Serving the God We Know, Knowing the God We Serve

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: "What does the shape of my service look like? If I cannot save the world, what can I do in it?"

Beholding the Amorite

In Deuteronomy, we see the Israelites on the verge of leaving their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness to occupy the land that God has promised them. Moses, full of the Spirit of God, tells them how to make war (Deut. 20:10-18). When they approach an enemy city, they are first to offer peace. If this is accepted, then the population will become the Israelites’ slaves, which turns out to be the best-case scenario. If the peace offer is not accepted, the Israelites are to besiege the city, and when God gives them victory, they are to kill every adult and adolescent male and to take the women, children, livestock and property as God’s reward to them.

But even that level of conquest isn’t the extreme case. That’s reserved for when the city belongs to the people who previously held the land promised to Israel. In that situation, God says, “Do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them … as the Lord your God has commanded”—so great was the wickedness and danger of these nations’ idolatry (Deut. 20:16-17).

That’s precisely what the Israelites did. Joshua 6:20 records the trumpeting fall of Jericho’s wall. This story is popular in children’s Sunday school classes because it involves loud noises and something falling down, which is the Bible equivalent of the fun afforded by making a sandcastle and then running away screeching with joy as a wave demolishes it. But in the following verse, we read that “they devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” One wonders how many Sunday school teachers include the fact that the wall’s fall led to the divinely ordered slaughter of Jerichoites who were the same age as their pupils.

We are understandably tempted to use the distance of time and the absence of gruesome detail to inoculate ourselves from the true horror of such texts. Sometimes we also disguise them by pointing to other places where God condemns violence—like King David being forbidden from building the temple because he was a “man of blood.” Such strategies also enable more eschatological interpretations, which see episodes like the Canaanite extermination in the big context of salvation history. This is a legitimate interpretative strategy because Christians have to see all reality through the lens of the cross, resurrection and coming kingdom.

But when we use such approaches exclusively, we lose something profound and powerful: the way in which Scripture challenges our preexisting view of God and of his purposes. Consider the Israelites’ confrontation with the Amorites, recounted in Deuteronomy 2:32-36:

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When Sihon [the Amorite, king of Heshbon] and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, the Lord our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army. At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed [Hebrew: “dedicated to the Lord”] them—men, women, and children. We left no survivors. But the livestock and the plunder from the owns we had captured we carried off for ourselves. … Not one town was too strong for us. The Lord our God gave us all of them.

Eschew every theological escape hatch and confront the text in its granular historicity. What this passage describes, hidden in the plain sight of its spare prose, is an Amorite woman, baby in arms, watching in terrified grief and unredeemable despair as an Israelite soldier, acting on the commandment of God, kills her entire family before ending her life as well. The fact that this episode is part of a history that will directly lead to Christ’s giving himself for the world on the cross is certainly no comfort to her as she watches her children being slaughtered.

This is not fiction. The Amorite woman is no literary device but a human being with a name—though it is lost to history. When I imagine her face, I cannot functionalize her loss and sorrow. If I ever imagined God as the ribbon tied around a neatly wrapped moral universe that corresponds perfectly to my 21st-century sensibilities, her gaze rips that vision to shreds.

There it is, in its starkest terms. The Bible testifies that God—whom Jesus Christ calls Abba, Father—is a God whose purposes in history have been served by the killing of children. God has both commanded it (for example, Deuteronomy 20:16) and wrought it directly (for example, Exodus 11:4-5). This fact cannot be avoided or apologized away. What do we do with this?

Such passages close off any possibility of imagining that God’s purposes and ways are immediately benevolent to our own, as we understand them. Let’s be honest about how we encounter the story above: no modern Christian, transported back in time and space to stand and watch an Israelite army kill every living thing in an Amorite town, would open his Life Application Study Bible for Teens, tap an approving finger on Deuteronomy 20 and take God’s side. Everything in us sides with the mother and children being killed. We have no choice in this, and we aren’t wrong in feeling this way. I certainly wouldn’t want to meet someone who could walk away from the scene dry-eyed.

But—and here’s the hard part—neither may we judge God to be wrong. From what moral ground would we render such a verdict?

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The teaching value of such Scriptures, therefore, is not that they give us a normative ethic about how to make war. Rather, they instruct us by leaving us in a tension before God that does not permit cognitive resolution or rationalization. Faced with such Scriptures, we can pick one of four options:

1. hate God;

2. become monsters—for example, by concluding that the holy wars of ancient Israel permit contemporary crusade or genocide;

3. deny that God is really like this;

4. fear God.

The first two choices are idolatry—either judging God by our standards or elevating ourselves to his. The third denies the scriptural portrait of God that Jesus himself taught and affirmed—and if you toss out the God of the Old Testament, Jesus is the Messiah, Savior and Son of nothing. Which leaves us with the fourth.

I cannot see a way out of this tension. It must be inhabited. It is the ground of our spiritual journey, and it makes the biblical idiom of “fear and trembling” very, very real. It is the recognition that the goodness of God is so alien in its holiness that human life must encounter it in awestruck fear and perhaps something resembling terror and horror. We are left with a God who in no way may be domesticated to serve any earthly project.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” ( Job 1:21 NRSV). This is a true statement, but for human beings it also bears the inescapable quality of tragedy. If we can say it and mean it without tears, we haven’t been paying attention.