The second position put forth in Show Them No Mercy is from Eugene H. Merrill, professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. Merrill uses the term “Yahweh war” when speaking of the Canaanite conquests. “God initiated the process by singling out those destined to destruction, empowering an agent (usually his chosen people Israel) to accomplish it, and guaranteeing its successful conclusion once the proper conditions were met.” (65)
Merrill takes us through the relevant Old Testament passages that describe these battles. He distinguishes between regular battles and those that display the “undeniable traits” of genocide. He then seeks to reexamine the accounts from the standpoint of Christian theology and ethics.
Merrill frames the conquests within the story of God’s choice of a people through whom to bless the world and bring salvation. Seen in this light, Yahweh war is not so much about eliminating the foreign gods from the land, but about elevating Yahweh as the true God in the eyes of his own special people (80).
According to Merrill, the wars described in the Old Testament must be seen through the prism of holiness – both the holiness of God himself and the holiness of his chosen people, Israel. The battles are intended to protect the holiness of Israel (81) and showcase the utter holiness of God. Radical destruction of the enemy is necessary because God’s reputation and sovereignty is at stake. Israel becomes the divine instrument of God’s judgment in the Old Testament, but no Christian can excuse or condone such warfare today (85).
Merrill concludes his chapter by evaluating the New Testament scenes of apocalyptic judgment. Though he argues for “moderate discontinuity” between the Testaments (due to his Dispensationalist viewpoint), Merrill admits that the scenes of Yahweh war reappear in the final book of the New Testament. Therefore, “Yahweh war… is descriptive of the ages-old struggle between the sovereign God of Israel and the church on the one hand, and the devil and his demonic and human hosts on the other” (91).
Furthermore, “the issue… cannot be whether or not genocide is intrinsically good or evil – its sanction by a holy God settles that question. Rather, the issue has to do with the purpose of genocide, its initiator, and the particular circumstances of its application” (93).
The next proposal is from Daniel Gard, associate professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. Gard makes the case for what he calls “eschatological continuity.” This approach describes the genocide of the Old Testament as a type of an eschatological event that will find ultimate fulfillment in the future (115).
Gard spends a good deal of time defining herem – the practice of “the ban” in which all spoils must be devoted to Yahweh and all life must be destroyed (116). He seeks to demonstrate from the biblical accounts that defeat in war is a mark of “divine retribution.”
Pointing out the times that Israel is defeated because of the decree of their own God, Gard reminds readers that it is God (and not human armies) who determines the final outcome of an earthly conflict. The Old Testament reveals God turning against his own people, although he promised to preserve a remnant (123).
Instead of seeing discontinuity between the Testaments, Gard argues for an eschatological framework for the Old Testament. In Chronicles, for example, he sees Saul, David, and Solomon as representatives of judgment, restoration and final redemption (130). David, as the warrior king, is a type of Christ, the Warrior who will be the leader of the final, eschatological battle. Christians today exist in a Davidic Age, in which the battle against the Evil One still rages. Yet, we anticipate the new Solomonic era, in which peace will be forever established. However, before this peace can take effect, God will impose the herem ban upon the entire earth and destroy this present world (135).
Throughout his chapter, Gard continually turns to eschatology in order to make his case regarding the continuity between the holy-war texts and the New Testament. “The God who commanded and, at times, personally executed herem against the enemies of Israel is the same God who will execute judgment and destruction at the end of time” (135-6).
In the present age, the church has no authority to fight for God, since we have no territorial or political boundaries. However, Gard argues that those who attack the church attack the Lord himself, and the enemies of the church will be destroyed by the Lord at the end of the age (138).
In explaining how this view of God is compatible with the example of Jesus, Gard appeals to mystery. “If there is a problem in understanding God’s commands and actions, the problem resides not in him but in human limitations.”
Furthermore, he writes: “A more pertinent question than why God commanded such brutal practices as the extermination of the Canaanites is why he did not command the destruction of the entire human race in time and history” (140). Ultimately, the answer for such questioning is found in Jesus, who is both the Lamb of God who lays down his life for sinners and the Judge who will return to fight for his people.
The final position in Show Them No Mercy is set forth by Tremper Longman III, professor of Old Testament at Westmont College. Longman gets to the heart of the issue: How are we to read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament?
By taking readers through the different battles recounted in the Old Testament, Longman points out the overarching principle that God is present with the army in battle. He makes the case that herem warfare is worship.
Before the warfare began, the people of God were to seek the will of God, prepare themselves spiritually, make sacrifices, and keep the ark of the covenant (the mobile symbol of God’s presence) (164-7). During the battle, the march with the ark resembles a religious procession. The warfare strategy clearly relies on God’s involvement in the battle as what ultimately determines victory or defeat. After the battle, the army was to march back and return the ark to its place in the sanctuary. Likewise, there was celebration with music and dancing as all the enemies were utterly destroyed and their spoils devoted to the Lord. (172).
What about the innocent women and children who were slaughtered? Longman does not mince words:
“We must point out that the Bible does not understand the destruction of the men, women, and children of these cities as a slaughter of innocents. Not even the children are considered innocent. They are all part of an inherently wicked culture that, if allowed, to live, would morally and theologically pollute the people of Israel” (174).
How does Longman make the case for spiritual continuity between the Testaments? He argues that there are four phases of holy war in the Bible.
First, God fights the flesh-and-blood enemies of Israel.
Second, God fights Israel when they disobeyed his command.
Third, the Bible prophesies that God will come in the future as a warrior.
Fourth, Jesus Christ fights the spiritual powers and authorities.
The fifth phase is the final battle in which Jesus will come again as warrior and king (175-83).
Longman believes that this spiritual continuity is easily observed once we recognize that “the war against the Canaanites was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to its climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgment. The object of warfare moves from the Canaanites, who are the object of God’s wrath for their sin, to the spiritual powers and principalities, and then finally to the utter destruction of all evil, human and spiritual” (185). The Canaanite judgment serves as a preview of the final judgment.
Tomorrow, I will offer some thoughts on these proposals.
written by Trevin Wax © 2009 Kingdom People blog