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)