The problem of violence in the Old Testament is something that confronts any careful reader. It is one of the first ports of call for New Atheist criticisms of the Bible, but it also provides a personal challenge anyone with a tender conscience who is aware of the prevalence of violence in the modern world. Writing in this month’s edition of Christianity Today magazine, Mark Buchanan cites an occasion where he gave a talk on why we should trust the Bible. At the end he asked one of the young people whether he had convinced him to trust the Bible. ‘No’, came the reply. ‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘Because of Hosea 13.16: “The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.”‘
Philip Jenson wrote a Grove booklet exploring this issue, and highlights not just the pastoral concerns, but the theological challenge:
How can the warlike God of the Old Testament be the same divinity as that revealed in the New Testament, the God of love incarnate in Jesus Christ?
He begins by setting aside superficial approaches to the question, and to the text, before embarking on a careful exploration of the key passages:
I would like to argue that the OT approach to war is deliberately complex, ambivalent, conditional and incomplete. I shall attempt to show this by looking at four key texts about war, drawn from different parts of the Bible and from different kinds of writing (Ex 15; Deut 20; 1 Sam 17; Jer 21). These will introduce broader discussions of the biblical material.
There are several crucial issues to address, both within the text and in how we read it. One is to take the historical context with full seriousness: these accounts are set in a very different context to our own day. A second is to note a central theological theme: it is not Israel fighting its enemies as such, but God engaging with those who oppose God. At times it seems that Israel as a nation are almost incidental to what is going on.
(One of my favourite passages in this regard is Joshua 5.13–15. Joshua meets a figure of a man, who turns out to be the ‘commander of the army of the Lord’; he has to correct Joshua’s misunderstanding that he, Joshua, is the agent of God’s victory. An analysis of the narrative of Joshua as a book shows that Israel’s enemy in fulfilling God’s command is not in fact any one of the tribes, but…Israel itself. The real battle is about Israel’s own faithfulness and obedience.)
We also need to take care not to read the accounts in the OT as if they were a straightforward history of what happened, ignoring the fact that these texts are written to make a point.
Although scholars have tried to set out a standard pattern for how war was to be waged, the variation in practice is striking. Deuteronomy may well be setting out an ideal rather than a reality… Looking back, the failure of Israel to observe its laws was very evident, leading as it did to complete defeat and exile. Hence there was value in explaining this by putting matters in a clear and extreme way.
Jenson concludes by summarising a biblical theology of war, taking into account the relation of the OT to the NT:
War is to be avoided if at all possible, for Christ comes as prince of peace, but it may be a necessity in the fallen world in which we continue to live.
And he demonstrates how aspects of OT war actually offer a trenchant moral critique of contemporary practices of war and violence.
One insight that I have found really helpful in reading these texts is that the New Testament never treats these OT texts as patterns or metaphors for ‘spiritual warfare’ in the way that some modern songs do (‘Now is the time for us/to march upon the land…’).
You can order the booklet, in print or as PDF, from the Grove website here.
I have also come across this very helpful short video, where Dr Lawson Stone of Asbury Theological Seminary offers a similar perspective under seven key headings.