At last, in chapter 6 of God or Godless?, we have a real problem to debate.
Atheist John Loftus regards this as completely cut-and-dried: in several places in the Old Testament, the biblical God commanded genocide. He cites the following texts: Joshua 6:16-25; Deuteronomy 2:4-34; 7:1-6; Numbers 31:7-18. Since there can be no possible justification for this genocide, John thinks that apologists either have to concede that they never took place, or they have to argue that they did take place, but were mistaken in thinking that it was God who had commanded them. In either case, Christians are playing fast and loose with the biblical text and undermining its status as a divine revelation.
Christian Randal Rauser’s take on this is an unexpected one. He thinks that the accounts of genocide in the Bible are ironic, after the manner of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (a satirical tract in which Swift ‘commended’ the mass slaughter of Irish children and the sale of their meat, in order to point up the callous treatment of the Irish peasantry by the English aristocracy). Oh dear. There’s just one problem here: Randal provides no evidence that this reading of the biblical text is even plausible, let alone probable. (Assertion without evidence? that’s more what we expect from John Loftus!).
I’m going to ask my reader to be patient as I try to set out my own response to this thorny problem. Here’s my interpretation…
…but wait a minute! I realise that many people are suspicious of all attempts to ‘interpret’ the biblical text (“That’s just your interpretation,” they say; “you can make the Bible say what you want it to.”). But just think about it: every text requires interpretation. We interpret everything else we read (newspaper articles, historical novels, poems, letters, and so on), and our reading of the Bible is no different in principle. It’s just that the task with the Bible is more complex, because it is, in fact, a collection of 66 books written over many centuries by numerous authors using a variety of literary genres. So it’s not a question of ‘do we interpret, or do we not interpret?’ It is, rather, a question of showing that our interpretation is a valid one, based evidence or support by sound reasoning. The good news here is that although biblical interpretation is complicated by the sorts of factors just mentioned, nevertheless since it is a set of human documents it is amenable to the sorts of interpretative procedures that we would apply to other human documents.
Here, then, in outline, is my interpretation.
1. The New Testament absolutely prohibits any kind of violence in defence of the Christian faith or in advance of the Christian gospel. Jesus himself never ever used violence, or even tried to defend himself.
2. Jesus himself did not seem to find these Old Testament accounts problematic. From all that we know about his beliefs and teachings, he accepted the teaching of the Old Testament in its entirety. What he did do, of course, was to build on and develop that teaching even further, in particular by asserting that it pointed to him and was fulfilled in him.
3. In both the Old and New Testaments, we are confronted by a moral God who punishes wrong-doing. Indeed, being God, he cannot do otherwise. One difference is that in the Old Testament the punishment of human wickedness is often presented in temporal, this-worldly, terms, and he often uses human means to achieve this end. In the New Testament, the emphasis falls much more on Jesus Christ as a punishment-bearer, with the present time as an opportunity for repentance and faith. Final punishment of the impenitent wicked is, accordingly, deferred until the end of the age.
5. The reason for the extermination of the Canaanites was not racial or territorial. The God of the Old Testament was not interested in racial purity. Israel herself was racially diverse (Exodus 12:38). Moses married a Midianite, and later an Ethiopian. Boaz was the son of a Canaanite who married a Midianite. Solomon’s mother had previously been married to a Hittite. God was, however, interested in moral and spiritual purity. The abominable practice of child sacrifice was central in Canaanite religion. Canaanite idolatry and its associated evils were to be wiped out.
6. These nations were given a long period of probation and many opportunities to repent. Deuteronomy 20:10 informs us that the the nations were given the opportunity to make peace with Israel, and this happened in the case of the Gibeonites. Mercy was found (e.g. by Rahab and her family) in the midst of war. The same opportunity was open to all.
7. There does appear to be something of the rhetoric of war in these accounts. Although the language is of ‘utter destruction’ (Deuteronomy 20:16), only three towns were actually destroyed – Jericho, Ai and Hazor. The purpose might be like that of the use of atom bombs in 1945 – to hasten the end of the war. If the destruction was not so extensive as at first seems, then the rules of engagement were also relatively humane.
8. The destruction of these nations was intended to prevent the spread of grossly idolatrous and immoral behaviour. In the event, the Israelites repeatedly imitated their practices, and were expelled from the Promised Land as a result. So much for racial supremacy.
Once again, let me say that I regard this as a perplexing problem. I do not expect my account to satisfy an atheist, because he or she does not believe in a God to whom individuals and nations are morally and spiritually accountable. But I do claim that my account faces up to the facts of the matter better than that given by John Loftus, and avoids side-stepping the issue as I think Randal Rauser has done.