A Critique of Eller’s Thesis
These days I’m “thinking out loud” about the problem of divinely sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. (If you’re new to this blog, I encourage you to go to the 3/14 post and start at the beginning of this series). I’ve recently given an overview of Vern Eller’s view that the Old Testament warriors and authors simply got it wrong when they thought they “heard” Yahweh commanding them to slaughter people (see 3/29 post). In the previous post I noted that there are at least five rather strong arguments that can be made in support of Eller’s thesis (see 4/1 post). In this post I want to offer six arguments that can raised against Eller’s thesis.
First, as I noted in my previous post, I think Eller’s point that we don’t have God’s “unmediated voice” in Scripture is undeniable. God’s revelation is always packaged in, and conditioned by, the cultural and personal limitations of the biblical authors. At the same time, Eller’s claim that the cultural and personal limitations of the biblical authors led them to claim Yahweh told them to do something (e.g. slaughter the Canaanites) that Yahweh didn’t in fact tell them to do takes this principle to a whole new level. It’s one thing to claim that a true biblical teaching is expressed in a culturally relative way and quite another thing to claim that a biblical teaching itself is culturally relative.
For example, the psalmist is obviously expressing the limitations and barbarism of his culture when he celebrates the prospect of Babylonian babies having their heads smashed against rocks (Ps. 137:9). But his barbarism (fortunately) wasn’t the point of the passage. By contrast, when Joshua claims that Yahweh told him and his warriors to utterly destroy the Canaanites, this seems to be the central point of the passage. Dismissing Joshua’s claim as culturally relative thus seems to be a much more significant move than dismissing David’s incidental expression.
On the other hand, Eller could perhaps respond that the destruction of the Canaanites wasn’t in fact the central point of the Holy War passages: the central point was God’s victory. So, Eller could argue, the destruction of the Canaanites was how Joshua (mistakenly) expressed God’s victory, in the same way that David’s delight in smashing babies was how David (mistakenly) expressed God’s victory. In both cases we have to say that there’s something right, and something wrong – something timeless, and something culturally relative – expressed in these passages.
I have to grant that this is a strong response — to the point that I’m not sure how to refute it. Yet, I can’t help but feel like there’s something amiss here. The Psalmist doesn’t claim God told him to smash the heads of Babylonian babies, but Joshua (and others) explicitly claim God told them to slaughter the Canaanites. Indeed, in passages like Deuteronomy 7, God (reportedly) goes to great lengths to make sure they spare no one — and then gets very irate when they disobediently let some live.
Second, as we’ve seen, Eller believes that Joshua and other Old Testament warriors got it right when they heard Yahweh tell them they were to only fight the battles he wanted them to fight and that they were to place their complete trust in him when they fought. They were not to fight with the “Nimrodian” mindset of other nations (viz. fighting out of insecurity, self-interest, etc.). Unfortunately, according to Eller, these warriors mistakenly thought this entailed that they had to slaughter anyone who stood in the way of Yahweh’s will being done.
It seems to me there’s something rather peculiar about this view. How is it that Yahweh succeeded into getting Joshua and others to refrain from placing any trust in their sword and to not fight out of insecurity and self-interest and yet failed to clearly communicate that they weren’t supposed to kill anyone? Why would it have been so hard for Yahweh to clearly say to Joshua, “Don’t kill people?” If anything, one might have thought it would have been harder for God to get Joshua and other ancients to see that they weren’t to fight out of insecurity and self-interest and harder for God to get them to place all their trust in him alone for victory than it would have been to simply get them to obey his command not to kill people. In fact, at various points throughout his book (War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation), Eller himself contends that most today still don’t get the first two points, even when they understand the point that humans aren’t supposed to kill others. (This is why he praises Joshua and other Old Testament warriors over modern day anti-war protesters, as I noted in my post on 3/29). So, even by Eller’s own analysis, it seems Yahweh succeeded at the harder task (viz. getting his warriors out of their “Nimrodian” mindset) but failed at the easier task (viz. getting them to refrain from killing).
Less strong is a third argument that several readers of this blog expressed to me. They argued that once one grants that any biblical passage might be mistaken, we have no means of deciding what is and is not the “true voice of God” in Scripture. We have embarked on a slippery slope toward total relativism, they fear. More specifically, if Joshua was wrong in thinking Yahweh told him to slaughter the Canaanites, then Paul might have been wrong in thinking God told him we’re saved by grace or in thinking God told him fornication was a sin. If humans have to decide what is and is not the true voice of God in the Bible, they argue, then it seems it’s “every man for himself.” We can choose what we like and discard what we don’t like. Eller’s thesis, in other words, throws us into an epistemological, theological and moral abyss. (I find this worry lies behind the passion of many evangelicals to uphold “biblical inerrancy”).
I empathize with this concern, but I’m not convinced it’s a sound objection. Two things are worth mentioning.
First, everyone already has to decide what is and is not “the true voice of God in the Bible” — at least to the extent that we all have to try to discern the timeless teaching of the Bible from its cultural packaging. For example, no one today (including those who espouse “inerrancy”) feels compelled to believe that the earth is surrounded by water and held up by pillars, despite the fact that biblical authors clearly believed this. And few people today feel compelled to insist women shouldn’t wear braided hair or jewelry and call their husbands “lord.” Yet these beliefs and instructions are in the New Testament. The central point being taught in these passages is timeless, but the way they’re expressed is culturally relative.
Now, we may disagree with Eller’s claim that the reports of Yahweh telling the Israelites to slaughter people are culturally relative. But I don’t think we can argue that Eller’s claim straps us with a new “slippery slope” problem. It’s the same old “timeless teaching verses culturally relative packaging” problem all over again.
Second, while there is obvious disagreement about what is and is not culturally relative in the Bible, the issue is not as subjective as people simply “accepting what they like and discarding what they don’t like.” There are reasonable criteria to assess this. (On this I recommend the marvelous book by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth). For example, one way to assess whether something is timeless or culturally relative in the Bible is to ask, “Is the matter uniformly presented in Scripture or are their variations throughout the biblical narrative?” So, granting that there are culturally relative aspects of Scripture doesn’t land us in an epistemological, theological and moral abyss — even if we end up agreeing with Eller that the reports of Yahweh commanding the Israelites to slaughter people are among these culturally relative aspects of Scripture.
A fourth objection that can be raised against Eller’s thesis is, in my mind, much more forceful. By far and away, the most compelling reason I have for believing the Old Testament is inspired in the first place is that Jesus (like almost every other first century Jew) viewed it as such. He uses the expression “Scripture says” and “God says” interchangeably, for example.
Now, I have very good reasons for thinking Jesus was the Son of God (for an exploration of these reasons, see Eddy & Boyd, The Jesus Legend). I thus have very good reasons for thinking Jesus couldn’t have been mistaken in his view of the Old Testament. As a follower of Jesus, therefore, I feel compelled to accept his perspective. This doesn’t rule out viewing aspects of the Old Testament as culturally relative, but it does seem to rule out concluding that any scriptural author ever “got it wrong.”
Yet, so far as I can see, accepting Eller’s thesis forces us to just this conclusion. When Joshua and others reported that Yahweh told them to slaughter people, they were wrong. As compelling as Eller’s argument is, therefore, I feel I have to choose Jesus’ view over his.
Fifth, throughout his book (War and Peace From Genesis to Revelation), Eller has no problem conceding that Yahweh uses the violent tendencies of nations — including the Israelites — to achieve his sovereign purposes. To be sure, Eller stresses (rightly) that God always does this reluctantly, and that whenever God brings judgment on Israel or any other nation, it’s never an end in and of itself. God’s heart is always to heal and redeem people. Violence is a tragic but necessary means to a loving, healing and redemptive end (e.g. 72-77). Moreover, Eller brilliantly highlights the fact that throughout the Old Testament God inspires prophets to paint a picture of the future in which violence will no longer be necessary. Still, Eller grants that God is willing to use violence for good ends when necessary.
Given that Eller grants this much (and how could he not, since this motif runs throughout the Old Testament?), it’s not clear to me how he can balk so strongly at the Holy War tradition of the Israelites. True, there’s a difference between God commanding his people to violently slaughter others, on the one hand, and God using the violent tendencies of nations as he finds them to slaughter others. But I’m not sure how significant this difference really is. In Isaiah 10, for example, God used Assyria to harshly judge the Israelites, but he nevertheless spoke in terms of Assyria being his “rod” and “servant.” Other times in the Old Testament narrative God “calls” nations (e.g. Assyria, Babylon) to rise up against Israel – even though he sometimes punishes these nations for being the kind of barbaric nation that would be useful for this purpose.
So, it seems there is a rather fine line between God commanding violence and using violence. If we grant that God is willing to engage in the latter, it seems a bit odd to balk too strongly at his willingness to engage in the former. Even more to the point, the claim that God uses violent-tending nations to engage in violence against people is arguably as inconsistent with the picture of God revealed on Calvary as the claim that God commands a violent-tending nation to engage in violence.
A sixth and final objection to Eller’s view is that it’s not clear how much it actually accomplishes in terms of reconciling the view of God in the Holy War traditions with the picture of God presented on Calvary. Yes, if accepted, Eller’s thesis allows us to dismiss the claims that Yahweh commanded his people to slaughter others. To this extent, Eller’s view removes the inconsistency of how God expects his people to treat enemies in the Old and New Testaments. This is no small accomplishment. Yet, Eller’s view doesn’t do anything to help us reconcile the picture of God himself slaughtering people with the view of God presented on Calvary.
Think about it. Even if Eller’s thesis is accepted, we still have to accept that God wiped out almost the entire human race – including little children – with a violent flood. (Even if one holds that the Genesis flood was local, not global, we’re still talking about massive carnage). Even if Eller’s thesis is accepted, we still have to accept that God incinerated entire cities — populated with infants and little children (Sodom and Gomorrah). We still have to accept that God killed the first born sons of all Egyptians, drowned the entire Egyptian army in the Red Sea and carried out a host of other episodes of massive slaughtering. Even in the New Testament we find Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, being struck dead by God (Acts 5)! (One might also want to appeal to the carnage in the book of Revelation, but I shall later argue that Revelation actually presents no such picture).
These episodes of God causing carnage seem no more consistent with the God revealed on Calvary – the God who chooses to be killed rather than to kill – than the episodes of slaughtering that involve human agents. Hence, while Eller’s thesis nicely removes the inconsistency between the Old and New Testaments regarding how God wants his people to treat enemies, it doesn’t at all help remove the inconsistency regarding their portraits of God.
So folks, from where I sit, we’re pretty much back to the drawing board. Eller’s view (shared by many others) seems promising on the surface. But once you critically examine it, I’m afraid it comes up short.
How could the loving, non-violent God revealed in Jesus Christ — the God who prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” — be one and the same with the God who said “slaughter them all” and “show them no mercy”? In the next post we’ll consider another proposal.
Until then, remember that our picture of God is to be rooted in Jesus Christ alone, and our attitude toward enemies is to be derived from Jesus Christ alone.