Holy War in the Bible (a review)

Guest Post: Dr. John Noble (Huntington University)

To the credit of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School,thomas_holy-war-in-bible the concern of two seminary students over “Old Testament divine war imagery in light of Christ’s call to peace” became a colloquium, which developed into a collection of fourteen essays published by IVP, Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an OId Testament Problem . Here I examine a few of the articles that most sparked my interest.

“Joshua and the Crusades”

Douglas Earl argues—I think persuasively—against Roland Bainton’s attribution of the Book of Joshua as a primary narrative for the mobilizing rhetoric of the Crusades (Maccabees apparently had a larger role). But he pushes the argument too far with his citation of the interpretation of selected passages from a codex of the crusader-era Bible Moralisée. Since the passages make ecclesiastical references without explicit mention of crusades, it signifies “that Joshua was read more in terms of the typology of the church than as a manifesto for conquest or crusade” (25).

Must the situation be either/or? Can the manifesto for conquest or crusade not be cast in terms of the typology of the church? After all, the idea of crusade is an important theme of the work, and a dear cause to the French royal family for whom this particular codex is thought to have been produced.

More fundamentally, Earl’s judgment that “there is no straight line that one can draw from Joshua, through the crusades, to more recent examples of colonialism and religiously legitimized militarism” (43) may be true, strictly speaking. But such a statement obfuscates, in my view, the very real legacy of conquest and other biblically justified violence that checkers Western expansion.

“Holy War and חרם”

More problematic is Earl’s second contribution eschewing the commonplace explanation of חרם as punishment for the wicked Canaanites, and rejecting the notion of חרם as an offering to YHWH, as implied in numerous passages. Unfortunately, Earl does not engage texts that would prove problematic, or the contravening scholarly literature—Susan Niditch, for one, provides a lengthy and useful discussion of חרם as sacrifice.

Earl prefers “symbolic/rhetorical/existential” rather than “literal/ontological/historical” readings of חרם passages. These are facilitated by what Paul Ricoeur has called the symbol’s opaque or “second order” sense. Accordingly, the use of חרם in various biblical passages—its second order—differs from its “concrete” sense, which is literal only within the world of the text. In this way, חרם is defanged in becoming a symbol of total faithfulness to God.

Central to this argument is the observation that “חרם is not a category that Israel uses to describe her existence or narrate her actions in the present . . . It is primarily related to what is perhaps an ‘other worldly conquest’ located in the prototypical past,” and “not part of Israel’s vocabulary of warfare” (160). חרם “only” occurs outside of Deuteronomy and Joshua ten times, Earl points out, and the works of Deuteronomy and Joshua—where חרם is on display—fit the genre of myth insofar as they represent symbolically “an imaginatively constructed prototypical past . . . written to shape the worldview of the author’s contemporaries, without trying to describe the past” (161).

No doubt there are mythical elements in these works (he cites as an example the Anakim and Rephaim), but Earl does not demonstrate that these narratives are not written to describe the past, and he is wide of the mark in classifying this material as myth, generically, by any definition. The short treatment of 1 Samuel 15, a historical narrative hinging on Saul’s failure to execute חרם, does not help the case (166).

“Compassion and Wrath as Motivations for Divine Warfare”

David Lamb surveys instances of compassion and wrath as motivations for divine warfare, arguing that “YHWH fights in compassion to defend the oppressed and in anger against the oppressor.” Lamb contends further that “warfare motivated by compassion and by anger is less problematic than warfare motivated by other motives,” and that these are even highly compelling and worthy of praise (151).

Even if this last assessment is true, the devil is in the detail, and the usual points of controversy—involving the sheer scope and scale of divine retribution, for example—are not really solved or reconciled. And as Lamb notices, there are many instances in which these motivations for divine warfare are not described.

“Martial Memory, Peaceable Vision”

By my lights, the nuanced treatment found in Stephen B. Chapman’s “Martial Memory, Peaceable Vision” is more useful. He acknowledges uncertainties respecting the dating of various Old Testament texts, averring that the distinctive shape of divine war in Scripture’s “martial memory” is traceable nevertheless: YHWH is a divine warrior commanding heavenly troops or hosts; they are perceived and directed by prophets rather than kings or generals; and they represent, accordingly, the basis of Israel’s security—trust in God and not human warcraft (52-54).

Deuteronomy 20:5–8 and Judg 7:2–8 illustrate YHWH’s determination for his own mastery on the battlefield. The self-limiting strategies described are “of course ridiculous and self-defeating,” but indicate that the “ascription of warfare to God actually serves to limit rather than promote militarism on Israel’s part” (56). Chapman surmises further that “Israel’s tradition . . . preserved these ideas predominantly as warrants for nonimitation instead of imitation. In other words, by assigning war to God Israel distanced itself from the pursuit of war” (56).

Whether or not Israel consciously preserved the idea of YHWH’s martial control as a warrant for “nonimitation”—if that is indeed what Chapman is suggesting—it is an intriguing thought to ponder, that the divine warrior theme should lead to the “peaceable vision” attested elsewhere in the canon.

Another observation by Chapman bears repeating, and concerns the main question of the book, that of holy war: “God’s involvement in war (does not) render it holy, but rather . . . God, who alone is holy, is willing to participate in what is profane and wicked in order to bring about what is good. War is always evil, but God can work redemptively with it, even with war, because God works redemptively with everything.” Chapman concedes that this view does not fully extricate God from violence and will therefore be unacceptable to some. Nevertheless his footnote stands: the only real alternative is to question the truth of the biblical ascription of war to God (my emphasis, 65).

In fact, any attempt to reconcile divine war imagery in the Old Testament with Christ’s call to peace must come to terms in the first place with divine war and all that it entails. My sense is that Chapman has most fully attempted to reconcile—and be reconciled to—this truth.


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