A few weeks ago, a friend tweeted a link to a blog post from Pastor Brian Zahnd. My journey to Pastor Zahnd’s blog ultimately sparked a twitter dialogue between Pastor Brian Zahnd, my friend and myself.
Part of our twitter conversation surrounded Pastor Zahnd’s blog titled, “John Piper and Allahu Akbar” where he was terse with Piper, calling him to following an “ism”, via Calvinism. He has a video of Piper explaining how God could command the killing of the Canaanites, for example, and still be just. In his blog, he states,
“I understand that the disciples of John Calvin feel obligated to defend their ism at all costs, but my, what a cost it is when it requires impugning the character of God!”
As our twitter exchange persisted, Pastor Zahnd pointed me to another one of his blog posts, “God and Genocide” http://brianzahnd.com/2013/04/god-and-genocide/ where he writes that God would have never issued such a command. Our conversation then shifted to his belief that God does not ultimately have control over all life and death matters. He asserted via twitter, “If God controlled all life and death then why the prohibition on murder?” And later, “People die all the time that God does not want to die…”
My friend, who was also part of our twitter dialogue, suggested I not use twitter as a form of rebuttal, but perhaps write a counter-blog. This was sound twitter advice, which Pastor Zahnd favorited, so I took that as his permission to do so.
Let me state in advance, I do not know Pastor Zahnd and in no way am I attacking him personally. My basis for this blog post is his views, supported by his blog posts and our conversation over twitter, for which I stand in stark contrast. As Proverbs 27:17 states, iron sharpens iron. It is my hope, in light of both pastor Zahnd and me chasing after Jesus the Christ, we can come to that foundation and still have meaningful discourse, born out of a search for truth and not a belittling of character or person. I recently read an interview, where Pastor Zahnd speaks of his spiritual pilgrimage. He explains how he changed his view on deep issues within his belief system. My hope is he will perhaps be willing to also change course in regards to this issue.
What Is The Issue?
The crux of the issue at hand stems from Pastor Zahnd’s blog post, “God and Genocide,” where he dislikes and or does not believe that God would instruct a man to take the life of another human. Pastor Zahnd begins his blog post by asking the reader to engage in a “game”. For such a troublesome subject, I find this method bizarre. It reminds me of the movie Scream. Sydney, a main character in the movie, answers a ringing phone and at the other end, she hears this very scruffy, evil-intentioned voice that shouts, “Do you want to play a game, Sydney?” The tactic of beginning his blog post in this manner really calls into question if he is interested in serious dialogue.
This is one of the hardest, if not the hardest issue to reconcile with Jesus the Christ. However, hard does not mean impossible. Succinctly stated, how can the God of the Old Testament be the same God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth? That is the question he raises. His solution is logically lacking substance and facts, but rather based on an emotive expression.
The blog post manufactures this “game” in the form of an interrogation, which in my view, only questions the inerrancy of Scripture. However, Pastor Zahnd does not see it quite the same. First, he questions if God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac. He then asks, did God tell Joshua and Saul to kill children as part of an “ethnic cleansing” of Canaan. Next, he questions the reader, “If God told you to kill your children, would you?” He continues on, creating what philosophy deems a false dilemma, or in this case a false trilemma. A false dilemma is where the questioner creates a dilemma or quandary, which leads the listener to believe the options provided by the questioner are the only options available. In short, to use Pastor Zahnd’s terminology, “You have been painted into a corner and something has to give.”
In light of these three questions, he proceeds with three options to reconcile the Scriptures highlighted in his “game”. First option, he offers we can question God’s morality. Second, he proposes we can question the immutability of God. Third, he advocates we can question our understanding of Scripture. In this last option, he carefully navigates the wording in regards to Scripture as an “understanding”. He explains why he discounts options one and two, which leaves us with only our “understanding” aka interpretation of Scripture. However, to state the obvious, there could be another option; the Scriptures are correct and God did tell Moses to commit such acts. Pastor Zahnd clearly does not see this as a valid option, thus why he created the false trilemma.
Pastor Zahnd’s “understanding” is that God never really told Moses or Joshua to kill other humans. They merely “thought” God had told them to do this, or perhaps, they just flat out lied to the people. Pastor Zahnd’s position is that God would never tell humans to kill another human.
The blog ends citing there are no good reasons to enact violence in promoting the kingdom of God. This is something all believers and non-believers can and should believe. Jesus himself said this in John 18:36,
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
Although the ending to Pastor Zahnd’s blog is noble and one I agree with, he misses a critical point. The Old Testament examples utilized to bolster his position are not “committing genocide” nor were they used to further the Gospel.
What is Good? What is Evil?
It is evident throughout Pastor Zahnd’s blog, he sees Moses actions, claiming that God instructed him to kill other men, as an evil. When the issue of good and evil is raised, the assumptions within should first be explored. Ravi Zacharias often uses the following syllogism for good and evil.
If there is such a thing as evil, then there must be such a thing as good. If there is such a thing as good, then there must be a moral law on which one differentiates between good and evil. If there is a moral law, then there must be a moral law giver. If there is no moral law giver, then there is no moral law. If there is no moral law, then there is no good. If there is no good, then there is no evil. The question self-destructs.
Why does there have to be a moral law giver? Quite simply, Dr. Zacharias explains, any time the problem of evil is raised; it is either raised about a person or by a person. Therefore, personhood must be part of the paradigm. That person is God. Pastor Zahnd wants to evict God from actually telling Moses & Joshua in the Old Testament to kill, as it doesn’t fit within his “Z-ism.” Rather, his only option is to question how we “understand” Scripture.
Applying Pastor Zahnd’s logic, David is also suspect. When David said to Goliath, “I come to you in the name of the Lord,” was that true? Did God place David there to kill Goliath? Did David just mistakenly believe or lie about being sent there by God? Did God ask David to be the one chosen to kill another human? I raise the point because in killing Goliath, possible hundreds, if not thousands of Philistines died. There are many more stories in Scripture that would need to be unhinged if we are to believe what he is espousing. With that in mind, on what logical basis does he come to believe the Scriptures are false? Another option is Moses was a liar, which is really untenable.
First, what is the meaning and origin of the word Genocide?
“The term “genocide” did not exist before 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group…In 1944, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of the European Jews. He formed the word “genocide” by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, derived from the Latin word for killing. In proposing this new term, Lemkin had in mind “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
It is almost enough to insist, based on this definition, all of Pastor Zahnd’s arguments are false. The erroneousness of his blog title, “God and Genocide”, violates his entire discourse. The word genocide was not in existence until 1944; therefore to call what happened in the Old Testament genocide is logically impossible. Applying what we know today about the word genocide to those past events in the Old Testament is imprudent. It is egregiously inaccurate to think ancient people of that time would call those acts genocide. They would not have done so, and I propose neither should we.
To illustrate this point, I will use another uncomfortable subject, Pedophilia. According to the definition, pedophilia is the “Sexual perversion in which children are the preferred sexual object.” If an ancient culture had within their ethos a common practice of allowing adult males to marry nine year old females, per the definition we would call that today, pedophilia. However, that is not how it was viewed in the ancient cultures and therefore, in context or in the hermeneutics of reading such a passage, we would be unjust to call it pedophilia. The same applies to the word genocide. This is so simple an idea that it occasionally gets dismissed as sophistry. We are to read Scripture how the author intended it and also how the original audience would have understood it. The word genocide did not exist, therefore it was not genocide from the ancient cultures perspective and it ought not to be from ours.
I’ll go a step further, using Moses and the Canaanites as an illustration. In the meaning and origin of the word genocide previously cited, there must be “violent crimes” with the idea of “systematic murder” committed in order to be genocide. If the Bible is true and means what it says, then the Lord commanded the killing of the Canaanites to Moses. It is impossible for God to commit violent crimes with the backdrop being that of systematic murder; therefore, “violent crimes” and “systematic murder” were not committed by God. That leaves only Moses to perpetrate such evil. So in order for genocide to be committed we are left asking, did Moses commit violent crimes and systematic murder? If both God and Moses are found not guilty, then one can conclude, genocide was not committed since the two key elements are missing.
At this point, we now have to find another word to describe what happened. That is not something I will address at this time, but should immediately cause every reader of this posting to take pause.
I will offer another syllogism.
1. To destroy a group of people via genocide, violent crimes and systematic murder must exist.
2. In the killing of the Canaanites, violent crimes and systematic murder did not exist.
3. Therefore, in regards to the Canaanites, genocide also does not exist.
If the premises are true then the conclusion necessarily follows. Once again, putting away all doubt that genocide, at least in the way Pastor Zahnd described, was not committed.
I hope all who are followers of Christ can agree; “Violent crimes” are an evil, not a good. Murder is, of course, wrong. Let us not forget the 10 commandments, Thou shall not Murder! However, and I’m not sure Pastor Zahnd recognizes the difference, murder and killing are not the same. If you consider killing the same as murder, please reference this blog post http://www.einsteinslight.com/relativity-of-god-2
One final thought. Is it not interesting that Moses, the person who delivered the 10 commandments, is the same person Pastor Zahnd impugns? Pastor Zahnd borrows this moral standard to indict and condemn the actions of the very person he received the moral standard from, which is Moses. As a side note, if Moses did not hear from God correctly and God never did command such an action, then would not the moral standard of not committing murder also become suspect? In other words, if Moses didn’t hear correctly about the killing of the Canaanites then why should we think that he heard correctly in regards to the moral standard of not murdering? Perhaps he didn’t get that correct either. This, in essence, does not prove anything. However, it begs the question, who really has this wrong, Moses or Pastor Zahnd?
In summary, through simply the title of the blog, two things can be exposed. First, the word genocide was not known by anyone that was part of the act recorded by Moses. Therefore, because genocide was unknown until 1944, those in ancient times never thought of it as genocide. If we are trying to apply a sound hermeneutic to the text, this point is extremely important to grasp. The act may be called something else, however genocide it is not! Second, in order to commit genocide, violent crimes with systematic murder as its backdrop must be committed. Since God is not capable of doing such an evil, genocide was not perpetrated by God. That only leaves Moses to take the fall. Does one think Moses committed violent crimes with the backdrop of murder? If so, I am not sure how one could trust the words of such a person, thus calling into question everything Moses penned or is thought to have penned.
Why Should We Believe Him?
I find no arguments in Pastor Zahnd’s blog post to offer sustenance of not believing that God actually told these men to do this. There is no thoughtful case presented based on logic and reason. Conversely, his only angle is a text book case of existential appeal with no logically sound arguments to defend why he concludes Moses got it all wrong. Rather, he merely appeals to the “feelings” of his readers.
One more point, which cannot be ignored, Pastor Zahnd’s question, “would you kill your child if God told you to?” which goes back to the existential pull on the objective morality found in all of human kind. Through the proposition, he wants you to retort, are you kidding? No way! But not so fast, wait a minute. You will find yourself in a quandary and a paradox if you answer how he wishes.
Pastor Zahnd’s question declares, “God said!” and in doing so conveys you should willfully disobey God. The question does not say, “If you “thought” God told you to kill, would you?” Rather, he emphatically screams, God said to do this, disobey him and do not kill your child! Let me make it clear, my intention is to expose Pastor Zahnd’s philosophical blunders, not to justify the killing of anyone. Pastor Zahnd delivers several false dilemmas/trilemma throughout his blog post with this being yet another, kill your child or disobey God. Wow! What great options are those? It is this type of emotive expression that we must not base our exegesis of the Scriptures on, but rather on sound reason and logic.
It is my position that Pastor Zahnd is counting on feelings to guide the heart, rather than your mind guiding your feelings, which guide the heart. No worthy arguments are presented to justify his easy dismissal that Moses got this wrong and God indeed never said. Instead, the argument appears to have a desperate strategy of exploiting the truth of Scripture, buy stating our understanding is inept. I dub this a “Pastor Zahnd-ism”, or “Z-ism”.
Furthermore, on what basis does Pastor Zahnd get a choice of what is deemed as truly articulated by God? In the third chapter of Genesis, it says:
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
In this situation or any other, we should use extreme caution when questioning, “Did God really say,” Particularly as it concerns the legitimacy, rationality and the validity of Scriptures.
In this blog post, I have torn down Pastor Zahnd’s existential appeal with philosophical arguments, logic, and reason. On the other hand, I have not erected another way in which one could view these acts as that would require another blog response. However, I do assert there are other logical, more thoughtful solutions to this paradox than the one Pastor Zahnd has offered.
I’ve included several links to William Lane Craig’s blog where he addresses some of these arguments. I am not presenting his arguments as the end all be all, however, Dr. Craig’s responses are based on logic, and are indeed plausible. I have attempted to demonstrate that Pastor Zahnd’s position feeds on feelings of existential nonsense, rather than a well thought out argument. To say it is an understanding or interpretation issue, as Pastor Zahnd would like us to believe, is simply not the case. He may push us in that direction because he holds to Open Theism, however I do not know if that is true.
As we reflect on his blog and my response, let us not forget what Pastor Zahnd is proposing. He wants us to believe that Moses, the baby boy whose life was sustained by being placed in the Nile, the young man who encountered a burning bush and heard the voice of God calling him to be the leader of the Israelites, the one God used to deliver the 10 plagues on Egypt, the one commanding the parting of the Red sea, the one called by God to deliver the 10 commandments, the one who heard exactly how to build the temple, the one who led the people of Israel through the desert, the author of the first five books of the bible, who intimately knew the voice of Yahweh, it was this man who did not hear from God, or got it wrong, or lied.
How can one read all I have presented and take the Pastor’s position? The weight of the evidence that this is not genocide is so overwhelming, one may want to chuckle after considering what Zahnd wants us to believe. However, this is no laughing matter. Rather, it is something many in the church are beginning to believe and serious dialogue needs to take place. The word of God and its explanation is not something any in the church should take lightly.
To use Pastor Brian Zahnd’s earlier statement to John Piper, with a slight tweak, I will leave you with this final statement.
“I understand that disciples of Brian Zahnd feel obligated to defend their Z-ism at all costs, but my, what a cost it is when it requires impugning the character of God or Moses!”
Please use the links below to see other reasonable and logical views regarding this issue.
1“Genocide” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
IMO, you make too much of the word genocide. The precedence that God will command his servants to end the life of other humans should be deeply troubling to us, if for no other reason, because the church has at many tragic times killed horrific numbers of people in the name of Jesus Christ. Turks, native peoples around the world, other followers of Jesus… let us weep for those image bearers of God that have been slain in God’s holy name by God’s unholy followers. Maybe you don’t like the word Genocide, but what term would you use for drowning Anabaptist? What name would you give the burning of Michael Servetus? Zahnd is concerned, I think, with the capacity to have an existential direction to take the life of another in the name of the God of Israel. This, whatever name you give it, is the testimony of scripture about Moses and Joshua.
And if the fullness of God dwells bodily in Jesus, it’s worth noting that the violence that seemed to be appropriate for the advance of God’s kingdom is the suffering of Christ and those who follow him in being hated as he was hated. At no point does Jesus direct his followers take up arms, and even rebukes that course of action. Instead of critiquing the form of Zahnds blog and argument, I wish that you had addressed the substance of his concern.
The reality is that leaders of God’s people have killed others in the name of Christianity, that is, in the name of Jesus Christ. And when asked how they could come to take the life of another human, that church points to Moses for precedence. Brian Zahnd finds that troubling, and I frankly wish that others were more troubled by it.
I wholeheartedly agree that God has the right to do as He will, that He did indeed instruct Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Moses to completely annihilate the Canaanites, and that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and that God is immutable. However, I think refuting “Z’’s” argument with a counter-argument based upon the definition and contemporaneous use of the word “genocide” is weak and not convincing. Just because the word didn’t exist in Moses’ time does not mean “it” could not have happened. I do agree that it is important to distinguish between murder and killing. Your article will do little to convince anyone troubled by the annihilation of the Canaanites that God is good and that they can put their trust in Him. I do appreciate the links you provided and recommend them to anyone troubled by some of these passages of the OT which can be very difficult for our western minds and hearts to understand.
Hello Gail. I appreciate your comments. To clarify, I am not saying the war time killing did not happen. I am saying it is impossible to say that was “genocide”. In response that you do not find it convincing I would leave you with this question. How can it be said to be genocide, in proper context, when that idea didn’t exist? Now, one might not appreciate that distinction, but it is undeniable. Whatever one wants to call what happened this much we can be sure, it wasn’t genocide from Israel’s point of view, neither in idea or literally.