Beale’s purpose in writing this book is to succinctly discuss “the problem of how God can be considered to be morally good, while at the same time he does things and commands people in the Old Testament to do things that do not appear to be good.” Beale’s question is a legitimate question, and if we are being honest with each other, one that all of us, as Christians, have thought about at one time or another. I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but if I had to wager a guess I would assume that this is one of the reasons why a lot of Christians avoid the Old Testament. To them, it appears as if this is a completely different God than the New Testament Jesus who is both “unjustly” cruel (commands Israel to kill all the men, women, and children of the Canaanites) and always angry about something (makes Israel march for 40 years in the desert while killing off the disobedient generation who doesn’t believe God’s Word that the Promised Land is theirs for the taking). Though there are a lot of different “problems” that can be discussed as it pertains to God’s morality in the Old Testament, Beale’s book focuses on the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites and then the imprecations (cursings) in the book of Psalms. If we come to biblical conclusions about God’s commandments pertaining to the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites and imprecations in Psalms, then that will provide a biblical approach on how to handle the other moral “problems” of God that one might come across in the Word. [Normally, the best way to approach a review of a smaller book such as this one is to provide a succinct review, but the subject matter of the book is so deep that a more thorough review is required.]
The first possible solution to the dilemma that Beale mentions is that wartime ethics are legitimately different from peacetime ethics, and the use of lying and deception are “an accepted ethic in wartime”. For example, “an army may ambush another army through deceptive tactics. This is legitimate practice during war. Killing the enemy is also condoned during battle.” This was true in ancient times just like it is true of modern times. However, the killing of all the men, women, and children is not condoned in modern times of war (even though it happens). How does one reconcile the fact that God is the one who commands the Israelites to annihilate all of the Canaanites, and it wasn’t a bunch of Israelites taking orders from corrupt leaders? Beale doesn’t answer the question right away, but moves on to laying out for the reader other possible solutions to the moral dilemma.
Next, there is the possible solution that the divine command to kill all women and children is not meant to be taken literally, and “merely refers to wiping out only all the armies of the Canannites.” The gist of this possible solution is the focus on “total and decisive victory over the fighting forces” and not on the utter destruction of all the Canaanite men, women, and children. Though this solution is possible, it doesn’t look to be highly probable based on the evidence provided in the Bible. Truth be told, there were more than likely Canaanites who repented of their wickedness and were spared, and also others who escaped, but the evidence seems to support the fact that God wanted his commandment to be carried out literally.
Beale then proceeds to offer five different angles that might better help us understand this moral “problem” more thoroughly, and then provides a detailed breakdown of each of these angles in proceeding chapters:
(1) How does the killing of the Canaanites demonstrate God’s justice and righteousness?
– Israel is uniquely seen as God’s instrument of justice in a redemptive-historical setting that pertains to the exterminating of a people who were wickedly depraved, and is something that is not to be repeated in history again. Basically, there is a standard for righteousness, and the Canaanites violated that standard and were rewarded with destruction. Beale rightly asserts that the problem with this view is that it really doesn’t provide an answer as to why killing defenseless women, elderly, and children is needed in order to execute God’s justice.
(2) How could Israel’s unique commission as a “kingdom of priests” shed light on the extermination of the Canaanites?
– The focus, again, of this chapter is a view of Israel from a redemptive-historical vantage-point. The Garden of Eden was to be a Sanctuary and to expand is reaches to the rest of the earth. Adam failed to keep it from uncleanness, was kicked out from Eden, commissioned to become a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6), and to “enter the Promised Land and make it another garden temple by completely cleansing it from the uncleanness of the Canaanites.” The Promised Land is even referred to as being “like the garden of Eden” (Gen. 13:10; Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35; Joel 2:3). As a “kingdom of priests”, Israel was to exterminate all Canaanite uncleanness, just like the Priests in Jerusalem were to keep out every bit of uncleanness from the Temple. Again, this is a unique commandment and not one that was to be repeated.
(3) How does God’s sovereignty over all things help us to better understand that he can be considered blameless in all that he does, despite the problems previously mentioned?
– The self-sufficiency of God is defined (no one else helps him to be who He is and to do what He does; He is unconditionally self-existent). Therefore, He has the freedom to determine what He will do towards His creation and we have no right to question it since God’s will is perfect and not dictated by anything outside of Himself, but is always done with a mindset to bring Him the greatest glory. And the greatest thing that can happen for man is that God be eternally passionate for His own glory since He is not subject to the same rules of humility that His creation is subject to (since we are creatures and He is the Creator).
(4) How does the idea of God’s judgment of unbelieving humanity at the end of time shed light on this problem?
– Basically, Beale presents an eschatological view of the annihilation of the Canaanites that says, “God’s command to annihilate all the Canaanites is an anticipation of the end-time judgment of all people and thus a suspension of the expression of His common grace to unbelievers during the epoch of Israel.” The command to destroy the Canaanites was done with an eye on the day of Judgment when “ordinary ethical rules of the pre-consummation world are suspended and the ethical principles of the last judgment penetrate back into history.” The scale to which this was carried out against the Canaanites was small compared to what will be meted out to the rest of the unbelieving world in the end-times.
(5) How does the law of loving one’s neighbor now and at the end of time help us to better apprehend the issue about the Canaanites and the psalmist’s cursing his enemies?
– The psalmist’s cursings need to be read in light of their ultimate fulfillment in the New Testament, and specifically those that are applied to Christ. Beale also discusses in pretty good detail how certain laws have been “uniquely suspended” throughout history for positive typological reasons (see 1 Samuel 21:1-6 / Matthew 12:3-4). Reading these examples throughout Scripture shows us that the “suspending” of the moral law of “loving one’s neighbor” is not violated in the end-times when true justice is brought down by God on those who reject Him. Of course, an objection to this suspension and application of certain moral laws is that it leads to “moral relativity”. Beale again answers this, like he has done many times before, with the fact “that certain episodes in Israel’s history were uniquely designed to be pre-figurements of later end-time events in redemptive history, whether events concerning Christ’s first coming or his final coming and last judgment.”
Beale spends a good bit of time towards the end of his book devoted to helping the reader understand the uniqueness of what God was asking Israel to do, and the cursings of the psalmist towards wicked men, and how those things were foreshadowings of judgment and some of redemption. He repeats that their was a temporary suspension of the moral law to “love one’s neighbor” because the Israelites are carrying out a judgment that typologically prefigures the last judgment.
Overall, this was a really good book that lays out most of the arguments for and against why God commanded Israel to annihilate all of the Canaanite men, women, and children, as well as the curses found in the Psalms, and how the carrying out of these things does not violate the moral goodness of an omnipotent God.
Author: Gregory K. Beale
Publisher: P & R Publishing (2013)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the P & R Publishing book review bloggers program on NetGalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”