Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: The Problem of War in the Old Testament by Peter Craigie

Craigie, Peter C. The Problem of War in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978. $14.70. pp.7-125. ISBN 978-0-8028-1742-6. ★★★★

Working my way through books on the topic of divine war in the Old Testament, I come to Peter C. Craigie's classic work. Almost 40 years old, this book is still insightful and relevant. Craigie even makes note of the fact that Christians often teach their children the dire importance of abstaining from all things sexual, while war and violence are rarely stressed. Don't read Song of Songs yet, dear children, but reading violent war stories in books like Joshua is a-okay.(1) This observation of Craigie's is still quite apparent today.

The book is full of such astute observations, alongside a well-ground, well-nuanced, yet profoundly concise treatment of the Hebrew Bible's war stories. This is a breath of fresh air after reading Seibert's exhausting and repetitive 300+ page book (see my review here).

Craigie rightly emphasizes the seriousness of this topic, and of not taking it lightly. He wrote a good section on the abuse of the OT war tradition in Christian history, referring to many instances in which books like Joshua were used to justify horrid violence in the name of Jesus Christ.(2)

In his assessment of the divine war material, Craigie is honest about its implications, and equally honest about the the findings of scholarly research, like ancient near eastern parallels to the OT war narratives,(3) and even a striking comparison of the Israelite divine war tradition and that of Muslims.(4)

That all being said, I did not find all of his writing so well thought out. For example, in critiquing the progressive revelation approach to divine violence in the Hebrew Bible, Craigie says "the progression in revelation does not contradict or cancel out the earlier substance of revelation; it can only complement that substance."(5) This is not necessarily true. Sure, actual revelation could only be elaborated upon and complemented, but ancient Hebrew theology can be contradicted if their representation of God was not actual revelation of his nature. Given pieces of revelation to the mysterious puzzle of Yahweh, Isrealites could have filled in the gaps with their own ideology, no doubt shaped in large part by ancient Near Eastern culture. This is no critique of progressive revelation at all, because it doesn't deal with the actual claims of those who advocate the view.

Craigie's caricature of those who cannot accept the warrior portrait of God in the Hebrew Bible is also flawed, as he unfairly generalizes in a reductionist manner. He says,
the conception of God as Warrior may be said to be a primitive, pre-Christian notion; the Hebrews were simply identifying their God with war in the same way that other nations did at that time. They were, after all, an unsophisticated people (unlike ourselves!) with a course and lowly view of God, which was eventually to be outgrown in New Testament times.(6)
I cannot imagine a more simplistic over-generalization. He doesn't consider those that actually wrestled with warrior God images because genocide is a horrible thing to equate with the God of Jesus Christ. It often has nothing to do with being a superficial, chin-up, pseudo-sophisticated, pious aristocrat. Many of the ancient Hebrew portraits of God are simply terrifying, if we are honest with ourselves. Craigie does elsewhere acknowledge the need to wrestle with this material,(7) but his assessment of the people who wrestled with it and ultimately could not accept it is anything but sympathetic and nuanced.

Aside from an occasional statement, the book is overall quite solid, especially when he talks about ethics. His assessment of the problem the Hebrew warrior God presents to theology is not satisfying, but he himself said that he made no attempt to resolve the problem, but only sought to provide a framework with which further digging could be done,(8) and that he most certainly did. Even if one disagrees with aspects of that framework, it offers all useful tools for further study.

Easy to read, concise (I read it in 3 sittings), well-grounded and highly insightful, Craigie's work is essential to the study of war in the Old Testament. If you're interested in the subject, this is a fine place to start. 

(1) See Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament16-17 and 104-105.
(2) See ibid., 26-28.
(3) See his appendix, "War and Religion in the Ancient Near East," in ibid., 115-122.
(4) See Ibid., 25.
(5) Ibid., 37.
(6) Ibid.
(7) See ibid., 13-14.
(8) See ibid., 93.

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