Last week I wrote a post engaging with Brian Zahnd on the issue of the authority and inspiration of the Old Testament. In dealing with the issue of the conquest narratives in Joshua and other places, a lot of people have trouble dealing with the apparent tension of the grace, love, peacableness, and forgiveness found in the New Testament with God’s commands to judge and destroy the Canaanites in the Old. Some will quickly move to justify the texts, not dealing with the understandably troubling nature of the narratives, while others will simply write them off as remnants of a more savage time to be left behind now that we have Jesus.
Well, the question came up again this week in Matt Smethurst’s interview article (and by the way, he does great interviews) over at the Gospel Coalition with Tim Keller on why Keller had written a study guide to the book of Judges:
Smethurst: The Israelite conquest of Canaan appears to give warrant for imperialism, holy war, and genocide. How can enlightened modern people take a book like Judges seriously?
Keller: Yes, in teaching the book of Judges you simply have to deal with this issue—you can’t ignore it. And in this brief space I can’t even list the issues and the various objections and answers. Maybe the most fundamental thing to say is that if you believe the rest of what the whole Bible teaches—that there’s only one true God, that for a period of time he spoke directly to Israel through prophets and through the Urim and Thummim in the priest’s breastplate, but that now, since Christ, he speaks to us through his inscripturated Word—then the conquest of Canaan makes sense.
Why? First, God alone has the right to judge people—only he knows what they deserve and what they will do if not stopped. He alone has the right to take a life. Second, in “holy war” Israel did not seek to imperialistically expand its wealth and power but acted as an instrument of God’s judgment on a particular set of people. Third, if you believe in the authority of the Bible as the only infallible way to know God’s will for us—then holy war today is impossible. God gives no warrant for it. That’s what we see when reading the Bible is read as a whole, with the New Testament completing and fulfilling the Old. Jesus specifically forbids Christians to take up the sword in his name, to spread the Christian faith by force. In short, if you believe the rest of the things the Bible teaches, the period of holy war makes sense. Holy war is not, therefore, a reason to reject what the rest of the Bible says about God.
Note very clearly, Keller says that there are more concerns and more objections to be dealt with. Away with any suggestion that Keller deliberately ignored a host of problems. What he does do is raise three that help to address the charge that the OT narratives are indefensible and encourage violence.
- God is the final, trustworthy judge.
- Holy war served a limited, focused purpose in God’s economy: the judgment of people with whom he had been patient for hundreds of years.
- The narrative logic of the whole of Scripture forbids violence to Christians for spreading the faith.
That last one deserves a bit more comment. Often-times you’ll see a biblical critic point to a particular text and say, “See, there, that story encourage X behavior (misogyny, violence, ecological carelessness, etc.). We can’t trust it and must move past it.” Or, they’ll simply use it as evidence that the Bible as a whole is flawed. The problem here is, yes, a problematic text, but even more, the fact that atomistic readings can distort the shape of any kind of text. This is one more example of why historical, narrative, and canonical context matters. You don’t know the meaning of any story, or really, any scene in a story, until you’ve reached the end.
And what do we see in the book of Judges when we reach the end of story, the full story that finds its climax in Jesus Christ? Keller says we can’t help but see Jesus:
He’s the ultimate judge—the perfect and unflawed Gideon and Samson. He is the ultimate king we don’t yet have but whom we need. Even at the terrible end of Judges, where a man gives up his spouse to death to save his own skin, we can’t help but think of Jesus our true husband who gives himself up to death in order to save us. Jesus in Judges, as usual, is everywhere.
This is why we need to be careful when dealing with the OT. If you simply rush to judgment, writing things off quickly because of a contextless, atomistic, moralistic reading, you might miss Jesus in the middle of it.
Soli Deo Gloria
P.S. I’d commend the whole interview to you here. Also, again, I’d commend this article by Paul Copan dealing with historical issue with the Canaanite conquest and OT violence.