I am almost at an end (for the time being) of recycling my old classic posts from my Christian Post blogging days. Hopefully by the end of this week I’ll be reviewing Loftus The End of Christianity again. In the interim, here is a 2009 article I wrote on a new book (at the time) by Christopher Wright.
In his new book The God I Don’t Undertand (Zondervan, 2008), the well respected Christian leader Christopher Wright takes on some of the most difficult questions of faith including the problem of evil, the violence of the cross, and the Old Testament violence that is most shockingly on display in the Canaanite genocide. Wright’s book is well worth reading. He offers some new reflections to old debates and always writes accessibly, charitably, and with due humility given the gravity of the issues that he faces.
Despite the accolades due the book, it must be said that some of Wright’s suggestions are positively shocking. The one I will focus on here appears as Wright wrestles with the problem of Canaanite genocide. Within this context Wright proposes:
“Is it possible (and as I say, I am not convinced I can answer this one way or the other to my own satisfaction), that in a fallen world where struggle for land involves war, and if the only kind of war at the time was the kind described in the Old Testament texts, this was the way it had to be if the land-gift promise was to be fulfilled in due course? If anything along these lines can be entertained–that is to say, if herem-style warfare can be even contemplated in the same moral framework as slavery and divorce (and many might reject the thought outright)–then we might be dealing with something God chose to accommodate within the context of a wicked world, not something that represented his best will or preference.” (p. 89)
Now the qualifications that Wright throws in should be duly noted.He is far from sold on the idea. As such, I will offer a brief response as to why I think he ought to repudiate this idea outright.
First, let us note that it is implausible to describe God’s actions merely as a concession to a particular culture. Consider the following passage where God commands Saul (through Samuel): “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'” (1 Sam. 15:3)
In this passage Saul is ordered to kill healthy children and infants simply because they are Amalekites. But this is not simply a concession to ancient near eastern standards of warfare along the lines of “kill if you must”. Rather, God is issuing a direct command: “Kill!”
But let us leave that problem aside. What are the implications of accepting Wright’s suggestion? Consider two other well established practices of war: rape and cannibalism. Throughout history it has been common for a conquering army to rape the defeated soldiers (and their women). In addition, conquering armies have occasionally engaged in the systematic cannibalization of the defeated foe. Indeed, Yuki Tanaka records that during the Asia-Pacific War cannibalism had become an “institution” among Japanese soldiers.
Now let’s think of these three actions: genocide, rape, and cannibalism. If, as Wright suggests, God could accommodate to the first, why could he not in other circumstances have accommodated to the second and third? In other words, Wright seems constrained to concede the possibility that God could command rape and cannibalism among his soldiers just as he commanded the systematic killing of non-combatants.
I must say I find all this not only extraordinarily implausible and offensive, but also deeply puzzling. For the last two thousand years the gospel has challenged (not accommodated) the fundamental moral practices of societies the world over. So why is it that in the period of ancient Israel God was apparently impotent to challenge the most heinous practices of war?
Unfortunately at points such as this Wright’s book really lives up to its title: the God I don’t understand indeed.