A major challenge to the position of Christian pacifism is the pervasive violence in the Old Testament (OT), particularly in the holy wars of ancient Israel that Yahweh commands. John Howard Yoder takes a unique position on this issue that is worth considering, even if his argument comes up short in the end. He rejects other alternative views that attempt to deal with the tension between Jesus and Yahweh, notably the popular view that the Hebrews mistakenly thought Yahweh commanded violence. Instead, he argues for a progressive realization of the communal identity of Israel. This progression moves from the loosening of nationalism by separating Israel as a nation and Israel as a people. Next, there is a universalizing of Yahweh’s concerns that extends beyond the people of Israel – even excluding those within Israel who were unfaithful to the law, while including faithful outsiders. As Yoder writes, “Thus, the dismantling of the applicability of the concept of the holy war takes place not by promulgation of a new ethical demand but by a restructuring of the Israelite perception of community under God.”
Yoder is careful to avoid the idea that Israel was only slowly coming to maturity in the perception of a nonviolent God. Instead, he argues for the real revelation of God in Israel’s history without subtracting from it. Yoder believes that we cannot project back onto the OT a condescending view that Israel matured in their understanding of God. We are not able to judge the OT from a later perspective, but must be committed to the story of the people of God from the beginning. Yoder points out the novelty of God’s revelation at various points in history, even in the case of holy war. In God’s commanding holy war, Israel had to completely trust God as their King for security and identity. Yahweh miraculously provides and fights for Israel. God eventually instructs Israel to trust in him even more by renouncing their need for security and identity over and against the enemy. Yoder compares the practices of Israel to what came before to see what is novel about the holy wars. He points out Israel’s unique practice of harem, which prevented them from economically benefiting from war. This is yet another step in the moral trajectory of Israel, teaching them to fully trust in Yahweh for everything from provision, protection, identity, and vindication.
While I appreciate some of Yoder’s insights here, I still find his perspective unsatisfying. The practice of harem is expressly stated within the biblical text to be motivated by Yahweh’s absolute disgust for Canaanite religion and culture. Yoder misses this point. It is also difficult for me to believe that the only way to teach Israel to trust in Yahweh includes the murder of Canaanite children. Mainstream scholars also recognize the genre of the conquest narratives as having parallels in other ancient Near Eastern literature. They call this genre “national origin myth.” The function of these myths is to assert an imperialistic ideology of a rising nation in order to legitimize their regional power. These stories are propaganda, written hundreds of years after the supposed events in the time of King Josiah. If not total fabrications, it appears to scholars that they are at least partially invented. Furthermore, archaeological evidence since at least the 1950s has confirmed the view that many of Israel’s most infamous holy wars never happened. Still, Israel was violent at times, and at some point attributed the violence to Yahweh.
I find it hard to believe that this kind of violence was ever the product of divine revelation when one takes into account the basic consensus of biblical scholarship on these issues. With that said, I think these violent texts can still serve a limited, negative revelatory function when they are recognized as ideological products of an ancient culture. They should not be removed from the canon, à la Marcion. These particular texts are more like a mirror for ourselves than a window into God. As Thom Stark writes, “When we look at the face of the Yahweh who ordered the extermination of the inhabitants of Canaan, we see our own capacity to kill in the name of God, or in the name of purity, or some ideology or another. We see our own capacity to other and to exclude, our own capacity for racial profiling. These texts cease to be revelatory…if they are read at face value as the very voice of God.”
To be clear, I do believe that the Old Testament is inspired. God really revealed himself at points in the history of Israel. Not only that, but I think God is revealed in a unique way in Israel that is unparalleled in other religions. Through Israel, we see the God of the future - a God of promise who continually opens up our future towards ultimate fulfillment and completion in himself. We see the God of covenant, justice, mercy, and relationship. We even see a God of peace clashing with a God of war in the Old Testament. My point here is to show how we can be honest and recognize the ugliness in our texts without giving up inspiration or removing huge parts of the text. We simply need to be critical readers, and in doing so, we will have to rethink how certain parts of the text function in the light of the overarching story of the people of God, and especially Jesus.