The other day, I received an email from a reader of Jesus Loves Canaanites who stated that while he was sympathetic with the argument of the book, he remained inclined to accept the history of the Joshua narrative (and by implication, the ethics of divinely commanded genocide) because of uncertainty over alternative interpretations of the passages. As he asked plaintively, “if God didn’t command the killing of large groups of people … how do we make sense of the Biblical narrative?”
I understand the concern, of course. In the book, I point to two different (but not mutually exclusive) approaches to the text: spiritualization and providential errancy. But I don’t present any single view as the right approach: my book is instead concerned with identifying and critiquing the wrong approaches. And so that question will be left hanging: how do we make sense of the biblical narrative?
How do you make sense of your moral intuitions?
But think about the alternative for a moment. Once we accept that God did “command the killing of large groups of people” we face another question: how do we make sense of our moral intuitions? After all, what could be more obviously wrong than soldiers hacking and bludgeoning weeping women and their screaming infants, leaving them to slowly bleed out moaning in anguish with their entrails spilled out in the dust of Canaan? Personally, I would far sooner take uncertainty over how to interpret aspects of Israel’s history than this direct steamrolling of our most basic moral intuitions. So if we want to consider two “how do we make sense of” questions, I’ll take the historical one over the moral one any day.
In the book, I make several additional points including the following: (1) the genocide would’ve resulted in the disproportionate killing of the weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable of society leaving the wealthier and powerful to escape; (2) the psychological trauma of close-contact killing on genocidaires requires them to further dehumanize and objectify their victims which is practically expressed through the further brutalization of those victims in actions like mutilation and torture; (3) the dehumanization of Canaanites as “cancer” or a pestilence that had to be eradicated (a popular talking point among Christian apologists of the narrative) is functionally equivalent to other historical genocidal instances of dehumanization as with Hitler calling the Jews a “racial tuberculosis”.
Once again, I will take the historical question that results with rejecting the genocide over the moral question that results with accepting it any day.
Faith in Jesus Raised, not Jericho Razed
Maybe you are still not persuaded. Then my next question becomes this: why do you think the historicity of the Canaanite conquest is so important? In 1981, G.W. Ramsey published his book The Quest for the Historical Israel (John Knox) in which he considered the powerful archaeological evidence against the historicity of the Canaanite conquest. And he then cleverly asked: “If Jericho is not razed, is our faith in vain?”
The answer is no. Christian doctrine is centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That is the beating heart of the creeds and other doctrines like the Trinity, second coming, and final restoration are organically connected to it. To put it another way, Paul famously said, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor. 15:14) He didn’t say “If Jericho has not been razed, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” To put it bluntly, the history of the Canaanite conquest is simply not of doctrinal significance. There are many things in the history of Israel of which we can be relatively certain from a historical perspective such as the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians and the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the exile and return, and the various struggles, victories, and setbacks of the intertestamental period. In short, the life of Jesus is thoroughly located in a solid historical backdrop extending back centuries.
The fact that this historical backdrop becomes far less detailed by the time we move into the earlier stages of the Deuteronomic history does not present a significant theological problem, even if it does upend the simpler narratives of Sunday school. But then, once we realize the extent to which those simpler narratives of Sunday school conveniently elided the shocking details of on-the-ground genocide and the devastating implications for our moral knowledge, I believe we should be more than willing to reconsider our sure convictions about the twilight of Israel’s early history.