Book Reviews: Violence, the Old Testament, and Ethics

Numerous books have been published in recent years addressing challenging passages in the Old Testament. Many of them have focused on the Israelite conquest of Canaan, while others discuss a palette of “problems.” In this post I review three books that engage these challenges. I especially consider how they handle violence in the Old Testament. 

Book 1: Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (BakerBooks, 2014)

Did God really command the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites? That is the moral dilemma that Copan and Flannagan take up. These scholars offer an apologetic response to philosophers and New Atheists who dismiss the Old Testament as barbaric. But, does their apologetic meet the task? Yes and No.

The book has four parts:

  • Genocide Texts and the Problem of Scriptural Authority
  • Occasional Commands, Hyperbolic Texts, and Genocidal Massacres
  • Is It Always Wrong to Kill Innocent People?
  • Religion and Violence

The book is largely a summary of the apologetic arguments espoused by William Lane Craig and Nicholas Wolterstorff with atheist philosopher, Wes Morriston, serving as one of their primary opponents. In this regard, the book serves as “Cliff Notes” to broader conversations happening on the topic. The authors begin by asserting that the words of Scripture are not the result of mechanical dictation. In other words, they acknowledge the human side of Scripture and quote Craig as saying that God does not always affirm what the human author affirms, such as psalms of vengeance (28). That is, we must consider whether or not what the human author wrote is what God wants to say to us today through Scripture. God might want to appropriate the words of Scripture for an intention different than the original authors. The original meaning might have been important only for the Israelites’ time and place, and now we have to draw a general principle from the text. At the same time, Copan and Flannagan reject Peter Enns’ dichotomy between the Old and New Testament God (war God vs. loving God), as well as Seibert’s distinction between the “textual” God (how the Israelites imagined God to be) and the “real” God (who is not always like the Israelites portrayed God to be; 39-44).

At first it seems like Copan and Flannagan are open to the conquest being similar to the psalms of vengeance—something God did not affirm. But their point is only that a discernment process is necessary. Did God, and not merely the human authors, affirm the conquest? Copan and Flannagan believe the answer is yes (53). In order to alleviate the sting of this, they argue that the language of conquest is hyperbolic. When people in antiquity said they “wiped out” another group, usually they do not mean that literally. It refers to successfully conquering another group militarily. They also argue that the text refers to the Israelites “driving out” rather than slaughtering the Canaanites completely. The so-called “wiped out” groups still continued to exist and live in the land, proving that “genocide” never happened even if wars did occur. They object to the term “genocide” since they don’t believe the conquest meets the official criteria for the term (given the above qualifications, for example). Copan and Flannagan are concerned that such a term is rhetorically inflammatory and distorts a proper understanding of what actually occurred. Copan and Flannagan frame the conquest as a non-genocidal war against  evil tribes of people in order to stop their crimes.

Despite softening the blow, Copan and Flannagan still have to contend with the most difficult problem in the text—the killing of innocent people, including children. Even if genocide did not occur, the wars still led to the death of children or “less mobile inhabitants” who were unable to flee from the Israelite armies (89). The authors state that “at one particular point in history God made an exception to a general rule against killing noncombatants (while still raising moral questions) does not carry that same rhetorical baggage [as genocide]” (130). Having conceded God commanded the killing of innocent people, which would normally be considered immoral, Copan and Flannagan then argue why it is not always wrong to kill innocent people. They start out by affirming that God is good and that it is always “right” to obey God’s commands (and therefore moral) even if the act has “bad-making qualities” (152, 163). In other words, God’s command can be “right” (duty) even if it is not “good” (value). But, since God is loving and trustworthy God has reasons for this difficult command that are not evil. Just because we don’t know the reasons doesn’t mean God doesn’t have reasons that are just (164-169). They give the example of whether or not it is moral to kill one innocent person if the failure to do so results in the death of five other people. In this instance it would be a greater good for one innocent person to die than five innocent people (199).

Copan and Flannagan expend a great deal of time to soften the blow of the Canaanite conquest, but their apologetic is only satisfactory if one is satisfied that we simply don’t know why God commanded the Israelites to kill children. They concede that the text “does provide the Israelites with some reasons why they should follow the commands [i.e. the Canaanites were wicked]. But the Scriptures leave us largely in the dark as to why God issued the commands in the first place” (233). Copan and Flannagan say we simply have to trust that God must have had good reasons. A more compelling argument would have been to explore their initial suggestion in Part I that what the human authors affirm is not always what God affirms.

Book 2: Matthew Richard Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities (BakerAcademic, 2015)

A second book that I found more satisfying than Copan’s and Flannagan’s is Matthew Schlimm’s This Strange and Sacred Scripture. This book is well-written, very accessible to a lay audience, and covers several topics including Genesis in light of science, violence, and gender relations. What I appreciate about Schlimm’s book is his insistence on viewing the Old Testament as a “friend.” Too often discussions of the Old Testament as a “problem” see this section of the Bible as an enemy to conquer. As an Old Testament scholar, Schlimm understands the beauty of the Old Testament and its wonderful contribution to our sacred texts. He writes: “Lasting friendship doesn’t just happen. Certain elements must be present like trust, respect, and vulnerability. We won’t develop a deep friendship with the Old Testament if we are suspicious of it or somehow biased against it” (8). He suggests we need to be patient and persistent in reading the Old Testament. That includes reading it slowly and thoughtfully, seeking to understand the parts that might upset us in the same way we would strive to understand a friend. The end result of such persistent friendship is that the Old Testament Scriptures form us into better people.

Another important and beneficial aspect of Schlimm’s book is that he doesn’t simply play the “Bible Answer Man” and give answers to every problem. Instead, he proposes an interpretive approach. Throughout his work he gives helpful suggestions for how to read the Old Testament. To give just one example, I will summarize how he handles the question of violence. He admits that there are “no easy explanations for why the Old Testament is so violent” and that “answers are elusive” (63). However, we can learn to read the text better by at least avoiding common interpretive errors, including these assumptions (63):

  1. Christians should imitate the Bible characters.
  2. Christians should imitate God’s actions (described in the text).
  3. Christians should apply every text directly to their lives.
  4. Christians should read individual passages in isolation.
  5. Christians should have an answer to every disturbing passage.

Often readers can assume that if something is stated in the Bible it is prescriptive. But much of it is descriptive. Just because the text describes killing doesn’t mean we are to engage in the same killing or even affirm the violence in the text. Nor should we presume that we have the same right and authority to engage in actions that God is described as taking. God is God. We are not. We also need to read disturbing texts in the context of the whole canon and not in isolation. Schlimm argues that what we sometimes see in the Bible is meant to show us “the human condition in all its limitations, confusion, and pain” (65). In this way the text helps us to ask and ponder important questions about violence and justice. While Schlimm, like Copan and Flannagan, admits we don’t necessarily know all the reasons why God might command the killing of innocent people (79-81), he doesn’t offer such confident conclusions as Copan Flannagan. Instead, he encourages us to dig a little deeper by suggesting helpful interpretive questions and approaches.

Book 3: Joel B. Green and Jacqueline E. Lapsely, eds., The Old Testament and Ethics: A Book-by-Book Survey (BakerAcademic, 2013)

The Old Testament and Ethics is a compilation of short entries by many different biblical scholars. Each entry provides a discussion of ethics as it relates to each book of the Old Testament. The goal is to help “flesh out how the Bible might function authoritatively in theology and ethics” (xv). How can we avoid misappropriating the text? In other words, this is not a study of Israelite ethics as much as ethics drawn from biblical theology for present usage by people of faith. Unfortunately, many of the essays are quite short (1-2 pages) and provide only a simple introduction to the issues in a particular biblical book. The brevity of each discussion is probably the primary weakness. But The Old Testament and Ethics can, at least, get someone started and pointed in a particular direction for further study. Particularly helpful are the three overview essays at the beginning: “Ethics in Scripture” by Allen Verhey, “Scripture in Ethics: Methodological Issues” by Bruce C. Birch, and “Old Testament Ethics” by M. Daniel Carroll R.

Verhey notes the diversity of ethics in the Old Testament. He writes: “The one God of Scripture assures the unity of biblical ethics, but there is no simple unitive understanding even of that one God or of that one God’s will. To force biblical ethics into a timeless and systematic unity is to impoverish it” (1-2). For example, he points out that the law codes in Torah were not given as timeless codes. Not only do the Old Testament authors sometimes revise those legal codes, but the New Testament authors also don’t necessarily understand these codes as timeless. Birch agrees and emphasizes the importance of listening to the biblical witness as a whole rather than considering the ethics of one passage in isolation (16). He also encourages a shift away from viewing the Bible as a handbook of prescriptive ethics (What are we to do?) and instead consider it helpful for character ethics (Who are we to be?) In using Scripture as a “moral resource” we should develop critical reading skills (use of study Bible tools, commentaries, concordance etc) and read the Bible in community, not as an individualistic exercise.

Following the introductory essays are the excerpts for each biblical book. As a test case, I will mention L. Daniel Hawk’s discussion of Joshua as it relates to the ethical problem of violence (66-69). The book of Joshua, in addition to Deuteronomy, is where Israelite killing of the Canaanites is most pronounced. First Hawk observes the different and contradictory details around the conquest (e.g. 10:28-12:24; 21:43-45 vs. 13:2-6; 17:14-18; 19:47-48). He sees one tradition that praises militant triumphalism—God overcomes the Canaanites to fulfill the promise of land to the Israelites. In a second tradition, he sees interspersed texts that undermine this triumphalism (2:1-24; 7:1-26; 9:1-27). He believes redactors reworked the conquest narrative to focus on conquering Canaanite kings, rather than the Canaanite people. Hawk capitalizes on the disparate traditions as a way to mitigate the impact of the violence. He also says three possible considerations prevent readers from using Joshua to justify violence today. First, the book could be considered as a “primitive expression of Israel’s religious thought that has minimal relevance when set against other biblical texts that reflect a more mature ethical sensibility.” Second, the war practices of Israel could be considered more humane than other ancient Near Eastern nations. Three, through progressive revelation God has demonstrated that in Christ these former war practices are now obsolete.

Thanks to Baker Publishing who, upon my request, provided complimentary copies of these books so I could review them.

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