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Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 19: “The Role of Miracles and the Command to Kill Canaanites.”

By David Baggett 

Morriston raises this question: If God decrees something at variance with universal commands by special revelation through a human representative, then how can the commandee know that this mouthpiece accurately speaks for God and that this command is neither a delusion nor a demon? This chapter will give a further response to Morriston’s worry. Imagine you’re a skeptical soldier in Moses’s or Joshua’s army and that you ask yourself the question, “Why should I obey Moses’s call to war against the Canaanites?” How would one know that a good, just God is behind such a command? And could one find warrant for condemning violence done in the name of God in the present?

The concern is that in very unusual circumstances in the past, God commanded people to kill the innocent, exempting them from a moral principle that otherwise binds them. But if God did this in the past, why not now? But if awareness of such an exemption comes through one’s mere inner (subjective) sensing, there would be no way to verify this is God’s will. So there would be no way to know whether or not the individual was really commanded by God to kill innocent people.

Miracles and the Will of God

Matthew Rowley has written an essay on sacralized violence in the exodus under Moses and during the conquest under Joshua. His argument addresses this concern. His key argument is that the biblical narrative suggests that in those situations, God desired to safeguard against the misunderstanding of his will; so he chose to validate this new knowledge with clear displays of miracles. When a new revelation issues the extraordinary command of taking another’s life, it does not come through one’s mere inner subjective sensing. Rather, God chooses to unite this new knowledge with miracles, in such a way that the individual or onlooker can validate the message. (See Josh. 3:7.)

Miracles in the Old Testament Narrative

Rowley identifies several different categories of miracles. Category 1: Miracle of creation, showing God’s power, intelligence, and creativity. Category 2: 2L (lesser), 2M (moderate), and 2G (greater)—on an epistemic spectrum. 2L miracles are visions, dreams, or small-scale events like a burning bush. 2M are smaller miracles that go against the normal pattern of nature, meriting skepticism. These experiences should be held loosely. 2G miracles are harder to misinterpret and are impossible to fake, like God feeding Israelites for decades with bread from heaven.

Unlike private revelation claims made by Muhammad or Joseph Smith, Moses’s prophetic message is authenticated by Category 2G miracles. See Exod. 9:15-16; cf. Rom. 9:17.

Evidence, Miracles, and Moses’s and Joshua’s Believability

Imagine a skeptical soldier in Israel under Moses or Joshua who wonders whether a harsh command is truly from Yahweh. The Israelites, soldiers included, were to learn two chief lessons from the miracles surrounding the exodus out of Egypt: first, that Yahweh is supreme above all gods in power and authority and, second, that Moses was “like God”—God’s representative—before Egypt and Israel (Exod. 7:1; cf. 4:16). The narrative suggests that they should have been believed because of the confirming miracles God performed through them. No wonder that at the exodus itself, the people “believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (14:30-31).

Moses’s unique role further confirmed in the dreadful direct revelation at Sinai (Deut. 5:23-27), which the Israelites could see, hear, and feel. The Ten Commandments begin with the affirmation of the exodus miracle to confirm both Yahweh’s and Moses’s believability. A large number of the commands in the Mosaic law are grounded in the exodus event. The questioning Israelite solder doesn’t simply have to take Moses’s word for it; he is in a position to see firsthand God’s miraculous actions.

As for believing Joshua’s commands, scripture uses the same language as it does of Moses. And the Israelites themselves and their enemies knew that Yahweh was truly with Joshua. Remember these two points: God’s presence was highly visible—ever “in the sight” of Israel whether on the move or settled. And second, the tabernacle would continue to move until a more permanent house of God—the temple—was established where God would cause his name to dwell and where the glory of God would be visibly manifested. Not only did the Canaanites and Philistines hear reports of Yahweh’s miraculous activity, but they also could see the manifestation of Yahweh’s presence as Israel camped or moved about.

The Storehouse of Divine Validation

Unlike any person today who advocates violence in the name of God, the Israelites who engaged in life-taking obedience had a storehouse of indicators of miraculous divine validation. The large cluster of weighty miracles performed while Moses led Israel would reinforce the believability of the less-weighty miracles like the burning bush. The shock and awe 2G miracles gave more credibility to the 2L miracles. Looking back, the soldier can come to trust Moses’s testimony about the burning bush because he is gazing at the pillar of fire in front of him.

Moses, Miracles, and the Ancient Near East

The miracles recorded in Exodus through Joshua uniquely single out Moses and Joshua. It is the difference between saying, “I speak for God,” and “I speak for the God who just dried up the sea, who is leading you by a pillar of fire, and who is feeding you daily with bread from heaven.”

Prophetic Punctuated Equilibrium and Inheriting Ripples

The biblical narrative suggests a pattern—namely, large-scale miraculous activity and increased prophetic utterances are connected to a call to restore order from chaos through destruction. F&C see a connection between evidentially weighty miracles and sacralized violence—what Rowley calls prophetic punctuated equilibrium: spurts of miraculous “mutations” occurring within a short time—clustered around the old covenant and new covenant—followed by longer periods when relatively fewer miracles take place.

The conquest narratives serve as a reminder of God’s clear and inimitable workings in the course of salvation history and a call to remember his faithfulness in bringing his purposes to fruition.

Conclusion

In a post 9/11 environment, Morriston’s arguments strike a significant chord. But F&C have made several points here. First, Morriston’s argument wrongly assumes that prophetic utterances like those recorded in scripture continue after the closing of the biblical canon. Second, one can rationally attribute to God a command that under ordinary circumstances would be immoral to carry out only on two conditions: (1) that the command does not contradict a nonnegotiable moral principle, and (2) that, on the background evidence accepted by a biblical theist, the claim that God issued the command is more likely than the claim that the action is wrong. Third, even if the command meets these criteria, further tests must be passed—tests not met by contemporaries who claim God told them to kill: alleged prophets must have a track record of true predictions and have proved themselves authentic; their message must not contradict previous revelation or commands recorded in scripture; their character must show fruit of the Spirit in their life, and must have a lifestyle of sincere obedience to God’s commands; and if prophets announce an exemption from the normal rules against killing, this message will be authenticated by Category 2G miracles.

 

Image: “Andrea Previtali 005” by Andrea Previtali – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andrea_Previtali_005.jpg#/media/File:Andrea_Previtali_005.jpg

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