We run our website the way we wished the whole internet worked: we provide high quality original content with no ads. We are funded solely by your direct support. Please consider supporting this project.

Craigie: The Problem of War in the Old Testament, Part I

Hi folks.

Today I’m returning back to my “thinking out loud” about the problem of violence in the Old Testament. My posts on Vernon Eller’s War and Peace From Genesis to Revelation produced some interesting reactions in readers. On the one hand, I received a number of e-mails from people who were quite relieved to find that I ended up rejecting Eller’s view that the divinely commanded violence of the Old Testament should be understood to be merely part of its cultural packaging. I apparently had them worried. Others, however, were disappointed (and several even angered) that I ended up rejecting Eller’s thesis. I want to reassure these latter folks that I fully understand where they were coming from. I would love to embrace Eller’s perspective. But, at least at this point in my life, I honesty just can’t reconcile it with my submission to Jesus as Lord.

In the next few posts I want to assess Peter Craigie’s views expressed in a small but insightful book entitled The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Wipf and Stock, 2002 [orig. 1978]). (All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in The Problem of War).

To begin, Peter Craigie doesn’t pull any punches in laying out the problem of war in the Old Testament. When we read of God commanding the literal slaughter of men and women, young and old, it is (and should be) disturbing (10). This material poses three distinct sets of problems, according to Craigie.

First, it creates a theological problem, for the portrait of “God as Warrior” seems incompatible with “the New Testament description of God as loving and self-giving” (11.) Second, it creates a problem of revelation, for we have to wonder how a book so filled with ruthless violence can be considered God’s word (11). Third, the war material in the Old Testament creates an ethical problem, for, in contradiction to the New Testament, this material has often been used to justify killing – and in God’s name. (11-12).

This last problem is particularly challenging, since throughout Church history “the opposition to war has been proclaimed by lonely voices” (15). Indeed, Craigie briefly traces the influence of the war tradition of the Old Testament throughout history and shows how it influenced the violent tendencies in Islam as well as in Church history (chapter II). Starting with Augustine’s appeal to political authorities to punish heretics and extending through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Conquistadors, and even going up through the American civil war, Christians have relied on the Old Testament war traditions to justify Christians butchering enemies rather than serving them, as Jesus taught (27-29). Indeed, many still skip right past Jesus and appeal to the Old Testament violence to justify Christians participating in war or using violence for other reasons.

Craigie acknowledges that one might be tempted to simply dismiss all the war material in the Old Testament as a residue of the barbaric cultural packaging revelation had to come in (34-35). (This is basically the avenue Eller and many others take). But Craigie argues we have to be very hesitant to do this. For one thing, the warfare material is central to the Old Testament (36-37). Rejecting this would require dismissing a good deal of the Bible! Even more importantly, Jesus and the first Christians regarded the whole Old Testament as God’s Word (12, 35, 37-38). For Craigie, therefore, dismissing this material is simply not a viable option for Jesus’ followers (38). At the same time, given the significant problems this material poses for theology, revelation and ethics, we have to study it very carefully to make sure we are not misunderstanding and misapplying it. (32).

Craigie’s small book contains a number of insights that I believe can help us begin to reconcile the “God as warrior” motif of the Old Testment with the self-sacrificial God revealed in Jesus Christ. In this post I’ll discuss the first of these insights, to be followed by several others in subsequent posts.

God is Not Above Participating in Sinful Human Activity

Craigie notes that the Hebrews always believed that God is present in, and revealed through, the events of human history. Though they knew God was transcendent, they also were convinced that “the living experience of the immanent God is to be found within the fabric of human history”(39). “[T]he self-revelation of God was not to be seen primarily in miraculous events,” Craigie argues, “but simply in his working through the human activities of his chosen people”(40). The people God works in and through, however, are always fallen, sinful people (41). This insight “provides a clue to understanding the conception of God as Warrior” (39).

War is the quintessential expression of this sinfulness (41). When Old Testament authors describe God as a warrior, therefore, they are simply acknowledging that God is willing to stoop even this low. “Words such as ‘warrior’…point to the [violent] realities of human existence.” When the words are metaphorically applied to God, Craigie argues, “they point to his involvement in that [violent] existence and history” (95). To call God a warrior, therefore, is to say that God is willing to fight “through the fighting of his people” (40). God is not above using sinful people and even a quintessential sinful human activity to achieve his own purposes (41, 96). To call God a “warrior” is to say that “God participates actively in the human institution of warfare…” (95).

It’s important to note that God’s willingness to participate in the sinfulness of war “does not primarily afford us a glimpse of his moral being,” according to Craigie. It rather “demonstrates his will and activity” (42, cf. 96). In other words, it tells us nothing about who God really is, except that he is willing to compromise his ideals and get his hands messy by entering into and working through the violence in the human heart and human society (43).

Craigie argues that, given how intrinsic violence is to human society, it would be impossible for God to reign as king over the world unless he had “some kind of relationship to war” (43). If “the prerequisite for divine action were sinless men and sinless societies,” then, Craigie argues, “God could not act through human beings and human institutions at all” (96). More specifically, Craigie agrees with Jacques Ellul (referring to Ellul’s masterful work Political Illusion and Violence: Reflections From a Christian Perspective) that violence is intrinsic to the establishing and preservation of states and nations (69- 74). If God was going to try to establish his kingdom through the nation of Israel, therefore, it had to involve violence. (This is a point that we’ll see becomes extremely important later on).

The bottom line is that that Old Testament war tradition teaches us that God is willing to compromise his ideals to work in and through the violent, fallen world. So, even in something as diabolically horrendous as war, God is present. He is at work to use this violence both to judge human fallenness and move the world forward toward his redemptive purposes (95). God’s presence in such a diabolic situation does not justify it or make it holy (unlike most Old Testament scholars, Craige refuses to speak of a “Holy War” tradition, for he argues war is always sinful, even when commanded by God.). But God’s presence in war should provide us “hope in a situation of hopelessness” (43).


One of the most fascinating aspects of God as revealed throughout the Bible is his willingness to compromise. Though he is an all-holy God, throughout the Biblical narrative we find God making concessions to accommodate humans in their sinful situations.

For example, when God’s ideal for monogamy was no longer feasible for the Israelites because women and children were being left without a provider and protection (due to men being killed in war), God compromised his ideal and allowed for polygamy and even concubines. So too, because of the hardness of the human heart, as Jesus said, God compromised his ideal and allowed for divorce. And, most incredibly, when humanity was desperately enslaved to sin and the devil, the all-holy God accommodated humans by becoming one of them, taking on all the sin of the world and letting himself be ravaged by the devil. “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is not a God who’s afraid of getting dirty!

According to Craigie, something like this must be said about God’s involvement in war in the Old Testament. It reveals that the all-holy God of perfect love is not above getting his hands (and reputation) dirty by working in and through the quintessential expression of human sinfulness – the institution of war. God of course could have instead decided that he is too holy to be involved in such disgusting activity. But the God revealed in Jesus Christ and anticipated in the Old Testament is not that kind of God. His holiness doesn’t exclude being related to sinful humans. Rather, his holiness is his unique love for sinful humans and willingness to be involved in — and even tainted by — sinful humans. This is why the holiness of Jesus attracted sinners (while the false holiness of the Pharisees repelled them). As the incarnation reveals, God dives into humanity at its worst and he wisely uses humans at their worst to achieve his sovereign purposes. And humans are never worse than when we are at war, killing other humans. This is the first aspect of what the revelation of “God as Warrior” teaches us.

I think it’s interesting to observe how close Craigie is to Eller in his views on God’s willingness to compromise. We earlier saw that Eller argued that Joshua and others were right in believing that God wanted them to conquer, but wrong when they thought God was telling them to conquer with violence, for Jesus reveals that God hates violence. Yet, Eller argued that God was not above using the violence of the Hebrews (and other nations) to further his sovereign purposes in the world. As the Bible uniformly testifies, God is willing to use even things that he detests.

This is essentially Craigie’s position, except that Craigie argues that God didn’t wait until Joshua and others started engaging in violence to decide to use it. Rather, God decided to use it ahead of time, and this is why he was willing to stoop so low to the point that he directed them how to use it.

I could make my point this way. Both Eller and Craigie agree that God was willing to use the violence of the cultures of the day to further his purposes because there was no alternative — given how barbaric the people of this day were. (As we’ll see in a later post, things haven’t changed in the world [Romans 13:1-7] — though they definitely have for God’s people [Rom. 12:17-21]). Unless God is going to simply override human free will and reduce humans to automatons, then he has to work with us and through us as he finds us. And he finds us to be almost incurably violent. The only difference between Craigie and Eller, then, is that the latter tries to get God a little more “off the hook” by having his sovereign involvement in sinful activity kick in after the killing begins. Craigie, by contrast, simply grants that God knew he’d have to be involved in sinful violent activity from the start, so he went ahead and steered the violence to his sovereign advantage from the start. The difference between the two, we see, is not all that great.

Of course, this leaves unanswered the question of what sovereign purpose God might have had in getting involved in war in the first place. And this brings me to what I regard to be the greatest contribution of Craigie’s book. I’ll discuss it in my next post.

Till then,
Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.



Related Reading