We come to part two of Christopher Wright’s, The God I Don’t Understand(IVP, 2008). In the last section he muses about the problem of the existence of evil but in this section he considers the struggle to understand the violence and wrath of God found in the Old Testament. Wright says that atheists like Richard Dawkins have no trouble understanding (in their way of thinking) the God of the OT. He’s just a “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak…vindictive, bloodthirsty…malevolent bully.” (as quoted on p. 73). Wright says their struggle is only to understand Christians who say they believe in this kind of God. It is Christians who struggle to understand the character of God and how punishments on whole families fits with the God of love we imagine. For the next two chapters he wants to consider the following question:
How are we to understand the language of God’s anger, jealousy, or vengeance alongside of what we have been taught about God’s love, mercy, and compassion? (p. 74)
And he wants to apply this to the treatment of the Canaanites.
We’ll look here at his chapter 4 which outlines three popular (but in his mind wrong) attempts to get around the interpretation of a capricious genocidal God.
1. OT God vs. NT God. That is, some try to ignore the problems of the OT by claiming that the NT sets to rights the OT. Wright says that behind this assumption is that the OT God is all “fire and brimstone, war and vengeance, blood and punishment. The so-called God of the New Testament is much nicer altogether.” (77).
Wright disagrees with this assumption because the OT has much to say about God’s compassion and love, the NT, “has much to say (and more in fact) about the anger and judgment of God…[and] because Jesus and writers of the New Testament never seem embarrassed by Old Testament stories, nor do they reject or even correct them (though they do move beyond them).” (ibid.)
To bolster his argument, Wright examines a number of OT passages (e.g., Ex. 34:6-7 [which he says is the “most pervasive definitions of the character of God in the Bible…Love is for thousands; punishment is for thre and four.”], Ps. 103:8-14, Jer. 31:3, 20, Eze 33:11, Deut 7, 10). Then he examines Jesus as the most frequent discussant of hell, the day of judgment, and then cites John Wenham’s observation that while the OT focuses on temporal punishment, the NT focuses on eternal punishments.
Finally, he addresses the ways the NT writers refer to the OT. They refer to the punishment of Sodom and of Korah. They refer to other horrors and do not re-interpret (though they do include Samson in the lessons of faith). And so, he concludes that you cannot and should not put the NT against the OT to resolve the problem of violence.
2. The Israelites thought they were doing God’s will to wipe out the Canaanites but were wrong. This is the 2nd way some try to get around the violence of the OT. God couldn’t have been behind it. It must have been the Israelites mistaken view that God was telling them to destroy the inhabitants of the land. Wright believes this argument fails because (a) when people speak falsely or act falsely for God, it is corrected [hmm., is that always true?] as in Nathan’s advice to David or in Jehu’s bloodbath murder of Baal priests. Since nowhere does the conquest of Canaan get rebuked…therefore it cannot be a misinterpretation of God’s will, and (b) in fact, the unwillingness to conquer the land (after the spies came back) led to the the wilderness wanderings and is seen as disobedience of God in both testaments. Wright concludes,
you simply can’t surgically remove the conquest alone from the great sweep of Bible history…while leaving all the rest of the story intact within the sovereign will of God. At least, you can’t if you treat the Bible seriously as a whole. (p. 83)
3. The conquest passages are allegory for the purpose of getting a “spiritual lesson” from them. Wright doesn’t deny the value of spiritualizing texts. But, he concludes that the “spiritual use of the Old Testament narratives is secondary and derivative. Their primary form is simply historical narrative.” (p. 84).
No one (and I imagine native Palestinians would be included) believes that the stories of the OT are intended as fictional accounts, even if numbers of people killed are somewhat symbolic or estimates.
So, if these ways of thinking about the conquest are not helpful, what is? That will be the content of chapter five.