Author and pastor John Piper, in a relatively recent interview on his website Desiring God: God-Centered Resources from the Ministry of John Piper, discusses the vexing problem of God ordering the mass killing of every Canaanite man, woman, and child.
Here is the opening quote.
“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”
Words fail me. Apparently, Piper sees no problem.
What’s more, Piper feels his thinking applies to all deaths everywhere.
“God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs….
If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.
God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.”
Words fail me even more.
Actually, on one level, it is helpful that Piper is willing to offer his views so clearly in a public forum. Characterizing God this way is, in my estimation, its own refutation, and in the end will serve the truth more than obscure it.
But still, Piper’s position raises some serious issues that won’t stay buried for long, and are worth drawing out–at the very least so people can to work through the issue themselves and not be swayed by a public figure taking such a strong stand, or conclude that Piper represents the only option before us.
Each of these issues outlined below, to be sure, engenders it’s own discussion–and I can only be very brief here–but they are part and parcel of the broader discussion of God’s violence in the Old Testament.
1. It is unguarded to make a general principle of God’s character on the basis of the treatment of the Canaanites in the Old Testament. Of course, Piper would likely retort that all of Scripture is God-breathed, does not mislead us, and reveals the character of God. But then he would need to address squarely Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that “death to our enemies” is no longer valid.
The insider-outsider premise that undergirds Canaanite slaughter (and the killing of many of Israel’s enemies in the Old Testament–see #3) is the very thing Jesus squashed: “My kingdom is not of this world.” That alone should give Piper pause from venturing forward with his assessment of God’s character on the basis of how Canaanites are dealt with.
2. Following on #1, “the Bible said it, that settles it” answer to God’s violence in the Old Testament not only runs into problems with respect to the New Testament but the Old Testament as well. There is a fair amount of theological diversity in the Old Testament regarding the nature of God’s judgment on the nations that would need to be taken into account. (For example, compare Jonah and Nahum on the fate of Assyria; the glorious fate of Egypt in Isaiah 19:23-25.) To make one view on such a thorny issue the model for how God acts throughout time runs the danger of privileging certain texts that support one’s theology.
3. Related to #s 1 and 2, Piper would also need to address the historical reality of the ancient tribal setting of these Old Testament stories. I realize that for a literalist like Piper, this point is wholly out of bounds, for it requires that we allow what we have learned archaeologically about the ancient world of the Bible to influence how we understand the Bible.
Still, for those interested, we know that the rhetoric of a patron high god fighting for his people and insuring their military successes (and failures if they are unfaithful) is a common ancient manner of envisioning the activity of the divine realm vis-a-vis politics. I suspect Piper may not have much use for such information, but placing the biblical accounts of military conquests next to those of other ancient peoples leads to the following reasonable and commonly accepted conclusion: how Israel described God’s activities was influenced by cultural givens and therefore not to be applied willy-nilly for all time and places.
4. Following on #3, Piper would need to take seriously the conclusion drawn overwhelmingly by archaeologists that the systematic slaughter of the population of Canaan around 1200 BC did not happen. As with many issues surrounding archaeology, there is further discussion to be had, and I am guessing that Piper will not be swayed by what archaeologists say.
Nevertheless, there were likely only a few small battles in a few places (like Hazor). The stories of mass extermination of Canaanites that God ordered (Deuteronomy 7:1-5 and 20:10-20) do not depict brute historical events, but Israel’s culturally influenced way of making an important theological statement (see #5). If that is true, it complicates Piper’s assumption that one can point to the book of Joshua and say “God is like this.”
5. It is not at all clear that these biblical stories were even written to depict “what God did.” Recent work has made the case that the book of Joshua is not a “conquest narrative.” Rather, using conquest as a narrative setting, Joshua is a statement about what it means to be an insider or an outsider to their community.
The conquest stories are symbolic narratives that point to a theological truth. For example, the fact that Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, is spared but the Israelite family man Achan and his family are treated as Canaanites (Joshua 6-7) is designed to make people think long and hard about what insider and outsider even means. (See Douglas S. Earl The Joshua Delusion?: Rethinking Genocide in the Bible and Daniel Hawk Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua.)
6. More practically speaking–and without intending to implicate Piper–history bears witness that those who envision God the way Piper does are only one small step away from forming their own Christian Taliban to be God’s agents of wrath in this life.
Some kill abortion doctors and gays, but more commonly the end result of such thinking is a brand of Christianity that is agitated, judgmental, suspicious, and ready to draw blood whenever a perceived offense to God is committed. A faith in God that is governed by such a posture toward others is something Jesus clearly taught against.
7. Piper would need to engage the common response that the killing of a population to take their land is resolutely condemned not only in modern culture but among Christians around the world. In other words, Piper would need to address the ethical implications of a God who does what every fiber of our being and shared experience says is wrong–shedding innocent blood to take their land and resources.
8. According to Deuteronomy 20:10-20, God orders the Israelites to kill every living thing within the borders of Canaan, but that is only half the marching order. An equally disturbing fate awaits those in cites outside of the borders of Canaan.
First Israel is to offer terms of peace. If they accept, the people are enslaved. If they refuse, the men are to be killed but the women, children, livestock, and anything else are kept as booty. To be consistent, one would need to think that, “God is enslaving people every day. He will make 50,000 slaves today. Slavery and freedom are in God’s hand. God decides whether you will be slave or free.”
9. How does Piper or anyone know, really, that all deaths are “willed” by God? Nothing in the Bible can compellingly be interpreted this way, and the whole matter seems to be more a matter of mystery than theological certitude. I suspect that perhaps Piper is pre-committed to this view by virtue of a Calvinist premise of God’s “sovereignty.” But sovereignty, even in a Calvinist sense, does not imply that God is necessarily “taking life everyday.”
10. Finally, I am not sure how this sort of view of God translates into effective ministry. I don’t think it is pastorally effective (not to mention theologically sound) to tell people: “God is the sovereign God of the universe and he may snuff out your life or the life of your loved ones at any time by cancer, a bullet, kidnap/murder, slow starvation, a plane flying into a building, etc. He isn’t beholden to you. He doesn’t owe you anything if you drop dead.”
Piper’s hyper-literalistic defense of Canaanite genocide may score some points (temporarily) against atheist attacks on the Bible, but how will this play with real people who are struggling to find ways to make it through life day to day? Is not “God is love…the very hairs of your head are numbered…cast your cares on him…he desires that no one perish…you are his sheep” more in keeping with building up God’s people?
The morality of God killing Canaanites has been joyfully thrown in the face of Christians in recent years by such prominent atheists as Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, which is what Piper is reacting to. But Canaanite genocide has been a topic of concern ever since the earliest theologians of the church began to wrestle with it in the 2nd century. It has always been and remains a tough issue for anyone who takes the Bible seriously.
I feel that Piper’s comments in his interview obscure the genuine complexities of this important conversation and leave us with a God that, at the end of the day, I contend is not the God of the gospel but the very caricature of God we should avoid.