“Exterminating Them Without Mercy”

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of October 11. Enjoy!

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The first half of the Old Testament book of Joshua poses special problems for modern Christians who unequivocally understand God as loving and peace-seeking for all people groups.  Per a straightforward reading of these first twelve chapters, the tribes of Israel march throughout Canaan and are seemingly commanded by God to dispose of anyone they find inhabiting the land.  Referring to a group of kings, the writer of Joshua explains, “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy” (Jo 11:20 NIV).  When preaching about the characteristics of Yahweh, most pastors do not include qualities such as “merciless” and “requiring complete annihilation,” yet these are found rather plentifully in Joshua.  This reflection paper will attempt to reconcile such primitive portrayals of God for today’s believers.

Given the significance of these issues, Victor P. Hamilton devotes several pages to a discussion of the Hebrew words kharam and kherem, which lie behind several of God’s apparent requirements for total destruction of “other” peoples in both Joshua and Deuteronomy.  Avoiding the problematic language present in many of the relevant verses, Hamilton explains kherem as “handing something over to God, with no ‘ifs, ands, or buts’ and renouncing of any further claim on the item.”[1] Unfortunately, when that item happens to be land claimed by someone else, those Yahweh-less people often cannot remain alive.  This is not a portrait of the peaceful, loving and forgiving God portrayed in the gospels by Jesus, despite Hamilton’s attempt to pacify by noting that “such wars of extermination” do not “become national policy” for Israel.[2]

Certainly, these apparent conquest accounts are not the only instances of senseless violence in the Old Testament.  Quite graphically, a psalmist in exile speaks favorably toward anyone who would murder Babylonian babies to exact revenge for the fall of Jerusalem (Ps 137:8-9).  Borrowing from medical lexicon, Israel’s xenophobia may be presenting itself symptomatically both in this psalmist’s lament and the kherem commands.  With this frame of mind, is the nationwide predisposition to violence driven by the authentic words of God, or is it merely a reflection of human imperfection?  Or, as Bart D. Ehrman colorfully inquires, “Does [God] really want his followers to splash the brains of their enemies’ infants against the rocks?”[3]

With the benefit of a more matured understanding of God and the good news of Jesus Christ, modern Christians – likely joined by some of the psalmist’s contemporaries – would be unlikely to answer Ehrman’s question in the affirmative.  Perhaps, then, the events and themes recorded in the Bible can be viewed as a chronological progression in the understanding of God’s character.  Brian D. McLaren compares this ever-developing perception of God to the way a schoolchild is introduced to new mathematical concepts as he or she enters new grade levels.[4] For example, whereas all numbers a second grader adds and subtracts are strictly whole and positive, in just a few years, the child will be taught both fractional and negative numerals.  Reasoning for God, McLaren suggests, “What if the best way to create global solidarity is by first creating tribal solidarity and then gradually teaching tribes to extend [that] to ‘the other’?  What if, then, God must first be seen as the God of our tribe and then only later as the God of all tribes?”[5] Only for the slain Anakites might this hypothesis prove insufficient (Jo 11:21-22).


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 34.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 11.

[4] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 103-104.

[5] Ibid., 104.

Deuteronomic Theology and the Gospel of Prosperity

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of October 4. Enjoy!

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In the midst of warning the Israelites about a litany of curses that could befall them for not upholding God’s Laws, the Deuteronomist pauses to promise broad-sweeping earthly blessings for those who will “obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees” (Dt 30:6 NIV).  This basic concept, repeated throughout Deuteronomy with nuance, forms what Victor P. Hamilton refers to as “Deuteronomic theology.”[1] Perhaps the promise of blessings for the righteous is a natural progression that follows the delivery of the Law, wherein God can be understood as the originator of positive reinforcement.  Stated another way, God knew his people needed an incentive to obey him.  Rightfully so, however, Hamilton astutely notes that the phenomena of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy are not always related to the degree to which one follows the Law.[2] Yet, this reflection paper will examine the application of the basic concept as mirrored by modern popular theology and as found elsewhere in the Old Testament.

Deuteronomic theology forms the backbone of the cynically titled “prosperity gospel,” a message popularized by Joel Osteen and based on the promise of blessing from Deuteronomy (Dt 30:1-10).  Osteen pastors a Houston-area mega-church, but is more widely known around the United States for his loosely theological self-help books.  Having never heard Osteen speak in person, I must rely on video clips, sound bites and other means of understanding his yoke.  However, for a cogent summary of his message, I defer to friend and colleague Andrew Baumgartner, who in 2009 visited Osteen’s Lakewood Church and walked away with a critical assessment.  Referring to Osteen’s message, he wrote, “To the untrained or uncaring ear, it could sound almost Christian.  It is full of happy platitudes, and some genuinely get comfort from it.  But upon further examination and reflection, prosperity is built on the theological sand.”[3]

If this indeed were the case, Osteen would not be the first to build an understanding of God on sand, referencing the saying of Jesus (Mt 7:24-27).  Perhaps the most compelling argument against the broad-brush application of Deuteronomic theology comes when God judges against the counsel of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu regarding the reason for Job’s suffering (Jb 42:7-10).  Throughout the greater part of the book, these friends attempt to reason that Job lost his material blessings of family, servants, livestock and possessions due to some unrighteous or sinful action hidden in Job’s life.  Emphatically, God responds to Eliphaz, “‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. . . . Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly’” (Jb 42:7-8 NIV).  Not only are Job’s friends wrong, they are also foolish for applying such basic Deuteronomic theology in this instance.

Considering this passage as part of a discussion regarding the authority of the full Bible, Brian D. McLaren concludes that while individual books and passages contain truth, “We speak nonsense when we practice verse snatching from Deuteronomy, the middle of Job, or anywhere else.”[4] McLaren posits that a fuller understanding of the Bible is found in context, conversation, and community.  Without these vital clues, it is difficult to understand that the promise of Godly blessing in Deuteronomy may be necessary positive reinforcement to incentivize the freshly minted Law, rather than a verdict on the origin of one’s recent promotion or cancer diagnosis.


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 446.

[2] Ibid., 450-451.

[3] Andrew Baumgartner, “My Evening at Lakewood Church,” I’m Wide Awake, entry posted October 12, 2009, http://abaumgart.livejournal.com/98075.html (accessed October 3, 2010).

[4] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 90-91.

Differing Graciously

Brian McLaren posted some words of wisdom today about the difficulty of graciously believing thoughts that diverge from the norm and purposefully bashing people over the head and looking for trouble. It has important implications for people who own their heresy (as defined by the orthodox many). I may comment more on this later today, but for now, I’ll let his ideas stand on their own.

Differing Without Dividing, Brian D. McLaren

EDIT – 9/8/2010 @ 12:30 p.m.:

McLaren’s recent book A New Kind of Christianity was excellent on many fronts, especially its 10-12 pages on “the way, the truth and the life,” as I have commented before. But in other areas, I was left asking questions and wanting more. The best example of this relates directly to his “Differing Without Dividing” blog entry posted yesterday; though it’s not very long, it does add to the chapter on how to apply and spread one’s uniquely new kind of Christianity. That chapter basically boiled down to… “Don’t tell people that won’t want to hear it because they won’t accept it anyway.”

Sure, McLaren said a lot more in the chapter, such as to “evangelize” by asking questions with which people could struggle (which provides a roundabout way for them to come back to you looking for guidance or at least your input). But after writing so many important things, the “What Do We Do Now” chapter was a big letdown.

For many people, accepting new thoughts takes time and maturity. The proper degree of maturity may not have occurred when we want it to, and even if it has, it can be hard to invest the kind of time necessary to foster thought that questions everything previously accepted as basic truth. In the end, McLaren is right: you must meet people where they are at, be patient and pick your battles.

Logically, then, the problem is where people are at. And that’s why I’m in seminary.