The God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, also known as Yahweh, is often derided as a menacing vengeful God who is seemingly bloodthirsty for anyone’s blood who isn’t one of his “chosen” covenant people. We see God commanding His people, upon entry to Canaan, to wipe out whole nations; sparing no one, not even child or mother. This seems not just harsh, but for some it is akin to outright genocide. We have concepts like the ‘ban’ in place—just open to the Book of Moses and you’ll see this—under which, as noted, when the tribes of Israel entered into ‘The Land’, they were to engage in a scourged-earth campaign wherein EVERYTHING was to be wiped out; including certain types of vegetation. People often read these passages in the 21st century, under such sensibilities, and attempt to cohere ‘this God’ with the God we encounter in the New Testament, in Jesus Christ. They see an almost absolute disjunction between Jesus, and the God of the Old; to the point that they engage in creative reading practices that attempt to attribute the Old Testament understanding to the purview of the people of Israel, rather than to who God actually is in Himself (in se).
Frankly, such things as the ‘ban’ are not easy teaching; indeed, it is hard teaching. My strategy, in regard to engaging with this difficulty, has been to recognize that what was going on in the Ancient Near East (ANE) millennia ago, represents worlds and worlds of difference from what is going on currently in the 21st century under the pressures of modernity (although, honestly, things aren’t really that different when we start comparing the similarities between the wickedness that prevailed then, and the wickedness and blood-shed that prevails currently). It is within this acknowledgement that I am able to say: “okay, God was accommodating Himself and His ways, to the currents of that time, rather than the currents of my time.” I am able to conclude that God’s Providential ways have worked through every periodized period of history in such a way that He has been able to unfold and accomplish His purposes as those are entailed by the reality of His elect Son, Jesus Christ.
But something hit me tonight, as I was reading Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 §14. It involves a theological understanding, more pointedly, a christological understanding of just what might have been going on with the seeming brutality of the ‘ban’, and the way God commanded His people to act when encountering the Canaanites upon entry into the ‘Land of Israel’ (or what would become that). We know, explicitly from the context of the text, that one of God’s purposes was to keep the people from mixing with these corrupted nations; to keep them from adopting their cultural traditions and gods, in order to remain ‘sanctified’ unto God for His peculiar purposes. But this begs the question: ‘why?’ Why was this so important to Yahweh? Why was God so concerned with covenantally preserving the Hebrews? Why was God so intent upon keeping them untouched by the surrounding nations? Here is what cajoled my thinking towards an answer to the “why” of the questions I have just noted:
The Old Testament like the New Testament is the witness to the revelation in which God remains a hidden God, indeed declares Himself to be the hidden God by revealing Himself. In and with this attested revelation a judgment is pronounced upon the whole world surrounding it, since God—here and now actually present—declares the whole world surrounding His revelation to be godless, irrespective of what it apparently believed itself to possess in the way of divine presence. And by this judgment this entire surrounding world is as such destined to die off, to pass away. If it has a hope, it is not to be found in itself, but only in connexion with the divine presence which breaks out fresh in revelation, and is the only real presence. But in the first instance it has no hope. If must first of all pass away. The nations settled in Palestine, which were in certain respects highly civilised nations, were struck with surprise and horror at the nomad nation that broke in from the desert with their first and second commandments, although it was really questionable how far even they understood and followed these commandments themselves. The revelation which was the origin of this nation was the revelation of the one, only God, to be acknowledged without analogy and to be worshipped without image. What invaded Palestine was the radical dedivinisation of nature, history and culture—a remorseless denial of any other divine presence save the one in the event of drawing up the covenant. If there were any pious Canannites—and why should there not have been such?—the God of Israel must have appeared to them as death incarnate, and the faith of Israel as irreligion itself. But admittedly no time was left them for such reflections. In remembering this hiddenness of the Old Testament covenant-God, we also understand that the question, as it was obviously put to Israel in the time of Joshua and the Judges down to and including Samuel, consisted in the frightful dilemma: either God’s presence, guidance and help and therefore fidelity and obedience to the covenant on the nation’s side, or peaceful assimilation into the nature, history and culture of the country, i.e., a common human life with its inhabitants. Or the question put the opposite way: either surrender of the covenant with consequent loss of the presence of God in the nature, history or culture of the country, even involving the physical elimination of its inhabitants. The whole inexorable sharpness of the difference between Yahweh and the baalim, between the prophets on the one hand and the nation and the kings and the “false” prophets on the other, which constituted the theme of the history of Israel down to the Deuteronomic reform and beyond, is understandable in the light of the typical either/or, which according to tradition, constituted the end of the wandering in the wilderness and the beginning of the history of Israel in the country of their fathers (or, rather, in the country of Yahweh). Was it nationalistic narrow-mindedness, religious fanaticism, hatred of men and lust for blood that commanded this people to take such a stand and to act upon it? According to the unanimous testimony of the Old Testament, it is rather driven, against its will and amid numerous attempts to carry out its own opposite will, along this hard. [sic] inhumane way. It would have been very like them to become one civilised Canaanite nation among others, and to be religiously open and pliable or at least tolerant. King Saul, whom Samuel had to withstand, and later King Ahab, whom Elijah had to withstand, must in their way have been outstanding representatives of this naturally human Israel. But Israel could not do as it wished. Wherever the voice of its prophets thundered and was heard, the abyss reopened between the gods and men of the country, and the holy nation, the natural, human Israel was accused, it was called back to the offensive attitude of unconditional resistance. It is not its religious and natural peculiarity that is the restraint here—it would never have been so unconditional in its resistance—but its God, who cannot become manifest without at the same time becoming hidden. The country belongs to Him. It cannot therefore belong to the baalim also or even at all. No other loyalty is compatible with loyalty to Him. Since by its own existence Israel pointed out God’s revelation to the world around it, it had to deny their gods, i.e., their very deepest, best and most vital thing, the supposedly absolute relations in which they thought they stood. Israel had to point out to this world the end, the judgment coming upon them. That Yahweh’s exclusiveness is fundamental, that His revelation really points out the judgment coming upon the world, is to be seen in the fact that the prophetic accusations and threats, which apart from Israel are in Amos still directed only against the nearest nations, reach over in the later prophets to the great world nations on the Euphrates and the Nile. From this later message of judgment we shall have to read off the meaning and trend of the earlier one.
The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is actually the end and judgment, the revelation of the hidden God which the Old Testament indicates. In the cross of Christ God is really and finally to become hidden from the world, from this æon. And thereby judgment will be passed upon this æon. The old will have passed away in the incarnate Word of God. The history of Israel runs to meet this Word and so this passing away. It only runs to meet it. But it does run to meet it. It signifies the proclamation of world judgment in fulfilled time. It is the time for expecting it. But because it is the time for expecting it, it is itself revelation-time.
I am not going to attempt to exegete what Barth offers. I simply wanted you to see what prompted me to some of my own thinking on this issue; it is related, of course. I also wanted you to have the opportunity to be prompted to your own thinking by reading this passage from Barth.
But what hit me takes us back to Genesis 3, and the satanic temptation of Adam and Eve. We see ‘in the Beginning’ that the devil has been intent on thwarting the purposes of God, and that he will go to great lengths to undo the ‘very good’ creation that God is willing to give His own and eternal Life for. We see Cain, Nimrod, and Noah’s generation rising up under the inspiration of the devil’s lisp in a demonic attempt to rise up against God’s proto-evangelium (Gen 3.15), and thwart God’s plan to redeem the world. We see in the post-diluvian world (post-flood) a new generation rising up, one that took various trajectory through the lines of Noahic genesis; a trajectory wherein nations were birthed through the seed of the women. These nations, from their inception, were seemingly under the spell of satan’s deception; constructing cultures and gods who were systemically aerated with the breath of the Serpent.
My thought, within the aforementioned context of the ‘ban,’ was that these nations, from the beginning were constructed in such a way that their purpose was to keep God’s plan from fruiting. It would be through the intermixing and watering down of God’s covenant people that God’s people, as mediators of the Messiah, were intended on thwarting God’s plan. Even as we read in Barth, this is exactly the sort of waywardness that Israel was so prone to. What we see is that even in the mixture of “God’s people” with the ‘secular nations’, even in the failure of God’s people, as they were allowed to grow and mix with the nations and their ways; we see that God’s Way could not be thwarted. No matter the imperfection of these people, “His people,” He would mediate Himself through their loins, as the Lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world. But it seems that early on as Yahweh was bringing His people into The Land, that the intent was to carve out a space where His sanctified and vivified people might begin to flourish as they moved towards the ‘fullness of time’ (Gal 4).
In a way this helps me understand what was going on in the ‘ban’ period of God’s people as they invaded the Canaanite lands. In the midst of that there was a foreshadowing of the ultimate judgment to come, as that would be realized in the flesh of God in Jesus Christ. Up until that ‘revealed-time’, God worked as leaven in the ‘lost-time’ of the nations with the sole purpose of bringing His rightful judgment of them to an end in the unrightful judgment of Himself as the ‘Judge judged’; which is His Grace enacted. But the harshness of the judgment meted out on these nations, I contend, was ultimately for their own good. It signifies just what is at stake in the coming of the Son of Man, and the harshness of the judgment He bore for them and all of us.
The nations, under the devil’s own motivations, sought, unconsciously, in the spiritually dead state they took formation within, to thwart the means of their own so desperately needed re-conciliation with God. In order to look at this sort of ‘judgment’ for what it is, this requires that we approach this eschatologically, under the staurologic (cross-logic) of God’s ultimate purposes to reverse the curse spawned by the Serpent’s word, by bringing His Word (Logos) to the concretization that the Christ is. But in order for my theory to be persuasive, the primary premise that must be accepted is that Israel was (and is) God’s covenant people; a people with the ‘seed’ (Gal 3) in its loins that would ultimately be the salvation not just for them, but even the nations under Yahweh’s judgment. These things must be thought through this lens, or my thesis falls apart, and we are reverted back to the Enlightenment-critical reading that sees the Old Testament referring to a God of the Hebrew’s own projection. FWIW
 Barth, CD I/2 §14, 87-8.