Saturday, September 24, 2011

Joshua and Near Eastern War Rhetoric (a bonus OTC 2 article)

If you've read Joshua 10, it get's morbidly repetitive:
  • "He put the city and its king to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it. He left no survivors." 28
  • "The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there." 30
  • "The city and everyone in it he put to the sword, just as he had done to Libnah." 32
  • "Joshua defeated him and his army--until no survivors were left." 33
  • "They captured it that same day and put it to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it." 35
You get the idea. Everyone. No survivors. But at least some biblical scholars have suggested that Joshua was using a sort of Near Eastern war rhetoric that was common in that time period and would have been understood as such by his readers. This war language used exaggeration to describe military victories in ultimate terms. In other words, everyone didn't necessarily mean everyone.

For example, if you read Joshua 11:21,22, it says that the Anakim were completely destroyed from the hill country in Israel. Yet if you read a few chapters later in 14:12-15 and 15:13-19, Caleb asks for permission to drive the Anakim out of the hill country.

Paul Copan puts it this way: "Some might accuse Joshua of being misleading or getting it wrong. Not at all. He was speaking the language that everyone in his day would have understood. Rather than trying to deceive, Joshua was just saying he had fairly well trounced the enemy...The language is typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole." (Is God a Moral Monster?, 171)

We use this sort of language every day today when we talk about our sports teams: "Yeah, we crushed them!" (In reality, the score could have been close).

In fact, we find the same tension in God's original commands to Moses. In Deuteronomy 7:2-5, He commands them to "defeat" and "utterly destroy" the Canaanites, and then immediately tells them not to intermarry with their sons and daughters. As Copan points out, if the Canaanites were to be completely obliterated, why this discussion about intermarriage or treaties?

Or consider Deuteronomy 12:30 (ESV): "After they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, 'How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.'" With whom exactly are they making their inquiry if everyone has been destroyed?

So what's the point? God was more concerned with the utter destruction of the Canaanite religion than the Canaanite people. This is why virtually every command from God to destroy the Canaanites is followed by a warning about falling into idolatrous worship if they fail to follow God's commands.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How do we make sense of the purging of the Promised Land?

This is part 2 of a continuing series on hard questions from the Old Testament. They have been adapted from a series of articles I wrote for my church's community groups. You can also read the introduction.

The purging of the Promised Land

On its face, Israel’s conquest of Canaan is probably one of the most cringe-worthy accounts that we read in the Bible. And to make it worse, it’s done under God’s direction! However, there are answers falling into two categories that give context and shed light on the whole account:

It probably wasn’t as bad as we think . . .
  • God seems to be more concerned with the utter destruction of the Canaanite religion than the Canaanite people. If this weren’t the case, God would not have allowed (and sovereignly planned) Rahab’s family or the Gibeonites finding shelter within the Israelite community.
  • As best as we can tell, Jericho, Ai, and other Canaanite cities were military strongholds with few if any non-combatants. “There is no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai.”
  • According to some biblical scholars, Joshua was likely writing in a form of exaggeration rhetoric commonly used by military leaders of his time. This ancient Near Eastern “war language” gives the impression that all the land was captured and all the Canaanites destroyed when something short of it was actually the case. (Consider Joshua 10:40-43)
. . . but what if it was as bad as we think?

  • The Canaanite people had been on a downward cycle of sin and depravity for over 430 years that included idolatry, incest, temple prostitution, adultery, child molestation and sacrifice, homosexuality and bestiality. (Deut. 12:29 ff)
  • The stories of Rahab and the Gibeonites show us that God had room in the covenants and the Promised Land for all those who feared God.
  • We are critical of the way God judges the evil Canaanites. However, we too quickly forget (and will be reminded next week) that God judged the evil Israelites in much the same fashion. God is faithful to both rescue and judge. This is a good warning to all of us who make light of the judgment of God.
For further reading: Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Is God Just a Human Invention? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications 2010) 179-181.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Review: The Language of Science and Faith by Giberson and Collins

In 2006, Francis Collins rolled a snowball called The Language of God and tossed it down a hill. It picked up steam, it grew, and it is now an avalanche fast approaching both the scientific and Christian landscape. From the book grew the BioLogos Foundation. Then an appointment of Collins to Director of the Nation Institutes of Health. And finally, BioLogos birthed a second book, The Language of Science and Faith, which was gathered and written by Karl Giberson.

At the risk of being too simplistic, Francis Collins and BioLogos represent the most visible apologists of theistic evolution. While The Language of God was their defense to the naturalistic and atheistic camps, The Language of Science and Faith is their entreaty to the Christian and theistic circles. I honestly don't know which is the more difficult task.

There is much here that I applaud. I believe that all truth is God's truth, and science is one of the ways that we discover truth about our universe. Thus anything that science proves to be true, we should celebrate as part of God's good creation. The chapter on the age of the earth was fascinating and awe-inspiring, and even more so the chapter entitled "What Is the Fine-Tuning of the Universe, and How Does It Serve as a Pointer to God?"

However, there is also much here that I question. The authors seem dismissive of Intelligent Design, brushing it off as a mere creationism in disguise. They state (without citing sources) that a majority of evangelicals still hold to young earth creationism and verge on condescension in the process. They suggest that evolution offers a better explanation to the "evil" we see in nature (wasps planting their eggs inside a live caterpillar which serves as food when the eggs hatch, etc.) but such examples, while rhetorically powerful, are really non-moral problems that can't honestly be considered a problem of evil. At times, they even seem to be committing a sort of "science of the gaps" error in suggesting future science is a better answer than considering the involvement of God.

In the end, this is an important conversation for Christians to have, and Giberson and Collins have played a huge role in advancing that discussion. While this book will be controversial to most people at one point or another, they state their case clearly and compellingly.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Anyone interested in the cross-sections of evolution and ID, science and faith

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Review: Licensed to Kill by Brian G. Hedges

Back in 1656, Puritan author John Owen wrote a gospel-saturated attack on human depravity called The Mortification of Sin. Over three centuries later, Brian Hedges has written a book that echoes the heart of John Owen to a modern generation.

Like a surgical strike, Licensed to Kill outlines the powerful barrage available against indwelling sin in the life of the believer. With succinct chapters and "Examine and Apply" questions, this book perfectly fits its subtitle as a field manual for mortifying sin:
"It is in the nature of sin to pursue its course little by little, to the very end. Every intentional indulgence of lust would become adultery if it could."
Destined to draw comparisons to Owen's The Mortification of Sin, Hedges wears his influences on his sleeve quoting Owen early and often (yes, even the mandatory Owen quote: "Be killing sin or it will be killing you"). This, however, is not a criticism of the book. It reads like a fresh, modern repackaging for a generation that doesn't have a Puritan patience.

This little book may very well be "The Art of Spiritual War" for the modern Christian. Highly recommended. (Oh, and before anyone gets too impressed, The Mortification of Sin is the only book by Owen I've read.)

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Any Christian struggling with sin in their lives

This book was a free review copy provided by Cruciform Press.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

OTC 2 Hard Questions Introduction

It's that time of year again! My church began a series last fall called the Old Testament Challenge which involved reading through the Pentateuch in nine weeks. This month we begin Old Testament Challenge 2 and we will be reading through the historical books. And, as last year, I and the pastor are writing a devotional guide of sorts, though this year my role has changed just a bit.

This year I get one page each week to address the hard questions that have come up in the past week's reading. So over the next couple weeks, I'll share my contributions to the OTC at Redeemer Church in Omaha, NE.

“…they have rejected me from being king over them.”

God uses many different images in the Bible to show his relationship to his people: a father, a lover, even a friend. But one of the more dominant pictures is that of a ruler or king.

God wants to be king. God must be king. And God will be king. This isn’t an ego thing. God is the ultimate being in the universe and it has to be this way (and honestly, this is a good thing). So it only makes sense when we see much in the Old Testament pivoting around God’s kingdom and rule—especially the conflict that results when men reject it. Consider two examples:

  • In the garden, Adam and Eve were God’s emissaries, his royal ambassadors over creation. So when they sinned, it wasn’t just rebellion, it was treason against a loving and giving ruler.
  • In Egypt, God wasn’t just coming as a rescuing king for his people, he was also demonstrating his power and authority over each of Egypt’s man-made gods and their god-king.
So this idea shapes the first of three general principles that will help clear up some of the harder passages you will read:
  • Where is God’s rule? If there is conflict, how has God’s instruction been ignored? If there is judgment, how has God’s rule been rejected?
  • “Is” does not mean “ought”. Some of the things you will read in the Bible will be downright horrid. But just because you read it there does not mean God endorses it. Some things are recorded precisely to show what happens when we reject God as king and try to be our own kings instead.
  • Community is important—for good or for bad. We live in an extremely individualistic society, valuing the individual over the group. But most cultures over the centuries have not functioned this way, instead valuing the group over the individual. So when a family, community, or people are judged as a unit, it clashes with the modern reader’s sensibilities. We should humbly admit this is a tension largely unique to our western, “enlightened” and elitist mind set.
For further reading: Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011)