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A Negative Object Lesson: Review of Craigie III

Hats off to Todd Dietz for his excellent, hard-hitting video! Brilliant!! Thanks for sharing that Todd.

We’re discussing Peter Craigie’s work, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, as part of a broader discussion on the problem of violence in the Old Testament. So far we’ve seen that Craigie argues that God’s involvement in war in the Old Testament was a concession to human sinfulness. One of God’s purposes, we saw, was to reveal how horrifying war is. We’ll now consider an even more fundamental purpose Craigie finds in God’s involvement in war. In my opinion, this is the single most insightful aspect of his book.

Craigie notes how God’s decision to work with a nation (Israel) to move towards his Kingdom objectives in creation required, as a matter of necessity, that God be willing to get involved in war. Given that God’s usual mode of operation is to work through “normal human activity” and “normal human institutions” as he finds them (70-71 [all numbers refer to Craigie’s work]), there was no way for a state to be established and preserved in the ancient world (or the modern world, for that matter) except by relying on military force. All national relations in the ancient (and modern) world hang on a balance of power (69). Hence, Craigie argues, “[a]s a nation state in the real world of that time, Israel could not exist without war” (71). With Jacques Ellul, Craigie argues that statehood and violence are inextricably linked together (71-72), a fact that simply reveals how deep violence is lodged in the human heart (73).

But why did God choose to work with a nation, and therefore to use violence, in the first place? To understand this, Craigie argues, we have to look at how the whole enterprise ended up. We have to interpret the beginning of God’s establishment of Israel through violence from the perspective of the end. And the end was utter defeat for this chosen nation.

As Israel was established by war, Craigie notes, so “the end too was to come in war” (76). Craigie details how the Israelites fell violently to their enemies after the reign of David (76-77). This defeat was “a reversal of their own conquest” (77). Just as God had earlier used the Israelites to judge the Canaanites, so God now used other violent nations to judge the Israelites (77). As Craigie says, “It was becoming evident that God was no respecter of persons, and though the providence of God might not always be fully understood, a certain justice was becoming clear in his dealings with men” (77).

Yet, out of the darkness of this stunning defeat, a radically new vision of the Kingdom began to emerge, according to Craigie. For example, Jeremiah, who lived through the critical years of the end of the state of Judah, announced the coming of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). “Whereas the old covenant had an external form in the nation state,” Craigie notes, “the new covenant would be marked by an inner work of God in man’s heart” (79). (As an aside, Craigie wrote in the seventies and thus fails to use inclusive terminology). For Jeremiah, “the failure of the chosen people to fulfill their high calling pointed to a deeper need in man which could only be met by a work of God in man’s heart” (79).

Along similar lines, in response to their dismal military defeat, Zechariah offers hope by proclaiming that Israel’s king would eventually come. But instead of announcing that he would come in might and power and triumph over Israel’s enemies, as previous prophets had frequently proclaimed, Zechariah announced that their king would come “marked by humility,” bringing “peace,” “riding on an ass” (Zech 9:9) (79). Someday Israel and the world would be ruled by a servant king, not a warrior. This relates to the growing vision of a future epoch of global peace that also arose in response to Israel’s defeat (e.g. Isa. 2:4; Mic.4:3). The horror of war — especially when it resulted in Israel’s own defeat — gradually birthed a beautiful vision of a world that would be completely free of violence (83-91).

All of this prepared the way for the arrival of Jesus Christ and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, argues Craigie. “According to Jesus,” he says, “the Kingdom was not to be a nation state, but a realm within men’s hearts” (80). It was Israel’s defeat in war that “terminated the outward form of the old covenant, the nation state…” and that forced people to “ponder the covenant and to seek a solution to the problem of man’s nature and the manner of God’s dealings with man” (80).

The truth that was being revealed through Israel’s defeat was that“[t]he Kingdom of God in the form of a political state was not viable” because of the violence that is rooted so deeply in the heart of humanity (81). If God’s own “chosen people” couldn’t establish the Kingdom with God ordained nationalism and divinely sanctioned violence, then we must conclude that nationalism and violence simply are not viable means for establishing God’s kingdom (81). And that, Craigie argues, was the central point all along.

Old Testament nationalism and violence were thus intended to function as a sort of negative object lesson for us. They didn’t work. If you live by the sword, Jesus said, you’ll die by the sword (Mt 26:52). By exposing the futility of nationalism and violence, God was revealing that his Kingdom can never be brought about by these means. The Kingdom can only come when God himself transforms humans to the core of their being (81). This begins to happen when we humble ourselves before God and place our total trust in Jesus Christ. When we swear off all nationalism and violence and surrender to Christ, God makes us citizens of a Kingdom that transcends all national boundaries and allegiances and is characterized by love, peace and humility (81).

The “tragedy of the history of Christianity,” Craigie notes, “is that so frequently the Old Testament lessons drawn from defeat in war have been forgotten” (82). Too often “the kingdom of God has become fused once again with nation state (sic); or the church, as the human organization of the citizens of the Kingdom of God, has taken upon itself the functions of a nation state” (82). Too often Christians have looked back at the Old Testament not as a negative object lesson but as a positive precedent to justify their own religious barbarism. And, as I argued in my book The Myth of a Christian Nation, whenever Christians have done this it has been disastrous for the advance of God’s Kingdom as well as the broader culture.

As I mentioned at the outset, I found this aspect of Craigie’s book to be profoundly insightful. He expresses and defends a growing conviction I’ve had about this material for several years. While I couldn’t clearly articulate it or defend it, I’ve become convinced that the sharp contrast between the way of the cross, on the one hand, and the barbarism of Israel’s slaughtering campaigns, on the other, must have been part of God’s purpose in using violence all along. I don’t think Craigie’s little book (it’s only 123 pages) takes us all the way there. More work needs to be done. But, in my opinion, it certainly takes us a long way in the right direction.

In my next blog I’ll offer a few reflections that I believe can strengthen Craigie’s thesis even further.

Live in the way of peace,



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