War and the Old Testament: A Proposal

Ted Grimsrud—October 3, 2011

It seems to come up all the time in discussions about pacifism. What about all the violence in the Old Testament? I’m not sure why the OT is considered to be a problem especially for pacifists—the violence there should be a problem for any moral person, I think.

I remember my Old Testament teacher, Millard Lind (of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary), speaking at the University of Oregon and making the point that the violence in the Old Testament creates problems for all Christians. We all say that the OT is revelatory, and it portrays God ordering or performing some horrendous and indiscriminate acts of violence. The OT is not about “just wars” in the sense that the western moral tradition has used that term. It positively portrays acts of indiscriminate murder, acts that are condemned by just about all moral systems.

I had a student a number of years ago who signed up for one of my Bible classes with the intent of refuting the pacifism I taught. To get ready for the class he began to read through the OT, making note of all the materials that went against pacifism. He did not get far into this project before he faced a major crisis in his faith. He realized it was actually too easy to prove his point; his own non-pacifist moral framework was also under assault by the Bible’s stories. Ultimately, he resolved the problem by giving up on the Bible and Christian faith.

So, it could be (1) that those who evoke the OT as evidence against pacifism are being disingenuous in acting as if the OT does not equally provide evidence against the just war theory or any other view that places moral limits on lethal violence used against civilian populations. Thus, it could also be (2) that non-pacifist Christians should be just as concerned about this dilemma as pacifist Christians. That they don’t seem to be is itself an indictment against the lack of moral rigor in the easy Christian acceptance of warfare.

Rethinking the Bible’s historical factuality

Perhaps the first step, one I simply don’t see any way around, is to recognize that the Old Testament is not a collection of historically accurate facts. It’s ancient literature, written by human beings for human purposes. It’s about evoking and sustaining faith, not about providing factual historical reconstruction.

Now, I don’t see any reason why taking this step should be problematic. The Bible never presents itself as anything but ancient, faith-forming writings set in particular historical contexts serving particular historical interests (contexts and interests different than modern, history = facts sensibilities). The Bible does not develop a very detailed notion of the Bible as revelation, but even if it did, I don’t think it would present God’s involvement in the writing and ordering of the materials as overriding human fallibility. That the Bible is a human book need not mean that it is not also divinely inspired. It’s just that if we believe that the Bible is divinely inspired (as I do), we should let the actuality of the Bible itself define the consequences of the inspiration—not our pre-existing definitions of “inspiration” that actually leave out or override the text’s humanity.

A helpful recent book that addresses the “problem of the Old Testament,” Eric Siebert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior, ultimately makes the argument that we must recognize that, say, the stories of Joshua are not actual historical records of actual events. They are stories, told long after the events they supposedly recount, with the purpose of sustaining faith. This is a notable concession, since Siebert comes from a pretty conservative, evangelical theological perspective. As I worked through his book, I kept thinking this is pretty good, but ultimately he is going to have to take the bitter medicine and admit that Joshua, et al, is not historical. Finally, Siebert does just that. And, hence, I believe, his book moved from a generally helpful but not particularly important treatment of this challenging issue to an essential contribution that genuinely helps us move toward a resolution.

However, Siebert only takes the first (essential) step. My way of resolving the problem of violence in the Old Testament goes in a bit of a different direction than Siebert does after that first step. If we recognize that the OT is not to be read as historically accurate in its portrayal of God-ordained, immoral violence, the next step should be to recognize that the truthfulness and meaningfulness of the Bible is found most profoundly in its overall message or story.

While appreciative of the historical-critical task that mainstream biblical scholars devote themselves to, I find it of only moderate assistance in negotiating the issues of how the Bible speaks morally to our present day. More important than historical-critical work is holistically reading the entire collection of writings; that is, taking a more literary and theological approach.

The plot of the Bible and the issue of warfare

I don’t have time right now to develop with appropriate thoroughness the way reading the Bible as a whole as a story helps us resolve the warfare problem. So I will simply sketch, very briefly, my latest thinking on how to present the argument against warfare as a biblically acceptable human activity.

Let’s pick a place fairly early in the story. Say, let’s start with David’s ascendency to kingship in Israel. With this starting point, let’s think of two different elements of the story at this point—(1) ways in which political developments in Israel parallel those of “the nations” and (2) ways in which political developments in Israel go counter to the ways of “the nations.” Then let’s follow the biblical story to the end of the New Testament comparing the evolution of these two elements.

So, David has become king following a pretty careful path. Israel, under threat both by is Philistine neighbors and by internal disarray, seems to be coming to a point of stability and security. David, with cause, is on his way to becoming Israel’s model king, the embodiment of the ideal expressed in Deuteronomy 17.

So, the first element, ways in which Israel’s politics tend to reflect “the nations’ ” include certainly the establishing of itself as a state, with geographical boundaries, a human king who exercises centralized power, an emerging military class and economic elite, the basic building blocks of a political structure that will require a standing army and rely upon military and police violence for its security and the general advancing of the nation’s interests.

However, the events leading up to David’s early kingship and the ideals still being expressed among the Israelites of his time, also reflect the presence in the story of this second element, ways in which Israel’s politics reflect an approach contrary to the nations’. Israel’s emergence as an independent nation relied on God’s direct intervention and not on human warriors and kings and elites. The story of the exodus from Egypt highlighted Moses’ frailty as a leader and presented him as anything but a mighty warrior. The entry into Canaan as told in Joshua also emphasized God as the center of Israel’s politics and made a point of denying the reliance on greater military firepower than the nations that were defeated. The heart of the society, Torah, presents itself as grounded in God’s will to care for vulnerable people and establish a society based on justice for all in the community as opposed to being based on the aggrandizement of power and wealth on the part of the human elite. When Israel takes decisive steps toward human kingship, the charismatic leader who spoke on God’s behalf, Samuel, expresses great misgivings about the movement to be “like the nations.”

But David does come into power and seems to be adhering to many of the elements of the story that pointed away from the ways of the nations. Then he gives in to his lust, seduces beautiful Bathsheba, has her husband killed, and moves toward the nations-ways.

Biblical politics: Against the nations for the nations

As we follow the story, reading it from the perspective of the prophets and leaders that the biblical account itself favors, we see something quite striking in relation to these two elements. If, we could say, the two elements were roughly of equal weight in David’s early kingship (that is, God’s people were existing in a political arrangement that seemed to give equal weight to the like-the-nations and over-against-the-nations elements), this weighing changes completely over the course of the story. In the end, the like-the-nations element is rejected pretty thoroughly, and the over-against-the-nations element is embraced as the biblical political vision.

Of course, and this is crucial, the point the story seems to make is that this over-against-the-nations emphasis serves the call from the very beginning for Abraham’s descendents to “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12) and the hope from the very end that “the nations” will be healed (Revelation 21–22). The vision critiques and creates alternatives to the nations’ way of being political in order to transform the nations themselves. This is not a sectarian vision.

Going back to David, the years of his early kingship seem to be a time when the vision of Deuteronomy 17 of a king living in subordination to Torah and in service to the well-being of the wider community was actually a possibility. However, from the time of David’s starting his process of “taking” (see the warning about kings in 1 Samuel 8 ) Bathsheba, the practices of Israel’s kings and the basic dynamics in first the unified kingdom and then the divided northern and southern kingdoms leads inextricably to the injustices captured so vividly in Amos and the violence captured so vividly in Hosea.

The failure of the like-the-nations track finds poignant expression late in the history of the southern kingdom of Judea. Finally a king who matches David’s faithfulness to the ideal arises, the story tells us. Josiah came into power as a young man and in his all too brief career works wonders in reforming the kingdom. The books of the law are rediscovered, and Josiah tries to implement their teachings. That it was too late to reform the kingdom arrangement becomes clear, though, when Josiah goes out on an ill-advised military expedition and is killed, ironically, by Egypt’s Pharaoh. Almost immediately, Josiah’s reforms bite the dust. We are told that the sins of his grandfather Manasseh were simply too great (2 Kings 22). That is, the institution had evolved to the point where it simply could no longer serve as a channel to the promise.

Nonetheless, Josiah achieved much. By bringing Torah back to the forefront, he provided the community with the crucial resource needed for their sustenance as a carrier of the promise apart from the nations-like path of a geographical kingdom whose interests required the use of the sword. A bit later, the prophet Jeremiah made the experience of exile and diaspora into a virtue with his call to “seek the peace of the city where you find yourselves” (Jer 29).

The final stage of this evolving political stance, the final turn in embracing  the counter-nations element over the like-the-nations element as definitive of biblical politics becomes clear in the New Testament. Jesus indeed embraced his calling to be a “king” (messiah, Christ) and to proclaim a message of a vital, Promise-furthering community (that he comfortably spoke of with “Kingdom of God” language). But this community, political to the core, was to stand unequivocally with the counter-nations element over against the nations-like element. His mission statement makes this clear: “The rulers of the nations are tyrants over their people. It must not be like this for you. The greatest among you must be servant of all” (Mark 10).

The resolution to the problem?

In light of this big picture account, the wars and other horrific violence of the Old Testament may be seen not as undermining pacifism but as a key part of the long story that ultimately repudiates such violence and affirms pacifism. We don’t get the final clarity on biblical politics as the politics of compassion that the big story ends up with without the early ambiguities that needed time to resolve. Much of the violence is portrayed as occurring in service to the Promise through a nation-state approach to peoplehood. This approach was a failure, repudiated by the prophets and by Jesus—not because it was too political or too this-worldly, but because it was self-destructive of the core vision of Torah and the Promise to Abraham.

The failure of the like-the-nations approach clears the ground for a clear affirmation of a counter-cultural politics of shalom, of restorative justice, of caring for the vulnerable ones, of compassion and welcome, that are clearly present from the beginning in exodus story and revelation in Torah. The process of clarifying the normativity of the counter-to-the-nations element requires a long time of sifting and trial by error. In the end, though, the resolution is clear. The OT violence then is part of coming to this resolution, not a repudiation of it.

13 thoughts on “War and the Old Testament: A Proposal

  1. An alternate explanation is that God and his peoples violence in the Old Testament is to prepare a people who could believe an follow a messiah bringing a new covenant, that expressed God’s plan from creation. For example, the violent Exodus is so critical to the identity of the Israelites that I have to accept is as an action by God, by Jesus. There are many examples where God would have fought for his people if they had faith, but they did not.
    But, God was preparing a people who could have the heritage of faith to accept the salvation through God’s own appearance as a limited human. Yet by his life, death, Resurrection, and ascension God brought his new covenant. The covenant that includes turning the other cheek, loving my enemies, not using the sword for defense, but living and proclaiming the possibility of a new life again in community with God, empowered by his Spirit.
    God is God, his wrath still operates in the world, we are however called to leave the wrath to God, and instead return good for evil, more than non-violence, self giving love, active love.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Al. I do think the story in the OT is a story of people being prepared to understand and follow God incarnate made flesh in Jesus. That’s why I make the point about the permanent failure of the state-option as a channel for the promise.

      I think the story is truthful, but to accept all parts as literally historical accurate seems to create an impossible conflict in the portrayal of God. You comment seems imply that God did violence on human beings, including children in order to prepare a people to be nonviolent. That simply doesn’t make sense—along with presenting God as being pretty monstrous.

      But why should we assume that the story has to be historical? Why can’t we see amazing truths in the Joshua/conquest story without insisting that it had to have happened in history as reported? Besides creating the kinds of problems I alluded to in the previous paragraph, the has-to-be-historical approach also presupposes a highly problematic view of biblical inspiration that presents God as giving the writings facts and information that they would have no way of knowing otherwise. This presupposition seems to deny the humanity of scripture—with similar problems as denying the humanity of Jesus.

  2. I am not a Mennonite by any stretch of the imagination but find the pacifist writings and thought of radically adhering to Jesus as He acted in the NT to be fascinating; I found this blog in my attempt to learn more about these things.

    However, instead of someone attempting to grapple with the text I find someone making an extremely liberal move and to paint the OT with broad strokes, throw his hands up in the air and say “it’s not factual, it’s anything we want it to be.”

    Well, that may be a teensy-weensy bit harsh but closer to the truth than your statements about the OT.

    I am dismayed in the extreme.

    1. I am happy you read my piece Robert, and went to the trouble to write a response. I am sad to have dismayed you “in the extreme.”

      I honestly believe that my thoughts about not reading the OT as literal history stem completely from “attempting to grapple with the text.” I think the only way one can conclude that the Bible is historically factual throughout is by refusing to grapple with the text (and refusing to recognize that the Bible is ancient literature, not modern “scientific” history that must be based on “facts” to be true).

      I don’t see what I am doing as liberal at all. I think we should read the “violent” stories as part of the picture, just that we should not isolate them from the rest of the story. One could see my approach as quite conservative, as saying that the entire canon is authoritative. It’s the farthest things from saying the OT is “anything we want it to be.” In fact, I am convinced that those who find warrant for our violence in the Bible are the ones twisting it to their own purposes. They only do so by denying the truthfulness of the sum of the parts of the Bible.

  3. I rather like Ted’s long-arc narrative perspective. But that may be more of a help for scholarly types than many folks in our congregations for whom Biblical “inspiration” (conservative-fundamentalist) is important. (I know Ted would challenge this view of inspiration.)

    I remember an adult Sunday School class I once led on “War in the Bible.” Like Millard Lind, JH Yoder and some other Mennonite scholars at the time, I tried to suggest that the point of OT warfare was not the violence of Yahweh or Israel, but of Israel’s relative passivity and trust (cf. Ex. 14:13-14, “Stand still.”) And that stories like the massacres of innocent Canaanites were more like Israel “devoting” the enemy to God in a worship ritual than Rwandan genocide.

    That perspective was little help in softening the brute narrative for a young mother in the class. When we got to the Canaanite conquest, she was visibly stricken. I could see her anxious eyes envisioning her own children under those Israelite swords.

    And then there was the communion service I once led as a pastor, where one of the OT readings of the morning included the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. It didn’t quite feel like an appropriate context for ritualizing a peacemaking God who comes to us in Jesus. In fact, one older gentleman in the congregation who was inclined to be skeptical of biblical authority nearly chortled out loud, so egregious did the incongruity seem.

    To say that the OT God-was-Warrior narratives are “not true” in the modern historical sense, and to suggest that those ancient writers only thought they heard God making those xenophobic and genocidal commands, will take a lot of unpacking in congregations where folks hold deeply to the view that the Bible is “the word of God.” And, (as the previous post suggests), can sound like an evasion of what those embarassing texts (for pacificists) do say.

    Ted, I’d like to see your Sunday school lessons on Yahweh as a Warrior in the OT, written for non-scholarly types like that shocked young mother.

  4. I appreciate your thoughtful comments, Philip.

    I don’t at all mean to say that “the ancient writers only thought they heard God making those xenophobic and genocidal commands.” I would instead want to talk about what reporting those commands might have meant when the writers wrote them hundreds of years after the alleged events that were recounted. The writers knew what they we doing (even if we can’t fully access their intentions ourselves). I think it is an inappropriate modernism to think that what was going on was delusion on the part of the writers.

    As much as a revere Millard Lind as a teacher and friend, and has helpful I continue to find his work (as well as that of his student John Howard Yoder on the OT), I think he still treats the “Yahweh as a warrior” materials too much as historical materials. Millard was trained in the historical-critical method (which emphasizes focusing on the small parts and working within the modern history-as-facts paradigm) and did not do enough with literary or big picture theological approaches.

    I think the idea that we need to read these violent stories as straight ahead facts is something people like this young mother have been taught (due to modern approaches to the Bible) as is not necessarily the common sense approach. So it might be that hard to disabuse her of her shock if one presented a more positive approach to the Bible as ancient story.

    I don’t have “Sunday School lessons on Yahweh as a Warrior” written yet, though someday I hope to. But here is a sermon I preached a couple of times back in the early 1990s on The Conquest: God’s Dark Side? It does not directly address the historicity issue, but does contain some reflections that I would hope the young mother would resonate with.

    I’d be interested in what you think.

  5. Hi Ted,

    While I believe there are “myths” in some parts of the bible (.e.g. The long day in Joshua, and the floating axehead story), as an evangelical, I have tended towards the general historicity of the book of Joshua with some changes in the retelling of the story to the time of writing. How historical it is , I do not know. There seems to be some possiblilty of justification of Israel ‘s genocide by the deuteronomic historians by putting these genocidal commands into the mouth of God. I am not sure how far I want to go with this.

    I agree with you that the acceptance of the conquest as fully historical creates grave problems for morality. No reading of the Jesus story in its context could justify the picture of God as a ‘genocidal general’. Perhaps I should read the Conquest stories again thinking of them as substantially non historical with some historical core.

    I liked the way you treated the tragectory of the bible and the “like the nations” and “against the nations view, with the NT view opposing empire and supporting the faithful following of Jesus as the peacemaker.

    John Arthur

    1. Thanks, John. Good to hear from you again. One thing I wonder about is why we should feel obligated to assume that the Bible is always historically accurate. It seems counter-intuitive to think that it would be, given that we would never imagine that other ancient literature is. And the idea that the Holy Spirit would miraculously make the writers transcend their humanness on issues of historical accuracy seems to be belied by the profound humanness of the text in every other respect.


  6. Hi Ted,

    Thanks for treating my response so kindly.

    I do not think that these stories of the conquest are historical in the same sense that a modern historian would regard as historical, but I wonder if there isn’t some historical memory.

    (1) A literary anaysis of the text seems to indicate two different accounts of the conquest are embedded in the text and, whilst there are some similarities, there are some significant differences. One view is that the genocide was completed whereas the other account says that it was not completed. So both accounts cannot be true in terms of literal historicity.

    (2) Conservative scholars date the conquest in either the 15th.C. BCE or the 13th C. BCE. Yet archaeologial evidence appears to be pretty slim, This would at least rule against the view that there was complete extermination of all the cities, as many sites from these two periods have been investigated..

    (3) I do however find it difficult to think that there wasn’t some historical basis for these events. However, it is probably not wise of me to press this too far. Not all the Hebrews appear to have gone down into Egypt as the book of Genesis records. There may have been Hapiru (possibly Hebrews) in the land of Canaan when the Hebrews came out Egypt and entered the promised land.

    (4). The book of Joshua was put together several hundred years after the Conquest. It is very likely that the story was told and retold to shape the sitz im Leben of the Israelite people. So it is probably impossible to reconstruct what actually happened.

    (5) So why am I still holding to the “historicity” of these events when we would not consider other literature of this period to be historical ( though it might have historical memory embedded in the stories)?

    (6) I am going to examine my view of inspiration and see whether it follows naturally from an anaysis of the bible or whether I have adopted a view of inspiration from elsewhere (e.g.my church tradition) and read this into the bible?

    (7) I am now beginning to wonder to what extent historicity really matters. I think it was CS Lewis who once said that the person who takes the biblical text as substantially mythological but lives in the story and lets the story impact their life is much more likely to be alive unto God than one who accepts the story as literally true but is not impacted by it.

    John Arthur

  7. Hi Ted,

    I wish to amend point (7) somewhat. I mean that the person who lives in the biblical story when it is taken as a whole, with the story of Jesus at the centre and lets this story impact on their life is more alive unto God even if they take it as mythological than the person who accepts it literally but does not live by it.

    John Arthur

  8. I’m glad to see this discussion continue.

    I have no problem with the claim that the Bible contains legend among its other oral and literary forms. (Except, perhaps, saying so too casually in certain contexts, such as in my former role as a pastor. I once was mildly reproached by a member of my congregation for simply using the term, “Bible story.” Calling something a “story” suggests it’s “only” a story, i.e. not true, right? [I never touched “legend.”])

    Still, I grapple with what in the OT Holy War accounts, once legendary accretions are admitted, might still be “historical.” What was that factoid at the Reed Sea, which seemed to the ancient Israelite storytellers and theologians to be a miracle of divine salvation? Notwithstanding the legendary tone of the Joshua narrative, is there still a historical kernel in which God was perceived as enabling a relatively small and under-militarized people to prevail against stronger foes (including that same God being heard as endorsing the ritual sacrifice of those foes?)

    Much of my concern with questions of historicity comes not from a literalistic doctrine of biblical inspiration, but rather from some things that were being taught about biblical interpretation at AMBS during my time. These included:

    1. God is a God who acts in history (cf. the OT scholar G. Ernest Wright of an earlier generation, among many others). Ultimately biblical faith is grounded not in disincarnate “spiritual truths,” but in real historical deeds.

    2. The Bible shows a growth in understanding, such as when the prophets (and then Jesus) come along to broaden and deepen the identity of God, the neighbor, the covenant community, and how to deal with the enemy. Ted, you seem to be acknowledging such a growth in your original post when you appeal to the overall biblical story as the frame for understanding OT politics and warfare.

    Given these points, as well as the very human character of the biblical documents, which include legends, myths, historical inaccuracies, and limited perspectives, I don’t see why one reasonable interpretation of those Joshua stories that seem to paint God as a “genocidal general” couldn’t be this: that sacrificing by sword is simply what some of the early interpreters in Israel really believed God was asking Israel to do with some of those Canaanites. And that something like that really happened—perhaps not the large-scale genocide some of the accounts literally suggest, but something. And then the prophets and Jesus come along and say, “No, you don’t devote your enemies to God by the sword, you devote them by caring for them, and preaching them the gospel, and inviting them into the redeemed community—and by dying for them, if necessary.” After all, today Christians claim to hear God calling them kill persons of other nations. Why can’t we allow those early Israelites that same kind of “hearing?”

    These are scattered and unsystematic thoughts triggered by your original provocative post, Ted, and the ensuing discussion. By the way, I only discovered your blog recently. Thank you for sharing your considerable gifts as teacher beyond your EMU classroom and with the wider church in this way.

  9. Check out the writings of Michael Prior on the Bible and Colonialism. Besides the book, there’s several offerings of his accessible for free on the web. Rich

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