In the Lord of Spirits podcast, probably the episode that has caused the most hubbub is “A Land of Giants,” in which we talk about the nephilim of Genesis 6 and later and also the conquest of Canaan in the the Book of Joshua (why? because it’s about a war against giants).
In the episode, we address the hard question of how God can command the people of Israel to wipe out the cities in Canaan which were home to giant clans — leaving nothing alive and taking no spoils, either. (The “wipe out and take nothing” rule applied only to the giant-clan cities, not to all Canaanite cities.) It becomes a hard question when you realize that there are certainly innocent children in those communities who would also die along with their parents in the invasion of Canaan.
How is that defensible? You should listen to the mammoth episode (or read everything we said — there’s a full transcript at the link), but among other things, we said that God gave this command knowing full well it would include killing children and also knowing full well that that would be the best thing for those children.
So on the heels of that came some people claiming that we were thereby justifying abortion on “future quality of life” grounds. What follows is a (lightly edited) response to that reasoning given originally to someone who asked the question in earnest and wasn’t just trying to score points online by making out that we were saying something we weren’t.
You are not God
The first thing we have to establish is that, just because God does something does not mean that it is okay for human beings to do that same thing. Why? 1) We’re not God. 2) We don’t know what God knows, which includes all the future and every possible future.
This means that we may not extrapolate principles from acts that God does and then make our own decisions based on our own knowledge. To this particular point, if God chooses to take an infant to Himself based on His knowledge of that infant’s future otherwise, that does not mean we can imagine what infants might experience in the future and then take their lives ourselves.
In other words, there is no line from Joshua to justifying abortion or other means of infanticide. And remember that the same people who wrote the Didache’s first-century prohibition against abortion also believed that God was acting in the Book of Joshua. They didn’t say anything about abortion being okay if you really feel that God thinks you should or about the conquest of Canaan being just a metaphor.
A lot of questions about this are really about questioning the judgment of God, in other words, trying to know what He knows and then judging His decisions. That is not something Christians can do, not just because we owe Him obedience and not demanding answers, but because we are simply incapable of knowing what He knows. There is no scenario in which we know better than God what should be done.
The conquest of Canaan is an act of God
This applies both to situations where God does the killing directly (e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah) or whether it is through His people following through on His commands. If someone is obeying a command of God, then it is God Who is doing that thing. This is how the Bible presents it over and over. It is God Who brought Israel out of Egypt, not Moses. It is God Who defeated Amalek, not Moses’ army. And so on.
In the conquest of Canaan, Israel is the judgment of God on a land filled with the stain of innocent blood, filled with the stain of demonic ritual and horrors. Abortion is not God’s judgment. Indeed, abortion is actually staining like the Canaanites did.
If you think that God is really also telling you to kill children, even though you have piles of commands to the contrary from God, and even though your confessor is telling you you had better not, what you probably need is help with your mental illness. You aren’t getting messages from God. You also aren’t God, and you also aren’t Joshua. There is no extrapolation from these events to create a general rule for yourself about killing children. There is no need to come up with hypothetical scenarios for what you might do if you feel inspired to kill children other than to repent.
One objection is that human beings killing people and then saying God told them to do it is garbage, because obviously lots of people kill in God’s name. But the principle of “abusus non tollit usum” has to be remembered here – just because some people claim to be killing with God’s blessing does not mean that they are actually doing it. And it also does not mean that God never gave such a command. The Bible very clearly says that He gave this command on a number of occasions.
Isn’t the Book of Joshua just a fictional metaphor, though?
Now, some objections might hinge on the question of whether God really did give the commands that the Bible absolutely says that He did. In other words, is the Book of Joshua actually just fiction made up to say something about God or to justify military action by Israel?
The conquest of Canaan being fiction is actually a worse scenario than it being true. Why? Because it is essentially saying that Israel made up a story about committing genocide in order to tell themselves and the world about Who God is. In other words, instead of actually being sent on a mission from God to defeat demon armies, they slaughtered a whole civilization (or claimed to have) and then claimed that God told them to do it—weirdly including details that would have been stupid nonsense in the ancient world, such as the command not to take any of the giant clans’ possessions. And it would also have been stupid to kill women and children, because in the ancient world, those are basically commodities.
So if it really is fiction (or, cynically, propaganda), it’s terrible fiction that doesn’t serve the interests you might think. If you’re going to write fiction about a “loving God” (as per the modern sensibility that never stops injustice and evil), the Book of Joshua is a big fail. If you’re going to write fiction about justified holy war, it’s also a big fail, because you wouldn’t write a fiction that makes you out to be the stupidest conquerors in the Ancient Near East who refuse to take the bad guys’ gold, women and children.
How can a loving God give such commands?
In the end, I know that a lot of this comes back to the question of how a “loving God” could possibly do or allow things that seem evil to us. How could a loving God bring plagues upon Egypt, knowing that some Egyptians are just infants who didn’t do anything wrong? How could a loving God drown the chariots of Pharaoh, knowing that some of those soldiers were just following orders? How could a loving God kill Ananias and Sapphira for just lying about their profits? How could a loving God send His armies into battle and kill even innocent infants?
We in the modern West tend to function from a deontological moral frame, in which acts are either good or evil in themselves, irrespective of who does them or what the consequences are. But we also know full well that deontological ethics actually breaks down spectacularly. If a Nazi comes to your door and asks if you are hiding Jews, do you tell a lie to save the Jews? Or do you invite him in because lying is always wrong no matter what? No, you tell the lie because it establishes justice and have zero qualms about doing so.
Every single act that God does is for the establishing of justice and for the eternal salvation of every human being involved. This includes both the blessings and the “evil” we receive at the hands of the Lord. “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10) “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Death and suffering really are not the worst things ever
How many times does the Scripture say that present suffering is nothing compared to eternal salvation? How many times do we see God sending suffering even to His own people in order to bring about their repentance? Yet when actually put to it, we want to think that eternal salvation is really just not as important as present, earthly well-being.
But if we are God’s people, we really have to accept that eternal salvation makes present suffering -– including death -– pale by comparison. Ancient peoples were much more ready to accept this axiom than we are, I think, because for them suffering was a given. For us, it’s something we flee at every chance and have a lot of wealth and technology to help us do so.
God looks at all the possible consequences and knows every single possible angle. That some of those acts might not make sense to us is not an indication that the Bible is wrong or that God Himself might not exist or that He is a wicked god. It means that we’re human and by comparison don’t know jack.
Sometimes, God makes decisions that really are for the good of everyone involved that, if we made them, would almost certainly not be. But we’re not God, and we don’t know jack.