John W Wenham: The Goodness of God
An honest look at the moral problems raised by the Bible such as the destruction of the heathen, the existence of evil and Jesus teaching about hell.
Tyndale Publishers, pages 119-147.
The examination of this subject will occupy a long chapter. It will be necessary to cover a good deal of preliminary ground before getting to grips with it. We must first examine the command to dispossess the Canaanites in the broader context of the whole struggle with heathenism. We must then gain an adequate idea of the weakness and perversity of the Israelite people. Only after that shall we be able to see the matter in perspective and face the difficulties at all satisfactorily.
THE STRUGGLE WITH HEATHENISM
If the Old Testament narratives are to be taken as a straight forward record of history, there is no room for doubt that God intended to 'clear away' the Canaanite peoples, and that he ordered their utter destruction when defeated in battle by Israel. Here are the crucial passages:
'When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.
'For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down thdr Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.'
'In the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the Lord your God.'
These directions are represented as the most solemn commands of God. If they are in fact so, we have a deep problem to grapple with. If on the other hand they are merely directions which Moses wrongly attributed to God, or if they are directions such as a later generation thought God ought to have given to Moses, there is no problem at all. It is simply a case of fallible man misrepresenting God - one more example of a religious man sincerely believing that by an evil act he was doing God a service.
If it is argued that we are not meant to take passages like this literally, but that we are to extract some word of God from them - say, the need for complete dedication to good and for implacable opposition to evil - then an end is put to all sane exegesis. The passage purports to be literal; to take it in any other way is to throw oneself into a bottomless pit of subjectivism. It is a species of allegorizing, which relieves the Bible of all offence while depriving it of all relevance. If the supposed commands are not history, then there is no problem. But neither is there hope of the Bible giving answers to the problems of history.
It is true that our Lord did not directly endorse this particular act of judgment, as he did the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah and the drowning of Noah's contemporaries, yet he sets his seal on the book of Deuteronomy in a peculiarly clear way. Judging by the number of his quotations from it, it might be regarded as his favourite book.
As C. H. Dodd has shown, our Lord does not quote proof texts without regard for their context. He is conscious of the context within which a saying is set, having steeped his mind in whole passages of Scripture. When he has to face the great crisis of his temptation, he answers the Devil three times by quotations from Scripture. The verses quoted are Deuteronomy 6:13 and 16, and 8:3. The first and fullest command to slaughter Canaanites comes in chapter 7. There is no room for doubt that our Lord regarded all three chapters as equally authoritative.
Endorsement of a more specific kind is to be found at a number of places in the New Testament, and it will be noted that, when the occupation of Canaan is referred to, it is thought of as a work of God, not as a product of the excessive zeal of man. Stephen speaks of 'the nations which God thrust out before our fathers'. Paul says, 'The God of this people Israel ... when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance.' The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the inhabitants of Canaan who perished as 'those who were disobedient'. Then by way of solemn warning he takes up the description of God as 'a consuming fire' which was used by Moses, first in warning to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, and then with specific reference to God's destruction of the Canaanites. Unquestionably the New Testament view is to take the Old Testament at its face value. It accepts the view that the whole world was lost in sin, without God and without hope. Not only was there no true knowledge of God, but the most debasing features of society found their focus in false religion. Idolatry went hand in hand with the blunting or perverting of all the highest human instincts, and became synonymous with lust and cruelty and the withering even of the natural affections. God's purpose was to establish again a knowledge of himself in the earth. This involved the most relentless warfare with heathenism.
God's plan was to select a man, and train him to live a life of faith in a heathen world. Then from his descendants to make a nation, whose whole people he might train in the knowledge of himself. At the heart of this purpose was not only the chosen people, but the promised land. The Lord promised to his people a land that was inhabited by heathen nations. He gave it to them. That this was a fact of history was the most deeply rooted conviction of Old Testament religion, and it is embraced without question in the New.
The entry into Canaan was only one phase of a long story. As we trace the varying fortunes of the struggle with heathenism, we shall see that many of the well-known problems of the Old Testament fit into place as parts of a coherent whole. The training of the nation began in the bitter bondage of Egypt, which prepared the desperate Israelite people to listen to Moses as a leader. Egypt was itself permeated with heathen superstitions and dominated by powerful religious cults. The Exodus deliverance was rightly seen in the Old Testament as the overthrow of the gods of Eegypt by the God of Israel. The New Testament similarly sees the destruction of the first-born and the drowning of the Egyptians as acts of God wrought for men of faith. In his contest with Moses, Pharaoh was to become the type of all those who persistently harden their hearts against the true God. In the early stages, he is said either to have had a hard heart, or to have made his heart hard; but there came a time (it would seem) when he had passed a point of no return. Those who continually harden their hearts reach a point when they become impervious to God's Word. God hardens their hearts, and punishments of warning give way to punishments of destruction.
There may be remorse, as with Esau; there may be regret, as with Pharaoh; there may be pity for others, as with the rich man in the parable of Dives and Lazarus; but one of the results of the refusal to repent is a deepening disinclination to repent. It is in the same light that we should regard the reference to evil spirits and to lying spirits sent by God. Those who persistently wish to believe lies will be allowed to hear them and will in the end actually believe them to their own destruction. The penalty for love of error is belief of error. Those who suppress the truth will eventually be given up by God to the hideous results of their own sin. It was part of God's far-reaching plan for mankind to use this stubborn Egyptian king as a demonstration of the impotence of idols and of his own saving might.
The remarkable deliverance of Israel was widely recognized among the heathen peoples as having been given by the Lord their God. But no sooner had the chosen nation left Egypt than its very existence was threatened by a dangerous enemy, the Amalekites. They were not a Canaanite people, but were of Edomite stock. They are described in one place as 'the first of the nations' and in another place as 'the sinners'. Amalek 'did not fear God', and attacked Israel at a time when they were nearly exhausted by the rigours of the journey. The conduct of war in the Near East throughout most of the Old Testament period was usually completely without mercy. 'The Annals of the kings of Assyria have a constant refrain of towns destroyed, dismantled or burnt, levelled as if by a hurricane, or reduced to a heap of rubble. It was the usual custom also in biblical wars, from a period of the Judges to the time of the Maccabees.' There was seldom any idea of humanity towards a defeated foe. The hope of the attacker was usually booty or slaves, and it was considered natural to dispose of an enemy in such a way that there could be no fear of reprisals.
An attack by the Amalekites, therefore, threatened the extinction of Israel. If Amalek were defeated, the survivors would be able to scatter to their well-known haunts and strongholds in the Negeb. But if Israel were defeated, they would have no homeland to retreat to. The escaping remnant, robbed of their flocks and herds, could scarcely have survived in that inhospitable wilderness. The battle swayed back and forth while Moses held up his hands in earnest supplication for the preservation of the people of God. In the end, Israel survived.
3. C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures (London, 1952).
1. Dt. 7:1-5; cf. Ex. 23:23 ff.; Dt. 20:16-18.
2. It is notoriously difficult to produce simple statistics, because some quotations are found in more than one book (e.g., several are in Exodus as well as Deuteronomy) and because opinions differ as to which constitutes a quotation. However, the following list of passages, which are regarded as quotations from Deuteronomy by D. A. Huck (Synopse der Drei Ersten Evangelien, 8th ed., Tübingen, 1931), gives a rough idea of the extent of its use by Christ.
Mt. 4:4 Lk. 4:4 Dt. 8:3
Mt. 4:7 Lk. 4:12 Dt. 6:16
Mt. 4:10 Lk. 4:8 Dt. 6:13
Mt. 5:31 Dt. 24:1
Mt. 5:33 Dt. 5:11; 23:22
Mt. 5:38 Dt. 19:21
Mt. 15:4 Dt. 5:16
Mt. 18:16 cf. Jn. 8:17 Dt. 19:15
Mt. 19:7 Mk. 10:4 Dt. 24:1,3
Mt. 19:18, 19a Mk. 10:19 Dt. 5:16-20; 24:14
Mt. 22:24 Mk. 12:19 Lk. 20:28 Dt. 25:5,6
Mk. 12:29 Dt. 6:4
Mt. 22:37 Mk. 12:30 Lk. 10:27 Dt. 6:5
4. Acts 7:45; 13:17ff.; Heb. 11:31; 12:29; Dt.4:24; 9:3.
5. Ex. 12:12; Heb. 11:28,29.
6. Ex. 7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:8. See also Is. 6:10-12; Mt. 13:14,15; Jn. 12:37-40; Acts 28:25-28; Rom. 9:17,18. In view of the change of language between Ex. 9:7 and 9:12 it seems reasonable to infer a change from voluntary to involuntary hardening at this stage. The promise that God would harden Pharaoh's heart, however, dates from before the time of Moses' encounter with Pharaoh (Ex. 4:21; 7:3). In any case the eventual divine hardening was envisaged from the beginning.
7. Rom. 1:18-32.
8. Jos. 2:9-11; Nu. 24:20; 1 Sa. 15:18; Ex. 17:8-15; Dt. 25:17-19.
9. R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (London, 1961), p. 255. But, as we have seen, Israel did not altogether follow this custom. At a later date Christianity, though totally unsuccessful in abolishing war, also succeeded in introducing into it elements of chivalry and codes of humane conduct.
3. C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures (London, 1952).
But God solemnly warned his people of the danger of this godless nation and gave instructions that they should be treated like the Canaanites. They were to be placed under a herem, a solemn ban. This meant that there were to be no slaves. All human beings were to be killed and all objects of heathen worship were to be utterly destroyed. In some cases, as with Jericho or with Achan or with an apostate Israelite city, it included also the destruction of their possessions, which meant that there was to be no booty. On several occasions in the later history Israel did in fact suffer at the hands of the Amalekites. In the early days of the monarchy it was for disobedience in not fully applying the herem that Saul was rejected from kingship.
It is thus in the context of the whole struggle with heathenism that we are to see this terrible call to drive out the heathen nations. It is the story of a group of people, few in number and almost unbelievably weak and fickle in their spiritual loyalties, battling against mighty forces which were degrading, seductive and ruthless. For centuries on end the very survival of the cause of true religion seemed to hang on a thread. Heathenism is degrading at the best of times, but there is reason to think that the spiritual condition of the peoples in and around Canaan at the time of the Israelite occupation was one of particular filth. Some generations earlier Abraham had been told that his descendants, after a period of slavery, would come back to Canaan 'in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete'. It is the normal pattern of cultures that they grow strong in the early days of vigour and self-discipline, they hold their own with varying fortune for a time, and then they decline as a result of their own inner corruption. Or, to put it more biblically, when iniquity reaches a certain point, judgment begins. 'The Amorites' here seems to be used loosely for the Canaanite peoples as a whole, and the implication is that at the time of the Israelite return to the country, the state of these peoples would be ripe for judgment.
It is difficult from the dry reports of the archaeologists to form any adequate human picture of the nature of the heathen cults. In view of the fact that the Israelite invasion did not lead to their eradication, much useful information as to their nature can be gleaned from the later periods of the history. The Old Testament directs its bitterest venom against Baalism and the cult of Molech. Baalism was a fertility cult, in which sexual licence was glorified as something religious and meritorious. There were 'holy' prostitutes, male and female, for the gratification of the worshippers. Bright describes it in these terms: 'Canaanite religion presents us with no pretty picture ... numerous debasing practices, including sacred prostitution, homosexuality, and various orgiastic rites, were prevalent.'
G. E. Wright notes the element of cruelty in Canaanite mythology. Anath, wife of Baal, loved war, and one of her adventures is described in a poem.
Deciding on a massacre, she smote and slew from seacoast (west) to sunrise. Filling her temple with men she barred the doors and hurled at them chairs, tables and footstools. Soon she waded in blood up to her knees - nay, up to her neck. 'Her liver swelled with laughter; her heart was full of joy.' She then washed her hands in gore and proceeded to other occupations.
Wright then goes on to remark:
The amazing thing about the gods, as they were conceived in Canaan, is that they had no moral character whatsoever. In fact, their conduct was on a much lower level than that of society as a whole, if we can judge from ancient codes of law. Certainly the brutality of the mythology is far worse than anything else in the Near East at that time. Worship of these gods carried with it some of the most demoralizing practices then in existence. Among them were child sacrifice, a practice long since discarded in Egypt and Babylonia, sacred prostitution, and snake-worship on a scale unknown among other peoples.
Looking at another aspect of contemporary life he says:
When we examine the world of polytheism more closely, we find beneath the surface a vast, dark uncomfortable world, comparable in its complexity to those depths of unconscious life laid bare by modern psychoanalysis. That is the world of demons, magic, and divination.
It requires the disciplined skill of a historical novelist to convey to the imagination what such practices involve. Sholem Asch has used his skill to portray a Molech sacrifice in an imagined visit of our Lord to Tyre before the beginning of his ministry. Molech sacrifices were offered especially in connection with vows and solemn promises, and children were sacrificed as the harshest and most binding pledge of the sanctity of a promise. Even Greek writers were disgusted with this Phoenician practice, which became a prominent part of the religion of Carthage, and might well have overspread the world had Hannibal won the day in Italy. Sholem Asch portrays the hideous fascination of the rite, with its combination of solemnity and spectacle, of excitement and horror, or merry-making and obscenity, in which, as its central act, a young lad (no baby) is thrown into the red-hot arms of the god. Such practices could only prove a cancer in the life of any society, bringing a legacy of callousness and viciousness and fear, yet exercising a fascination which such a people's debased moral sense could not resist. A society nurtured in unwholesome excitement does not know how to live without it. It is not surprising that the Valley of Hinnom (Ge-henna), where Molech worship was practiced in the days of Manasseh, should have provided the Jewish image of hell.
1. Jos. 6:18-24; 7:24, 25; Dt. 13:13-18.
2. Nu. 14:45; Jdg. 3:13; 6:3; 7:12; 1 Sa. 15. There is also perhaps a hint that the Amalekites were unusually cruel (1 Sa. 15:33).
3. Reasons for estimating the fighting force at about 18,000 men may be seen in the author's 'large Numbers in the Old Testament', Tyndale Bulletin 18 (1967), pp. 19 ff. This article has been separately reprinted.
4. Gn 15:16.
5. J. Bright, A History of Israel (London, 1960), pp. 108 f.
6. G. E. Wright and F. V. Filson, The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (London, 1945), p. 36. G. E. Wright, The Old Testament against its Environment (London, 1950), p. 78.
7. Sholem Asch, The Nazarene (London, 1939), pp. 347 ff. See also C. F. Pfeiffer, Patriarchal Age (Michigan, 1961), chapter 9.
8. A late Bronze Age temple at Amman of 1400-1250 BC provides the best proof to date of child sacrifices in this area. J. B. Hennessey ('Excavation of a Late Bronze Age Temple at Amman' (Palestine Exploration Quarterly (1966), p. 162) writes: 'Two outstanding features associated with the use of the temple were the enormous quantities of animal, bird and human bones and the abundant evidence of fire ... There can be little doubt that the temple was associated with a fire cult. It had a comparatively short life. The initial foundation probably dates just before 1400 BC. The latest material would suggest that the building went out of use sometime during the thirteenth century BC.' According to an oral report (which I have not been able to confirm) a large proportion of the bones around the altar were human, in age from 0 to 16.
9. 2 Ch. 33:6; cf. Lk. 12:5, etc.
These heathen practices were not only degrading and seductive, they were often backed by ruthless power. The popular picture of the priests of Baal as ignorant dervishes serving some primitive and insignificant cult can be shattered by the sight of a single photograph. The archaeologist normally has to be content with buried ruins, from which an idea of the original buildings can be reconstructed only by laborious processes of deduction. But at Palmyra it is possible to this day to see the remains of a Baal temple, its glorious columns rising 68 feet in the air, beautiful in proportions and beautiful in design. Although, of course, its relation to the Baalim of Canaan cannot be determined with great precision, yet merely to see this temple is to open the imagination to the sort of thing that Elijah was up against. Here was a religion exceedingly attractive to the sensual nature of fallen man, unlike the austere simplicity and severe morality of the Mosaic religion. Here was a religion which won the devotion of the mightiest in the land, and was popular with the common people. Ahab, with his ivory palace and his 2,000 chariots, and Jezebel, daughter of the priest-king of Tyre and Sidon, were immensely wealthy, and she at least was utterly ruthless, thinking nothing of compelling the people of Jezreel to commit perjury to effect the murder of Naboth. She introduced 850 prophets. The true prophets were slain, the altars of the Lord were broken down, a remnant of faithful prophets were driven into hiding and Elijah had to flee for his life. When Elijah lay down and asked that he might die, he felt that even the revelation of divine power on Mount Carmel had not only failed to check Jezebel's schemes, but had goaded her into fresh zeal. He felt helpless against the might of a pitiless totalitarian regime. The struggle went on in the reign of Ahab's successor, Ahaziah. Elijah boldly rebuked him for turning to a Philistine Baal. The king sent soldiers to capture Elijah, but on two successive occasions 'the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed them', and Elijah escaped with his life.' It was at a moment when the cause of true religion was in dire peril that God repeatedly and dramatically intervened to vindicate his prophet.
The famous tale of Elisha and the she-bears is a sequel to the same story. Elisha has sometimes been pictured as a savage old man, who, becawe he could not take an innocent joke about his baldness, roundly cursed a number of little children, in response to which God sent two she-bears who killed no fewer than forty-two of them. On almost every count this is a misrepresentation. Elisha was not old; he was in fact a very young man just starting out on his ministry which was to last nearly sixty years. He certainly was not savage, as may be seen from the way in which he intervened to spare the Syrian army. 'Go up' was presumably said in mockery of the reported ascension of Elijah - a sneering request for a repeat performance. The precise connotation of 'baldhead' is not clear, but it was evidently no mere boyish rudeness. Some take it to refer to a prophetic tonsure, in which case it was direct ridicule of the prophetic office; ridicule not merely of Elijah and Elisha, but of the God whose mouthpiece they claimed to be. Others think that it has nothing to do with physical baldness (since men in the Near East usually cover their heads), but that it was a highly offensive current epithet. 'Little children' (AV) is certainly misleading. The Hebrew nearim qetannim could be 'small boys' (RSV, NEB), though the Revised Version marginal translation 'young lads' seems to fit the context better. Seeing there were forty-two of them hurt by the bears (and one would imagine that many more got away unharmed than were hurt), it was evidently a great mob of young roughs deliberately organized for the occasion. To muster so many from a small town they would presumably have ranged from grown-up lads to small boys, with the lads in the lead and the small boys gleefully chanting after them. The text does not say that any of them were killed. 'Tearing' implies severe wounds. Whether any of them were fatal or not, we do not know.
In truth Elisha was somewhat like a diffident ministerial student straight from college, newly ordained and quite untried, left alone in a hostile world. Elijah was gone, but Jezebel was still very much present. Elisha was called to put his vocation to the test. He set out from the Jordan Valley for the Northern Kingdom, where his master's enemy still held sway, doubtless with fear and foreboding in his heart, yet determined openly to maintain a witness for the Lord. A prospect which daunted the old warrior Elijah would certainly daunt this young and gentle man. He chose Bethel as his starting-point, the town which was notorious as the centre where Jeroboam had set up the idolatrous calf at the time when Israel in the North broke away from Judah in the South. When he arrived, weary in body as well as in heart, after the long 3,000-ft ascent out of the Rift Valley up to the mountain ridge, he had an unpleasant surprise. His coming had been reported, and a hot reception had been arranged. The lads, prompted no doubt by their elders, who had no use for Elijah, Elisha or anything they stood for, sallied forth in truculent mood to let him know the kind of welcome that Bethel was preparing for him. In those days life was cheap, and Elisha's life was in grave danger; and, with the possibility of Elisha's elimination from the struggle, it was a critical point in the history of mankind - for it meant that the whole cause of true religion was threatened with extinction. What was Elisha to do? Just as the apostle Paul pronounced a curse on those who preached a false gospel, just as our Lord bade his disciples solemnly to shake off the dust from their feet against those who would not receive his teaching, so Elisha solemnly cursed these boys. He did not pray for angry she-bears, but God saw fit to respond in this particular way in order that they should learn, even by painful means, that it is dangerous folly to defy God and his Word.
The difference between the curse of Elisha and that of the apostles is that in his case retribution came immediately, whereas in theirs retribution was promised for the day of judgment. 'If any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.' Our Lord said that on the day of judgment it would be himself who would address those on his left hand as 'You cursed'. But in the case of Elisha, as in the case of Elymas the magician who was struck with blindness, the need was for an immediate lesson.
No doubt the story of the she-bears was rapidly passed from mouth to mouth throughout the Northern Kingdom, for Elisha proceeded with his long ministry unmolested, never again (as far as we know) having to be the agent of an act of judgment. As far as Jezebel was concerned, the lesson was pressed home still further, for she met her deserved end at the hands of the evil man Jehu, in literal fulfilment of the grim prophecy of Elijah, who had foretold that as a reward for the murder of Naboth: 'The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.'
It was in such times and in such ways that God raised up and preserved the line of prophets, who were to lead the battle against heathenism. The struggle was to be continued by Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others right into the days of the Babylonian captivity and beyond. But for the initial establishment of this 'goodly fellowship of the prophets' God saw fit to show his hand in special ways.
THE SPIRITUAL WEAKNESS OF ISRAEL
The heathenism from which Israel emerged and against which it had to struggle bore all the characteristics of its author. Just as Satan may at one time appear as a roaring lion to terrify the saints, and at another as an angel of light to deceive them, so his false religions possessed the same qualities - now towering above them in pitiless might, now enticing them with entrancing seductiveness. Over against the might of heathen idolatry the Bible is at pains to set with chilling candour the starkness of Israel's physical and moral weakness. The patriarchs learn the life of faith only because they are taken bodily out of the city life of Ur and Haran, and are made to live a self-contained nomadic existence, separated from their heathen neighbours. Lot, when he gets involved in city life, is soon in trouble.
The Israelites in Egypt evidently quickly lost the sense of divine call which had so powerfully moved Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It required the agonies of slavery to bring them to the point where they would follow Moses. In spite of the spectacular deliverance which brought them out of Egypt, the people as a whole seem never truly to have embraced his teachings in their hearts or in their minds. Throughout they were a 'stiff-necked people', stubborn and rebellious. It is one long story of trouble. Though Moses himself had a penetrating understanding of the truths he taught, the people seem to have understood little. They grumbled at the hardships and hankered for Egypt again. When Moses' back was turned, even Aaron was prevailed upon to make them a golden calf to worship. Under Korah, Dathan and Abiram, Moses had to face a dangerous rebellion.
There is a strange silence concerning the period of some thirty-eight years when apparently the Israelite headquarters was established at Kadesh Barnea. of the period between the return of the spies with their discouraging reports of the land and the final departure from Kadesh, we know very little. It seems as though it was necessary for a whole generation to die off before Moses could start again in earnest in an attempt to weld the people into a God-fearing nation. He appears to have had little hold over them. The law was more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Circumcision was not practised; not only were the sacrifices not faithfully observed, but heathen images were made for worship. It is likely enough that the tribes went their separate ways to forage for a subsistence in the inhospitable wilderness. When at last Moses led them forward once more, they quickly fell a prey to the attractions of Baal worship on Mount Peor. Moses, acting under God's orders, exercised the full rigour of his authority and dictated that all who had 'yoked themselves to Baal' be forthwith publicly hanged. At the same time a devastating plague, which was recognized as a token of divine wrath, struck the camp.
Such was the background of human frailty against which the uncompromising commands of Deuteronomy were delivered not long after in the plains of Moab. It was clear beyond all possibility of doubt to one who knew the spiritual state of the people of Israel, that, if they were to live cheek by jowl with the heathen, they would be incapable of maintaining their beliefs and standards. And so it proved. There was an outward allegiance to the Lord under Joshua's leadership, and Joshua himself faithfully carried out the command to destroy the inhabitants of the captured cities, but Joshua was well aware of the shallowness of his people's loyalty. There were those who still served Akkadian gods, and there were those who were inclining towards Canaanite deities, and it was necessary for Joshua to issue a direct challenge before he died, as to whether they would serve the Lord or not. When Joshua's generation had died, the rot set in. The period of the judges was a time of idolatry, anarchy and disintegration; it was a time of spiritual darkness relieved only for brief periods when some leader, often with only the crudest faith, rose to challenge Israel's oppressors in the name of Israel's God.
It was not till the days of Samuel that there appeared some hope of a turn for the better. There was a revival of national consciousness and a desire for national unity, which led to the establishment of the monarchy. With this revival there came reminders of the uncompromising nature of the Lord's demands. Thus Saul was rejected for ignoring Samuel's call for a complete break with Baalism and for failing to 'blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven'. There were instances of disobedience being met by sudden death. With the recovery of the ark from the Philistines, some of the inhabitants of Bethshemesh presumed to look inside the ark, and seventy of them died at God's hand. An Israelite, named Uzzah, presumably intending to be helpful, put out his hand to steady the ark and was struck dead - for disobeying God-given regulations. David, who withessed the event, was first angry and then afraid.
1. 2 Ki. 1 and see D. J. Wiseman, 'Ahab', The New Bible Dictionary (London, 1962), p. 20.
2. 2 Ki. 2:23 f.; 6:1-23.
3. In this passage they are in fact called nearim qetannim and also eeladim. The (singular) words na'ar and yeled both have a wide range of meanings. Both are used of Moses aged three months (Ex. 2:6).
na'ar is used most often for 'youths', sometimes for professional soldiers (R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, pp. 220 f.). na'ar is used of Ishmael at the age of 14 and of Joseph at 17 (Gn. 21:12; 37:2). The addition of qaton ('small' or 'young') does not seem to make for much greater precision. When Samuel went to anoint David, he and his older brothers are all nearim and David is the 'young' na'ar (1 Sa. 16:11), although he had already served for a time as an armour-bearer. (It is hoped to discuss 1 Samuel 15-18, which includes Saul's supposed failure to recognize his former armour-bearer, in a later publication.) Solomon in the humility of prayer speaks of himself as a 'young' na'ar (1 Ki. 3:7). Naaman's flesh after washing was like the flesh of a 'young' na'ar (2 Ki. 5:14).
yeled ranges from baby Moses to the contemporaries of Rehoboam at the time of his accession when he was 41 years old (1 Ki. 12:8; 14:21). The meaning of both expressions must therefore be determined by the demands of the context.
4. Mt. 10:14,15; cf. Mk. 6:11; Lk. 9:5; 10:11; Acts 13:51; Mt. 25:41; Acts 13:11.
5. 1 Ki.21:23; 2 Ki. 9:30-37
6. Nu. 20:1; 33:36
7. Jos. 5:5; Am. 5:25 f.; Acts 7:42 f.; Nu. 25. It has been conjectured that part of the reason for the severity of the treatment of the Canaanites may have been physical. A society riddled with disease, having itself built up a strong resistance, may be catastrophically dangerous to an immigrant population. H. Zinsser, Rats, Lice and Historye (New York, 1960), gives numerous startling examples of this. Be this as it may, the primary reason for avoiding contamination is clearly spiritual.
8. Jos. 24:14,15.
9. 1 Sa. 7:3; Dt. 25:19; 1 Sa. 15:23; 28:18. The grisly account tells us that 'Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord' (1 Sa. 15:33). The word translated 'hewed in pieces' is obscure. There is certainly no need to suppose that he was tortured before being killed. Nonetheless it seems at first sight a very unpleasant incident. It comes as a salutary shock, therefore, to find at the central point of the narrative the substance of an Old Testament quotation which our Lord used more than once. The whole passage is concerned with Saul's attitude of heart towards God, and is summarized in the saying: 'To obey is better than sacrifice' (1 Sa. 15:22). This in turn is taken up by Hosea (6:6) and reproduced in the form: 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice' (RV). The Hebrew word hesed, translated 'mercy', is a rich Old Testament term with a range of meanings including 'solidarity', 'devotion', 'loyalty', 'steadfast love', 'kindness', 'grace'. In the context it is clear that by 'mercy' Hosea meant 'loyal devotion', which manifests itself in separation from false gods and obedience to the Lord from the heart. Our Lord takes up the quotation of Hosea and applies it to situations where a right attitude of heart is contrasted with merely formal correctness (Mt. 9:13; 12:7). This is not of course a direct endorsement of 1 Sa. 15 by our Lord, but he must have been fully aware of this memorable passage when he adopted the saying for his own use.
It is clear from the account in 1 Chronicles that the whole incident deeply impressed David with the need for obedience to God's commands. We are not told the full circumstances, but we know enough to get a good idea of the real significance of the event. It was a critical moment in the training of the Israelite nation. National observance of the law of Moses had been virtually impossible and had almost disappeared during the time of the judges. Now, under David, was the chance to begin again. As so often in the formative stages of the history of the chosen people, God accompanied the new beginning with a sharp warning. The Mosaic regulations were elaborately framed to emphasize the yawning gulf between a holy God and an unholy people. The ark was to stand in the holy of holies, where God's presence was manifested. The holy of holies was to be entered only once a year, by a high priest specially set apart, after special sacrifices and purifications. If ever the ark had to be moved, it was never to be touched or looked upon by any but the priests on pain of death, but was to be fitted with shafts and carefully covered over. Then it was to be carried on the shoulders, not of ordinary Israelites, but of Levites.
Now David knew much of the joy of communion with God, but he evidently had a very imperfect realization of his holiness, and when it came to the re-establishment of the Mosaic order he ignored the God-given way. Not long before Israel had tried to use the ark in a magical way. Magic tries to manipulate supernatural powers, whereas true piety puts itself into the hands of God to be used according to his will. The Israelites had brought the ark into the battle in order to make use of God for their own ends. God's response was to allow them to be defeated by the heathen Philistines and the ark to be captured. But the lesson of obedience had not been learnt. Uzzah was presumably a Levite, but neither he nor David had given serious attention to the injunctions of the divine law. Instead they copied the example of the Philistines and put the ark upon a new cart. Not unjustly (since Uzzah had infringed a divine regulation, and since, in any case, all men, being transgressors of God's law, deserve to die and are heading for death), yet unexpectedly, God strikes Uzzah down. There is no suggestion that this meant eternal death and Uzzah himself had no suffering, yet it was a shocking thing to those who saw it or heard about it and a terrible thing for his family. David and the whole nation spent three months in digesting the lesson. When the ark was finally brought to Jerusalem, it was carried on the shoulders of the Levites, and sacrifices were offered. At least some dent had been made in Israel's perennial disregard for God's law.
The intensity of David's devotion to the Lord had raised the spiritual life of the people to a new high-water mark, but, in spite of a promising start, Solomon threw away all that had been gained. 'He loved many foreign women', and 'his wives turned away his heart after other gods'. The heathen abominations came back in a flood. After his death the kingdom was divided, and Jeroboam established the idolatrous centres of worship at Dan and Bethel, to keep his people from visiting Jerusalem.
Century after century the struggle went on, with a persecuted minority battling against the incorrigible perversity of the mass of the people. It required the Babylonian captivity to work a decisive and lasting change of outlook. But even when they had returned from captivity the struggle was by no means over, though they had at least come to a national recognition of the Lord as the one true God and to a national repudiation of idolatry. No-one can pretend that the spiritual life of Jewry was even then at a very high level. It had taken the best part of a thousand years of failure and suffering to teach the people of Moses to heed the Shema; 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.' Such was the rate of learning of those who thought that they could safely fraternize with their Canasnite neighbours.
THE REALITY OF TEMPORAL JUDGMENT
It is worth looking again at the precise terms of the commands given regarding the Canaanites. The primary concern throughout is the total ejection of their evil religions from the land. God is going to clear away the seven nations. Israel must make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. In particular, they are not to marry with them, for this will turn them away to serve other gods. The Baal altars and pillars and the Asherim are to be totally destroyed. God keeps covenant with those who love him, and requites to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. 'Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out.' It is to be noted that these commands are to be thought of, not primarily in terms of one nation against another, but in terms of those who love God against those who hate him. As in the days before the Flood and before the destruction of Sodom there was a way of escape for those who sought the true God, so now there is room within the company of Israel for those who are not Israelites by race. There are the noteworthy examples of Rahab (who by faith gave friendly welcome to the spies) and Ruth the Moabitess, who were both ancestresses of Jesus. There was the 'mixed multitude' who came out of Egypt with the Israelites. There was Hobab, the son of the priest of Midian, who was invited to join the Israelites. Job, who dwelt in the land of Uz, was regarded as an example of blameless piety. In the very context which we are discussing, special injunctions are given for the care of the sojourner. He is to observe the same laws, and he is to be received in love as one of themselves: 'The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.' There is certainly no obstacle to the individual repentance of a Canaanite, nor even presumably to migration, since the conquest was to be little by little. The one indispensable requisite is that the centres of idolatry must be eradicated from the Promised Land, and the people are to be taught to 'utterly detest and abhor' their abominations. Against the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites and other more distant nations there was to be no such policy of extermination.
Christians would find no great difficulty with the overthrow of the Canaanites had it taken place at the hands of their heathen neighbours. It is a commonplace of history that civilizations grow weak through their inner corruptions, and it is part of the continuing providence of God that such should be swept away. It is a judgment of God which is readily understood and accepted. It is no more than the desert of those who have become slaves of evil practices. There is possibly a hint that this process was at work in Canaan. The Israelites were told concerning the Canaanites, 'The Lord your God will send hornets among them ... and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed.' J. Garstang believed that 'the hornet' was the Egyptian Empire, which first of all dominated and disarmed the area, and then left the nations unprotected. Be that as it may, part of the judgment at least was in this case put into the hands of God's people. It was not left to godless nations to destroy each other under the silent, over-ruling permission of God. It was a direct injunction of God to one relatively God-fearing nation to drive out seven particularly evil nations.
1. 1 Sa. 6:19; 2 Sa. 6:6-9; 1 Ch. 13:5-14.
2. Nu. 4:5,15,19,20.
3. 1 Sa. 4; 6:7 f.; 1 Ch. 15:11-28.
4. 1 Ki. 11:1-8.
5. Dt. 7:1-11; 9:5.
6. Heb.11:31; Ex.12:38; Nu. 11:4; 10:29-33.
7. Dt. 10:18,19; Ex.20:10; Lv. 24:16,22; 19:34.
8. Ex.23:30; Dt. 7:26; 2:5,9,19; 20:10.
9. Dt. 7:20-23; cf. Ex. 23:28; Jos. 24:12. J. Garstang, Joshua-Judges (London, 1931), pp.112 ff., 258 ff.
The distinction between the permissive will of God and the expressed will of God is important, but it cannot rightly be used to cut all the knots in the mysteries of providence. Israel suffered what she deserved when the Lord permitted the haughty Assyrians to act unwittingly as 'the rod of my anger' against her. It would have been perfectly just if God had expressly directed some nation wittingly to wield the rod of chastisement against her. Just as it is a moral, if singularly unpleasant, calling to be a state executioner, so it could be a moral, though very unpleasant, duty for one nation to inflict God's chastisement upon another. Everything turns upon the reality and certainty of the divine calling to do the deed. If we are to believe the records of the Pentateuch, the command given through Moses was inescapably clear in itself, and the credentials of Moses were demonstrated repeatedly and with immense force. The only question which remains is the probable effect on Israel of carrying out such a command. The hangman's job might have a most undesirable effect on a morbid or sadistic nature. Would Israel suffer morally, in the execution of such a duty? The answer must surely depend on the spirit in which it was carried out. If it was done for material gain or in love of cruelty, the results would be appalling. If it was done with an intense realization of the holiness of God, and of the horror both of their own sins and of those of their enemies, it could serve as an indelible lesson.
That this was the spirit enjoined by God is emphasized again and again. The judgment was upon sin, not upon enemy nations as such. If one is tempted to suspect that the Old Testament merely rationalized Israel's need for living space, it is well to remember that in fact God kept his people waiting for 400 years till the time for judgment on Canaan was ripe and that (when completely helpless) he rescued them from slavery. Their occupation of the land was no matter for nationalistic pride, it was the Lord's doing. And the Lord's commands were every bit as severe with regard to erring Israelites as they were to the Canaanites. When Achan sought material profit from the conquest of Jericho, he and his family and his animals and his tent and his ill-gotten gains were all stoned and burnt. The inclusion of women and children in such judgments is sometimes regarded as the refinement of cruelty. Yet, not only is the family principle itself biblical, but in this case it might also have proved practical and humane. As far as the heathen were concerned, the danger from female devotees of Baal (as was evidenced by the daughters of Moab on the threshold of the Promised Land and later by Jezebel) was quite as great as that from the men; and what sort of society would it be for either the women or the children, if (as would have been almost inevitable) they were reduced to the status of foreign slaves and were left with no menfolk of their own nationality to give them support?
The stoning of Achan was no isolated case. The death penalty, as we have seen, was prescribed for a whole series of sins: Molech worship, spiritualism, adultery, sex relations within the prohibited degrees, homosexual acts. Anyone who tried to entice Israel to follow other gods was to be stoned; any city that was drawn away by such teaching was to be utterly destroyed, with all its inhabitants and all its spoil. It was to be offered as a whole burnt-offering to the Lord, and never to be rebuilt. A man found gathering sticks on the sabbath was stoned, as was also one who blasphemed the name of the Lord. Not only were the laws severe, but God's own treatment of his people when they disobeyed was relentless in its severity, as the whole book of Judges bears witness. 'They forsook the Lord, and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them; and he sold them into the power of their enemies round about, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them; and they were in sore straits.'
It would be hard to conceive of any system better calculated to bring home the limitless chasm which separates the worship of the true God and the worship of an evil being excogitated from the minds of sinful men. Israel was taught that it is the difference between life and death - between finding one's true end and missing it, the difference (as we should say) between heaven and hell. Such gods are no gods, but deluders and debasers of their worshippers. A lost world, without God and without hope, desperately needed the true God. But how could the world learn till Israel had first learnt? God's dealings are terrible. But is there any reason to think that Israel could have learnt her lessons with less severe treatment? Indeed, when we view God's providential treatment of the world as a whole, is there any reason to think that mankind generally could have learnt its lessons better with less severe judgments?
Put this way, the credibility of the whole Old Testament scheme of things takes on a different light.
Yet the nagging doubt keeps returning. Can so dreadful a plan really be right? Is there a flaw in the reasoning somewhere?
When analysed, this doubt seems to resolve itself into four questions. 1. Can we really square this teaching with that of Christ? 2. Can we really be sure that it was a command of God and not simply a shrewdly calculated policy of Moses? 3. Could not such teaching be used as an argument for the propagation of the faith today by means of the sword? 4. Could it not be used as an argument for harshness in society and ruth lessness in war- making by the modern state?
But to bring these doubts out into the open is largely to answer them. As we have already seen, our Lord does not minimize the severity of God's judgment; he underlines it. He does not repudiate the idea of material force, saying of the Flood in Noah's day which 'swept them all away', 'So will be the coming of the Son of man'; and of those who are not ready at his coming that they will be sent where men 'weep and gnash their teeth'. He does not question the judgment on the people of Sodom, when 'fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all'; to him it is a warning which we are to remember. There may be difficulty in squaring the teaching of Deuteronomy with that of some Jesus of modern invention. But as far as the Jesus of the Gospels is concerned, there is an inescapable and indeed a fearful consistency between them, for (as we have seen) the judgments of hell as portrayed by Jesus are more terrible even than the judgments of Deuteronomy.
Nagging doubts about the historicity of the records can be laid to rest only by much careful, prayerful and honest thought, culminating in a decision. Careful thought must be given to the question, 'Has the history of the Old Testament been proved to be inaccurate?' It is not of course possible to prove the Old Testament to be historically accurate throughout (only a small proportion of generally accepted conclusions concerning ancient history are demonstratively proved). Belief in the entire truth of the Old Testament can be derived only from a belief in revelation and inspiration. The student who wishes honestly to face the challenge of modern biblical criticism must ask the negative question, 'Is the Bible's inaccuracy proved beyond reasonable doubt?' When anti-supernatural presuppositions are laid aside, it is our conviction that close examination of the facts does not create even a presumptive case against the Bible, certainly not a demonstrative one. There is no proof either way. When this is realized, a stage has been reached where the decision has to be made whether or not to trust Christ as a teacher. When the die is cast the results are inevitable. Christ accepted the history of the Old Testament and Christ loved the book of Deuteronomy. Doubts will be laid to rest in proportion to our ability to trust him.
Perhaps the horror of the misuse of these scriptures causes the most persistent uneasiness. They have been misused in the past, and they may be misused again. But this objection, though very searching, is not really valid. Of course the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. He did so during our Lord's temptation, and he has done so all down the history of the church. 'Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree' must have been a goad in the mind of Saul the persecutor, as he thought of the Christian's belief in a crucified Messiah. Thinking to make himself a eunuch for the kingdom of God's sake, Origen is said to have castrated himself. Christians have persecuted unbelievers into the church, because our Lord said 'Compel them to come in'. The great churches and the little sects have all erred. Every heresy and every malpractice have their text. People will sit in filth for a lifetime on the tops of poles, they will climb mountains to await the Second Coming, they will indulge in wild orgies, they will set up fanatical commonwealths, they will smell out innocent people and burn them as witches or heretics, they will argue the flatness of the earth - every kind of wickedness and folly will seek to justify itself from Scripture. Yet this is no argument against the truth of Scripture, nor against its entire wholesomeness when rightly understood.
It is part of God's training for his church that she should learn in love and humility to know his mind from the Scriptures. It is part of his training also that she should at times be allowed, through pride and malice, to taste the bitterness of the misinterpretation of her holy book. It is clear enough that the training of Israel in the Old Testament and the evangelization of the world in the New are two totally different things. Israel was to be established as a self-contained nation in a single country. The church was to be drawn out of every nation to act as a centre of witness in every country. Her weapons were not to be carnal. She was to preach the Word, and to bear her witness by patient suffering. It is unthinkable that any Christian group could rightly claim to have received a direct, specific command to slaughter their enemies without mercy; this alone justified the Israelites in their actions.
Misuse of the Bible has not, of course, been the prerogative of the lunatic fringe of the Christian church. Living Christianity is a force of truth and love which influences the whole of a man's life and all his relationships. Inevitably and inescapably a Christian group has a social (and eventually a political) power directly proportional to its spiritual power. No matter how other-worldly the emphasis of the movement and how averse in theory to any partnership between church and state, it cannot (if genuine) remain passive in face of social injustice, when it alone has the power effectively to challenge it. So the Quakers worked to reform the prisons, the Methodists built up the trades unions, the Clapham sect fought slavery, Shaftesbury battled against the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, the Salvation Army worked among the drop-outs and the Pentecostalists among the drug addicts. But involvement in the real world means a partial Christianizing of society, bringing with it an outward approval of Christian ideals. At this stage selfishness and avarice are still the primary motives in society, but selfishness and avarice will seek every possible means to disguise themselves in respectable Christian clothing. If the Bible is regarded as authoritative it will be ransacked to produce evidence for evil practices. It will not be a balanced statement of the whole teaching of the Bible on a topic, but it will consist of one-sided (and often misinterpreted) extracts. It will be cymcal rationalization.
In this way, because of the hardness of men's hearts, the toleration of a very humane form of slavery in the Old Testament was used to justify the barbarities of the West Indian slave traffic. The biblical emphasis on the freedom and responsibility of the individual was used to justify the callousness of unbridled capitalism. Little attention was paid to the denunciation of prophets such as Isaiah, who said:
Nor to the law which required that every fifty years lands acquired by the richer families were to be returned to their original owners. The Bible's recognition of governmental authority was used to justify uncritical acceptance of gross inequalities of privilege and wealth - little heed was paid either to the egalitarian ideals of the holy nation redeemed from a common slavery, or to the denunciations of the rich in both Testaments. The recognition of the significance of race and nationhood in a fallen world has been used to justify the domination of tiny white minorities over their black neighbours. Selected texts have been used to exaggerate and polarize differences of belief between Catholics and Protestants, so promoting fear and hatred between communities, in disregard of the profound truths which they have in common and of our Lord's exhortations to his followers to love one another. The quite special case of Israel's dispossession of the Canaanites has been used to justify lack of love towards the heathen, resulting in missionary torpor and military rigour by so-called Christian nations, in defiance of the whole New Testament and in disregard even of the Old Testament's concern for other nations. This is the supreme example of the Devil citing Scripture for his own purposes.
1. Is. 10:5.
2. Jos. 7.
3. Nu. 25.
4. Dt. 13; Nu. 15:36; Lv. 24:10-23; Jdg. 2:13-15.
5. Mt. 24:37-51; Lk. 17:26-32.
6. The author has a book in preparation on the historicity of the Old Testament.
7. Ps. 91:11,12; Mt.4:6; Lk.4:10,11.
8. Is. 5:8; Lv. 25.
9. The Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, which follows immediately on the catalogue of nations in the previous chapter, seems to show that the differentiation of language (which may not have been instantaneous) and the rise of separated tribes and nations is part of God's plan for the preservation of the human race. The barriers between peoples are like the groynes on the sea-shore which prevent the tides sweeping the beach away and eating into the land. The Nimrods (Gn. 10:8-10) of this world who would set up world-wide tyrannies are continually thwarted by human abhorrence of domination by a foreigner.
Special laws governing foreigner in the land of Israel (Dt. 15:3; 23:20) have been seen by some as justifying racial discrimination. But the distinction in this case is not between those of different race, but between those who belong permanently to the community and those who do not. As we have seen, a foreign slave may become part of the community and share its covenant privileges. But a foreign trader who is temporarily resident and who has no permanent stake in the welfare of the community obviously cannot claim all the privileges of the covenant people.
It would be idle to pretend that it is easy for the Christian always to know what is the right course. The church qua church can certainly never rightly take up arms for the propagation of the gospel. The state on the other hand has a duty to protect its citizens from both internal and external dangers, and may become involved in revolution or war. The church's weapon is the cross, but the state's weapon is the sword - and the Christian, with duties to both, will find inescapable tensions and difficulties of conscience. Problems of political and international action are immensely complicated and it would be unreasonable to expect often to find neat Christian answers. Where Christianity is strong, it is particularly difficult to disentangle religion and politics. In the Middle Ages when the Muslim pincers began to close on Europe, resistance was a matter of political survival, but inevitably the ensuing conflicts with the Turks were seen as wars of religion. The survival of Christianity was secured in Europe, but at the expense of great damage to the Christian image. Similar problems face the modern world as militant atheist states face countries which have not yet formally discarded their Christian tradition. The Christian's duty to the state is perplexing, involving judgments precariously based on fragmentary knowledge; it means that his loyalty to his country can never be uncritical or absolute. But his duty to the gospel is clear: his best energies must be thrown into uplifting the cross of Christ on both sides of every political divide.
Some perhaps will still want to argue that a return to a belief in the severity of God must tend towards a harsh and cruel society. It is indeed sadly true that nations and groups, loudly vocal in their profession of Christian orthodoxy, have often been guilty in the past and are still guilty today of ruthlessness and oppression. Two things need to be said about this. The first - not by way of exoneration, but in the interests of fairness and realism - is to note the difficulty of the position of the well-intentioned statesman or politician. A national leader, be he Protestant (as in, say, South Africa), Catholic (as in Spain) or Orthodox (as in Greece), Muslim (as in Pakistan), Hindu (as in India) or Marxist (as in the USSR), will from time to time be faced (particularly if his regime is precariously based) with grim options, all of which are undesirable. He may see that the use of force is necessary if the society is to be held together and decide to use it, knowing that relatively innocent people will get hurt. Or he may have on his hands seemingly insoluble problems of race, in which the ideal of a harmonious multi-cultural society or of a single and more or less homogeneous community seems equally unobtainable. The politician is caught up in the corporate sin of humanity, and in practice the highest criterion he can invoke in matters of public concern is enlightened self-interest. The spectator who does not carry the burden of direct responsibility needs to be charitable in his judgments and to accept his share of blame for the evils of political decisions. It seems unrealistic to imagine that the presence of a minority of (very sinful) Christians in a less-than semi-Christian society should be expected to produce a situation where strife and violence cease. Nevertheless a leaven of people with a high sense of justice and a genuine love for God may exert an influence out of all proportion to their numbers, occasionally preventing strife and often mitigating its miseries.
Secondly, it is erroneous to think that a truly godly severity, which comes from a recognition of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, especially one's own, can ever be divorced from love, which comes from a knowledge of that sin's forgiveness. Sadism can rationalize itself as exemplifying biblical severity, but in fact cruelty and love are mutually exclusive, whereas godly severity and godly love are complementary. The just exercise of authority does not make for a harsh society. It makes for a stable society, where there is little incentive to crime. It is injustice and laxness of authority which breed first violence and then callousness. Severity proceeding from love is neither excessive nor is it usually resented. It provides the framework for a caring society. It has yet to be proved that a society can work without an element of severity. Authority, backed ultimately by sanctions, is necessary for any society. Permissiveness, or the removal of sanctions, is a short-term luxury which lives on the capital built up in times of discipline. It ill-behoves a society which is in danger of disintegrating to decry authority and its sanctions simply because authority is capable of abuse. A severity which gains its inspiration from the severity of Christ's teaching is wholesome and neither harsh nor cruel.
The danger of the misuse of the Bible to justify cruelty or to promote evil for political ends is real, but it does not in fact make the severity of God's dealings with the Canaanites incredible. The severity of God's dealings as he trained his people in the principles of holiness becomes intelligible when we see what was at stake. It was nothing less than the salvation of the world. The Chosen People was the precious casket in which was to be placed a priceless jewel: the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of men. Against this people Satan directed his fiercest attacks, and to the preservation of this people in righteousness God directed his fiercest defence. The battle was real and bloody. Humanly speaking their very survival seemed in doubt. Yet God kept them and prepared them for the coming of Christ. Since his coming the task has been a different one, calling for different methods, but the battle is as real and as bloody as ever before. The battle for souls is relentless and, for many, entry into the kingdom is through great tribulation. For many, quite literally the martyr spirit is still needed. There are many tightly knit, fanatical communities in which to become a Christian may still be to take one's life in one's hands. For many others, in a society conditioned by materialist vices and materialist values, to become a Christian means a costly surrender. It is only through suffering that the kingdom of God goes forward. It is still only the few who find the narrow way of life, while the many take the broad road to destruction. It is those who know most of the fierceness of the struggle who best understand the fierceness of God's commands. Christ fed his soul upon the book of Deuteronomy; we need not fear to do the same.