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Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites - Page 2

3. Standards for Irredeemability?

Rauser objects to the killing of the "wicked Canaanites" since "we have no guidelines to determine when a culture is irredeemable."[14]   Rauser's point calls to mind Israeli psychologist Georges Tamarin's 1966 study involving 1,066 schoolchildren ages eight to fourteen. Presented with the story of Jericho's destruction, they were asked, "Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?" Two-thirds of the children approved. However, when Tamarin substituted "General Lin" for Joshua and a "Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago" for Israel, only 7 percent approved while 75 percent disapproved.[15]  So, though we condemn the killing of an ethnic group when carried out by Nazis or Hutus, Israel seems to get a pass when doing the "same thing" to the Canaanites.

Rauser suggests that we need something more than mere mortal assessments regarding a culture's ripeness for judgment. Such matters are too weighty a matter for humans to judge. Indeed, these determinations ought to be left up to God?namely, special revelation. And this is precisely what we have! In John Goldingay's words, "It takes a prophet to know whether and how a particular war fits into Yhwh's purpose."[16] 

4 Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide?

Both Rauser and Morriston utilize the term "genocide," and Rauser mentions "ethnic cleansing." However, ethnic cleansing suggests a racial hatred, which just is not behind the injunctions to kill Canaanites. Consider how Rahab and her family were welcomed into the Israelite fold. Visions of ethnic and moral superiority are not part of the picture.[17]  In the Mosaic Law, Yahweh repeatedly commands Israel to show concern for strangers and aliens in their midst (for example, Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18?19), since the Israelites had been strangers in Egypt. Moreover, prophets later view the nations once singled out for judgment (for example, the Jebusites?a Canaanite people [Deut. 7:1]) as the ultimate objects of Yahweh's salvation. For example, in Zechariah 9:7, the Philistines?on whom God pronounces judgment in 9:1?6?and the Jebusites (who came to be absorbed within the fold of Judah) are both to become part of God's redeemed "remnant." This theme is reinforced in Psalm 87, where the Philistines and other enemies are incorporated into the people of God.[18] 

Yahweh's evident concern for the nations in the OT hardly supports a Gentile-hating, arrogant ethnocentrism. Rauser notwithstanding, the Israelites did not determine themselves to be the in-group, who in turn demonized the out-group and then destroyed them. Yahweh pointedly reminds his people that their taking the land is not due to their intrinsic superiority ("right?eousness," "uprightness of heart"), but because of the "wickedness" of the Canaanites. Indeed, the Israelites are "a stubborn people" (Deut. 9:4?6).

5. Herem and Human Sacrifice?

Regarding the Hebrew term herem ("ban," "dedication to destruction"), Rauser correctly observes the religious dimension to Israel's wars. Indeed, this was true of ANE wars in general?sacred or holy endeavors.[19]  Israel's defeating its enemies was an indication that Yahweh the "warrior" (Exod. 15:3) was ruler over all the nations and their gods. Is Rauser correct, though, in claiming that the slaughter of all men, women, and children was a "religious act of worship"?

Not quite. Susan Niditch's study, War in the Hebrew Bible, affirms that the "ban" in the early texts (for example, Deut. 20) refers to the total destruction of warriors and the consecration to God of everything that was captured:

The dominant voice in the Hebrew Bible condemns child sacrifice as the epitome of anti-Yahwist and anti-social behavior . . . . the dominant voice in the Hebrew Bible treats the ban not as sacrifice in exchange for victory but as just and deserved punishment for idolaters, sinners, and those who lead Israel astray or commit direct injustice against Israel.[20] 

Furthermore, Hess contends that human sacrifice to Yahweh was not behind herem; no evidence in the early texts suggests this.[21]  Contra Morriston, there is a "subversive attitude to human sacrifice" in the OT. According to Hess, there is "little suggestion that war is an act of human sacrifice to a god who demands it."[22] 

Now, Morriston suggests that certain passages, if not implicitly endorsing the acceptability of human sacrifice, seem to diminish divine displeasure towards it.

The first is 2 Kings 3:27, where Mesha, king of Moab, (apparently) sacrifices his firstborn son on the wall of Kir Hareseth (in Moab), after which the Israelite army withdrew. Morriston's suggestion is mistaken here for several reasons. First, it is at odds with what the author of Kings declares in subsequent passages (cp. 2 Kings 16:3; 17:7; 21:6). Second, the Mosaic Law clearly condemns child sacrifice as morally abhorrent (Lev. 18:21; 20:2?5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10). Third, the word fury (qetseph)is wrongly assumed to be divine wrath.[23]  Its cognate is used elsewhere in 2 Kings, clearly referring to human fury (5:11; 13:19). Fourth, typically, commentators suggest several plausible interpretations?and Morriston's is not one of them! (i) Perhaps there was fury against Israel among the Moabites because their king Mesha, forced by desperation, sacrificed his son (in order to prompt Moab's renewed determination to fight).[24]  (ii) Another possibility is that the Israelites were so horrified or filled with superstitious dread?which came "upon Israel" (RSV)?at this human sacrifice that they abandoned the entire venture.[25]  (iii) A final alternative is that because of Mesha's failed attempt to break through the siege (perhaps to head north for reinforcements), he was still able to capture the king of Edom's firstborn son, whom he sacrificed on the wall, which demoralized Edom's army. Their "wrath" ended the war because they withdrew from this military coalition of Israel, Judah, and Edom.[26] 

What of Jephthah's rash vow and sacrifice (Judg. 11:30?40)? While some strongly argue against the claim that Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter,[27]  most OT scholars believe the text asserts this.[28]  Let us then assume the worst-case scenario. Morriston informs us that Jephthah the "Judge of Israel . . . would surely have known" that child sacrifice was wrong and that it was because of such acts that Yahweh judged the Canaanites. Why then this human sacrifice?

Morriston too hastily concludes that Israel assumed human sacrifice as morally acceptable before Yahweh. We can apply Morriston's statement to Samson. As a "Judge of Israel," he "would surely have known" that touching unclean corpses and consorting with prostitutes were forbidden by Yahweh. Precisely because we are talking about the time of the Judges, Morriston should be all the more cautious in suggesting what he does.

But didn't "the Spirit of the Lord" come on Jephthah (Judg. 11:29)? Yes, but we should not take this as a wholesale divine endorsement of all Jephthah did?no more so than the Spirit's coming on Gideon (6:34) was a seal of approval on his dabbling with idolatry (8:24?7)?or Ehud (3:26), for that matter.[29]  Yes, these "Judges of Israel" would "surely have known" this was wrong. Indeed, "the Spirit of the Lord" came upon Samson to help Israel keep the Philistines at bay (14:6, 19; 15:14). Yet his plans to marry a Philistine woman, cavorting with a prostitute, and getting mixed up with Delilah all reveal a judge with exceedingly poor judgment! (No doubt there is a moral in here somewhere about how God often works despite humans rather than because of them!)

The theology of Judges emphasizes the nadir of Israelite morality and religion?with two vivid narratives at the book's end to illustrate this (chapters 17?21). In light of the repeated theme "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (17:6; 21:25; cp 2:10?23), we could say that Morriston is expecting too much moral uprightness from characters in a book depicting Israel's moral nosedive. Not only did the Mosaic Law clearly prohibit child sacrifice?something known to the judges; Scripture itself reminds us that not all behavioral examples in Scripture are good ones (cp. 1 Cor. 10:1?12). We do not have to look hard for negative exemplars in Judges of Israelites in the moral basement. No explicit statement of Yahweh's obvious disapproval is needed.

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