From their book Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists, Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow compile responses from some of the most critical thinkers in Christianity to tackle the questions raised by the New Atheists. This post is from the chapter "Is God a Genocidal Bully?" by Paul Copan. Copan, briefly edited here, writes the following.
What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh -- and even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us. -- Richard Dawkins
To read the New Atheists' treatment of the Bible and its moral vision, one would think that obedience to Jesus means killing your neighbors rather than loving them. As we noted . . . the goal of the New Atheists is decidedly not understanding Christianity, but stockpiling ammunition to employ against it.
But the fact remains that the Bible records many events that are confusing -- especially in the Old Testament -- and that honestly make the modern reader uncomfortable to say the least. Perhaps the most shocking example is the alleged genocide perpetrated against the Canaanites [Deut. 20:16-8]. How could God command such a thing? Were the Israelites morally superior? Is God arbitrarily and violently playing favorites? Is he some sort of cosmic bully?
The language of genocide and ethnic cleansing are emotionally charged and are employed with rhetorical flourish by the New Atheists. But these words are not accurate descriptions of what really happened in what scholars refer to as the "conquest narratives." . . .
THINGS ARE NOT THE WAY THEY OUGHT TO BE
It is sad, but unfortunately not surprising that the history of the world is riddled with violence. The simple fact that it took until the Geneva Convention in 1949 (after World War II) to regulate humane treatment in war only serves to reinforce one of the main undercurrents of this book -- despite all of human progress, the heart is in desperate need of transformation.
War was not God's idea; he didn't invent it. Rather, God's ideal in creation can best be expressed in the Hebrew word shalom [universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight]. . . . Any discussion of events regarding war, injustice, or humanity's evil intentions and actions must take this backdrop seriously.
The New Atheists consider the question of God and genocide an internal problem for Christianity. . . . As such, Christians are justified in incorporating the relevant biblical resources in response. We are also right to point out that the New Atheists' condemnation of God's actions and commands makes use of an objective moral standard they have been unable to adequately justify. . . .
All historians agree that the ancient Near Eastern world was exceedingly violent. It was a kill-or-be-killed world. In the midst of this violent culture, Israel stood out in that it had general guidelines for warfare: they were to offer terms of peace to distant cities before attack (i.e., not attack them without warning), as well as care for any women and children that had not fled. The context and guidelines are worth keeping in mind as we move forward.
ISRAEL WAS A THEOCRACY AND YAHWEH SANCTIONED PARTICULAR WARS
The most accurate way to describe what occurs in the conquest narratives is "Yahweh wars." The nation of Israel, during this time of its history, had no human king. Yahweh was "commander and chief," which makes Israel a theocracy (the Christian church today is not). Thus, enemies of Israel were enemies of Yahweh in a unique sense during this period.
The technical term for this particular type of warfare, practiced by other ancient Near Eastern cultures as well, is herem or "ban." Wars under herem conditions were dedicated to the gods. All the spoils or plunder from these wars belonged to God and the nation was not to profit from it.
The divinely given command to Israel of herem concerning the Canaanites was unique, geographically and temporally limited, and not to be repeated. . . . That last point needs to be especially reiterated: the conquest of Canaan is not analogous to Islamic jihad and was inappropriately used to justify wars like the Crusades that involved Christians. We draw attention to this because the New Atheists tend equate Islam and Christianity for rhetorical effect in their writings and public debates.
GENOCIDE AND ETHNIC CLEANSING ARE INACCURATE TERMS FOR THE CONQUEST OF CANAAN
Contrary to the bombastic claims of Christopher Hitchens, the Canaanites were not "pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel." While he cites Israel's sins of ingratitude and mutiny, he conveniently leaves out the long list of Canaanite depravity -- idolatry, incest, temple prostitution, adultery, child molestation and sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality. Each of these has been extensively documented [to the blatant and intentional neglect of the New Atheists]. . . .
The conquest of the land of Canaan "is repeatedly portrayed as God acting in judgment on a wicked and degraded society and culture -- as God would do again and again in Old Testament history, including against Israel itself." God had given the Canaanites four hundred years to change their ways, but their wickedness finally reached the tipping point for God to judge.
In his providence, God used this occasion of judgment to secure the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the biblical narrative, the actions of the Israelites are not cast as imperialistic oppression, but rather as God's human means of punishment. God as the creator of life has the right to take life, and during this unique occasion of judgment, that prerogative was temporarily extended to the people of Israel since Yahweh was their king (e.g., a theocracy).
Moreover, God using Israel had nothing to do with their moral superiority [cf. Deut. 9:5]. . . . While herem was carried out by Israel against a specific people -- the Canaanites -- it was not motivated by racial superiority or hatred. Therefore the language of ethnic cleansing and genocide is inaccurate. . . .
FINAL THOUGHTS ON A DIFFICULT SUBJECT
It will not do, as some have done when approaching this topic, to make the God of the Old Testament a God of judgment [cf. Ex. 20:6] and the Jesus of the New Testament a God of love [cf. Rev. 19:11]. God is both loving and just. Nor should passages about judgment in either testament be regulated to allegory.
We have tried to face the uncomfortable realities of this narrative head-on using a sound interpretive approach according to the language of the day and within the context of the ancient Near East. Do we wish the Canaanite conquest wasn't in the Bible? Honestly, yes. Are there things we don't understand? Yes again. But we also wish that the realities accurately described in the biblical narratives of wickedness, war, depravity, pain, death, and the darkness of the human heart didn't occur also.
We live in a desperate and broken world that groans for redemption. But even in this narrative of God's righteous judgment we see glimmers of God's redemption offered and accepted, and we see the promise of ultimate shalom.
Is God Just a Human Invention? And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists, eds. Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2010), 172-84.