Saturday, July 25, 2009

God Will Fight for Us: Is the Old Testament Pacifist?

In chapter four of his book The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder recognizes that many perceive a great roadblock to his pacifist interpretation of the ethical import of Jesus in the “holy wars” of the Old Testament, particularly in Exodus, Judges, and Joshua, as the Hebrews were occupying and subduing the land which was promised to them. He says:
We ask, "Can a Christian who rejects all war reconcile his position with the Old Testament story?" If the generalization that “war is always contrary to the will of God” can be juxtaposed with the wars of the Old Testament, which are reported as having been according to the will of God, the generalization is destroyed (76).
Yoder says that the approach mentioned above seems to hide the fact that “for the believing Israelite the Scriptures would not have been read with this kind of question in mind.” Yoder apparently desires to maintain the above stated “generalization,” by viewing the Old Testament narrative in the way that the people of Israel (for example, in Jesus’ times) would have viewed that narrative.

By Yoder’s reasoning, one dominant characteristic of the OT story is that Yahweh is seen “as the God who saves his people without their needing to act.” He argues that the modern reader looks in the story for moral judgments of the rightness or wrongness of the “holy wars,” but that the Israelites would not have said, “judging from this text, it was good for us to go to war.” Instead, he says that they would have seen God, their savior, “where Israel was saved by the mighty deeds of God on their behalf” (76). By the rules of hermeneutics, Yoder proposes that we read the narrative as those who received it would have read it.

The Exodus Era
Yoder quotes as support for his thesis here from each of Israel’s different eras, and he begins with the Exodus, where we read:
Fear not, stand firm,
And see the salvation of the LORD,
Which he will work for you today;
For the Egyptians whom you see today,
You shall never see again.
The LORD will fight for you,
And you have only to be still.
(Ex. 14:13)
In Exodus 17, Yoder is careful to note that Moses and Joshua decide to go to war against the Amalekites without a recorded command of God.
It is a general rule of proper textual interpretation that a text should be read for what its author meant to say and what its first readers or hearers would have heard it say. Whether the taking of human life is morally permissible or forbidden under all circumstances was not a culturally conceivable question in the age of Abraham or that of Joshua. It is therefore illegitimate to read the story of the planned sacrifice of Isaac or of the Joshuanic wars as documents on the issue of the morality of killing. Although the narrative of the conquest of Canaan is full of bloodshed, what the pious reader will have been most struck by in later centuries was the general promise according to which, if Israel would believe and obey, the occupants of the land would be driven out little by little (Exod. 23:29-30) by “the angel” (23:23) or the “terror” (v. 27) or the “hornets” (v. 28) of God, or the most striking victories of Joshua over Jericho (Josh. 6), or Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites (Judg. 7) after most of the volunteers had been sent home and the remaining few armed with torches in order (7:2) not to let israel think military strength or numbers had brought the victory: To “believe” meant, most specifically and concretely in the cultural context of Israel’s birth as a nation, to trust God for their survival as a people.
The Kingdom Era
Other Scripture accounts of God’s salvation:
O LORD, there is none like thee to help
Between the mighty and the weak.
Help us, O LORD our God, for we rely on thee,
And in thy name we have come against this multitude.
(2 Chronicles 14:11)
Yoder sees 2 Chronicles 16 as a one chapter commentary on the wrongness of taking things into one’s own hands, rather than relying on the salvation that God will bring. Consider God’s chastisement of Asa for forming an alliance with the Northern Kingdom.

You need not fight in this battle ;
Take your position, stand still,
And see the victory of the LORD on your behalf,
O Judah and Jerusalem.
Fear not, and be not dismayed;
Tomorrow go out against them,
And the LORD will be with you.
(2 Chronicles 20:17)

And the fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries, when they heard that the LORD had fought against the enemies of Israel (20:29).

Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our god, to help us and to fight our battles (32:8).
Post-Exile Era
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava,
That we might humble ourselves before our God,
To seek from him a straight way…
For I was ashamed to ask the king for men,
Soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way;
Since we had told the king,
“The hand of our God is for good upon all that seek him,
And the power of his wrath is against all that forsake him.”
So we fasted and besought our God for this,
And he listened to our entreaty.
(Ezra 8:21ff)
For Yoder, this text is important, because it supports the thesis of this chapter, namely that those who read the accounts would, looking back, not be making moral judgments upon the texts, but instead would be reflecting upon the salvation that God brings. “It had thus become a part of the standard devotional ritual of Israel to look over the nation’s history as one of miraculous preservation” (83).
The LORD will cause your enemies
Who rise against you
To be defeated before you;
They shall come out against you one way,
And flee before you seven ways.
(Deuteronomy 28:7)

He will guard the feet of his faithful ones;
For not by might does one prevail.
(1 Samuel 2:9)

Not by might, nor by power,
But by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.
(Zechariah 4:6)
Given this background “legend” which the Israelites would have studied and known extensively, Yoder suggests two serious implications for the meaning of the “Kingdom Inaugural” sermons of Jesus:
(a) The modern reader is struck by the improbability…of any such saving event as a generalized jubilee or an adversary leaving. Since he or she assumes Jesus could hardly have meant this, the reader’s mind is sent to meander down the sidetracks of paradoxical or symbolic interpretations. For Jesus’ listeners, on the other hand, as believing Jews, the question of possibility was not allowed to get in the way of hearing the promise. They therefore did not prejudice their sense of what might happen by knowing ahead of time what Jesus could not mean.

(b) In correlation with our sense of impossibility we tend to think of “apocalyptic” promises as pointing “off the map” of human experience, off the scale of time, in that they announce an end to history….Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom was unacceptable to most of his listeners not because they thought it could not happen but because they feared it might, and that it would bring down judgment on them (85).
Yoder believes that if we as modern readers learn to see Jesus’ statements in light of the Jewish peoples’ background history and “legend” (in the social sense, not the “inaccurate” sense), then we will see that there is much greater political import to what he said. In addition, he says, we will stop scouring the OT texts for moral judgments on the rightness or wrongness of the “holy wars.”

"And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes" (Deuteronomy 20:13,16). The entire chapter of Deuteronomy 20 leaves me scratching my head. If the entire Old Testament is a testament to the fact that God fights for his people, then why would God command in his law for every single inhabitant to be put to the sword? It might be responded that Deut. 20 is not spoken directly by God, but I wonder what such a response might mean for our understanding of any of the Old Testament texts which do not consist of God's own actual words.

I have combed the Old Testament over quite vigorously (as Yoder says we should not, now, have to do; Oops!), and while I am left with a lot of unanswered exegetical questions, I can find no overt or direct commands from God (but I'm open to some help from others with this, since OT history isn't my strong suit) for the Israelites to go to war which do not, as Yoder points out, also promise that it is God who will do the fighting. In my preparation for a response to Yoder, I believed a case in opposition to Yoder's arguments would be very easy to assemble. What I discovered, however, is that Yoder's reading of the Old Testament (if you grant that he is right that that israelites would not have read the Old Testament like we do, looking for moral judgments and such) is far closer, in my opinion, to the teaching of the text than I ever could have guessed. With the exception of a few challenging verses in the Old Testament, I am half tempted to agree with Yoder that the dominant theme of war in the Old Testament is one where God consistently promises to fight Israel's wars on her behalf, if she will only let him.

I look forward to some outside input on this matter. Maybe someone else can make the case against Yoder's OT reading for me.


  1. Adam,

    Read Psalm 137 and let me know what you think.

  2. I assume you're talking specifically about the last verse (v. 9) where the psalmist writes,

    "Blessed shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"

    While the rest of the psalm provides context (lamenting their absence from Israel), this verse is probably the meat of what you're asking me about.

    Honestly, I'm having a hard time playing devil's advocate. On the one hand, I want to exegete the verse and say, "this is judgment on the children of the Babylonians" (good evidence, by the way, of Original sin, even in infants) and let that be the end of it.

    On the other hand, I know we need a devil's advocate here. This is actually the moment for Jared Schumacher to rise to the occasion and give us some insight from a Yoderian/Hauerwasian perspective.

    I agree that there is a lot of violence in the Old Testament, and I also agree that it seems that God implicitly approves of that violence. It also seems to me that God's prophets repeatedly command violent action in one form or another.

    If I were to take the pacifist position, I actually wouldn't go about defending it in the way that Yoder does (as I've stated elsewhere). I would understand the violence of the Old Testament with regard to Divine Command Theory; that's my personal out. So I wouldn't agree with Yoder's statement that "war is always contrary to the will of God." I would revise it to say, "war fits within the moral will of God if and only if God commands it."

    So my view of the OT is that the violence of the Old Testament was the will of God, and my view of violence in the NT is... unclear (though I'd like to make sense of the 'what-if' of pacifism). But I would like to explore the idea that the OT violence was commanded by God for the purposes of creating a theocratic state under which his Messiah could live while perfectly fulfilling the law and that the NT shows Christians about kingdom life and what that looks like, now that theocratic kingdom has completed its purpose. Maybe kingdom life does involve pacifism now. That certainly would not mean that violence is always wrong or that war is always wrong; it just means that we are not to use those things without God's command. This is just the thought I'm exploring. I don't know/think it is coherent, so I'm in the same state of flux that I've been in for the last few years trying to sort this out.

    I know, you're going to say, "Well my view's coherent; so why are you even exploring the idea of pacifism when you admit you can't make sense of it?" Well, my answer is that I want to do justice to that idea that Jesus is a normative man (I'm not entirely persuaded by the argument that he was violent at times), and I want to do justice to the seemingly pacifist clarity found in the Sermon on the Mount as well as Romans 12. So those are my main reasons for clinging to this 'incoherent' theory. As soon as I can make sense of it, it will be my position; until then it's just my plaything.

    How do you like that? I totally dodged Psalm 137. So... Yeah; dash those Babylonian babies against the rocks.

  3. Speak of the devil...

    I should tell you off the start that I don't know what Yoder would say here. I can only tell you what i would say, as someone who is informed by Hauerwas' reading of Yoder.


    In regards to Pslams 137 I see this as a psalm of lament, perfected in Psalm 44 (which I was surprised to see that Yoder never mentions in TPOJ, though it does most of his work for him!). Both are psalms written by afflicted and dispersed people asking God to remember his covenant and save his people.

    I think it obvious in this context, then, to see "the one" referred to in vv 8-9 as God himself. For it is God who the psalmists anticipate will be the one who "repays" and the one who "will be blessed." God will be the one to deliver, as psalm 44 clearly intimates. So the voice of the speaker is that of the psalmist, declaring a blessing on his salvation and savior, God.

    So here is neither a command for Jews to kill the adversary, nor an expectation that anyone other than God would deliver. Yoder prevails.

    I think this solution might have been obvious to you had it not been for the compounding factor that you have noticed the implications of, namely that this solution seems to make God the one dashing babies' heads against rocks. So I have saved Yoder here, but put God on the dock. And while the Calvinists in the room can chalk this up to a combination of predestination, original sin/total depravity (which I think are disparate doctrines, but which Calvinists view synoptically)- as God can righteously kill those in sin, be it their parents or their own, fulfilling his will for their damned lives- my own position is that God loves Gentile children just as much as Jewish ones, so I am not out of the woods yet.

    For if it is the case that the blessing of "the one who dashes your little ones against the rock" belongs to God, then what sort of God do we worship who enjoys, not just deliverance, but deliverance through infanticide?

    There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that Jews who wrote and prayed this psalm wanted God to actually kill Babylon's progeny. For them it was "turn-about is fair play." Eye for an eye.

    But I think we should pause to notice that an appeal for God in scripture to "dash children's heads on the rock" does not in fact mean that he did so. As far as I can tell, the Babylonian Captivity did not end this way, though I may be mistaken.

    But even if it did, neither is there a shadow of a doubt in my mind how the Church fathers would have correctly understood this text: as an obvious, almost heavy-handed, reference to Christ. For who is the Rock, if not Christ? Notice the awkward singular of rock here if you try to interpret it any other way.

    And so the early Christians who continued to pray this psalm understood themselves to be blessing the one (God) who, using the Rock (Christ) to overcome their adversaries and their manifold descendants, set the captives (who were, after all, political prisoners in captivity) free.

  4. Undoubtedly you will see that I have given you an interpretation that, although it supports Yoder's politicalization of the text, seemingly contradicts what Yoder sees as the "historical" meaning of text. Certainly the Jew(s) who wrote and prayed this psalm intended for God to be their savior by actually smashing the heads of babylonian infants on rock. But the reason that Christians did not leave this psalm out when discerning Scripture in the construction of the canon was because it could be faithfully interpreted as a reference to the deliverance of God through Christ! This is how they recognized it as Scripture, and this is why they continue to pray it: Christ is present within it.

    Put differently (and slightly more polemically) God redeems Scripture sometimes despite the intent of the human author(s). Put less polemically, the Spiritual interpretation of this text perfects the intent of the original author. I suspect interpretive method will be a point of departure for us, but I believe my reading to be faithful to canonical history of the reception of this text as well as the majority opinion of its Christian interpretation. This is where I am unclear if Yoder would follow me, i.e. whether he allows for the possibility of the fourfold sense of scripture my reading requires. I believe that Hauerwas certainly would, as his theory of interpretation is as catholic as my own.

    I would love to know what you think of this interpretation, and whether or not your more reformed interpretative theories allow for such a reading.

    But of course, this only gets me out of this text, and not the more dominate issue of evil and the justice of God, especially as it is portrayed in the OT. This is what I have attempted metaphysically and theologically to do in my other posts, to some extent.

    But to your general post, I would say Adam that you seem to be wrestling with all of the relevant issues. I suspect that this will all come down to how you understand both the method and purpose of interpretation. For my own position, outside of Hauerwas, I would recommend Henri de Lubac's "Scripture in the Tradition" and Harry Gamble's "The New Testament Canon: its making and meaning" as essentials.

    But even if we disagree over interpretive theory at the end of the day, your recognition within Divine Command theory for a necessary discernment of God's call to war is a significant improvement on just war theory. I am wondering what this might look like in modern warfare from your perspective. In other words, how would one discern that it is the God of Jesus Christ that is calling you into battle? we might call this the Joan of Arc test :) what criteria could we use to adjudicate whether or not it is God calling you to fight and not rather a different spirit? and then, in what way would Jesus declare war?

  5. As to your last question about how my "theory" fits with modern warfare, here is where I stand:

    There is no new revelation from God. Period. All of the revelation we have been intended to have is in the canon. Therefore, if I am right and only God can command war, and if the only good war is the one that God commands, then you could say I have a very stringent, impossible to fulfill form of just war theory. The only just war is one that God commands, but God doesn't command wars anymore. Therefore, there are no just wars.

    I am currently convinced that Romans 13 has some prescriptive elements, and that Christians ought to recognize the secular authorities as having the right to police their own citizens and to repel malevolent invasion, but there is absolutely no permission in Rom. 13 for the state to take aggressive action outside of its own sovereign borders. This would exclude anyone from claiming that the state can make pre-emptive strikes on other states (such as when the US invaded Iraq), or even that any states can invade other states under any circumstances. After all; how can one state be sovereign over another state?

    Let me be clear on my opinion of why God commands wars. The only reason, as far as I can tell, for God's commanding of the so-called "holy wars" was the goal of a theocratic society into which the messiah could come and perfectly fulfill the law on behalf of his people. There are no theocracies anymore, and there are not meant to be, and so war is no longer necessary from the divine perspective. On the contrary, it is my tendency to believe that the church is now defined by its proclamation of the Gospel, primarily, but also be its willingness to radically obey the teachings of Christ, including living a life of peace, insofar as we are able. This is all still theory for me, since I haven't got the whole picture worked out.

    I don't want to chase this incomplete rabbit anymore, but you probably are getting the gist of what I'm thinking on this matter.

    As far as your reading of Psalm 137, I don't discount your interpretation completely. Honestly, when I was going to play the devil's advocate with Josh, I almost gave a version of the interpretation you offered, but it was simply too much for me to get myself into, since you seem to admit you have a mess on your hands, now. The idea that God is "the one" had certainly occurred to me, though I know it is not the conventional or popular reading of this verse. My reading wouldn't create nearly as many problems for me as your overall hermeneutic creates for you with this verse, though. Maybe Josh has some thoughts on the idea that God Himself is the one who dashes the little ones on the rocks.


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