It’s worth reading Enns on this passage:
(with Rowan Williams quote)
The Bible is, you might say, God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables.
God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made . . . Where are you in this?’
If in that story we find accounts of the responses of Israel to God that are shocking or hard to accept, we do not have to work on the assumption that God likes those responses.
For example: many of the early Israelites in the Old Testament clearly thought it was God’s will that they should engage in ‘ethnic cleansing’—that they should slaughter without mercy the inhabitants of the Promised Land into which they had been led. And for centuries, millennia even, people have asked, ‘Does that mean that God orders or approves of genocide?’ If he did, that would be so hideously at odds with what the biblical story as a whole seems to say about God.
But if we understand that response as simply part of the story, we see that this is how people thought they were carrying out God’s will at that time. The point is to look at God, look at yourself, and to ask where you are in the story. Are you capable in the light of the Bible as a whole—of responding more lovingly or faithfully than ancient Israel.*
Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, pp. 27-28
Williams’s brief book Being Christian is, like anything he writes, theologically deep, pastorally engaged, andbeing-christian commonsensical about a number of things, especially his chapter on the Bible.
For Williams, the Bible is not a book where all parts have equal validity for us today for what God is like and how we should live. Some portions, as we read in the quote above, tell us more about what the Israelites thought God was like, how they in their contextual moment responded to the voice of God as they understood it.
Concerning violence in the Old Testament, in The Bible Tells Me So I put it this way: “God never told the Israelites to kill Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites” (p. 54) or “God Let’s His Children Tell the Story” (p. 61).
To approach matters the way Williams suggests here is not to pick and choose arbitrarily what parts of the Bible to keep or toss away based on our own preferences. I hear that rebuke a lot but it is shallow. By contrast, I find William’s approach to give careful and necessary attention to 3 related and unavoidable matters when we engage in biblical interpretation:
(1) all theology is contextual (including the theology we find in the Bible),
(2) the Bible is not a book of timeless propositions to accept at face-value but reflects an ongoing journey of spiritual discernment, and
(3) our own continued discernment of how the Bible informs our faith is the very stuff of careful, ongoing theological reflection.
Or just Enns:
God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites (along with everything else that breathes) remains one of the more gruesome stories in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 20:16-20).
This story presents readers with a real—not imagined—moral and theological dilemma, but my point isn’t to get into all that here. [You can read more here and also in The Bible Tells Me So, where I take a whole chapter laying out the issues.]
Here I just want to say that this command wasn’t an afterthought. As the Israelites tell the story, the Canaanites were doomed from the start for something that happened nearly at the beginning of human history—Noah and the great Flood.
This flood killed every living creature; only Noah and his family were saved in a big boat, along with enough animals (1) to repopulate the earth later and (2) to sacrifice to appease God.
After the waters subsided and everyone de-arked, Noah planted the first vineyard, made wine, and got drunk. Like a state college freshman, he collapsed naked inside his tent in a drunken coma.
His youngest son, Ham, went into the tent, saw him his father lying there naked, and went out to tell his brothers, Shem and Japheth. Rather than gawking, the two brothers walked backwards into the tent and covered their father with a garment.
It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here, but, apparently, the two brothers handled the situation correctly whereas Ham didn’t. So, when Noah woke up, he did what any normal father would do with when faced with the same dilemma—he cursed Ham’s descendants forever.
Three guesses who Ham’s descendants are (and the first two don’t count): the Canaanites.
It strikes me that the very first words out of Noah’s mouth after he woke up weren’t, “What a night! What was I thinking!? I’ll never do that again!”
Not even, “Ham! Get in here! How dare you look upon my nakedness?!”
Instead he said,
“Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
Not, “Cursed be Ham,” or “Cursed be Ham and all his descendants,” but “Cursed be the line of one of Ham’s sons—Canaan.”
Ham has four sons, yet only Canaan and his entire bloodline are doomed—which seems a bit extreme, given the fact that he himself hadn’t done anything.
Plus, two of Noah’s other sons are Cush and Mizraim, the ancestors of the Egyptians who held the Israelites in slavery. So how about cursing their bloodlines?
But no. Only this one son of Ham has his descendants consigned to a perpetual subhuman legacy of enslavement to the descendants of his brothers—namely the descendants of Shem, from which come the Israelites.
It looks like whoever wrote this story has a bone to pick with the Canaanites.
If we read this in another ancient book, we’d call it propaganda—a story to justify, not explain, hatred of the Canaanites. At least that’s what it looks like.
Israel’s later sworn enemies, the Canaanites, are set up as failures from the beginning, and no treatment—not even extermination—is too harsh for these people whose ancestor’s father saw his father drunk and naked.
This isn’t going to end well for the Canaanites.