Vanhoozer on the Canaanite Conquest image

Vanhoozer on the Canaanite Conquest

Here's a superb question, and then answer, from Kevin Vanhoozer in the Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy book, which Jamie Franklin reviewed recently. If you've ever wrestled with the Canaanite conquest - and I certainly have - you'll want to read it all:

Why did Jesus himself not find Deuteronomy’s depiction of God abhorrent? Probably because he was not working with the concept of “morally perfect being”. I find it interesting that Rauser and Morriston treat their own moral intuitions about what a perfect being must do as more reliable (dare I say inerrant?) than the biblical text. As Christians, they should know that the wisdom of the world is the foolishness of God ...

If we view Scripture with the widest of wide-angle lenses, we see that God finally succeeds in forming a fit habitation in which to dwell: a cosmic temple. A number of commentators have pointed out that ancient Near Eastern kings typically built temples to commemorate victory in battle, and Yahweh does something similar, creating a garden temple in Eden after subduing chaos. That garden temple becomes corrupt, however, and so begins a long restoration project that concludes only with the establishment of new heavens and a new earth: the cosmic temple. This may seem miles away from our immediate textual issue, but it is not.

Israel’s entry into the Promised Land hearkens back to the exodus from Egypt: in both cases, God enables Israel to pass through the waters (symbolic of chaos) and to anticipate the consummation of his drama of redemption at the final judgment, when the last battle will be fought by the Divine Warrior, and Satan and his minions will be defeated forever. This is the overarching framework that puts God’s command in Deuteronomy 20 into right perspective: it’s all about cleansing a temple space for God to dwell with his people (that is, not ethnic but ethic cleansing). The herem - the requirement to “dedicate” the Canaanites to destruction - ultimately pertains to holiness, not hostility: “It was not driven by genocidal or military considerations, but the need to eradicate evil and prevent evil from spreading to the new population.” It is noteworthy that the divine command strictly circumscribed the herem in space and time, that God threatened Israel with the same fate in case of disobedience (and made good his threat - see Jer 25:9), and that it is a type of the ultimate destiny of people who oppose God. The reason why Jesus can say “love your enemies” without condemning the Old Testament is because the conquest of Canaan was a unique and limited event - a single scene, now past - in the drama of redemption ...

A biblically literate reader ought to hear overtones of the conquest narrative in the passion narrative as well; here too God spares nothing that breathes. The definitive battle over evil is indeed accomplished on the cross, where Jesus “breathed his last” (Matt 27:50).  Jesus worked some violence himself when he “cleansed” the temple, driving out people who profaned it with their money (Mark 11:15-16). In other words, Jesus himself displayed the same jealous zeal for the house of God that Yahweh had earlier for his land and people. What is God’s must be consecrated to God, and to him alone. I believe that the difficulty we moderns have with the herem stems from an anemic sense of holiness and an underestimation of the scandal of idolatry, but that is a matter for another time.

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