Understanding the Execution of the Rebellious Son

StoningThere are a number of laws in the Torah that, when you just look at them cold, strike us as rather outlandish, harsh, and even bizarre. You know, the kind that usually get trotted out in the middle of apologetic debates about the morality of the Bible, or the Old Testament law. For instance, that bit in Numbers 15 about stoning someone for moving a few sticks on the Sabbath. That strikes us initially rather harsh and it is, but as I’ve written before, I think there are some significant considerations at the contextual, historical, and theological level that can shed some light on the text.

I was reminded of another such text this last week when my pastor was preaching out of Hosea, in a passage referring to Israel as a rebellious son. He chose to highlight and contrast that with the Torah’s prescription for dealing with rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. ‘ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Now at this point, the usual response is, “Really? I’m supposed to believe that God wants me to take little Joey outside and stone him for talking back and not taking out the trash when I tell him to? That’s a bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?” Well, yes, taken baldly, it does seem like a bit of an extreme regime of parental discipline. But once again, I think there are a number of factors that, when taken into account, mitigate some of the seemingly inexplicable barbarism of the text.

Contextual Keys

So what are these factors?

Instruction. Well, first of all, a number of commentators note that there is no record of this punishment ever having been administered in Ancient Israel. In fact, OT scholar Duane Christensen draws attention to the explicit logic of the law as being handed down so that if it ever came to it, “all Israel shall hear, and fear.” In other words, the point of the law was “pedagogical” or educational, but not so much featuring a scenario likely to be put into practice very much, if at all.

A Son, but a Man. Second, pushing beyond that, we need to get it out of our heads that we’re dealing with some aggressive form of childhood punishment. The “son” in question is not a boy, or even just a teenager who is going through a rebellious phase, experimenting with heavy music and so forth. This is a presumably a young man, yet a still man who is of an accountable age before the Law. He stands accused by his parents of being a hardened delinquent, a “drunkard” and a “glutton.” What does that mean? Well, scholar Paul Copan says the scenario involved was something like this:

The son, probably a firstborn,  would inevitably squander his inheritance when his father died; he would likely bring ruin to his present and future family. He was like a compulsive gambler who bets away his home and life savings right out from under his family’s feet. –Is God a Moral Monster, pg. 91

More than that, drunkenness and gluttony lead to and represent a wholesale departure from the Law. You can easily imagine this including a tendency to criminal debt, familial violence, and other profligacy. This is a man, then, whose choices not only threaten his own safety but who shows every sign of being on course to destroy his family.

Families and Social Authority. What’s more, he is a repeat offender. He is someone who has rejected all counsel, all rebuke, even that of both of his parents, which was a significant rejection of all social and moral restraint in Ancient Israel. Why is this significant? Modern Westerners have trouble thinking along these lines, but in Ancient Israel, the foundation of the social fabric in terms of political authority and social peace in the clans and subgroups was the family. When the family falls apart, society falls apart. We must not forget that honoring father and mother is one of the 10 foundational commands that form the charter for Ancient Israel’s relationship with God as a nation. Historically, commentators have found in this command not only the foundations of familial relations, but the structure of human political authority in general.

Again, Christensen comments:

Respect for and obedience to parents were of vital importance in ancient Israel. In the Book of the Covenant, a son who strikes his father or mother, or who curses them, “shall be put to death” (Exod 21:15, 17; cf. also Lev 20:9); and the covenant curses of Deut 27:16 include “anyone who dishonors father or mother.”

So, this man’s rebellion was a threat at multiple levels. First, he was threatening his family, next the social order, and finally, his rebellion was an assault on the whole nation’s covenant with the Lord. Scripture, especially in the OT, doesn’t deal with us as purely independent, autonomous units. Israelites were members of Israel as a whole and it is with Israel that the Lord deals. So the whole community is implicated in this man’s rebellion and sin against God as long as it persists. One man’s disobedience is a threat to everyone.

Community Justice. Which brings us to a next point. It is important to note that it is not actually the parents who condemn or stone in the man, nor even the father alone. No, we are told that both mother and father, who have presumably reached their wit’s end, are to bring it to the leaders of the community at the gate (the court of the local village), in order for the community as a whole to evaluate and render judgment about the situation. It also bears noting that the mother’s inclusion in the process serves as something of a surprising disruption of our expectations of a patriarchal society. This is not the pure patria potestas of the Romans. This wasn’t, then, some hasty act of parental vindictiveness, but one of justice administered by the proper civil authorities.

The Obedient Son Replacing Insubordinate Israel on the Cross

One final note, though, to round out our consideration of the text. As Christians, we cannot claim to have fully examined it unless we set it in the broader context of Jesus’ own story. Remember, Israel had been created and called by God to be his faithful firstborn son (Exod. 4:22), who served him and represented him among the nations. But Israel proved false, a drunkard and a glutton, worse, an idolater and a murderer who had spurned God’s fatherly hand, rejecting his rebuke, and returning all of his good with vile ingratitude (Hos. 11).

Now, along comes Jesus, the pure, perfectly obedient True Son bringing the Kingdom of God, playing his role as the New Israel and what do they accuse him of being? A “glutton and an drunk” and a friend of tax collectors and sinner (Matt. 11:19). And what happens to him? The execution the law prescribes for the disobedient Son, death outside the gates.

In fact, it’s even worse. Paul reminds us that:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13)

The text Paul quotes comes in the section in Deuteronomy right after the text on the disobedient son:

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” (21:22-24)

In effect, we see that Jesus, the faithful Son, bears the curse and punishment of God that the unfaithful son Israel deserved, in its place. He does so that in “Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14).

Rounding it Out

Now, after all this, you still might find the law harsh, and that’s quite understandable. I do think there’s been some historical progression from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, certainly a radical shift in implementation (I’m not a theonomist by a long shot), and the impact of Christian social thought on our moral sensibilities in the administration of criminal justice.

That said, I think with considerations like these in place, we can begin to understand the moral core to even this initially shocking text in its own Ancient Near Eastern context. What’s more, along with the concerns I outlined in the case of Numbers 15, we begin to see the way it provides some of the dark backdrop against which we understand the bright light of the gospel of the faithful Son who goes to the cross in place of a rebellious people, so they might receive the Spirit who makes them true sons. As Paul says again,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)

Soli Deo Gloria

The Importance of Context in the Conquest of Canaan (The Story Notes #7)

jerichoMy church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

Text – Joshua 6 and the Invasion of Jericho

While a lot of us have trouble with most of what they read in the Old Testament, up until now a lot of us could get by okay. Let’s not play around here, though–there is a serious difficulty for many of us reading and understanding texts like this. The invasion and conquest of Canaan presents an assault on the modern mind, with modern sensitivities, horrified at what strikes us as a simple war of conquest in the name of God. We live in a post-9/11 world and the specter of religious terrorism, and not to mention modern ethnic cleansing, so this stuff understandably terrifies us.

Problem is, it seems like the Bible is full of awkward sections like this. What do we do with these pictures of violence? Or all the weird laws that we find in the Torah? How do we accept them as the word of God and possibly relate them to our own lives when they seem so terrible? We have to do something with them don’t we? This isn’t just an academic question for a lot of us. These are the texts that get thrown in our faces by our atheist and agnostic classmates when the Bible comes up. And, if we’re honest, they’re the ones that keep some of us up at night, doubting if what we’ve been taught in Sunday School is really all just a made-up, human construction.

What I want to do tonight is try to deal with this text, yes, but also the importance of reading the troubling texts of Scripture in context. In this case there are three contexts that I would tell you that you have to consider: historical, redemptive-historical, and the Gospel. But to set that up, let’s recap the story.

The Story Recap– At this point, the 40 years are up, and the Israelites are beginning to enter and take the promised Land. Joshua, Moses’ Second in Command, is now leading Israel’s armies and beginning to fight the Amalekites, and the rest of the Canaanite peoples, in order to take possession of it. That’s pretty much the story so far from last week.

1. Historical Context – So, here they are, about to take the ‘city’ of Jericho, and here’s where it becomes important to start examining the first context, the historical one, in order to understand what we’re reading.

a. Geopolitical-Theological Power Centers – Most of us, when we hear about a city like Jericho, make the mistake of thinking of a modern city, or maybe an old town, filled with normal life, families, etc. with Israel camping around, ready to invade. Here’s where modern archeology and biblical scholarship begins to shed some light. See, the reality is, most of the “cities” we see listed as being taken are really concentrated military/political/theological centers that controlled the regions.

They were small, maybe about the size of Trinity (our church campus). Realize, this is not LA or even Tustin we’re talking about. These were small, composed of maybe a couple hundred people which is why Israel can march around seven times in one day, and then still have the energy to conquer it. Beyond that, they consisted of military personnel, local royalty, slaves and prostitutes, with the civilian populations (if significant) living outside the walls. This was an attack on the equivalent of a key military base.

And here we come to something important: there is every reason to think that these civilian populations cleared out as the armies approached. There are a number of texts in the Law and in Exodus where God promises to “drive them out” before the Israelites:

I will send my terror in front of you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send the pestilence in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. –Exod 23:27-31

So, when Rahab talks about the “Fear” that had fallen on the land, there is the strong implication that most of any civilian population had cleared out before the Israelites ever got there. If they didn’t, before, then after 7 days of watching Israel marching around the gates, they did. These were not large massacres, but strategic strikes on key religious and political centers.

b. War Hyperbole and Rhetoric-– Beyond that, we need to address the language about total destruction in these texts right? Because we read these awkward phrases about “men and women and children”, “left no one breathing”, “left no survivors”, etc. According to Scholar Paul Copan we need to know that this is typical Ancient Near Eastern War Rhetoric:

This stereotypical ancient Near East language of “all” people describes attacks on what turn out to be military forts or garrisons containing combatants — not a general population that includes women and children. We have no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai (6:21; 8:25).8 The word “city [‘ir]” during this time in Canaan was where the (military) king, the army, and the priesthood resided. So for Joshua, mentioning “women” and “young and old” turns out to be stock ancient Near East language that he could have used even if “women” and “young and old” were not living there. The language of “all” (“men and women”) at Jericho and Ai is a “stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.”9 The text does not require that “women” and “young and old” must have been in these cities — and this same situation could apply to Saul’s battling against the Amalekites.

So we have good reason to doubt that there was even close to the picture of  families and dense, civilian populations here. And this is not an issue of the text lying either. This is typical ANE war rhetoric and most people would have heard and read it that way.

c. Infiltration as Well — This is backed up by the fact that If you look at the earlier sections of the Law, there are dozens of laws talking about not inter-marrying with people of the land, or later on in Judges, the Bible talks about fights with the Canaanites, that assume they weren’t all wiped out, but continued to be a significant presence in the land. Again, as we saw in this Exodus text, the strategy wasn’t coming in and actually totally wiping people out, but slowly infiltrating key power centers and moving into the land that way. This is not the indiscriminate wholesale slaughter that we might be tempted to picture.

These and a number of other historical factors need to be considered when reading these texts. We live at a distance of thousands of years from these text and bring assumptions to it that the original readers wouldn’t have shared, and don’t assume things that they would have. So whenever you run across a difficult text in the OT, realize that there are a times when a lot of confusion and heart-ache can be avoided with a good commentary and some historical scholarship. Not entirely, of course, but still significant.

2. Redemptive-Historical Context – That said, the historical context isn’t the only one to consider. Another level that we have to consider is the “Redemptive-historical” context–or the whole story of the Bible. These events take their place in a longer story and must be understood within that context or they don’t make sense.

a. God’s patient judgment – One angle on this is to consider why God says he is driving out the Canaanites. Back in Genesis 15:13-16 God says:

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

Then again, we read in Deuteronomy 9:4-5:

“Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you.  Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

In these texts we see that God was using the Israelites as his sword of judgment. This is not God just looking around at random and destroying a people. The cultures that were invaded were abysmally dark, notorious for their rampant injustices towards the weak and the poor. They were conquerors and bloody bullies who soaked the land in blood and death. These are not peaceful monasteries in Tibet we’re talking about here. Their worship was corrupted to the point that it involved bestiality, temple prostitution (which like involved sex-slavery), and, most horrifying of all, child sacrifice. We have archeological digs with pits, full of the skulls of children these cultures offered up to the flame. As an associate of mine pointed out, just consider Rahab the prostitute–how weird is it that she was willing for invaders to come? No, for her, and those like her, this was not just invasion, but in many ways, liberation.

See, God tells us that he is the God who care about poor, powerless, etc. He cannot and will not let injustice go on forever and so, at times, his final judgment breaks out in the present in order to stop gross injustice. Beyond that, in the first text we see that God waited 400+ years for the people to become corrupt enough to justify thing. He didn’t just pick a land and take it, he waited until the culture became so corrupt and wicked that their judgment was merited and necessary. This was God’s extreme patience towards the Canaanites–he waits hundreds of years for their sin to ripen and mature (far longer than we probably would have), until even God’s patient mercy must give way to judgment.

b. God will give them no taste for conquest — The other thing we need to note is that this is not a set-up for empire-building. In Deuteronomy he commands them not to have standing armies, chariots, or any of the other paraphernalia of empires. This a limited project, undertaken at one time, for a specific purpose. This is not a program of Empire to be appropriated later, or used to justify other violence. “You get this land, about half the size of California and no more.” This is part of the logic of the total destruction of these key sites. Israel is not to get a taste for war. And you see in the rest of the OT, the rest of the Yahweh-approved wars are fought defensively.

c. God’s other purpose is to create a Redemptive Space — The second reason that needs to be considered is what were God’s purposes with Israel. God had project: he wanted to create a people through whom the world would see what God was like. What’s more, the ultimate goal is not for Israel alone, but that all the nations of the world may be saved and blessed by God through Israel in the coming of her Messiah. For this to happen, Israel needed a land, a space to develop a culture as a people, set apart from other peoples, for the redemption of all peoples. They needed space to practice the 10 commandments. A set-apart, holy land devoted to justice, peace, and the true worship of God, in a way that would be un-corrupted by the local Canaanites and their distorted practices.

This is another, if not the key reason to understand that this was not a whole-sale killing, genocide or ethnic-cleansing. Israel took Rahab and her family in as they acknowledged the true God, and as a friend pointed out, this is likely just a shadow of Israel’s mercy to other people–the accounts don’t cover everything. Just as they included repentant Egyptians in the crowd as they left Egypt, it is not unlikely that repentant Canaanites could join the people. Of course, this points ahead to the Gospel of Jesus and the inclusion of the Gentiles. Clearing out the nations serves the purpose of one day bringing in the nations.

So what we’re seeing then, is a tactical, limited invasion, whose goal was to establish beach-heads, driving out the surrounding peoples and their corrupt cultures slowly. Why? For God’s specific, purposes of judgment on a wicked people, and the grand redemptive purpose of saving all peoples. (Incidentally, this is why this can’t be used as a warrant for modern violence–different covenant, no divine command, etc.)

This is where I make an analogy that might not work. Most of us look back at WW2 and think there was a lot of horrible stuff that happened on both sides. I mean, I think I’m only now reconciling myself to the horror of the firebombing of Dresden and the terror of Hiroshima. These were…damnable. Thing is, with all of Europe in the choke-hold of a monster, and the gaping jaws of Auschwitz and the camps devouring millions of Jews, I don’t think any of us would say that no bullets should have been fired or that no bombs ought to have been dropped.

If that holds true for the temporal salvation of some people and one point in history, how much more then for the salvation of the whole world? Again, this may not work for you. I get that. I’m not sure it does entirely for me either. Still, it might put the breaks on our rush to rule this out as something God “couldn’t” do. We have a God who has committed to saving historical beings, precisely in history. We shouldn’t be surprised if that involves some messy moments.

3. Theological Context of Christ – Of course, the final context I would say we need to look at this in, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On the one hand, you can’t understand Jesus without the rest of the story of the Bible. On the other, you can’t understand the story of the Bible without look at the Gospel of Jesus. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are like a light at the center of the Story-line that allows us to see all things properly in its light.

In this case, I think the Gospel reminds us of a couple of big-picture theological truths that we need to keep in mind when we look at these stories.

God Hates Sin – One thing these texts remind us of is the radical seriousness with which God takes sin. I was talking to a buddy the other day and he was telling me how it just really occurred to him that God hates sin–like, he really can’t stand it to the core of his being. But honestly, that’s a good thing, right? If God is good, loving, just, great, righteous, and holy, he really can’t love sin. He can’t and shouldn’t put up with it forever, right? I mean oppressing the poor has to end sometime right? Violence, arrogance, racism, rape, child-sacrifice, sex-slave trade, and idolatry can’t go on forever. And we don’t want it to.

This is what we see in the Cross of Jesus. The cross of Jesus is God judging sin for what it is–something damnable and horrifying–something that has not place in God’s world and will ultimately be done away with. What happened to Jesus is what ought to happen to us, and will, if we don’t allow him to be judged in our place.

God Loves Sinners – Now, while that’s one truth we need to see, there’s a far deeper one beneath it that is essential for us to consider–God loves sinners:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:6-10, ESV)

The fundamental truth about God that we see in the Cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that his will is to save them. He loves them. He doesn’t want to judge us. He doesn’t want to ultimately condemn us. He is just, so if we refuse to turn, if we continue to hate good and choose evil, well, he’ll let us do that and suffer the consequence. But his deep desire is to draw us to himself. He looks at us and says, “Though I can’t stand what you’ve done, both to me, your neighbor, and yourself, yet I love you. I would separate you from your guilt. I would remove from you your sin, that I might hold you to my own heart that loves you still.”

So in order to do that, he suffers judgment himself. Realize, the God we see in the OT, is the same God who was willing  to become a man and suffer the worst pain that anyone in human history has ever faced. This is the God who suffers the rejection of Hell for us, so that we might not face it. In the end, God conquers sinners through judgment–His own, on the Cross. This is ultimately what I have to look to.

We’ve gone through a lot of these different contextual issues and historical considerations that change the shape of how we think about these text. They’re important to consider and helpful as we wrestle with the awkwardness of the story of scripture. At the end of the day, though, I have to put my trust in that God is who I see in Jesus Christ and him crucified–the God who proved himself perfectly just and perfectly loving in a way I could have never imagined. I never could have fathomed a God so good he was willing to die for those who wanted to put him to death in order to save them from death.

So when I come to these troubling texts, no, I don’t just read them and say, “Welp, it’s the Bible, so, no problem here.” I have doubts and struggles. What I do say is, “God, you’ve already proven yourself to be unfathomably just and unfathomably loving beyond my finite and fallen comprehension. I still don’t have a grid for the Gospel. I’m having trouble accepting this, but I trust you, so shine a light on this.” Then I wait. I study, pray, and wait. And you know what? I think God’s okay with that.

If you’re struggling tonight, that’s okay. Church is meant to be a place where, yes, we confess, praise, trust, and grow. It also should be a place where you can safely struggle. What I do hope you’ve seen is that when it comes to difficult texts, context matters–a lot. And can make a big difference. So before you chuck your Bible across the room, slow down, ask questions, do a little digging and prayer and trust God to show up.

Soli Deo Gloria

Okay, so, I know this is an incomplete treatment of the text, or even the whole conquest. I didn’t address God’s rights as creator, scratch the surface of the epistemological issues, moral grounding, and the authority of scripture over culture. Honestly, I had a half hour, and I try not to push my students beyond that. For those who are interested in exploring the question in greater depth, I would commend these resources to you:

1. Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan – This has three chapters devoted to the question of the context that are extremely helpful on this question.
2. How Could God Order the Killing of the Canaanites? by Paul Copan – Short article summarizing much of the book.
3. Is YHWH a War Criminal? by Alastair Roberts — Another thoughtful, article-length treatment of the subject.

The Cure that Killed the Patient (Or, Sorry Zahnd, Marcionism isn’t a Better Option)

tumblr_mr9zzaTmj01rj8v6zo1_400A while back John Piper put out a video that defended God’s right to judge the Canaanites by the hand of the Israelites in the conquest narratives of the OT. He said something along the lines of “God is God, he made you and doesn’t owe you jack, so if he takes your life, you really have nothing to complain about. Also, God can use whom he pleases to do so.” Roughly.

Predictably, some people got mad. I mean, I get that. It’s a tough subject and any answer is going to be kind of awkward (although, honestly, at this point Piper could say that God loves kittens and somebody would snark, “But only elect ones, right?”). Beyond just general Facebook furor when it hit, it recently provoked a frontal-assault/response from author and pastor Brian Zahnd. For those who don’t know, Zahnd has been a rising voice on the Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Left since his book “Beauty Will Save the World” came out last year. I actually read it and loved it, even if I did have some qualms about the pacifism peeking out here and there.

Well, pacifist though he may be, Zahnd came out guns blazing with accusations of voluntarism against the monstrous God of Calvinism, and, just the slightest bit of Muslim-baiting in his provocatively titled, “John Piper and Allahu Akbar.” As you might have picked up, I didn’t love this post quite as much as the book and I’ll get to why in a minute. But first, a few quick caveats.

To be clear, I don’t particularly care to defend Piper’s views here as he is a big boy who can defend himself. Nor is this is denial that the OT narratives involving the conquest and destruction of the Canaanites require some serious consideration. They do. Actually, while we’re on the subject, I’d commend Paul Copan’s work on the subject in the book “Is God a Moral Monster?” or this summary article paying attention to historical, genre, and canonical considerations here. Finally, I too am very concerned about the misuse of Scripture to promote violence.

What I do want is to look at is Zahnd’s reponse, which, to mind, left something to be desired in terms of theological honesty as well as, well, ‘soundness of teaching’? (I don’t want to say orthodoxy, given his clear, robust Nicene and Chalcedonian faith.) Yes, I’m putting on my argumentative Reformed hat again, which I do try to stay away from, but, in all fairness, Zahnd shot first.

Well, without further ado, here are a few points in no particular order.

Yeah, never taught that.

Yeah, never taught that.

Calvin’s “Ism”

Zahnd found a cute short-hand for Piper’s theology of sovereignty, or rather, that of “Calvin’s disciples”, which he dubbed “Calvin’s Ism.” He then proceeded to rail on it, lamenting the way Piper and others would go to such great lengths to defend the “Ism” to the point of creating a monstrous voluntaristic/nominalist God whose will is what it is, simply because it is, and so forth. Don’t you know that we should look at Jesus, not what Calvin thought about Jesus?! Away with such Greek-philosophy-influenced, metaphysical barbarisms!

scumbag girardIt’s typical anti-Calvinist boilerplate that fires up the troops and so forth, so I get it. As one of “Calvin’s Disciples” though, I simply wanted to stop and point out that, as a matter of historical fact, Calvin strongly repudiated the overly-voluntaristic and nominalist tradition popular in his day at the Sorbonne flowing from theological giants like Scotus and Ockham. (Incidentally, I always find it funny when guys who basically riff off of French social theorists like Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory when it comes to the Gospel, have the gall to call out “Greek philosophical categories” in more traditional theology.)

Calvin explicitly rejected a view of God’s unrestrained will, or absolute power, divorced from God’s justice or God’s goodness. While he unabashedly defends God’s complete sovereignty over human history, he simultaneously condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power.” (Institutes 1.17.2) That’s just one among many examples.

Again, it’s a fun phrase, and when you’re driving the punch-line home, why not pick a baddie to rip on your fanbase already doesn’t like? Calvin’s perfect for that, especially since most people haven’t actually read him much. But, in this case, Zahnd should probably find another whipping boy to pin the voluntarism charge on.

Killing is Not Always Murder

Moving more to the point, Zahnd tells us that God could never have ordered the conquest and judgment of the Canaanites in the way the narratives portray it because that would involve killing which is murder and God would never order murder.

So for some this next point might seem basic: while all murder is killing, not all killing is murder. For others, this is a basic false distinction that they rejected as un-biblical a long time ago.

I’ll just say that a prima facie reading of the Scriptures, especially the OT legal code (Exod. 21), shows that while God hates human death, the law that he handed down seemed to recognize a distinction between killing and murder. Actually, very early on in the narrative of the Torah, we find out that the reason he allows for some killing is precisely because he hates murder (Gen. 9:6). Murder is unjustifiable, but executions and judgments seemed to be accounted for and even commanded by God himself in various places in the OT law and the subsequent narrative. Of course, that raises the issue of the reliability of the OT on this point.

Which brings us to the really big issue with Zahnd’s post.

Marcionism isn’t a Better Option 

See, Zahnd says we shouldn’t let something like the Old Testament slow us down when we’re thinking about these things:

And don’t let the Old Testament work you into a corner. You don’t need to defend the Old Testament to the extent that you find it necessary to justify genocide. God forbid! We can simply say this…

The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ.

This is a perfect example of what Andrew Wilson has called the “New Marcionism“, which, while not explicitly repudiating the OT the way Marcion did, insists on seeing such a radical discontinuity between the God we see testified to in the OT and that of the NT that it has much the same effect.

Let me unsympathetically paraphrase Zahnd for you to see the problem: “The ancient Israelites who wrote the Holy Scriptures got some stuff wrong, but we know better now that Jesus came. We know that Jesus would never order something like that, so we know that God didn’t order something like that, so just don’t trouble yourself about it. The verses are just wrong. I mean, sure, Jesus said that the Scriptures all pointed to him (John 5:39), and the law is to be perfectly fulfilled (Matt. 5), and we can assume he read those parts, but he couldn’t possibly have meant all of it. Sure we have parallels in the NT with Revelation and God raining down judgment, etc. not to mention Jesus himself casting down judgment of his own, but again, don’t let that trouble you. Nevermind the deeply pervasive theology of God the Warrior who goes before Israel in battle that informs much of the OT, and depends on some of those “mistaken assumptions”–just try and skip those bits. I mean don’t worry that this even figures into Luke’s telling of Acts as a conquest narrative. Just squint until you see it properly. God wouldn’t do anything like that. I mean, don’t bother trying understand the difference between God’s administration of covenant justice in Israel v. the Church because of Christ’s ushering in a new phase in redemptive-history. It’s not that the same God can manifest his eternally good and beautiful character in consistent, but historically-distinct ways. We have the much easier option of saying the Israelites just got it wrong. Simple as that. Don’t worry about what that does to undermine the authority of the OT and its ability to actually point to Jesus Christ. Please don’t trouble yourself with the way this sort of crypto-Marcionism might spill into the subtle anti-Semitism of viewing the Old Testament as an inherently inferior text like the old-school German Liberal scholars who made this sort of argument popular back in the early part of the 20th Century. I mean, no big deal.”

In a dispute with the Pharisees in John 10:35, Jesus tells us that the scriptures cannot be “broken.” The Greek word there is luo which can be translated “to destroy, to tear down, the break to pieces” (Louw-Nida 20:35).  Essentially, it can’t be ignored, released, explained away, or rendered null or void. Except, that’s exactly what Zahnd suggests we do with those uncomfortable bits.

On ‘Christocentric’ Readings (Or, The Cure that Killed the Patient)  

Here’s the thing, when your “Christocentric” reading of the Scriptures leads you to ignore or deny parts of Scriptures the way Christ says shouldn’t happen, you might be doing it wrong. Realize that this isn’t about whether we’re going to read the Bible in light of Jesus, but about how. Does the revelation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen shed light on and transfigure the testimony of God’s dealing with Israel, or simply deny, or downgrade its validity by cutting chunks out?

Of course, this goes to the deeper theological question who we’re going to allow God to be? Will we allow him to reveal himself as a God who, though simple in essence, is narratively-complex in his self-rendering in the history of Israel?  “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:6-7) Do we let Jesus be both the one who longs to shelter Jerusalem under his wings to save them, all the while forcefully proclaiming God’s impending, violent, judgment on their sins (Matt 23:29-39)? Do we allow for the full picture of Jesus to emerge, or the one we’ve shoved into our pacifistic Procrustean bed, and shave off the verses that don’t fit?

Tom needs a drink after that.

Tom needs a drink after that.

While some of us are tempted to take Zahnd’s path of essentially rejecting prior revelation as the mistaken assumptions of our spiritual fathers, Might I suggest a surer, admittedly less comfortable, course? It is a route that N.T. Wright offers up in his answer to Wilson on the issue of the New Marcionism:

“There are many many things that God does, has done or will do which are not waiting for my approval or sanction before he does them. You know that line, “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Bonhoeffer said that putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God is the primary sin in Genesis 3. They go for the knowledge of good and evil rather than what God says. Now that could just be an escape; it could just be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t know anything about God (when the whole point of the gospel is that we do know who God is, because of Jesus). However, if it’s the crucified Jesus, and if the cross means what it means in the light of the whole history of Israel, which is focused onto that, then … these narratives are the way in which all of those horrible, puzzling ambiguities, and all the awful things that happen – like Jesus saying, “what about those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” – there’s a sense that the cross gathers up all those puzzling, tragic horrible fragments of life, and says swoosh this is where it’s all going.

“I hold this within the framework I articulated this morning, which is to say: from the call of Abraham onwards, what God is committing himself to do is to act to bring about the restoration of the world, but to act through deeply flawed human beings, who constantly need to be reminded that they’re deeply flawed. That then produces all kinds of (to our mind) ambiguities. And I see all of it coming together in the cross. The cross is the moment when I see Israel’s God performing the salvific event, which is simultaneously the worst and most blasphemous act of judicial, theocidal murder than one can ever imagine. And somehow the cross itself says: these things are now reconciled.”

Of course there’s more to say, but I’ve already said too much for what’s an allegedly short blog post. (May God forgive my lies.) The end of the matter is that while Zahnd may find Piper’s alleged voluntarism to be a gross misrepresentation of Jesus by distortion, his own neo-Marcionism leaves us with a highly-abridged Bible, and therefore an abridged Jesus, which is hardly an improvement. While offering a solution to the Bible’s problematic texts, Zahnd is inadvertently administering the kind of cure that kills the patient.

Soli Deo Gloria