Book Review: Show Them No Mercy – 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide

You’re talking with a new acquaintance and it comes up that you’re a Christian.  They respond with “I think Jesus was probably an OK guy.  But I could never believe in a God who demanded the deaths of civilians – women, children, the aged and infirm.  The Old Testament reads like a police report – and God is the criminal!  How can you believe in a God like that?”

Kind of a conversation stopper.  You manage to change the subject with a promise to look further into it and get back to them.  Sure enough, as you’re perusing the Old Testament, there in gory glory are the commands to destroy all the inhabitants of certain cities and people groups as the Israelites take possession of the Promised land.  Women, children – everyone.  God is demanding genocide there in black and white.  How do you make sense of that?  How do you answer your new acquaintance?  How do you come to a peace with your faith in a God who can demand such terrible things?

Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide is an important book for Christians to read.  Four theologians from various strains of Protestant Christianity attempt to make sense of God-ordained genocide in the Old Testament.  Three of the four are somewhat similar to each other, while the first author is in a completely different arena in terms of explanations.

C.S. Cowles is the first responder, and the most challenging – arguing for radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.  He affirms the terrible nature of what is recorded in the Old Testament, and concludes that God could have had no part in this.  Cowles is professor of Bible and theology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA.  His arguments come close to writing off the Old Testament as completely irrelevant and riddled with flaws.  Those of you who have done your church history homework may find his arguments dangerously close to those of Marcion, the early Church theologian who argued that the Old Testament should not be considered as canonical.  While Cowles doesn’t go that far, he does assert that God did order genocide, and that where it is ascribed to Him, it is an error in understanding or transcription on the part of the writer.  For Cowles, the idea that God could order the destruction of human civilians of all ages is completely untenable with the revelation of God’s love made most clear in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.  Cowles’ argument essentially ignores textual evidence of God being not only a God of love, but also a warrior God.  While the other three authors attempt to deal with the text as legitimate, Cowles dismisses the text out of hand, focusing only on those texts (primarily Gospel-based) that describe the peaceful and loving nature of Jesus.  For Cowles, it is inconceivable that if God truly is the love incarnate in Jesus Christ, that He could also be a God of anger and judgment.  The effects of sin take care of themselves according to Cowles, and do not require any personal involvement on God’s part.

The other three authors fall more or less together in that they uphold the text as both reliable and God-inspired, and therefore assume that if the text says that God ordered genocide, then this has to be accepted as truth and dealt with.  Eugene H. merrill is a professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, who makes an argument for moderate discontinuity between the Old and New Testament revelations of God.  His argument is basically a dispensational one – God acted in one way at one time, and now acts a different way with His Church.

Daniel L. Gard is an exegetical professor at Concordia Theological Seminary (Ft. Wayne), who argues for an eschataological continuity between the Old and New Testament.  Essentially, the Old Testament passages of God’s judgment are foreshadowing the final, ultimate judgment that God will bring on creation with the return of Jesus Christ in glory.  He also argues that we are mistaken in holding God to human standards of justice, as it is impossible for a flawed creation to ever fully apprehend or understand the workings of a perfect creator. 

Tremper Longman III is a professor of Old Testament at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, and he makes the argument for spiritual continuity between the Old and New Testaments.  What was lived out in flesh and blood death in the Old Testament is transitioned onto a spiritual plane for the New Testament and today.  While Israel had God fight for or beside her against human enemies, today the Holy Spirit wages war against spiritual enemies.  This warfare will be dramatically concluded with the return of Jesus Christ and the final revelation of the victory that was won at Calvary and in the open tomb.

All of the contributors dismiss the idea that any nation or any church can claim today the right to wage holy war against another nation or people.  However they reach this conclusion through slightly different routes – Cowles be delegitimizing the Old Testament account or negating God’s role in it, and the others by affirming God’s righteous judgment as recorded in the Old Testament, but agreeing that this no longer has a place in our world today.

At the end of each essay, there are brief responses from the other three authors. 

The reader comes away with some very important things from this book.  Firstly, the reader gains the insights of four respected theologians, and can see how each of them attempts to deal with the idea of Biblical genocide.  Secondly, the reader comes away with a much more detailed understanding of holy war as described in the Old Testament.  What were the signifiers of holy war?  How consistently were they mentioned?  What were the repercussions when Israel sought to usurp the power of God for holy war without God’s actual approval?  How prevalent was the practice of completely destroying all of the people and animals of a given city or area, as per God’s command? 

I felt that the book dealt more with academic details than with dealing with the core question – how do we make sense of a God who could command this sort of behavior, when it is so universally understand as wrong today?  Cowles seems to deal most directly with this question, though his method and answer are severely flawed.  The other authors seem to think that by defining holy war in a certain way, they can make sense of the awfulness of what God asked for.  While the studies are interesting, at times they are somewhat repetitive.

I think a much shorter book of essays would have avoided these detailed studies of the elements of holy war, and dealt with the issue on the more simplistic level that Cowles does.  Cowles argues that we don’t make sense of it, because it either didn’t really happen or God wasn’t really in favor of it.  The others mentioned more orthodox and historical answers to this question, but they get swallowed up by the larger emphasis on defining holy war.  If we assume that the Old Testament is correct in attributing the command for genocide to God, how do we make sense of it?

Like Job, we don’t.  What is God’s response in the final chapters of Job?  Who are you to call me to account?  Who are you to hold me accountable to your understandings of things?  This is a difficult answer!  It’s not the one we’d prefer.  But it’s the one we’re given.  We’re reminded that we are merely creatures, and when we assume that as creatures we are capable or entitled to demand that God give an account of Himself, we are dangerously mistaken.  Our role is obedience.  If we are worried about whether we can obey a God capable of such terrible demands, look
to the cross, and see exactly what terrible lengths God is willing to go to on our behalf.  For our benefit.  To protect and rescue us. 

Tremper Longman raises the very good and appropriate response to the issue of God-commanded genocide.  All of humanity is in sinful rebellion against God.  God is righteous and well within His rights even in our understanding of justice to demand immediate and terrible punishment on all of creation for it’s rebellion.  Yet he limits that temporal punishment to an exceptionally small number of people at a particular point in time and space.  The question ought rightly to be asked, not why did God punish some so terribly, but rather, why does God show mercy and forbearance to so many so graciously?  Why them and not us? 

Christians are frequently criticized as being unwilling or ill-equipped to deal with some of the hard theological questions that are raised by a reading of the Bible – particularly the Old Testament.  Perhaps none is more pressing or important during this time in history than the question of how to reconcile a God of love with a God of war and judgment.  Particularly in light of  9/11 and Islamic jihad efforts – which we soundly condemn – how can we still uphold God’s actions in the Old Testament as not only righteous and just, but also, ultimately, loving? 

Read this book with a study group, and talk about your responses to the various answers these scholars provide.  And then go back to your new acquaintance, and sit and talk with them. 

One Response to “Book Review: Show Them No Mercy – 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide”

  1. Coloric Says:

    When they open the Egypt? I want to rest on the sea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s