To modern readers, the injunction that appears in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua to “drive out” the inhabitants of Canaan, which appears to command their mass slaughter, raises disturbing questions. Daniel Hawk, a professor of Old Testament at the Ashland Theological Seminary, attempts to address such questions in his recent book The Violence of the Biblical God, arguing—to put it simply—that God must from time to time condone bloodshed in trying to make His will manifest in a dysfunctional world. In his review, Shai Held praises Hawk for dismantling many commonplace but flawed approaches to these questions, but also has some sharp criticism:
In light of the many internal contradictions within the text [of the book of Joshua] and the highly stylized ways killing is described, Hawk concludes that [its] rhetoric about mass killing “contains more style than substance.” Like other recent scholars, he appeals to Deuteronomy 7. If God really wants the Israelites to “wipe out” the inhabitants of the land completely, then why does He immediately follow up with a commandment not to intermarry with them? The Israelites presumably will not marry [into] nations they have already slaughtered. The command to kill the nations of the land, then, “does not appear to be concerned with eliminating them so much as keeping Israel at a distance from them.”
The hyperbolic rhetoric of Deuteronomy and Joshua ultimately underscore [for Hawk] Israel’s commitment to radical separation from the land’s native inhabitants. The rhetoric is about mass killing, but the actual commitment is to something different—unadulterated commitment to God.
On one level, what Hawk offers represents a significant improvement over the approaches he rejects, if only because he takes the Hebrew Bible seriously on its own terms. . . . Yet on another level, Hawk’s approach is also profoundly troubling. In his account, God’s attempt to remake the world from the inside ends in “disaster,” and so, too, therefore does the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Turning to the New Testament, Hawk discovers a God who is still committed to working with kings, only this time from “outside the system.”
He [later adds], “In the New Testament, God still identifies with Israel but primarily with its travails and sufferings.” I am not sure this last statement is consistent with the rest of Hawk’s argument, but it is in any case troubling on its own terms: God identifies with Israel only when it suffers? This comes perilously close to implying that not only was Christ a Jew, but that if the Jews want God’s ongoing identification, then they must suffer like Christ.