Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Problem of the Conquest

One of the most difficult questions I've had in my faith is, "Why, in the Old Testament, did God sometimes command the killing of whole communities?"

People are frequently killed in natural disasters, or sometimes directly from the hand of God (as with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) and sometimes people will ask why, but I don't think that God killing people or natural disasters killing people is as troublesome as the question above.

I think the reason this question is troublesome is that we don't want these instances to be used as a precedent. If God kills, well, he is all knowing and all wise and must have a good reason for what he is doing, but we have no such confidence in ourselves.

Fortunately, I think the Bible confirms that this is precisely the attitude we should take. The times in the Old Testament when God commanded killings were limited to very specific groups. There was never to my knowledge a general command to kill unbelievers, or Gentiles, or those of a different race. In fact, the command not to murder is right in the Ten Commandments, and before the Israelites entered the promised land, they were commanded to treat kindly the aliens in their midst (Deuteronomy 10:18-19, for example). The commands to kill were only against specific, named groups.

Further, that it was God who commanded these killings was testified to by decades of miraculous signs, and not penny-ante signs such as those performed by the Egyptian magicians. These were big miracles: the miracles of Moses in Egypt, the waters parting for the crossing of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, water from a rock, the pillars of cloud and fire, the Jordan River opening up to allow the Israelite army to pass over on dry ground, and the miraculous destruction of the walls of Jericho. The cumulative effect of these - it seems to me - was powerful testimony that God really did command these killings.

But we, on the other hand, have no list from God of groups of people to be killed. And even if we thought we did, we have no miraculous confirmations that such killings should be carried out. Far to the contrary. We have not only the Old Testament admonitions not to kill and to be kind to strangers, we have the strong testimony of the New Testament as well. And even if we saw miraculous signs, I don't think that would be adequate because the Bible makes clear that not all miracles are from God.

That is why the commands to kill whole groups of people should never be used as a precedent. But that still doesn't answer the question, "Why, in the Old Testament, did God sometimes command the killing of whole communities?"

Well, the reason is given in Genesis 15:16, before the exile in Egypt. Here God says that the people were evil, but that their sin had "not yet reached its full measure." Presumably, during the years Israel was in Egypt, their sin became worse, until it did "reach its full measure" and God was ready to destroy them.

Okay, but if the Canaanites were so evil, why didn't God just do away with them himself? Why did he drag the Israelites into it?

I don't know for sure, but my suspicion is that God wanted the Israelites to take sides. He wanted them to participate with him in the destruction of the Canaanites so there would be a deep gulf between monotheistic Israel and its polytheistic neighbors. He did not want fraternizing, so he cleared an area for Israel to live in and separated the people from their neighbors with fear and antagonism. (The Old Testament has lots of separating commands, such as not to eat various foods and even not to mix different kinds of fabrics. Through all these commands it seems God is pounding into the Israelites' heads the idea of separateness, perhaps so the seed of monotheism could gain root.) Further, I think God wanted the destruction of many of the cities, animals and people to be complete so nobody could say that the Israelites' success was built upon what Caanan and the Caananite "gods" had begun and also so that what remained would not be an enticement to the Israelites to drift from God. In Joshua 24:23, after the main part of the conquest, Joshua is already having to tell the Israelites to "throw away the foreign gods that are among you." I guess they had been picking up idols as souvenirs. But already? They're already playing around with foreign gods, after just seeing the power of God?

Finally, as I read the Old Testament and the story of the conquest, I am occasionally struck by instances of mercy. It is not as if God just let the Canaanites go to hell in a handbasket without any intervention on his part. I think of Balaam, through whom - despite his sin - God spoke. This suggests to me that God's voice had been heard in Canaan during the years while Israel was in captivity in Egypt. The people were not ignorant of God; God did reach out to them. The problem is that they rejected his overtures.

I also see this in God's miracles during the Exodus. In addition to proving himself to the people of Israel, these miracles served to warn the Canaanites. Rahab mentions that Canaan had heard what God had done for Israel, and was afraid (Joshua 2:9-11), which was God's intention (Joshua 4:23-24). But apparently - except, of course, for Rahab - that message did not lead many to repentance, though Rahab's acceptance into Israel shows that this door was open. But if it didn't lead many to repentence, perhaps it did lead many Canaanites to pack up their bags and move elsewhere.

I think also of the very harshness of the command to completely destroy the people, and I wonder if that wasn't in part designed to persuade the Canannites to leave, or to repent. But did the Canaanites know about the command? I'm certain they did. The Gibeonites, who tricked the Israelites (Joshua 9:24), knew about it, so it is reasonable to think that other communities knew as well. And was there really an opportunity for repentance? I think so. The situation reminds me of Jonah preaching to Nineveh that it would be destroyed, but when the people of Nineveh repented God did not destroy it. Perhaps if the Caananites had repented they would not have been destroyed either. Finally, Joshua 24:12 says God sent hornets ahead of the Israelites to drive the people away. So perhaps only the most stubborn of the Canaanites remained.

Saturday, December 27, 2003


Wow! I've been off work since December 24 and I don't need to go back until January 5. Usually I go stir crazy when I don't have things to do, places to go and people to see, but for some reason I just feel very relaxed. I think it's because I've decided I'm not going to worry about work or projects or the state of the world; I'm just going to take it easy. So I'm getting in a bit of bike riding, and not getting in a bit of bike riding, I'm reading email and skipping email. Maybe I'll do a bit of planning for 2004, or maybe I won't. In fact, my enjoyment of this time off (and a comment by our pastor) has inspired a resolution for 2004.

Stress, the pastor said, is a result of having to get things done too soon. I think he's right. If you have a long time to finish a task, it's not stressful. So next year I want to simplify my life, not to do less, but so I have less to juggle and hopefully more time to do whatever tasks come my way. For example, I have several domain names I've purchased from various sources, and consequently, several accounts to manage. I think I'll transfer them all to the same account. I'll bet there are other things like this I can do.

In fact, I'm already simplifying a bit. My wife found a book she wanted for a few dollars less than at Amazon, where I usually buy, but -- since she uses my email account -- I asked her to please buy it at Amazon, even if it cost a bit more. I already get enough junk mail from Amazon and I don't want more from another company.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Is it True?

Here's a paragraph about Christmas that I included in my family's annual newsletter.

Just a thought about Christmas. Is it true? Is it more than a nice story? Is it true that God became a child and grew up and lived among us, teaching and preaching and performing miracles, then died on a cross, taking our sins upon himself so we can be forgiven? Did the judge really step down from the bench and take the convict's punishment? It is an astonishing claim, even if we have become dulled to it by repetition, and I pray you will honestly consider it. If you conclude that it is true then it begs you to embrace it. And if you conclude that it isn't true, well, at least enjoy the season's crisp air, lights, friends, food and fun.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Teaching and Encouraging

I wonder if much of what we refer to as "teaching" in today's church doesn't actually fall more in the category of "encouraging" or "exhortation."

This came back to my mind last Sunday when I heard a particularly good sermon on the nature of God. Usually I hear sermons telling me to be a better parent, spouse, or citizen, or how to be more fulfilled, or that we shouldn't be discouraged or we should avoid this or that sin. Sort of the "news you can use" approach to preaching. And all good stuff, but though there is certainly overlap, I think I would categorize it more as encouragement.

It's not that I'm down on encouragement - it's good and necessary - I just wonder if sometimes we forget about teaching. I think of Paul's letter to the Romans. The first 11 chapters are mostly about the intellectual underpinnings of our salvation, then in chapter 12 Paul switches gears and starts talking about how it all applies. I wish more sermons were like Romans - good solid truth followed by good solid application.

Perhaps some people believe truth that is too distant won't have an effect on our lives. But I'm not too sure. When I hear a sermon on the grandeur and mystery and love and mercy and power and justice of our God, I leave with a deep sense of fulfillment, and, I think, am much more amenable to living the way God wants me to live. I want to draw near to God, not just to hear what I should do, important though that is, but to know him better.

Monday, December 08, 2003

How Loud is Too Loud?

I just got back from a weekend retreat. It was nice, with good worship times, but the music was rather loud for my taste.

It got me thinking. People have long argued about whether certain types of music are Christian or un-Christian - I'm okay with just about any kind of music - but my weekend experience makes me wonder if there is a Christian music volume. And I kinda think there is.

Perhaps the upper limit on volume should be before it becomes so loud that people run the risk of physically damaging their ears. It seems un-Christian that attending a worship service should cause people physical harm.

Also, during the retreat I noticed that no matter how loudly I sang the lyrics, I frequently couldn't hear a word that came out of my mouth because of the volume of the music. It was as if I was just silently mouthing the words. I found this unsatisfying. I want to feel as if I am involved in the music, and if my small efforts in that regard are overwhelmed by the musicians up front, it leaves me a bit disappointed.

So I'd propose a second principle: If the congregation can't hear themselves sing, it's too loud.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

The Child of Christianity

I just finished a remarkable book called, For The Glory of God, by University of Washington sociology and comparative religion professor Rodney Stark (Princeton University Press). He argues quite persuasively that a lot of what we've learned in school about Christianity's role in history is baloney. Science, he says, wasn't begun by the rediscovery of Greek learning during the Renaisance; Christianity gave birth to science. Also, he said, Christianity is responsible for ending slavery, and - unfortunately - he says it provided the theoretical basis for witch hunts.

Just to show that he isn't an airhead, let me follow as best I can his argument that credits Christianity with giving birth to science. First, he says that the Christian belief that the universe was created by God and is a real entity (rather than merely a shadow of reality, or a complete illusion) makes creation worthwhile to examine. Second, he traces how science actually came about. During the Middle Ages, he writes, Christians set up universities all across Europe, and these were not, as has been claimed, just centers where scholastics argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin (though I'm sure there was plenty of that), but they were schools for thinkers, many of whom had a real interest in investigating the world God created, and the scholars from these schools created science.

Too often I am able to summarize an entire book in one sentence (and I am annoyed that the author needed to spend 150 pages telling me what he could have communicated in a sentence), but I can't come close to doing that here. I've seldom read a book so packed with information so clearly presented. Fascinating!