Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Christian jihad or what sort of God killed the Canaanites?

So here’s the question? If your neighbours were and I quote from Deuteronomy 12, about to “burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods”, what would you do? Stand by and do nothing? Or take action?

That’s the cold, hard edge of reality being explored in the Old Testament. Consistent appalling behaviour. Do you let it continue? Or should you act forcibly to stop it? It’s not a part of Christianity that we like to talk about much. But it’s in the Bible and raises the question: what sort of God kills the Canaanites?

I’ve just finished reading a short little book by Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament, which provides a fascinating answer.

She notes the usual Christian response – that God either changes from the Old Testament to the New Testament, or that human understandings of God evolve. The trouble with such an answer is that the God the Warrior is still present in Revelation, as the Bible ends.

So, asks Barrett, how on earth to worship someone who is called both Prince of Peace and God the Warrior? Her answer is Jihad. Carefully framed – that God the Warrior does act in response to injustice. However the emphasis is always on God acting, rather than human acting.

She urges us to be honest about all the Bible. It is often imagined that Israel arriving in Canaan and killed everyone, when in reality, other nations lived on for centuries (see Judges 1:27-36). Equally, in Joshua and Judges, a variety of stories of conquest are present: some see only God winning, some see Israel mopping up, others see Israel actively fighting.

She notes the counter-cultural nature of many of Israel’s actions. At times, Israel deliberately uses “weapons” of peace. One example is the crossing of the Jordan, which draws on war language and war images, yet the people carried no weapons. At other times, Israel refused new war technologies (Joshua destroys the chariots and horses of other countries in Joshua 11:15).

What is interesting is when Barrett places the actions of Israel within their wider cultural context. She notes the use of the “ban” in Ancient Near Eastern cultures. This involved the killing all the soldiers, including the families, of those defeated in war. “The practice seems cruel to us, but it was a way of making sure that soldiers on the winning side did not become rich by taking the possessions of the enemy, or by taking the enemy as slaves. So God was able to use for some good even one of the bloodiest practices of warfare in the ancient Near East.” (25 -26). In other words, killing people immediately was the most humane option available!

She points out that Jihad is based on actions, not on birthright. Thus in the exile Israel, as God’s people experience “holy war” as consequences for their actions. “Any people who did not trust in God would find that God the Warrior sometimes fought against him.” (48). So Jihad is for justice, and is never an excuse for a dominant group to exercise moral cleansing.

It’s a fascinating little book. What do you think? What would you have done if you were Israel and had come across child sacrifice? What approach do you suggest Christians take to the Bible image of God the warrior?

For more: Here’s a sermon I preached on this topic – of the Canaanites in the Old Testament – last year. What I said was heavily shaped by Chris Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God.

Posted by steve at 06:40 PM


  1. What an interesting discussion piece.

    I immediately thought of the radical extremists in USA who kill abortion doctors. Is what they do valid? Is it evil? How is it different from those that sacrificed children to Molech?

    Scary, unsettling questions if we want to take the text seriously.

    Comment by Mark — June 30, 2009 @ 3:18 am

  2. Thanks Mark. I have not made the link to those who kill abortion doctors, but it’s a chilling contemporisation. If we’re talking US, there’s also the death penalty.

    In other words, the choice of “killing” is not just an OT one. It’s easy for us today to throw up our hands in horror at the “God of the Old Testament” and forget that killing is a very real option being pursued by many nations today.


    Comment by steve — June 30, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

  3. Steve, [cross posting from Glocal Christianity] this sounds very similar to the interpretation of John Howard Yoder, an Anabaptist theologian, ethicist and pacifist whom I greatly admire.

    Similar to Barrett, Yoder draws attention to the “God will fight for us” sayings of the Old Testament, acknowledging the God as Warrior motif inherent within them, but highlighting how they place the emphasis on God acting, rather than humans acting. The implication being, it is unfaithful for the anointed ones of God to move ahead of God and take war into their own hands.

    So, when we come to the comparisons some draw between contemporary abortion and ancient child sacrifices to Molech, when we contemplate possible links between holy war and the abortionist assassinations, I think there is a question we need to contemplate very seriously: does vigilantism equate to taking things into your own hands?

    I am very much inclined to say yes, vigilantism is unfaithful.

    But could a prophet order it? In theory I suppose so, but this would be to ignore a very important thing. Yoder sees the crucifixion-resurrection as the climax to the holy wars of the God of the Israelites. In Jesus we see a king who epitomizes faithfulness; trusting God to the death rather than making war. So who are we to make war on abortionists? Can we think of a greater prophet than Jesus?

    If we take this line of thinking to its conclusion, I think we are left with this: it may be a capital crime in God’s sight, but that’s for God to judge, not us.

    Comment by Matt Stone — July 2, 2009 @ 1:54 am

  4. Matt,

    I agree with much of what you say and thanks for stopping by.

    The thing that is currently sticking in my shoe is despite the apparent neatness of the anabaptist peacenik reading of the cross/resurrection, Jesus is imagined as Divine Warrior in the book of Revelation. What to do with that Christology?


    Comment by steve — July 2, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

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