Ever since I read Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement, I've been visiting his web site every now and then. One post there that has gotten a lot of responses is God’s Wrath: A Question. Basically, it concerns a Christian mother who wonders how to teach her son about God's command to kill Achan's entire family for the sin of Achan (Joshua 7:15, 25).
My response was this: "Maybe the dad can say that Achan’s family knew about the garment when Achan was hiding it, and didn’t tell anybody. I mean, that would be pretty bad too, considering it led to the death of Israelite soldiers."
Okay, actually it was a mom who raised the problem, but I'd just scanned that part. And my answer has problems, I admit, which may be why people did not respond to it (it certainly wasn't the length that was the problem!). The Hebrew Bible often presents collective punishment for the sin of an individual, and such a concept occurs elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern literature, particularly the Code of Hammurapi. So I doubt that the group is directly involved in the individual's sin when it is punished. It's just that the ancient Near East often punished groups because of what individual members did, for whatever reason.
So my response was problematic, but I figured it would satisfy a kid and give the parent a break (for a while).
McKnight's post caught my eye because I wonder how I will teach my kids about Christianity once I become a parent. I don't have a lot of answers, and my beliefs are continually in flux. Would I teach my kids that God is a trinity or a binity? That they should keep the Sabbath or do what they want on that day? And how would I justify things God does in the Bible that seem so, well, unfair!
I've also been trying to recall how my parents handled the problematic passages of Scripture. Actually, I think it was my mom who exposed me to the problem of the Canaanite massacre in the first place. "When I was a child," she recounted to young me, "I heard that the Israelites had to kill all of the Canaanites, including the children. And that bothered me. What did the children do?" But, if she tried to resolve the problem, I do not remember how she did so.
There was always the Armstrongite second chance doctrine to fall back on, the view that God will resurrect people and educate them in his ways after Christ sets up his kingdom. And so the Canaanites may have gotten killed, but they'd have an opportunity to know God once they're resurrected. Maybe the sub-text there was that this life doesn't matter a great deal, and so we shouldn't stress out about the Canaanites. I don't know.
Of course, we did learn stories that can raise similar problems. After all, didn't the flood wipe out innocent children? But I don't recall that problem being pointed out to me. All I remember hearing is that the world was wicked, Noah and his family were righteous, and so God spared Noah.
As far as the death penalty in the Torah went, that was pretty much justified to us. The death penalty was a way for society to keep order, to show without any equivocation that an act was wrong. And the American justice system certainly didn't look much better! All we had to do was watch that commercial against Michael Dukakis, in which prisoners went in one door and out another, only to rape and kill again. And those things happened in real life!
I know that, at some point, I heard the evangelical "cancer" explanation: "When there is a cancer, you have to get rid of it! Well, the Canaanites were a cancer, so they had to be thoroughly eliminated." But I don't think my parents used that.
Actually, I'm not sure if my parents even harped on the Canaanites issue that much. I know I read about it in the daily Bible reading that I had to do. But I think the way I resolved that was to say, "Well, what were the Israelites supposed to do? Adopt all the children? They were only being practical."
But, years later, I know that explanation doesn't work, because there were other things Israel could have done besides slaughtering the children. For the cities outside of Canaan, God told Israel to offer terms of peace to the inhabitants, killing only the males if the cities refused. The Israelites could take the women, children, and animals as booty (Deuteronomy 20:10-15). But they had to wipe out all of the people inside of Canaan, including the children. So there may be another issue here besides practicality.
When I was a kid and read about the slaughter of the Canaanites, perhaps I figured that it had to be right because God said so. Today, I wonder what to say about that, especially in light of what I said a few days ago about God being the good (see Me and Prayer). I still believe that God is the good, since God commands us to do good things. I can teach my children that! But how can I explain the times that God appears unfair? I can say, "Well, he's God. He can transgress his standards if he wishes." But, if God is not consistently good, is he trustworthy? The nature of God is not merely an abstract intellectual issue, for it can affect one's spiritual life!
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