One of the most crucial issues facing the church in America today is the authority of the Bible. Many people say things that sound nice to people sitting in the pew, such as “The Bible is useful for edification.” “We should read it.” In reality, however, they refuse to submit to the authority of the Bible’s teaching. They simply want to use the parts of the Bible that they like for their own purposes. They sound like they acknowledge Scripture’s authority while picking and choosing those teachings they accept and those they reject.
There are two issues in particular that these people often mention as objectionable: the “violence” in the Old Testament, especially the Conquest of Canaan, and the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. The biblical teaching that sexual intercourse is to be reserved for a man and a woman in the context of biblical marriage has always been difficult for the unbeliever. However, contemporary society has reclassified alternate sexuality from a type of behavior to a type of person whose right to such behavior must be protected. This redefinition puts added strain on biblical teaching.
One often gets the impression that this sexuality issue is the main concern of those who question biblical authority, but the “violence” issue is where they begin because they believe that they can use it to discredit the Bible’s authority. The memory of the mass killings of Jews, Armenians, Hutus, Cambodians, and many other ethnic groups, along with the widespread slaughter of people based on class or political persuasion, has made our age sensitive to “genocide” (It is worth noting that the same people who malign the Bible for “violence” often turn a blind eye to the millions of children killed by abortion).
One thinks immediately of Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest United Methodists Church in America, and The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns, who was dismissed from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Books like these focus on the “violence” of the Conquest and conclude that either ancient Israel misunderstood God’s instruction and/or that, in fact, the conquest never happened.
Usually, the people who follow this line of thought take the Conquest out of its biblical context. If we would address this matter fairly, there are several important considerations that must be mentioned.
(1) The Conquest and the New Testament Writers
Neither Jesus nor any New Testament writer critiqued or denied the Conquest. It does not seem to have been a problem for them.
(2) The Conquest and Biblical Support for “Violence.”
When taken as a whole, the Bible affords no justification for “genocide.” In fact, its teaching that human beings are made in God’s image and that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves stands as a firm bulwark against the mistreatment, much less the killing, of innocent human beings. Even the Old Testament specifically includes the foreigner, the stranger, and even the enemy within the bounds of those who are to be so treated. From the earliest centuries of the faith, Christians have reached out to helpless elements within society.
(3) The Conquest and Biblical Theology
We must pay close attention to the role that the Promised Land and its conquest by the people of God play within the message of the Bible. The Promised Land was not just a piece of real estate. It was the place God chose to dwell in the midst of His people in order to make His name known to the world. It was “holy” because it was the place where God’s people lived in fellowship with their “holy” God. He delivered them from bondage in Egypt and made covenant with them at Sinai so that He could bring them into this place of fellowship with Himself. As His covenant people, they were to live in fellowship with Him in this land in such a way that their new kind of life reflected His holy character before the nations of the world. Their common life was indeed to reflect their love for God and for their neighbor. The Promised Land, then, became the new “Eden,” the new place of fellowship with God, and the type or picture of the ultimate eternal dwelling place of God with his people in the New Heaven and Earth. Thus, to remove the Conquest /Land is to tear the fabric of biblical teaching. God’s people today are called to a conquest of sin and evil through the power of God and to a life of faithfulness lest they lose their inheritance as did Israel of old.
(4) The Conquest and God
Furthermore, the Scripture is clear that Israel did not conquer the Land by its own strength. In fact, the Bible makes it very clear that Israel’s attempt to take the land on its own was an utter failure. The Land was God’s gift to Israel which Israel claimed by trusting God in a conquest that was the work of God, who was the Conqueror. The Conquest was not so much God’s judgment on individuals, as on oppressive, corrupt, idolatrous, Canaanite society. Furthermore, Israel itself, when it became corrupt and godless, received the same judgment at the time of the Exile. The Bible is clear throughout that the eternal Creator God has the right to judge nations and peoples for their wickedness by the use of other nations or through natural disasters. It would be improper to demand proof that class-oppressive, sexually perverse, child-sacrificing Canaanite society was “worse” than some other societies before “approving” of God’s judgment. The Bible is clear that the eternal God is not subject to such exacting finite, fallible, but hubristic human accountability. This was the Land the omnipresent God had chosen for His special presence on earth and no unholy thing was to pollute it.
In light of these considerations, it is clear that to represent the Conquest of Canaan as simply an example of Israelite ethnocentricity and Canaanite ethnic cleansing is to grossly misrepresent the biblical account. I’ve spent most of my life studying Scripture and trying to help others understand its teaching. My book Christian Faith in the Old Testament: The Bible of the Apostles (Thomas Nelson, 2014) shows how each part of the Old Testament fits into the entire Bible. Yet Adam Hamilton and others may have gone too far in their attempts to “make sense” of Scripture. Christian faith has always affirmed that God has truly revealed Himself in Christ and in the Scripture. But it has also insisted that God is greater than His self-revelation, that His ways are not our ways, that we will never fully understand the infinite God. There will always be the Divine Mystery that surpasses human comprehension. If then, we insist on making everything in Scripture conform to our modern, finite prejudices and sensibilities, we will end up worshipping an idol of our own making rather than the living God who has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Christopher J. H. Wright’s book The God I Don’t Understand is an effective antidote to our overconfident conformity of God to our own image. And, by the way, Dale Ralph Davis’ Joshua: No Falling Words (Christian Focus, 2000) is an excellent exposition of the book of Joshua.