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Sunday, March 31, 2013

What We Should And Should Not Learn From The Old Testament Wars

I am writing this post for two of the most important people in my life. The first person is my best friend who started me on my journey to the political left without ever discussing politics. She did this by the care and compassion she showed for others. My best friend struggles, however, with the concept of God's judgment. It seems cruel and unnecessary to her and many others.

The second person is one of my favorite and most trusted authors to read, Noam Chomsky. Please realize that Noam does not know me personally and could not, at no fault of his own, tell me from Adam. But his undying passion for fairness and compassion, especially seen in his teaching of the Principle of Universality, which we either adhere to or perish, demand that we address his sharp objections to the Old Testament wars and God's character (see page 14 of this link). His passion for fairness has changed many of my beliefs about economics and politics to more humane and Biblical positions.

My fear for these two important people in my life is that, for understandable reasons, they might disregard the Biblical stories of the wars in the Old Testament as something that is very depraved. This is an understandable position since if the world had used the Old Testament wars as a basis for justice at Nuremberg, it is most likely that the Nazis would have never stood trial for their horrible atrocities.

At the same time, this post could be written for many of my conservative friends who use the Old Testament wars to challenge my peace activism. I'm afraid that they too might have learned some wrong lessons from these wars. The danger for them is not the discrediting of the Bible because of war but the stigmatizing of peace and compassion because of certain parts of the Bible as well as an idolatrous regard for tribalism. When my conservative friends stumble here, they join or support the world in its gang wars.

Is there any good that could come from the Old Testament wars? Certainly not if all time is the same and there is no special intervention of God in history. This is why liberals, who see no supernatural and reduce all reality to the natural and who are concerned with absolute values, morals, and compassion, have no use for these wars. This is understandable. Under such a world, the Israelites had no justification for their brutal attempts to ethnically cleanse the land and maintain possession of it.

So why were the Israelites allowed not just to invade Canaan, but to kill those whom we would call innocent civilians? The incomplete answer is to say God told them to. Though this is true, according to the Bible, we need more information. We need to know why God told them to do this. We need to know this because even though what we will learn may not change the minds who find these wars abhorrent, what we learn change those who support the Old Testament wars so that they will not use these wars to support today's barbarity.

The Old Testament wars had a redemptive-historical purpose back in the day. That purpose was to establish God's people in the land God promised to Abraham so that Israel could eventually do its part in bringing Christ into the world. Imitating Israel's actions in Canaan could only be done by those who are coldheartedly arrogant, such as the Puritans who thought America was their Canaan. God was giving the Israelites the land as a partial restoration of the Garden of Eden, as an earthly Heaven. The abundance of both food and commands indicate this while God's dwelling with them confirms it. Many instructions were spelled out in detail and keeping them was the condition for God's people to dwell in the land, to stay in the Garden.

We should note here that there were differences between the Garden and Canaan. There was only one command in the Garden, there are many commands given to the Israelites. There were no animal sacrifices in the Garden in contrast to the sacrifices in Israel. And God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve, God's presence in Israel was veiled and He spoke to the people through Moses. These differences are because while Adam started his residence in the Garden as a sinless man, each Israelite was full of sin (Deuteronomy 9:4-5) and sinners need laws. So just as the Garden of Eden was a land of plenty given to Adam and Eve, the land of Canaan was to be a place of plenty (Deuteronomy 8:7-10) and peace for the children of Abraham (Deuteronomy 12: 8 - 11).

So if  God's purpose with Israel was good, why were the Israelites allowed to ethnically cleanse the land rather than share their spiritual bounty with the indigenous population? It was because God was using the Israelites to judge the people in Canaan for their sins (Deuteronomy 9: 3-6). The expulsion of the Canaanites could be seen as somewhat similar to Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden. Only here, the instruments of God's judgment, the children of Abraham, are also guilty and are thus warned not to forget their past with God.

It is in the expulsion of the residents of Canaan, as well as the expulsion from the Garden, that we the immediate purpose for judgment. That purpose is the removal of sin. We see in the Scriptures that God cannot dwell with sin. That is no town is big enough for both God and sin. And since God was giving the land to the Israelites in order to fulfill His promise to Abraham and to dwell with the people, sin had to go.

And as hard as that judgment was for those nations, it became even more a salvation for God's people. This is a theme that is so often repeated throughout the Bible. God's judgment on sin brings salvation to His people. In the Old Testament times, the sins being judged were often the sins of the nations that were either in the promised land before Israel or the nations that surrounded it. But Israel was not excluded from judgment either. When they persisted in sin, they too were expelled from the land.

So since Israel was God's instrument of judgment on some of the nations in the Old Testament, should Christians eagerly volunteer to become instruments of judgment today? Or, in other words, should Christians be eager to fight their own holy wars? The answer is no and the reason can be derived from the Bible. For just as we see God's self-revelation become full as we reach the New Testament, so we see a clearer picture of who are God's enemies at the same time. That is as we see God having fully revealed Himself in Christ, so we see the sin that merits God's immediate judgment was the sin of all of us. Only instead of everyone being judged for their own sins, Christ bore the judgment for those who believe in Him. So again, we see how God's judgment brings salvation to His people by removing sin. Only in the New Testament, instead of people bearing the punishment for their own sins, the innocent Christ suffers suffers instead and the people are saved as their sins are removed.

In this New Testament change of scenery, we see the children of Abraham and the promises but with two changes. First, the children of Abraham are now identified as those who share Abraham's faith that God would fulfill His promises regardless of one's own impotence (Galations 3: 6 - 9). The second change is that we are not given a land to possess as part of a restoration of the Garden and a glimpse of Heaven. Rather, we are told to engage in a purpose-driven wandering throughout the world. We are told to go to every part of the world to make disciples of Jesus. And thus, because of this second difference, we have no home on earth (Hebrews 13:14). So we have no right to assume that we can bring God's judgment on the heathen through war and removal. Rather, we war against sin by preaching the Gospel knowing that if God was to treat everybody according to their sins, none of us could stand. We come to help the unbelievers as equals in sin telling them how they can be rescued.

It is the overlooking of the necessity of this redemptive-historical nature of God's past judgment on sins that is the major problem for all three parties who were addressed above. For my best friend, the removal of sin is necessary for our dwelling with God and for Heaven to be any different from a war torn earth. Again, if we go back to Deuteronomy 9, we see that if the Israelites do not completely remove the sinful nations God was judging, then Israel's venture into their version of the Garden of Eden would bring no change to the land. Likewise in the last days, if sin is not removed through the completed salvation of the believer and the Final Judgment, then Heaven would be nothing more than an eternal version of our current earth. It would be place with eternal suffering.

For Noam Chomsky, whom I consider to be a mentor through his writings, though challenging God's authority should bring more warnings than what the Surgeon General could ever write, that does not imply that we give those in authority a free pass. Rather, we must follow Chomsky's lead in challenging those who would abuse others regardless of their rank. But we must also realize that the wars during the Old Testament wars were never meant to provide a general rule for war. Those wars had a specific, non-repeatable purpose and so we do not need to reject God's Word here because of the brutality of those wars. In addition, we need to recognize God's right to judge his creation simply because the difference between God the creator from his creation. For it is through God's judgment that we are delivered from sin some of which includes oppressing and hurting others. Despite his objections to the violence in the Bible, all Christians should read what he wrote about the transition of Christianity during Constantine's time (access article). This might help reduce the idolatrous tribalism that many American Conservative Christians currently cling to.

And for the American Conservative Christian whose pedestal for patriotism makes it an idol, as was written for Chomsky, the Old Testament wars had a unique time, place, and purpose. Thus to use those wars as a justification for patriotically supporting America's wars is to ignore God's plan of redemption in order to some self-serving form of Constantinian Christianity. Here, American Conservative Christians need to see how such a Christianity runs completely counter to the progressive of revelation that is in the Bible. These Christians put themselves in a position of having to compromise the Gospel for the sake of American Exceptionalism. Such Christians must remember that America is not their home, Heaven is. And they must remember that all Christians are called to live for the Gospel rather than the American Dream.

We could sum up the problem people have with rejecting or misusing the Old Testament wars as misunderstanding the context of these wars. These wars had a unique role to play in Biblical history. In addition, we need to see the full context of God's judgment of people. It is there to remove sin, which is a cancer that kills all of us, and thus bring salvation to His people.

4 comments:

Andrew Barshinger said...

Curt, I applaud the way you put the OT wars into context!
I agree that the OT "herem" warfare - i.e. the Cannanite conquest that included genocide - is very much a specific redemptive historical situation that does not apply to state policy today. I also appreciate how you trace the theme of judgment - it is different and more complete in the new covenant.

One gripe and a question. First, I don't think the swipe at the Puritans was completely fair. Not all of them saw America as the new Israel at least in an (admittedly anachronisticly) post-millenial sense. If anything, their Israel language was more often applying the promises of the OT Israel to the church in a typological fashion. This does not of course exonerate Puritans carte blanche.

Second, I follow your point on herem warfare, but you did not mention some of the other sanctioned warfare in the OT. Say for instance Deut. 20. Do you see any difference between the conquest of Cannaan and the warfare fought by Israelite Kings?

Curt Day said...

Young Andrew,
I was going to address this to the future first protestant pope but I didn't want to get you in trouble as seminary.

First, thank you for the kind words. I appreciate it. But also, if you could show this around to a WTS professor or two so I can get their input, I appreciate it.

Second, certainly not all of the Puritans are guilty of the ethnic cleansing of America's Indigenous people in New England. But it was the Puritans who ethnically cleansed the land in New England and did so claiming the new Canaan for themselves. And we must remember this and deal with this sad part of history. To pull a Howard Zinn on you, we need to examine this time in history not just from the Puritans' point of view, but from the Indians' point of view as well.

As for your last point, I did not compare the wars to conquer Canaan with the wars fought by the Israelite Kings. If there was ethnic cleansing commanded in the latter, then we could trace the same redemptive-historical grounds for those command as we could in the conquering of Canaan for the same reason. Right now, regarding the wars fought by the Israelite Kings, all I can do is to quote Hillary Clinton in saying:

"I do not recall"

C. Andiron said...

You are just a libtarded, brainwashed leftist flunky.

Please stop calling yourself a fundamentalist. That is an insult to people like Machen and Warfield.

Can you name a single, conservative Christian theologian (such as MacArthur, Sproul, etc.) who thinks the OT wars give the US in particular the right to wage war as frivolously as the Islamists wage theirs?

Are you going to invoke Rushdoony? How many followers does he have nowadays? If you are, don't you see it's dishonest to do that without referencing the exegetical arguments on both sides?

Why bring Chomsky into it? I'm grateful for his work on context free grammars, and lex and yacc and all that sort of thing, but when he talks out of his field, he's an ignoramus.

All you seem to be doing is knocking down a straw man for the sake of tarring conservatives with a broad brush. Very dishonest.

Curt Day said...

To C. Andiron,
Why be so subtle? Tell me what you really think.

Fundamentalism is not defined by certain people but by the tenets which one believes. Tenets such as the inerrancy of the original autographs of the Scriptures, the literal virgin birth, physical resurrection, and 2nd coming of Christ as well as his substitutionary death for the sins of those who believe in him are the historical tenets of Christian fundamentalism. See what Machen says on this if you would like.

Should hasten to add that if you read Frame on War, though he is not specific, his comments on avoiding or not avoiding civilian deaths in war borrow from the OT wars. In addition, our Dispensationalists brothers would be most likely to make the connection between the OT wars and our wars in the Middle East. And the puritans made the connection between the OT wars and their wars with the Indians. So I think you missed a point or two.

Finally, realize that being a Christian fundamentalist implies nothing regarding one's political views. Plus, Chomsky would never agree with my views of the OT. But he knows alot about the world around us.