The Blog of Jack Holloway

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: "Holy War in the Bible," Edited by Heath Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan

Thomas, Heath A., Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan. Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. pp.9-352. ISBN 978-0-8308-3995-7. ★★★★★

There are 13 contributions in this collection of essays on divine war in the Old Testament, providing a solid, comprehensive treatment of this difficult and important topic. While I could write a review of all 13 contributions individually, such a task would not only be incredibly time-consuming, but perhaps also completely uninteresting to you. Thus, I am forced to summarize each contribution and respond briefly.

Douglas Earl's first contribution, "Joshua and the Crusades," suggests that the book of Joshua has not been used in church history as a proof text for crusading, despite the claims of those like Roland Bainton.(1) He goes through a host of pro-crusade literature, showing that the book of Joshua is almost never used as support for the crusades, while other ancient Hebrew texts are. He says this is due in large part to the popular allegorical reading of the war passages presented by Origen.(2) While this is interesting, one wonders what exactly it contributes to the discussion. After all, while Joshua wasn't really used to support the crusades, Earl did find use of passages from Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Habakkuk, and Haggai in support of crusading.(3) Given this, I can't help but ask, "So what?" Furthermore, that Joshua wasn't used to support crusades doesn't make any less horrendous the war activity in the book of Joshua.

Stephen Chapman's chapter, "Martial Memory, Peaceable Vision," is helpful and well-informed. He makes a good case for the rejection of the term "holy war" to describe the OT's war narratives, opting instead to use terms like "divine war" or "Yahweh war" (most of the contributors to the collection express agreement). About the war material itself, he emphasizes that the wars were not enacted "out of vengeance, rage or ethnic hated but self-protection."(4) While he recognizes that this take away all the horror, it does show that the purpose of the war material was not "to glorify vengeful slaughter . . . but to confess God as the sole source of Israel's deliverance."(5) Furthermore, he says that the OT does not suggest war is ever holy, but only that God "is willing to participate in what is profane and wicked in order to bring about what is good." War, he says, "is always evil."(6) Ultimately, the Bible moves toward peace and a rejection of war, and so Christians should do the same. While Chapman's treatment of the topic is helpful, he doesn't quite solve the theological problem at hand. He seems to imply that God sometimes wills evil. A good and holy God cannot will evil, even if it is supposedly for the purpose of a greater good.

Heath Thomas approaches the topic differently in his contribution, "A Neglected Witness to 'Holy War' in the Writings." Essentially, he says that we have in Lamentations an example of the people of God contending God's warrior activity, providing us with a model for a faith that wrestles with God, a faith that refuses to positivistically accept divine violence, but autonomously questions and challenges God, though not without reverence and a commitment to return to trust and praise. While I applaud Thomas' comments on lament, I don't think what we have in Lamentations can be properly described as wrestling with the warrior activity of God. He says Lamentation provides "a radically different response to the issue of YHWH war as one finds, say, in Deuteronomy or Joshua."(7) Well, sure, but this is because war in Lamentations is against Israel and not her enemies. It is easy to be anti-war and upset by God's actions when the war God wages is against your own people! Had God been fighting for Israel, I highly doubt the author of Lamentations would have been so negative.

While Timothy Gombis, in his contribution "The Rhetoric of Divine Warfare in Ephesians," does not contribute much to a response of the theological problem of divine war in the Bible, he nevertheless provides a fantastic study of warfare in Ephesians. He highlights the counter-imperial, subversive nature of Paul's teaching, which describes a war that is fought through self-sacrifice and becoming a justice-seeking community. He says, "The church's warfare involves resisting [imperial] influences, transforming corrupted practices and replacing them with life-giving patterns of conduct that draw upon and radiate the resurrection power of God. The church's warfare, then, involves purposefully growing into communities that become more faithful corporate embodiments of Jesus on earth."(8) To that, and to the rest of his overview of Ephesians, I give a wholehearted "Amen!"

Alan Bandy's contribution deals with "Vengeance, Wrath and Warfare as Images of Divine Justice in John's Apocaylpse." The title provides a pretty good summary of the argument in his chapter: in Revelation the implementation of justice is manifested in vengeance, wrath and warfare. I have mixed feelings about Bandy's treatment. He highlights well that God's "vengeance" and "wrath" in Revelation really just mean the wicked will reap what they sow, and do not imply excessive or retaliatory action. Furthermore, he shows that "the way to victory for believers [in Revelation] is the way of the Lamb via martyrdom," so that Christian warfare is a.k.a. self-sacrifice.(9) However, when he gets to the section "The Returning Warrior King and Judge," his respect for nuance and rich understanding of John's imagery almost go completely out the window, as he offers a face-value reading of Jesus' return, here understood as a very violent war. What happened to victory via martyrdom? While his footnotes show that he has read several Revelation scholars that offer nonviolent readings of Rev. 19, he not only shares none of their insights, but he does not even dialogue with their arguments. That being said, it is otherwise a good discussion of justice in Revelation.

"Compassion and Wrath as Motivations for Divine Warfare," by David Lamb, is another essay the title of which provides the summary of the argument. Lamb does not deal with the morality of God's warrior activity in the Bible, but merely the motivation for such action, which he says is rooted in God's compassion and a strict commitment to justice. Because of this, Lamb says, God's warriorship should actually be praised. While Lamb's analysis of compassion and wrath in the Bible is insightful, his response to the war material in the Bible is positivistic and amounts to an insufficient response to the problem.

Douglas Earl returns for a second contribution with "Holy War and חרם," which contributes more to the discussion than his first. He makes a strong case for a symbolic (as opposed to a literal/historical) understanding of the herem passages of the Hebrew Bible (see here, my review of Niditch's book on war in the Hebrew Bible, for a discussion of herem). While he essentially suggests the same thing Jerome Creach does in his book Violence in Scripture (see my review, here), I was much more convinced by Earl. Space does not permit me to go over his argument, so I am forced to merely say that it is quite compelling. Though I still think the OT contains some theology that Jesus would have us shed, Earl's treatment of the subject has left me with a lot to ponder.

Daniel Heimbach provided my least favorite contribution in this collection: "Crusade in the Old Testament and Today." After a long discussion comparing just war and crusades, he states that a crusade cannot be considered as morally wrong in itself, because for God, "allowing no surrender, showing no mercy and sparing no one, [can be] entirely justified." Furthermore, God "owes no explanation for anything that he does." He evaluates us "and we have no standing to evaluate him."(10) It seems to me that Heimbach isn't all that familiar with the OT if that is his conclusion. Jeremiah, to use one example of many, evaluated God and accused him of betraying and violating him (see Jer. 20, and my discussion, here). Fortunately for Christian ethics, Heimbach says crusades can only be justified if they are initiated by God and led by God in a way that could be verified.(11) Still left is the immense theological problem posed by the crusading activity of God in the OT, a problem Heimbach flippantly and unfairly dismisses.

Insight returns with Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan's contribution, "The Ethics of 'Holy War' for Christian Morality and Theology," which analyses the OT literature in comparison with other ancient Near Eastern literature and concludes that the battle stories are hyperbolic in nature. Thus, for example, the author of Joshua didn't really mean to suggest that the Israelites literally "left no survivors" (10:28, 30, 34, 37, 39, 40), but was merely utilizing a typical ANE hyperbolic literary device. They convincingly show this based on examples from ANE literature, as well as the biblical narrative, which often seems to contradict itself as Israelites often encounter survivors of peoples they supposedly destroyed completely. While this doesn't solve the theological problem of a violent God, it successfully makes the war material not as bad as it seems...but it's still pretty bad.

Glen Stassen (R.I.P.) also contributed to this collection, with a chapter entitled, "The Prophets' Call for Peacemaking Practices." I have to say, I was a little disappointed by his essay. I am an advocate for Stassen's Just Peacemaking initiative and an admirer of him and his work, but this chapter was a little underwhelming. It's really more of an overview of Norman Gottwald's book All the Kingdoms of the Earth.(12) Don't get me wrong, I love Gottwald, and Stassen provides some grade A quotes, but the title of the chapter is a little misleading, as it is mostly an overview of the prophetic vision of justice and peace over against imperial systems; it is not so much about peacemaking practices. I was disappointed because peacemaking practices are what Stassen usually offers so well. For this reason, I would suggest the reader supplement Stassen's contribution here with his contribution to War in the Bible & Terrorism in the 21st Century,(13) or his book Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace.(14) And please do! His assertion that regardless of whether you're a just war theorist or a pacifist, Jesus has called us to seek peace--and that despite popular opinion there are practical ways governments can seek peace--is urgently needed.

Robert Stewart brings the discussion into new territory with his, "'Holy War,' Divine Action and the New Atheism." He responds primarily to Richard Dawkins, suggesting that OT holy war is not an argument against belief in God. While he does this convincingly, he does not sufficiently dispel OT holy war as an argument against biblical inerrancy. He asks, "is it the case that God, who created all other living beings, does not have the right to take back the life that he has given?"(15) God may have the right to take back the life that he has given, but that does not mean that to do such a thing is loving and morally right. I have the right to kill someone who attacks me and threatens my life, but that does not mean killing someone in self-defense is loving and morally right (in fact, I would say it's not). Furthermore, taking back life is not the only problem, nor is it all God is said to have done in the OT. Violence on the part of God is the problem. For example, God is depicted as responsible for mass rape in Num. 31:18, Deut. 20:14, and 2 Sam 12:11. While his discussion is humble and fair, Stewart's insistence on biblical inerrancy is its weakness.

Murray Rae's contribution, "The Unholy Notion of 'Holy War'," is, unsurprisingly, one of my favorites. In his first section, he talks about the pacifism of the early church, providing several quotes from early church fathers, and then discusses the reasons for the church's widespread change of heart (Constantine's "conversion," the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, and Augustine's influence). The second section deals with objections to pacifism from Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth, who essentially said that pacifism is unrealistic because every once in a while coercion is necessary. He responds to them in the third section by appealing to the teaching and example of Jesus, whose self-sacrifice and resurrection provide the model for Christian ethics. Jesus, he says, "refused the temptation of political or armed power and accepted that it would cost him his life." Furthermore, this example "is to be followed not because a more satisfactory outcome is thereby assured [in human history] but because it is not our will but God's that should be done." Thus, to think in terms of war being sometimes necessary is to think in strictly human terms, which amounts to "the abandonment of Christian ethics."(16) On divine war in the Bible, Rae says, "Christians must take more seriously" the new commandment which Jesus introduced which is "more stringent than the old," and in which "war waged with the implements of violence and destruction is always a failure . . . [and] can never be holy."(17) Altogether, I found this to be one of the strongest and most compelling contributions.

The final contribution is "'Holy War' and the New Atheism" by Stephen Williams. Approaching new atheism from a different angle than that of Stewart, Williams highlights several problems with New Atheist thinking, which is guilty of the same kinds of errors as those of Christian fundamentalism; namely, they are based on straw men, sweeping generalizations, caricatures, and simplistic literal readings of Scripture. One example is the New Atheist reading of the "holy war" passages in Scripture, which Williams says are pre-Christian.(18) A nuanced reading, he says, would "seek to understanding the ways of God in the Old Testament," utterly defined by pathos and which respond to violence with grief.(19) So at the very least, divine war was an accommodation that God made with sorrow for the sake of preserving Israel in order for Jesus to penetrate our violent world with his message of peace. While he is often insightful, Williams' line of thinking is sometimes hard to follow and his chapter lacks focus. His assertion at the end that New Atheism is a "holy war" against religion is odd and I couldn't help but feel like I missed the point.

The afterward, written by Jeremy Evans and Heath Thomas and entitled "Old Testament 'Holy War' and Christian Morality: Where do we go from here?" seeks to wrap things up by providing what needs to be considered in future discussions of this pressing issue: 1) we shouldn't confuse an "is" with an "ought" in Scripture, meaning we shouldn't see all the violence in the Bible as divinely ordained, but should distinguish what is divine violence from what is not; 2) we need to distinguish between objective and absolute commands, meaning we should set apart commands that were for a specific time, situation, and people and not for all followers of God; 3) we need to pay attention to the vital role of Scripture (see here for a recent blog in which I posit that the issue of divine violence is primarily an issue of the authority of Scripture). While I agree with all of these, their discussion of them includes conservative assumptions that do not apply to progressive Christians, including certain contributors to this collection. For example, they say at one point "God indeed commanded 'holy war'," which begs the question, "What about the many Christians who don't believe he did?"

Overall, Holy War in the Bible is perhaps the best introduction to the topic of divine war in the Bible that one could read. It would have been even better if they included a chapter on war in Revelation (the one on wrath and vengeance doesn't quite cover it), and if they included a contribution from a more liberal perspective. Notwithstanding, I highly recommend it, as it offers several differing viewpoints, all of which are presented with sophistication. It also includes a tremendous bibliography, and each chapter has a ton of footnotes with other great sources to check out. For the thoughtful Christian, for the student or teacher of the Bible, for the Pastor, for whoever interested in this topic, get this book. It's probably the best place to start.

(1) See Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960).
(2) See Earl, "Joshua and the Crusades," 39.
(3) See Ibid., 29-34. 
(4) Chapman, "Martial Memory, Peaceable Vision," 57.
(5) Ibid., 63.
(6) Ibid., 65.
(7) Thomas, "A Neglected Witness to 'Holy War' in the Writings," 82. Holy war is put in quotes throughout the book, because several contributors note the invalidity of the phrase for referring to the Bible's war material. One wonders why they didn't just call the book "Divine War in the Bible" or something else, so that all the contributors didn't have to put "holy way" in quotes all the time.
(8) Gombis, "The Rhetoric of Divine Warfare in Ephesians," 100. Emphasis his.
(9) Bandy, "Vengeance, Wrath and Warfare as Images of Divine Justice in John's Apocaylpse," 114.
(10) Heimbach, "Crusade in the Old Testament and Today," 190.
(11) See Ibid., 196.
(12) Norman Gottwald, All the Kingdoms of the Earth: Israelite Prophecy and International Relations in the Ancient Near east (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).
(13) Glen H. Stassen, "Just Peacemaking Reduces Terrorism between Palestine and Israel," in War in the Bible & Terrorism in the 21st Century, eds. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 127-148.
(14) Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Lousville: Westminster John KNox Press, 1992).
(15) Stewart, "'Holy War,' Divine Action and the New Atheism," 273. Emphasis his.
(16) Rae, "The Unholy Notion of 'Holy War'," 306.
(17) Ibid., 310-311.
(18) Williams, "'Holy War' and the New Atheism," 323.
(19) Ibid., 324.

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