In the first part of this post, I made the point that God’s word (and by association, God himself) often gets a bad rap. But, I argued, this is more a function of a failure on the part of his interpreters, not him or his word. With a bit of imagination and a careful reading of the text along with keeping in mind the seven points I made, we can make more positive sense out of these hard places. In this part two, I want to attempt to bring this to bear on a couple of sections of text that are often particularly difficult for sensitive interpreters to understand: the flood in Genesis 6-9 and the conquest of Canaan in Joshua.
Let’s start with the flood. Whether the flood was universal or local, if we take the report from Genesis 6-9 at even mostly face value, a whole lot of people died at God’s hand. Now, for many, their immediate reaction makes sense: The God I worship wouldn’t do something like that! Again, this makes sense as a gut reaction. To talk, in one breath, about God loving the world so much that he sent his only Son to die for it and, in the next, about God getting so sick of the sin of the world that he wiped out its entire population save eight people creates some serious cognitive dissonance.
But, keeping in mind the seven points I made in part one, there are some important details to keep in mind. First, Genesis 6:5 reports that 10 generations after Adam “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time.” Genesis 6:11-12 puts it like this: “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence. God saw the earth, and indeed it was ruined, for all living creatures on the earth were sinful.” Things had gotten so bad “the Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended.”
The trajectory of humanity at this early point in our history was one of utter destruction. By report of the text, people had become incorrigibly evil. We had turned from God and his ways wholesale and the only possible end of the path we were walking was our self-extermination. How was God to handle this appalling situation? Could he have moved in our hearts to change them and by that our course set for annihilation? Not without taking our freedom. Such a forced change of heart would not have been just of God anyway and he is a God of justice. So, he did what was just: he decided to give us the annihilation that we sought so doggedly and thereby eliminate the violence corrupting his beautiful creation at its source.
But, he also did what was loving and merciful: He searched the earth and found a man, the only man the text says, who sought to do what was right, and acted to save not only him, but also his family such that rather than giving up on the crown of his creation entirely, he would give us another chance. Furthermore, from the time God told Noah to build the ark to the time the rain started falling was 100 years. Rather than acting immediately and out of his great anger, God led with forbearance and gave humanity 100 years to voluntarily repent and get back on the right path. We didn’t, and ultimately, we received what we sought: destruction.
In the end, this was neither an unjust nor unloving action of God to take. He led with mercy in giving us plenty of time to repent, but followed with justice tempered by love in refusing to force himself and his ways on us and giving us the thing we so eagerly sought. In all this, his holiness was maintained, as was his commitment to life. Remember that where before there had been no commands save the first which we promptly violated, God’s first act once the waters had receded and Noah and his family set out to repopulate the earth was to offer another command, a guideline intended to help us understand some of the limits of a relationship with him: Don’t kill other people. The only thing equivalent to the value of a human life in this entire world is another human life.
Is this still a hard story? Of course. But, with a bit of imagination and careful reading of the text, we can make a great deal more sense of it and still come away celebrating the consistent character of our God.
Consider also the story of the so-called Canaanite genocide as detailed in the record of Joshua. The Israelites are commanded to wipe out everybody as they advance into the land of Canaan. They were uprooting and driving out a people who had inhabited the land for many centuries. It was the only home they and their ancestors had ever known. Now, to be sure, the story itself is hard. But, with the seven points from part one in mind, we find an interesting little detail about a conversation God had with the ancestor of the people of Israel about the ancestors of the people of Canaan. God — who is sovereign over his creation and can give land to anybody he pleases — promises Abraham that his descendants would inhabit the land of Canaan which even at the time was inhabited by, among others, another people — the Amorites.
Abraham’s descendants (which numbered zero at the time) couldn’t yet have the land because (Genesis 15:16) “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit.” What does this mean? How about this: God in his perfect knowledge knew that the Amorites (and by extension the other peoples of the land of Canaan, listed for us in vv. 19-21) would eventually grow sinful enough that judgment would be necessary, judgment he intended to bring through Israel. But, that time had not yet come. Until it did, however, they would be given some 500 years to repent and do what was right. Once again: justice and love in perfect balance.
There’s one more thing. Along the way to the time when judgment would become necessary, a famine gripped the nation of Egypt. Joseph, the 11th son of Israel, had been put strategically in place by God there at the time in order to save many lives from starvation (Genesis 50:20). But, the famine did not affect only Egypt. It was so bad that (Genesis 47: 13) “the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan wasted away because of the famine.” In other words, the very people whom God would eventually use the nation of Israel to bring judgment to for their sins were starving to death. What a perfect time for judgment! Yet the time was not right. God in his forbearance used Joseph to save even the Canaanites from the famine. His desire was not for their starvation but for their salvation. Judgment would eventually become necessary, but he showed mercy and extended opportunity for repentance all the way up until the final moment. Justice and love wrapped up in holiness.
This is the God we serve. He is worthy of our service because he acts with perfect love and justice in all his dealings with us. His character is absolutely consistent. It led him to send his Son to save us, but when our Lord returns one day there are many who will not be received into his kingdom but will instead be sent to an eternity of torment — and given global population figures many, many more will receive this fate than would have faced death in the flood or the conquest of Canaan.
These passages of Scripture are hard to understand. There’s no use denying that fact. But, with a bit of imagination and a careful reading of the text (which we take at face value instead of finding ways to show it does not mean what it says), we can set ourselves on a path to making more sense out of them than might be otherwise possible. In the end, as we persevere through the difficulties with confidence in the character of our God and the witness of his word, we are left with a record of self-revelation that can be trusted from start to finish as revealing consistently the God who is good, the God who loves, the God who is holy, the God who is just, the God who is worth celebrating and serving. May you trust in this God and serve this God even when it’s hard.