what if God never commanded the extermination of the Canaanites?

At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children. We left no survivors.

Deuteronomy 2-3

In Greg Boyd’s new book, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, Boyd makes some biblical theological assertions which have hardly been thought, much less spoken since the time of Augustine. Though a number of early church fathers prior to that time did. There is no doubt the Israelites thought they were commanded to kill all the Canaanites. Boyd’s contention does seems curious to me. Couldn’t have God made it clear to them that no, they were not to do such a thing?

Central to what makes this work for Boyd is the idea that the Israelites were so conditioned that when they heard the actual words of God, they acted on their understanding as well of what God meant in line with how all the people of the Ancient Near East saw their gods, even using some of the words of such peoples to express God’s intention. And the idea of accommodation, that God met them where they were at, to bring them along to the kingdom which would be fully realized in its grace and truth only in Jesus, something called progressive revelation.

What is central to Boyd’s thesis alone is easily worth the price of the book, though many will not want to deal with the odd parts, or will not take the book seriously because of them. The heart of Boyd’s proposal is that God is known only in Jesus, and specifically in Jesus crucified. That if we want to know what God is like, always like, and was always like, then we have to go to the cross.

A little hint of where this book goes: Elijah called down fire from heaven, and two of Jesus’s disciples thought they should do the same when a Samaritan town refused to welcome him to their town. Jesus rebuked those disciples, and told them they didn’t know what spirit they were of since the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives, but to save them. And many other examples.

For those who have the inclination, time and extra money, his massive volume preceding this more popular version, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2 would be in order. I might refer to it out of the library, but don’t intend to buy it myself.

A big question for many of us is Boyd’s view of scripture. Boyd claims to hold to a high view, that it is the written word of God, and infallible. And that God stoops down in the spirit of taking sin on himself at the cross, to take the sin of the Israelites on himself in their supposing that God wanted them to do what today we would call genocide. And actually by and large in Joshua, they didn’t do so. It is a rough story in the Old/First Testament, to be sure. Separation and purity were central to Israel. Jesus comes and essentially obliterates that, contradicting Moses in a number of places, bringing a new way and kind of holiness, we might say. But hints of what Jesus would bring seem to have come across during Moses’s time, as well as before and after. Boyd thinks that God’s ideal would have been for them not to kill with the sword at all, but let God fight their battles. There are instances of that kind of thought. And indeed the heavenly warriors were a part of what was going on during that time, not divided in their minds from the physical component, as we do today.*

I would say here, that there are a number of instances in the Old/First Testament which seem contradictory to what Jesus taught, and what culminated from that teaching, indeed where the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all seem to be pointed to: the cross. A couple examples, in Psalm 139 when the psalmist says he hates the enemies of God with all his heart, he has nothing but hatred for them. And in Psalm 137 where it says that happy are those who dash the babies of the Babylonians against the rocks. Of course that is understood by Christians (and Jews) to not sanction such action.

A quick word on theology. Jesus is the truth. Scripture is the truth about the truth. Theology is the truth about the truth about the truth. That’s imprecise, because actually theology is not on the same level as either Jesus or scripture, but it’s a necessary component which follows. We have to wrestle with God, with scripture, as to its meaning. And theology is open ended and never done. While it does shape our reflections on scripture, it isn’t the word of God, so we need to be humble and not act as if it is.

It’s the way of Jesus which marks us as Christians, and that way is the way of the cross, which includes the way of love even to our enemies. We pray for them, bless and do good to them. And we believe God loves all, and is grieved when in his “wrath” he has to withdraw, and let them suffer the consequences of their sin (Romans 1) in the hope that afterward they will repent. That too, is part of Boyd’s contention. Read on with me, if you’re interested.

*That thought in no way to Boyd, nor to myself legitimizes their use of the sword in physical violence, akin to Paul’s thought that our warfare is not physical, but spiritual.

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