A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Once Again, the Problem of War in the Old Testament: Some Wisdom from the Late Peter Craigie (Part 3)

Once again, I belatedly return to my series on the late Peter Craigie on the problem of war in the Old Testament. The first part was an introduction to Cragie's work on this subject from his book, The Problem of War in the Old Testament. The second part of my series dealt with the first of three problems to be addressed-- the problem of God's character in these narratives.

Quotes from Craigie's book will be presented in italics. My own comments are in parentheses in standard block type.

Today's post highlights the second difficulty-- the problem of revelation (pp. 97-100).. Craigie begins the discussion:

A part of the problem of revelation has already been examined... God revealed himself to his chosen people through warfare.. But a further problem remains; granted that much of ancient history is characterized by warfare, why is it that so much of the literature of war has been included in the canonical books of the Old Testament as a revealed book, the contents of which appear to be full to excess with martial material. (Actually, I wonder why such warfare would be excluded? If the God of the Bible is a God involved with his people in history, to exclude warfare would be odd since it was so much a part of this ancient world.)

In dealing with this problem an initial warning is necessary. In certain matters the Old Testament must be read and understood as a whole if its message is to be understood; this approach is particularly important with respect to the theme of war. The warning concerns the danger implicit, for example, in reading parts of the Old Testament, such as the "conquest narratives," and understanding them without the benefit of the latter part of the story, the "defeat narratives." (The danger here can lead to one of two misunderstandings that we see by progressives and conservatives. On the progressive end, since these passages are rejected as revelatory, why should we accept the later Scriptures that deal with Israel's defeats and exile as revelatory of a God working patiently with his people to understand that as God's people they were reminded they are not like the other nations in which violence is the solution? On the conservative end, without the defeat narratives, the conquest narratives can easily be misconstrued as a justification for violence... indeed, a crusade with God going before us into war. Both options simply do not work.)

But if the material on war in the Old Testament may be read as a kind of parable (rooted in historical reality), what are the lessons which emerge from it? (I think this comment is very instructive. Those on the conservative side tend to look at these texts non-critically, that is, taking them at face value without questioning to what extent these accounts might be embellished to make a larger theological point. It thus makes it difficult to resist using these texts as justification for violence today. On the progressive end, some are quick to point out that the archaeological evidence strongly suggests that there was no major conquest and conflagration on the large scale reported in Joshua. That does not mean nothing happened. Perhaps the "conquest" was much smaller and resembled more of a gradual occupation with "brush wars" breaking out in various places west of the Jordan River. What is interesting is how some progressives use this as a way to dismiss these texts as somehow revelatory of the character of God. Since it didn't happen the way Joshua reports, we don't have to deal with the difficulties of Yahweh as a warrior who fights for Israel. The irony here should not be missed. Progressive readers of Scripture are most often the first persons who insist that whether or not something actually happened in the Bible is much less important than what the story means. Yet, here since the story didn't actually happen the way it was reported means it can be dismissed.)

I am going to suggest two significant messages which emerge from this material, understood as a parable.

First, the war literature of the Old Testament may be understood as a parable of human nature and human states: from the literature wee see what man and the state are like, for a parable may be a mirror in which we see ourselves and our institutions.... The human beings concerned have a high calling from God; the state has a God-given constitution. But the parable reveals to us the downward progression of that state,, from its lofty beginnings to its ignoble defeat in warfare.... Human sin will be reflected in human states. The violence inherent in man will be reflected in the violence between states... Violence begets violence--nothing else.... And the violence employed in defense of the state did not result in lasting peace; it resulted in the violence of a greater state, leading to the defeat of Israel. All this points to the necessary nature of any state; to be a state necessarily involves violence, which usually means warfare. (Two points-- First, this cycle of Israel's victories and defeat is part of the large biblical narrative of Israel's continued struggle of trusting in God as God's unique people by following his ways. Instead, in their desire to be like all the other nations with an earthly king and a harem, and a standing army, et al, by the end of the story, their defeat happens precisely because they have become what they asked for, and what God has resisted-- they have become like all the other nations. Second, to be a state necessarily involves violence. In choosing Israel to be his people to fulfill his purposes in the world, God chooses to side with and protect Israel, even in their disobedience; and this by necessity means God must involves himself in Israel's violence because God has entered into the messy contingencies of human history. There is no way around it. There is a better way, a way that God will finally and decisively show in the person and work of Jesus Christ-- a way without violence; but for now God enters into the mess in order to one day pull God's people and the world out of the mess that all too often involves violence. Am I suggesting that in Israel's war narratives, God has God's proverbial back up against the wall with no choice but to be Israel's divine warrior to fight on their behalf. Quite simply-- yes. God does what God must do to redeem the world. If God does not enter into human history to do so, there can be no redemption.)

The second interpretation of the parable focuses on the theme of the Kingdom of God. God's purpose for the redemption of all mankind was to be realized through the kingdom, for he is king. The first historical manifestation of the Kingdom was to be seen in the ancient state of Israel. In a certain sense, the kingdom of Israel was a failure, for although it revealed to us the nature of political institutions, it did not directly culminate in the redemption of mankind. But the failure was essential, partly because it demonstrated that redemption was not to be found in the human institution of the state, and partly because it pointed to the need of man for a more direct intervention in history. (The point is made again as in the first point. Since the manifestation of God's kingdom was found in the kingdom of Israel, violence was art and parcel of that kingdom's survival. Moreover, God's entry into human history even in Israel's warfare, was proto-incarnational events, it was not sufficient. Only the direct intervention of Incarnation would ultimately suffice. It is that decisive Incarnation in Jesus Christ that now makes nonviolence and peace, not only possible, but the way of Christ's disciples.)

In a sense, therefore, the kingdom of Israel prepared the way for the kingdom of God as inaugurated in the person and teaching of Jesus.... In Old Testament times God participated in human history; he was known as God the Warrior, and as such he was instrumental in the establishment of the first manifestation of the Kingdom of God. In the New Testament times God participated in human history in a more direct fashion: God became man in the person of Jesus. God entered directly, though mysteriously, into the arena of human history, and his purpose in so doing was to establish the Kingdom of God in a new manifestation of the new covenant. (The first thing I would say is that we see the necessary connection between what God is doing through the kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament and what God is now doing in and through Jesus. One cannot dismiss the former without doing violence (pun intended) by the latter. Secondly, Craigie states that the Kingdom of God in Jesus was "a new manifestation of the new covenant." This is true, but Craigie fails to mention the all-important point that the church is the nation of the New Covenant as Israel was the nation of the Old. Unlike the kingdom of Israel, the kingdom that comes in the church is not a state that requires violence to survive. The church exists and continues in its mission, not by the sword, but through cross and resurrection, but there is more.)

But the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus reveals to us a new understanding of violence; the tables are turned. Whereas the old kingdom was established by the use of violence, the new kingdom was established in the receipt of violence. God the Warrior becomes the Crucified God, the one who receives in himself the full force of human violence. There is a sense, of course, in which the receipt of violence, namely the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, is also an act of conquest; it is the conquest of evil, the defeat of principalities and powers. But therein lies the new principle of the Kingdom established by Jesus; its strength lies not in the exercise of violence, but in the humble act of submission to violence. and it is in the light of this fundamental change of principle that the tragedy of so much of Christian history may be seen. Over and over again, Christians have forgotten that God the Warrior became the Crucified God. (There is nothing I need to add here. Craigie is spot on!)

...the Old Testament prepares us for the New Testament and the transformation of the Kingdom of God which appears in the person of Jesus. And although parts of the problem remain, the Old Testament war literature has this great merit: it is characterized by realism. It does not draw a false and romantic picture of the reality of the human situation, and consequently it forces us to face up to the reality of our own world. (That's the subject of the next post-- War in the Old Testament and the problem of ethics.)

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