Previous installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 5
Chapter six of Thom’s book is Blessing the Nations: Yahweh’s Genocides and Their Justifications. It’s the longest chapter in the book, and its subject is genocide.
When you make the subject “genocide” you have already prejudiced the argument. “Genocide” is one of the favorite arguments of the new atheists for this very reason. People don’t like genocide for the same reason that they don’t like homicide. Those are bad things. Therefore, to get defenders of the Bible to accept the characterization of certain events in the Old Testament as genocide is practically winning the argument even before you start it – for genocide is as hard to defend as homicide.
I don’t buy the notion that “genocide” is a legitimate term when God is brought into the discussion. Homicide and genocide have to do with human behavior. God is our Creator and our Judge. He has the power of life and death. If genocide were an applicable term I suppose you could say that the fact that every human being eventually dies proves that God is guilty of the greatest genocide imaginable (since He’s “killing” the entire human race), but such nomenclature is silly when applied to God. Is every human death to be called a “homicide,” for which we have to defend God for having “killed” the person?
What happened when God told Israel to invade Canaan and displace its inhabitants was that He was authorizing Israel to conduct a war against the people of Canaan. Israel’s ultimate victory was only guaranteed if they obeyed God, and when they did not obey Him they lost battles. Therefore, it’s not as if Israel was a mighty army invading defenseless people. The battles could have gone either way. Further, God authorized this war because of the wickedness of Canaan – just as He would subsequently allow Israel itself to be kicked out of the land because of its own wickedness.
Therefore, I believe that the invocation of “genocide” is an entirely inappropriate way to discuss the issues of this chapter. Moreover, Thom’s use of a graphic description of genocide from the victims’ point of view as his opening volley is even further exploitation of the term in order to win his argument by emotion rather than reason. To discuss the chapter at all requires me to use the term “genocide” but recognize in what follows that I’m only doing it for convenience sake – not because I believe such language is logical to use with respect to God.
Thom seems to believe that God didn’t command the genocides he sees in the Bible, but that they were concocted by the Israelites who were fabricating their national history to make themselves look good. This is consistent with his view that the documents we have in the Bible are not the product of God speaking through human beings but rather fabrications by human beings who were falsely claiming divine authorization for their imperial actions. Nonetheless, Thom spends considerable time attacking various justifications of God’s role in these actions put forth by defenders of the Bible. (Strange behavior if you don’t think the texts accurately portray God.)
The only one of these arguments I want to address is the one that is the closest to the one I hold, and that I described to you earlier. Thom calls it the “Divine Punishment” justification and covers it under the sub-chapter heading of that name.
In his argument against divine punishment as an explanation for God’s actions, Thom offers three objections. I will list and address them each in order.
“First, if God knew that the Canaanites were going to become even more depraved, why did He do nothing to intervene in their self-destructive course?”
How does Thom know God didn’t something along those lines? Besides, the rich man suffering torment in Jesus’ Luke 16 tale of alterations of attitude in the afterlife certainly thought an extra message from God would be all it took for his brothers to get the message to repent, but it was a vain hope. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for God’s warnings to go ignored. We don’t know all of God’s dealings with the Canaanites leading up to their judgment, but to assume God was unfair with them seems an assumption without warrant.
“The second difficulty rests in the question of who deserved the punishment.”
Thom wants here to make the point that no matter how much the Canaanite adults might have deserved punishment, their infants couldn’t have. But who would raise the infants if only the adults were killed? And at what age would the line be drawn? And what about children who develop a conscience faster than others? And there are many more complications. Thom offers no solutions for this. He just believes God was wrong, or that the Bible authors’ and defenders’ conception is wrong. Either way is okay with him – just so you believe there is error on this subject where the Bible is concerned.
We have to accept the fact that judgment is upon us in this earth and beyond. However, everyone is going to heaven. Therefore, we should never view the end of life on this earth as the end of the story. God might not execute judgment in the way Thom would like Him to, but the Bible itself gives accounts of men who complained to God about the way He runs things. God’s pleased we’re using our moral muscle, but we’d be more productive if we applied that sort of thinking to our own lives…unless we think we’re already as moral as we can be.
“If Yahweh wanted to use Israel to punish wicked nations, why did such a crusade conveniently terminate precisely at Israel’s borders?”
Because God did not raise up Israel to be the world’s “enforcer.” Their role was to be a light to the nations. They needed a land for the people, but God did not establish that they should be like Alexander or Napoleon – grasping for every inch of earth they could find. At the height of Israel’s national power – Solomon’s reign – they were a land marked by peace. God had a special purpose for Israel and the borders God gave were sufficient for that purpose. He had other ways to dispensing divine judgment on wicked nations.
Thus, the biblical explanation that God’s granting of Canaan to Israel was a manifestation of God’s judgment on Canaan and fulfillment of His promise to Abraham stands. And, as I wrote above, Israel itself became subject to divine punishment when it was exiled to Babylon centuries later because of its own disobedience. “God is no respecter of persons.”
Later in the chapter, Thom rightly points out that Jesus Himself pronounced a judgment of destruction on Jerusalem and likened it to the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. This seems to horrify Thom, but not in the right way. That is, instead of falling to his knees crying out for mercy, He castigates Jesus and God for running creation in such a way. God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” “He desires that all men repent” and be saved from the destruction we otherwise bring on ourselves. Thom seems to miss out on this dynamic entirely.
This chapter is just one more of the string in which Thom incessantly flails away at the God of Scripture and the Scripture itself. That is, he is saying that the God described by the Scripture is so evil that He cannot possibly exist, but he is simultaneously saying that the Scriptures themselves don’t come from God and are untrustworthy. If the Scriptures are error-laden, why does Thom go to all the trouble to condemn the picture of God it paints? If the Scriptures are error-laden, then ipso facto they’ll describe God erroneously. That Thom feels compelled to attack both the credibility of the Scriptures and the credibility of their God speaks of a hostility toward both that is other than rational.
Strangely, Thom ends this chapter with a promise:
“In chapter 10 I will attempt to show how these texts can still be used…as sacred scripture…”
If you can’t count on the Scriptures to paint an accurate portrait of God, how could you possibly call them sacred?
I close with an appeal that I have continued to make to you: Why was it Jesus could know all these same scriptures that Thom knows, and yet not be troubled by them as Thom is? On the contrary, Jesus was devoted to them and to the God they portrayed. Remember: Jesus said, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone.” What is it that Jesus saw in the Scriptures that Thom did not see? Look in them with a humble heart and you will find it.
Next installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 7