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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Grasping at Straws Part Ten--Evangelicals Defend Genocide

In 2003, Zondervan published a book entitled: Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide. The book is part of the Counterpoints series in which several evangelical scholars of slightly various persuasions are assembled to address a particular topic on which they disagree. For example, they have Counterpoint books dealing with the concept of hell, sanctificaton,, eternal security and other topics debated intramurally among evangelicals. In this book each of the four evangelicals, all of whom accept the historicity of the Canaanite genocides, have different explanations as to how to reconcile the genocides with the justice of God.

The first essay in the book is by C. S. Cowles, professor of Bible and theology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. He begins by asking the question: How can we reconcile God's instructions to "utterly destroy" the Canaanites in the Old Testament with Jesus' command to "love your enemies" in the New Testament? The short answer is: "with great difficulty" (p. 14).

He is in fact embarrassed by the genocides in the Hebrew Scriptures. He says:
We hang our heads to admit it, but jihad ("holy war") is not a Muslim invention. Its origins and justification are to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses was the first in known history to spell out an ideology of "holy war" that dictated--unlike Muhammad's reformulation--the genocidal destruction of enemies. Moses and Joshua were the first to engage in campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" as herem ("acts of religious devotion"). It is to these texts that Christians have appealed, from St. Augustine in the fourth century to Orthodox Serbs in the twentieth, in justifying the mass destruction of human beings" (pp. 16-17).

So then, how does he explain the genocidal commands in his Old Testament? He does it by saying that the commands were not given by Yahweh but rather by Moses and Joshua who claimed to be speaking for God. He rightly, in my opinion, concludes that, To attribute genocidal violence to God poisons the well of all his other attributes (p. 18).

He argues:
There is a better way of dealing with the conflicting divine commands regarding the treatment of enemies. It is to acknowledge what is everywhere assumed in the New Testament, namely, that while there are vast and vitally important areas of continuity between Israel's faith and that of the church, there are significant instances of radical discontinuity as well, none more so than in reference to divinely initiated and sanctioned violence. There were good reasons why the church fathers, in settling upon the canon of sacred Scripture, separated the Hebrew Scriptures from the Christian and gave to the former the designation "old" and the latter "new" (p. 19).

Cowles further maintains that his approach to the Hebrew Bible is the same as that of Jesus himself. He says:
While Jesus affirmed the Hebrew Scriptures as the authentic Word of God, he did not endorse every word in them as God's. He rejected some Torah texts as representing the original intention and will of God, such as Moses' divorce laws (Mark 10:4-9). He displaced Moses' laws governing vengeance with his new ethic of active nonviolent resistance, of "overcoming evil with good" (Matt. 5:38-42; Rom. 12:21). His command to "love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44) represents a total repudiation of Moses' genocidal commands and stands in judgment on Joshua's campaign of ethnic cleansing(p. 33).

Citing Hebrews 1:1-3, Cowles maintains that the revelation of God in the Old Testament was partial and distorted, whereas the perfect revelation of the nature of God is seen only in Jesus Christ. What Jesus was introducing was nothing short of an entirely new rewrite of Jewish theology. . . . It would introduce the shocking, unprecedented, and utterly incomprehensible news that God is nonviolent and that he wills the well-being of all humans, beginning with the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised (p. 24).

Cowles claims that in Luke 9:55, Jesus made it crystal clear that the "kind of spirit" that would exterminate people was totally alien to his heavenly Father's character. The vengeful spirit that dehumanizes, depersonalizes, and demonizes a whole town or city or nation is not of God. The God revealed in Jesus never has been and never will be party to genocide of any sort, for "God is love" (I John 4:8) (p. 26).

He further argues:
God's attitude toward sinners is best seen in how Jesus treated Judas. Even though Jesus knew what was in his heart and what he was about to do, he loved him to the end. His love was expressed through gentle warnings, by making him the guest of honor at the Last Supper, in offering him first of all the cup of forgiveness, and by greeting him in the garden of betrayal as "friend" (Matt. 26:50). Judas died violently , not by God's hand, but by his own (p. 27)

Jesus not only renounced the use of violence but went to the unprecedented extreme of commanding love for enemies (Matt. 5:43-44). . . . On what basis did Jesus make such a nonscriptural, impractical, and impossible command? His startling answer was "that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." (5:45) . . . . What Jesus introduced was an entirely new way of looking at God. God did not hate sinners or despise foreigners, much less does he desire their annihilation (p. 29).

So, Cowles solution to the genocidal texts in the Old Testament is to see them as human inventions which did not truly reflect the will of God. He writes: If we believe that Jesus is truly "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), then we must resist all efforts to defend Old Testament genocidal commands as reflective of the will and character of God. Since Jesus has come, we are under no obligation to justify that which cannot be justified, but can only be described as pre-Christ, sub-Christ, and anti-Christ(emphasis added, p. 36).

Predictably, the other three evangelicals in the book, criticize Cowles doctrine of Scripture. For while Cowles considers himself an evangelical, he does not hold to the full inerrancy of the Bible as do most evangelicals. He sees Christ, the living Word, as perfect, not the Scriptures, the written word. The written word must be filtered through the living Word in order to discover its truth, according to Cowles.

While I certainly commend Cowles honesty in recognizing that the genocidal commands in the Hebrew Bible cannot in any way be harmonized with a loving and perfectly just God, I have to agree with the criticisms of the other evangelicals in saying that Cowles solution destroys the evangelical view of the Bible. As Eugene Merrill notes: He opens the door to what can, in effect, be construed as a decanonizing of three-fourths of the Bible (p. 47).

Merrill continues:
In the final analysis, for Cowles only what Jesus endorsed in the Old Testament can continue to be the Word of God for the church (p. 48)

(Cowles' position). . . raises serious questions about the credibility of the Old Testament witness (p. 48).

(His position) . . .tacitly relegates the Old Testament to subcanonical authority (p. 49).

Daniel Gard observes: Either "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16), or it is not (p. 53) . . . What is written is written, and it is either truthful or false (p. 54).

Similarly, Tremper Longman III argues:
. . . Cowles in effect rejects the Old Testament as authoritative. In essence, in his argument Christ trumps the Old Testament. As he sees it, we are to read the Old Testament through the prism provided by Christ, and if there is disparity between the two, then the Old Testament is not authoritative (p. 58).

To say that the New Testament critiques this picture of God in the Old Testament is in effect to say that the Old Testament is not Scripture. His view pits Scripture against Scripture (p. 59).

. . . I see Cowles taking the easy way out by adopting a view that simply rejects the idea of the "inerrancy and infallibility of all Scripture" and chooses those passages that he finds acceptable according to his view of Jesus...(p. 59).

Furthermore, once one admits that part of the Bible cannot be trusted in what it says about God, as Cowles does, then how can one be sure of anything the Bible says about God?

Listen to Merrill:
The inference is crystal clear--some parts of the Old Testament are the words of humans and some the words of God. Presumably each interpreter must decide for himself or herself which is which (p. 50).

If Jesus is the criterion by which the authority of the Bible and its meaning are to be judged, to what extent can we be confident that that same Bible is a faithful witness to what our Lord said and did? (p. 51)

Gard makes the same point:
If the methodology of Cowles is consistently followed, then Scripture becomes merely a piece of modeling clay that can be formed and manipulated into whatever the reader chooses to make it. Nothing is certain about God, the incarnation of the Son, or the salvation of the human race (p. 54).

We cannot set ourselves up as judges of what God has said and done as if we, in our limitations, had the insight and wisdom to judge God's actions. . . . For this reason, we may not marginalize any text of Scripture, including the very ones that present insurmountable intellectual issues to us. We cannot pick and choose which biblical texts we can accept as coming from God and reflect his will and word (p. 55).

Cowles is also guilty of conveniently ignoring the fact that the New Testament teaches that Jesus will return as a warrior God and inflict the same type of destruction on the entire world that Yahweh inflicted on a few tribes in ancient Palestine.

Merrill notes that Cowles position overlooks eschatological descriptions of this same Prince of Peace as one who "judges and makes war," who is "dressed in a robe dipped in blood," and from whose mouth "comes a sharp word with which to strike down the nations" (Rev. 19:11-15) (p. 49).

Gard also points out Cowles omission:

. . . .the New Testament presents the same Jesus as One who returns not in poverty and humility but in glory and power. He does not return as One who brings the way of salvation. Rather, he returns as the righteous Judge who speaks the final word of judgment on the living and the dead--and a fierce judgment it is for those who face it apart from him. The final judgment with its utter destruction of the heavens and the earth and all those at enmity with God makes the most bloody warfare narratives of the Old Testament seem like children's bedtime stories (emphasis added)(p. 56).

Longman also notices Cowles' inconsistency:
. . . the revelation of Jesus in the New Testament is no less violent than the revelation of God in the Old Testament. In other words, the divide that Cowles draws between Christ and the Old Testament is a false one. There is no discontinuity between the Testaments on this point (p. 59).

The picture of Jesus that Cowles gives us, through which he views and judges the Old Testament, is a selective one. It seems telling to me that Cowles avoids the judgment and divine warrior passages of the book of Revelation or any of the New Testament apocalyptic passages (p. 59).

Its my conclusion, therefore, that the position advocated by Cowles does not really solve the problem of the Canaanite genocides for evangelicals. It is an ingenious solution in many ways but in the final analysis it destroys the authority of the Bible. Evangelicals will never accept that result.


  1. Does Cowles also reject the doctrine of hell? And of God's requirement of a blood sacrifice for sin?

    If so, he rejects the evangelical position on salvation, too. If not, he is inconsistent; if genocide is vengeful, hell is much more so.

  2. WW,

    Cowles does hold to hell and to the blood atonement, therefore he is inconsistent as the other authors in the book point out.

  3. Ken/All,

    To see a Biblical defense of God's nonviolent nature, please read 

    “SATAN: Old Testament Servant Angel or New Testament Cosmic Rebel?” at 

    by criminal defense attorney Richard Murray.

    Also read a discussion about the Murray article at The Evangelical Universalist at 


  4. PS, I have recently written a short essay titled,
    “Is God Violent, Or Nonviolent?”

    which also addresses some of the issues raised here. (And I list this ‘Part Ten’ article by Dr. Ken Pulliam in my References section.)