Show Them No Mercy
4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 03/20/2009 by Mark Tubbs.

Recommended. An intriguing read despite Western bias and inclusion of a liberal.

There are some nasty bits in the Holy Scriptures, we must admit. When reading through the Scriptures in devotions with children, how to euphemize what Lot’s daughters did to him? Or what Judah’s daughter-in-law did with him? Or what David did with Bathsheba? She did more than simply know him, that’s for sure. David paid King Saul a dowry for Saul’s daughter Michal in what currency? What about the interminable bloody battles in Exodus through Judges?

The battles for the Promised Land are the subject of Zondervan’s Counterpoints installment on the topic of “God and Canaanite Genocide” (a subtitle with problems – more on that later). Show Them No Mercy was conceived, conceptualized, and published not long after September 11th, 2001. While millions of average citizens were asking the question, “Where was God on September 11th?”, editor Stanley Gundry set out to answer a related but much more specific question: “Does the Bible condone holy war, and if so, how do we reconcile it with the teachings of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity?”

Under Gundry’s oversight, four theological scholars set out to address the problem of Canaanite genocide from their particular perspectives. Those scholars included

•    C.S. Cowles of Point Loma Nazarene University, who takes the position of “Radical Discontinuity”
•    Eugene H. Merrill of Dallas Theological Seminary, who takes the position of “Moderate Discontinuity”
•    Daniel L. Gard of Concordia Theological Seminary, who takes the position of “Eschatological Continuity”
•    Tremper Longman III of Westmont College, who takes the position of “Spiritual Continuity”

Radical Discontinuity

In his economical introduction, Gundry declares that all four authors “start from the basis of acknowledging the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures.” However, six pages into the chapter on radical discontinuity, Cowles quotes John Bright to the effect that “the Old Testament is a document of the faith of old Israel and only secondarily a document of the church. Its message is not of and by itself a Christian message.” This is the first indication that 1) perhaps Gundry does not mean “inerrant” when he says “authority and inspiration,” and that 2) Cowles is probably working under a trajectory hermeneutic, in that God’s people evolve theologically by way of “progressive understanding” (not to be confused with the doctrine of progressive revelation). Under this view, the Israelites had a primitive view of God. Cowles is dangerously close to Marcionism here.

Cowles articulates his understanding of the gospel thus: “the shocking, unprecedented, and utterly incomprehensible news that God is nonviolent and that he wills the well-being of all humans." Cowles quotes Yahweh’s blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12 in support: “all people on earth will be blessed.” Ironically, only six chapters later God will rain down fire and judgment upon the godless cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. So much for “nonviolent” and “well-being.”

Figuring most heavily into Cowles’ argument of radical discontinuity is his assertion that Jesus was out for peace and reconciliation at all times. Cowles seems to have forgotten Jesus’ teaching about the end of the age, when “all the tribes of the earth will mourn” at the sight of the coming of the Son of Man (Matt 24:30), at which time Christ will separate the sheep from the goats (Matt 25). The wrath of God is neither retaliatory nor vindictive, says Cowles, who prefers to see divine wrath delivered as natural consequences instead of God’s settled hatred toward sin. He offers a rather tortured reading of the early chapters of Romans to support this theory.

Cowles’ contribution is a rhetorically hyper-charged essay designed to instigate an emotional reaction in the reader by using terms such as “exterminate,” “vengeful,” “demonizes,” and “genocide.” All four terms occur within two sentences of each other, incidentally. I could go on, as I have many pages of notes about the anachronistic values Cowles forces upon the text and his failure to adequately reconcile tensions in the text, but I will let Thomas Cahill (not a practicing believer, as far as I am aware) speak directly to Cowles from his book The Gifts of the Jews:

The age to which [the Ten Commandments] were first spoken was a brutal one, an age of spiteful goddesses and cruel god-kings (not a bit like our own). The people who first heard these words were unrefined and basic, the Dusty Ones, wandering through Sinai’s lunar landscape, denuded of the ordinary web of life, baked in absolute heat and merciless light. This was no age or people or environment for anything but the plainest, harshest truths.

To understand the Israelite peoples as “unrefined” and “basic” is not to automatically assume their understanding of God was primitive. Indeed, since it was God Himself – transcendent beyond human understanding – who revealed Himself to the Israelites, Cowles’ trajectory hermeneutic falls down like a house of cards. In the words of Christian communicator Mike Ensley,

I also am confident that when God said, "Do not practice homosexuality," he wasn't switching gears from "Loving God" to "Rule-Making, Fun-Hating God." His commands come from his loving heart, the same heart that sent his Son to save me.

This review has thus far dwelt upon Cowles’ review for the critical reason that his contribution to this book does not fall within the “authority” and “inspiration” of the Scriptures. We now move on to the other views, which are far more unremarkable, and far more orthodox, than that of Cowles.

Moderate Discontinuity

Eugene Merrill’s chapter is characterized by careful and detailed exegesis, which is noted by the other contributors in their respective responses to his. He takes God’s reasons for the conquest of the Promised Land at face value, as necessary to rid the land of pagan idolatry, influences, and practices. Merrill summarizes his position thus: “The case presented here has been that of moderate discontinuity – that is, the view that Yahweh war as articulated in the Old Testament has no justification in the age of the church except in terms of spiritual conflict.” Later, Tremper Longman will articulate a variation of this view, but first we must turn to Gard’s essay.

Eschatological Continuity

Daniel Gard takes on the assignment of defining and defending the eschatological continuity view of herem warfare (warfare in which the object of war is "devoted" to God, which often means total annihilation). He sets out to show how holy war in the Old Testament reveals the character of God in certain ways and sees the holy war in Canaan as symbolizing the way Christ will eventually carry out holy war against those who set themselves against God. Regrettably, a merely typological approach doesn’t do justice to the text. Perhaps it may have worked better if Gard had extended his treatment in a more covenantal direction.

Spiritual Continuity

Finally, Tremper Longman presents his case for spiritual continuity, which is likely the default setting for most evangelical Christians. This view states that the battle between God’s people and the forces of darkness once played out on terra firma but now takes place in the spiritual realm. Longman borrows from Merrill’s and Gard’s perspectives to build a case to explain how redemptive history operates in phases. It could be said that Longman fleshes out Gard’s eschatological perspective and spiritualizes Merrill’s dispensational perspective. These three authors quibble over exactly what constitutes “sacred space” and exactly how much of God’s activity can be subsumed under the term herem, but overall their perspectives mesh quite well.


I can only describe this book as open-ended, since there is no conclusion, which is most disappointing. On the whole, Gundry’s editing job surprised me somewhat. For starters, the whole book seems to take a more or less suppersessionist tone. It tends towards a noticeable Western bias, even though Gundry is the same man who wrote an eloquent, sympathetic and personal three-page forward to a 1992 Zondervan essay collection entitled Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church. In it, he speaks of his pastor-father as a thoughtful dispensationalist who cautioned against reading Scofield’s notes as actual biblical text, and who viewed the seven dispensations more as a mnemonic device than a strict division of redemptive history. Later in seminary Gundry studied under teachers who questioned the idea that two covenants existed, one for the Church and the other for Israel. However, these personal sympathies and theological nuances are not apparent in the four theological commissions he gave the authors.

Show Them No Mercy might have been stronger if Merrill had been allowed or encouraged to present the voice of the Israelites in fuller array. Alternatively, this perspective could have been provided in a separate essay by a Messianic Jewish scholar such as Mark Kinzer or Stuart Dauermann. Among Gentiles, perhaps Michael Vlach, Barry Horner, Peter Leithart, Richard Kendall Soulen, Markus Bockmuehl, or the late Herman Ridderbos could have provided a view with less supersessionist bias. Such a perspective might follow the rough contours laid out by Gabriel Fackre in his essay “The Place of Israel in Christian Faith” from his book Ecumenical Faith in Evangelical Perspective:

•    The legitimacy of the state of Israel on moral grounds and its unique role in salvation history
•    The hardships of the people of Israel over time are directly related to its stewardship of God’s Torah
•    The irrevocability of God’s covenants with His people and how the covenants interact
•    Exegetical grappling with Paul’s teaching about Israel in Romans

This perspective could incorporate elements of Gard’s eschatological view and could hinge exegetically upon the Sinai episode immediately subsequent to Moses’ receipt of the tablets (Exodus 32), unmentioned in this book. This occurrence, as barbaric as it may seem, sets a precedent for the unhesitating and immediate dispatch of those who would stand against the Lord. Cahill again, from The Gifts of the Jews:

Is there a way to understand this passage about a God who has hardly finished issuing an absolute command against murder when he delivers the command for a general slaughter? Moshe was the leader of a primitive desert tribe, set on open rebellion. There were no courts to appeal to, no law besides the word of YHWH and Moshe’s resolve to enforce it. Had he not allied himself with the sword-wielding sons of Levi, the Exodus story might have ended right here....But the slaughter oppresses the reader’s spirit. We can tell ourselves as often as we like that this was a primitive people who needed to be dealt with harshly or that the episode can be explained by later social tensions. We still need to understand why God is enshrined in this narrative as demanding slaughter. There may be no answer, except the answer of Augustine of Hippo: ‘We are talking about God. Which wonder do you think you understand? If you understand, it is not God.’

Unfortunately, in the end Cahill shows the same liberal leanings as Cowles: that in our enlightened age we could never believe in such a demanding, primitive, and bloodthirsty God. So let us turn to John Calvin, from his booklet Truth for All Time:

It is as if [God] were saying [in His description of Himself in Exodus 34:6-7] that he is the only one to whom we must cling and that he cannot tolerate any companion god; and even that he will avenge his majesty and his glory if anyone transfers them to images or anything else; and that not only once, but on fathers, children and nephews, that is, on all – so many as there shall be – who will imitate the ungodliness of their fathers. In the same way he is saying that he will show his mercy and kindness to those who love him and keep his Law. And he declares to us the grandeur of his mercy in that he extends it to a thousand generations, while he assigns only four generations to his vengeance.

So is the term ‘genocide’ anachronistic? Is it an exercise in historical revisionism to apply it to the Israelites' (attempted) annihilation of the Canaanites? I would say so in light of the brutal world Cahill describes above, as well as the relatively recent 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. If I had my druthers, I would have subtitled the book Views on the Israelite Conquest of the Promised Land for at least two reasons: 1) It has more bearing on the geography and the nation concerned in the book, and 2) It isn’t anachronistic. But last time I checked, I am not Stanley Gundry, and as a longstanding and highly competent Zondervan editor, he has no cause to check with me. Although I enjoyed the book and would recommend it, this is not Gundry’s best editing work.