The Wars of the Lord 6

Someone responded to the last post with, “OK, so now what?  How do we read these texts in light of some of this stuff?”

Let’s try to get to that in this post.  I think this is our last one on the subject.  (For now!)

First a bit of review.

Moral Dilemma

One major opposition to these texts is the moral one.  It just seems wrong to kill a lot of people, particularly women and children.

If the Nazis had won World Word II, and were the ones who wrote history and textbooks and set the ideology – even if all this had happened, we would say that “Nazi anti-Semitism was morally wrong.”  William Lane Craig says as much in his defense of moral objectivism.  He says that it was wrong “even though the Nazis who carried out the holocaust thought that it was good; and it would still be wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.”

What does this have to do with the texts in Joshua and elsewhere?  Stark says, “In the same way, I have argued that the genocides perpetrated by the ancient Israelites were morally wrong, even though the Israelites who carried out the genocides thought that they were good; and they are still wrong even though the Israelites produced scriptures that succeeded in brainwashing objective moralists who would otherwise disagree with them.”


A second major challenge is the historical one.

“The archaeological evidence contradicts the claims of many of the conquest stories.  Some of the claims made in these stories are also contradicted elsewhere in the Bible itself.”

Big relief, right?

“But the fact that some, if not many, of these genocides never took place should not bring too much relief to those of us who find ourselves wishing they never happened.  We are still at the very least left with the fact that some of the authors of our scriptures thought it reasonable to attribute such atrocities to God.  Moreover, the archaeological record suggests that some such battles did occur…”

He concludes:

“My contention is that God never did command the Israelites to slaughter entire peoples wholesale.  These accounts reflect a standard imperialistic ideology that Israel shared with many of its ancient neighbors, and I read them as products of ancient culture, not as products of pure divine revelation.  Therefore, my claim is not that I know better than God, but that, by God’s design, we all know better than those who wrongly killed women and children in God’s name.”

cut and paste?

The question raised to our previous post still remains – OK, so now what?  These texts are in our Bible, so do we throw them out, á la Marcion?  Do we just avoid them?

All good questions.

Into the Looking Glass

The final chapter of Stark’s book is entitled: “Into the Looking Glass:  What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong”.  He notes, as we said earlier, that if we ignore or endorse these texts, we are liable to repeat or endorse such actions today.  He attempts to find a way in which ‘problematic texts’ can remain as “useful for teaching, for censure, for correction, and for training in the exercise of justice” (2 Tim 3:16).

“The question looms:  what are we to do with those texts we find ourselves wanting to condemn?  While the scriptures advocate monotheism, the dissolution of the sacrificial system, and the love of enemy; they also advocate a polytheistic tribalism, human sacrifice (!), and religiously motivated genocide, among other deplorable things.  What should our strategy for dealing with these damnable texts be?  Should we simply ignore them?  Should we excise them from our canon?”

What do you think?  Some of you are saying, “OK, OK, give us the answer!”

Here goes:

“The only honest answer to the question I have been able to come up with is this:  they must be retained as scripture, precisely as condemned texts.  Their status as condemned is exactly their scriptural value.  That they are condemned is what they reveal to us about God.  The texts themselves depict God as a genocidal dictator, as a craver of blood.  But we must condemn them in our engagement with them – sometimes with guidance from other passages of scripture, sometimes without.  That they stand as condemned is what they mean for us as scripture.”

Some of you are wondering exactly what this means or looks like.  He continues:

Peering within

“Why this?  Why not simply excise them from the canon?  Why not flatly ignore them?  The answer is that to do so is to hide from ourselves a potent reminder of the worst parts of ourselves.  Scripture is a mirror.  It mirrors humanity, because it is as much the product of human beings as it is the product of the divine.  When we peer into the looking glass and see the many faces of God, we see ourselves among them.  The mirror reflects our doubt and our mediocrity.  It mirrors our best and worst possible selves.  It shows us who we can be, both good and evil, and everything in between.  To cut the condemned texts out of the canon would be to shatter that mirror.  It would be to hide from ourselves our very own capacity to become what we most loathe.  It would be to lie to ourselves about what we are capable of.  It would be to doom ourselves to repeat history.”

And that’s a wrap.

Stark has more to say on this, but you’ll have to get the book to get the goods.  I am grateful that Thom has been very generous in letting me liberally excerpt from the book… and we have really only delved into one chapter of what is a great book.  If you’ve enjoyed these posts, he gets into many other challenging texts in the Bible, including David and Goliath and Jesus’ predictions of his second coming.  His opening and concluding chapters are alone worth the price of the book.  Again, you may not agree with all of his conclusions or approaches, but you’ll have to agree that he has done his homework.

That’s it for the post, but I want to repeat a couple responses to the prior post, because they are worth reading, and you may not have seen them.

Andy, a fellow pub theologian, noted the following:

“The power of myth is not in historicity but in their formative power for the present. Carlos Fuentes said that myth is “a past with a future, exercising itself in the present.” If these annihilation stories are formative myth (myth in Tolkien’s sense, not in fact/non-fact dualism), then they are meant to be formative and even instructive for our current behavior. Yet, I do not get the impression from the New Testament (or even later Old Testament and Intertestamental writings) that the annihilation stories are the central myths to Israel. I would count the call of Abraham (“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”), the Exodus (“the God who brought you out of Egypt”), and others. Rarely do I see the conquest narratives used in such a typological way.”

Very good.  It is helpful to focus on the broader narrative, the bigger picture of what God was doing, but also, what were the stories that sustained the people regarding what God was doing in their midst?  Certainly conquest narratives would give some encouragement, but these others he mentioned do seem more central, particularly as we get into the first century.

However, it is not enough to simply worry about how these stories were understood and used later on.  Their very origins are of crucial importance.

Thom Stark himself responded in this vein:

“Andy, the Book of Hebrews uses Joshua in a typological way, of course. But what is relevant is not how it was used later, necessarily, but how it was used at the time of its composition. Josiah was under pressure from the empires to the north and south; he had recently gained a modicum of independence from Assyria, and was looking to consolidate power as quickly as possible. The writer of the Deuteronomistic History said the same thing about Joshua as he did Josiah, that he “turned neither right nor left from the book of the law,” and Josiah and Joshua are the only two figures about whom this is said. Moreover, Josiah’s reforms were about eliminating the contagion of idol worship in Judea, which was really actually about centralizing religion within Jerusalem in order to destabilize local institutions of authority. This also secured a significant increase in revenue for the Jerusalem temple regime, since all the sacrifices were now to be made only at the temple, and no longer in every man his own backyard. But to institute these reforms, Josiah embarked upon a campaign that was extremely violent, slaughtering all the local cultic leaders (which are presented in the text as worshipers of false gods but were much more likely worshipers of local manifestations of Yahweh–at least some of them). Significantly, Josiah began his campaign in the same region that Joshua did (according to the narrative)–Jericho and Ai. Significantly, Jericho and Ai are both cities in the conquest narratives the destruction of which the archaeological record does not at all support. Go figure.”

Thanks all for your comments, thoughts, and feedback!  I look forward to the conversation continuing!


4 thoughts on “The Wars of the Lord 6

    1. Hi Vern-
      I think ‘condemned’ means, we don’t condone that kind of behavior any more. In other words, it is a negative example – something not to do. Another example is David raping Bathsheba – that’s in the Bible, and I have yet to hear a sermon condoning his abuse of power and sexual predation.

      Similarly, no one thinks that it’s OK to kill a people group – or any one person! – because “God told us to”. If that happens in our world today – we condemn it.


      1. Thanks Bryan,
        Yet, God never told David to rape Bathsheba. Does that really fit what Stark is saying?

        I understood Stark to say that there are parts of the Bible, which are simply human misgivings about God, thus labeled “condemned texts” not to be repeated. Are Israel’s good kings and good prophets deceivers, who justified their “evil” actions by saying, “God told me to…” to advance their own agendas. Stark wrote, “Josiah’s reforms were about eliminating the contagion of idol worship in Judea, which was really actually about centralizing religion within Jerusalem in order to destabilize local institutions of authority. This also secured a significant increase in revenue for the Jerusalem temple regime…” So Josiah’ s reforms were motivated by greed and power and not by his devotion to God? Really?

        Here’s my concern, who gets to decide what is considered a “condemned text”? And if there really are “condemned texts” in the Bible, (as I understand Stark) can we trust any words that claim to be the voice of God? Do we get to label what we don’t like as “condemned,” so that God fits into our ideas who He ought to be? Or are these hard stories in the Bible to reveal God’s true nature, sobering realities of His wrath against sin.

        Just some conservative ponderings from a friend!


  1. Whew, lots to digest. Getting the book & will tackle it after I finish my curriculum I am currently writing for fall Bible class that will introduce the importance of Hebraic culture/mindset/language to our church women. Although this 6-part discussion has certainly not been an easy read, it is important to see how the Text should shape our life in context of the original setting, and I like the conclusion Thom suggests. Gave me an appetite to read more from him. Bryan, thanks for sharing. Blessings, Gaynor


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