Friday, August 10, 2012

Is God Cruel and Unjust?

SCRIPTURE: Deuteronomy 12:2-3
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 10 August 2012
“You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and burn their Asherim with fire, and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods and obliterate their name from that place." (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
MAIN GIST: The impression of a cruel and unjust God in the Old Testament continues to linger in the minds of modern people, including Christians. One common predicament is how can we reconcile a God of love with a God who asks Israel to massacre huge populations? On the one hand, we are sympathetic to lives being taken. On the other hand, what if the target concerned is beyond hope, but utterly and relentlessly evil to the core?

Old Testament style killings
Last weekend, my Church were given an exceptional biblical buffet meal. The main dish was the Book of Deuteronomy. For me, it was a Bible exposition at its best. Given by Dr Bruce Waltke, a highly esteemed and immensely respected giant of biblical studies and Old Testament, we were given new eyes to read Deuteronomy. Held at Squamish, on top of the beautiful mountains of British Columbia, the whole Church spent an entire weekend traveling there for a time of fellowship and learning, and of course eating! For me personally, the food on the buffet table is nothing compared to the spiritual food that was served. I have attended many Bible camps and Church retreats, but none of them come close with regards to the level of scholarship and biblical teaching that Waltke has given us. Before the weekend retreat (called the Summer Conference in my Church), many of us were concerned that the highly esteemed Dr Waltke will be speaking 'above our heads.' In fact, we were worried that there will not be enough time to cover the entire 34 chapters of the Old Testament book.  Even the prepared notes we were given was more than 50 pages! Too difficult? We were wrong. Instead of complex theological terms, Waltke speaks and explains in layman terms. Instead of leaving us guessing what each word means, Waltke gently defines and clarifies the terms he uses. Instead of rushing to complete all 34 chapters page by page, Waltke goes on a pace to ensure that we learn the fundamentals of reading Deuteronomy. If there is one thing I remember most, it will be the essence of the laws of Deuteronomy: God values human life.

Why is God calling for "Zero tolerance?"
(For more, go to Quickview Bible here)
Rather than trying to cram everything into one article, this week, I want to concentrate on just one area: Is God unjust when He commands Israel to annihilate the Canaanites? Why is God exercising zero tolerance when it comes to dealing with the idolaters? Perhaps, the question is to ask: "What do we do with people that is utterly evil to the core?"

A) The Context

One reason why people find it hard to read (or accept!) the Old Testament is because of the gore and blood shed. Making it worse, it seems like Israel when they destroyed their enemies, are given the mandate to do exactly that. Such commands make many Christians shudder and wonder if the God of the New Testament, the God of love, is the same as the God of the Old Testament?
  • If God is love, why does God command Israel to annihilate whole populations in the foreign territories?
  • If God is love, why does He sanction killings?
  • As killing is prohibited in the Ten Commandments, why did God ask Israel to kill their enemies?
B) Who are the Canaanites?

Dr Waltke affirms that the main purpose of the laws in the Book of Deuteronomy is about preserving the sanctity and dignity of life. As first look, it seems like destroying Canaan completely is a complete reversal on that. Not so fast. What if the long-term purpose requires short-term actions? What if a failure to address evil head on is worse than ignoring the evil happening before us? Who are the Canaanites and why are they so evil? Dr William F. Albright explains the deteriorated state of Canaanite society at that time.
"With might she hewed down the people of the cities, she smote the folk of the seacoast, she slew the men of the sunrise (east). After filling her [Anat, Baal's mother] temple with men, she barred the gates so that none might escape, after which 'she hurled chairs at the youths, tables at the warriors, footstools at the men of might.' The blood was so deep that she waded in it up to her knees - nay, up to her neck. Under her feet were human heads, above her human hands flew like locusts. In her sensuous delight she decorated herself with suspended heads, while she attached hands to her girdle. Her joy at the butchery is described in even more sadistic language: 'Her liver swelled with laughter, her heart was full of joy, the liver of Anath (was full of) exultation.' Afterwards Anath 'was satisfied' and washed her hands in human gore before proceeding to other occupations."  (William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006, 76-77)

In my reflection, I wrote, "Of course, we can all preach love and goodwill to the Canaanites at that time. The question is, will they have listened? Or before we even finish saying 'L.O.V,' heads will already have been lobbed off. Try preaching love and goodwill to the piranhas when you are in waters full of them." In other words, if Israel do not destroy them, the Canaanites will ultimately destroy Israel, the world, and finally, themselves.

Other clues of how the Canaanites lived can be found in Leviticus 18. Leviticus 18:6-19 is an extensive series of warnings against "uncovering nakedness." The LORD gives clear warnings to Israel not to commit incest among own family members. The text meticulously lists the different women that are to be untouched. There are to be no sexual involvement with one's mother or father, one's sisters, or in laws, one's cousins, one's blood relations, etc. There are to be sexual proprietary throughout. It warns against adultery. It warns against sacrificing children to idols (Lev 18:21). It warns against same-sex activities (Lev 18:22). It prohibits sex with animals (Lev 18:23). All of these things are common activities among the Canaanites!

C) What About Killing?

This is a tricky area. Dr Waltke shows us that one reason why many modern readers are stumped is because the English language for the word "kill" is grossly restricted. In the Hebrew, there are at least 12 different words that can be used for "kill." In Deuteronomy, the commandment not to kill is the word "ratsach." It is to be understood as an intentional act of "murder." This contrasts with unintentional killing (nakah) which is also referred to as "manslaughter." Again, Hebrew language is nuanced but not as clear cut as what modern scientific minds desire. Context is key to understanding the use of the terms. That is why BOTH language and the context need to be considered whenever we study biblical texts.

“Now this is the case of the manslayer (ratsach) who may flee there and live: when he kills (nakah) his friend unintentionally, not hating him previously— as when a man goes into the forest with his friend to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down the tree, and the iron head slips off the handle and strikes his friend so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live; " (Deuteronomy 19:4-5)

The point is this. Every act of killing is not the same. The intentions are different. The instruments and the manner are different. The life that is taken is equally important as the life taking it. In other words, prohibiting killing is not simply to preserve the life of the victims or the persons wielding the axe. It is to maintain a just society that treats life with dignity. It is to cultivate in Israel the sacred human being made in the image of God. Anything that tarnishes this image and causes harm, needs to be dealt with. Not surprisingly, the multiple cities of refuge and the different words used to describe killing shows a loving and compassionate God who understands the many facets of life and death. The gods of idolatry lead people to death. Only the God of Israel leads people to life.

D) Protecting Lives

In Proverbs 2, we read about a kind of person whose path leads not to life but death.

 "For her house sinks down to death And her tracks lead to the dead;" (Proverbs 2:18) 

Do we want to deal with people like this? Remember what Jesus says about the one who stumbles the little ones?

 “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble." (Luke 17:2)
The punishment is severe if one is foolish for self. The punishment is even more severe if one's foolishness leads others to sin and death. This is where Israel is called to obey God, and to see from God's perspectives. The whole book of Deuteronomy is designed to preserve lives not just for the present but for the future. One more thing. Due to the naivete among many Israelites at that time, they need the laws to be written clearly, with instructions not to be defiled with the idolaters of the land. One way to understand the Old Testament is to always compare and interpret it with the New Testament, especially Jesus' interpretation of the Torah. One example is this.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)

Jesus has not only affirmed the Old Testament, He has upped the standard that murder is not just the act. It is the premeditation before the act. So, is God cruel and unjust to order the execution of the Canaanites? No. God has a reason. In fact, for those of us who thinks that God is cruel through Israel, modern equivalent of massacre is worse.
  • Between 1975-1979, more than 2 million people were killed in Cambodia (Killing fields);
  • In 1994 in Rwanda, 800,000 Hutus were murdered in cold blood;
  • In 1995 in Bosnia, more than 8000 Muslims were killed;
  • In China, the cultural revolution, more than 78 million people were murdered.
What about Canaan? The data is hard to find, but even the largest estimated Canaanite population during the ancient times, is no where close to the numbers in China's cultural revolution!

Interestingly, the new atheists like Richard Dawkins are quick to point a finger at the God of the Old Testament, and fails to attack the same degree the same kinds of massacres that are based on atheistic grounds, like China and Cambodia! Why the double standard? 

E) Summary

Yes, God is a God of love. He is also a God of justice. There is no love if justice is not done. Likewise, justice without love is cold and hard. Only Jesus personifies love and justice. He loves us to come down to earth. He maintains justice by becoming the lamb to be punished for our own sins. He of all people will be most hurt when human beings hurt one another. I prefer to see the Canaanite killings in the Old Testament more as capital punishment and preserving Israel's future of the sake of the rest of the world, instead of genocide. I am doubtful that the Old Testament style killings will be repeated in the future. What I am more fearful about is what idolatry will lead human beings to do cruel things to one another. If that happens, perhaps, many of us will then be praying that God will quickly impose Canaanite style capital punishment. God does not take sin lightly. Neither does He take the punishment of people that He loves lightly. I believe each time a life is taken, the One who is most grieved is God Himself.

THOUGHT: "It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui." (Helen Keller)


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