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Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?: Wrestling with Troubling War Texts

par William J. Webb

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Summary: Using an incremental, redemptive ethic approach, and careful textual study, the authors argue for assessing the Old Testament warfare and war rape narratives against the Ancient Near East cultural context, the constraints on warfare for Israel, and evidence in the arc of biblical narrative that God both grieves warfare and redemptively works for the end of it.

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing focus on religiously-motivated violence including renewed attention not only to the sometimes violent history of the church, but also to the violence in the Old Testament, commanded or allowed by God. The authors of this work recognize the very real difficulties in these texts, particularly in light of our Geneva Convention ethics.

They begin by arguing that the argument of divine commands rooted in divine holiness and the evil of the Canaanites is a round peg into the square hole of modern ethics. The authors advocate instead that war be understood in terms of the biblical storyline in the Ancient Near East (ANE) context. Key is understanding God's intention to restore the sacred space where God relates with his people lost in Eden, foreshadowed in Israel, decisively inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus, looking forward to the peaceable kingdom of the new heaven and new earth, where evil is vanquished not by violence but by the word of the lamb.

The authors also develop the idea and show evidence that much of the "total kill" rhetoric of scripture reflects hyperbole, and that actually, death was most focused on military, and the kings who led them, where the general population may have been driven out of their homes. Often passages talk about "total" victories, only for subsequent passages to report continuing Canaanite presence.

Additionally, they contend that God accommodates the existing ethical practices of Israel. Perhaps the most significant argument for this "weeping God" portrayal is that unlike other victorious kings who often built temples, God banned David the warrior king from doing so, deferring the temple construction to Solomon ("shalom), the peaceful son.

It's also striking that by ANE standards, Israel's warfare practices are constrained. One chapter describes graphically an extensive list of atrocities common among the nations that were prohibited, as was battlefield rape. While warriors were permitted to take virgins who were attractives, they could not rape them on the battlefield. They were to be allowed 30 days to grieve during which they shaved their hair, and exchanged their clothing before the men could take them as wives (not slaves), who, if not pleasing, were not to be kept but released. None of this would be wholly acceptable by modern ethics (though often actual warfare still is accompanied by these atrocities) but these represented incremental improvements on a redemptive trajectory.

Ultimately, in Christ, God's kingdom comes, not by the exercise of violence, but by the incarnate Son taking violence upon himself, standing with the victims of violence through history. In the end, the Lion who is the Lamb who was slain comes to set things right, not through indiscriminate slaughter, no ethnic genocide, no real battle but conquest by the Lamb's word.

The writers admit the warfare accounts in scripture will always be troubling. We should be troubled. What the authors propose is a God who was troubled with a fallen world, who rather than remaining aloof, accommodated to the human conditions of war, but also instituted a redemptive process that will ultimately end all war atrocities and injustices in his peaceable kingdom.

I suspect we want a God who would wave a magic wand and make it all go away, pacifying warriors into peace-loving automatons. That's not what's on offer here, but rather a God who mixes it up with our sorry mess, and works slowly through history and sacrificially through his Son to set things to rights.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own. ( )
1 voter BobonBooks | Apr 19, 2020 |
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To James, a friend whose war ethic captures the spirit of Amos.
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A post-9/11 world thinks differently about war texts in the Bible.
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