Divine Persuasion and Justice in Yahweh’s Commands to ‘Utterly Destroy’

In my previous post, I discussed the scriptural precedent for viewing Old Testament warfare commands as accommodations to some extent. Yahweh commanded brutal warfare on the part of stubborn, faithless Israel in order to bring about certain future actualities—whether judgments or blessings—that were contingent on such commands being issued.

But does this mean that the commands themselves were insincere or somehow falsely attributed to God on the part of the Israelites, lawgivers, and prophets?

I would emphatically argue that they were not.

First, it’s important to point out that theologian Greg Boyd is inaccurate in his insistence throughout The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and elsewhere that God does not (and even cannot) use violence in his judgments. The question of whether God personally thrusts swords into people’s chests or opens the ground through earthquakes by His own hand is irrelevant. God undeniably relies upon violence (even if this violence is actually carried out by agents other than God) to judge all of the nations, including even the Israelites themselves (e.g. Jer. 19, 50; Rev. 14:20).

But my own presupposition, following the precedent of Jesus and the apostolic writers with regard to their view of scriptural authority, is that any judgment commanded by God in every one of the passages in question is not only truly His own command, but it is also necessarily righteous and just. As Deut. 32:4 intimates, Yahweh is “The Rock” and “his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”

For all of Boyd’s responses to the problem of divine violence commands, his cruciform perspective does not adequately deal with the issue of God’s holiness (which logically warrants His judgment and makes it righteous) or Scripture’s own endorsement of the Israelites’ conquering of the Canaanite peoples as a demonstration of true faith. Even the New Testament (Hebrews 11:30-34) clearly affirms that the Canaanites were judged because of disobedience, and it commends the Israelites by insisting it was “through faith [they] conquered kingdoms, enforced justice … became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”

Again, the problem with thrusting our own conception onto Scripture concerning what God was doing is this: if we can truly have the liberty of picking and choose what are legitimate commands of God or not, then no objective basis remains for viewing any command attributed to God in scripture as truly His command in any authoritative or binding sense. There is no escaping that this is the essence of the problem with Boyd’s argument.

On the contrary, we must begin with the assumption that the ḥērem (in Hebrew, “devote” or “destroy”) commands themselves are indeed just and righteous—since, as commands attributed to the only God, Yahweh, they represent a part of His perfect, divine Law. This is consistent with the rest of the Biblical record. And we also know that the ḥērem commands are not a matter of sacrificing human lives in exchange for victory to appease God; rather, God used Israel to enact a just and deserved punishment for the Canaanites’ idolatry, sin, leading astray of Israel, and committing direct injustice against Israel. We cannot miss this, lest we completely misunderstand the significance of these passages with regard to the justice of God’s decrees.

With that being said, however, it was still known by God Himself that His command (what speech-act theorists would call the locutionary act) would not match the eventual response on the Israelites’ part (or the perlocutionary effect). What God actually intended was something LESS than total annihilation (a result which is called the illocutionary act). This is one context in which the use of hyperbole makes enormous sense. A reasonable explanation for what God is doing in these violent passages is that He is using hyperbolic language concerning war to motivate the Israelites to not hold back in any manner. Because clearly, even with the total annihilation language present, they never fully destroyed everyone or everything in any case.

Consider: how much less would they have obeyed God’s commands had they at all been weaker? All we can do is imagine the lack of enthusiasm or dedication to fulfilling God’s command had He instead said, “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you should strive to do whatever possible to make it likely that you can enter the land without resistance.”

Throughout these passages, then, what we see is Yahweh overemphasizing the basic crux of what is desired—judgment of the wicked Canaanite people—in order to produce the desired outcome, even if this outcome isn’t identical to the actual command.

Because of how greatly the Israelites were outnumbered by these nations, for instance, we know that a literal fulfillment of the commandment by Israel’s slaying every single living Canaanite would have been virtually impossible. Note also that Israel’s fear even prior to the conquest was over the Canaanites’ larger stature, greater numbers, and their walled cities (Num. 13:28-33).

But this is precisely where we see divine providence and foreknowledge rearing its holy head. God fully knew the future actuality in which Israel would entirely fail to meet the original command in its fullness. Yet the only way it could have been met, even in the manner it was, was by God expressing His command at the greatest possible level. It might be said that it was more preferable for the Israelites to fall short of a comprehensive/severe command than fall short of an imprecise/weak command.

It’s actually quite ironic that a theologian like Boyd doesn’t equally view the command of God to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a morally reprehensible one (in his book’s appendix, he doesn’t). Because honestly, by his criteria, there’s no reason not to assert that this command itself is even more objectively immoral than the command to kill sinful Canaanites. Child sacrifice, even more particularly of an innocent child, is demonstrably contrary to God’s Law. And yet He still technically commanded Abraham to carry it out. Why?

We know that this episode has a far greater redemptive and covenantal context. Boyd rightly identifies the command of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as being tied to a legitimate test of faithfulness, but this is similar to what’s happening in these warfare passages.

The ḥērem commands themselves are like the testing of Abraham in one respect—God is stooping down to His people’s level by temporarily presenting Himself as a typical Ancient Near Eastern god, yet eventually showing His truest character through subsequent revelation. But the ḥērem commands are unlike the testing of Abraham in another aspect, since Abraham was willing to go all the way in obedience, while the Israelites were not.

Next time, I’ll continue delving into this issue by looking at the redemptive aspects of the violent commands to annihilate the Canannites. Even though these two ideas may seem completely contradictory at first blush, there is much to be gleaned from the Scriptural narrative in the way of this.


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