When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you . . . and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them . . . and show them no mercy (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).
C. S. Cowles, in his article “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” published in the book Show Them No Mercy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), p. 14, asked the following question: “How do we harmonize the warrior God of Israel with the God of love incarnate in Jesus? How can we reconcile God’s instructions to ‘utterly destroy’ the Canaanites in the Old Testament with Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies’ in the New Testament?”
Today, students in my course “Old Testament Theology” will attempt to provide Cowles with an answer. Cowles’ question is very difficult to answer, and judging from the preliminary response from my students, they disagree with Cowles, but do not provide an answer to the issue he raised in his article.
Many Christians struggle with passages in the Old Testament that present a view of God that seems to contradict the God that appears in the pages of the New Testament. Many Christians do not have an answer for those who challenge the loving character of the God of the Old Testament and are unable to reconcile those stories of war and violence that are narrated in the Old Testament with their Christian faith.
One problem with Cowles’ interpretation of the violence in the Old Testament is his assertion that what the New Testament says about God is more important than what the Old Testament says about God. Cowles believes that what Jesus said about God is the way Christians should view God. To Cowles, the Old Testament reveals a God of wrath, but Jesus reveals a God that is a God of love and peace.
Cowles believes that Jesus presents an accurate revelation of the true God of the Bible. According to him, Christians should not believe what the Old Testament teaches about God in general, but what Jesus teaches about God in particular. Cowles wrote: “The God portrayed in the Old Testament was full of fury against sinners, but the God incarnate in Jesus is not” (p. 28).
One reason for Cowles’ critical view of the God of the Old Testament is his low view of the authority of the Old Testament. Cowles believes that the Old Testament distorts the true character of God. He said that many of the events of the Old Testament do not reflect the true nature of God, that is, what Moses and Joshua commanded the people to do “are incompatible with the nature and character of God as disclosed in Jesus” (p. 42).
Cowles wrote: “This raises a critical question regarding the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament: If Moses and Joshua misunderstood the will and purpose of God in the reference to the Conquest, then what parts of God’s self-disclosure in the Old Testament can we trust?” (p. 40).
It is evident that Cowles has a low view of the relevance of the Old Testament for a Christian understanding of God. If we accept Cowles’ view that Moses and Joshua misunderstood God’s purpose for the conquest, then how can people trust what the rest of the Bible says about God?
Most Christians believe in the inspiration and the authority of the Bible, and that includes the Old Testament. When Christians proclaim the authority of the Scriptures, they also acknowledge that the writings of the Bible are a work of human authors, containing different literary forms, a work that reflects the attitude and cultural context of the people who wrote those books that form the Hebrew Bible.
The authority of the Bible also implies that the Bible reveals the character and nature of the true God and that we can trust what it says about God. In short, Christians accept the authority of the Bible because they trust the God who revealed himself in the history of ancient Israel.
What Cowles fails to understand is that Jesus himself speaks of a God who is a God of judgment as well as a God of mercy. It is in his mercy that God keeps reaching out to men and women, even when they rebel against him. It is in his righteousness that the God of the Bible, the same God who is the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, is spoken of as the righteous judge who will bring judgment upon wicked people.
In a forthcoming post, I will give my answer to the main question Cowles raised in his article. In the mean time, I welcome your reaction to Cowles’ views. How would you respond to Cowles’ question?