Thanks to Adam Omelianchuk and Walter for making me aware of Justin Taylor’s posted defense of biblical genocides. As Walter noted in his comment, there isn’t anything new here. But after giving it a brief read I did decide to comment on one section that reflects a very common error in thinking. Here’s what Taylor writes:
It is commonplace in our culture to ask whether this or that was fair or just for God to do. But if you stop to think about it, the question itself is actually illegitimate. Merely asking it presupposes that we are the judge; we will put “God in the dock” and examine him; God must conform to our sense of fairness and rightness and justice—if God passes the test, well and good, but if he doesn’t, we’ll be upset and become the accuser. Perish the thought. As Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “all God’s ways are justice”—by definition. If God does it, it is just. (And since the triune God is inherently relational, the Bible says that God is love—and therefore all of his justice is ultimately born from and aiming toward love.) To think otherwise is the ultimate act of arrogance, putting your own mind and opinions and conceptions as the ultimate standard of the universe.
Now I will grant Taylor the point that if God did x then it makes no sense to ask whether God was fair in doing x. If we assume that God is that being than which none greater can be conceived (and any Christian should certainly accept that) then it follows necessarily that anything God does is something he was fair in doing. (A necessary but not sufficient condition for having the status of “that being than which none greater can be conceived” is that you always act in a way that is fair.) And in that sense I agree with Taylor that any mere creature who would dare to put God in the dock is a fool.
But here’s the problem: the issue isn’t about putting God in the dock. Rather (if we are to persist with the courtroom metaphor), the issue is about putting certain readings of certain texts about God in the dock. The question is not “Was God fair when God did x?” but rather “Ought I to believe God did x in the first place?”
The really frustrating thing is that I am quite sure Taylor gets this very basic principle in other areas. For example, in Genesis 18:20-21 we read of the Lord’s response to the furor over Sodom and Gomorrah: “Then the Lord said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.'” The passage is a straightforward part of the narrative and it depicts God as being ignorant of the current events at Sodom and Gomorrah so that he must travel from his discrete location at a spatially extended heaven above the earth down to the cities in order to confirm the reports.
I suspect that Taylor follows almost all Christian theologians in adopting an anthropomorphic reading of passages like this within a framework of progressive revelation. Thus, while Taylor might accept much of the narrative in a straightforward way, he would deny that some events narrated within it occurred as described. So while the text clearly states that God travelled down to discover what was happening in the cities, and nothing in the text suggests that the writer/redactor(s) of the text thought otherwise, Taylor would still be disagreeing with that plain sense of the text.
Note how we could turn now Taylor’s own opening statement back on him with but a few minor tweaks:
It is commonplace in our culture to ask whether it makes sense for God to lack omniscience and be located at a discrete point in space. But if you stop to think about it, the question itself is actually illegitimate. Merely asking it presupposes that we are the judge; we will put “God in the dock” and examine him; God must conform to our sense of the divine nature—if God passes the test, well and good, but if he doesn’t, we’ll be upset and become the accuser. Perish the thought.
Yes, well we can imagine Taylor being underwhelmed by that response. He’d probably say (he certainly should say) that he’s not putting God in the dock at all. Instead, he’s putting certain readings of certain texts about God in the dock. The question is not “Can God be God if he was ignorant of the events in Sodom and Gomorrah?” but rather “Ought I to believe God was ignorant of the events in Sodom and Gomorrah in the first place?”
At this point Taylor could justify his reading by appealing to other texts in scripture which he treats as interpretive control texts for rereading passages like Genesis 18:20-1. He could also appeal to supplementary extra-biblical resources such as philosophical intuitions about the nature of divinity and the guidance of certain hermeneutical traditions. And that’s precisely the same basic methodology I would propose to justify rereading texts that narrate God commanding genocide. Taylor may not believe I’ve provided a strong case for my rereading, but that’s not really relevant. What is relevant is that we are both embarked in principle on the same project. Neither of us is aiming to place God in the dock.