As soon as I saw that an article was exploring the subject of whether God ordered the Israelites to commit genocide, I knew that one of the defenses was going to be this: “God is perfect, and it’s wrong of us to assume that we have the right to judge Him.”
I know this because this is one of the standard answers for this question. It’s an easy way to shut down an uncomfortable inquiry. And it’s wrong.
The article was written by Justin Taylor, who uses a variation of the argument I mentioned above to answer the question of how God could order genocide. Taylor published his post on The Gospel Coalition website (where he also regularly blogs), and I can understand why they think God is justified in ordering the slaughter of the Canaanites. As Calvinists, they believe that God has divided mankind into two groups: those who are destined to receive the power to have faith in Christ and be saved, and those who are destined to remain in their sin and go to hell. (In shorter terms, you’re either “elect” or “non-elect”.) In this theological system, God sends people to hell for not having faith in Christ when He both knows that they lack the ability to have such faith and has the power to give them that ability but withholds it anyway. It’s as if God ordered a bunch of paraplegics to run a foot race and then got mad when they were unable to stand.
(I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either.)
But for this group, God is perfectly justified in refusing to give the non-elect the power to believe and be saved. They also appeal to Romans 9 in support of not only their particular understanding of predestination but also for their retort against anyone who questions it: “God is the potter, you are the clay, and He will fashion us as He will. Who are you to argue otherwise?”
It’s no surprise, then, that this retort would be repeated when they explore the issue of Canaanite genocide in the Bible.
Now, I’ve written on this subject before and argued that God’s orders were not only not ethnic cleansing but were also subject to change. God had no problem showing mercy to Canaanites who wanted mercy. Think of Rahab. Think of the Gibeonites. Both were spared by Israel without any sort of divine retribution for allowing Canaanites to live.
That said, it’s still a disturbing part of our Scriptures. It’s understandable why would we wonder how God could do this, especially in light of the God who has been revealed in the enemy-loving, cross-bearing rabbi from Nazareth, Jesus the Christ. But for folks like Taylor, such questions reflect a sinful mindset.
It is commonplace in our culture to ask whether this or that was fair or just for God to do. But if you stop to think about it, the question itself is actually illegitimate. Merely asking it presupposes that we are the judge; we will put “God in the dock” and examine him; God must conform to our sense of fairness and rightness and justice—if God passes the test, well and good, but if he doesn’t, we’ll be upset and become the accuser. … To think otherwise is the ultimate act of arrogance, putting your own mind and opinions and conceptions as the ultimate standard of the universe.
I want to make three points in response to the argument that challenging God somehow puts us above Him. I’ll be responding specifically to the charge that to question God is somehow to make ourselves judge over Him. I haven’t decided whether I’ll respond to the rest of the post, but if you’re so inclined, you can read it in full by clicking the link above.
First, challenging God is biblical. Abraham argued with God in an attempt to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. (And Justin Taylor ought to be familiar with this, as he quotes from Genesis 18 in his blog post.) Moses prevented God from destroying the Israelites after they worshiped the golden calf. The psalmist wondered why God has forsaken him, and Jesus himself raised this question right before he finally succumbed to torture and crucifixion.
Second, our sense of justice may be flawed but it has not been destroyed. Taylor speaks of two different kinds of justice here: our sense of justice and God’s sense of what’s right. Now, let me be clear: our sin has absolutely affected our ability to love what’s right and to do it. There’s no question about that. What I have an issue with is the idea that our sin has so corrupted our sense of justice that we have no understanding of what “justice” means.
If we are no longer capable of understanding what’s just, then how is God able to expect us to abide by a system we have no hope of understanding, let alone fulfilling? If you’re going to argue that human beings deserve to be judged for failing to live up to God’s moral code, then you have to also believe that human beings are able to understand that moral code in the first place.
Again, that doesn’t mean we understand perfectly, but it does mean that we understand enough to the point that God can hold us accountable for what we know and how we act. So when people raise objections to these difficult parts of the Bible, it’s not because they’re operating from a sense of justice that is completely foreign to God’s. It’s because our sin has not so destroyed the divine image in us that we are unable to perceive justice and evil.
Third, people object to this presentation of God because it is so different than Jesus. And if you’re going to insist that Jesus has given us the best and fullest idea of what God is like–as Christian orthodoxy has always claimed–then this one is big. Jesus said that peacemakers are blessed. He commanded us to love our enemies. He condemned any attempt by his disciples to use violence against their opponents.
Now, it’s true that this same Jesus also cleared out the Temple–with a whip, of all things–but this appears to have been less about kicking someone’s ass than it was about establishing his messianic credentials and exposing the corrupt religious system in Jerusalem for what it really was.
There’s the passage in Revelation in which Jesus returns, covered in blood, and destroys the hostile armies with the sword coming out of his mouth. But we also know that the two-edged sword in Revelation has also been called the word of God in other places. So is Revelation using some graphic imagery to describe the triumph of God’s message over the nations, or is the author actually suggesting that Jesus is going to put a sword in between his teeth and violently swing his head back and forth until he’s killed everyone who hates him? It’s also worth pointing out that the blood on Jesus’ robes is present before this battle takes place, which is probably the author’s way of reminding us that the victory Jesus won was won by the shedding of His own blood.
Those are two of the more common passages people refer to when trying to prove that Jesus, as God, wouldn’t have had a problem with slaughtering every single Canaanite. I hope it’s become evident at this point that those two passages–which don’t even really back up the argument that people think they do–don’t invalidate everything else Jesus told us about our relationship to our opponents.
I should also saying something else. I’m not making this argument because I just don’t want to accept what the Bible says about God but because the Bible and church tradition are firm in their insistence that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh, who manifested His love for sinners (yes, I believe in the existence of sin, too) by dying on a cross for our sins and defeated death by rising from the dead. Those same Scriptures also give us a picture of what Jesus was like, and when that picture appears to contradict the portrait of God that we see somewhere else, then we have every right–indeed, the responsibility–to ask why that is.
Are we putting ourselves in the position of judge when we question God? Hardly. If you’ve going to take Jesus and his Scriptures seriously, then you’re going to have lots of questions as you learn how to do so. Questions about faith, questions about God and why He doesn’t always appear to act like Jesus did.
You’re going to have questions and, following in the tradition of Abraham, Moses, the psalmist, and Jesus himself, you need to ask them. Besides, how will you ever learn if you don’t?