The Human Faces of God: the God-sized hole in the Conquest narratives

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 6: “Blessing the Nations”

Why would God have ordered the systematic massacre of whole people groups, including women and children? Could He maintain a reasonable expectation of being acknowledged as “good” in any conceivable sense, let alone worshiped, while commanding something like that — not once, but many times throughout Israel’s history? In this chapter, Thom Stark answers these questions with a definitive, “He wouldn’t” and “He couldn’t,” respectively, by explaining that in actuality, “He didn’t.”

To be clear, my argument is not that God is evil for commanding genocide. I am not claiming “to know better than God” — an accusation Christian apologists often make against Christians who hold my position. My contention is that God never did command the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites wholesale. These accounts reflect a standard ideology that Israel shared with many of its ancient neighbors, and I read them as products of ancient culture, rather than products of pure divine revelation. Therefore, my claim is not that I know better than God, but that we all know better than those who wrongly killed women and children in God’s name.

The chapter opens by forcing you to imagine yourself in the place of one of countless millions of human beings throughout history who have suddenly had their worlds, their homes, their loved ones, even their babies destroyed by the cruel hand of genocide. His vivid portrait of what genocide events look like in the real world does not at all come off as a cheap appeal to emotion, but as a well-aimed blow intended to restore reality to the theoretical postulations of Christian apologists who by various sleights of hand seek to turn our attention away from the atrocities described in the Conquest narratives. There have been many theological attempts to reconcile the apparently schizophrenic character of one who both ostensibly told His followers that it was not only okay but necessary to massacre their neighbors and commanded other followers to love their neighbors and enemies alike. Stark shows his familiarity with and mastery over more of these arguments than I’d ever encountered before.

Justifications for genocide

One after the other, Stark addresses these justifications for genocide as articulated by several prominent Christian apologists and thinkers, including William Lane Craig, Christopher Wright, and Paul Copan. Time and again, he resists the temptation to become snarky, allowing the absurdity of their attempts to justify genocide to shine instead through fair presentation. Although the more philosophical reasoning and scholarly counter-evidence he adduces are strong, I was particularly impressed by how often Stark was able to show that their flimsy arguments were contradicted within the Bible itself.

So what are some of the defenses that Christians are wont to present as an excuse for God’s purported bloodlust? Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of Stark’s responses to some of the apologists’ arguments.

Apologist: Israel needed to eliminate the bad influence of the Canaanites wholly and completely, or else she might be led astray (Deut 7.1-6). God was acting as a caring surgeon who knew he must cut out the cancer before it spread throughout the body. (esp. William Lane Craig and Christopher Wright)

Stark: How could infants pose any such threat of bad moral influence? Were they raised by Israelite parents, all pernicious moral influence would be as foreign to them as it supposedly was to native Israelites. Not only that, but Deuteronomy 7’s insistence upon a total massacre of all humans young and old because of their corrupting influence is flatly contradicted in Numbers 31.7-18, in which the Israelites were told to keep the girls and virgin young women around to interbreed with them! Moreover, Deuteronomy itself later lays out a double standard, allowing for intermarriage for towns outside the borders of Israel (Deut 20.10-18) — were the people outside the borders somehow not going to be a bad influence?

Apologist: The wholesale massacre of Canaanites was long-delayed and fully deserved divine punishment undertaken by human agency. It was not until the Canaanites’ iniquity was complete that God destroyed them.

Stark: Let’s say that they really did deserve to have their babies ripped from their wombs and their grandmothers killed before their very eyes. Why did God not send Israel in as a witness to His ways through a form of evangelism? Remember that Jonah (as most inerrantists believe) was chided for being reluctant to save Nineveh from destruction, which he was able to single-handedly accomplish despite his reluctance. Were infants and children culpable of such grave moral sins? Even if one accepts a thoroughgoing doctrine of original sin, in what way were those infants more fully deserving of being murdered than their forebears whose iniquity was “not yet full” (Gen. 15.16)? (esp. Christopher Wright)

Apologist: Joshua 11.1-5 and Numbers 21 show that the nations were aggressors that could have wiped Israel off the map. In order to fulfill His promise to Abraham to bless the nations (ultimately through Jesus), the preservation of Israel was necessary by any means, however gruesome it looks to us.

Stark: First, compare Deut 2.24-35 for a different picture as to whom the aggressors were in the situation described in Joshua. But regardless, this is unmistakably an “ends justifies the means” argument; it is an argument against the absolute, objective morality that Christians everywhere claim to believe in. Was it permissible not merely to (dubiously enough) preemptively attack the cities that might attack them later, but also to put babies to the sword just so that God’s promises could be fulfilled? Could a wise and powerful God truly find no other way?

Apologist: Justice and good are not defined by what we humans think: whatever God does, by definition, is good and just.

Stark, quoting Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior, p. 74: “…if God’s standard of justice is so fundamentally different from ours that physical abuse and the slaughters of babies can be considered just, then it no longer seems possible to have a meaningful conversation about what constitutes justice.”

I will briefly summarize Stark’s response to one more solution to “the problem of genocide”, one that’s gained a lot of traction in the time since his book was being prepared for publication due to its advocacy by Christian philosopher Paul Copan and more recently by apologist/philosopher Matthew Flannagan. The proposed solution: that genocide talk was (mostly at least) rhetorical exaggeration.

Stark doesn’t hesitate to admit that they have a point, but it’s not particularly helpful for inerrantists: in fact, very little of the archaeological record backs up the biblical account of the Canaanite Conquest. A few exceptions like Hazor notwithstanding, archaeological evidence shows that the Conquest narratives describe many more instances of the Israelites assaulting cities that didn’t even exist (as such) at the time the Conquest was supposed to have taken place, such as Arad, Heshbon, Dibon, Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon.

The more popular but even less defensible version of this “rhetorical exaggeration” defense is Copan et al.’s contention that the inclusive, ultra-violent commands were never intended to be followed through literally: “kill everything that breathes” and “leave no man, woman, or child alive” were (supposedly) just the way the ANE crowd psyched themselves up about their mostly conventional warfare.  Starks points out multiple reasons why this simply cannot be the case: cf. the already noted contrast between the atrocities demanded for the inhabitants of Canaan in Deuteronomy 7 and the relative leniency prescribed for those outside the borders in chapter 20. Even if God didn’t command the babies to be killed, “girls” were obviously under the ban in chapter 7. These justifications amount to flailing helplessly, and everyone knows it.

Stark explains that all the boasting of sacking the cities which were never actually sacked actually forms something of a national origin myth, probably from Josian reform days:

The literature reflects the attempt of rising empires to express their hegemony through origin stories that crystalize their present-day claims to power. These origin myths present the young nation as an unstoppable force, specially empowered by their deity whose strength far outstrips that of the other tribal deities. The myths serve to crystalize and legitimize the nation’s rise to power. I believe the preponderance of the evidence shows us that this is precisely what is going on in the conquest narratives. (147)

Many more arguments from people who should know better are addressed and decimated in this chapter. I also found his discussion of Origen’s and Gregory of Nyssa’s response to the genocide passages helpful. I especially loved one of his responses to those who refuse to reject the immorality of genocide and the impossibility of a good God’s commanding it by appealing to “divine mystery”. Yes, says Stark, it is indeed a mystery: “How it is possible to affirm that God committed genocide and that God is good — that is a mystery. Whether it’s a profound mystery or a convenient one is up to you to decide.” (138)

This topic seems to be Stark’s métier. At times it is an astounding thing to watch him cite and interact with so much of the literature, both that of the apologists and the archaeologists. All the while his own good sense drives the discussion in an admirably readable and fair direction. I really wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this chapter were eventually expanded into a book of its own, although given the thoroughness of his discussion in this book, such an undertaking would probably be unnecessary.

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