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It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases

The Christian Post has a portion of an interview with John Piper in response to the question:

Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?

And the first sentence of his answer is the title of this post.

I can hardly tell you how many ways this bothers me. I say that just in order to get on the nerves of the folks who like to quote Paul “Who are you, o man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20). I’m just this human who, like many people in the Bible, including prophets, isn’t satisfied with leaving all the questions unanswered, even when I know I’ll hardly get started on finding the answers. It’s interesting how certain Christians quote Paul in Romans 9, while others are more likely to quote Habakkuk or one of the Psalms where people question God quite a lot.

Unless you add that God will never “please” to do something wrong, Piper’s statement makes nonsense of any idea of right and wrong. It is not meaningful to say that God is good or God is loving, both statements found in the Bible, and then to suggest that no matter how unloving or ungood an action of God may appear, it’s really OK because God willed it, or “pleased” to do it. But if mass slaughter isn’t wrong, what is wrong?

Thus the first half of Piper’s answer is, in effect, a non-answer. It states simply that whatever God does–and I’m fairly certain that for him, whatever is alleged in scripture that God does is something God actually does–that is acceptable. And for many people this seems to be adequate.

In one way I don’t mind that. I too believe God does what is right (ignoring, for now, the question of whether it’s right because God does it or God does it because it’s right), and if he doesn’t do what’s right, there’s nothing I can do about it in any case.

But in this case we’re bringing different arguments in scripture together.  The Bible says both that God has commanded the death of many, many people, or has killed them himself, and also that God is good and that God is love. Put up against what I might think about God, perhaps Piper’s answer has a point. Put alongside the Bible’s indications of how God cares about humanity, I think it fails completely.

It’s beyond a simple blog post such as this to give my own response, but I will point to a book I publish, by my former teacher Dr. Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. Alden takes quite a conservative approach to scripture and yet takes both of these items, the stories of God’s destructive acts, and the assertions of God’s love, care, and goodness. Piper, on the other hand, empties any assertion of God’s love and goodness of any meaning.

Piper regards the question of God’s commands to kill as more difficult than that of God killing directly, but I think with this he makes an even more dangerous error:

With Joshua there was a political, ethnic dimension, God was immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And God, it says, let the sins of the Amorites accumulate for 400 years so that they would be full (Genesis 15:16), and then sends his own people in as instruments of judgment.

From this I would conclude that being ruled closely by God would make atrocities committed right, and very likely more common. This is consistent with the first part of Piper’s answer. I must concede to Calvinists this: They are philosophically consistent. I just don’t believe that consistency is a very good indicator that a philosophy reflects actuality.

On the contrary, I believe that we must either find some better reason why these stories occur in the Old Testament, or we must seriously back off of any pretension that “God is good” or “God is love” has any meaning at all.

We regularly argue that it must be that all the Canaanites deserved to die. A Calvinist will certainly note that we all deserve to die. Yet what is the basis for this? Were they more wicked than others? Pointed out the 400 years, as Piper does, suggests that. But I don’t think the evidence would support such a claim. What effort was made to bring them to God? What reason might there be to suggest that Israel could not have brought the Canaanites to repentance through proclamation?

This latter is not, in fact, what I would suggest as a solution. But I do think it points out the difficult with Piper’s solution.

As I have time, I do intend to address this topic some more. Even the smallest portion of an answer requires many threads brought together.

2 comments to It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases

  • The problem is with the approach to these texts. I recently heard a convincing argument that the slaughter of the Caananites is myth in every sense of the word. [I.e. it didn’t happen, yet it has its uses as part of the historical record for the sake of those who must learn from it.] Bill Morrow from Queen’s University made the presentation. First it’s important to note that the slaughter of the Caananites was not swift and complete as portrayed in Joshua. (There are texts that indicate that the ‘conquest’ was gradual not immediate.) Then he applied principles of post-colonial theory to show the need to create such a myth for some purpose I forget. But the theory seemed to me to apply quite well. I don’t know if his presentation is online – but I suspect there will be a book at some point. That doesn’t mean that the texts in question do not have possible applications. Sorry I can’t be more specific in such a short comment.

    The psalms and the prophets prohibit us from taking violence into our own hands, individually or together. So how can the violence we do to each other (and Christianity is replete with examples) be used by God to teach us not to do the same? We are slow learners. The NT confirms that our will to power is contrary to the Gospel (the NT or OT Gospel).

    That NT teachers argue over interpretation is yet another example of non-Gospel behaviour. That’s why I no longer read these folks. I read their predecessors and have to agree to disagree on some things without I hope being too disagreeable.

  • Henry:

    You articulate a constant struggle for those who wish to remain conservative in their views of scripture.

    Who is writing the alternative viewpoints?

    What are the alternative viewpoints to a non-historical account and does that not place most of the OT narratives (or for that matter many of the NT narratives) under the same historical judgment? What is the impact to the Christian faith?

    Thanks for your blog.

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