I’m writing this post in the shadow of the 12th June Orlando massacre, where 50 people were tragically killed by a man who, ostensibly, pledged his allegiance to Isis. While Omar Mateen does not represent the ethos of Islam, I also recognise that he embodies a certain vulnerability faced by religions of the book(s): Our sacred texts contain texts in which humans are called to take up the sword on behalf of God.
Over the last 7 posts I’ve asked how we might read Joshua in a way that’s faithful to the story of Jesus. I’ve suggested at least 5 different facets of Joshua that give me hope for that possibility.
In this final post I’d like to step back to ask a more basic question about a Christian hermeneutical stance toward violent texts in the OT. For some, the most viable ‘solution’ to the problem of OT violence is to adopt a ‘Christocentric’ hermeneutic. By this, interpreters usually mean that all violent texts in the OT need to be re-conceived in light of Christ. The accompanying premise is that because Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and the cross is the definitive victory of Christ over his enemies, all previous revelations of how God deals with enemies must bow to the clearer reality of the cross. This leads toward an unambiguously non-violent commitment.
In my opinion, the term Crucocentric better describes this approach, because of the rigorous focus on the cross. Greg Boyd is a prominent representative of this view, and his long-anticipated Crucifixion of the Warrior God will develop this thesis over some 600+ pages.
The merits of this approach are many, and this is not the space for a full evaluation. The cross stands at the centre of how God-in-Christ deals with enemies, and thus how the Church should respond (Matt 5; Rom 12). The cross occupies a unique and central place in Christian reflection on the Bible. It is one of the key lenses through which we are to look at any ethical challenge—including those posed by the Bible itself.
But I have reservations with what I’ve seen of the Crucocentric approach because of its tendency to dismiss or radically flatten challenging Old Testament texts in a way that strips them of any value. Here, in brief, are two additional challenges I see:
- Jesus recognised the need for different responses to violence, which are nonetheless non-violent yet also non-comprehensive. For instance, he tells his followers to ‘head for the hills’ rather than ‘submit to crucifixion’ when they saw Rome surround Jerusalem (Lk 21).
- The cross event doesn’t exist in a vacuum, as a naked moral act or statement. Instead, it belongs within the larger narrative that Christians have always insisted has revelatory value. To isolate the cross as the only way to look at violence is to tear that event from the story in which it sits, which includes fundamentals like the incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and return and final judgment of Christ.
What does this mean for interpreting OT texts? Ought we re-read them all as actually pre-figuring the cross (or toss them aside)?
I don’t think so. We run into trouble when we assume that the cross—or even Christ—reveals all God wants to say about himself and enemies. A Christian reading of the OT shouldn’t just leave us with everything we already know about Jesus from the NT. This is a myopic reading of God and Scripture to say the least, and hardly a Trinitarian reading of Scripture.
Rather than Christocentric hermeneutic, I suggest interpreting violent OT texts along the lines of a Christotelic hermeneutic. This term, drawn from Peter Enns, attends to the narrative shape and distinct integrity of the OT, which nevertheless for Christians has its culmination in Christ. Enns writes:
To see Christ as the driving force behind apostolic hermeneutics is not to flatten out what the OT says on its own. Rather, it is to see that, for the church, the OT does not exist on its own, in isolation from the completion of the OT story in the death and resurrection of Christ. The OT is a story that is going somewhere, which is what the Apostles are at great pains to show. It is the OT as a whole, particularly in its grand themes, that finds its telos, its completion, in Christ. This is not to say that the vibrancy of the OT witness now comes to an end, but that—on the basis of apostolic authority—it finds its proper goal, purpose, telos, in that event by which God himself determined to punctuate his covenant: Christ.
With this telos in view, I find myself asking the following question: (a) IF Jesus’ story is inextricable from the OT story of God and Israel, and in particular, Deuteronomy, where the command to commit genocide first takes shape (!); and (b) IF Jesus is to be the fulfilment of the OT narrative; and (c) IF his identity is that of an obedient Jewish Messiah, THEN is there anything in the OT story as a whole that would engender the kind of life Jesus lived and the teachings he taught?
The conquest clearly occupies an important place in this story. We cannot simplistically set it aside as ‘flawed revelation’ without serious damage to the story. So, what might a Christotelic approach to Joshua (and Deuteronomy) look like? Here are a few thoughts for starters:
- With the grain: Instead of reading against the grain of the Old Testament and its violent imagery, we can explore the potential of reading along the grain of the Old Testament as it reframes violence against enemies in other, more fundamental, terms. For instance, if we look back to the original command to “devote the Canaanites to complete destruction” in Deut 7:1-2, we notice a curious extension—or what I call re-framing—of that command in terms of religious differentiation in the next three verses. I discussed this HERE.
- Attention to Tension: Texts don’t just mean in a univocal way. An individual strand of a narrative might be ‘monologic’ in nature, but when set alongside others, a dialogue ensues. One such dialogue emerges when considering the widely recognized gap between the ‘surface narrative’ and the ‘deep narrative’ of Joshua discussed HERE. These tensions invite readers into an unfinished conversation, one that invites new forms of narrative resolution such as we see in the NT.
- Under-determined texts: The meaning of any given biblical text is often open and underdetermined, and if set in new contexts or sets of circumstances, they actually mean something different. In my second post I discussed the angel of the Lord, who mysteriously visits Joshua and declares that he’s not for or against him. That story on its own could mean many things. This is not to say that it can mean anything. There are bad readings. Nonetheless, that lack of closure opens up the possibility of a story that finds its conclusion in Christ. It sounds pious to say that we interpret all stories through the lens of the cross. But the cross itself is an under-determined and polymorphous event (just look at all the atonement theories!) that requires narrative contexts to make sense. Learning to read that story well will help us assess how to treat OT (and NT!) violence.
- Incarnational Story-Telling: The revelation of God in Christ culminates a narrative in which God has continuously revealed himself as one who moves toward creation. But he did so using symbols, images, and languages that people could understand. For instance, when Israel was at Sinai they saw God’s feet (Ex 24:10), yet most orthodox believers do not think that God has feet. It was an imprecise accommodation to Israel that nonetheless had revelatory value (e.g., communicating that God was present and ruling). This accommodation extends not only to God’s direct communication with Israel, but also to his communication through Scripture, which offers us an imprecise communicative act that still has revelatory value. Our specifically Christian commitment to this story requires us to ask what a book like Joshua does and doesn’t reveal about God—the God revealed in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and future judgement and return of Christ.
- Retrospective Reading: Knowing Christ helps me go back to the OT with fresh questions. Did I need him to make me ask those questions? No! But, knowing the story of Jesus places them front and centre. As I ask hard questions about violence in Joshua, new possibilities open up because I’m looking for (let’s be honest) a reading of the story that is not genocidal. Is that biased? Yes it is. But bias can be a productive way of breaking through entrenched and misguided assumptions about the OT.
- Admit our Frustration: Reading Christotelically leaves me with a pile of unanswered questions. With all the preceding points in mind, we are still not going to make the problem go away. Sometimes we have to simply admit that such texts are deeply disturbing. Perhaps we follow the example of David. When God smote Uzzah dead for touching the wobbling ark, David ‘was angry because the LORD’s wrath had burst forth against Uzzah’ (2 Sam 6:7-8). The text never censures David for his anger.
Yet as we express our frustration, it’s critical to remain open to receiving a challenging word from the OT—an OT that is other than us. This applies not only to the words of Joshua, but also to the words of Jesus, which are sometimes shocking. In a letter to his friend Oskar Pollak, Franz Kafka wrote these now-famous words about reading such shocking words:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
Kafka’s words could’ve been written about the herem texts in Deuteronomy and Joshua. We risk neutering the book while we wrestle through the ‘problem’ of violence in Joshua. We make it palatable and comfortable. We make it less jarring and shocking than it is. While I don’t think Joshua tells a story of straightforward genocide, its claims are nonetheless radical and reflective of reality. We need these texts to work on us like these shocking words from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Maybe we need the book of Joshua to break up the ‘sea of frozen ice’ inside us.
 Who draws on the term Ecclesio-telic in Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.
 Peter Enns, ‘Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture: Moving Beyond a Modernist Impasse,’ WTJ 5 (2003):263-87 .
 Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, 1904.