In the rough and tumble of world of online polemics against Christians, it is common for our detractors to object that our Faith is fatally simplistic and essentially violent. Many say that religion is the cause of all the wars that were ever fought (possibly forgetting that the greatest blood-lettings in the twentieth century, World Wars One and Two, were not fought over religion and that the death camps and gulags in which many perished were run by those opposed to religious faith). The Christian religion is said to be especially prone to violence. Here the example of the Crusades is invoked, though the last Crusade was fought almost a thousand years ago (in 1272). As an example of the violence inherent in religion, many cite the example of Joshua.
Admittedly when one reads the Biblical Book of Joshua one finds plenty of violence. It opens with Israel gathered to invade the land of Canaan by God’s direct order, and with His promise to their leader Joshua that “no man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Be strong and of good courage, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them” (Josh. 1:5-6). Israel then invades the land of Canaan with the goal of conquering it and taking it over through holy war, in which entire populations are put to the sword as a manifestation of the judgment of God. The first city to fall is Jericho, concerning which it is recorded, “They utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Josh. 6:21). It should be noted that in Joshua’s campaign in Canaan, not all met this fate. The inhabitants of nearby Gibeon made a covenant with Israel and accordingly were spared, as were the prostitute from Jericho along with all her family, since she aided the Israelite spies. But there is no denying that the Conquest of Canaan (as the books call the wars of Joshua) involved tremendous slaughter and what we would today term genocide.
Thoughtful Christians have long struggled with this. No less a thinker and theologian than Metropolitan George Khodr of the Patriarchate of Antioch and bishop of the diocese of Mount Lebanon has written about the evils of war. In an article entitled, “Exorcising War”, printed in the Sourozh magazine of the Russian Patriarchal diocese of that name in Britain, Metropolitan George writes that in the Book of Joshua “It is God Himself who is portrayed as carrying out a ‘scorched earth’ policy…the Lord Himself who reflects the thirst for an all too human conquest on the part of a confederation of Semitic tribes….There is no possible transition from the god of Joshua to the Father of Jesus Christ. The power of ancient Israel cannot prepare the way for the power of God on the Cross.”
For the Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon (a thoughtful and justly-famous advocate for peace in an area desperately in need of his witness), the Old Testament Book of Joshua simply misrepresents God. The Metropolitan is of course aware of the patristic tradition that interprets the acts of such “a blood-thirsty God” simply as typologies and prophetic symbols of Christ, with the war against the Canaanites being simply a symbol for our spiritual warfare against the demons. But he suggests that “such exegesis can obscure the historic meaning of the Scriptures”. In other words, he is too thoughtful and honest a scholar to take such an easy way out. He prefers what he calls “a kenotic reading of the Scriptures”, one which acknowledges the imperfections of the historical text and “the subjectivity of the author”. Bluntly put, he admits and asserts that these Old Testament passages do indeed misrepresent God and give us not God’s Word so much as the “all too human” views, prejudices, and agendas of an ancient confederation of Semitic tribes. That is certainly one approach to the ancient text. But there are two problems with it.
One is that in the debate with our detractors who aver that Christianity is inherently violent because its Bible is inherently violent, we are simply giving up and agreeing with them that, well, yes, our Bible is morally repugnant in many places. This is problematic because it leaves us with no snappy comeback when they make their next move, which is to reject the religion which reverences this Bible. If Christ and His apostles believed in the Bible (which they clearly did; read Mt. 5:17-19), then how can they or their followers retain any credibility? One can see our detractors’ point: if the Bible is as all-too-human as all that, how can the religion based on it claim to be divine?
Some try to wiggle out of the impasse by drawing a thick line between the Old Testament and the New, by sharply differentiating between the blood-thirsty God of the Law and the loving and sweet God of the Gospel—that is, by more or less dumping Judaism to save Christianity. It is certainly easy enough to do: the God of the Old Testament is the God who sends His Israel to war, who commands them to stone the adulterer, who commands them to execute one who gathers sticks of the Sabbath. The God of the New Testament is the God who tells us to love our neighbour, to turn the other cheek, and to forgive our enemies. The Old Testament is thus morally inferior to the New, and can be written off when it becomes embarrassing. It is indeed easy enough to do, (though perhaps this approach will present something of an ecumenical problem when next we meet with our Jewish friends in Jewish-Christian dialogue). But this serene rejection of much of the Old Testament presents another problem as well.
Basically, the approach that pits the bad Old Testament against the good New Testament and sharply differentiates between the blood-thirsty Yahweh and the loving Father of Jesus Christ has been tried before—and rejected. Its historical name is “Marcionism”, after a chap in the second century who said that the Old Testament God was in fact not the Father of Jesus Christ, but an inferior deity. The Church of that time gave him a hearing and then soundly rejected his approach. That is why the Creed opens with the counter-blast, “I believe in one God, creator of heaven and earth”—i.e. in the God of the Old Testament. In saying that the God whom we worship is the Creator, we affirm that He is the God revealed in the Old Testament, the God of Israel.
Admittedly the new Marcionism we have been discussing above does not go quite as far as the classic Marcionism. This new Marcionism (a kind of “Marcion lite”) would agree that the God of the Old Testament is the Father of Jesus Christ. But it can only do this because it divides the Old Testament Scriptures into various bits (as modern secular scholarship has long taught us to do), rejecting the bad bits we don’t like while retaining the good bits we prefer. Thus we are not so much scrapping the God of the Old Testament as scrapping sections (large sections) of His Scriptures. So, when the Old Testament says that God created the world, this is the Word of God. When it says that God called Abraham out of Ur into Canaan, this is the Word of God. But when it says that God commanded Joshua to conquer Canaan, this is not the Word of God, but rather simply a story by the men of that day, presenting a view we now condemn as morally repugnant. How then can we decide which bits are the bad ones and which are the good ones? Some would answer: by the bits which resemble the Gospel. Even here, though, let’s be honest. What we really mean is: by the bits our culture teaches us to like, and which we therefore identify with the Gospel. But however we struggle with our hermeneutic, there is another problem with this approach to the Old Testament.
Namely, that the Church’s historic Faith, rooted as it is in the words of Christ and His apostles, gives us no leave to divide the Scriptures of either Testament into the bits we can retain and the bits we can reject. When Christ spoke about the Law and the Prophets as being more durable than heaven and earth (in Mt. 5:17-19), He was speaking about the Old Testament. Does anyone really think that the Lord or any of His first-century compatriots would countenance jettisoning large chunks of the Law and the Prophets like this? The New Testament and the Fathers, down to the last man, confessed the entire Scriptures to be divine. We may not so easily carve it up like this and sit lightly on the parts that embarrass us as if somehow they were not really Scripture.
So then, what to do with these parts? I do agree with the Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon that simply labeling them “typology” as if this solved everything will not do. But I think the path forward lies not in rejecting them as somehow less than Scripture, but in refining our view of what Scripture actually is.
Scripture is not the timeless record of God’s unchanging will, not a revelation of God’s first and last word on every subject. That is how the Qur’an views Scripture, but not how we view it. Our Christian approach is more paedological. That is, it records how God worked with His people throughout the centuries to lead them, as children, from immaturity to maturity, but infancy, through childhood, to adulthood. Thus St. Paul writes that before Christ came, Israel was confined under the Law, so that the Law was Israel’s custodian, taking care of them like a tutor cares for a young child (Gal. 3:23-4:3). The Law with its provisions was never meant to be God’s final word to His people. It was a stage through which they had to pass on their way to mature adulthood in Christ. It suited them then and was necessary for their development at the stage they were once at, but it was never meant to be the goal of their national life. That goal, that end (Greek telos) was Christ (Rom. 10:4).
The Law with its provisions was given to Israel as it became a nation after the Exodus at the foot of Mount Sinai. We say this and affirm that Israel was God’s nation, but often do not stop to reflect on what this nationhood necessarily involved. In a word, it involved Israel beginning its national existence with military combat, fighting for its existence and for a place to live in the same way and using the same methods that everyone else used at that time. That is where all the hard parts of the Book of Joshua come in. We shrink from such stories now, because newscasts tell us of genocide and other horrors, and it is through this prism that we read the ancient narrative. But if Israel was to survive as a nation, there was no other way. All Canaan was occupied—and occupied by peoples bigger, stronger, better-armed, and crueler than they. (Yes, crueler, practicing sacred prostitution and child sacrifice.) Peaceful co-existence is rightly valued now, but was not on anyone’s agenda back then. The options available to Israel as an infant nation entering Canaan the way they did, were either to conquer to retain national integrity, or to be assimilated to the other nations, or be annihilated by them. There was ultimately no other happy option, and the provisions of the Law presuppose their existence in this hard and cruel world. Those laws—with commands to conquer, and kill, and to build altars and sacrifice animals, to circumcise the young, to keep certain food laws—were not the final goal of the nation’s existence. Christ was the final goal. The Old Testament is the divine record of how God worked with His people until Christ came. The God of Joshua did transition to the Father of Jesus Christ. Israel did prepare the way for the divine power of the Cross. The Old Testament, with all its hard parts, was part of that preparation.