I just listened to the latest episode of “Unbelievable” with Justin Brierley which consisted of an interview with Joshua Ryan Butler and Jeff Cook. (You can listen to it here.) (You might recall that I recently reviewed Butler’s book The Skeletons in God’s Closet in three parts: part 1, part 2, part 3). The episode focused most of its attention on the final section of his book in which Butler defends the military invasion of Canaan. After listening to the episode (which is well worth a listen), I wrote down the following quick response:
Another excellent episode of “Unbelievable”, this time with Joshua Ryan Butler and Jeff Cook. Given Butler’s winsome personality, progressive vision, and outstanding communication skills, one might conclude that he offers a viable response to the moral problematic presented by the Deuteronomic conquest narrative. But take a closer look and the ethical problems return.
To begin with, Butler emphasizes the theme that the Canaanites are to be driven out of the land. In other words, on Butler’s reading the text depicts a military force invading a geographic territory and forcing the ethno-religious group that has been residing there for centuries to relocate under threat of death. If that same action occurred today it would readily be labelled “ethnic cleansing”. To find an ethically engaged, world citizen like Butler defending ethnic cleansing in the Bible is, to say the least, disappointing.
And what about the even more serious charge of genocide? By drawing on the work of scholars like Richard Hess and Paul Copan, Butler attempts to recast the occupation of Canaan in keeping with contemporary standards of just war. This is an anachronistic reading. The entire conquest is carried out in a cultic context in which the spoils of war — people, livestock and cultural accoutrements — are to be destroyed in toto as acts of religious sacrifice in devotion to Yahweh. And insofar as the Canaanite elderly, children, the mentally handicapped, and even infants were found, they too were to be slaughtered by Israel’s armies. If such an act occurred today, we would call it a moral horror without qualification and would properly label it genocide. Consistency requires that we do so when it occurs in the biblical narrative as well.
This raises the important question of how to read these narratives, and on that point the other guest, Jeff Cook, had some good initial thoughts. However, Cook seemed to view these morally problematic portions of scripture as uninspired. But that is unworkable for a proponent of plenary inspiration, that is the person who accepts all of scripture as inspired. A superior approach would recognize the fact that certain depictions of God in scripture are morally and theologically errant, while recognizing that they were included for a divine purpose.
Consider the depiction of God in the words of the imprecatory psalmist as one who delights in the death of the wicked. It seems to me that this depiction is irreconcilable with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. So why is that errant depiction included in the canon? Perhaps scripture is intended in God’s sovereign providential oversight to include a diverse record of (more or less correct) reflections on the divine nature.
When navigating this complex landscape, Jesus provides a sure hermeneutical guide. In short, if we have a problem imagining Jesus laughing at the destruction of the wicked, or wielding the sword against Canaanite civilians, that would seem to provide an excellent basis to consider a more radical rereading of these biblical depictions. Rather than attempt to baptize the depiction of God in Joshua, Butler would do far better to pursue a Christocentric critique of it. (For a practical example of how this works out, you can listen to my sermon on Psalm 137, that shocking baby bashing psalm. If you haven’t the time, you can read my short article “Psalm 137 for Family Devotions.”)