Often when folks critize the Bible or the Christian faith they will point to the violence found in the Old Testament. Christians read those same passages and become uneasy. Jesus spoke about love and being peace makers but when you read the Old Testament you see the Hebrews waging war and sometimes wiping out entire cities (and this means more than soliders were dying). Last blog I talked about our struggle with war and violence and I realize that the church is not in the same situation as the Hebrews and we live under the New Covenant. Yet some folks read these passages found in books like Joshua and Judges and other places and have many questions. How are we to understand these passages?
In the OT there are many wars and the text states that God commanded or assisted in many of them (Exodus 17, Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20, Johsua, Judges, etc). Sometimes God forbides war but often the people of God (Hebrews) are fighting on the side of God. Even Ecclesiastes talks about a time for war (3). In the NT we find Jesus and Paul speaking out against violence (Matthew 5, Luke 6, Matthew 26, Romans 12). Tertullian (early Christian thinker) would talk about how God once allowed war but then forbade it and he called for Christians to not serve in the military. Paul does talk about how leaders punish by the sword (Romans 13:1-4). In my last blog I talked about how many Christians struggle over military service, war, violence, etc.
Some time back I read a book “Show Them No Mercy” by C.S. Cowles, Eugene H. Merrill, Daniel L. Gard, and Dr. Tremper Longman III that deals with these very questions. I’ll do my best to sum up the four views found in this work but I encourage you to read this book for yourself. “Show Them No Mercy” is one of those books that has multiple views presented so that the reader can see various opinons about particular contoversial issues. I personally love that approach and there are many various books that do this on a huge range of issues. The basic issue in this book is how do we relate the peace we are called to by Jesus with the violence of the OT together? Is the Bible inconsistent? Does Jesus call us to peace while in the OT God approves of war? Let me list the four views the book covers.
*Radical Discontinuity. In this view all texts are true but says that today we are to live under the criteria of Jesus and the NT is the covenant we now live under. We can learn from the OT but we must live with the tension between the OT and NT and not focus on it so much. We are now in a new age (NT). Some say this view doesn’t deal with the OT and seems to devalue the OT and puts the OT and NT up against one another.
*Moderate Discontinuity. This view doesn’t separate the OT and NT. God is the same in both OT and NT. The violence of the OT was unique to the time, place, and circumstances. It is not to be carried on in the church age (no more holy wars).. This view tries to understand the violence more as a result of sin, protection of Israel, and necessary for Israel’s survival. This view says the violence was necessary, showed God was sovereign, part of the salvation strategy, and also showed the glory and power of God.
*Eschatological Continuity. This view sees the OT wars as a typology that points to end times (eschatology) concerns. This views points to a eschatological reality. Those who hold to this focus on that and do not try and explain the violence found in the OT. The holy war shifts from the literal to a future war between God and evil. The OT was physical warfare while the NT is spiritual warfare.
*Spiritual Continuity. Holy War talked about HEREM (giving over the conquered items and people to God). They were banned and destroyed. This view moves the OT physical violence to a spiritual one we wage today.
If you want to explore texts in the OT and NT that deal with this tension then here are some to check out.
OT: Duet 7:1-2, 20:16-17, 20:16-18, 32:39, Joshua 6:21, 8:24-26, 10:28, 40, 11:1, 20-21
NT: Matthew 5:43-44, 5:45-48, Luke 6:27-36, 9:51-56
So what are we to do? When the Hebrews went into the land to claim it as God gave it to them there were many wars fought and people died. The ancient world in the OT was a violent place. Yet when we come into the NT we find Jesus calling us to be peacemakers and rather than a political kingdom Jesus has come to bring something new and better. There are many ways to wrestle with these issues. You’ll have to wrestle with them and do some prayer and research. Still I would hope that most Christians would not want to go on ‘holy wars.’ The progresson in the Bible shows a movement to the coming of Christ and in that coming something better has come. I’m not pitting the OT and NT against one another. I love both. Early Gnostics would talk about the God of the OT and the God of the NT and have great distaste for the OT God. I totally disagree with that. I believe God was working with a fallen world then and now. God was at work shaping and forming and helping a people come together from which the solution to the fallen world would come, Jesus Christ. With the coming of Christ the stage is set as God continues to work to bring about something even better that will be fulfilled one day when Christ returns. Until that day we will struggle, questions, and wrestle but we can know that God is love and God desires for us to seek the way of love in this age.
The issues I raised in the last blog should make us squirm a bit as we try and figure out how we will live in this world and yet belong to another world.