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Could Old Testament Warriors Have Been Mistaken?

Hi bloggers and bloggerettes,

Sorry it’s been a few days since I’ve posted. Been crazy busy.

I’ve been discussing the problem of divinely sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. So far I’ve argued that whether or not we’re able to reconcile the holy war tradition with the non-violent example and teachings of Jesus shouldn’t affect our faith in Christ, our picture of God or how we live (see postings on 3/17, 3/21 and 3/24). Still, this issue has significant theological repercussions, so we need to take it very seriously.

It’s now time to start examining proposals. I’ll put all my cards on the table. I have a tentative “solution” (really, a set of “solutions”) that I plan on building toward as I review various proposals over the next couple weeks. But I’ll also be honest with you and confess that I’m not entirely satisfied with my present “solution,” so I’m very open to modifying, or even completely abandoning, my present views. In a very real sense I’m just processing out loud on this blog. My hope is that this exercise will help refine, modify and improve my own view and perhaps help others along the way.

Let’s start by considering the most radical proposal to resolve the apparent contradiction between the Old Testament’s Holy War tradition and the non-violent character of God that is portrayed in the New Testament. There are a number of scholars and pastors who consider themselves Bible-believing evangelicals who argue that when Joshua and other Old Testament warriors thought Yahweh was telling them to slaughter men, women and children, they were simply mistaken. The Bible accurately (even infallibly?) reports what these people “heard,” but their “hearing” was culturally conditioned by the violence of the culture they were entrenched in.

Some who are reading probably just gasped and are shocked I would even bother to consider such a proposal. But please hear the proposal out!

One author who espouses this view is Vernard Eller. I’ve read all of Eller’s books and find him to be a profoundly insightful thinker with a beautiful vision and deep understanding of the Kingdom. (His book Christian Anarchy is a classic!). In his book War and Peace: From Genesis to Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2003) Eller makes as good a case as I’ve ever seen defending the view that Yahweh did not command the violence of the Holy War tradition. I can’t begin to do justice to the complexity of Eller’s argument and the insights offered in this (often neglected) book. But I can briefly outline his basic argument in five steps.

1. Born Fighters

First, Eller argues that humans are made with a warrior instinct, for we are made in the image of a warrior God. He finds this in the paradigmatic Genesis narrative itself, for humans are commanded to “subdue” and “rule” the earth (19 [all numbers are page references to War and Peace]). We’re to partner with God in building his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and this involves fighting for the Kingdom (21). In the Genesis narrative it’s not yet clear who or what we’re supposed to fight, but there are suggestions we’re not to fight other humans. In the narrative of Eve’s creation from Adam, for example, Eller notes that all fighting language is gone. “[T]here is nothing here about ruling or exerting control over others…Everything points to a mutual giving of oneself to the other – the very contrary of domination over the other. (23)

2. Turning on Each Other

Second, Eller observes that when humans “fall” (rebel against God), our fighter instinct gets turned on each other (Adam on Eve, Cain on Abel, etc.). Eller brilliantly traces the escalation of violence throughout Genesis and the Old Testament. Human on human violence, then, is the result of our estrangement from God. More specifically, violence is rooted in our unwillingness to trust God for security and thus in our need to make ourselves secure (33). At the same time, the Genesis narrative reveals that even after the fall, God continued to be a warrior, but he was a warrior for humans, not against them. This is reflected in the fact that Yahweh made clothes for Adam and Eve to cover their shame and in the fact that he took measures to protect Cain from other humans who wanted to kill him (as well as in a number of other ways) (29-30). Eller argues that God is always trying to protect humans from themselves and trying to get humans to partner with him in building the Kingdom (which Eller metaphorically depicts as dancing with God).

3. What Joshua and Other Old Testament Warriors Got Right

Eller argues – convincingly, I believe – that the wars that Joshua and others fought were not at all like the wars nations usually fight, for these wars are always motivated by the need to make oneself secure (he calls these sorts of wars “Nimrodian wars,” for they’re patterned after the “great” warrior in Genesis, Nimrod). The Israelite wars were “holy wars,” for the Israelite warriors were motivated only by a desire to partner with God in fighting God’s foes. Indeed, the Holy War tradition is premised on the conviction that “it is Yahweh who is fighting the war; about as much as is expected of the human participants is that they come along and watch him do it” (47).

This is why we repeatedly read in the Old Testament’s Holy War material the refrain that “Yahweh has already given the enemy into your hand.” (52-53). This is also one of the reasons the Israelites often enforced “the ban” (herem) in which everything had to be “utterly destroyed.” They were trying to protect themselves against the fallen urge to fight for selfish purposes (57-58). Unlike Nimrodian wars, therefore, the Israelites couldn’t be motivated by their own insecurities. They had to place all their trust in Yahweh and couldn’t benefit from their battles (unless Yahweh explicitly allowed them to).

Not only this, but before engaging in these battles, the Israelites always had to spend time consecrate themselves to God – which means, according to Eller, they had to “[l]et Yahweh work you over, remodeling your Nimrodian image into that of himself until your total life and being become consistent with the war in which you have been enlightened to fight” (51). In this light, Eller says, these warriors “were doing the very best they knew how in getting their lives hallowed in accordance with Yahweh’s will” (52) They were trying to play out their warrior instinct the right way, by fighting God’s battles rather than their own. “Their effort,” Eller adds, “puts ours to shame” (52).

One of the most interesting things about Eller’s book is that he is sharply critical of “enlightened” contemporaries who cavalierly judge Joshua and other similar Old Testament warriors for their barbarism. Joshua and other warriors at least had the understanding that they were to fight God’s wars, not their own, and that this involved totally surrendering to God’s will. In a moment, we’ll see that Eller believes these Old Testament warriors misapplied this true perception, but “we [today] don’t even have the true perception. Joshua’s is not the last word,” he says, “but his is the only first word that has any chance of ever getting us to the last word” (40).

Eller is particularly critical of anti-war activists who are, in his view, as “Nimrodian” in character as pro-war activists. Both the militarist and the pacifist are trying to acquire security for themselves apart from God (41). The way to stop wars, Eller argues, is not to get people to stop fighting each other. So long as people and nations are insecure, violence is inevitable. Rather, the only way to stop wars “is to get people to switch from fighting their wars to join Yahweh in fighting his war” (41). “Sad to say,” Eller argues, “the understanding of these people [Joshua and company] was flawed on some points, and their grand attempt failed.” “But,” he adds, “let it be said in deepest seriousness that, until we are ready once again to try the experiment of Joshua, there is no hope that the peace that God intends ever can become a reality” (43).

4. What Joshua and Other Old Testament Warriors Got Wrong

This brings me to the fourth, and, for our purposes, most important aspect of Eller’s argument. While Eller stresses admiration toward the sincerely of Old Testament Holy Warriors, he also argues that “it simply is impossible to reconcile the savage, city-leveling Yahweh of Joshua with the God and Father of Jesus” (58) “[W]hen one…contemplates the hideous carnage that the ban required and encouraged, when he considers the completely indiscriminate and merciless slaughter of innocent men, women, and children, he cannot help but feel that the event reflects more of human presumption than it does of divine obedience” (72). Eller notes that “[e]ven the best of people with the best of intentions are not sufficiently godlike that they can fight God’s war without corrupting and perverting it with their own Nimrodian tendencies” (72).

In various passages that report Yahweh commanding slaughter, we are finding an accurate report “of what human beings heard him [Yahweh] say.” But we are not here finding “ the unmediated voice of God himself.” (78). When “the words run entirely contrary to all that knowledge would lead us to expect, we should perhaps question the hearing of the reporters rather than the consistency of God’s speaking” (78).

The Israelites were right in thinking they were called to advance God’s plan in the world (59) and right to believe this involved fighting. But they failed to grasp that “MAN IS NOT THE ENEMY” (59). In keeping with the “Nimrodian” mindset of their age, they wrongly assumed that any people who threatened the fulfillment of God’s plan were enemies who had to be removed. “[W]hen the squeeze came,” Eller claims, “Israelite faith wasn’t quite adequate, and the people fell back on the conclusion that man must be the enemy.” In their limited perspectives, “there is no way for God’s plan to go forward without fighting against men, so this,” they believed, “must be what God wants” (60).

This lapse constitutes “a failure of faith in the capabilities of God. As far as man can see, the only alternatives are either to let the plan of God be frustrated or to take out the obstructionists” (59). But this is, in fact, a “Nimrodian decision based on the premise that God’s alternatives are limited to what man can understand” (60). It’s the same thinking that Christians use today to justify violence (viz. “if we don’t fight, evil will win!”). To really have faith in God, and to truly fight the battles God wants us to fight, we need to have faith that God can achieve his loving ends without using violent means (60).

Only in the New Testament do God’s people fully understand that our struggle is never against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12). Only with the coming of Christ does it become unambiguously clear that Yahweh’s battle is never against people, but always for people and against spiritual powers that oppress and destroy us. (Eller has a marvelous chapter on the spiritual warfare understanding of the atonement [ch.5, 113-144]).

5. God’s Use of the Holy War Tradition

One final point needs to be made. Eller argues that, while God didn’t approve of the slaughtering his warriors engaged in, he nevertheless used it to advance his purposes in the world. Throughout the Bible God uses what he does not approve of, as when he allows other nations to defeat Israel to teach them lessons. So too, “once Israel had determined that she was going to fight, God determined that, whether he approved of such fighting or not, he was going to use it to preserve Israel, give her a homeland, and lead her in the way toward the peaceable kingdom” (78). It’s a matter of God bringing good out of evil.

This is how God handles all violence, according to Eller. All war is the result of human estrangement from God, and so in this sense all war is a punishment for rebellion against God. “God doesn’t approve of war,” he says, “but this isn’t to say war is completely outside his plan.” Rather, “war is the punishment brought upon themselves by those who foster and create the kind of situations that lead to war. ” Moreover, Eller argues, “it is not that the losing nation is the punished one and the winner merely the punisher. War is always punishment both ways”(79). So, as a regrettable concession, God worked with Israel’s Nimrodian mindset, as he worked with the Nimrodian mindset of others, to accomplish his purposes, as much as possible, in the world. And part of this purpose was to punish the sinful violent-mindedness of both the Israelites and their pagan enemies.

And all the while Yahweh was laying the groundwork for a future revelation of who he really is, what his character is really like and what kind of warfare he has really called us to.

In my next post I’ll offer a critique of this view. Until then, chew on this perspective. What pros and cons can you think of in response to Eller’s view?

Keeping thinking, growing and loving!



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