Posted by: Dan | May 24, 2009

Review and Discussion of ‘The God I Don’t Understand’: Part 3, The Conquest of Canaan

Review

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Within the second major section of The God I Don’t Understand, Christopher Wright focuses upon the Hebrew conquest of Canaan in order to explore issues related to portrayals of divine acts and approval of violence within the Old Testament. He notes that for many ‘the God I don’t understand’ is the violent God of the Old Testament and, given the scale of the violence involved in the conquest of Canaan, it seems that this is an appropriate place to turn to explore this God.

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Wright begins with a chapter describing three dead ends – three ways not to approach this issue – and then, in the subsequent chapter, turns to three frameworks that Christians might find helpful when they turn to the conquest.

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Beginning with the dead ends, Wright first rejects the position of those who argue that the unpleasant parts of the Old Testament (OT) – notably the parts involved divine acts of mass violence – are rejected and corrected by the New Testament (NT). Wright notes that such a position requires an highly selective reading of both Testaments. It neglects the large amount of OT teachings focused upon God’s love and grace, and it neglects the large amount of NT teachings focused upon God’s wrath and terrifying acts of judgment (indeed, NT expressions of judgment are, according to Wright, even more terrifying that OT acts, for while judgment in the OT is harsh, it is temporal and limited; however, in the NT, the torment of the condemned is made eternal).

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The second dead end rejected by Wright is the position taken by those who argue that the Israelites thought that they were doing God’s will but were mistaken. According to Wright, this view fails because the bible never records God correcting this so-called misinterpretation. Indeed, both the OT and the NT consistently affirms the conquest and sees it “placed firmly within the whole unfolding plan of God” (83).

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The third dead end rejected by Wright is the view that the conquest is only intended to be read as an allegory for spiritual warfare. Obviously this view does not take any account of the genre of the text at hand, and fails to recognize that the primary form of the recital of the conquest is historical narrative and not allegory.

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Having noted these dead ends, Wright then emphasizes that there is really no satisfying solution to our exploration of this issue. However, he goes on to say that, by putting these events into the framework of the whole bible, we can speak of these things in a way that is helpful to the Christian faith (even if it doesn’t resolve the problem).

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The first framework Wright employs is the framework of the OT story itself, placed within the context of Ancient Near Eastern culture at a particular moment within history. At this time, holy wars, wherein all the plunder was reserved for the deity, were not unique to Israel. Such wars are not waged for profit, by efficient war-machines wreaking havoc upon their personal enemies. Rather, they presupposed the deity as the one waging the war upon that deity’s enemies, and no plunder is allowed as total destruction is required. Therefore, by waging such a war, Wright wonders if God may have accommodated Godself to the fallen human reality of that day: “In view of [God’s] long-term goal of ultimately bringing blessing to the nations through the people of Israel, the gift of land necessitated this horrific historical action within the fallen world of nations at the time” (89).

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However, having said that, Wright quickly notes his own discomfort with this answer, but adds that although he feels uncomfortable with God’s accommodation to any harmful action (divorce, slavery, etc.) real accommodation does seem to be portrayed in the bible.

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Thus, Wright seeks comfort in pointing out that, even within the OT, the conquest of Canaan is a limited event – a single event pertaining to a single generation – and it must neither be seen as an archetypal OT war, nor as a model for future generations. Which, Wright goes on to say, is why Jesus can prohibit violence while not condemning the OT stories.

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Finally, while still taking into account the Ancient Near Eastern context of the conquest narrative, Wright notes how conventional Ancient Near Eastern rhetoric regularly exceeds reality. Perhaps, he suggests, there is a little comfort to be found in this observation.

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The second framework Wright employs for understanding this event is the framework of God’s sovereign international justice. In this regard, Wright objects to the application of the word ‘genocide’ to the event under discussion but the word carries overtones of vicious self-interest, ethnic cleansing, and oppression. According to his narrative portrayal, the conquest is none of these things but is ‘divine punishment operating through human agency’ (92). Specifically, it is the coming to full fruition of God’s judgment upon moral and social degradation. According to Wright, this understanding of the conquest as an expression of God’s sovereign international justice:

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does not make [the conquest] less violent. Nor does it suddenly become “nice” or “OK”. But it does make a difference… Punishment changes the moral context of violence… There is a huge moral difference between violence that is arbitrary or selfish and violence that is inflicted under strict control within the moral framework of punishment (93).

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Thus, Wright argues, there is a fundamental difference between a spanking a child and abusing a child, or, to switch analogies, between imprisoning a criminal and taking a person hostage. Of course, using violence at all ‘may be problematic’ but we must distinguish between these forms (94).

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Therefore, understanding the conquest within this framework, means that it must not be taken as a sign of the Israelites’ righteousness as there is no correlation between triumph and the goodness of the victors. Thus, military success cannot be taken as a sign of God’s favouritism; nor must being defeated in a conquest – even the conquest of Canaan – be confused with what is to come at God’s final judgment.

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Finally, given that we are so unsettled by placing the conquest within this framework, Wright questions if we would be less upset if the conquest had occurred but had not been commanded by God. After all, if God is sovereign over all nations, and if all things happen in some way in accordance with his will then we should not create such a sharp distinction between what God decrees and what God permits.

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The third and final framework Wright brings to the matter at hand is the framework of God’s plan of salvation. He stresses that we need to read the conquest as a part of God’s plan – evident in both Testaments – of bringing peace, blessing and salvation to all the nations. In this regard, Wright highlights how the bible sees no contradiction between God’s general plan and his specific actions in Canaan.

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In the end, however, Wright returns to the point that none of these frameworks offers a full, adequate or satisfactory resolution to the problems presented by the conquest of Canaan. This, then, leads him to conclude with these words:

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I may not understand why it had to be this way. I certainly do not like it. I may deplore the violence and suffering involved… But at some point I have to stand back from my questions, criticism, or complaint and receive the Bible own word on that matter. What the Bible unequivocally tells me is that this was an act of God that took place within an overarching narrative through which the only hope for the world’s salvation was constituted (107).

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Response

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Throughout this section, Wright rejects the views of those who, in one way or another, appeal to the OT conquest of Canaan in order to engage in acts of conquest and violence today. In particular, he seems to be implicitly refuting contemporary Christians who support the tyrannical use of force exercised by both the United States and by the State of Israel. This is an important point to make – we cannot appeal to the OT in order to engage in violence today, we cannot mistake victory for righteousness or loss for damnation – and I am in complete agreement with Wright on this matter.

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Furthermore, while struggling with the conquest narrative, I think that Wright is correct to draw attention to some of the broader frameworks operating within the biblical narrative – this is a key element of any responsible reading of the bible. However, unlike Wright, I do not think that an awareness of these frameworks assists the reader in resolving questions related to stories of divine violence. Far from it, I think that it is these frameworks that create the problem for us in the first place – remembering God’s overarching goals of bringing peace, justice, blessing, and salvation to all is precisely that which makes us question the conquest. After all, if the God of the bible was simply another tribal, nationalistic God, then the conquest would make good sense. It’s only the prior affirmation that God is actually committed to caring for the well-being of all of creation that makes the conquest a problem for Christians. Thus, Wright offers that which creates the problem at hand as (partial) solutions to that problem! No wonder, then, that I found this section to be the most disappointing part of the book.

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My disappointment was only further deepened because of the way in which Wright uses the specificity of the conquest of Canaan in order to avoid addressing overarching questions related to biblical portrayals of God as extremely violent. Granted, the conquest of Canaan is just one particular event at one particular moment of history, but the OT is also full of other stories of God approving of violence and even acting violently – from the Flood, to calling the Assyrians and Babylonians to punish Israel, to allowing Elijah to summon bears to devour a street gang, and so on – and while Wright uses NT references to divine acts of violence (particularly, passages related to hell, which Wright seems to understand as a place of eternal torment) in order to blunt the edge of OT descriptions of divine violence, he never addresses the fact that this then leaves us with a God who appears to be brutal, vindictive, and willing to torture people forever. So, while Wright seems to say, “Hey, let’s not get overly focused on this conquest, since it is just one (violent) moment within an overarching plan of salvific love,” he seems to forget that the bible contains many other problematical portrayals of God’s relation to violence.

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Indeed, the question of how a supposedly loving God, committed to rescuing creation and all creatures from the violent power of Death, can engage in any sort of violence or death-dealing, lies at the heart of this problem. Wright tries to dance around this issue in a few others ways… all of which I find equally unsatisfactory.

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For example, he suggests that the observation that the conquest is performed as a type of punishment for evil and oppressive behaviour “changes the moral context of violence” but I would contest that this is so. First of all, it is impossible to make the case that all of the men, women, children, infants, and animals that were slaughtered in the conquest are actually guilty and deserving of any sort of punishment (let alone a death sentence). Secondly, I am not convinced that violent punishment is fundamentally or morally different than any other violent action. I find Wright’s examples in this regard to be unconvincing. Granted, punishing a child through spanking is a different sort of action than arbitrarily hitting a child, but that does not make spanking a good moral action. In both cases, a child is being struck violently and frequently, from the child’s perspective, there is no discernible difference between the two acts (I write this as a person who was both spanked and physically abused as a child). Allow me to provide a counter-example: consider a man who rapes his partner because his partner was unfaithful to him, and a man who rapes a stranger. In the first case, the violent act is performed as a form of punishment, in the second case it is performed arbitrarily, but in both cases the violent act is morally wrong. The same, I think, goes for hitting children or any form of violence exercised as punishment.

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To take a second example, Wright reminds us that the rhetoric involved in the narrative of the conquest is likely over-inflated and exagerated. Now, this is a fine point to make in order to establish a proper reading of the story, but to suggest that this observation somehow blunts the edge of the challenge that this genocide presents to the Christian faith is absurd – it makes no difference if God was involved in slaughtering thousands, rather than tens of thousands, of children. The same fundamental objection remains, and to even make this point within this context suggests to the reader that the author doesn’t really understand the matter at hand.

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Now speaking of rhetoric, and having employed the term ‘genocide’ in the last paragraph, it is interesting to note the rhetorical game that Wright plays with that word. As I noted above, Wright admits the technical accuracy of applying the term ‘genocide’ to the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, but he then chooses to marginalise and not apply the term because of other connotations that it carries within our contemporary context (those of ethnic cleansing, and so on). Now, to me, this looks like a word game employed to try to downplay the gravity of the situation. It seems to be part of a strategy of avoiding a full and honest confrontation with the matter at hand.

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Finally, the third and most unsatisfactory way in which Wright dances around this issue is by arguing that God may be constrained to accommodate himself [sic] to some less than ideal short-term goals in order to accomplish his [sic] long-term goals. To once again cite the passage quoted above: “ In view of [God’s] long-term goal of ultimately bringing blessing to the nations through the people of Israel, the gift of land necessitated this horrific historical action within the fallen world of nations at the time”(89; emphasis added). What Wright appears to be arguing here is that there is only one plan of salvation available to God and so God must follow that plan, no matter the cost at any given moment of history. Thus, God’s plan ends up standing over and above God, trapping God within a deterministic framework that requires divine accommodations to (a more pleasant expression than other available terms like ‘compromise’ or ‘complicity with’ or ‘responsibility for’) fallen human realities like divorce, slavery and, in this case, genocide.

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Now this is a decidedly odd point to make because it places severe contraints upon God’s sovereignty – an attribute of God that Wright defends at length in this book. If God is constrained to act within history in this way, and in this way only, then I wonder how exactly God can be said to be sovereign.

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Speaking of this attribute, Wright makes another odd point when he explicitly relates the conquest narrative to the proclamation of God’s sovereignty. Because he understands God’s sovereignty to mean that he is somehow involved in every single event that occurs in history (permitting everything to occur, working everything into God’s greater plan, and so on), Wright downplays the difference between ‘God’s decretive will’ (when God decrees something – like the conquest of Canaan) and ‘God’s permissive will’ (when God simply permits one nation to conquer another by not intervening or whatever). Of course, even operating within Wright’s understanding of God’s Sovereignty it is easy to see the difference between, on the one hand, how God might limit God’s interaction with the world’s violence out of respect for human freedom and, on the other hand, God actually initiating violence. Yet Wright fails to see any significant difference between these two things – the decretive and the permissive. Therefore, what this point highlights, to me at least, is not that the conquest wasn’t as troubling as we might first imagine (which is the point that Wright is trying to make) but that Wright’s notion of divine sovereignty is terribly problematical.

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In this response to Wright I hope that I have simply applied the same standard to Wright’s work that he applies to others who offer us dead-end solutions to these problems being explored. To be honest, given Wright’s commitment to counter superficial and self-serving solutions, I was surprised that a number of the points he made were so facile and easily countered. I cannot help but wonder if Wright’s self-proclaimed pastoral intent (which I mentioned in my initial post in this series) is getting in the way of honest engagement with these issues.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for your post. When I read this book a couple of months ago I too found the genocide chapter incredibly disappointing. Although I accept that faith in God is ultimately faith in a ‘mysterious’ being who we can never come close to knowing or understanding this side of eternity, I am tired of being asked to accept trite answers to difficult questions which fall back on the mystery of God as a cop out.

    I’d love to hear other constructive solutions to the genocide problem but I feel probably the only acceptable solution will be a change in the way the OT is viewed as scripture. I cannot accept that the loving Father of Jesus would order the slaughter of women and children as portrayed in the OT. But I personally haven’t thought through it enough, nor have the background knowledge necessary, to come to a satisfactory conclusion on my own. I really appreciate your comments in this post though.

  2. this is the primary issue that has led to my struggle with the Old Testament, and i suppose with Christianity in general. so much of my attraction to the person/teachings/legacy of Jesus is rooted in the compassion that he communicated and lived out fully. to find that his God is such a vengeful, violent being is disturbing on many levels.

    i have a lot of psychological dissonance surrounding this particular issue and it has led to me largely abandoning my prior (mainstream, conservative) understanding of God. whenever i feel like the Christian God exists my communications to him tend to be little more than “hey uh, what the fuck?”

    i mean, i can embrace a lack of totality in understanding God (and anything else, really). but God’s direct order for genocide is something that, i think, far supersedes the realm of a “leap of faith”.

    what i mean is, i’m okay with not having a proper solution to whether God could make a stone that he himself couldn’t lift. that’s fine by me.

    i’m not okay with God ordering a lot of people to die. i think that demands a higher attention than a philosophical paradox.

    too often, when discussing the teachings of Jesus, i feel like i’m practicing double-speak, like in the book 1984. simultaneously expressing contradictory viewpoints and holding both as true.

  3. Just for some levity, Doonesbury cracked a joke about this topic this past Sunday…

    http://www.doonesbury.com/strip/dailydose/index.html?uc_full_date=20090531

  4. Hey, where is your post on non-violence? I wanted to link to it:
    http://donotfreeze.blogspot.com/2009/06/which-oppressor-would-you-confront.html

  5. […] especially as a trump to any idea of infallibility on the part of the scriptures (see here and here for […]


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