Show Them NO MERCY!

C.S.Cowles, Eugene H. Merril, Daniel L. Gard, Tremper Longman III. Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, ed: Stanley N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003. 210 pages.

Right, I don't know what attempt this is, but I have decided the easiest way to write this review is to simplify.

The Issue(s): Many people read the Old Testament (OT) and get uncomfortable. They see a God of violence, and compare this God to their own image of Jesus and can't make them line up. Perhaps no part of the OT stands out in this regard as much as the account of the Canaanite genocide (and surrounding commands/events. One may look at Deut. 20, Josh. 7, and other passages such as Deut. 7:1-5; Josh. 11:11-21; etc.).

Deut. 7:1-2
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations--the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you--and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.

The tension between this passage and such passages as Matthew 5:43-48 is fairly obvious. How could the God who commands us to love our enemies also have commanded His people to commit genocide, destroying everything that breathes, including women and children? (Gotta love the emotional poignancy of phrasing the question with such words as 'genocide' and highlighting the deaths of those we normally call 'innocents')

The Book: This book is a '4 views' book, and thus provides 4 views on how to answer that question and deal with that tension. The formatting is exactly the same as every other 'views' book: Each author presents his view and is followed by a short response from all of the other authors. Therefore, you have 4 views presented and 3 sets of critiques/comments on each of those views.

The Positions:
1. Radical Discontinuity, by C.S. Cowles
- Cowles argues that the pictures of God presented in, and by, the Israelites in the OT and the picture of God presented in the New Testament (NT) in the person of Jesus are discontinuous. He then argues that what we find in the OT, and have so much trouble with, is a cultural remnant; not the actual revelation of God but the mistakes of the Israelites. His position is well argued but, in my opinion, deeply and ultimately flawed. I will come to more thorough critiques later. (next post maybe)

2. Moderate Discontinuity, by Eugene H. Merrill
- Merrill's position is most easily summed up in this way: God is just and righteous and also merciful and loving. We don't know exactly how that lines up with genocidal commands, but it must. In the meantime, we accept the mystery and realize that these commands for genocide were unique to their time and place (and when better understood within their own context they are, according to Merrill, justifiable) and that Christians today can firmly stand against genocide and violence. Thus the discontinuity comes in that God did this once, but no more. This is a fine as it goes, but hardly an answer to the question of how we can accept these things about God. The fact that he leaves his assertion about the mystery of God until the very end, and does not elaborate at all...

3. Eschatological Continuity, by Daniel L. Gard
- For Gard what is visible, and disturbing, in OT commands are merely a foretaste of God's full righteous anger and wrath against sin. This does not change in the NT, it is merely delayed. So, there is no discontinuity. Rather, God has decided that He will delay his full judgment until the end of time. At that time, as we can see in Revelation, God will fully eradicate evil. The saints will praise God for his mercy and the rest will be destroyed. It is only our inability to see what it means for God to be completely just and stand against sin that makes us stumble at the account of the Canaanite genocide. We ought not to ask why God killed those people, but why he didn't, and doesn't, kill us all (a thorough, and completely honest, Calvinistic/Reformed answer, if ever there was one. That said, I have strong issues with hardcore Reformed/Calvinist theology)

4. Spiritual Continuity, By Tremper Longman III
- Longman examines the nature of Herem warfare in the OT, asking what is going on and how it compares with what we see in Jesus. His conclusion is that we see phases in God's interactions with his people. At the beginning, God fights flesh and blood battles through Israel to defeat her enemies. Shortly thereafter, God turns his wrath on Israel as they have been unfaithful. Phase 3 is the expectation that God will come in the future as a warrior and defeat all evil and right all wrongs, etc. This is exhibited in the prophets, but fully revealed in Jesus Christ and divided into two more phases. In phase 4, Jesus fights spiritual evil and defeats it on the cross. Phase 5, then, is the final battle and complete victory at the end of time. Thus, there is both discontinuity and continuity, but ultimately we serve the same God at each phase herem warfare derives from the original curse and from sin, both of which Christ has and will defeat. Another fine positions, but if this is so why the genocide first and Christ later? More unanswered questions...

My Conclusions: So, what did I think of this book? Well, my specific interactions with the questions of genocide, God, scripture, etc. will come in the next post but, in the meantime, I will say this: I did not find this book helpful. Other than Cowles each of the authors assume that the biggest part of the question is already answered (the question of how God could command this genocide and still be the God revealed in Christ) and instead focus entirely on the second question (are the OT and NT continuous? Do they present us with the same God?). Furthermore, the response sections tended to be filled with each author asserting their own position rather than engaging the position just presented. Perhaps this was partly due to space constraints, but if you are going to write a critique/response to an argument, you ought to engage it at least mildly (note: While every response was not this bad, many were).

The one helpful deed that this book accomplished was to give me a much more thorough understanding of the nature of herem warfare (Longman wasn't the only one to deal with this) and several other issues in the texts themselves. This is certainly a good start in any debate involved scripture, but it goes nowhere in this particular book.

My Recommendation: If the question this book asks is of interest to you then you definitely ought to research and read and think about it. Just don't come to this book for help.

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