In recent years scholarly and popular discussion of biblical violence, ethics and war have increased significantly. Holy War in the Bible is an important addition to that growing body of literature. Thankfully, the editors have adopted an interdisciplinary approach as evidenced in their decision to include essays from a number of fields. The interdisciplinary landscape is broadly reflected in the six sections into which the essays are divided: Part One: “The Challenge of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality,” Part Two: “Old Testament Perspectives,” Part Three: “New Testament Perspectives,” Part Four: “Biblical-Theological Perspectives,” Part Five: “Ethical and Philosophical Perspectives,” and Part Six: “Theological Perspectives.”
In addition to the several fields of discourse, there is also an admirable diversity of perspective included among the authors. For example, Stephen Chapman argues for the genocidal violence of Joshua as a “concession” to the Ancient Near East (ANE) while Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan argue that the text of Joshua doesn’t really describe a genocide at all. And Douglas Earl extends his fascinating work on myth in Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture and The Joshua Delusion: Rethinking Joshua as Christian Scripture to the concept of herem (often translated as “handing over to destruction”). For example, he writes: “in a mythological sense, Deuteronomy 7 itself encourages not so much annihilation of Canaanites as radical separation from them and their idolatrous practices–exactly what Joshua 23-24 exhorts.” (p. 163) There is certainly some overlap between these various essayists, but there is also significant difference in their various treatments of the problem.
To be honest, I was left at points wishing there was more interaction between the authors given the divergent ways several authors addressed the biblical texts and theological/ethical issues. I was particularly left wishing that the outspoken pacifistic contributors Glen Stassen and Murray Rae would have more explicit engagement with the just war stance of other authors. Consider, for example, this suggestive excerpt from Rae’s essay:
“It might be objected, and commonly is, that God in Old Testament times did sanction and even commanded the use of war to punish evil and to advance his own purposes. The texts bearing witness to God’s sanctioning of war must be taken seriously, as is done elsewhere in this volume; but Christians must take more seriously still the characteristic propensity of Jesus to heighten the ethical demand, to introduce a new commandment more stringent than the old: ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.'” (p. 310)
This passage begs the question of how Rae views the various proposals of the book’s other contributors. Would he agree, for example, with Chapman’s argument that genocidal battle was a concession to ANE practices? Or would he have sided with Earl’s non-historical take on herem as a symbol of separation, purity and holiness? Or would he have followed Copan and Flannagan down the middle with a hyperbolic and stylized reading of a broadly historical narrative? Or would he have endorsed a wholly different solution? The reader is left to wonder…
At this point I’ll turn to some further critical interaction with the book’s content. Unfortunately it is impractical to attempt to engage each of the essays in this volume in this review. Instead, I will make a few critical comments about the proposals of Chapman and Copan and Flannagan which I already referred to above.
In his essay “Martial Memory, Peaceable Vision,” Stephen Chapman notes that the purpose of consigning objects and persons to the herem was to protect against idolatry and ensure Yahweh’s sole Lordship:
“It was feared that not destroying idols and other holy objects, or incorporating foreign worshipers into the Israelite community, would occasion idolatry or religious syncretism on the part of the Israelites. The wholesale slaughter of human beings for this reason is not any less horrible, but it should still be taken into account that such slaughter is not being authorized out of vengeance, rage or ethnic hatred but self-protection.” (p. 57)
Chapman’s essay is quite “traditional” in its broad embrace of the narratives as historical accounts of divinely commanded and ethically justified genocidal slaughter. Thus, Chapman invokes one of the biblical justifications, viz. that this slaughter was required to protect the Israelites from the wickedness of the Canaanites. As I have noted in my writings on this topic elsewhere this idea that a people must be eliminated because they produce a serious threat to the well being of the other group is a common justification for genocide. (Remember, the Jews were branded “vermin” in WW2, the Tutsis were branded “cockroaches” in Rwanda 1994.) So it is here that the Canaanite slaughter is justified by presenting the Canaanites as an imminent threat to the Israelite people. But the rationale begs the question: what threat was presented by Canaanite infants, toddlers, the physically infirm or senior citizens?
Later Chapman provides a particularly striking instance of “The cup is half full” philosophy when he observes that when the herem consigned the residents of Canaan to destruction, “in this way the book also restricts the ban from wider application.” (p. 59) This kind of reasoning is dumbfounding. Imagine attempting to defend a military leader’s decision to slaughter all the single men in an occupied territory by pointing out that the command limited the slaughter to single men, thereby sparing all the married gents. Sure, it is good that the married gents were spared, but that doesn’t justify the slaughter of the bachelors. Mutatis mutandis for Chapman’s take on the limitations of the herem command.
Finally, Chapman proposes his thesis that herem warfare was an accommodation to ANE practices of warfare:
“the canonical Old Testament presents war as a time-conditioned, concessive practice at odds with God’s ultimate will for humankind.” (p. 62-3)
Christopher Wright makes a similar argument in The God I Don’t Understand. In my review of that book I noted that if God could accommodate ANE herem-genocide forms of war then presumably God could also in principle accommodate practices of raping and cannibalizing defeated soldiers such as we saw in the Pacific theatre in WW2. But surely God could not accommodate the atrocities of war rape and cannibalism. And unless a person can argue that raping and cannibalizing soldiers is worse than slaughtering non-combatant children and enemies, this provides us with excellent grounds to believe that God would not have accommodated the atrocities of ANE warfare.
How would Chapman answer the question of why God would accommodate to such morally heinous actions? His answer is astounding:
“God was not able, given the violence of the world, to preserve Israel non-violently….” (p. 64, emphasis added)
Think about that. Chapman is arguing that God’s only choice to maintain his people and carry forward his plan of salvation, was to command them to slaughter non-combatant women, children and infants. Surely this is absurd. Nor has Chapman provided any reason to think that the God who spoke heaven and earth into existence was forced to command his soldiers to participate in genocide. To make matters worse, Chapman then suggests that “God, who alone is holy, is willing to participate in what is profane and wicked in order to bring about what is good.” (p. 65) At least Chapman recognizes here that the kind of war described in the text is “profane and wicked”. But to suggest that a holy God “is willing to participate in what is profane and wicked” leaves Chapman teetering on the edge of a theological abyss.
As you can imagine, I am more sympathetic with Copan and Flannagan’s essay “The Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology.” Copan and Flannagan (henceforth: “Conagan”) take a different approach in which they seek to maintain maximum fidelity to our moral intuitions whilst also affirming the inspiration and broad historicity of the biblical texts of herem warfare. I say “broad historicity” because at times Conagan start to sound like “old time liberals” who deny the historicity of various events narrated in the text, like the destruction of Jericho, for example. However, they avoid that old time liberalism by arguing that the texts themselves, when read properly, don’t say what they seem to say. Instead, Conagan argue that the Deuteronomic history (Deuteronomy to 2 Kings) should be read as a stylized ancient history which borrows liberally from the historical, literary conventions of the day. Consider, for example, the passage in Joshua 10 where God is described as extending the daylight so that Israel may complete the battle. Conagan point out that this is a common ANE convention (i.e. many ANE war narratives from Israel’s enemies describe similar divinely extended days in battle) and that suggests that the writer of Joshua was availing himself of a well known motif. So while Conagan seem to be saying the extended day didn’t happen, they differ from the old time liberals who simply said the text is wrong. Conagan instead insists that the event is a non-historical motif. (See p. 216.)
Conagan proposes something similar in the case of texts that seem to describe the divine command to slaughter Canaanites and Amalekites. They point out, for example that at multiple places in the Deuteronomic history (which we should view as a unified history) the text makes it clear that these people groups were never annihilated as certain passages seem to describe. Conagan argue rightly that it is very uncharitable to think that the redactor(s) of the Deuteronomic history were unaware of these contradictions. And this provides us with a good reason to think that the texts of unqualified slaughter were never meant to be read as literally advocating complete destruction. Conagan support this conclusion by considering non-Israelite ANE battle narratives which similarly describe the enemy as being completely annihilated. Given that we know through independent history that those enemies were not annihilated one can likewise read those ANE accounts as stylized hyperbole. And this is what Conagan advises we do for the biblical passages as well. (See p. 215.)
Conagan’s analysis is nuanced and well worth closer study. However, some conservative readers of scripture will probably worry they are playing a little too fast and loose with the historicity of certain events. For my money, I’m more concerned with the adequacy of their ethical analysis. Consider a familiar problem passage like 1 Samuel 15:3:
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
Granted, this may be hyperbolic, stylized war rhetoric. But that hardly removes the moral problems from the text. If texts like this, and the bellicose mentality they reflect, would inspire at least one combatant to slaughter an infant then wouldn’t that constitute a moral atrocity? And if it would, then how could God include within his sacred text war rhetoric that describes the infliction of moral atrocities, even if they aren’t intended literally? Consider as an analogy a much lauded marriage handbook that instructs husbands to beat their wives when they don’t obey. You’d wonder how any marriage handbook worth the paper it is printed on could command such a thing. And then somebody tells you “That’s a hyperbolic and stylized instruction from the time in which the marriage handbook was written.” Fair enough. That may create greater sympathy with the marriage handbook as a product of its time, but it wouldn’t vindicate the belief that it was a laudable handbook for our age.
I could go on, but let this brief interaction with Chapman and Conagan be taken as evidence for the stimulating and quality nature of the essays included in this volume. This is an engaging book and one that invites the reader to further reflection.
Now let me round out the essay with two complaints.
My first complaint centers on the editorial decisions behind the formation of Part One in the volume. This section consists of a survey essay titled “Orientation Amidst the Diversity,” and an essay on “Joshua and the Crusades.” The latter essay by Douglas Earl is a fascinating and well researched deconstruction of the idea that historical readings of Joshua served as ideological justification for the Crusades. The essay is fine, but I question the placement of it. In short, it appears the editors didn’t know where to put it and thus created a first section consisting of this essay and the introductory essay. This seems to me to be a mistake. Instead, the orientation essay should have been placed as an introduction to the volume prior to the various sections, while the Earl essay on the crusades should have been placed in a separate historical section. (Perhaps the editors could have solicited one or two additional historical essays to round out the section. But the bottom line is that Earl’s essay didn’t belong here, and this choice starts the volume off on a somewhat puzzling note.)
The second complaint is more significant. If there is a foil to which these authors are writing, it would seem to be the new atheist voice represented by the writings of Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. This is somewhat curious given that, as Stephen Williams notes in his essay “‘Holy War’ and the New Atheism,” these folk do not present a serious academic engagement with the issue. I agree with Williams on that point. While the new atheists have often shown their able use of rhetoric, their actual engagement with scripture has been as brutish as the semi-literate high school jock reciting a scene from Macbeth for his English class. Consequently, as I read the book I wished that more critical attention had been focused on engaging the challenging scholarship of academics like Susan Niditch, John Collins and Eric Seibert rather than the biologist Richard Dawkins and the journalist Christopher Hitchens.
While these are disappointments, they do not detract substantially from the value of an otherwise very fine volume. For those interested in a diverse range of interdisciplinary academic perspectives on Yahweh warfare, this book is a must have.
Thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy of the book.