The violent texts in the Old Testament create challenges for all readers of these texts, whether Jewish, Christian, or unbelieving. Charlie Trimm, who is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biola University, has written a very helpful short book on the different ways we might engage with the texts, The Destruction of the Canaanites: God, Genocide, and Biblical Interpretation.
I had the chance to ask him about the issue and his book.
IP: The question of violence in the Old Testament, particularly associated with the conquest of the Promised Land, is perhaps one of the most vexing for our reading of Scripture. Why do you think this is so important? Is it primarily an interpretive and theological challenge for Christians, or an apologetic one in relation to those antagonistic to Christian faith?
CT: I think that the reason that this issue is so broadly problematic for readers of the Old Testament is that it relates to something that is pretty close to a moral universal in today’s world: genocide is bad. Not only do most people agree on condemning genocide, they also view it as perhaps the worst thing one could do. Hitler is routinely used as the parade example of an evil person, mostly because it is commonly accepted that he was horribly evil. Therefore, when readers of Deuteronomy and Joshua see that the kind and compassionate God of Exodus is commanding something that looks like genocide, it is predictably disturbing for them.
As far as the demographics, I think that this problem is shared between both readers of faith who have serious questions about the God that they serve as well as those who are antagonistic to the Christian faith and use this story as a key example of why they do not serve such a deity.
IP: Despite being a concise book, it is brimming with footnotes and references—the literature seems vast! How did you go about tackling the challenge of the range of commentary on the question?
CT: I’ve been interested in this question for a long time, so I’ve had time to read through lots of material. This book started out life as a paper for my students to read, then turned into a presentation at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, and then it was accepted into an edited book looking at the narrative literature of the Old Testament. That project eventually was cancelled.
However, I received some feedback from a presentation I gave on the material that I should take the material and turn it into a short book, which is what I did. I added the first three chapters to the book (which were largely based on other things I had published), updated the bibliography on the four views, and it turned out to be pretty well-rounded short book.
The other answer to this question is just that from the perspective of personality I enjoy digging through the literature and tracking down sources. Much of my work, such as my reference book on warfare in the ancient Near East (Fighting for the King and the Gods), is driven by a desire to work through a large amount of material myself and provide readers with a guide to the literature.
IP: You begin your study with an exploration of warfare in the ancient Near East, and written evidence of it. How does that context help us to read the biblical accounts well?
CT: This helps broadly with reminding us that we cannot just map our ideas about warfare onto the ancient world. For example, the divine realm plays a much more significant role in warfare in the ancient Near East than moderns. The most helpful contribution from warfare texts for the Canaanite discussion is the constant presence of hyperbole when kings talked about their victories.
IP: I think you offer an incredibly helpful taxonomy of approaches to the issue, delineating four main approaches to the question. Why did you settle on the headings you chose? Is this an original classification, or was it something you found in the literature.
CT: Scholars have proposed a variety of ways of organizing this material, so my categories are not new in an absolute sense. As I say in a footnote when I introduce my categories, the work of Randal Rauser and Christian Hofreiter were most helpful to me in formulating my categories.
I could have multiplied these categories further (and several scholars would have been happier to have their own category!), but I wanted to keep it simple for the reader and the connections between the authors in each category were sufficiently noticeable to keep them in the same category even with their many differences.
IP: The first approach is to dismiss Scripture as an ethical or valuable revelation of God—and a rejection of the God of the Christian tradition. Would it be fair to say that this raises philosophical questions, about our source of our moral values, rather than textual questions per se?
CT: Yes, this is certainly fair to say. It is an easy solution to the Canaanite problem, but the changes from a Christian worldview are so vast that it raises a whole new set of questions. This is one reason why I did not spend much time on this view: the main input from this view is merely to reject the biblical text, which brings us into many areas of conversation that are quite distant from the Canaanite problem itself.
IP: The second approach, in which we critique and set aside certain parts of Scripture in the light of other parts, seems to be growing in popularity as a approach, and has much in common with a Sachkritik way of reading the New Testament, where certain texts are critiqued against the salvation expounded in other parts. What are the problems with this way of reading?
CT: These ways of reading Scripture are certainly becoming more popular! However, they are not new either. The major problem that the Christian tradition has had with such ways of reading is their approach to Scripture. In particular, for a variety of reasons these readers reject certain portions of the biblical text, moving authority from the biblical text to the interpreter.
If we move the point of discussion to some of the reasons why such readers reject portions of the Old Testament, the Christian tradition also finds these reasons lacking. For example, in response to those who argue that Jesus taught us to see God as pacifistic and hence that we should reject the violent images of God in the Old Testament, many Christians would argue that such a vision of Jesus is selective and ignores parts of the revelation of Jesus.
IP: The third and fourth approaches—to question whether the violence depicted is really what it seems, and to recognise that God’s ways are, at times, inscrutable—both offer promise, but neither is without its issues. Can elements of these be held together, or are they in tension with one another?
CT: Elements of the third and fourth approaches can certainly be held together, as many scholars do. In general the way to do this is to appeal to categories like metaphor and hyperbole as ways to mitigate the severity of the Canaanite problem, but recognize that these means of reading do not solve the problem of itself. The work of William Webb and Gordon Oeste is a good example of this dynamic.
While I go a somewhat different direction than Webb and Oeste, I myself follow a combination of view three and four. However, other scholars follow either view three or view four more closely.
IP: You end your study by refusing to offer simple solutions to this vexing problem, inviting the reader to wrestle him or herself with the issues. Do you feel that, as a believing scholar, you have come to a satisfactory view yourself?
CT: I’m not sure that I would use the word satisfactory. As I said in the previous answer, I hold a particular view that I think, given the options, best answers the question. But I remain somewhat unsettled about the topic. This is why I end the book with strategies like lament and trust. If we demand that we must perfectly understand all things about God before we trust God, then we have placed the bar of trust very high.
So I prefer to engage in a relationship of trusting questioning with God, where I might not be happy with all things about God, but I remain a follower of God who trusts him with some things that I don’t fully understand.
IP: That sounds like a great place to end! Thanks very much for your time.
Charlie Trimm is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biola University, a director at Every Voice: A Center for Kingdom Diversity in Christian Theological Education, and the author of several books, including Understanding Old Testament Theology (co-authored with Brittany Kim) and Fighting for the King and the Gods.
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?…
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…
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…
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.
See also the recent booklet Reading Joshua by John Goldingay.