Review: Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem

Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem
Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem by Heath A. Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Your God, if he exists, is a genocidal monster, and even if I believed there were such a God, I could never put my faith in him.” This is what atheist students have said to me in discussions. More than this, it is one of the leading critiques of Christianity from the New Atheist movement. What this critique focuses on are the mostly Old Testament texts, especially in Deuteronomy and Joshua in which the total destruction of Canaanites is commanded. This is often cited as part of a larger critique of Christianity and monotheistic religion as inherently violent because they have no room in the world for those who differ from them, with the Crusades serving as case in point.

This is an important critique to answer not only in public dialogue but personal conversation. Indeed, for many Christians of conscious, this raises doubts. This volume, then, is a valuable resource both for personal exploration and theological and apologetic resources for answering this challenge. The book consists of a series of chapters by different authors that were presentations at a conference on this issue. Given this format, the reader will find that not all authors make the same arguments or interpret biblical texts in the same way.

The book is organized into six parts. The first speaks of the challenge of “Holy War” for Christian morality and consists of an introductory essay, and an illuminating exploration of documentary evidence in the Crusades and the lack of biblical citations of the “divine war” texts (most authors in this volume prefer this term, or “Yahweh war” to the term “holy war”). There is nothing holy about war, and also, the wars in question are in fact initiated by and fought by Yahweh, with Israel accompanying.

The second part explores the Old Testament texts including an illuminating essay about “divine war” in the writings, an area not often referenced in discussing this issue. Part three turns to the New Testament, with an interesting essay on divine warfare in Ephesians, which clearly situates warfare for the church in the spiritual realm, and divine warfare as representing divine justice in John’s Apocalypse.

Part four explores biblical-theological perspectives. David Lamb observes how both compassion and wrath are evident in the wars of Yahweh, and Israel, as well as her enemies may be subject to both, depending on whether they repent and trust, or rebel and pursue wickedness. Douglas Earl’s second essay in this volume pursues the question of herem, the devotion to destruction of people, livestock and city structures.

Part five consists of four chapters focused on ethical and philosophical perspectives. Most helpful to me was Glen Stassen’s chapter which focused on the neglected theme of “peacemaking” in the prophets. While we often notice war-making, we do not often notice the language of the land enjoying rest from wars. In Judges there are 40 to 80 year stretches where this is true (something our own country has not known). Robert Stewart also focuses helpfully on the polemical strategies of the new atheists and the problematic elements in these.

The book closes with theological perspectives. One of the things evident here and throughout the volume is that none of the authors sees any warrants in the “divine wars” of the Old Testament for any form of holy war today. The authors warn against alliances of Christians with political powers of state supporting war efforts in language that make these seem like holy or religious wars.

The authors also point out the biblical work still to be done–indeed the differing, though not conflicting perspectives evidence this additionally needed work. Some writers in this selection lean more toward considering the OT texts in question stylized hyperbole. Others emphasize that most of the Canaanite wars (as supported by archaeological evidence) suggest that Israel displaced the Canaanites rather than obliterated them, apart from a few instances. Still others justify these acts as the just, and delayed (by 400 years) judgment of God against idolatrous cultures engaged in child sacrifice and other morally repugnant atrocities. My own hunch is that a nuanced apologetic will probably include all of these elements.

All told, this is a valuable resource that also includes an extensive bibliography for those who would pursue this at greater length. Anyone engaging with those who have been exposed to the polemics of the New Atheists will find much of help here.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem

  1. I teach 4th-5th grade Sunday School and discussing God’s order to wipe out the inhabitants of the land is always one we get a lot of questions about. I’m not sure this book would add anything to my background knowledge for this purpose (my purpose being to not answer the kids, but lead them to discussion, often by throwing out some general concepts.)
    My laying the story of Abraham and Isaac against the story of Saul and Agog the Amalakite (I Samuel 15) was useful for me in framing it as a request for obedience. Although further readings of Solomon and most kings after that reveal the downfall of Israel as their continued honoring of other gods that they “married into” from the tribes they left.


    • Nancy, thanks for your comments. They underscore how important thoughtfulness is about these texts and how early questions about these can arise. I like your idea of setting the Abraham and Isaac and Saul and Agog texts side by side.


  2. Pingback: May 2014: The Month in Reviews « Bob on Books

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