Friday, June 24, 2011

When God Goes to War

I had intended to post this earlier, but I have been a bit busy. Thus my colleague Allan Bevere beat me to it. But anyway . . .

Dan Hawk is professor of Old Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary and one of my colleagues. He recently published a short article in our seminary magazine The Table. Dan has done quite a bit of work on Joshua and the problem of biblically endorsed war and genocide. It is difficult in a post-Holocaust world to read some of the Bible stories that contain war and violence. Here is what Dan has to say.


L. Daniel Hawk

The image of God as a warrior runs throughout the literature of the Old Testament. Israel knew God above all as “the LORD of hosts,” the God of the heavenly armies and the military forces of Israel. The title occurs over two hundred times in the Old Testament, constituting by far the most common among the many epithets for God in biblical literature. When the priests in Jerusalem invited the people to worship by asking “Who is this king of glory?” the people answered, “The LORD, strong and powerful! The LORD, powerful in battle!” (Psa. 24:8). God accompanied Israel in battle, with the Ark of the Covenant symbolizing his presence. As Israel followed the Ark through the wilderness the people would shout, “Arise, O LORD! Let your enemies by scattered!” (Num 10:35; cf. Josh 4:10-13; 1 Sam 6:3-9). God fought for Israel and against Pharaoh at the Red Sea, where Moses exclaimed, “The LORD is a warrior! The LORD is his name!” (Exod 15:3). God defeated the nations of Canaan when Israel entered the Promised Land and delivered Israel under the judges. God destroyed the massive armies of Assyria when no human deliverance was possible (2 Kgs 19:32-37) and used the nations as his agents to devastate Babylon (Jer 51:1-52:58). In the prophetic corpus, God the Warrior appears with particular frequency, his garments soaked with the blood of his enemies (Isa 63:1-60) and his bow at the ready (Hab 3:9).

While the imagery of a bloodthirsty God may shock modern sensibilities, it was right at home in the brutal world of the ancient Near East, where divine beings were constantly involved in conflict. Many ancient myths associate violence with creation. In the best-known of these, the Enuma Elish, the creation of the world takes place through an act of war in which Marduk, the titular god of Babylon, defeats the powers of evil and destruction, personified by a serpent and her minions. In short, violence was a fundamental component of creation itself in the thinking of the ancient world.

The Old Testament, however, presents a radically different view of violence and its relation to God and creation. The creation accounts of Genesis 1-2 portray creation as an act of beneficence, not war, and describe a new world where conflict is unknown. Violence enters this world as an intruder and as a result of humanity’s defiance of the Creator, a condition vividly illustrated by the story of Cain and Abel immediately following the expulsion from Eden (Gen 4:1-16). The rest of the Old Testament elaborates the devastating consequences of humanity’s sin and God’s determination to restore creation and redeem humanity. The endpoint of God’s work in the world, visualized particularly in eschatological texts, is a restored creation in which violence has been eliminated (Isa 11:6-9; 60:17-20; 65:17-25; Mic 4:3-4).

The Old Testament, and the Bible as a whole, relates the story of God’s work in the violent world between creation and new creation. In this world, war is rampant, but God is not absent. Rather, God enters the maelstrom of human violence and makes war in order to establish shalom. The biblical God is relentlessly and resolutely at war with the powers of evil that destroy the creation that God declared good. God’s involvement in war is a messy business, and the questions associated with it allow no easy answers. Instead, the Old Testament sets before its readers the paradoxes of God’s participation in war.

First, God’s decision to work redemptively through a nation (Israel) unavoidably enmeshed God in the warfare that nations endure in a violent world. By choosing to identify with Israel, God was bound to take sides when the nation, or God’s purposes through it, were threatened or opposed. As with all the other nations of its world, war figured prominently in Israel’s history – from Abraham’s rescue of Lot from the hands of a Mesopotamian king (Gen 14:1-16), to attacks on Israel as it wandered the wilderness (Exod 16:8-16), through the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 2-12) and ultimately to defeat and exile at the hands of great empires (2 Kgs 17:5-23 ; 25:1-21). The Old Testament testifies that God was deeply involved in all these wars, on one side or the other. Entering human experience cost God something. The God who commanded “thou shalt not kill” could not avoid directing others to kill on a massive scale. As a life-destroying rather than life- sustaining activity, war cannot be affirmed as good. Yet God both promotes and participates in war throughout the pages of the Old Testament.

Second, divine violence is always directed toward a redemptive end. Divine violence in the Old Testament is never portrayed as an end in itself. Rather, God uses violence instrumentally to counter violence – whether in the nations or in the case of Israel itself. When taken within the context of God’s redemptive work in creation, no particular instance of divinely-directed war can be interpreted as the act of a capricious deity lashing out at those who offended him. The final goal of divine warfare is not punishment but restoration, a point made particularly by the prophetic books, the greater number of which end with visions of restoration and the final elimination of evil (e.g. Isa 65:1-66:24; Eze 40:1-48:35; Dan 12:1-4; Hos 14:4-8; Joel 3:18-21; Amos 9:11-1; Zeph 3:14-20; Zech 14:16-21). In the violent world between creation and new creation, God participates in and directs war as a form of counter-violence that, within the grand scheme of things, advances God’s redemptive purposes. God opposes violence but uses violence.

Third, God initiates and regulates war. Commensurate with the conviction that God utilizes war instrumentally for redemptive purposes is the conviction that war is too important a business to be left to the generals. Only God may initiate and direct the course of war. Israel wins victories when God directs the battles but fails when it decides to wage war in its own way and for its own reasons. This is vividly brought home in the book of Joshua, where Israel wins stunning victories by following closely God’s commands through Joshua (6:1-22; 8:1-29) but suffers ignominious defeat when the people decide to attack the town of Ai on its own (7:2-5). The LORD fights for the kings of Israel when they consult him and follow his directions (2 Sam 5:17-25; 2 Chron 20:13-30). The wars of kings, furthermore, are regulated by the Mosaic law, which accommodates both to the leadership of kings and to their expansionist proclivities. Faced with the reality that kings will wage war, Moses institutes practices and policies aimed at curtailing the king’s power and acknowledging the LORD’s (Deut 20:1-20). Israel’s testimony, however, is that human rulers rarely included God in their decisions, preferring instead to prosecute war for their own reasons and for their own ends.

Finally, God utilizes human agents who are prone to excess. The prophetic literature in particular accentuates the risk God takes in using human beings to wage war. That is, humanity’s inveterate inclination toward violence predisposes kings and nations to magnify the scope and brutality of war. Once begun, war takes on a life of its own and often overwhelms those who wage it. Those whom God uses as instruments of war may therefore find themselves opposed to God’s purposes and under God’s judgment. Hosea decrees the end of Jehu’s dynasty for the excessive bloodshed Jehu enacted when he carried out a divinely-ordained coup against the previous dynasty (Hos 1:4-5). Through Isaiah, God condemns the Assyrians, “the rod of my anger,” whom God sent to chastise Israel but who instead destroyed many nations and arrogantly exalted itself (Isa 10:5-19). When Habakkuk questions God about sending the merciless Chaldeans against Judah, God responds with words of judgment against the expansionist practices of all imperial powers (2:1-20). The Old Testament reveals a God who utilizes kings and nations in the divine struggle to overcome evil, well-knowing that kings and nations may generate violence over and above what God intends.

The portrait of God at war extends into the New Testament, where it is largely spiritualized. The healing and exorcisms in the gospels may be seen as victories in God’s war against Satan. Christ’s mission is wrapped with scriptural texts that evoke the divine warrior (for example, Matthew’s citation of Zechariah 9:9 as Jesus enters Jerusalem [21:5]). And a renewed heaven and earth emerge after evil is finally eliminated in a cataclysm of divine violence (Rev 17:1-20:15).

While it might be easy to regard the warlike God of the Old Testament as a necessary accommodation to a primitive society, now superseded by the Prince of Peace, we might question whether an image so central to one part of the Bible can be so completely negated in another. The Old Testament’s witness to God and war reveals that the theological questions swirling around war are as complex and difficult as the moral ones. As such, the Bible leads faithful readers away from simple and stark formulations and toward thoughtful reflection on the difficult questions that must be engaged as they discern the path of the God who is still at work redemptively in a world at war.


L. Daniel Hawk is Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Ashland Theological Seminary. He explores the intersections of violence, ethnicity, and biblical theology in many of his classes and publications. The most recent of the latter is Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny. (Cascade, 2010).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hebrew and the New Testament Scholar

I have been in Israel for the last two weeks participating in the Tel Gezer excavations. This is my second time and this time I am here as staff. I am the camp manager which means that I keep things going and make sure that everyone gets to the dig on time every morning.

One of my main duties includes shopping every other day for breakfast items. We have sixty people here and we feed them breakfast at the Tel each day at 8:30. One thing this job has helped me to realize is the limitations of my Hebrew. I find that I go into one shop and I converse and do fine, but the in the next shop I am lost. I took two sections of modern Hebrew in 1998 and I took several courses in biblical Hebrew. But I am simply not prepared to talk to the woman behind the counter about how I want the 6 kilos of cheese packaged that I just bought.

Being in Israel with some knowledge of Hebrew can be frustrating. I can read most of the signs and if I don't know all the words I can usually get by. And of course all road signs are in English as well as Hebrew and Arabic, so I can get from point A to point B with relatively little difficulty. But don't ask me how I want my cheese packaged or any number of other questions that I don't I understand. What you realize very soon is that although you can survive you can't thrive and there is a lot going on around you that you simply will never get until you understand the language.

I think there are some parallels here for New Testament scholars. I know a number of them who cannot read Hebrew. They can use a lexicon and they might have a primitive grasp of the language, but they really don't know it and would struggle to sit down and simply read the text. In short, they would not know how to tell someone how to package their cheese. Like me in the grocery store, there is a lot going on around them in the biblical text, but they are not understanding it. They are surviving but not thriving.

I know the above scenario to be true because about 4 years ago I realized I had let me Hebrew slip. And I decided that it I needed to get a better grasp of it and I have been working hard ever since. The more I read my Bible in Hebrew the more I enter into the world of the author and the text. I am seeing things that I cannot in the English. My work in Cain and Abel traditions was much richer because of my grasp of the Hebrew text.

Now some would argue that Hebrew is not as important as Greek for the New Testament scholar. After all, the New Testament authors quote mostly from the Greek Old Testament, not the Hebrew.

But while this is true, there are times when it seems clear that a NT author who quotes the Greek OT also is aware of what is going on in the Hebrew. For instance, in Romans 1:17 Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 "the righteous shall live by faith." The Hebrew version says "by his faith" and the Greek "by my faith." Paul does not quote it like either of these texts. But his context suggests that he understands it to be God's faithfulness when he introduces the quote with a claim that God's righteousness is being revealed. So while he may be quoting the Greek, he seems quite aware of what is going on in the Hebrew. Similarly, there are times when it is clear that Josephus is using the Greek Old Testament that he is including details only found in the Hebrew. And of course I could also mention all of the material among the Dead Sea Scrolls that help us to better understand the matrix of the New Testament. Not knowing Hebrew means once again being tethered to an English translation and, consequently, someone else's interpretation of that text.

So I would encourage my colleagues in New Testament to retain and strengthen their Hebrew so that they can thrive and not just merely survive. so that when they read their Bible they won't be like me in the grocery store, wondering what all is going on around me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

11 Points about Paul's Theology from Ken Schenk

Ken Schenck is a fellow Durham grad and is presently the dean Wesley Seminary at Indiana University. Ken has written numerous books. His most recent one is titled Paul Soldier of Peace. Ken announced the publication of his new book on his blog. He notes that the book is for laypersons, not scholars. But he is certainly bringing important scholarly thoughts to the laity. Here are 11 points that Ken covers in his book and are important to our understanding of Paul.

1. Paul was a Jew, always remained a Jew, always thought of himself as an Israelite, believed eventually that all ethnic Israel would accept Jesus as Christ. Believing Gentiles were grafted in to Israel. The church does not replace Israel.

2. The audience is primarily Gentile in keeping with the fact that Paul is apostle to the Gentiles. There were "conservative Gentiles" such as we find in Galatians, perhaps Romans to some extent, and perhaps Hebrews.

3. The "righteousness of God" primarily refers to God's propensity to save his people and world, although Paul may very well exploit the polyvalence of the phrase to imply our right standing with God at a couple points.

4. Paul is primarily interested in our faith in God. Nevertheless, he does at a couple points speak of faith in Christ and I believe he does start off with a sense of the faithfulness of Jesus, his obedience to death.

5. The phrase "works of Law" does primarily focus on those parts of the Law that most separated Jew and Gentile ethnically. Nevertheless, he does set this concrete debate within a general framework of grace versus earning one's right standing with God.

6. Justification refers to God's declaration of a person being in right standing with him. This is triggered by faith initially apart from anything a person has done, but final justification will not take place without appropriate deeds following. The Gentile in Romans 2 who demonstrates the Law written on the heart is a Gentile Christian who has the Spirit.

7. Paul does not have a rigid sense of penal substitution. He has a rather more loose sense that Christ's death demonstrates God's justice, no doubt accompanied with the rather more unarticulated ancient sense that sacrifices satisfy the order of things, including God's wrath.

8. Paul does not have a full blown theology of total depravity, original sin, or the Fall. Our fuller reading of these things comes more from Augustine and his heirs. A more careful reading of Paul points to a thorough sinfulness in humanity, a cosmic situation in which Sin has power over our flesh, and that this situation is a result of Adam's sin.

9. Paul does not see sin as compatible with the Spirit inside us. Romans 7 is not Paul's current struggle with Sin but the situation of a person who might want to keep the Law but who does not have the Spirit. I further do not think Paul is even remembering his previous struggle. I don't think Paul ever seriously felt like a moral failure at any point of his life. The Spirit empowers a person to keep the core of the Jewish Law, the love your neighbor part.

10. Paul does not connect his predestination language with the rest of his theology. It is a kind of "orphan" in his thought that he does not follow out logically. It's purpose is to affirm the sovereign right of God to let the Gentiles into the people of God if he wants whether unbelieving Jews like it or not. Nevertheless, the very ones who he has hardened currently can still be saved.

11. Romans 16 may actually have been a letter of recommendation for Phoebe to go to Ephesus rather than Rome. I fall off the log on this side.

Monday, June 20, 2011

You Might be an Evangelical Reject if You

I am sure most people at one time or another have seen Jeff Foxworthy do his bit "you might be a redneck if . . ." If it is such a funny bit because there is always an element of truth in it.

Over the last week there has been a list going around the blogosphere "You might be an Evangelical Reject if You . . ." The post lists various things that make some people, myself included, uncomfortable with the Evangelical label. As with foxworthy's bit, it is the element of, truth in it that sort of brings about the sting. the version below is from Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog. While I might not have said everything the same way, I still find it fairly descriptive of me.

  • You’re uncomfortable calling other branches of Christianity “apostate.”
  • You worry that those who cling to terms like “orthodox” often do so because they believe it to be synonymous with “Neo-Calvinism.”
  • You have significant questions about controversial theological “hot button” issues of the days and are some-what comfortable with the subsequent cognitive dissonance.
  • You’ve been asked to leave a church leadership position for philosophical / theological reasons.
  • You had a “love wins” sticker on the back of your car before the book controversy was even thought of.
  • You read theologians from all across the spectrum.
  • You think that science and scripture both reveal God’s truth in complementary ways.
  • You think that what we believe about the so called “end times” actually matters for how we do mission today.
  • You know that living the truth is more important than defending it logically.
  • You recognize culture wars as pathetic attempts for Christians to grab for power.
  • You don’t use the word inerrancy to describe biblical authority because its too rigid a definition and a modernist categorical imposition on the Holy Spirit inspired Scriptures.
  • You think women should do anything BUT be silent in the church. (Can I get an AMEN from my sistas?)
  • You think that postmodern philosophy helps theology more than it hurts it.
  • You drink alcohol sometimes (in public).
  • You endorse someone that has been deemed a heretic by
  • You believe that there are significant parallels between the Roman Empire of the 1stCentury and the United States of modern day.
  • You believe social justice is central to the gospel of the Kingdom.
  • You throw up a little in your mouth every time someone says that “the rapture is coming soon, so what’s the fuss with taking care of the planet? Lets save souls!”
  • You’ve said “I’m not that kind of Christian…”
  • You considered or actually voted democratic in the last two elections.
  • You think that African American Activists have valid points when it comes to justice issues.
  • You have gay friends.
  • You’ve been in a conversation where the other was appealing more to theconstitution of the USA than actually biblical theology.
  • You’re also an Anabaptist