Book Review – Show them No Mercy

This book presents four views on the “Canaanite genocide” reported in the book of Joshua. This has always posed something of an ethical dilemma for Christians, as the Israelites are commanded to leave no survivors in their conquest of certain cities. The four authors are said to all sit “squarely within the evangelical tradition”, and are tasked with explaining how we can make sense of such bloodthirsty texts in our Scriptures. This is particularly pertinent as in a post-9/11 world, many atheists are claiming that religion is irrevocably violent.

Each writer gets to make their case in an essay of around 30 pages, followed by brief responses from the other three writers.

Radical Discontinuity – C S Cowles

The first essay is the most combative. Cowles considers the Canaanite conquest to be sub-Christian and even “anti-Christian”. He views the God of the Old Testament as violent and vindictive, while the God of the New Testament, revealed in Christ is one of love. He therefore freely repudiates the Old Testament texts (it is not a “Christian message”) and claims there could never have been any legitimacy for these attrocities. What is surprising is not that he should be so horrified, but that while claiming to be evangelical he has such low regard for the Old Testament. He seems to be suggesting that Joshua was not hearing from God, but simply making up whatever he wanted to do in the situation. He claims to be following the line that Wesley took on these matters.

The responses to him are polite, with the other authors thanking him for being so frank and honest in his views. However, he is rightly criticised for effectively de-canonising the Old Testament, and also for conveniently ignoring the “violent” texts of the New Testament. It is not at all clear that Jesus saw himself in any way as opposed to the revelation of God in the Old Testament.

Moderate Discontinuity – Eugene Merrill

Merrill represents a dispensationalist postition and his essay falls into two parts. First he surveys all instances of what he terms “Yahweh war” – war sanctioned (and fought even) by Yahweh. Interestingly, he also sees the future battle of Armageddon as another example. His justification from Yahweh war also is strongly Scripture based – God displays his holiness and omnipotence, without contradicting his goodness and mercy. The true foe in the war is idolatry and false gods. While Cowles freely criticises Scripture, Merrill shows determination to accept it’s witness to God however uncomfortable it may be. Strangely, while highlighting lots of instances of “God hardening the hearts” of various enemies, Merrill sees this as a human action (as opposed to divine initiative) of hardening which brings the judgement of God.

Unsurprisingly, Cowles castigates him for defending the indefensible, while the other two authors are more receptive to his arguments. Gard suggests he has not properly considered why, given his argument, all nations should not deserve to be annihilated. Longman feels that he has ignored instances in the OT where God is said to be fighting on the side of Israel’s enemies and altogether ended up with to “neat” an explanation.

Eschatological Continuity – Daniel Gard

Gard begins by arguing that revelation occurs not only through Scripture but through the God who acts in history. He views the Canaanite genocide as an eschatological foreshadowing of the final judgement. Like Merrill, he draws on Von Rad’s work on “Holy War”, and briefly surveys the biblical evidence. He believes that there was also “reverse holy war” – God was sometimes responsible for the defeat of Israel rather than its victory, but reminds us that Israel was never fully destroyed.

He focuses particularly on the understanding of the writer of Chronicles, who foresaw a “new David” coming. He says that Israel could participate in the holy wars because they were simultaneously a political and theological entity – unlike the church who can never justify a war, although he does agree with the concept of “just war”. He concludes by focusing on the cross – the sacrifice to save us from wrath.

Cowles again responds with hostility, arguing that the surrounding nations were less barbarous than the Israelites, making mockery of any concept of judgement in their destruction. Merrill agrees in part with Gard although rejects his eschatology and doesn’t agree that God fighting against Israel counts as herem – Yahweh war. Longman agrees with Gard’s conclusions but not his argument.

Spiritual Continuity – Tremper Longman III

Longman starts by comparing the Joshua accounts to modern terrorists such as Bin Laden with their concepts of “sacred space” and “holy war”. He also admits that there is a very small radical fringe of Christianity who might claim justification of violent action (e.g. against abortionists) from passages such as this. However, despite this Longman warns that we cannot conveniently disavow the OT. He argues that the holy war was itself an expression of “worship”. It was not that God was an enemy to Israel’s enemies, but that they were to be an enemy to God’s enemies.

As with Merril and Gard, Longman goes through the accounts and features of holy war. He notes that the Bible does not understand herem as the destruction of innocents – and views it as a final punishment after great patience on God’s part. His main approach is to argue for five phases of holy war – starting with God fighting for Israel, then God fighting against Israel, but then moving on to Jesus fighting against spiritual powers and authorities. Jesus radically changed people’s expectations by failing to bring political revolution. The church is involved in its own herem, but it is a purely spiritual battle – not against flesh and blood. And the fifth phase is the final battle as depicted in Revelation.


Personally, I think this book suffered by having too many contributors. Merrill, Gard and Longman are obviously in broad agreement about the historicity and authority of the Old Testament, and cover much of the same ground when summarising the biblical material. Their differences are not really strong enough to make for interesting reading. It would have been better to have two very differing views (probably Cowles and Longman) and let them hammer it out.

All four contributors of course completely disavow any warmongering or violence by the church, so in that sense, the argument is simply over what we do with the uncomfortable parts of the Old Testament. The answer seems to be that what you make of those parts depends on your view of Scripture. And that in turn has a very big impact on what your view of God is. It is the same issue that is at stake in current debates over the nature of the atonement – can we accept the Biblical testimony to God’s anger against sin, or do we say that this is incompatible with love and therefore reject any Scripture that does not fit our understanding of who he is, losing large parts of both Old and New Testaments in the process?

5 thoughts on “Book Review – Show them No Mercy

  1. oops forgot to mention the responses to Longman. Both Merrill and Gard were very appreciative. Cowles started less aggressively, thanking Longman for putting a “human face” on the suffering, but goes on to say that if God is like that portrayed in Joshua then atheism is an “act of pure religion”. He accuses Longman of skipping over the Jesus of the gospels to find a violent one in Revelation.

    Most of the “responses” in this book actually end up being mini summaries of the author’s essay. Particularly Cowles isn’t interested in an exegetical debate as he doesn’t view the passages in question as being in any way authoritative as a revelation of the character of God.

  2. I’m not a theologian but it seems to me that, since the wages of sin is death and all have sinned, what is “unjust” in the genocide event is not the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites but the fact that anyone is [i]spared[/i], including the Israelites. It was unjust only in the sense that it was merciful to every [i]other[/i] idolatrous and immoral ethnic group.

    God’s assessment of the seriousness of sin is that it deserves unending torment in eternity, so the fact that only one ethnic group, whose sin had achieved “fullness” (accumulated for 400 years while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt) was destroyed is more a manifestation of YHWH’s patience and mercy than it is His wrath (although it’s [i]both[/i]).

    Men like Cowles who sentimentalize the love of God and dismiss the authority of His Word exemplify the depravity of sin. They set themselves up as God to judge [i]Him[/i]. They are blind guides who judge anthropocentrically.

  3. Hah! You can’t start a post with “I’m not a theologian,” and end it with “anthropocentrically”!! But for what it’s worth, I agree with the substance of your post!

  4. I would have hoped that the authors considered related passages in the Psalms, where the Psalmist calls down curses against his (and God’s) enemies (think “By the rivers of Babylon…”), as well as passages like God’s command to Saul to wipe out the Amalekites, and Davd’s genocidal campaigns against the Edomites.

    While I can’t agree with Cowles’ low view of the Old Testament, I think we should all share his horror at these Old Testament passages. In response to Will Scott’s post, he seems to miss the crux of the problem – not that the Canaanites deserved God’s judgement, but that God should commission his people to act genocidally as instruments of that judgement. It is one thing to argue that foreign nations are the unwitting agents of Yahweh, while still responsible for their actions (see Habakkuk). It is another to envisage the situation we see in the Conquest.

    I suspect that, ultimately, we can’t domesticate scipture or the God to which it witnesses by finding neat theological and ethical solutions to problems such as this. Paradox often seems to lie at the centre of his Being – both ontologically (the Trinity, the Incarnation), as well as actively (what exactly were God and Peter up to when Ananais and Sapphira dropped dead?). He is terrifying in his anger, and often inexplciable in his actions. Yes, there are important caveats on the more horrible passages in the Old Testament (eg progressive revelation, the sin of the Canannites, Christ taking upon himself God’s judgement in human suffering), but there is still some disjuncture between New Testament ethics and Old Testament divine actions. A rightly formed fear would seem appropriate from his people, and plain terror from his enemies.

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