In the last chapter Greg Boyd argued that God expects all Christians to “turn the other cheek,” but he may not necessarily hold nations to a standard only held within a covenant with him.
Chapter 8 begins the other side of the book. Before, we looked at “practical” questions that apply scripture to situations. The second half deals more with interpreting and understanding what scripture says on the matter, beginning with Ingrid Lilly’s question “What About War and Violence in the Old Testament?”
Nobody likes to talk about it. But there’s war and in the Old Testament. Carried out by Israel. But there’s also peace. What do we do with all this? “The Old Testament literature,” says Lilly, “engages the full spectrum of attitudes and experiences related to war.” Israel was more often than not the vulnerable one in history, yet we see, particularly in Joshua and Judges, a nation growing in power and unstoppable.
Lilly’s first point is that the peace message overwhelms the war message, especially from the prophets:
“While their rhetoric was frequently abrasive and vitriolic, many of the prophets articulated something akin to pacifist positions to the rulers of their day. Isaiah counseled both Ahaz and Hezekiah to avoid international military engagement, insisting that trusting the Lord was the only real source of strength. Similarly, Jeremiah condemned contemporary efforts to revolt against the Babylonians. He believed the city’s only future lay in peaceful submission, although he understood that this would not ultimately be Jerusalem’s fate.”
A second point is that the Old Testament gives no record of a holy war, which views war as sacred, but instead of a herem, a drastic use of violence to drive out the unholy. God allows this stuff to occur, even allows Israel to engage in war, but it seems only in the same way he makes provisions for divorce, slavery, and other things he does not desire. God desires that nobody perish (2 Peter 3:9).
Then Lilly departs into a territory I’m unfamiliar with and, because of how I was raised, uncomfortable with. I was not given to the silly assumption that the Bible was written directly by God and human men just sat and wrote word-for-word what he told them to. But I was taught that it was inspired, and that this means that “every word is true,” that when it tells of history, it’s telling the truth. The scholarly literature I am most acquainted with sees the entire OT as primarily a historical document (with the exception of the books of poetry). I don’t have the language or materials to really explore or challenge what Lilly does next.
Lilly suggests that books like Joshua, for example, are meant to be subversive texts that are not meant to give an account of historical fact necessarily, but interpret history in light of God’s relation to his people. In other words, their purpose is not to give a historical account, but to use history to tell the truth about God. This, she says, explains some discrepancies between Biblical accounts and historical findings. I know that many discrepancies are resolved by looking more critically at the reasoning used to identifying them, but I also am told that some are still unresolved. I don’t have the knowledge or experience to say anything more about that, and I invite others to give testimony of that.
So, Lilly is not saying that Joshua, for example, is incorrect, but that it was meant as a text to place importance on Israel’s identity and the identity of their God, using warfare rhetoric and framing to tell that story. Like how Sitting Bull, for example, tells “tall tales” of his battles with the white man in defiance of what they had done to him and to preserve his people. In his heritage, as in the oral heritage of the Jews, this was not lying, but rather a rhetorical storytelling device. Joshua reflects how the Jews in that time conceptualized God. It’s meant to teach the character of God in relation to his people, not “what happened historically.”
There are issues I take with this view, such as how we know what’s historical and what’s just “narrative”, and how we know which side to take in interpreting. But there are worse problems, I believe, with using the OT to justify “holy war”. But Lilly’s is just one essay on the matter. I wish there were others in this book dealing with this particular topic.
Both Isaiah and Micah preached the message of turning from war and once again being creative with God’s creation:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4; Mic 2:3).
Yet, Lilly reminds us that Joel calls for the very opposite with the same language. This is her point: the scripture recall how Israel views herself in light of her situation. Some could argue that this just meant that different prophets called for war and peace at different times depending on the circumstances. But what are those circumstances? Nothing seems to stand out as a reason for one in on place versus another, other than the political situation of Israel at the time of the writing. The prophets reflect the attitude of the weary people, Lilly seems to say.
So if the different attitudes reflect different opinions shaped by circumstances mainly as a way of solidfying Israel’s identity as a people of God, why pick peace over war? Lilly answers this question well enough, I think. The whole picture of the OT is about the covenant and God enduring a people who forsake him. Even if Joshua and Joel pushed a warrior spirit, that is not the spirit of the commandments, or the greatest command, which Jesus pointed back to, lived out, and died for.
If we do not like Lily’s explanation, I have heard others that may make more sense. One friend explained it to me that in the OT God is not using war as an enterprise he approves of, but looking out for his people and allowing them to participate in the story, even if they do so in ways he regrets. In Lily’s words, “God indicates that statehood and kingship were not in his vision; they were a concession to the people’s desires for security and power.” Just as Moses allowed the “cause” divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, and not for his own will, he allowed war to play a part in Israel securing their place, he allowed them to choose a king though they rejected him. This answer satisfies me enough, but it does not mean I do not struggle with the violent passages in the OT.
Of course, as another friend of mine became famous for saying, “we’re not Jewish.” Perhaps beyond the ways of reckoning with how violence was used in the OT is the more important understanding that Jesus, in fulfilling the old, brings us a new law of Grace. And in his kingdom, the violence is what he took on for us, not what we bring to others.
Do you think it is necessary to approach the OT in the way that Lily does? Or are there other explanations for the violence in the OT?
Would you say that God’s opinion of war is like his opinion of divorce, from the text? Is it more complicated than that?
Are we under the old covenant? And what does that mean to Christians under a new covenant?
[next chapter: What does it mean for every soul to be subject?]