First Impressions on Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and the Old Testament Problem

I read/skimmed the new book Holy War in the Bible:  Christian Morality and the Old Testament Problem (hereafter HWB) edited by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan, published by InterVarsity Press Academic.  It consists of papers given at a colloquium of professors of Southeastern Baptist Seminary and Duke Divinity School in 2009.  Other contributors were added to the project that is this volume.

My first impressions (and that is all they are at this point) is that this book is important in several respects.  HWB takes an interdisciplinary examination of the well-known but oft denied, rationalized, spiritualized, or just plain ignored “Achilles heel” (for many readers) of the Bible and its portrayal of God – the phenomenon of the (wrongly named, as this volume makes clear) “Holy War” found especially in Deuteronomy and Joshua concerning the so-called “Conquest” of the promised land by the people of Israel.  Acknowledging and opening up this matter for discussion and debate in a “generously” evangelical setting and posing various ways to deal with it on different levels of discourse is an “event” worth noticing.  “Holy War” is and will be from now on the agenda for more conservative Christianity to grapple with.  And this can’t but be a good thing!

Another important contribution of HWB is the breadth and quality of its contributions.  Much of the discussion involves “clearing the ground” of misnomers and distractions that tend to distort the discussion in decisive ways.  The rubric “Holy War” itself (classically established by Gerhard von Rad in the last generation, this is not the way the Bible describes the phenomenon.  The Old Testaments names it “the wars of Yahweh” or “Yahweh’s War.”  This initial clarification moves the discussion away from two misleading directions:  a jihadist direction (see Chapman’s essay “Martial Memory, Peaceable Vision” (ch.3) and the customary linkage of “Holy War” to the later Crusades of Christian infamy which all but clinches a too-easy rejection of this biblical phenomenon.

HWB applies a double-whammy to this latter misdirection.  Douglas Earl in “Joshua and the Crusades” (Ch.2) shows that Joshua, with its focal attention to the “Yahweh’ Wars,” is almost never appealed to as justification for the Christian Crusades.  Thus we are free to look at the “Yahweh Wars” without this particular set of blinders occluding our vision.  Then David R. Heimbach drives this supposed connection between “Yahweh Wars” and the Crusades to the point of reduction ad absurdum by comparing the character of “Yahweh Wars” with those of the crusading mentality of later centuries.  He finds that key points of differentiation lie in “Yahweh’s Wars” originating in divine imagination and initiative and being prosecuted by divine leadership.  He concludes:

Unless “what is prophesied in Rev.19:11-21 comes to pass and God again initiates war on crusade terms, and God again leads such a war in person, and God does it in a manner all can verify . . . the crusade ethic of war must be resolutely rejected and opposed, because it has never been and will never be a legitimate option for human initiative, human leadership or even human imagination of divinely sanctioned war.” (200, emphasis author’s) 

Perhaps the most interesting essays are Steven Chapman’s (noted above) and Douglas Earl’s second essay “Holy War and (Herem):  A Biblical Theology of (Herem).  Outside of a literalist reading which accepts the “Yahweh Wars” as literal history, fully justified and morally and timelessly acceptable as they stand (a view not represented in this colloquium), these two essays pretty much stand as approaches which take the texts seriously in light of the full weight of the usual critique of “Holy War” ideology but wrestle towards a way of faithfully appropriating this material in the end.  Briefly, Chapman takes a “trajectory” approach to this line of biblical testimony and shows it leading in the end to a concept in which the “holy warrior is transformed into the holy martyr” (66) through the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus.  He takes Yahweh’s involvement in these genuine historical conflicts as incarnational entailing “a strictly circumscribed divine concession to the brutal reality of human sin.” (64)  Given his election of Israel as the means of fulfilling his plan of blessing all his creation, God “apparently . . .  was not able, given the violence of the world, to preserve Israel purely nonviolently although, even so, Israel’s history witnesses to and moves toward nonviolence as it moves toward Christ.” (64)

Earl moves in a literary and rhetorical direction.  He does not consider the commands of the “ban” (herem) to totally destroy all the enemy’s people (including women and children) and all their goods and resources as they enter in the promised land as literal commands.  Through close reading of the texts and sophisticated rhetorical analysis he find the use of “ban”-language functioning primarily as a call/command for Israel to separate from idolatry and build their identity of exclusive allegiance to Yahweh, to render a fresh sense of the people of God as including all who respond positively to Yahweh, comfort and encourage oppressed Israel and challenge and confront complacent Israel.  This, according to Earl, satisfies the literary intentions of the author of Joshua and takes seriously some of the historical/archaeological data that calls the historical accuracy of Joshua into question.

I find it striking that in even a “generously” evangelical setting we find two fine essays challenging the literalist, timeless “default” view of evangelical thought.  Earl’s view is the most divergent from this standard view and I am interested to see how it is received.  Even though my sympathies leans more to Chapman’s view, I am quite attracted to Earl’s work and want to read his other books on Joshua.

Time between delivery (2009) and publication (2013) has made two of the essays (chs.12 and 14) less important than they were at the time of the colloquium.  They deal with the “New Atheism” of “Ditchkins” (Terry Eagleton’s elegant neologism combining Hitchens and Dawkins).  I have not done more than scan these chapters.  But I am aware that today “Ditchkins” fifteen minutes of fames seems to have run out even among other atheistic evolutionists.  They do not take the former seriously any longer and neither, I suspect, should we.  We ought to be seeking conversation and debate with those who engage in neither the vitriolic attack or the caricaturing of biblical faith or ideological “science” “Ditchkins” has practiced and made a living on till recently.

There is much else here as well.  But you will have to sample that for yourselves.  I hope I have enticed you to do just that with these brief first impressions!  


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