Thursday, April 23, 2015

Once Again, the Problem of War in the Old Testament: Some Wisdom from the Late Peter Craigie (Part 3)

Once again, I belatedly return to my series on the late Peter Craigie on the problem of war in the Old Testament. The first part was an introduction to Cragie's work on this subject from his book, The Problem of War in the Old Testament. The second part of my series dealt with the first of three problems to be addressed-- the problem of God's character in these narratives.

Quotes from Craigie's book will be presented in italics. My own comments are in parentheses in standard block type.

Today's post highlights the second difficulty-- the problem of revelation (pp. 97-100).. Craigie begins the discussion:

A part of the problem of revelation has already been examined... God revealed himself to his chosen people through warfare.. But a further problem remains; granted that much of ancient history is characterized by warfare, why is it that so much of the literature of war has been included in the canonical books of the Old Testament as a revealed book, the contents of which appear to be full to excess with martial material. (Actually, I wonder why such warfare would be excluded? If the God of the Bible is a God involved with his people in history, to exclude warfare would be odd since it was so much a part of this ancient world.)In dealing with this problem an initial warning is necessary. In certain matters the Old Testament must be read and understood as a whole if its message is to be understood; this approach is particularly important with respect to the theme of war. The warning concerns the danger implicit, for example, in reading parts of the Old Testament, such as the "conquest narratives," and understanding them without the benefit of the latter part of the story, the "defeat narratives." (The danger here can lead to one of two misunderstandings that we see by progressives and conservatives. On the progressive end, since these passages are rejected as revelatory, why should we accept the later Scriptures that deal with Israel's defeats and exile as revelatory of a God working patiently with his people to understand that as God's people they were reminded they are not like the other nations in which violence is the solution? On the conservative end, without the defeat narratives, the conquest narratives can easily be misconstrued as a justification for violence... indeed, a crusade with God going before us into war. Both options simply do not work.)

But if the material on war in the Old Testament may be read as a kind of parable (rooted in historical reality), what are the lessons which emerge from it? (I think this comment is very instructive. Those on the conservative side tend to look at these texts non-critically, that is, taking them at face value without questioning to what extent these accounts might be embellished to make a larger theological point. It thus makes it difficult to resist using these texts as justification for violence today. On the progressive end, some are quick to point out that the archaeological evidence strongly suggests that there was no major conquest and conflagration on the large scale reported in Joshua. That does not mean nothing happened. Perhaps the "conquest" was much smaller and resembled more of a gradual occupation with "brush wars" breaking out in various places west of the Jordan River. What is interesting is how some progressives use this as a way to dismiss these texts as somehow revelatory of the character of God. Since it didn't happen the way Joshua reports, we don't have to deal with the difficulties of Yahweh as a warrior who fights for Israel. The irony here should not be missed. Progressive readers of Scripture are most often the first persons who insist that whether or not something actually happened in the Bible is much less important than what the story means. Yet, here since the story didn't actually happen the way it was reported means it can be dismissed.)


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