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Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites - Page 6

(9) A Default Position ("Scenario 2").

Readers will observe a slight shift in my approach to the Canaanite question, thanks in large part to the further input of Richard Hess's and John Goldingay's recent work. However, what if "Scenario 1" (above) fails? What if it turns out that women and children actually were the explicit objects of herem by Yahweh's command?even if we allow for hyperbole in phrases such as "everything that breathes"? I discuss the possibility of this alternative below.

(a) "Psychologically and spiritually shattering."

Rauser and Morriston raise questions regarding the psychological damage done to combatants who brutally kill women and children (for example, the My Lai massacre). Now Rauser describes killing the Canaanites in Scenario 2 as a "morally praiseworthy" act. Certain acts may be just (for example, a just war), but describing such involvement as "morally praiseworthy" is misleading. As Confederate general Robert E. Lee affirmed, "It is well that war is so terrible; otherwise we should grow too fond of it."[64]  Rather, theologian John Stott's wording regarding the killing of the Canaanites is apropos: "It was a ghastly business; one shrinks from it in horror."[65]  If babies were involved, surely this was a grim task.[66]  Yet the killing of the Canaanites was deliberately temporary and sui generis. Furthermore, in the ANE, warfare was a way of life and a means of survival?a situation in which combatant and noncombatant were not always distinguished. This fact, in combination with the hardness of human hearts (Matt. 19:8) and human moral bluntedness in the ANE,[67]  would likely render such actions considerably less psychologically damaging for the Israelite soldier.

(b) The context of God's goodness, enemy love, and overarching purposes.

As mentioned earlier, God's overarching goal is to bring blessing and salvation to all the nations, including the Canaanites through Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 22:17?18; cp. 28:13?14). This sweeping, outsider-oriented, universally-directed covenant is utterly unique among ancient religious movements.[68]  Yes, for a specific, relatively short, and strategic period, God sought to establish Israel in the land, simultaneously punishing a wicked people ripe for judgment. During this time, God was certainly willing to preserve any who acknowledged his evident lordship over the nations, which was very well known to the Canaanites (Josh. 2:8?11; 9:9?11, 24; cf. Exod. 15:14?17; Deut. 2:25). Even Israel's sevenfold march around[69]  Jericho, each circumambulation serving as an opportunity for Jericho to evade the ban, was sadly matched by Jericho's sevenfold refusal to relent and acknowledge Yahweh's rule.

Furthermore, God's difficult command regarding the Canaanites as a limited, unique salvation-historical situation is comparable to God's difficult command to Abraham in Genesis 22 (a passage Morriston mentions in connection with human sacrifice, which we discussed earlier). Behind both of these harsh commands, however, are the clear context of Yahweh's loving intentions and faithful promises. In the first, God has given Abraham the miracle child Isaac, through whom God has promised to make Abraham the father of many. Previously, he saw God's provision when he reluctantly let Ishmael and Hagar go into the wilderness?with God reassuring Abraham that Ishmael would live to become a great nation. Likewise, Abraham knew that God would somehow fulfill his covenant promises through Isaac?even if it meant that God would raise him from the dead. Thus Abraham informed his servants, "we will worship, and then we will come back to you return" (Gen. 22:5 [NRSV]; cp. Heb. 11:19).[70]  With the second harsh command regarding the Canaanites, Yahweh has already promised to bring blessing to all the families of the earth without exclusion (Gen. 12:1?3; 22:17?18). As previously observed, God is in the business of eventually turning Israel's enemies into his friends and incorporating them into his family. As Abraham said of Isaac, it is as though ancient Israel could confidently say of its enemies like the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Canaanites (Isa. 19:25; Matt. 15:22):  "we will worship together" (cp. Isa. 2:3). So while we have troubling exceptions in each of these scenarios, these should be set against the background of Yahweh's enemy-loving character and worldwide salvific purposes.

Similarly, though blameless yet severely afflicted, Job received no clear answer to his questions, but he did receive assurances of God's wisdom, which far surpasses ours. He learned that God's character is trustworthy and his presence sufficient, even when we remain baffled in the face of unanswered questions.

In Jonah's day, God did not punish the Ninevites?to the great disappointment of Jonah, who knew that this is the sort of thing Yahweh does?he loves his (and Israel's) enemies: "I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity" (Jon. 4:2; cf. Exod. 34:6).

Jesus, who sees himself as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17), affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob is one who loves his enemies and calls on us to imitate this complete love (Matt. 5:43?48). We even see God commanding enemy-love in the OT?to show concern for the alien and stranger and enemy (for example, Exod. 23:4). The "Canaanite exception" is a glaring one in the midst of many affirmations of Yahweh's lovingkindness and concern for his own enemies. To affirm Buijs's general point, we can say that Jesus himself does not view the killing of the Canaanites to be an intrinsic tenet or permanent norm for Christians.

Scriptures attest to divine love, but also judgment: "Behold then the kindness and severity of God" (Rom. 11:22). Paul Moser observes:

It would be a strange, defective God who didn't pose a serious cosmic authority problem for humans. Part of the status of being God, after all, is that God has a unique authority, or lordship, over humans. Since we humans aren't God, the true God would have authority over us and would seek to correct our profoundly selfish ways.[71]  

Despite Morriston's reference to C. S. Lewis's "wise words" about God's "gradual and graded self-revelation," he hardly negates Lewis's assertion that "Aslan" is not "safe." Elsewhere, Lewis commends "the obstinacy of faith." He asserts that trust in a personal God (as opposed to a mere proposition) "could have no room to grow except where there is also room for doubt." Lewis goes so far as to say that love involves trusting a friend beyond the evidence?even, at times, against such evidence. He reminds us that we should give the benefit of the doubt to a friend, even if the friend may display seemingly puzzling and uncharacteristic behavior. For example, if a trusted friend pledges to meet us somewhere but fails to show up, which of us "would not feel slightly ashamed if, one moment after we had given him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay? We should feel that we ought to have known him better."[72]  Just so.

As with Job, the full picture is not always available. We are not necessarily in the best cognitive position to discern God's purposes.[73]  We may find ourselves left with a puzzling gap between what we clearly know of God and what seems to be a harsh exception (assuming here that Scenario 1 is false). Having tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8), we should deal with such questions in the context of a loving, compassionate, and just personal God who has the long-term good of even his enemies in mind. Yet we have excellent reason for thinking that Scenario 1 is correct and that we do not need to resort to the default position.[74] 

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