Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide
Book Review: Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide

Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 241pp. $17.99. Paper.

Four men, all of whom say they believe in the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, seek to tackle the problem that many of us tend to push to the back of our minds: How do we understand mass murder, or what these men call “herem warfare,” with the God of the Bible? September 11th, Rwanda, the Holocaust and countless other herem warfare-type activities have occurred throughout history, but more poignant is the fact that it is even in our own Bibles (cf. Deut 20:16-17).

Deuteronomy 20:16-17 is only one of several passages these men attempt to explain in this typical four views book. C.S. Cowles is first in stating his position. Of the four views, he finds the most discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, particularly with regard to herem warfare (19). 1 John 4:8 presents a problem for him as he considers the God of the Old Testament. In some sense, it seems like he is differentiating the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament, although he never says that explicitly. In fact, each his critics point out that, in a sense, he seems to devalue the Old Testament and drive a wedge between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of the Church (52, 56, 59). 

Eugene H. Merrill, a dispensationalist, sees less discontinuity than Cowles. In his chapter titled, “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” Merrill argues that herem warfare, or what he calls “Yahweh war,” is distinct from other types of war (e.g., war in general, spiritual warfare or eschatological warfare). As he makes these distinctions, it allows him to define Yahweh war as something which was particular for Israel as a nation (84). Therefore it is not something that should be carried into the New Testament church. 

While Merrill has many good things to say, there are a few points of concern. He rightly emphasizes God’s justice in Yahweh war, but he never fully expounded why God let Israel remain although the Israelites were sinners too and deserved destruction. He did mention God’s covenant with Israel (75), but as Gard notes, “It was for the preparation of the nation of Israel to bring forth the One who would come as a Savior not only for Israel but for all the children of Adam” (104). Furthermore, as Merrill concludes that Yahweh war was largely spiritual, or in his words, “ultimately cosmic,” I wonder if there was too much emphasis placed on this point while he neglected the eschatological nature of Yahweh war?

Daniel L. Gard does not employ the term “Yahweh war.” Instead, in presenting his case for eschatological continuity, he uses classic terms such as “genocide,” which he defines as “the systematic slaughter of a group or race of people—a nation” (113). Gard may also use the term herem interchangeably with genocide, which he believes is simply a part of the larger picture, namely “holy war.” This holy war was not unique to Israel. In fact, according to Gard, they were following after other nations in their herem-like tactics (116). 

After making this claim, he transitions to the characteristics of herem. Initially, he cites Gerhard von Rad’s twelve characteristics of herem. Shortly thereafter, he formulates a list of his own characteristics which links earlier events of herem in biblical history with later events. As he does this, he first explains the “meaning of defeat,” which he believes is a link between all herem events. The “meaning of defeat” he simply boils down to the cause of defeat, which is the will of God. Next, he moves on to four other traits, which point to the eschatological nature of herem: application of the law of war, holy war as synergism or monergism, the spoils of war, and the holiness of the camp (123-129). 

Cowles does not approve of Gard’s conclusion. Merrill does not seem to find as many faults as Cowles; nonetheless, he does state the obvious, namely, Gard, not holding a pre-millennial view, seems to underplay the role of Israel in herem. Moreover, Merrill is not convinced of some of the typological connections which Gard makes. Longman, like Merrill, also believes that Gard could have defined his terms more carefully, which would have made his argument much more coherent. Longman does say, however, “On many points, my own view is closer to Gard’s than either to Merrill or (especially) to Cowles’s positions” (155).

Finally, Tremper Longman states his case in his chapter titled, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity.” Immediately, against Cowles’ conclusion, Longman states, “…as we will observe below, the New Testament in the final analysis is equally bloody as the Old Testament” (163). He next defines herem and states that it is ultimately an act of worship (164). He concludes in this fashion because he notes several elements that often occurred before herem (e.g., seeking the will of God, spiritual preparedness, sacrifice and the presence of the ark). 

Longman next asks the question, “How does the God who ordered Herem relate to the God of the New Testament?” Five key points follow, which encompasses some of Merrill’s conclusions but more prominently Gard’s conclusions. Although he uses these points to demonstrate continuity between the testaments, Longman also notes discontinuity between the testaments and correspondingly herem.

In response, Gard notes, “Although his understanding of the mode of continuity has, in this book, been labeled as ‘spiritual,’ its most stunning manifestation is ‘eschatological’ (200). Gard’s statement is accurate because it seems that Longman, in many ways, made the same conclusion as Gard, but took another avenue to get there. Longman may disagree with this as he sees the eschatological nature of his argument as merely one point of the five points above; whereas, the thrust of Gard’s argument was completely eschatological. Longman agrees, nevertheless, that Gard’s conclusions are closest to his own. Each of the critics disapproved of Longman’s introductory section comparing the holy war of the Bible with the alleged holy war of Osama Bin Laden. I, too, was a bit shocked. 

Show Them No Mercy is a good introductory book on the genocide accounts in the Bible. Since the book is short, the authors could only say so much. Thus, more reading is necessary. For a general understanding of the views if you are attempting to form your own, this is a good place to start.

Reviewed by Leon Brown, MDiv Candidate