There is a peculiar and perhaps tortured but rather interesting view that the God of the Old Testament, far from being a violent and vengeful “war-proponent,” in seemingly inexplicable contrast to the peaceful Jesus of the New Testament, reluctantly accepted and used war for His own good ends, protecting His chosen people and the long-term Plan for salvation and a possibility for humans to exist with Him in eternity. This view seeks to reconcile the puzzle of wanton loss of life on both sides of the incessant conflicts that to us seem to have little purpose but to defend ourselves against unending evil.
Eller argues convincingly, I believe that the wars that Joshua and others fought were not at all like the wars nations usually fight, for these wars are always motivated by the need to make oneself secure (he calls these sorts of wars Nimrodian wars,€ť for they’re patterned after the great€ť warrior in Genesis, Nimrod). The Israelite wars were holy wars, for the Israelite warriors were motivated only by a desire to partner with God in fighting God’s foes. Indeed, the Holy War tradition is premised on the conviction that it is Yahweh who is fighting the war; about as much as is expected of the human participants is that they come along and watch him do it(47). ...
In various passages that report Yahweh commanding slaughter, we are finding an accurate report of what human beings heard him [Yahweh] say. But we are not here finding the unmediated voice of God himself.(78). When the words run entirely contrary to all that knowledge would lead us to expect, we should perhaps question the hearing of the reporters rather than the consistency of God’s speaking (78).
The Israelites were right in thinking they were called to advance God’s plan in the world (59) and right to believe this involved fighting. But they failed to grasp that MAN IS NOT THE ENEMY (59). In keeping with the Nimrodian€ť mindset of their age, they wrongly assumed that any people who threatened the fulfillment of God’s plan were enemies who had to be removed. [W]hen the squeeze came, Eller claims, Israelite faith wasn’t quite adequate, and the people fell back on the conclusion that man must be the enemy." In their limited perspectives, "there is no way for God’s plan to go forward without fighting against men, so this," they believed, "must be what God wants" (60).
This lapse constitutes â€śa failure of faith in the capabilities of God. As far as man can see, the only alternatives are either to let the plan of God be frustrated or to take out the obstructionistsâ€ť (59). But this is, in fact, a â€śNimrodian decision based on the premise that Godâ€s alternatives are limited to what man can understandâ€ť (60). Itâ€s the same thinking that Christians use today to justify violence (viz. "if we don't fight, evil will win!"). To really have faith in God, and to truly fight the battles God wants us to fight, we need to have faith that God can achieve his loving ends without using violent means (60).
Only in the New Testament do God’s people fully understand that our struggle is never against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12). Only with the coming of Christ does it become unambiguously clear that Yahweh’s battle is never against people, but always for people and against spiritual powers that oppress and destroy us. (Eller has a marvelous chapter on the spiritual warfare understanding of the atonement [ch.5, 113-144]).
Eller argues that, while God didn’t approve of the slaughtering his warriors engaged in, he nevertheless used it to advance his purposes in the world. Throughout the Bible God uses what he does not approve of, as when he allows other nations to defeat Israel to teach them lessons. So too, once Israel had determined that she was going to fight, God determined that, whether he approved of such fighting or not, he was going to use it to preserve Israel, give her a homeland, and lead her in the way toward the peaceable kingdom (78). It's a matter of God bringing good out of evil.
This is how God handles all violence, according to Eller. All war is the result of human estrangement from God, and so in this sense all war is a punishment for rebellion against God. God doesn’t approve of war,€ť he says, â€śbut this isn’t to say war is completely outside his plan.€ť Rather, war is the punishment brought upon themselves by those who foster and create the kind of situations that lead to war. " Moreover, Eller argues, "it is not that the losing nation is the punished one and the winner merely the punisher. War is always punishment both ways (79). So, as a regrettable concession, God worked with Israel’s Nimrodian mindset, as he worked with the Nimrodian mindset of others, to accomplish his purposes, as much as possible, in the world. And part of this purpose was to punish the sinful violent-mindedness of both the Israelites and their pagan enemies.
And all the while Yahweh was laying the groundwork for a future revelation of who he really is, what his character is really like and what kind of warfare he has really called us to.
And here is Greg Boyd’s self-critique of these very reflections:
I have to grant that this is a strong response -- to the point that I’m not sure how to refute it. Yet, I can’t help but feel like there’s something amiss here. The Psalmist doesn’t claim God told him to smash the heads of Babylonian babies, but Joshua (and others) explicitly claim God told them to slaughter the Canaanites. Indeed, in passages like Deuteronomy 7, God (reportedly) goes to great lengths to make sure they spare no one -- and then gets very irate when they disobediently let some live.
Second, as we've seen, Eller believes that Joshua and other Old Testament warriors got it right when they heard Yahweh tell them they were to only fight the battles he wanted them to fight and that they were to place their complete trust in him when they fought. They were not to fight with the Nimrodian mindset of other nations (viz. fighting out of insecurity, self-interest, etc.). Unfortunately, according to Eller, these warriors mistakenly thought this entailed that they had to slaughter anyone who stood in the way of Yahweh’s will being done. It seems to me there’s something rather peculiar about this view. How is it that Yahweh succeeded into getting Joshua and others to refrain from placing any trust in their sword and to not fight out of insecurity and self-interest and yet failed to clearly communicate that they weren’t supposed to kill anyone?
For the above question, please see a potential answer in the distinction between killing and murder.
Less strong is a third argument that several readers of this blog expressed to me. They argued that once one grants that any biblical passage might be mistaken, we have no means of deciding what is and is not the "true voice of God" in Scripture. We have embarked on a slippery slope toward total relativism, they fear. More specifically, if Joshua was wrong in thinking Yahweh told him to slaughter the Canaanites, then Paul might have been wrong in thinking God told him we’re saved by grace or in thinking God told him fornication was a sin. If humans have to decide what is and is not the true voice of God in the Bible, they argue, then it seems it's every man for himself.We can choose what we like and discard what we don’t like. Eller’s thesis, in other words, throws us into an epistemological, theological and moral abyss. (I find this worry lies behind the passion of many evangelicals to uphold "biblical inerrancy").
I empathize with this concern, but I'm not convinced it's a sound objection. Two things are worth mentioning. First, everyone already has to decide what is and is not the true voice of God in the Bible" -- at least to the extent that we all have to try to discern the timeless teaching of the Bible from its cultural packaging. ... Second, while there is obvious disagreement about what is and is not culturally relative in the Bible, the issue is not as subjective as people simply â€śaccepting what they like and discarding what they don’t like. (and he goes on ...)