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Dealing with the Bible’s troubling texts

Whether it’s passages about slavery, or gender roles, or the imprecatory Psalms, some sections of Scripture make Christians uncomfortable. God’s command to kill all the Canaanites in Deut. 20:16-18 is one example. Here we read:

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, 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 that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

When confronted with a text like this, a liberal Christian will offer a full-throated apology. “The text doesn’t mean what it says,” he’ll explain, “because the writer was confused about what God wanted Israel to do – God didn’t want anyone killed.”

The conservative Christian, who professes the Bible to be the Word of God, knows better than to explain away the passage. If God said it, it must be right – that’s what our heads tell us. But our hearts might say something different – this is genocide!

So we split the difference and instead of an apology, we are simply apologetic. We try to modify the apparent nastiness by focusing on whatever good we find, maybe noting that this was just a one-time command, for only a particular situation. And we’ll point out that this same God who is punishing the Canaanites is also the loving God who took our deserved punishment on Himself by coming to earth in the person of the Son.

Good points, all. But there is more going on here, and being apologetic is getting in the way of understanding what God is telling us about Himself, and about ourselves in this passage. It’s only when we approach a troubling text like this in humility, with a desire not simply to get past it but actually understand it, that we can search its depths.

A closer look at Deut. 20:16-18 will reveal that God’s command here should be understood in the context of Genesis 15:13-16. It’s there that God tells Abraham his ancestors are going to have to wait 400 years to take possession of the land of Canaan. Why so long? Because “the sin of the Amorites [the then residents of Canaan] has not yet reached its full measure.” What was this “sin of the Amorites”? Leviticus 18 details it as including incest, adultery, homosexuality, child sacrifice, and bestiality.

So, it’s by digging into these passages on the Canaanite destruction that we learn:

  • God is holy – We minimize evil, especially when it’s our own. But God will not overlook evil.
  • We think we’re not so bad – In objecting to the destruction of the Canaanites, we misunderstand our sinful nature. Sure, as Christians, we speak of deserving hell…but we don’t really believe it, not of ourselves, and not of the Amorites. We object to their destruction because we think they couldn’t actually have deserved it. But in sharing this passage, God wants to clear away that kind of delusion… about the Amorites, and ourselves.
  • God is patient – He waited 400 years to deliver a deserved judgment, and today too, even as the West kills millions of its own unborn children each year, God is being patient. But as Proverbs 29:1 makes clear, if we stubbornly reject His rebukes, our destruction could happen suddenly. We should not put off our own repentance.
  • God is gracious – There is a reason these lands were taken from the Amorites, but the Israelites hadn’t done anything to deserve getting them.

It goes to show there’s lots to love in troubling texts! And if we avoid a passage like Deut. 20, then we rob ourselves of a better understanding of our own depravity, our need for a Savior, and the holiness and graciousness of God. Worse when we are embarrassed by such passages we are judging God and saying, at least implicitly, that He isn’t living up to our standards. That is an arrogance that we need to repent of.

Now, that doesn’t mean we have to pretend there are no troubling passages in the Bible. It only means we need to recognize the fault lies with us, not God.

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