1. Watch your words.
- How do we deal with God's violence in Scripture? Well, for starters, be clear that Scripture NEVER calls God violent. Violence is seen as something that evil people do, not God. So anyone who just starts with the assumption that God is violent needs to step back and justify what exactly they mean and why they see themselves as justified in describing God in this non-biblical way.
- Is it helpful to use the word "genocide" when you're talking about the conquest of Canaan? I think it isn't. Even if it's technically correct (debatable), that word is so loaded that it doesn't help us actually read the text well. It's a case of mapping a current concept back onto the biblical text in ways that obscure rather than clarify the text.
- It may not even be helpful to use the term "war" when talking about some of the events, such as Jericho, Gideon, etc. Many of these events look nothing like modern (or ancient) war. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Pay attention to the theological point of the text.
3. Not all Old Testament warfare is the same.
Let me push this even further: when we interpret the Bible, we need to ask about the theological point being made (see no. 2 above). Even for the first hearers/readers of Joshua, these stories are not being told as examples to emulate. As these stories get passed on generation after generation in Israel, the moral of the story is not "go find a Canaanite to kill," it's "trust God for your survival, even though it's highly unconventional." What I find maddening about some contemporary interactions with the text of Joshua is that it doesn't even recognize this. For example, Peter Enns' book For the Bible Tells Me So... is, on the whole, a solid book when it comes to many aspects of hermeneutics, in part because he repeatedly emphasizes that we have to ask about the theological purpose and context of the original audience rather than imposing our own assumptions about what the text should say or how it should operate. Yet remarkably, Enns absolutely ignores his own central interpretive rule when it comes to Joshua and instead jumps right to hand-wringing about "how could God be so violent?" I guess this shows that, even for biblical scholars, old habits die hard.
5. Abuse doesn't nullify proper use.
4. Not every text is supposed to be an example for us to follow.
6. Beware of subtle anti-Semitism in how people selectively address the problem of God's wrath in the Old Testament
- God sets up Israel in the promised land as the firstfruits of his global project. Part of setting them up there involves (a) judging the other peoples who live in that land and (b) protecting his people from the threats of other nations.
- The conquest narratives are non-repeatable. They are one-time events based on what's happening in salvation history at that point. They were not then nor are they now some kind of apologetic that validates war per se.
- God providentially uses Israel and other nations to keep each other in check. We see this all throughout the Old Testament. Yet, God's providential will is not the same as God's moral will. God uses nations and prideful kings to keep other nations and prideful kings in check. Yet the prophets nowhere say, "Go join those pagan armies because God is providentially using them."
- Jesus came and announced God's kingdom.
- That kingdom includes a posture of suffering servanthood, not only for Jesus but for his followers as well. Jesus calls his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. This means a willingness to die for one's enemies and friends.
- Jesus' resurrection is validation that those who seek first the kingdom will receive all things, including their own life. We don't have to fight because Jesus has already defeated death. There are many things worse than dying (to quote Albus Dumbledore, not Jesus).
- God continues to use nations and prideful rulers to keep sin in check (Rom. 13). That was in place already in the Old Testament. God's people don't need to fulfill that role; they need to do what only they can do: preach the good news about Jesus and live out a new way of life together that proclaims to the powers that be that Jesus is Lord. The question is not whether everyone should act like Christians; we know they won't. The question is whether Christians will be faithful to who we are supposed to be.
- God's people take their identity and marching orders from Jesus, not from how the surrounding culture tells them they should operate. If they are willing to kill one another for the sake of their country, they deny the truth of Christ in their actions. If they are willing to kill non-Christians for the sake of their country, they deny the love of Christ even for his enemies.
7. The Bible is a story that's going somewhere.
Okay. But have you actually read the whole Old Testament? Do you know who gets the brunt of the wrath of God, with very detailed oracle after oracle after oracle about judgment, houses and fields destroyed, plague and pestilence, wild beasts run amok, severe famine to the point that people are cannibalizing their children, and so on? That's right: Israel. Yet, for some reason, this seems to just get ignored by people wrestling with the OT.
"WHAT?!? God's going to destroy the Amorites? NO! My faith is shaken! How can I believe?"
"Oh, God's going to send all hell against Israel? Meh."
I'm fairly certain that people are not trying to be anti-Semitic here (although maybe I've got too much faith in people). I think it's more likely that (a) people haven't actually read the Old Testament and (b) people haven't actually thought about what they're reading. As I've pointed out elsewhere, the only people who think the conquest narratives are the most violent and troubling texts in the Old Testament are the people who haven't actually read the Old Testament.
All of the above are important, but here's the number one thing to keep in mind:
For further reading, see:
John Howard Yoder, "Jesus and Old Testament Warfare," in Revolutionary Christian Citizenship.
John Nugent, The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God (I highly recommend this book if you are interested in pacifism, the Old Testament, and the church).
Another essay of mine that hits on related themes: "Conquest, Exile, and the Cross: Replacing Projection with Reality."