The Wrong Answer to the Destruction of Cities
Superficially, it looks fairly simple to drive a wedge between the Old and New Testaments, and argue that although the God of the Old Testament is said to destroy some cities and to tell Israel to destroy others, Jesus would never have said or done anything like that. It is certainly a line of argument with a great deal of appeal, both pastorally and apologetically, and gets interpreters off the hook of having to explain why God allowed the destruction of Jericho and the rest (a challenge I recently engaged with here). It also has some highly educated and rhetorically forceful representatives, many of whom think the Bible has all sorts of factual mistakes in it, and many of whom express horror that people like John Piper would differ from them on the right answer to questions about the conquest of Canaan (“so, do you lot think it’s OK to kill babies, then?”) If you can set Jesus over and against the accuracy of the Old Testament, and then use words like “slaughter” and “massacre” as often as is thought acceptable, you can fire at Calvinists, Zionists and inerrantists in the same salvo.
But there’s a problem, and it’s quite simply stated. Jesus, the evangelists and the apostles, apparently, believed in the historical accuracy of the very stories - those in which God destroys an entire city, either directly or through human attackers - that cause modern interpreters to drive a wedge between Jesus and the Old Testament. For instance:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you. (Matthew 11:21-24)
Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot - they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all - so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 18:28-30)
Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. (Acts 7:44-45)
And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. (Acts 13:19)
By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies. And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises ... (Hebrews 11:30-33)
In other words, using the New Testament as a shovel with which to bury the accuracy of the Old Testament doesn’t wash with Jesus, Stephen, Paul, the writer to the Hebrews, or any other New Testament writer that I can think of. If we want answers that truly reflect Jesus and the apostles, we won’t find them by diminishing the historicity of the scriptures. They believed them too much.