Posted by: Ed | March 25, 2010

TOUGH QUESTION: Finally a few thoughts on “wipe them out” commands

O.k. better late than never, huh?
I’m finally getting around to writing down some thoughts about the tough question that we passed over in message numero uno of the “Tools & Fools” series on Saul, the king of Israel.

It is the background of what you could call the final ‘defining moment” in Saul’s life. Here’s the command:

1Sam. 15:1 Then Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you as king over His people, over Israel; now therefore, listen to the words of the LORD. 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. 3 ‘Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

This isn’t the 1st time this issue comes up in Scripture. There are several places especially in Joshua where the command is to wipe out certain groups that were living in the Land. The phrase “anything that breathes” leaves little doubt about what they are to do.

These passages engender some of the toughest questions that skeptics and honest inquirers bring up. How could a loving God command this? Is this not immoral? Does it not break every convention of war? This wouldn’t even meet the criteria of Augustine’s just war theory would it?

If you haven’t watched the embedded five-minute video in which John Piper responds to this question, stop and do so now. I’m going to assume that you watched it and am going to interact with it in my comments.

I mostly agree with Dr. Piper. I mostly agree with him most of the time so that’s not surprising. He is rigidly “reformed” theologically (if you don’t know what that means don’t worry about it or let me know in the comment that you’d like elaboration and perhaps I will) and I am not. But I think he brings out a much needed perspective check. If the God of the Bible exists, He is the sovereign over every life. He created it (See for example Psalm 148; Col 1:16;Rev 10:6 and many many other passages) and He retains the right over it. As Isaiah writes and Paul echoes does not the potter have the right over the clay to do whatever He wishes.
Is. 64:8 But now, O LORD, You are our Father,
We are the clay, and You our potter;
And all of us are the work of Your hand.

So the short answer is God’s command to take the lives of these particular groups is capital punishment on people that in His infinite and exhaustive wisdom, He knows to be unrepentant. It’s unpleasant to us, but God is just and we know that the judge of all the earth does right. The wages of sin is death.

You might respond by asking, “but isn’t this the kind of logic that is used in holy wars and jihads throughout history and in our present day?” Well, yes and no. When you read the Bible you must remember that God works with people at a specific point in history. God doesn’t just send down sayings and laws from above. He enters history, he enters our story, he speaks to specific people. The truth of the scripture is for universal and trans-historical. But there are things that are for a particular point in the history of God’s revelation. These commands were given during the theocratic and monarchial period of Israel’s history. God was working through this one nation. Through their seed the rest of the nations would be blessed. Israel was a kingdom directly under God’s direction. They were His instrument, in this case of judgment. Yes, it is dangerous to take specific commands to a specific group at a certain time and apply them to ourselves without the benefit of the rest of scripture. Abraham’s command to sacrifice Isaac was unique. It is NOT God’s will for me to slay my children. It’s not God’s will for my nation to presume that it is an instrument of God to wipe out another nation. These commands were for a unique period of history which is long over.

The Church that Jesus established is multi-national, multi-ethnic and trans-cultural. It is present in all kinds of nations. There really is no such thing as a “Christian nation” in the sense that Israel was God’s nation, his representative on earth.

You may push back and say, “Dude, that sounds like rationalization to me. Isn’t this just one people group dragging some kind of divine sanction into their desire to take land and dominate?”
I can see how you would say that, but don’t commit the error of reductionism (not factoring in all the factors) or of begging the question. Here’s a candid admission: the Bible doesn’t make sense if you take God out of it. Here’s what I mean. If we take the perspective that there is no god, or at least not one that would or could communicate to humans, and we evaluate the Bible with the assumption that there is no such thing as revelation, then I grant that it looks like this is just another example of “I want what you have so I’m going to invoke god to justify taking it.” But, remember, the Bible claims to be an inspired story, a story in which the main actor is God. I don’t know too many stories that will make sense if you assume the protagonist, the fiery first cause doesn’t exist. The commands to wipe out these people are only palatable if it is God himself, sovereign of life and death is speaking directly to Israel.

You might dig your heels in a little bit and go meta on me and say, “THAT’S why I don’t like the idea of ‘revelation.’” Yes, the idea of God revealing himself can stifle dialogue, and worse be used to justify horrible acts. But, that’s exactly why it’s important to judge each claim to revelation individually and in its entirety. In this case, when you read the entire bible what picture emerges? What kind of God are you dealing with? Joshua makes no sense with Exodus. And the whole story is incomplete without the Cross.

I might argue (in fact I think I will) that revelation is necessary at some level. If there isn’t anybody that “holds these truths to be self-evident” then we are left with Nietzschean “will to power” as the greatest good. Ask the victims of the Cultural Revolution or the Stalinist purges how this works out.

No denying it, this is a tough part of the Bible for us post-modern westerners to process. But I close with the last words of the “hero” of the story:
Matt. 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Hope this helps!

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