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Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? - Page 6
5. Differing ethical demands for differing historical contexts in OT Israel's history.
We can go beyond the Pentateuch, though, to survey the entire OT, observing the various ethical obligations that arise at each stage of Israel's history. John Goldingay's Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament proves to be a helpful guide here, furnishing an illuminating study of the historical contexts or stages of Israel's unfolding story and the different ethical responses each calls for. These corresponding ethical responsibilities suggest that we not turn these particular required responses into timeless moral truths-even though the OT does furnish us with permanent moral insights as well.
Goldingay presents the very simple progression: Israel moved from being an ancestral wandering clan (mishpachah [Gen. 10:31-2]) to a theocratic nation (am [Exod. 1:9; 3:7] or goy [Gen. 12:2; Judg. 2:20]) to a monarchy, institutional state, or kingdom (mamlakah [1 Sam. 24:20; 1 Chron. 28:5]), then an afflicted remnant (sheerith [Jer. 42:4; Ezek. 5:10]), and finally a postexilic community/assembly of promise (qahal [Ezra 2:64; Neh. 13:1]).
Along with these historical changes came differing ethical challenges. For example, during the wandering clan stage, Abraham and the other patriarchs had only accidental or exceptional political involvements. And even when Abraham had to rescue Lot after a raid (Gen. 14), he refused to profit from political benefactors. Through a covenant-bond, Yahweh was the vulnerable patriarchs' protector and supplier.
Then after Israel had to wait over four hundred years and undergo bondage in Egypt while the sin of the Amorites was building to full measure (Gen. 15:16), God delivered them out of slavery and provided a place for them to live as a nation-"a political entity with a place in the history books." Yahweh had now created a theocracy-a religious, social, and political environment in which Israel had to live. Yet she needed to inhabit a land, which would include warfare. So Yahweh fought on behalf of Israel while bringing just judgment upon a Canaanite culture that had sunk hopelessly below any hope of moral return (with the rare exception of Rahab and her family)-a situation quite unlike the time of the patriarchy.
Let me add a few more thoughts about warfare here. First, Israel would not have been justified to attack the Canaanites without Yahweh's explicit command. Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason-the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture. Second, the language of Deuteronomy 7:2-5 assumes that, despite Yahweh's command to bring punishment to the Canaanites, they would not be obliterated-hence the warnings not to make political alliances or intermarry with them. We see from this passage too that wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the Canaanites themselves. Third, the "obliteration language" in Joshua (for example, "he left no survivor" and "utterly destroyed all who breathed" [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land: "For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you" (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the typical ANE's literary conventions of warfare.
Fourth, the crux of the issue this: if God exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should have a status no higher than any human being. Thus, he has no right to take life as he determines. Yet we should press home the monumental difference between God and ordinary human beings. If God is the author of life, he is not obligated to give us seventy or eight years of life. As philosopher Charles Taliaferro writes,
If there is a robust sense in which the cosmos belongs to God, then God's moral standing from the outset is radically unequal to ours. . . . Arguably our rights [to, say, property or privacy or even life] are at least hedged if the ownership of God is taken seriously. Being thus beholden to God would not seem to entitle God to create beings solely to torment them, but if life is indeed a gift from God which no creature deserves . . . , then certain complaints about the created order may be checked.
That being the case, he can take the lives of the Canaanites indirectly through Israel's armies (or directly, as he did when Sodom was destroyed in Genesis 19) according to his good purposes and morally sufficient reasons. What then of "innocent women and children"? Keep in mind that when God destroyed Sodom, he was willing to spare the city if there were even ten innocent persons. Not even ten could be found. Given the moral depravity of the Canaanites, the women were far from innocent. (Compare seduction of Israelite males by Midianite women in Numbers 25.)
What then of the children? Death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture. But what of terrorized mothers trying to protect their innocent children while Israelite armies invade? Here, perhaps a just war analogy might help. A cause might be morally justified (for example, stopping the aggression of Hitler and Japan), even if innocent civilians might be killed-an unfortunate "collateral damage" that comes with such scenarios. Furthermore, the infants and children who were killed by the Israelites would, in the afterlife, come to recognize God's just purposes, despite the horrors and terrors of war. They would side with God in the rightness of his purposes-even if it had meant temporary terror. This is precisely what the apostle Paul said elsewhere: he considered his own hardships and suffering-which included being beaten, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and the like (2 Cor. 11:23-7)-to be "momentary, light affliction" in comparison to the "eternal weight of glory" that "surpasses them" (2 Cor. 4:17).
Let's turn back to Goldingay. Enduring insights derived from the wandering clan stage include the commitments of mutual love and concern and the importance of reconciliation in overcoming conflict. We see a people in between promise and fulfillment, dependent upon God who graciously initiated a covenant and then calls for full trust as he leads and guides through unforeseeable circumstances. At the theocratic stage of Israel's history, enduring insights include acknowledgment that any blessing and prosperity comes from the hand of God, not as a right but as the result of grace. The people of God must place their confidence in God rather than themselves or their holy calling. They must remember that "it is the rebellious nation that cannot exist in the world as the theocracy because of its sin."
These are an example of how Israel at different stages of development faces various challenges that require distinct responses. However, the biblical narrative presents permanent insights for the people of God that rise above the historical particularities and the sui generis. Goldingay, urges us to appreciate the tension between the ideal and the actual-between the high standards God desires from his covenant people and the reality of dealing with a sinful, stubborn people in a covenant-unfriendly ANE environment.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10