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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Grasping at Straws Part Thirteen--Evangelicals Defend Genocide

Gleason Archer (1916-2004) was one of the preeminent Evangelical Old Testament scholars of the 20th century. Fundamentalist Evangelicals especially liked to hold him up as a scholar with a Ph.D. from Harvard who defended the inerrancy of Scripture. When I took Old Testament Introduction at Bob Jones University, we used his A Survey of Old Testament Introduction as our textbook. He defended the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the single authorship of Isaiah, an early date for the book of Daniel, and virtually every other fundamentalist denial of bibical criticism. We were told here is a man with a Ph.D. from Harvard who has met the critics on their level and refuted them.

In his book, An Encylopedia of Bible Difficulties, Archer defends the command of the Hebrew God to exterminate the Canaanites including their infants. He does not try, as many other Christian apologists have, to minimize the severity of the commands. He writes:
Such complete destruction might appear to be needlessly harsh, since it included infants who were too young to have committed overt sin, even though the older children and the adults may all have fallen into utter depravity. Should we not understand this severity to be the result of a savage Bedouin mentality on the part of the wilderness warriors rather than a punitive measure ordained of God? (p. 155).

His answer is an emphatic, No. It was ordained by the God he worships. He gives three explanations to justify the genocide.

1. The genocide was on a smaller scale than the destruction of Sodom and the flood of Noah.
If criticism there be, we should not stop there, for the destruction of Jericho was far smaller an affair than the annihilation of the populations of Sodom and Gomorrah and their allies in Genesis 19:24-25. And then again this volcanic catastrophe was far less significant in the loss of life than Noah's Flood, which, except for Noah's family, wiped out the entire human race (p. 155).

I like the honesty of Archer. If the Bible is inerrant, then we should understand that God has on more than one occasion brought about the extermination of whole people groups. The extermination of the Canaanites is really nothing new. How this is supposed to be a defense of the Canaanite genocide, though, is a mystery to me. It is on a smaller scale so therefore it is okay? In fairness to Archer, I don't think this is really what he means to imply. I think he means that God is sovereign and that when he gets ready to destroy his creatures, he has a right to do so. This is in effect the Calvinist argument.

2. The extermination of the Canaanites was necessary in the same way that radical surgery is sometimes necessary to remove cancer.
The loss of innocent life in the demolition of Jericho was much to be regretted, but we must recognize that there are times when only radical surgery will save the life of a cancer-stricken body. The whole population of the antediluvian civilization had become hopelessly infected with the cancer of moral depravity (Gen. 6:5). Had any of them been permitted to live while still in rebellion against God, they might have infected Noah's family as well. The same was true of the detestable inhabitants of Sodom, wholly given over to the depravity of homosexuality and rape, in the days of Abraham and Lot. As with the Benjamites of Gibeah at a later period (Judg. 19:22-30; 20:43-48), the entire population had to be destroyed. So also it was with Jericho and Ai as well (Josh. 8:18-26); likewise with Makkedah (Josh. 10:28), Lachish (v.32), Eglon (v.35), Debir (v.39), and all the cities of the Negev and the Shephelah (v.40). In the northern campaign against Hazor, Madon, Shimron, and Achshaph, the same thorough destruction was meted out (Josh. 11:11-14).

In every case the baneful infection of degenerate idolatry and moral depravity had to be removed before Israel could safely settle down in these regions and set up a monotheistic, law-governed commonwealth as a testimony for the one true God. Much as we regret the terrible loss of life, we must remember that far greater mischief would have resulted if they had been permitted to live on in the midst of the Hebrew nation. These incorrigible degenerates of the Canaanite civilization were a sinister threat to the spiritual survival of Abraham's race. The failure to carry through completely the policy of the extermination of the heathen in the Land of Promise later led to the moral and religious downfall of the Twelve Tribes in the days of the Judges (Judg. 2:1-3, 10-15, 19-23). Not until the time of David, some centuries later, did the Israelites succeed in completing their conquest of all the land that had been promised to the descendants of Abraham (cf. Gen. 15:18-21). This triumph was only possible in a time of unprecedented religious vigor and purity of faith and practice such as prevailed under the leadership of King David, "a man after God's own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22)
(pp. 155-56).

Notice that Archer admits that innocent life was lost in Jericho and by implication in all the other campaigns. He says it is regrettable but necessary. Why was it necessary? Because the Canaanites, if allowed to live, would infect the "pure" religion of Israel. First, his answer doesn't solve the moral problem of God ordering the destruction of "innocents." If these people were truly innocent, they were not deserving of the punishment God commanded for them. If God can punish the innocent, then he is not just nor is he holy. Second, the Israelites "pure" religion was infected numerous times in their history, if the Bible record is to be believed; since God presumably knew this was going to happen, why did he order the extermination of whole people groups including the innocent ones who were part of those groups? If the reason was to protect Israel's religion, it didn't work and he knew it wouldn't work.

3. The Israelites did not have the "spiritual weapons" that Christians have.

In our Christian dispensation true believers possess resources for resisting the corrupting influence of unconverted worldlings such as were hardly available to the people of the old covenant. As warriors of Christ who have yielded our members to Him as "weapons of righteousness" (Rom. 6:13) and whose bodies are indwelt and empowered by God the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), we are well able to lead our lives in the midst of a corrupt and degenerate non-Christian culture (whether in the Roman Empire or in modern secularized Europe or America) and still keep true to God. We have the example of the Cross and the victory of the Resurrection of Christ our Lord, and he goes with us everywhere and at all times as we carry out the Great Commission.

As New Testament believers, the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but spiritual, "mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:4-5). These weapons, far mightier than those of Joshua, are able to capture men's hearts for God; and we have no occasion as ambassadors for Christ to resort to physical weapons to protect our faith and land (as the Israelites were compelled to do, if they were to survive spiritually). But on the contrary we carry on a life-saving offensive as fishers of men, and we go after the unsaved and unconverted wherever they are to be found. But we must recognize that our situation is far more advantageous than theirs, and our prospects of victory over the world are far brighter than theirs. For this we can thank God. But we must refrain from condemnation of those who lived in the very different situation that prevailed before the Cross and recognize that they acted in obedience and faith toward God when they carried out his orders concerning the Canaanites
(p. 156).
This is one of the weakest arguments I have encountered to defend the Canaanite genocide. Since Israel did not have the "spiritual weapons" that Christian have, then they had to use physical weapons to destroy whole people groups? Playing along with Archer for a moment, whose fault was it that the Israelites did not have the "spiritual weapons" that Christians have? It was God's. The poor Canaanites just lived at the wrong time in history.

Gleason Archer might have been a very learned man, but his justification of the Canaanite genocides is lame. Many Evangelicals have done a better job of attempting to "defend the indefensible" than did he.


  1. For those who believe the Bible is God's holy word, they really have no choice but to defend it no matter what awful thing is in there. They are in a box. They can never even let themselves entertain the idea that maybe the Bible is not truthful, or God is actually not a nice person, etc.

    Wouldn't those same Christians who defend the genocides be horrified if people today decided an entire group of people must be wiped out? Should Christians kill all the Muslims so they can't infect us with their religion? Or vice versa?

    And since God is God, couldn't he have handled the problem in a million other ways? To me, it's just so obvious that this is what the text says, so they MUST find a way to make it okay.

  2. @ Lynn, "Wouldn't those same Christians who defend the genocides be horrified if people today decided an entire group of people must be wiped out?" In my limited experience with the kind of people who will embrace this apologetic, no, they would not be horrified. I think that's part of the psychology of it though. It fits nicely within the framework of Terror Management theory. As a result they are incapable of condemning the Holocaust and say that if you're going to kill someone you better make sure you're right about that being what God wants of you. They seem to be able to still grieve (in a sense) the Holocaust - and natural disasters - but they aren't horrified by it. They are more comfortable knowing God did it but not knowing why than thinking about what it means if a "benevolent and just" God wasn't doing it.

    Do you by chance recall your own reaction to being presented with "a man with a Ph.D. from Harvard who has met the critics on their level and refuted them?" Granted, it was an introductory course, but I'm curious about the nature of the subsequent interaction, assuming there was any.

  3. @Ken,
    My question might need clarification. I'm curious about the currency of 'a really smart guy.' It seems like the same currency that Francis Collins carries, for example. Their positions, even arguments when they actually make them, get some sort of defacto appeal to authority pass. In some sense it's like the notion of 'smartness' is all that matters (as long as it's on your side) and you don't therefore need to be able to consider the actual quality of the positions and arguments independently. It's as if the 'good tree can't produce bad fruit' gloss is applied with a inordinately wide brush.

  4. Quinoa,

    In the fundamentalist evangelical mindset, the one truth that stands above all others is that the Bible is the perfect Word of God. So, anyone with "good academic credentials" who agrees with that is going to be held up. "See, here is a really well educated guy who also believes the Bible is the perfect Word of God," so it proves that its an acceptable position intellectually.

  5. How did Moses write the Bible if he was dead partway through the narrative?

    Oh the intellectual back-flips. If I get a PhD will my mind turn to mush?

  6. Ken,

    This is where apologetics seems shifty, incoherent, and self-defeating to me. The thing that is used to validate something else reveals where the authority lies for the person appealing to it. For Jerusalem to claim to have the Truth™ but then appeal to Athens for validation is dishonest (to me) if not incoherent. How could any other source apart from the bible be appealed to in order to "prove" anything about the bible itself without, by definition, defeating its own authority? Is that something that is addressed from within? If so, how? Even if somehow you deflect the conversation towards the abstract and bring in different meanings of the words Truth and Authority you're left with people claiming to have one source as final authority but actually engaging in behavior that belies those claims. I'm not sure I'm getting at what I want to get at ... within the Fundamentalist Evangelical Mindset (FEM), where does the power of 'intellectual acceptability' come from? how does it - how could it 'add' to something held to already be or 'contain' Truth?

  7. Archaeology from Wikipedia:

    "While some archaeologists leave open the possibility of a Semitic tribe coming from Egyptian servitude among the early hilltop settlers and that Moses or a Moses-like figure may have existed in Transjordan ca 1250-1200, they dismiss the possibility that the Exodus could have happened as described in the Bible.[23] A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus narrative of an Egyptian captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness,[20] and it has become increasingly clear that Iron Age Israel - the kingdoms of Judah and Israel - has its origins in Canaan, not Egypt:[24] the culture of the earliest Israelite settlements is Canaanite, their cult-objects are those of the Canaanite god El, the pottery remains in the local Canaanite tradition, and the alphabet used is early Canaanite. Almost the sole marker distinguishing the "Israelite" villages from Canaanite sites is an absence of pig bones, although whether this can be taken as an ethnic marker or is due to other factors remains a matter of dispute.[25]"

  8. I like the innocent, sentient cancel cell defense.... Oh, that's not what he actually said? I must've read it wrong.

    Nowadays, Christians agitate for adoption rather than abortion. Why couldn't the Israelites have adopted Canaanite babies instead of murdering them?

  9. Quinoa, I think you're dead wrong to say that the defenders of the biblical story would be unmoved if someone today exterminated a large group of people. Give me a break. Of course, they'd be appalled and would never find it morally acceptable -- that's part of the conundrum. And in truth, they're horrified by the biblical story itself, which is why they see it as a "Bible difficulty."

    Just because these Christians hold some absurd, loony religious ideas doesn't make them beasts of iniquity who are indifferent to human bloodshed.

  10. Hacksaw,

    I did not say anything about being "unmoved" or "beasts of iniquity who are indifferent to human bloodshed." Yowza. All I said was not horrified. I also indicated that I was speaking specifically about my own personal experience in conversation with people who espouse this kind of apologetic. No, they didn't condemn the Holocaust, because ultimately God did it and God is good, all the time. I used the word condemn for a reason. They held what I now know to be something like divine command ethics and in fact would not make blanket generalizations about the wrongness of killing at all, except for abortion. That seems cliche but that was actually their position as they presented it to me. It's not about 'right and wrong', it's about each individual understanding God's will for them correctly. I'm not going to rewrite the rest of it because I'm talking about direct experience with people. I stand by what I said and how I characterized it, because that's how people characterized their own positions to me. For more on the notion of Not Horrified see here for example.

  11. "Quinoa, I think you're dead wrong to say that the defenders of the biblical story would be unmoved if someone today exterminated a large group of people."

    Most of them seem unmoved by the millions of dead Iraqis and Afghanis resulting from wars that "God told President Bush to fight".

  12. Wow--what a blast from the past. Dr. Archer was a member at the church in which I was raised (as were many other well-respected influential Evangelicals due to our proximity to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). I remember how revered he was. He had a great demeanor. My teenaged friends and I used to call him "C3P-Archer" after the well-known Star Wars character because he was proficient in a ridiculous amount of ancient languages.