Christianity is known for making the claim of being nonviolent. Jesus, after all, allegedly taught his followers to “turn the other cheek,” and to pray for those who seek their harm and undoing. Jesus even went so far as to tell fellow Jews living under Roman rule to “go an extra mile” if a Roman soldier commanded them to carry his armor for one mile. This certainly didn’t help his popularity.
So Jesus was about peace and reconciliation.
But what about the Old Testament? What about the apparent chasm between troubling Old Testament passages and what the New Testament presents? What then are we to make of texts in the same Bible that seem to contradict each-other? What about texts glorying in the gruesome acts of enemies’ infants being dashed against rocks? What are we to make of the Israelite conquests? These and other questions are what William Webb and Gordon Oeste set out to unpack in Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts.
Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? deals quite honesty with horrific texts that are a part of the Christian Scriptures. The authors have researched and re-researched for fourteen years, wrestling with such texts in their original context. The result? A resource that can aid the Church in answering very difficult questions; a resource that can help us in uprooting deep biblical illiteracy in the Church; a resource which does not provide easy-fix answers to complex questions and is fully rooted in the world of the Christian Bible.
What makes this an invaluable resource is its critique of both the traditional view (“holy war in the Bible is always justified”) and a more progressive view that finds itself at odds with the traditional view.
The Traditional Response to Holy War in the Old Testament
This view is held by Eugene H. Merrill, Daniel L. Gard, and Tremper Longman III (see Show Them No Mercy: Four Views) and goes something like this: there is no actual problem with the holy war in the Hebrew Bible, “only a perceived ethical problem.” That is, “modern readers simply do not understand God’s actions” (p. 34). We’ve misunderstood God when we see the conquest passages as troubling, but God himself did no wrong.
This view posits that the victims of Israel’s conquest or holy war were not innocent, especially in light of the prevalence of evil Canaanite practices. And finally, this view sees holy war “as a foreshadowing of eschatological judgement” and “a preview of the final judgment” (45).
Though the authors find value in the traditional response and show sympathy towards it, they argue that it comes up short, ultimately having too many holes in it. Chapter 2 deals with inadequacies in this approach while chapter 3 (“Where Traditional Answers Do Work”) affirms aspects of this position.
The Progressive View
C.S. Cowles (a contributor in Show Them No Mercy: Four Views by Zondervan) finds that the commands for Israel to engage in (at times) wholesale slaughter of innocents finds its origin in Satan, “or, more likely, in Moses’ corrupted thinking” (p. 33). The progressive view through and through denies that the holy wars were ever sanctioned by God. The authors label this view as the “antitraditional view” and do not show sympathy to it.
What About Hyperbole?
Though there are texts which have God commanding the total slaughter of men, women, and children without exception, surviving Ancient Near Eastern war passages outside of the Bible indicate just how common it was to use hyperbole when describing great military feats. It is highly plausible that the Bible itself utilizes hyperbole in the texts in which God commands total annihilation. There are three chapters dedicated to hyperbole: chapter 8 (which deals with Ancient Near Eastern Warfare in general) and chapter 9 (which deals with Joshua and Judges). Chapter 10 presents the arguments against hyperbole and answers them. The authors find that the strengths of (some?) hyperbole being utilized far outweigh the arguments for a literal understanding of the total slaughter texts.
In Part II I will lay out my final thoughts on this work (there is too much to unpack in just one review!).
Thank you IVP for the copy!
August 21, 2020 at 9:20 pm
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