The content of this post is largely taken from Paul Copan‘s new book, “Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament“. This post was motivated by a question posed to me this morning, “How do I reconcile ethics with the genocidal Yahweh?”
Here’s my short answer: I do not see a conflict between what I understand are biblical ethics and the stories of God’s interactions with the Israelites specifically, and humanity in generally.
But, to understand my answer we will first need to have a common understanding of the term ethics and second, we need to make sure we’re reading the Bible with the same set of assumptions. To get started, let’s see if we can agree on the meaning of ethics.
Assuming we’re speaking of biblical ethics, I operate from the view that they are…
… a set of rules by which a person or a people express biblical values. For example, if a culture values human life above that of other animals, then I would expect to see rules instantiated that protect human life more than animal life. Staying with this example, this culture might impose capital punishment on a person who murders another human. However, a man who murders a dog, may be fined, imprisoned, or both, but not executed.
In simple terms, biblical ethics are the rules that express the values God wishes us for us to adopt. Put another way, they are the means by which we are to order our lives to God’s values, not our own.
As for how we read the Bible, I try to understand the Bible as a person of the Ancient Near East (ANE) would have. So, for example, to understand the role of history and its expression was understood in those days. Reflect on this description by Prof. David Lose (rhymes with rose) in his book, Making Sense of Scripture:
In [pre-enlightenment] times, historical narrative was intended to educate, to enrich, and to ennoble, not primarily to capture some supposedly neutral record of events. That doesn’t mean histories written during that time had no relation to actual events, like some kind of fiction. But it does mean that when you wrote a history you were trying to get the truth of what happened across-that is, its meaning and significance. So when we imagine the biblical writers having the same concerns as a 21st-century journalist, we’re not only imposing our categories on their writing but we also risk missing the point of what they are trying to achieve in the first place
To be more specific, Professor Lose is speaking of biblical interpretation and he argues that in order to engage the deeper truths of the biblical text we must read the text in the context of a person living in the Ancient Near East (ANE).
And, after all this, let’s now examine what is arguably the most famous of the biblical genocide stories, the slaughter of the Canaanites. This particular story is probably the one most often used by the secular community to point out that, far from being a just and merciful God, the God of the Christians and Jews is a cruel, bloodthirsty monster.
Read correctly, however, the genocide of Canaan (and according to the biblical description it was, by anyone’s definition, a genocide of monstrous proportions) teaches a profound (and politically incorrect) moral lesson; but it also offers us an opportunity to understand the importance of historical-cultural context. Consider that when the book of Joshua ends, the land of Canaan is described as bereft of human life (as a result of the putative genocide). However, in the very next book, Judges, written immediately following Joshua’s conquest, the land of Canaan is highly populated with both Israelites and Canaanites! What’s going on here? How did the Canaanites repopulate so fast?
They didn’t. They were never exterminated in the first place. The genocide never occurred. Rather, the biblical author was engaging in typical ANE myth making. The written records of all battles when written by the winners, no matter what culture – biblical or otherwise, were always and universally described as slaughters of triumphal proportions. Women, children were brutalized, animals and crops utterly destroyed, the conquered soldiers put to the sword or horribly tortured. This was simply the style and intent of ancient writing and our biblical authors were no different from their pagan counterparts.
So, if this is just an exaggeration, what’s the point? Happily, there is a very, very good answer. In Deuteronomy (see chapters 12 and 20) God reveals that the Canaanites were engaged in child sacrifice (in which their first-born were burned alive) and they had been doing so for centuries. Now, child sacrifice is a manifest evil as the biblical authors attest throughout the Old Testament. So, the question that arises is this: if God thought child sacrifice was so evil, why did He wait for the Israelites to come along? Why didn’t He just kill ’em then and there?
The answer is that the Israelites were NOT to be the means by which God was to exercise His wrath and punish the Canaanites. Instead, the biblical text reveals that God’s concern was not the evil committed by the Canaanites, but that the Israelites might adopt this horrific practice (Deut 12:31 and 20:18). In other words, God’s concern was that His chosen people would adopt child sacrifice.
This is not the end of the story, however. We learn in Joshua (chapter 11) that Joshua offered to spare each city if they would give up child sacrifice. All but one rejected his offer. The one that agreed to Joshua’s terms was spared while the rest, according to the biblical author, were put to the sword.
There are many lessons here, but the main three are:
- The existence of evil (e.g., child sacrifice, the Jewish Holocaust) while detestable in God’s eyes, is concerning only when/if it threatens to corrupt the people of His covenant.
- Doing God’s will is more important than following the letter of God’s law. Joshua “disobeyed” God by offering to spare those who would give up child sacrifice. Joshua’s offer if accepted would have achieved God’s ends and this is why Joshua was not punished (or so argue the ancient commentators).
- There are some things God’s people are not to tolerate – child sacrifice being one of them. God understands that toleration begets acceptance and acceptance begets adoption (see #1, above).
The answer, then, to my interlocutor’s question is that the story of the Canaanite genocide, rightly understood, is perfectly consistent with God’s moral values and the ethical behavior that expresses those values.