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A Defense of Eller’s Thesis

Hello internet friends,

In my last post I reviewed Eller’s proposal for reconciling the warrior image of Yahweh found in the Holy War tradition, on the one hand, with the self-sacrificial image of God revealed in Christ, on the other. We saw that Eller basically argues that the Old Testament warriors (and authors) were right in understanding that Yahweh had called them to fight his battles, but wrong in thinking this entailed killing other people. In this post I’ll offer five arguments that support this view. In my next post I’ll raise several arguments against it.

First, I have to applaud Eller’s Christ-centered approach to reading the Bible. Eller rightly sees that we must read the Old Testament in light of Christ, not qualify the revelation of God in Christ on the basis of the Old Testament. He rightly sees that the Old Testament is authoritative to disciples of Jesus only insofar as it points toward, and concurs with, what we learn about God and the Kingdom through Christ.

Second, it has to be conceded that Eller’s proposal in principle solves the problem we’re addressing. In fact, I have to frankly confess that, so far as I can see, it solves the problem more simply, and possibly more effectively, than any other proposal we’ll consider. (Yet, as we’ll see in the next post, it also faces some formidable objections). The gap between the way God sometimes appears in the Old Testament and the way God appears in Jesus Christ is explained by the culturally conditioned perception of God in the Old Testament, which means we no longer need to wrestle with any apparent duplicity in God himself.

Third, the fact that the New Testament clearly reveals that the warfare God wants us to fight is “not against flesh and blood” but against principalities and powers (Eph 6:12) lends support to Eller’s view. Since we’re supposed to read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, it makes sense to suppose that God wanted the Israelites to engage in spiritual warfare rather than “flesh and blood” warfare. And this supports the conclusion that the Old Testament folks simply erred in allowing their “Nimrodian” mindset to adversely affect the way they heard Yahweh speak to them.

Fourth, we’ve seen that Eller argues that the biblical warriors and authors were products of their cultural conditioning when they (mistakenly) thought they heard Yahweh telling them to slaughter others. Some evangelicals may find this to be a shocking proposal and possibly in conflict with a belief in the infallibility of Scripture. At the same time, it must be conceded that, regardless of one’s view of Scripture, everyone has to in principle accept Eller’s crucial insight that in reading the Bible we’re not hearing “the unmediated voice of God himself” (78).

For one thing, everyone grants that some aspects of the Old and New Testaments are culturally conditioned. For example, no one today believes the earth and sky are held up by pillars, that the earth is surrounded by waters populated with threatening sea monsters (Rahab, Leviathan), that the sky is as hard “as a molten mirror” (Job 37:18) and holds water above it, and that this sky has windows in it that God opens up so it can rain on the earth (e.g. Gen. 7:11). This is clearly the view of the cosmos reflected in many Old Testament passages, but we of course realize this is just part of the Bible’s cultural conditioning.

So too, when the apostle Paul says — in God’s inspired word — that he can’t remember whether he baptized anyone outside of Stephanas’ house (I Cor. 1:16-17), and when he offers opinions — in God’s inspired word — that he acknowledges he didn’t get directly from the Lord (1 Cor. 7:25ff), or when he instructs women not to wear jewelry or have braided hair (1 Tim 2:9), it’s clear we’re hearing God’s voice mediated through the personal limitations and cultural conditioning of a first century Jewish male. It’s not like the Bible was dictated directly by God.

Let’s take this reflection a step further. I honestly don’t see how a disciple of Jesus could avoid concluding that at least some of the warfare material in the Old Testament is culturally conditioned by the barbarically violent culture in which the authors were living. For example, the Psalmist sings, “Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9) and “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked” (Ps. 58:10). The central God-inspired point of the passages is to assert that God will be victorious and wickedness will be punished. But, in light of God’s self-revelation in Christ, it seems rather obvious that the particular way the Psalmist expresses these points is culturally conditioned. The Psalmist would apparently be happy to wade in the blood of his enemies and smash their babies against rocks, but we can’t imagine Jesus being happy about this attitude. He commands us to love, bless, do good to and pray for our worst enemies!

The basic point is that the Bible does not give us the unmediated voice of God. It gives us God’s voice mediated through culturally conditioned human witnesses. In this light, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to suppose that certain Old Testament warriors and authors were right when they heard God telling them to fight his battles, but reflected their cultural conditioning when they interpreted this to mean they were to slaughter men, women and children. They expressed a God-inspired truth when they affirmed that God wanted to fight for them and give them the victory. But the way they expressed and applied this truth was culturally conditioned.

Finally, there may be some precedent in the Old Testament for Eller’s contention that the Israelite warriors were partly right and partly wrong when they engaged in their holy wars. In a superb article entitled “I was only a little angry” [Interpretation 58 (2008) 365-75], Terrence Fretheim notes that a “remarkable number of prophetic texts speak of divine judgment on those nations that have been agents of God (Jer. 25:12-14; 27:6-7; Isa 10:12-19; 47:1-15; Zech 1:15)” (p.372). He notes that in these texts the agents God used “exceeded their mandate, going beyond their proper judgmental activities in vaunting their own strength…” (ibid). This is perhaps most explicit in Zechariah when the Lord says, “I was only a little angry; they made the disaster worse” (ibid). In other words, while God wanted to use these violent-tending nations to achieve certain ends, “They overdid it!” (373). In a sense they obeyed God, but they allowed their own violent tendencies to take them beyond what God intended, and thus make themselves the objects of God’s judgment.

Fretheim notes that these texts reveal that God doesn’t meticulously control the behavior of the nations he uses – not even Israel. And the reason this interests us at present is because it reveals that a nation can be said to carry out God’s will, in one sense, but to also, at the same time, rebel against God’s will in another sense. In this light, one could argue there’s precedent for Eller’s contention that the Holy War tradition of the Old Testament represents Israel obeying God’s will while at the same time going against his will because they fused their admirable obedience with their own culturally conditioned assumption that people were the enemies. God told them to fight his battles and to inherit the promised land, but the Israelites themselves interpreted this to mean, “slaughter everyone.”

It seems to me, therefore, that a surprisingly strong case can be made in defense of Eller’s thesis. I confess I am tempted to embrace it. But, as I’ll show in my next post, I also think it faces some serious, and possibly unsurmountable, problems.

Till then, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus,



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