The God I Don’t Understand 6: Canaan

The next tough issue Chris Wright turns his attention to is the Canaanite Genocide. The sharp end of this question is not simply violence, but divinely sanctioned violence.

In chapter 4 he clears some ground by considering and rejecting three proposals for ‘getting around’ the problem. They are:

1. SETTING THE TWO TESTAMENTS AGAINST EACH OTHER

This view has a very old heritage, going back to Marcion in the 2nd Century who saw two different Gods in the OT and NT (thought Wright might have mentioned him).

This view, Wright says, is basically saying that all these nasty things happened in the OT, but now we are NT Christians we know God was never like that (though the primitive Israelites thought he was) or God has changed in the way he engages with us as seen in Jesus.

This won’t do. It is a caricature of the OT which has much to say about the love of God. It is a caricature of the NT which has much to say about the judgement of God. And it caricatures Jesus and the NT writers who do not reject the OT but fulfil it. Wright spends a few pages unpacking these three points.

2. THE ISRAELITES MISUNDERSTAND GOD

A second way around the problem of divine violence is to say that Israel did the violence and attributed their actions to God’s will. In other words, the ‘God told me to do it’ defence of the indefensible.

This neatly gets God off the hook and the Israelites on it.

The problems are:

– There is no hint anywhere that the conquest of Canaan was a ‘mistake’. In fact the opposite is true, the refusal of the exodus generation to go ahead are acts of disobedience

– All through the Bible the Promised Land is celebrated as just that – a fulfilled promise of God to his people.

3. IT SHOULD ALL BE INTERPRETED AS AN ALLEGORY OF SPIRITUAL WARFARE

A third inadequate response is to try to dilute the reality of the Canaanite conquest by spiritualising the whole event. The story becomes a reservoir of spiritual lessons. Victory over spiritual enemies; release from slavery to sin; overcoming a wilderness experience; God fulfilling his promises.

For example I remember hearing a sermon about Lamentations and the siege of Jerusalem where mothers were reduced to eating their children. The preacher spiritualised this awful reality by saying we Christians need be careful not to ‘devour each other’ through backbiting and criticism!!

The arrival of Israel in Canaan is not an allegory but a historical narrative. As Wright says ‘It was not allegorical Israelites who attacked or allegorical Canaanites who died.’

The next chapter turns to alternative ways of looking at the problem.

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