“I don’t think it’s a good thing to kill children and babies, but God said to do it, so he must have had a good reason.”
Try to imagine a situation in which you would agree with the statement above. Try hard to come up with a scenario in which that sentence could be an accurate description of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Try as hard as you can to construct a plausible circumstance in which that could be a true statement about God’s behavior.
Can’t do it? Neither can I. Yet in a class I was teaching recently, somebody actually said that. More than one person said it. It was, in fact, the majority opinion.
The class was a study of the Old Testament, and that day we were talking about the book of Joshua. In case you spend as little time in the book of Joshua as I customarily do, I’ll give you a recap. The Israelites have completed their wandering in the wilderness. They cross the Jordan, do their dance around the walls of Jericho, emerge triumphant, and then settle down to the serious business of conquering the land of Canaan. They institute a blitzkrieg against the various Canaanite tribes, killing all the men, women, and children as they spread out to claim the land of promise. According to the text, this happens at God’s instigation, and with God’s blessing.
Which led to my question: “Why would the Israelites do such a thing?” The answer: “Because God told them to do it.” I pushed back; “Really? God told them to kill children and babies?” At this some members of the class trotted out the traditional answers to this conundrum: the Canaanites were especially wicked and deserved their fate; God needed to guarantee the purity of the Israelites’ worship, and hence had them remove all Canaanite influence; the Israelites gave the Canaanites an opportunity to convert, which they rejected. But while most folks were unable to come up with a justification, they didn’t back down in their conviction that God had instructed the Israelites to do this thing, because the Bible says that’s what God did.
And here we arrive at the heart of the matter: the Bible says. The folks in my class believe, as I do, in the authority of Scripture. In this case their conception of how that authority works has painted them into a corner. They rightly recoil at the book of Joshua’s description of a leader who claims that God has instructed God’s people to “utterly destroy” another group of people. Put that claim on the lips of anyone else, throughout history or today, and the class members would say that the leader was at the very least grossly mistaken, and probably murderously sinful. Yet put it in the Bible and it’s o.k. because, once again, the Bible says.
By approaching the authority of Scripture in a simplistic, all-or-nothing, “God says it, I believe it, that settles it” manner, Christians lead themselves into such theological absurdities as divinely-sanctioned genocide. Like I said above, I believe that the Bible is the authoritative guide to Christian belief and action. Yet admitting that the Bible is a deeply complex book, we should be willing to recognize that biblical authority is a complex matter as well. The model for those who seek to place themselves under the Bible’s authority should be Jacob at the fords of the Jabbok. If we wish to understand Scripture we must be prepared to struggle with it (even all night!), and to emerge not only blessed, but broken by the experience.
So how then should we approach biblical narratives like the book of Joshua? Let me make just a couple of suggestions. First, we have to do our biblical studies homework. The authors and editors who compiled the book of Joshua lived during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile. They believed that God had allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed largely because of the Israelites’ failure to worship Yahweh alone. They wanted to make the point that idolatry was a big problem for God. They chose to put the book of Joshua together as they did to insist that God holds final and exclusive claim to our worship. Does this justify or excuse the book of Joshua’s depiction of the killing of innocents? No. Does it make it easier to see why the authors and editors put it there? Yes.
Second, when we come upon individual passages and books that raise difficulties like this, we need a vantage point from which to approach and consider them. Martin Luther said that for Christians the gospel–by which he means God’s grace as seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ– provides that vantage point. If a biblical passage or story doesn’t make sense according to what we know of God in Jesus, then we’ve got to ask other questions about how that story functions as God’s word for us. Simply put, if we can’t imagine Jesus condoning the mass killing of the Canaanites (and let’s agree that we can’t imagine that, please), then we have to give up trying to find excuses for why God would order such a thing; admit that God, in fact, didn’t say that; and then ask what the story has to tell us if this is the case.
When I said above that I believe in the authority of Scripture, I meant it. When we approach Scripture with an expectation that it will speak a word from God, I believe we will hear that word. How an individual verse, passage, or book speaks that word is going to differ. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” is pretty straightforward; this verse might challenge our commitment, but it doesn’t tax our understanding. But when it’s something like the book of Joshua, we’re going to have to wrestle the angel a good bit more if we hope to receive our blessing.
So, if the word of God from this biblical book isn’t “tough luck if you’re a Canaanite and God wants your land for someone else,” then what is it? Perhaps it’s this: The human tendency to mistake the “devices and desires of our own hearts” (as the Book of Common Prayer calls them) for the voice of God isn’t a recent development. It stretches all the way back through history, even into Scripture itself. Perhaps the word of God comes to us saying, “Shortly before the book of Joshua opens the Israelites had stood at the foot of God’s holy mountain and listened to God thunder out the covenant. If even they could make this mistake, then watch and pray that it not happen to you, gentle reader.” Perhaps this book speaks a powerful message about violence done in the name of religion, if we but have eyes to see that message’s contradiction to what lies on the book’s surface.
The Bible is a divine book because it is such a human book at the same time. It places all of human life–its highs and lows, its foibles and graces–firmly in the presence of God. It will tell us everything God has to say to us–if we’re willing to listen carefully.