The God I Don’t Understand 6: The Canaanites?


After a long break from blogging, I return to Chris Wright’s book, “The God I Don’t Understand.” We are now at chapter 5 where he explores whether there might be any possible satisfactory solution to the extermination of the Canaanites–something that might make the conquest by Israel more acceptable.

In short, he says he has no “solution…[nothing that would] neatly remove the emotional and moral pain and revulsion generated by the conquest narratives.” But, he does attempt to explore 3 “frameworks” in the chapter to help the reader “cope with the destruction of the Canaanites and understand at least some things about it in light of what the Bible as a whole says.” (p. 86)

1. The framework of the OT story. In this section of the book he explores some of the context of the Ancient Near East (ANE). He notes that the conquest isn’t considered a holy war, but the war of Yahweh. Further, Israel was not to profit from it but that all things were to be for the Lord. He speaks of the concept of “herem” (ban of plunder for personal gain) and that the total destruction of property and civilians was a common concept in the ANE. But, he also says that reports of total destruction were commonly rhetorical exaggeration and points to places where the Bible reports such total destruction (e.g., Jericho) but records individuals being saved. He suggests this is a literary convention rather than falsehoods in writing.

Here Wright takes a detour. He considers whether God accommodates himself and his will to “fallen reality within the historical earthing of his revealing and redeeming purpose.” (p. 88) God allows divorce and even provides a way for it but doesn’t sanction it. He has a creation ideal, says Wright but a legislative concession to our sinfulness 9p. 89). Then, might God use this kind of war because of the nature of the ANE but not have it as his ideal? Wright does not offer an opinion.

Returning to the context of the OT story, he reminds the reader that even though the conquest is bloody, it is limited to a single generation of the Canannites. So, we should not view God as “constantly on the warpath” (p. 90).

2. The framework of God’s sovereign justice. God’s destruction of any peoples is always put into the light of judgment against wickedness. This goes for gentiles and Jews. The conquest is not seen as a genocide by Wright since it is not spoken of in ethnic terms but in response to wickedness. Here Wright points to Gen 15:16 where the Canaanite sin had not reached its full measure in the time of Abraham and so God withheld his judgment at that time. He also points to NT passages depicting both conquest and later destructions of Israel as God’s punishment of wickedness.  While punishment doesn’t make the acts done any easier to swallow, for Wright it does change the “moral context of violence.” (p. 93) There is a difference, he says, between arbitrary violence and intentional punishment of sin. Finally, he ends this 2nd framework by reminding readers that Israel’s victories didn’t make them more righteous. In fact God uses unjust populations to his work (as in Habakkuk) and also warns and then delivers on that warning that Israel will fall if it fails to worship only Him.

3. The framework of God’s plan of salvation. Wright wants to look at the conquest in light of the whole story of salvation. He looks first to the promises to Abraham, which include blessings to all nations. God may use violence to do complete his plan but he condemns it when it is used for wicked reasons. Wright here points to the ultimate destruction of war in the new creation and points out that David was not allowed to build the new temple due to his warring nature.

While the conquest was violent, Wright points out that the work of God is here also to bless the nations. But, “It did not mean that God would therefore have to “be nice” to everybody or every nation, no matter how they behaved.” (p. 100)

Lest we see God as capricious in his choosing who to bless and who to judge, Wright wants the reader to note that conversion and ways to avoid destruction were offered to some of the Canaanites. Even the hated Philistines will have a remnant in God (Zech 9:7).

In the end of this chapter, Wright attempts to make a personal reflection and speaks of the image of the cross as a means to view the conquest.

For the cross too involved the most horrific and evil human violence, which, at the same time, also constituted the outpouring of God’s judgment on human sin. The crucial difference, of course, is that, whereas at the conquest, God poured out his judgment on a wicked society who deserved it, at the cross, God bore on himself the judgment of God on human wickedness, though the person of his own sinless Son–who deserved it not one bit. (p. 107) 

7 Comments

Filed under Biblical Reflection, book reviews, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology

7 responses to “The God I Don’t Understand 6: The Canaanites?

  1. Lightbearer

    “…whereas at the conquest, God poured out his judgment on a wicked society who deserved it, at the cross, God bore on himself the judgment of God on human wickedness, though the person of his own sinless Son–who deserved it not one bit.”

    Perhaps a more apt analogy would be to see the cross as where God judges Himself for his part in the wickedness of His own creation. Who, in fact, deserved it all.

  2. Well, that interpration would turn the entire biblical narrative on its head (just God, unjust people, saving God…) and judge God for not making a people who could not sin. But even if you didn’t go that far, to suggest that a parent deserves all the punishment for their children’s sin seems rather strong.

  3. Lightbearer

    Phil,

    I’m not sure I agree that it turns it on its head. I think, in fact, that it is a reconciliation between God and man, as between a parent and his child.

    A good parent is responsible for a child to the human limits of their power and knowledge, and in their compassion will blame themselves for every failure on their part.

    A good parent provides a safe and nurturing environment from predators, bullies, hunger, disease, etc., and when their child is sick, or picked on, or attacked, they find ways to stop it (doctors, schoolteachers, policeman, etc.). Knowing that they have limited power, they teach their child how to provide their own safe and nurturing environment; doing so is the other critical role of the parent.

    And if the child is abusive to other children? The parent steps in and limits the actions of the child and teaches them other ways to create their own nurturing environment without violating the environments of others.

    Good parents emotionally crucify themselves when they realize that their children have suffered, or caused others to suffer, which could have possibly been avoided if the parent had more knowledge or power. Good parents emotionally crucify themselves when they realize that their own mistakes, misjudgments, and reactions have contributed to the misery of their child.

    So extrapolate the good parent to God. As someone who is All-Powerful and All-Knowing, he is All-Responsible for the environment that he has created for his children. Period.

    Which means that, looking at Scripture, God as a parent is a Fail.

    So if a good parent crucifies himself symbolically for his mistakes, what would an All-Loving God do?

  4. Debbie

    A good parent that emotionally crucifies themselves over their childrens sins may need a little help.

    Free will was given so that we had a choice to love or not.

    The wages of sin was death and only a sinless man could choose to love enough to conquer death. Christ had to offer himself – as being sinless, death could not touch him – unless he said yes to it.

    Anyway the cross is a deep and beautiful thing and goes way beyond a ‘good parent’ theology. I doubt very much that God is that co-dependent, He was already fulfilled in the God-head.

    His wrath is an act of love. Allowing us to suffer the consequences of our choices leads us to fall upon His mercy and when we do we discover that at the cross God’s wrath was taken upon Himself so that we may find mercy and a whole load of other stuff that begins with ‘Your forgiven’.

    He took it upon Himself for there was no other way to reconcile God and man and wrest back His Kingdom from the control of the master deceiver who first whispered doubt into Eve’s ear.

    So much depth and breadth and width to The Gospel.

    I only found this site today – very interesting blogs.

  5. Lightbearer

    Debbie,

    Welcome to the site 🙂

    The use of the term “emotional crucifixion” is an extrapolated analogy from the example given by Christ.

    “The wages of sin was death and only a sinless man could choose to love enough to conquer death. Christ had to offer himself – as being sinless, death could not touch him – unless he said yes to it.”

    This is standard Christian theology, which we all know. As Christians, we are called upon, in our imperfect way, to be Christ-like. So what example would we take from this? In my opinion:

    The wages of failure was rejection and only a blameless parent could choose to love enough to conquer rejection. A Parent had to offer himself – as being blameless, rejection could not touch him – unless he said yes to it.

    Now, this would be codependency if the parent/Jesus was making excuses for the poor behavior of the child/Christian, and enabling them to continue to make the same mistakes, which isn’t the purpose of the Cross, IMO.

    In the same way that good parents don’t turn their backs on their children when they misbehave, Christ doesn’t turn his back on Christians when they sin. A good parent makes a commitment to their children, at an emotional price that the parent is willing to pay. In the same way, the Cross represents that same commitment of Jesus to His children, with an equivalent price.

    Again, welcome to the site 🙂

  6. Debbie

    Now, this would be codependency if the parent/Jesus was making excuses for the poor behavior of the child/Christian, and enabling them to continue to make the same mistakes, which isn’t the purpose of the Cross, IMO.

    That made a lot of sense, thanks for that and for the welcome.

  7. Brian Dillon

    This question reveals just one of the many contradictions regarding the nature of God. Is he a benevolent patriarch or a dictator filled with the faults & frailties of every human being. “I am a jealous God”. This is not the behaviour one would associate with an all knowing creator. This is more akin to the an effigy of the human condition imposed upon a symbol of man’s misgivings about himself. When it comes to the Canaanites, when viewed from a rational position there is no sin here. If you remove any pre-conceived ideas about good & evil & look at the situation as natural competition in a desert land with few resources, the slaughter is merely a result of such competition. We are repeating this slaughter every day by driving many poor & less able peoples to poverty, desperation & ultimately to extinction.

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