Readers of the Old Testament are often stunned and horrified at the violence which seems to pervade its pages. Particularly troubling are instances in which God Himself commands the nation of Israel to completely destroy Canaanite villages, showing no compassion even on women and children. These passages are especially relevant in the 21st century, given the fact that many groups in the preceding 300 years have attempted to justify genocide on the basis of the Old Testament accounts.
Show Them No Mercy (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2003) by C.S. Cowles, Eugene Merrill, Daniel Gard, and Tremper Longman presents four views of God in light of these difficult Old Testament texts. In particular, the writers each attempt to explain how the loving and non-violent picture of Christ’s first advent harmonizes with the violence of God seen in the Old Testament.
The first view, presented by C.S. Cowles, is the most radical. Cowles asserts that God never truly commanded the Israelites to practice genocide, but that they instead misunderstood the nature of God and acted on the basis of national pride and corporate convenience. He is forced to conclude that the Old Testament is not completely inerrant but instead contains an imperfect and limited perspective of God which is only corrected by the New Testament’s emphasis on the love of Christ.
Eugene Merrill does an excellent job of approaching the problem from a dispensational perspective. He effectively argues that God has not changed but that the Conquest narratives reflect God’s unique relationship with the nation of Israel during a particular period of history. God’s holiness, Canaan’s idolatry, and the Abrahamic covenant made the destruction of Canaanite cities necessary. However, the same conditions no longer operate in the Church Age, and thus Christians have no justification for waging war in the name of Christ.
Daniel Gard and Tremper Longman present two remarkably similar views, although Longman’s case is made in a clearer and more convincing manner. Both connect the passages of violence in the Old Testament to New Testament descriptions of spiritual warfare and to the apocalyptic accounts of Christ’s Second Coming. Their essential argument is that the character of God remains the same, although the manner in which His holiness and wrath are demonstrated varies throughout history. The same God who once acted in wrath upon the Canaanites will one day render judgment and destruction on all who oppose Him.
A major strength of this book is its emphasis on the fact that modern-day genocide cannot be supported by Scripture. Although all of the authors could have done a better job of justifying the necessity for the Israelite’s wholesale extermination of people groups (including seemingly innocent women and children), this book is highly recommended for those who wish to sharpen their understanding of these highly difficult Old Testament passages.