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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  • Paul D.

    Since my copy of Stark’s book is still in the mail, keep the reviews coming! 🙂

    This book is just what people like me need, I think. The first time my faith was seriously shaken was when I began reading the Old Testament for myself and seeing all the wanton slaughter God “commanded”. To be worse, everyone I asked about it gave me the usual apologetic excuses (outlined in your review), which is really worse than no explanation at all.

  • atimetorend

    I finally got the book, now I have to go back through your reviews and catch up. :^)

    His vivid portrait of what these events essentially look like does not at all come off as a cheap appeal to emotion…

    I noticed that too, since it could so easily come off as a cheap appeal. I think it worked well because it is a necessary step, to take the abstract and cold logical arguments defending genocide and show that it is something real and awful which is being discussed.

    Time and again, he resists the temptation to become snarky, allowing the absurdity of their attempts to justify genocide to shine instead.

    I am sure I would not have been able to resists snarkiness at that point. :^)

    I especially appreciate the Seibert quote, …”if God’s standard of justice is so fundamentally different from ours…” Apologetics seem to fall back on that type of argument so often, whether in defense of justice, morality, or reason and logic. It’s kind of a conversation stopper as far as I am concerned.

  • Atimetorend

    Paul D./Tin Tin, nice avatar!

  • I have his book and read some of it, but put it down. I felt like he was asking the right and difficult questions, but his answers were not well thought out. Now when i read scripture, i do keep a few things in mind. God’s Justice/righteousness in scripture is very different from out court room justice. Also God’s judgement can happen within history, it is not just an end time event. Just as our justification can be brought into time before the end judgement, so judgement too can be brought forward into time. Also God looks at things differently. Even though killing of babies makes no sense, from God’s perspective, they will be with him. Think of God sending his Son to die on the cross. Rarely do you hear someone say what God did was unjust!

  • Paige

    @Samuel,

    As someone who does not ascribe to Penal Substitution(ary) Atonement THEORY, I will say very loudly that Jesus’ death was unjust! (And God didn’t do IT, man did.)

    • Paul D.

      @Paige

      Agreed.

      Extending the analogy, it wasn’t God who killed those Canaanite children and babies; men did it. Who among the defenders of the Canaanite genocides would actually go around killing moms and babies because his pastor told him it was God’s command? The cognitive dissonance is deafening.

  • I saw Samuel’s comment and read some of it, but stopped. And now I’m pretty sure I can pretend to understand where he’s coming from and dismiss it.

  • This seems to be by far Stark’s most compelling critique of inerrancy up to this point in the book. I’m going to steal some of these responses for the next time I’m confronted with an argument in defense of the Conquest narratives.

  • Jsspongisright

    People: the Bible was written by men, inspired by men. The Bible itself is a hodgepodge of articles, some writings included, some rejected, and all of this stew cooked up by men.

    Why do reasonable people still argue that God wrote/directed this?

    • Paul D.

      “Why do reasonable people still argue that God wrote/directed this?”

      My suspicion is that it’s particularly a Protestant thing. We lack the roots in a pre-biblical church that, say, the Eastern Orthodox churches have. Without that anchor, people look for something else to latch onto and believe unquestionably in order to avoid the effort of rational and critical thought.

  • Thanks for this series. I have considered reading his book but i have so little free time lately. The genocide passages have always troubled me. We just watched hotel rwanda last night, and i think anyone arguing for inerrancy in those parts of the old testament should watch that movie.

    Does stark discuss pluralism? I’m struggling with that issue lately. Why christianity? Particularly after browsing through children’s history curriculum (both secular and christian).

    • I’m not through with the book, but my understanding is that such is outside the scope of this book’s discussion.

  • Dan W.

    Great post. I’m still working through all the implications of this kind of claim, i.e. that the genocides were not ordered by God. Do we then claim that not all scripture is inspired and profitable? At least with the simple denial of inerrancy I need not say such a thing. Also, if it’s wrong for God to command genocide, what of other wrathful actions, albeit not has horrific, described in the bible. I’m thinking violent actions such as his killing of Herod, and the killing of Ananias and Sapphira. If we reason that genocide is wrong because of Jesus’ command to love our enemies, then wouldn’t this apply to God and these actions are wrong as well? Anyhow still struggling to fit all the pieces together. Love to hear your thoughts.

    • Well, I must say, the depiction of judgment on Ananias, Sapphira, and Herod
      is not equivalent to the assertion that God commanded the wholesale
      slaughter of entire people groups, children and infants included, whose
      worst offenses were not being aware of God’s supremacy over their gods and
      occupying land God promised to someone else. That said, I find Luke’s
      purposes in attributing those acts of vengeance and power to God to come
      from much the same place. The NT Christians were by and large still working
      from the same view of God that earlier believers held. My guess is that
      Ananias, Sapphira, and Herod died unexpected deaths that were attributed by
      many at the time to God’s hand of judgment, and Luke merely followed suit.

      If we reason that genocide is wrong because of Jesus’ command to
      love our enemies, then wouldn’t this apply to God…as well?

      This is, to my mind, the best argument at least for a Lewisian view of
      damnation as self-chosen rather than divinely mandated, or even for
      universal reconciliation.

      • Dan W.

        Your solution is possible. I guess Paul’s view of believers falling asleep due to abuse of the Lord’s supper would also be called into question. I suppose one could argue that the positive trajectory of the ethics from the OT to the NT as well as the apex found in Jesus’ own words of loving one’s enemies presents a strong case.

        But we both agree at the outset that these cases are much different than genocide, so perhaps there might be some justification even within the vein of God loving his enemies. What about alternatively arguing that God does have these people’s best interests in mind. Herod is prevented from dehumanizing himself further and persecuting the church. Why can’t even this judgment ultimately not result in healing. And God would be the only one who could do this as he is the only one who controls what goes on after death. Call it divine euthanasia to prevent the sickness of sin from devouring the soul.

        • Dan W.

          “divinely initiated euthanasia” instead of “divine euthanasia”

        • Dan, I find your suggestion possible as well. Mind you, I’m also coming at this from a view that is increasingly uncomfortable with the perspective on God’s love that doesn’t allow Him to be a corrective Father. But while they are hardly equivalent, it still strikes me as rather hard to make as clear a distinction as we’d like between God killing Herod in Herod’s best interests and the possibility of the massacre of the Canaanites being in their best interests. The latter in particular does not sound like my Father at all. Moreover, viewing God’s role in Ananias’ and Sapphira’s deaths in that light suggests little enough reason to doubt that such still goes on, and could be used to justify things like Pat Robertson’s remarks regarding the recent Haiti disaster as a divine intervention of punishment (only restorative rather than retributive) — things I’m not at all willing to accept. I find it much more compelling to think of a divinely didactic appropriation of natural calamity rather than to think of a divinely didactic causation of natural calamity, if that makes sense.

          Plus, there are already some other problems with the Acts account of “Herod”: the man who died of a stomach illness was Agrippa I, whose grandfather Herod the Great had died of a similar stomach illness (possibly the source of Luke’s confusion). He had a brother named Herod, but he was never called “Herod”. The Acts account cries out to me of an insufficiently researched folk rumor that Luke believed because he agreed with its implications.

  • Stipo

    steve your reviews of stark are mind-blowingly literate and elegantly well-argued. I have been researching old testament Israelite polytheism and human sacrifice for a gothic horror novel I am writing, and mostly sticking to the deadly dry brushwood of wikipaedia. your stark reviews have lit up my research like a supernova.

    • Wow…thanks, Stipo! Sounds like a fascinating background for a gothic
      horror novel: I’d love to read it when you’re done! And thanks again for the
      compliment.

  • Jeff

    Steve, I have two thoughts on this subject that are in a rather early stage of formulation and I’d be interested in your reaction to them (or Thom’s, I suppose).
    The first is this: adherents of theistic evolution necessarily believe that death is a central ingredient of God’s creative process. And not merely that God created a universe in which death occurs, but one in which death is the gear that turns the machine of creation. Do you think there’s an incongruity between this view, and a negative reaction to the conquest narratives? ie why is a view of God killing in judgment morally repugnant, but a view of God killing as part of His creative process acceptable?
    The second: I don’t understand why (some) liberal Christians are incensed by conservatives/inerrantists’ acceptance of the conquests being divinely ordained, yet apparently have no problem with the practice of abortion. It seems inconsistent, to say the least, that someone could be upset about the /intrepretation of a text/ that depicts the killing of infants thousands of years ago, and not upset at all about the /actual widespread killing/ of infants taking place in our present day.

    • Jeff, thanks for the pushback. Excellent questions.

      I feel the first objection very much. I find the distinction between natural and moral evil to be tenuous, but intact: people who act in ways that are evil are acting very naturally indeed, as sophomoric primates, but insofar as our race consciously struggles against such volitional natural evil, I think we can meaningfully make the distinction.

      I have often pondered that God couldn’t make anything at all that wasn’t another God unless it were imperfect. And once you’ve introduced imperfection into the mix, that explains a lot about the problematic nature of our universe. So I don’t know if the universe could have been anything other than it is. It has evil, but it has breathtaking beauty as well. And a creator God allowing a universe that just can’t help but be “red in tooth and claw” (God can’t make square circles, etc.) – a creation that he intends to redeem and heal – is a far cry from a war god mandating that his followers commit savage acts of violence that ripped holes in their own souls every bit as much as they did to the bodies of the victims.

      As for abortion…well, I agree with you. Unabashed supporters have successfully convinced themselves that something must have some sort of self-awareness and consciousness in order to be killed wrongfully, and fetuses in early stages of development are, materially speaking, a mass of cells implanted in a female of our species, no more than a tumor with a promise. These Christians are reluctant to apply that sort of reasoning to a child after birth, for unconvincing reasons. (I actually fear that they’ll start being consistent on this issue in the wrong direction before they reconsider their apologies for abortion on demand.)

      Now, I admit that I can conceive of possible exceptions to my objections to abortion for civil reasons, although not for moral reasons. I’m not one who thinks that the solution to every problem is a law, especially when there are huge swaths of people who disagree over the immorality of the issue in question. But even when we agree, it’s difficult: although we all find infidelity to be immoral, no one seems to be pushing for a ban on marriage between two partners who came together through adultery. But anyway, as for all infractions against morality, including murder and rape, I do think we can and should all be able to work together toward at very least making it much rarer by changing every possible factor that makes it so ubiquitous.