspension of common grace.
  9. Ancient Near Eastern understandings of “noncombatants” or “just war” or “human rights” were far removed from present day. 
  10. Ancient warfare rhetoric allowed for some leeway in expressions like “show them no mercy” or “kill all that breathes;” they do not convey mathematical precision; this helps explain apparent discrepancies within Joshua or between Joshua and Judges. It is also plausible that Israel’s wars were nothing wildly out of the ordinary for the time period.
  11. The herem ban or destruction was a localized, temporal, unique event tied directly to the land of promise, not to be repeated by believers or any group today; only the Lord has the authority to invoke herem, and the biblical norm is that he would do so authoritatively, publicly and decisively (lest anyone think God might tell them to do it tomorrow via a vision or dream).
  12. God accurately warned the Israelites of their own exile and near extinction, and he utilized the conquered land for his glory (in the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ).
  13. The scale of Canaan was much smaller than commonly depicted: for instance, Jericho was a relatively small military outpost with a few hundred soldiers; “thousands” in the English translations may only indicate “groups” or “tens.” 
  14. Israel’s campaign in Canaan was not motivated by xenophobia or hatred but a desire to keep the people of God undefiled. The war was aimed primarily at idolatrous practices and a spiritual darkness, not an ethnicity, and was later revisited on Israel for its own idolatry.
  15. The severity of the conquest may very well have served as a warning to Israel of the deadly consequences of total war.
  16. God does only what is consistent with his own inscrutable nature; he reserves the right to punish wickedness on his own terms and is no one’s debtor. He is not accountable to finite human beings and is not on the hook to answer all of our questions (Rom 9-11).
  17. “Genocide” does not necessarily characterize the conquest narratives.  “Massacre” might be a better approximation, but also has baggage; even the word “violence” contains an implication that some right or virtue was violated. Terms should be chosen with caution and for a specific purpose. 
  18. Many Canaanites could (and did) flee the land or escape with their lives and loved ones.  Like Rahab (or later Nineveh in Jonah’s era, or the Gentiles in the Christian era), they had the option of turning to Yahweh to escape the ban, and appealing to his mercy.
  19. God has given us enough indications of his goodness and faithfulness that we can reasonably give him the benefit of the doubt, even in circumstances where his words or actions might not make sense to us.
  20. The Gospel: Christ, the full embodiment and revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-3, Col. 1:15-20; 2:9), became accursed on behalf of sinners like us: “every person, in one way or another, is a crucifier of Christ.” 

As a means to triumphantly “answer the critics,” these twenty propositions fall laughably short. They are not all held by Christian scholars or theologians uniformly. Even if they were, the conquest narratives need not be on a large scale, or applicable today to be disturbing. These propositions do more to rule out the competing problems of re-appropriation, divine prerogative or divine violence than they do to address the problem of indiscriminate killing directly.

As a list of affirmations informing a plausibility structure, however, the propositions can succeed. They go a long way to dispel myths, correct exaggerations, and put the debates in their proper biblical-theological context.

The conquest functions like many other hard passages in the Bible, such as the binding of Isaac or the virgin birth. When divorced from the rest of Scripture, these would be nothing more than outlandish claims.

A man who claims to be born of a virgin normally fosters a delusion. But if this same man fulfills a long list of specific prophecies, performs public miracles, predicts the future accurately, and is seen in resurrected form by a host of eyewitnesses, the claims have more substance.

A man who binds his son with the intent to sacrifice him is normally insane. But if this son is miraculously conceived in exceedingly old age, and if this father births a nation and a biblical tradition, and if this act prefigures how God so loved the world in a grand metanarrative thousands of years later, we have substantial reasons to take notice.

It is similar with the conquest. The divine command was not issued by a disembodied or transcendental idea of God, nor by a private and personal deity, but by a truly living and demonstrably gracious God who is both infinite and interested in us. He may be measured against that demonstration. This is ultimately what separates Moses and Joshua from others who claim divine sanction. If the rest of the biblical witness is trustworthy and coherent, these features can be brought to bear on the conquest narratives and other passages detailing war to give God the benefit of the doubt.

Critics may fairly complain here that this means God is not “falsifiable.”  God could conceivably command anything and expect obedience. Maybe so. But falsifiability in a strictly philosophical or scientific sense may not be how creators communicate with their creation. It is certainly not how personal relationships work.

The identification of a problem—even a deep and troubling problem—need not spell the end of faith. The problems outlined above take their place alongside the problem of evil and suffering, the mystery of the Trinity, and the paradoxes of predestination and free will. Anyone who approaches them in a cavalier way will eventually be humbled; as John Wenham reminded his readers as they contemplated the Bible’s harrowing texts:

Apologetics, in so far as it is valid, consists of two things: clearing away of misunderstandings of the revelation and showing the weaknesses of alternatives to it… we shall have failed to convey our message if any reader thinks that he has been given all the answers and that he now ‘comprehends’ God. (p. 4)

Caleb Miller is a US Army chaplain and has written for Themelios and From the Green Notebook.

[1] A sampling of these resources includes: Gregory Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, 2 vols. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017); John and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017); Will Stalder, Palestinian Christians and the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015); Matthew Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and its Oddities (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015); Matthew Ramage, Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and Thomas Aquinas (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013); Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014); Eric Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009); Chris Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

  • Caleb Miller

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