Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

How a loving God could command the wholesale extermination of nations

Posted by Matthew on May 26, 2010

I took my title from Cheryl’s post on Joshua. And there is a similar question in my father’s post here. If you haven’t already, you may want to take a look at those posts and comments.

Here is a longer way of expressing the conflict present in the title of this post:

(1) God is good (something we can assert by definition or, more importantly, we can testify of through our experience with him).

(2) Killing innocent people is not good. (If we wanted we could use the word genocide here as it also seems to fit what is described. )

(3) We have  scripture (Joshua) which praises completely wiping out peoples as ordained by God.

(4) And, to top it all off, the book Joshua doesn’t seem to recognize any tension with these views (or does it and I’m missing it?)

Interestingly we do see something of this tension in other scriptures referring to the same events. We see there the need to explain why it was okay to wipe out an entire people–see  Deut 9:4 (this reference is in the course transcript linked to in Cheryl’s post) & 1 Nephi 17:31-35 (this reference is linked to in Cheryl’s post). And obviously the idea of tension created by a command by God to kill innocent people is a critical part of the story of Abraham and Isaac. But I don’t see this tension in Joshua. Why isn’t the tension part of the story here? From this lack of tension, should we presume that Joshua is written in the context of a culture which doesn’t find the idea that God tells the people to kill every last person (including the clearly innocent) as very problematic?

Do we want to assume that God did command the Israelites to kill innocent people or do we prefer looking at this as human error in the scriptures or mis-translation (in the broad sense of A of F 8)?

Now to get to my real question for this post….Suppose that one way or another we get to the point where we think there is at least a reasonable possibility that God doesn’t want us to and didn’t want Israel at the time to kill innocent people (Morm 4:5). What then do we make of stories which have central to them the killing of innocent people? Are the stories still instructive? I’m interested in your thoughts. Here’s my strawman response…would love to have you attack it and defend the idea that we can get things from the story anyway.

If the killing of the innocent people is a critical part of the story and one begins to lack full confidence in that part of the story, then one ends up often having to throw the whole story out. (For some of you the result of needing to throw out the whole story may be taken as a reductio against doubting that God commanded to kill the innocent.  I don’t feel there is a reductio here).

As an example, take the story of  Achan (Joshua 7). Can we use this story to talk about how Achan loved material things more than following the commandment of God  (Joshua 7:11-13) ? For me it’s hard for that to work. The scriptures talks about not allowing the “accursed” thing in their midst. But this idea of not allowing “the accursed” to come into their midsts seems very related to killing all the people in the city “both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6:21).  If we doubt it would be correct to kill everyone in the city, I end up not knowing how to make sense of the story of Achan either.

PS I know that this same general topic has been dealt with several times in the past … I guess I feel the need to keep writing on it as it is far from resolved in my mind…

53 Responses to “How a loving God could command the wholesale extermination of nations”

  1. NathanG said

    Matthew, thanks for the post.
    I was reading through Joshua last night and had a few thoughts to throw out. I thought of Nephi’s explanation to his brothers that you provided a link for above. It would seem that Nephi’s training supported the notion that God was in favor of this conquest, and that it was because the people were ripe in their iniquity.
    My thoughts, however, turned to the future. What do we make of described destruction of the wicked prior to the second coming? If we can take Nephi’s statement that the people in the land were wicked, is there any major difference between the Israel conquest and the destruction that is going to happen, potentially when some of us may be around to witness it. What of our potential role in these things? What will we be called upon to do?

    3 Nephi 25 (and Malachi 4, the first part of the chapter we don’t talk a lot about)
    1 For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
    2 But unto you that fear my name, shall the Son of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth and grow up as calves in the stall.
    3 And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of Hosts.

    What does it mean that “ye shall tread down the wicked”? I assume that “ye” refers to those who “fear my name”. Why does this come right after the Son of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings? Are we healing the land by treading down the wicked? Will we need healing after we have tread down the wicked?

    I don’t know if any of this even applies to your line of thinking with Joshua, but it’s what I thought of while reading through the conquest. I don’t pretend to know what this all means and share this not out of excitement for destruction, but as a sobering thought. I would be happy, if these things were to come in my lifetime, to let the wicked destroy themselves around me while I’m left in the safety of Zion, but I don’t know that this captures the fulness of what happens to the saints during the last days. I’d love for someone to show me that my interpretation of these verses is way off base. I will add, I thought a lot of this verse in the immediate aftermat of the church’s involvement in political events in California recently. Was that a taste of treading down the wicked?

  2. BrianJ said

    Matthew: I don’t understand why you have a hard time talking about Achan’s story as an example of someone loving material things more than God, even if we think the destruction part was not God’s idea. What matters is what Achan thought—and the only thing we have to go on is that Achan thought God wanted everything destroyed but he decided to keep some of it. In this specific question, it doesn’t matter what God thought about it all, since we’re analyzing Achan’s decisions. But perhaps I misunderstood your concern.

    Nathan: I hadn’t thought of it in these terms before, but if there is to be any “trampling of the wicked” in any literal sense (barring war, again in the very literal sense), then I don’t want any part of it. Should we assume that we don’t get a choice about when or who we kill? I don’t like that assumption. And that goes for Achan too—he could have said, “I’m not going to kill babies. Sorry.” But he didn’t.

  3. Matthew said

    Brian, I think the reason you don’t understand the argument (i.e. don’t find it convincing) is because it is weak, not because you missed some point I was making. Still, I find it hard to hear the moral of the story of Achan. So I was trying to justify that, but didn’t do a good job. To (unfairly) put the burden on you, can you help explain why I can’t hear the moral of the story of Achan? To help, let me make up a different story I think is parallel: there is a certain person who believes they are commanded by God to kill innocent people but they also think God has commanded them not to do this on the Sabbath day. That person goes out and kills the innocent people on the Sabbath. God punishes them. Moral: keep the Sabbath day holy.

    Do you think (as I do) that this is a not very helpful story to teach that we should keep the Sabbath day holy? If so, is there some reason these stories are not parallel? If not, can you explain better than I did why it seems better just to ignore the whole story than try to get this Sabbath day moral from it?

    NathanG, yeah that 3 Ne 25:3 (Mal 4:3) is strange. You certainly can imagine it refers to killing people who are wicked but aren’t in a position to even defend themselves. You don’t have to imagine that since the scripture is pretty vague. Either way though one thing I see no evidence of is that this scripture implies that it will be the righteous’ job to kill innocent people. (BTW, as I hinted at by linking to Morm 4:5 and you picked up on, I am not comfortable with the idea that it is the righteous’ role to slaughter the wicked, but for this post right now I don’t want to get distracted by that argument. May as well stick with the stronger argument about killing the innocent.)

    All, I should add the following because I think it is easy to misunderstand my post. I have a testimony that Christ is our Savior and that the scriptures are the word of God. This is very important to me. It does not depend on my ability to interpret scripture correctly, certainly not any particular scripture. Instead my testimony is founded on revelation through the Holy Ghost.

    To those who (and I know some) have left the Church because (or one reason is because) you find the story of Jericho and others like them in the Old Testament inconsistent with your understanding of God and to those who stick with the Church but find these stories shake your testimony, I say, hey I don’t find these stories consistent with my understanding of God either, but that’s not what my testimony is based on (see above) and I think you have a testimony too and if you think about what your testimony is based on you’ll realize it isn’t based on this Old Testament story so don’t let this issue shake it. In sum, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. You aren’t committed to believing that every word of the Bible is correct–on the contrary. Also just being believing members of the Church doesn’t mean we will find the interpretation of this story that the manual provides as very helpful. If it isn’t helpful to you (as it isn’t to me) that is certainly no reason to question your beliefs in the Church. Instead, think of it this way–the people who wrote that manual were trying to help you understand, they weren’t succesful in your case.

    And to those who get some value out of the story of Jericho, I am saying–here’s why I don’t get it. If you have already worked through this in some way and care to, I’d like to hear how you make sense of it. It is possible that I’m just at a phase in my life where I won’t get it no matter how good your explanation and how right you are. Like a person with some mental block to Algebra or something. It is possible that I’m just too bullheaded for now to understand you. (Possible but I’m not trying to be that way.) In sum….if you are willing to, give it a shot. It would be really cool for me if I could make sense of this.

  4. Jim F said

    Matthew, suppose the question is “What truth is being told in this story, regardless of the human error that it contains?” In that case couldn’t we even use the story you made up about killing on Sunday to tell us that one of the things we ought not to do is violate the Sabbath? Presumably much of Scripture contains human error. Thus, as you point out, the caveat about the Bible in our Articles of Faith. Without the Holy Ghost and without living prophets, we have no means for discriminating between the parts of Scripture that teach truth and those that are the product of human error or even of human ill will. But, thank goodness, we have both the Holy Ghost and living prophets.

  5. Cherylem said

    Jim, such an interpretation of Matthew’s story would leave me gasping for air.

    And yes we do have the Holy Ghost and living prophets, but since we teach the OT I think we need a basic understanding of the OT as well – what it is, how it came to us, what it meant in context, etc. The OT can be understood, wrestled with, argued with, and even be found edifying, but we can’t read it with Book of Mormon eyes. IMO.

    Respectfully,
    Cheryl

    • Jim F said

      Cheryl, I agree, that my hypothetical interpretation of Matthew’s story is far-fetched. I was trying to use it the extreme case to make a point. Perhaps that wasn’t a good idea.

      I am less sure that we must have a basic understanding of the OT in order to read it profitably. Jews have read it for a long time without the benefit of modern biblical scholarship. I think that they have read it in something like the way I described, asking about the truth of the story, whatever the facts of its provenance.

      Of course I recognize that understanding the history of the text and the context of the things we read can often be quite helpful in making sense of things that otherwise make no sense. I spend a lot of my study time reading contemporary biblical scholarship because I think it helps me understand the OT better.

      In spite of that, I don’t think that the average member has to know those things to have effective study of the OT or that the average Gospel Doctrine teacher has to learn them to teach well. “The OT can be understood, wrestled with, argued with, and even be found edifying” without that. As I said, the Jews have been doing so for millenia. There’s no reason we can’t also do it.

      Am I suggesting that we read the OT with Book of Mormon eyes? I am not sure what you mean by that, so I don’t know what my answer would be–though I take it as significant that the Book of Mormon tells us that it will teach us how to read the Bible.

      Also respectfully (I thoroughly enjoy your posts),

      Jim

      • Cherylem said

        Jim,
        I think the Jews have a long history of Biblical scholarship. While the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) reigns supreme, there are other companion books of study, including those produced during the first six centuries CE, including the Books of Midrash, the legal text called the Mishnah, and the Talmud. Additionally, over the centuries different codifications were attempted by prominent Rabbis. There is also a type of primarily legal literature known as the responsa, and there were the commentaries on the Talmud. Jews were thought of as bibliophiles, and over time many books of commentary were written and compiled by Jewish authors. So when they read the Hebrew Bible, their reading was informed by a lot of other stuff, and I think Jews have a history of arguing and explaining the text, along with trying to figure out how it applied/s in current circumstances.

        Recent Bible scholarship – say over the last 200 plus years – which has to do with literary textual analysis, is perhaps something else, but I think Jews (or those Jews interested in studying the Hebrew Bible) in general would find our very flat institutional reading of the Hebrew Bible strange and very unappealing.

        I am wordy and over explaining here for the benefit of those following our discussion – I know you know this stuff already.

        Back to you . . .

  6. [...] How a loving God could command the wholesale extermination of nations [...]

  7. BrianJ said

    Matthew: “there is a certain person who believes they are commanded by God to kill innocent people but they also think God has commanded them not to do this on the Sabbath day. That person goes out and kills the innocent people on the Sabbath. God punishes them. Moral: keep the Sabbath day holy. Do you think that this is a not very helpful story to teach that we should keep the Sabbath day holy? If so, is there some reason these stories are not parallel? If not, can you explain better than I did why it seems better just to ignore the whole story than try to get this Sabbath day moral from it?”

    The posts I’ve been working on over the last week (and, actually, mulling over in my head for much longer), partially address your question to me. So, I thought it was kinda funny that you’d bring up this question as I was working on those posts.

    The short answer: I don’t care about the moral of the story. The moral belongs to the person in the story—in this case, Achan, and whatever morals he has. I’m interested in how he thinks, how he reaches his decision, etc. Whether he keeps the Sabbath day holy or not is not going to influence whether I do.

  8. joespencer said

    Re: the exchange between Jim and Cheryl….

    I suppose I find that I have a problem with the very language of “understanding” scripture. Might it be that our contemporary “understanding” (via historical-critical work, for example) is driven by a heavily ideological post-Auschwitz framework, one that actually makes it quite impossible for us to make sense of its meaning in its original context?

    That sounds like a postmodern appeal, but it isn’t meant to. I don’t mean that scripture is ultimately meaningless, or that it only takes on the meaning that we give it. But I do think it is important to recognize that there isn’t some pristine original meaning of the text to which we can make reference.

  9. Cherylem said

    All -
    What I meant by not reading with BOM eyes (or mindset) is that the BOM has a single editor – Mormon, with, I believe a single purpose – preaching Christ. The Hebrew Bible is the opposite of this – many editors and redactions, some of whom were not necessarily preaching Christ. So we have to get away from the idea that the Hebrew Bible can be read like the BOM is read.

    Re “understanding the text” – in a way, I think Joe and Jim are warning against idolizing the text, or saying there is a specific meaning which is THE meaning, and this is a good warning. Or maybe you are aren’t saying this, but I’ll put it in those terms anyway.

    However, IMO the OT as presented in our lesson manuals is . . . well, it is the gasping for breath variety. That is, the manual seems to be teaching lessons that are good lessons to learn but that often have nothing to do with the text, and there also seems to be a refusal to trust our general membership – members of long standing, who have sacrificed for their membership, who have had mature spiritual experiences – a refusal to trust good, intelligent people with good, intelligent lessons.

    A good lesson to come out of Joshua is (to me) what does it mean when we say we won a battle, or a war, or a promotion, or have economic prosperity, because God wills it or commanded it? Is it possible the writer of Joshua talked about God like ANE peoples talked about their gods? We know that pagans through the end of the Roman empire and beyond specifically believed that all bad events, including storms, lost battles, deaths of children, were a sign that the god(s) were unhappy. Is it possible there is some crossover here? Etc. Then: what does God expect of us? How do we know God has commanded something? Even a discussion of whether war is inevitable, or is ever desired by God is an appropriate discussion, IMO.

    Always, these texts need to be questioned and understood (as best as we are able) because they are foundational texts for three religions, along then with a discussion of what it means to 1) to be an ethical person in a world that still functions as if it believes what the writer of Joshua believed, 2) what it means to be a Christian in this world, 3) what it means to be a Mormon Christian in this world. Also, and this I find interesting and fascinating, as redacted and worked over as these texts are, they are the texts Jesus taught from, what the early Christians knew, etc. So how do these texts lead to an understanding of Christ?

    Those are questions I’m interested in.

    Jim, regarding your comments about the “average Gospel Doctrine teacher” . . . if the manual assumed that the average Gospel Doctrine teacher could teach more directly from the text, I think the average teacher and the average class would be better served and more involved. But – a good teacher will always teach a good lesson. A committed teacher can teach a spirit-filled lesson, no matter what. But a teacher should not have to fight the text in order to teach the lesson (righteous lesson though it may be) presented.

    Cheryl

    • Jim F said

      Cheryl,

      Thanks for explaining “BOM eyes.” Your point is in an excellent one, there is a significant difference between the way that the Book of Mormon was composed and the way other Scriptures, including the Doctrine and Covenants, were composed. (I’m not sure how to think about the books of Moses and Abraham in this regard.) I agree we should remind people of that difference with some regularity. I suspect that most members and most Sunday School teachers haven’t thought about what a difference that makes to the meaning of the text.

      I particularly liked this paragraph: “Always, these texts need to be questioned and understood (as best as we are able) because they are foundational texts for three religions, along then with a discussion of what it means to 1) to be an ethical person in a world that still functions as if it believes what the writer of Joshua believed, 2) what it means to be a Christian in this world, 3) what it means to be a Mormon Christian in this world. Also, and this I find interesting and fascinating, as redacted and worked over as these texts are, they are the texts Jesus taught from, what the early Christians knew, etc. So how do these texts lead to an understanding of Christ?” —Especially the part that I have italicized. I think we can discuss those things well even if we know little or nothing about textual origins, redaction, etc., and I think those kinds of questions ought to be at the heart of our teaching.

      So I have no quarrel at all with what you say about the fact that the teacher shouldn’t have to fight the text in order to teach the lesson that the manual pushes for. With others, I hope that the posts on this site and, especially, the posts on the wiki that hosts this site will be one thing that can help teachers teach better from the Scriptures.

      My understanding is that if the teacher covers the material designated and teaches the gospel, she does not have to teach the “moral” suggested by the manual. As I said, the kinds of things you suggest in the paragraph I quoted seem to me to be very much in line with the kinds of things that a teacher can teach. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a way to do so that even used the proposed “moral.”

      Jim

  10. joespencer said

    Cheryl says: “That is, the manual seems to be teaching lessons that are good lessons to learn but that often have nothing to do with the text, and there also seems to be a refusal to trust our general membership – members of long standing, who have sacrificed for their membership, who have had mature spiritual experiences – a refusal to trust good, intelligent people with good, intelligent lessons.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

  11. Jim F said

    Cheryl, RE: materials available to Jews reading these texts — absolutely true, which means it is up to Mormon members to create materials that we can use to read and understand the Scriptures. Some borrowing from others–Jews, Christians, and perhaps also others–is also in order.

    If we wait for the Church to create those materials for us, we are going about things in the wrong way. We have to take that responsibility, which includes the risk that any particular thing we do will be ignored. If we make things available as an offering in humility, what we produce as individuals may disappear or go unnoticed. Occasionally it may even draw severe criticism. But the more we do it, without trying to correct our brothers and sisters, but only to help them, the more likely it is that over time more and more materials will become available and more and more Saints will think about the Scriptures more and more carefully.

    Like you, I say that for those reading our conversation. If you didn’t already believe that, you wouldn’t be doing the work you are doing.

  12. Matthew said

    Dad (#4), I like the question “What truth is being told in this story, regardless of the human error that it contains?” I agree that this is how we should read the scriptures. Above I spoke of “not throwing out the baby with the bathwater” and one could say that I am guilty of that when I don’t find the truth contained in the story of Jericho and Achan.

    Nevertheless in both the story of Jericho & Achan it seems to me that the killing of innocent people is actually central to the story. So in this case my answer to the question “what truth is being told …” is “I don’t know, I don’t know how to find it.”

    BrianJ (#7), sorry I am not following your thinking here. I am also going to respond to your post. If it makes sense to continue the discussion further, maybe that is the better place to do it.

    • Jim F. said

      One answer may be, “There is no truth to learn here, except perhaps that sometimes people do awful things in the name of God. It isn’t just they who do it (pick your favorite “other”), it is also we.” I think we always need to keep that possibility open.

      But this particular example is also the kind that may benefit from trying to understand it in terms of types: Even though I find the death of innocents revolting, was the person who wrote this understanding the event in terms of a type? Regardless of the author’s intent, is there a type here? In either case, what is the type and what does it teach? Thinking about it this way almost certainly does not require that I give my approval to the slaughter. Thinkers like Girard also give us impressive conceptual tools for trying to understand such stories.

      This is also the kind of case in which the study that Cheryl recommends is often helpful: What is the history and context of this text? Who wrote it, and for what purposes? How has it been redacted, and why? I posted something brief in my notes on Joshua 6 (http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2010/04/28/ot-lesson-18-study-notes-joshua-1-6-23-24/) that says a little about the context in which Achan’s death occurred. That doesn’t justify what happened to him and his family–or what happened to the others slaughtered in Israel’s conquest of Canaan–but it may help us understand what that conquest meant to the writer and later editors.

      Also, I’m skeptical about how much of this is what we would think of as actual history and how much of it is created after the fact as the founding story. I bet a lot of it is the latter: historical events heavily embroidered to explain who Israel is. If we think in those terms, which don’t exclude the options I’ve described above, we may understand the story very differently.

      • Matthew said

        This is helpful to me. I agree, this is an important scripture, one I cannot/do not want to “throw out.” Progress for me:)

        FWIW then, here’s where I am …

        What you begin by suggest as “one answer” I want to put forward as “the answer.” Not that others can’t come up with other interpretations that may be helpful for one purpose or another. But we all should say “there is something profoundly untrue about this story”. That statement is not about whether the story is historically accurate. It is to say here is a story which if we put ourselves inside this story it talks about something as if it is good which in point of fact is wrong. The story doesn’t recognize it is wrong, but we know better and proclaim so.

        Just like it is wrong to see someone half-dead on the side of the road and not help, so it would be wrong to read a story about arbitrarily killing Samaritans and not say “that is wrong.” As for my claim of “the” interpretation–a statement I expect others won’t find easily convincing–consider again the actions of the Good Samaritan. When passing half-dead people in the road there may be lots of good things one can do, but any of those which don’t include helping the half-dead person pales in comparison to those which do. In the same sense, any interpretation which talks about the story of Jericho which doesn’t include as part of it the affirmation that arbitrarily slaughtering people is wrong, isn’t as good as those which do.

    • BrianJ said

      I only meant (in #7) that I’m not terribly bothered about what Achan chose to do, I’m bothered about what I might choose to do. Your hypothetical here would give me an opportunity to evaluate my beliefs about the Sabbath, obedience, killing, etc. I get to, as Joe put it on my post, use the text to challenge my beliefs or my idolatry, etc. Achan’s choices and Joshua’s response give me certain points of view that I can consider as I evaluate my own values….

      • BrianJ said

        In other words, I feel like you’re approaching the texts with the bold and ambitious goal of understanding the greater doctrine or universal principle therein, which necessarily takes you down difficult roads, whereas I am admittedly dodging that difficult undertaking altogether. :)

  13. Cherylem said

    Jim,
    Re the idea of type or theme, recently I have been thinking about the Deuteronomist (should he – or they – be truly historical). Scholars say the Deuteronomist was redacting/editing Deuteronomy through 2 Kings (excluding Ruth) in order to show how Israel had gotten to the state of the Exile. But: what if the Deuteronomist was truly trying to show a consistent type/behavior pattern as he understood it that would describe a relationship with YHWH? Would this have been the apostasy/repentance/time of righteousness theme? Or some other? That is, what if the Deuteronomist was actually, to some degree, Spirit-led?

    Of course, in Judges, no one actually repents, that I can think of. But it is interesting to read all those Deuteronomist books as one WOULD read the BOM (contradicting myself above) . . . that is, read it through the mind/understanding of a single ancient editor: what was that editor trying to say?

    I agree with your first paragraph also, and strongly: we have to open up every option, including the option that these books may show examples of people doing awful things in God’s name. This is a powerful, mind-bending lesson, if true – the worst kind of profanity, and one that I have considered for a number of years.

    Cheryl

    • Jim F said

      Types are so often something like Rorschach blots, but they can in spite of that be useful. I don’t know how the Deuteronomic redactor understood what he produced, but I suspect it had more to do with showing the stature of Israel and Israel’s God than it did with repentance. In spite of that I am not a proponent of original intent in scripture reading, so I’m open to someone seeing a type in these stories that I’ve not noticed and, by doing so, helping me see the world differently–i.e., repent.

      I’m interested in your comment that it is the worst kind of profanity to suggest that some scriptural stories may show us people doing awful things in the name of God. I would want to be careful about claiming that any particular story is a instance of that since the charge can easily be used merely to dismiss what makes me uncomfortable. But, as I said, I want to leave that possibility open. Why would deciding that I think some particular story does that be profanity?

      • Cherylem said

        Jim,
        Not what I meant!!!!

        What I meant is – to me, it is the worst kind of profanity to say something was done in God’s name – like killing innocent people, when God did not want/order that at all. We worry about swearing (profanity!) but it is a worse profanity to say we are doing something God wants when perhaps he doesn’t want that at all, or . . . someone writes a story like in Joshua and said God ordered us to kill . . . and this goes on then into a story read by others for centuries, who then believe God wants this. So using God’s name like this is profane.

        Applying this to ourselves, when we give a talk in church or even a prayer, or say some political opinion or other, and then use God’s name at the end of the talk or prayer or say we’re sure God agrees with us politically – we’d better be very careful, or else we will find ourselves using the name of God in vain.

        Cheryl

  14. Jim F said

    Cheryl, sorry for my misunderstanding and thanks for the explanation. I agree completelywith what you say about profanity. If we understand it as you describe it–which is how I think we should understand it, then we hear profanity frequently.

  15. Jim F said

    BrianJ, I can’t say what Matthew is looking for in his interpretations, but I can say that the last thing I’m looking for is a “greater doctrine or universal principle” in scripture. I’m looking for understandings of scripture that help me see the world differently than I did, often ways that call me up short and question my present understandimg. That rarely if ever requires thinking about greater doctrine or universal principles. It often requires stories or laws or poems or . . . that I have difficulty understanding if I attend to them carefully.

  16. Steve L said

    The Flood account shows us that God takes a broader/eternal view of things than we are capable of doing. I am comfortable with the explanation that sometimes God has required the killing of many to pave the way for the as yet unborn spirits to come into families untainted by the prevailing wicked practices and beliefs. The Malachi 4:1-3 quote at the beginning of this discussion has me worried – how would I respond if I were to be commanded to do the trampling of the wicked…

    • Matthew said

      Re: the flood.

      It is very different for a natural event to kill innocent people than for God to desire that we should kill innocent people. Certainly many people are troubled by a world where God is in control yet the innocent are killed. A great topic, but not the same one, in my view, as this post.

      >I am comfortable with the explanation that sometimes God has required the killing of many to pave the way for the as yet unborn spirits to come into families untainted by the prevailing wicked practices and beliefs.

      So clearly we part ways here since I am not comfortable with the idea that God wanted Joshua and his people to kill innocent people. However, note that it is not because of my discomfort that I reject this view. I will not base my judgment of truth on what makes my life or mental world view comfortable. And it is also not because of contradictions with the message in the New Testament that I reject the idea that God wants/wanted us to kill innocent people.

      Of course God could command that we kill innocent people. He certainly has every right to do so (if “rights” makes sense in this context) since he created us all and has power to end any of our lives at any point. So why then do I reject the idea that God desire(d/s) that we kill innocent people? Because this is not God that I know. I hope my comments/posts are a call to know God (John 17:3) in a way that goes beyond what we can learn from studying the text.

      I feel strongly on this subject because it is a weakness of mine to forget why I read the scriptures in the first place–because the Holy Ghost testifies of their truthfulness. The scriptures do not pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

  17. ricke said

    I’m sorry that I came to this discussion late, but I have to ask the question: What if it never happened? As some have gingerly mentioned during this discussion, there is much to indicate that the Conquest was part of the foundational myth of Israel. For one thing, there is no archeological evidence for a mass invasion of Palestine during the time frame that would be required for the story to be true. In addition, a documentary analysis of the Torah indicates that the story of the Conquest was not included in the earliest materials. Granted, we could never discuss this possibility in Gospel Doctrine classes, but if it never happened, do we have to worry about these difficult issues theologically?

    • Jim F. said

      ricke, I think that what I’ve said earlier applies in the same way whether or not the event(s) we are talking about really happened.

  18. [...] have a precedent in Jesus who I assume knew something of the redaction history of the Bible. Yet as a friend recently pointed out “as redacted and worked over as these texts are, they [the received texts] are the texts Jesus [...]

  19. kirkcaudle said

    Wow, simply a great discussion going on here. I have been caught up with last minute school work the past couple of weeks and I have not had much time to respond, but here are some random thoughts. I hope they do not disrupt the flow of the conversation as it stands.

    First off, the questions brought up here are difficult from the perspective of a loose follower of John Yoder like myself. I am a somewhat softcore pacifist.

    “Do we want to assume that God did command the Israelites to kill innocent people or do we prefer looking at this as human error in the scriptures or mis-translation (in the broad sense of A of F 8)”?-Matthew (org. post)

    I have never been completely comfortable with the “mistranslation” way out of theological problems. Do they occur? Yes. Are they common? Perhaps, but I do not think that makes a story/event impossible to understand. I hear this excuse often when I teach SS.

    Nathan (#1), Your thoughts on Mal/3 Nephi are both fascinating and intriguing. I have never liked the “ye” to the saints in the last days extracting violence upon the world. If this is correct, I might have to rework some of my own theology (and it would not be the first time).

    Brian (#7), “The moral belongs to the person in the story…Whether he keeps the Sabbath day holy or not is not going to influence whether I do.” I really liked this comment. I do not think what is true in one situation can always be true in the next, even if we are reading about a prophet. I think the true meaning of a text lays somewhere behind the text, not within the words themselves on the printed page. When we read I think we should let the text read us, and see what it tells us. This is the opposite of simply reading a text, where you look for a moral. If the text is reading you (by the spirit), it will tell you the moral it holds for this particular time in your life. This moral might be different for each reader (as well as the author himself).

    Jim/Cheryl exchange, nice thoughts. I do not really have anything to add, but very enlightening on both side. Also, I could not agree more on your comments about the stories that the manual pulls from the text.

  20. Jesse said

    Like Kirkcaudle, I would offer some latecomers' observations:
    
    Q: "How [could] a loving God command the wholesale extermination of nations?"
    
    A: He does it with godly sorrow which results from His godly compassion.
    
    Observation:
       It is prophesied that this cleansing of the land will happen again:
       (a) Malachi 4:3 And ye shall tread down the wicked; 
           for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet 
           in the day that I shall do this, saith the Lord of hosts.
       (b) Three times in 3 Nephi Christ himself fortells his people 
           destroying the wicked Gentiles of the Americas 
           in preparation for the building of the New Jerusalem.
           3 Nephi 16:7-15; 3 Nephi 20:14-22; 3 Nephi 21:12-34.
           (I'm amazed when the SS teachers always skip this material).   
       (c) D&C 105:16,30 Suggests WE will be called upon to do the same thing.
           (Reading the whole section suggests that Zion's Camp was a dry run.)
    
    Q2: How will WE personally follow the command of God to "redeem Zion" by the sword?
    
    A2: I suspect that if I am "constrained by the spirit" to participate in such destruction of life (as was Nephi),
    that it will cause me to experience an intense sorrow that I can only now imagine.  Maybe God knows that only by our doing so, we will be able to become more like Him; we will experience what He must have felt when He wiped out Noah's neighbors.  Can we have a fullness of joy if we have not first felt a fulness of sorrow?
    
    Already, I am want to join in with Mormon as he laments the fallen of his people:
    
      16 And my soul was rent with anguish, because of the slain of my people [the Americans], and I cried: 
      17 O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! 
         O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! 
      18 Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. 
      19 O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, 
         ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! 
      20 But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return. 
      21 And the day soon cometh that your mortal must put on immortality, 
         and these bodies which are now moldering in corruption must soon become incorruptible bodies; 
         and then ye must stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, to be judged according to your works; 
         and if it so be that ye are righteous, then are ye blessed with your fathers who have gone before you. 
      22 O that ye [Americans] had repented before this great destruction had come upon you....
    
    Perhaps verse 21 holds the key to how a just, loving God can command the wholesale slaughter of nations. 
    He knows that this life is temporary, fleeting, and that those that are slain are not dead but will live again.
    
    
    
  21. Matthew said

    :(

    My last attempt to be convincing is a parable…

    One day I wake up and look in the newspaper. In it is a report from a reputable citizen. Someone I very much admire and trust. That person tells how he saw my father going to the slums a while ago and killing everyone on a certain block, man, woman, child, grandparent, baby, pregnant woman…everyone. It’s a horrific slaughter. According to the person, my father didn’t feel any remorse at the time nor has he felt any since.

    Of course, there is much about my father I don’t know but I know him well enough to know he did not do this. That’s just not who he is. Yet, most people believe he did it. A few wonder whether he did or not; they aren’t sure. A few think that’s not the important question. I say “No he did not do this.” The responses are varied but no one says “Yes I know your father. I know he did not do this.”

    Among those who read this blog, are others willing to simply say they don’t believe God wanted Joshua and those with him at Jericho to kill innocent children and babies?

    • Jim F said

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, Matthew. Sounds like I need it.

      I don’t think God commanded Joshua to kill everyone, man, woman, and child.

      • Jim F said

        But I also hold out the possibility that I’m wrong about that. What I believe and what is true are too often not quite congruent.

  22. kirkcaudle said

    Matthew, if it helps I am still unsure what to make of the whole (Joshua) story. Actually, I am sympathetic to your point of view and actually lean quite a bit towards it. I am just not ready to dismiss what the Joshua text has to say about what God commanded the people to do. However, it would not surprise me one bit if some of the stuff we read in those passages are not entirely true.

    I also disagree with Jesse’s reading on Zions Camp being a precursor to another Joshua like extermination/genocide. I have a solid testimony of the gospel, but I will admit that my faith would be greatly tested if I was told to kill babies, children, and other people I did not know in the name of God. I do not think we (the church) will be asked to do anything along these lines.

    But then again, what do I know?

  23. Cherylem said

    Matthew #21,
    I don’t believe God ordered the killing in the book of Joshua.

  24. joespencer said

    Matthew,

    I’m at once (1) anything but convinced that God ordered the killing, and (2) anything but convinced that God couldn’t have ordered the killing. In other words, I have all kinds of reasons to doubt that God ordered the killing (one of those reasons being that there seems to be little evidence that any such killing actually ever took place!), but I recognize at the same time that there is a natural tendency on my (on all our) part to want to replace God with an idol. My “defenses” of the text here are not defenses of violence, but expressions of a very real concern that we might reject the text wrongfully because we are much more taken with an idol fashioned definitively in the ideological culture of modern liberal democracy than we are with a God who isn’t terribly interested in such a culture. I don’t mean to suggest that you are setting up such an idol, only expressing my concern that rejections of violent texts in scripture are often motivated by commitment to such an idol—and my conviction that there is something at work in such a text that should not be dismissed, even if God did not order the mass killing.

    In a word, I’m quite happy to say that I don’t believe God ordered the killing. But I also don’t believe that He didn’t.

  25. J. Madson said

    Matthew #21 I dont believe it either and frankly think they took God’s name in vain and even worse scapegoated him. They took their own desires and hoisted them upon God thus crucifying the true God and allowing themselves the ability to do whatsoever they desired.

  26. J. Madson said

    Joe #24

    “I recognize at the same time that there is a natural tendency on my (on all our) part to want to replace God with an idol.”

    Aren’t you is risk of doing the same thing with the text? Possibly? I dont think we have to appeal to modern liberal sensibilities but perhaps just later parts of the text where it argues God is revealing himself more clearly (NT for example)

    “My “defenses” of the text here are not defenses of violence, but expressions of a very real concern that we might reject the text wrongfully because we are much more taken with an idol fashioned definitively in the ideological culture of modern liberal democracy than we are with a God who isn’t terribly interested in such a culture.”

    This is of course a valid concern but this is why I think we bring in historical evidence as well as sift the text through lets say the prism of Jesus. Yes its a choice to trust his words, teachings, etc (that text) over others but a choice I am comfortable making. If God truly isnt interested in such a culture and resembles more pagan like beliefs and demands mass killings than Im frankly not sure he merits my worship. Might doesnt make right even if its God, or does it?

    • joespencer said

      Where the text is taken as monolithically determined (i.e., as having only one possible interpretation), I think it has been idolized. I think that’s the case whether I take the text as endorsing slaughter in order to accept the text (“simple” idolatry) or whether I take the text as endorsing slaughter in order to reject the text (“complex” idolatry: I render it an idol that I take to be in a rivalrous relationship with another idol, the one I actually worship).

      I think any “I’m frankly sure he does not merit my worship” is going to be grounded in a far too simplistic reading of the text—but so will any “I’m frankly quite sure he merits my worship.” So long as we stick with an “I’m frankly not sure he merits my worship,” and that always coupled with an “I’m frankly not sure he doesn’t merit my worship,” I think we’re probably hitting on something right.

      Maybe.

  27. Matthew said

    It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my view. Thanks.

  28. Robert C. said

    Matthew, my concern with your parable in #21 is what we mean by “I know he didn’t do this.” For example, you specified that the father in your parable didn’t feel remorse. So, there are 2 claims (and thus 2 possible negations): (1) the act of slaughter and (2) there not being remorse.

    If by “remorse” you are including compassion and empathy, like the weeping God of Moses 7, then I would agree that acts (1) and (2) seem impossible to me to be attributable to God. I am, however, worried that if I absolutely refuse to admit that (1) is possible, then I have an ultimately provincial (idolotrous, in Joe’s language) understanding of God….

    • Matthew said

      This line in the parable on remorse was added only to highlight again the fact that we see no remorse in the book of Joshua about killing innocent people. If the line trips up the main message, let’s remove it from the parable. It isn’t central to the point.

      On creating idols…would you also say that the main character of the parable creates an idol of his father? If you believe that then our view of human relationships is very different. And by extension what it means to know God. Surely, our views aren’t that different. I presume, for example, you don’t believe that knowing God amounts to something like correctly determining what is possible for God to do. I have to hope it doesn’t since I stopped wondering long ago whether God can create a rock so heavy he cannot lift it.

  29. Robert C. said

    Matthew, I suppose I’m wondering about your parable in light of Nephi’s slaying of Laban. I presume that if I’d known Nephi, I’d think he was a righteous person, not the kind of person that I could conceive of as killing someone else who was drunk and effectively defenseless. But, if I were to learn more about the circumstances and experience of the event, then I could better understand how Nephi could kill Laban. It’s these extra circumstances that I’m trying to think about more in relation to the Book of Joshua: I’m simply not ready to agree that there are no circumstances under which God might command extermination.

    (That said, I do very much feel shocked by reading Joshua, so I’m not that far from you in this sense. The question in question, it seems to me, is what to do with that shock—either redouble our conviction against innocent killing, or redouble our conviction that we don’t understand God’s ways. This, it seems to me, is the central question of the discussion in this thread, and I think it’s a very difficult question without an easy answer—hence, it’s worth pondering as we have here. And, I think it is central to the very way we conceive of life, the sanctity and purpose thereof, and whether life for the sake of life is the highest good, or whether there are other goods more important than the sanctity of life. It is largely because I believe that there are goods higher than life itself, that I am hesitant to dismiss Joshua as simply wrong. But I definitely struggle, with Joshua as well as certain praised acts of Captain Moroni, as I recently wrote about, and the refusal of Alma to save the burning women and children. These are all episodes that make me cringe, and I simply don’t know how to make sense of them as a believing member without calling my own attitudes and deep-seated feelings about the sanctity of life—and hence my beliefs about our Heavenly Father—into question….)

    • Matthew said

      Before I respond, do you mind answering the question I put to you first?

      Is it necessary for the main character in the parable to create an idol of his father in order to take the position he does–that he knows his father did not/would not kill a bunch of innocent people as described in the story?

  30. Robert C. said

    Matthew, thanks for you patience with my answers, which haven’t been as careful as your comments have been. I’ll try to be more careful now.

    My response to your question about your parable and making an idol of the father (#21, #28, #29) is, in short, yes: if I absolutely refuse to conceive of my father having done something that others attest that he has done, then I have created an idol of my father.

    However, this doesn’t mean that I can’t be suspicious of the testimony against my father, nor that I can’t know the character of my father. There is then, for me, a very important distance between God’s character and his actions: I can know God’s character, but cannot know his actions, since there may be a way of reconciling his actions with his character that is simply beyond my understanding (this gap, then, is tantamount to the distance I described in #28 between the act of slaughter and the feeling of remorse: I think it is idolatrous to presume to know both action and intentionality of someone else simultaneously).

    Idolatry, then, in this case, amounts to projecting my own limited understanding on my father who is not absolutely knowable to me. I know his character, but not everything about him. Therefore, I can’t know his actions for sure, since I can’t know his reasoning or intentionality—esp. before asking him firsthand for an explanation.[*] Therefore, when an accusation is made against him, my choice of response is not simply binary, to believe the accusation (and reject my belief in my father’s character) or to disbelieve it (and reject the accusation). Rather, I can ask my father for further enlightenment regarding the action. It’s this last option that I think is the (only) nonidolatrous response. This response, then, is crucically linked to the notion of continuing revelation more generally, which effectively means (to me) that we can’t presume to have absolute knowledge about God’s actions or intentionalities—though, again, I do think we can come to some sort of “perfect knowledge” of his character (which I think allows Alma, in Alma 42, and Moroni, in Mormon 9:19, to claim conditions which would make God “cease to be God”; I really appreciate, by the way, this conversation, as it is forcing me to more carefully think through the tension I see in these passages about God “ceasing to be God” and the idea of continuing revelation…).

    So, in the case of Joshua, I am happy to accept that you or others have read the text, prayed for your own understanding, and have your own (present) belief that the text is simply a “mistranslation” of God’s actions. And, in this sense, I very much applaud your efforts encouraging others to study and pray to get their own understanding, and your explanation and conviction regarding your own understanding and process of coming to this understanding. However, I do think that this is importantly different than claiming that others should or must come to the same understanding as you. Moreover, relatedly, and as a question of community, since no particular interpretation of these passages has been canonized or accepted as authoritative, and since we each lack authority to proclaim doctrine for others, I think we must also acknowledge that our understanding and interpretation of these passages is subject to change—else we idolize the text and our understanding of what it is claiming about God. (But, again, I don’t think this presents an obstacle to you or others boldly proclaiming/testifying of your own understanding and experience of God’s character as being loving, kind, and respectful of life—the kind of character that seems completely at odds with that presented by certain passages in the Book of Joshua….)

    Anyway, thanks again for forcing me to really ponder all of this deeper.

    __

    [*] It occurs to me that this is one of the central problematics explored in several of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello in particular. I’d really like to study that play with this particular view of idolatry in mind….

  31. Jesse said

    Maybe God finds spiritual death much more abhorrent than physical death.

    Which would explain why He was willing to destroy all those innocent children with the flood.

  32. NathanG said

    So I am well beyond Joshua and am now into Samuel which continues these endless wars. Saul lost God’s approval of him as king when he did not destroy all Amalek as commanded, but had kept things back for sacrifice. To make things even more gruesome, Samuel, the prophet, kills the king (1 Sam 15). So it’s not just Joshua. It seems to be a recurrent theme in the Old Testament.

    I wonder about what is at the heart of your concern. Is it God’s command leading to the destruction of people? If so, do you view the flood similarly? How about endless famine? Is it different when nature desroys people? Or, is the problem that God would command his covenant people to be the instrument of destruction of a nation? Is it bothersome that people who may be trying to follow God could be commanded to slaughter?

    I recall once reading a critique of the scriptures (not even going to try to recall where or who, but no claim to be from any general authority) “The conqueror gets to write the history however they would like.” Israel was the conquering nation, so we get the story the way they would like it remembered. I’d be curious to know, if that were the case, why the author would like the history remembered the way it is recorded.

  33. Matthew said

    RobertC (#30),

    Your response suprised me. Why is it that you are using language like “absolutely refuse to conceive…” in this context? Are you asking me to perform some sort of thought experiment like the main character in Descarte’s Meditations? Maybe I need to return to my response to #28. There I assumed neither of us believes knowing God is about understanding what is possible or not for him to do. I would think from your comment that either you do think knowing God is about discerning what is possible for Him or that you think my claim that God didn’t ask the Israelites to kill innocent children in Jericho amounts to me claiming that my knowledge of God is a claim about what is possible for him to do. (I’m pretty sure I’m misinterpreting you but need your help in understanding how.)

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to push you further. You say that the son in the parable in #21 is making an idol of his father if he isn’t conceiving of the possibility that his Father did commit this horrendous slaughter. If I say I know my wife loves me will you also say I am making an idol of her if I absolutely refuse to conceive of the possibility that she doesn’t love me? In order to not make an idol of her do you also recommend I conceive of the possibility that she doesn’t love our children? If not expending mental energy conceiving of such possibilities and simply affirming my knowledge is idolatrous, then I am happy to make an idol of God since I believe this knowledge is appropriate to the relationship we should have with those we know and love and we are commanded to know and love God.

    Moving to the end of your comment…I enjoyed thinking through your sentence: “However, I do think that this is importantly different than claiming that others should or must come to the same understanding as you.” Whether I agree with you all comes down to what we mean by must and should in that sentence. If I say “the Grand Canyon is deep,” I have not made an argument which reasons from premises to a necessary conclusion. If that is what “must” means I agree with your statement–I have made no argument like that. Also, if I say “the Grand Canyon is deep,” I am not saying that others “should” (are morally compelled) to visit the Grand Canyon to know that it is deep if they aren’t convinced by my testimony. In the same sense, I have not argued that others are morally compelled to find out for themselves whether God commanded the Israelites to kill innocent children if they don’t believe me. (Maybe that is an argument for another post or maybe I’ll never make it:)) But “should” does apply to my claims in the same sense that the statement “The Grand Canyon is deep” is not a private statement even if it is based on private observation. To affirm it is deep is to ask that other believe it is also deep. It is to affirm that if others did visit the Grand Canyon they would find it deep. The same is true of the sentence “God did not ask the Israelites to kill the innocent children in the city of Jericho.”

    Dad (response to response to #21), It makes sense to me that one person may say “I know so-and-so and he wouldn’t do such-and-such” while another person may say “I know so-and-so and I’m pretty sure he didn’t do such-and-such.” The latter is how I’m interpreting your latest reply. Let me know if I have it wrong.

    NathanG (#32),

    I wonder about what is at the heart of your concern. Is it God’s command leading to the destruction of people? If so, do you view the flood similarly? How about endless famine? Is it different when nature desroys people? Or, is the problem that God would command his covenant people to be the instrument of destruction of a nation? Is it bothersome that people who may be trying to follow God could be commanded to slaughter?

    As noted in my reply to #16, I do not view the flood similarly. Also, I am not attempting to define a principle that can be used for determining which stories in the Old Testament are for sure incorrect. That said, I am familiar with no story in the Old Testament where God commands people to mass slaughter other innocent people where I believe that God did command such.

  34. Jim F said

    I don’t know that you’ve got it wrong, but I would say “I know so-and-so and I am pretty sure that he wouldn’t do such-and-such,” however, since we are dealing with God, a being who is quite different than anyone else I know, I’m always anxious to append “Things could be quite different than I ever imagined them to be.”

  35. Robert C. said

    Matthew (#32), yes, I think you’ve nailed the key issue on the head here. It’s an inherent tension of faith, I think: on the one hand, faith is a conviction about the way things are (or ought to be); on the other hand, faith is faith precisely because it is not absolute knowledge.

    This is why I keep using the word absolute: to absolutely refuse to think God to do otherwise is to mistake faith for knowledge. My faith is rooted in the belief that God would do no such thing. Furthermore, I have experiential knowledge of God’s love, so my faith is not unfounded—rather, it is mature faith (the seed has grown and sprouted, in the sense of Alma 32). However, on my view, to claim absolute knowledge with regard to God, or my wife, would be a self-delusion, conflating faith with knowledge. (By the way, I think this conflation lies at the heart of fundamentalism, and I believe my faith should be distinguishable from fundamentalism, which is perhaps why I’m so interested in this issue.)

    There is a very important danger, however, which I think you nicely highlight: although faith is conviction in the presence of uncertainty, faith and doubt are ultimately incompatible. I don’t claim to understand this difference very well, but it makes sense to me that when I am having faith that God exists and loves me, I am not dwelling on the uncertainty inherent in that claim; rather, I am focusing on a positive affirmation of faith. So, when scripture admonishes to “doubt not but be believing,” but scripture also admonishes to continually seek further light, knowledge, and understanding, I take this to mean that we should maintain a conviction (rooted in our first-hand experiential knowledge) of God’s loving character, but also that we should not presume to know more than we do about this character.

    So, yes, when you express you conviction regarding God’s noninvolvement regarding the horrors in the Book of Joshua, I am happy to understand this as a testimony to your conviction of God’s loving nature. But I will hope that this won’t confused with absolute(/experiential) knowledge in a way that hinder the search for further light and knowledge….

  36. Matthew said

    Robert C, It seems we agree at least on some of the most important points I meant to address in this post…even if it is clear that we disagree on how best to use the word know. But, I guess that brings us to a new topic best left to another post on another day.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 322 other followers

%d bloggers like this: