If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you’ve seen this Bible passage before:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess … you must destroy [the inhabitants] totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)
…in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them … as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
Do those sound like commands to commit genocide?
Even most Christians would say they do. In fact, during my church-going days I heard more than one sermon that spiritualized these passages by saying, “Just as God commanded Israel to completely wipe out the Canaanites, so we must completely remove sin from our lives. Just as any Canaanites that were allowed to live might one day tempt Israel to idolatry, so any sin that we tolerate in our lives could one day prove to be our undoing.”
Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, offers a different take.
Jephthah is a minor player in the Bible who reveals a major aspect of God’s character.
Although he eventually rose to become judge of Israel for six years, he had a very rough start in life. According to Judges 11, he was the son of a prostitute, and his father’s “legitimate” sons drove him out of the house so he would not share their inheritance.
The Bible says he “fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.” Nice start: eh? Outcast son of a prostitute and leader of a gang of thugs, probably by the time he was a teenager.
His leadership qualities and tough-guy reputation were noticed and eventually the elders from his town asked him to return and lead them in battle against the Ammonites.
He tried to reason with the Ammonites, but they wouldn’t listen to him. It was at this point that “the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah” and he “advanced against the Ammonites.”
…but not before he made this vow to God:
In my childhood, comedian Flip Wilson was big. His Grammy-winning album, The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress, took its title from this routine he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show:
Flip is playing the character of a preacher who wants to know why his wife, Geraldine, has bought a third dress in the course of a week. Their interchange is an enlightening study in the theory of knowledge, or epistemology.
GERALDINE: I didn’t want to buy this dress. The devil made me buy this dress.
I don’t know how many times during my years as a Christian I heard, “Nobody is beyond salvation. No matter how bad you are, you are not beyond God’s forgiveness.”
Recently I attended a Christian gathering and saw this poster on the wall:
Although some might question the particulars of those characters’ stories, the sentiment pervades the evangelical church.
How about you? Do you believe that nobody is beyond God’s reach?
When God established his theocracy, the penalty for apostasy was death. Not only that, but if your wife or child was the apostate, you had to throw the first stone:
If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)
Thankfully, we don’t live in God’s theocracy anymore, but Bible-believing Christians are stuck defending passages like this one. How do they do it?
You’re no doubt familiar with this portion of the Ten Commandments:
You shall not make for yourself an [idol] … for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)
When Moses had to make new tablets a few chapters later, having broken the first set in anger over the people’s worship of the golden calf, God camped even harder on the theme of jealousy:
Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. (Exodus 34:14)
After the golden-calf incident, who can blame God for being peeved? As Dr. Paul Copan puts it in the book we have been considering for the last few posts, Is God a Moral Monster?,
Israel’s idolatry was like a husband finding his wife in bed with another man — on their honeymoon! The reason God is jealous is because he binds himself to his people in a kind of spousal intimacy. (page 36)
Continuing the marriage analogy, we have this on the next page:
God is a wounded husband who continually tries to woo his people back into harmony with him.
If God’s jealousy were always of this sort, then there could be no objection. However, there comes a point where jealousy becomes abuse.
President Obama has built a reputation as an incrementalist. Before he was elected in 2008, liberals had high hopes that he would turn the ship of state 180 degrees and sail in their direction. But as Howard Kurtz put it in the Washington Post as early as 2009, “Anyone who’s spent two weeks in Washington would know that Obama’s yes-we-can idealism would run smack into the capital’s no-we-won’t culture.”
As we reach the end of president Obama’s second term, he has become more assertive with the liberal aspects of his agenda, using the powers of the executive branch to bypass congress and get things done.
Did the God of the Bible follow a similar course as he brought his people from ignorance to salvation? Did he start by meeting them where they were — in the moral harshness of the Bronze Age — and bring them along incrementally until, finally, he made a full revelation in Jesus Christ?