Thursday, September 03, 2009

Were "Moses & Co." Right to Go After the Canaanites: Inquiring Minds Want to Know

In response to my link to an article about a newly discovered ancient fortification in Israel, one built by the Canaanites, Specer Troxell wrote this in the comments:
Do you think that Moses & co.'s actions against the canaanites in the old testament was justifiable?

I suppose the bottom line of the question is, if you heard a voice telling you it was God, and it wanted you kill someone to honor it, would you do it?
In fact, I do think that the ancient Israelites' actions were "justifiable." Some months ago, I wrote a piece here in which I talked about how my thinking had changed regarding the link between ancient and modern Israel. There, I mentioned that while God's gift of the land to Israel was, if you will, perpetual, it was also conditional. God's people were to have the land only so long as they were just, not only to their own people, but also to the strangers and foreigners among them.

According to the Old Testament, Israel was to live side-by-side in peace with other peoples, so long as they acted justly. It was only when those nations routinely practiced injustice that God instructed the Israelites to make war and take lands forcibly.

What's interesting to note is that Israel was never exempted from God's command to be just. The prophets risked rejection and martyrdom for constantly reminding the people of God of this fact.
  • Micah famously wrote, for example, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).
  • A reluctant prophet, Jonah, was sent to announce God's impending wrath on the capital city of an empire Jonah hated, Nineveh. He didn't want to give the Ninevites warning that their unjust, materialistic, self-centered life style was about to bring their destruction because he feared that exactly did happen would happen, that the people would repent and God would forgive them.
  • Condemning both Israel and its neighbors for their injustices, the prophet Amos cried out, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).
Israel's accrued injustices were, according to the Old Testament, the reason that foreign armies were able to take the land God had given to His people away from Israel, taking many as slaves, and dispersing God's people.

I don't think it's quite accurate to say that Moses et al "heard a voice" a la "son of Sam," which seems, whether intended or not, to inhere in Spencer's second quoted sentence above. God's communication with us isn't a purely psychological phenomenon.

Nor is it disconnected from previous or later self-disclosure. In other words, the God of Genesis is demonstrably the same God in character, will, justice, power, and love that we find in the Gospels. And, by Moses' time, those who paid attention had enough of a track record of communication from God to know that an order to go after the Canaanites wasn't just a voice inside their heads or attributable to what they'd eaten; they were being given impulse for certain actions by the God Who wants the human race to live justly.

One other thing. Strictly speaking, in the original Hebrew, the fifth commandment is, "You shall not murder." Taking a life is a horrible thing. In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther says of this command, "We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs." Jesus says that we violate this commandment not only when a person's physical life is taken from them violently, but when they are hated. So, God has a rather expansive view of this commandment.

But what's to be done when the neighbor is oppressing and murdering the neighbor?

Today, the great powers of the world stand by idly while a violent regime in Sudan exterminates thousands in Darfur, just as seventy years ago, they stood by while the Nazis murdered Jews. A similar tragedy unfolded little more than a decade ago in Rwanda.

Is it a violation of the fifth commandment to stop murderous oppressors from doing their worst? The answer to that question may not always be clear. But at the very least, one might be tempted to say, "No."

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