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.

Revealing the Horror of War: Review of Craigie, Part II.

Hello Blogging Friends,

I’m in the process of critically reviewing various perspectives on the problem of violence in the Old Testament. My goal is to extract principles along the way to hopefully arrive at a comprehensive explanation for why the warrior portrait of God in the Old Testament seems so radically different from the God revealed in the crucified messiah. I’ve appreciated all the feedback I’ve gotten on the posts thus far.

In my previous post I began reviewing Craigie’s book The Problem of War in the Old Testament. We saw that Craigie holds that the metaphor of God as a warrior reveals that God is not above getting involved in sinful human activity — even activity as sinful as war. As much as God hates war, he is willing to use it for his own purposes. God’s involvement in war reveals his remarkable willingness to accommodate and utilize human sin, but it reveals nothing about God’s true moral character, according to Craigie. To discover this, we must look above all to Jesus Christ.

So, what are the purposes for which God involves himself in war, according to Craigie? This is the question that this and the next post will address.

War is Hell
According to Craigie, one of purposes Yahweh had in getting involved in war was to expose its true, horrifying character. Craigie discusses the views of the famous Prussian soldier and philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). In his book On War, Clausewitz argues that the main objective for any nation going to war is to utterly demolish the will and ability of their opponent to ever rise up against the nation again (Craigie, 47). He held that “to introduce into the philosophy of war itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity” (Clausewitz, On War, Penguin edition, 1968 [1832], 102). The only type of war that makes any sense, according to Clausewitz, is one that is willing to do whatever is necessary to permanently vanquish the enemy.

In this light, Craigie criticizes Just War theory which attempts to spell out the conditions under which war can be justly entered into and fought. Following Clausewitz, Craigie holds that the idea that war can be moderated in a just manner is “unrealistic,” for the truth is that war is “essentially lawlessness” (53). As General Sherman so eloquently put it, “war is hell.” It’s not a “game played by rules,” Craigie says. Only after a war has ended do we pretend that there were rules people were supposed to abide by. In this way the victors (and only the victors!) can “indict the loser for ‘war crimes’” (53).

Craigie interprets the several divine commands given to Joshua and others to slaughter all the Canannites (e.g. Deut 2, 7; Josh. 6) to be a “massive and solemn warning” about the true, hellish nature of war. They reveal that, as much as we might try to sanitize war with our unrealistic theories, there are, in truth, “no half-measures in war” (53). The macabre warfare narratives of the Old Testament “destroy any illusions we may have about war being ‘not all that bad,’ a kind of sport played by gentlemen.” (As I mentioned in the previous post, this is why Craigie refuses to follow the tradition of calling these “holy wars”). These narratives, Craigie argues, are “a safer guide to the reality of war than are the various formulations of the “Just War” theory that have emerged in the history of Christianity” (53).

Any person who is committed to taking all their cues about what God is like and about how humans are to live from Jesus Christ must be completely revolted by the Old Testament narratives in which Yahweh commands the extermination of the Canaanite people. If Craigie is right, this is precisely the point of these passages!

I’ll say two things in response to this aspect of Craigie’s book.

First, I believe Craigie is largely correct in his critique of Just War theory. There is something profoundly “unrealistic” (and, arguably, “evil”) in the common assumption that declaring a war “just” lessens its horror in any way. Among a multitude of other problems, there is no objective, universally agreed upon criteria for what constitutes a “just war” or of what constitutes “just behavior” of soldiers while battling in war. The concept of “justice” that a nation or tribe uses in their Just War theorizing is largely, if not entirely, culturally conditioned. Not only this, but the concept of justice as applied to war is always employed to protect and further the interests of the nation or tribe that is doing the theorizing. Not surprisingly, every nation or tribe that has ever gone to war has felt justified doing so. After all, who would kill and be willing to be killed unless they felt their cause was justified?

While believing one is justified in going to war may ease the conscience of leaders and warriors in killing other humans and may help motivate warriors to kill more valiantly, we have to free ourselves from the illusion that this belief lessons the horror of our killing. This illusion that our killing is “not all that bad” because it’s “justified” keeps us from being as revolted by war, and thus as passionately opposed to war, as we’d otherwise be. In this way, just war theorizing — which is intended to minimize war — actually contributes to the perpetuation of war! (I offer further criticisms of Just War theory from a Christian perspective in my book, The Myth of the Christian Nation, chapter 9).

Not only this, but as Craigie argues, we have to free ourselves from the illusion that the realities of war actually conform to the rules of decency our Just War theorizing stipulates soldiers should abide by. Now, I seriously doubt Craigie is suggesting that wartime rules of conduct are useless or that prosecuting people for war crimes when these rules are violated is always hypocritical (though I may be wrong about this). For my part, I think it’s good that soldiers are trained – and forced, if need be – to act as decently as possible while engaging in battle. But Craigie’s main point remains a good one. We mustn’t allow the existence of our Just War rules to conceal the “essential lawlessness” of war. War is hell, and we need to see it as such.

Craigie’s point is that, if the “Yahweh wars” (not “holy wars”) in the Old Testament don’t conform to our Just War theorizing – and they certainly don’t — maybe we’re starting to get the point of these Old Testament wars. Pull back the veneer of civilized decency of our Just War theorizing and one discovers that the heart of war is hell.

Second, in contending that the point of the passages in which Yahweh commands wholesale slaughter is to reveal the hellishness of war, Craigie is, I believe, onto something profoundly important. Unfortunately, he falls far short of making his case in his book. Indeed, Craigie spends remarkably little time developing and defending his thesis. The point needs much more developing and defending, however, since it’s certainly not obvious from the passages themselves that this was one of the reasons Yahweh was willing to engage in Israel’s warfare.

Craigie’s thesis only becomes plausible when we adequately understand and appreciate two other important biblical truths.

1) There is an ever-intensifying theme in the Old Testament itself that Yahweh is not a God of war but is rather a God of peace whose vision for the world is one that is completely free of violence (e.g. Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3). Only when we appreciate the full force of the Old Testament revelation that God loves peace do we begin to appreciate the truth that God absolutely and unequivocally hates war – which in turn leads us to suspect that God is using something like reverse psychology in the war narratives of the Old Testament. Craige deals with the strong peace tradition in the Old Testament (ch. 8), but unfortunately doesn’t use this material to substantiate his claim that God is exposing the true horrors of war in the process of participating in it.

2) Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, superseding all previous revelations (Heb. 1:1-3). With his radical teachings about unconditional love for enemies and unconditional refusal to engage in violence, Jesus brings to a pinnacle the unfolding peace tradition of the Old Testament while further confirming that this tradition (not the war tradition) expresses the true heart of God. This beautiful revelation of God’s heart in Christ contrasts with the grotesque divine commands to slaughter people in the strongest possible way. And it’s from this perspective (but only from this perspective) that we begin to suspect that perhaps Craigie is right: given the revelation of God in Christ, Yahweh’s willingness to participate in the sinful debacle of war couldn’t have been to in any sense condone war. To the contrary, it must have been to expose how horrifying war really is and to thereby reveal why it is so contrary to his will.
Unfortunately, and surprisingly, Craigie never fleshes out the way in which the revelation of God in Christ contrasts with the war material of the Old Testament. In my opinion, the plausibility of his insightful thesis suffers accordingly.

Yet, there is a second purpose that Yahweh had for involving himself in the sinfulness of war, according to Craigie. This is the most important, and I believe most insightful, point of his book. We’ll discuss this point in the next post.

Until then,
stay centered in his peace.


Related Reading