Jesus Loves Canaanites by Randall Rauser (Review)

Who Should Read this Book – Christians who are uncertain how to understand the violent parts of scripture, especially the conquest of Canaan in Deuteronomy and Joshua. While definitely a good read for pastors, Rauser’s writing style is welcoming and approachable to lay Christians as well.

What’s the Big Takeaway – Christian faith is rooted in Jesus and, as the title says, Jesus reveals that God has always loved all people, including Canaanites. From this, we can wrestle with these difficult passages, knowing Christian faith does not require us to actually believe God commanded genocide.

And a quote:

“So when you encounter cases where Christians challenge your orthodoxy for questioning the historicity of the Canaanite conquest, don’t allow yourself to be put on the defensive . . . Instead, you can turn the challenge back on your interrogator with a question: “are you saying that in order to be a member in good standing of this community, that I must believe that God commanded the Israelites to hack children and infants into pieces?” You might be thinking: Is that too blunt? I don’t think so. I don’t think we do anyone any favors when we continue to shield ourselves and others from the true horror of biblical genocide. . . They need to understand the full implications of what it is they are requiring others to believe. If they don’t, they will never truly understand why other people in good conscience cannot agree with them. . . It is quite another thing to insist that you must believe a Jewish girl who dies in Auschwitz goes to hell or that the Israelites were commanded by God to hack children and infants into pieces in order to protect the spiritual purity of the Israelite people. I believe that one of the main reasons these stark positions are allowed to proliferate in the church unchallenged year after year is because they are not reframed in precisely the forthright and honest manner that I am proposing” (284)

How could a loving God command the people of Israel to slaughter the Canaanites?

This is one of the tough sorts of questions that inevitably comes up when a person seriously engages with scripture. Some Christians try to avoid it – intentionally or unintentionally – focusing on the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus. Other Christians, recognizing it is a question that is not going away, seek to provide some kind of answer.

Answering questions such as this often falls under the heading “apologetics.” When I was in college, in the midst of doubting and questioning, I discovered Christian apologetics. Initially this was incredibly helpful as I realized you could love Jesus and study philosophy, history and science. But the thing with studying and learning is, if you’re curious you tend to keep going. Over time, I became kind of disillusioned with the tactics and arguments of many apologists because they seemed more interested in making a case than in pursuing truth.

To put it another way, they seemed to defend things that seemed indefensible because they were part of a Christian worldview with the assumption being that any lost argument on the edges would result in a collapse of the entire thing. Sometimes the standard Christian apologetic answer is weak, poor or just defending something that should not be defended.

I think this is the case with many of the usual answers about how God could command violence. The common arguments seem to either be that since God commanded this violence, its okay (“Genocidal Apologists” as Rauser calls them). This is basically a “might makes right” argument – the normal rules do not apply to God so if God commands genocide then it must be okay. Other arguments tried to say the violence was not quite as bad as it first appears (“Just War Interpreters” as Rauser calls them) yet they basically end up in the same place, having to defend how a loving God can sometimes command the extermination of children.

Randall Rauser is, as his Twitter handle states, a “tentative apologist.” He writes with honesty in such a way that you know he’s presenting what he actually thinks. Thus, he does not try to defend how God could command genocide, instead argues that God did not command it.

Rauser’s argues that our moral intuition tells us that some things are always morally wrong. We know that child sacrifice, rape and genocide are always wrong. None of these acts would somehow become morally right if we think God commands them. Rauser spends a good bit of time arguing in support of trusting our moral intuition, recognizing that a common response from Christians will be that humans ought not judge God. If its a choice between God’s commands and our moral feeling, most Christians would say it is our feelings that are untrustworthy.

In response, Rauser’s argument is both complex and readable, which demonstrates his skill both as a writer and a philosopher. He deftly uses examples, illustrations and stories to convincingly show that any of us with a funcioning moral compass will recognize genocide is always wrong. But he is not setting our moral intuition against scripture, just against certain interpretations of scripture. Rauser affirms inerrancy but (and I think Beth Allison Barr made the same point in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood) the problem becomes when people make their interpretations of the text inerrant. The big question, before we get to the specifics of the Canaanite genocide, is how do we interpret scripture? Rauser offers five guidelines for interpreting scripture which, essentially, argue that the revelation of Jesus is the center of scripture and the standard against which we hold all other scripture. There are plenty of echoes of Greg Boyd’s work here, though I’d say orthodox Christianity has always sought to interpret the whole of scripture through Jesus.

With these guidelines in place, we recognize its not that sometimes God commands genocide and other times God commands love. Instead, God is assumed to always be the same, fully revealed in the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus. Or, as the title of the book states, Jesus loves Canaanites. Near the end of the book, Rauser discusses the story of the Canaanite woman approaching Jesus. He writes:

“The lesson is not simply that the Canaanites can, at long last, be included as part of God’s plan. Rather, I would submit the real revelation is that the Canaanites have always been a people who were part of God’s benevolent care. The lesson is that Jesus truly loves all people: Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, and yes, Canaanites too. So perhaps the next question is this: who are the Canaanites in our time and place? And how can we begin to read from the margins with them?“ (267)

Its not that God changed in Jesus, its that Jesus revealed what God has always been like. From this, we do not need to defend God commanding genocide for we know the God revealed in Jesus commands love of Canaanites (and all our enemies), not their destruction.

After Rauser spends plenty of time building his argument and assumptions, he evaluates other apologists who have attempted to defend the Canaanite genocide and shows the many ways such arguments fail. He even offers a helpful evaluation of Greg Boyd’s work Crucifixion of the Warrior God. This is helpful because there are many of us who found Boyd’s book paradigm shifting. Yet its not perfect, and Rauser shows how Boyd unintentionally endorses God using violence. Boyd argues God was going to send “the hornet” to remove the Canaanites which would have been gentler than the Israelites massacring them. Rauser points out a divine plague of hornets would be incredibly painful and torturous.

Another place where Rauser is helpful in critiquing Boyd is that Rauser is more open to the findings of archaeology. Archaeology calls into question the historical reality of these stories and there is no reason we should ignore that. Again, this is why Rauser is the sort of apologist Christians need to read – he is honest and open to the findings of scholarship in ways other apologists are not.

Rauser ends the book with advice on how Christians can engage with each other. To adopt Rauser’s view is to open yourself to criticism if you are in more conservative Christian circles. I’ve known people to say that if any sentence of the BIble is not historically accurate, its all worthless. Rauser encourages us to ask questions (see the quote I shared above). Is belief in God commanding genocide on Jericho as central to Christianity faith as resurrection? Is belief in the historicity of this story as central as the historicity of Jesus?

For those of us looking for a Christianity that does not major on the minors, Rauser is a theologian, writer and thinker we can be grateful for.

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