Boyd’s critique of divine genocide defenders [chapter 19]

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2017

[This is the 20th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 19th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 19, “Defending Divine Genocide: The Inadequacy of Traditional Defenses of the Conquest Narrative” (pages 917-60), Boyd develops a detailed critique of the argument presented by evangelical theologian Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Copan stands in as a thinker who has argued thoroughly for reading the Joshua story as an accurate account of God’s activity in the world. As we would expect by now, Boyd argues sharply against Copan’s acceptance of that story as accurate in its portrayal of God while agreeing with Copan’s general affirmation of the inspired character of all of the OT.

What to make of the Joshua story as Scripture?

Boyd starts by making the point that indeed we have no alternative but to recognize that the story in Joshua does report genocidal actions empowered by God (922). He then adds, “if we refrain from calling the Israelites’ slaughtering of entire populations ‘genocide,’ we are implicitly admitting that wiping out entire populations in the name of God is sometimes, at least in principle, justified” (922). And, if we take Jesus seriously, we have no option but to deny the truthfulness of that picture of God and God’s will. These points seem important and true.

However, Boyd’s rejection of the picture of God presented in Joshua is only one side of his “conundrum”—that our affirmation of God as love requires us to deny that God could have done what Joshua tells us. He points to the other side of his conundrum here, too: “This narrative is completely God-breathed” (922). By God-breathed, Boyd means that God was directly involved in the writing of this text, that the book of Joshua says what God wanted it to say.

Perhaps the most profound problem with Boyd’s theology of scripture is not that he would insist that Joshua is “God-breathed.” It is that Boyd would argue that any of the Bible at all is “God-breathed” in the sense that he uses that term. In my view, the Bible from start to finish was written by human beings in human language—and then translated and interpreted by human beings. I believe that texts such as the genocidal stories in Joshua are useful in part because they challenge us to rethink our traditional understanding of the Bible as revelation.

If we truly believe that the Bible’s God (seen most clearly in the story of Jesus) could not possibly have given the commands that Joshua presents as from God, then we should not present the story of those commands as “God-breathed”—if “God-breathed” means that God was directly involved the writing and that the words are what God wanted written. We need to rework how we think of scripture as revelation. Unfortunately, Boyd does not seem interested in such a reworking and instead constructs a quite convoluted argument that tries to hold on to a traditional view of inspiration while denying that the picture of God presented in Joshua is true. I find it hard to believe that many will be persuaded, and I find it hard to understand what he hopes to gain with this view of inspiration.

Applying moral standards to God

I think that Boyd makes an important point when he writes: “Even if we grant that it is not immoral for God to end the life of an innocent baby or other innocent person, I would argue that it is always immoral for people to do so, even if they heard a voice or saw a vision that told them God wanted them to do this” (924). To be clear, I don’t grant God this “right” (or, I could say, this is not a “right” God is interested in). But the key point in the second clause about humans is that this takes away any relevant channel for God’s “violence”—if humans can never kill, that means God can never legitimately use humans to kill (including never the state). I do think it is important (and I think Boyd agrees) to insist that God never directly kills either. That protects from slippage on the never human violence conviction and it keeps God as trustworthy.

Boyd appropriately concludes “that the ‘show no mercy’ command that Moses allegedly received from Yahweh was not, in fact, a bona fide command from Yahweh” (926). But then he moves to the other side of his “conundrum”: We must “resolve to read this narrative with the ‘magic eye’ of a cross-informed faith” if we are to “discern ‘what else is going on’ in this narrative” (926). That is, while asserting that God did not in fact command genocide, Boyd still wants to believe that the Joshua text that reports such is truthful. This belief seems to me to make it much more difficult for Boyd to argue for God’s nonviolence.

The most obvious (and persuasive) way to think of Boyd’s assertion that God indeed did not command genocide, in my view, is to recognize that the Conquest story is not “God-breathed” in itself. God did not in any way direct the writer of Joshua to report that God ordered genocide. This story is at most part of a (perhaps) “God-breathed” Big Story. When the story of Joshua is read in the context of the rest of the Bible it conveys divinely inspired truths that contribute to the peaceable plot the Big Story gives us. I think the Joshua story contributes in mostly negative ways to the peaceable message of the Bible’s overall story—say, by telling us about this territorial part of the tradition that is ultimately rejected. I should note as well, though, Millard Lind’s argument in Yahweh is a Warrior and in Monotheism and Justice that the Joshua story along with the Exodus story also gives a positive vision of a kind of prophetic “theo-politics” that contrasts with the power politics of the nations.

Boyd alludes to an argument that he will develop later: “We … see … the cruciform God stooping to become the sin and the curse of his people within the written witness to God’s covenantal faithfulness” (927). What he seems to mean is that part of the sin God bears of God’s people includes their belief that God is a genocidal ancient Near Eastern deity. God “bears” this sin by allowing the text to present God in this way, commanding genocide.

I have several problems with this statement. One, of course, is the idea that God is in control of the writing, editing, and on-going preservation of the Bible in such a directive way—where what is in the Bible is there only because God allows it. Another problem is this idea of “the sin and curse of his people.” Such language hints that God is not simply love but also has some need for something like being satisfied (in the Anselmian sense) through punitive judgment—and who also sees humanity as fundamentally sinful (i.e., unclean).

God as love and biblical inspiration

Boyd’s notion of “divine accommodation” seems to serve the role of allowing him to affirm, at the same time, both that God did not command genocide (since God is love) and that the Bible nonetheless is divinely inspired and truthful in every detail. The way he sees to hold together these two seemingly contradictory beliefs is by saying that in God’s infinite (and at times inscrutable) wisdom, it was important that a truthful Bible also accommodate to human sinfulness by giving a picture of God that sinful humans needed to believe in before they received God’s fullest self-revelation in Jesus’s cross.

In contrast, I would say that the Bible is indeed inspired—but only in the sense that the Big Story shows God as love. The God as love I believe in is comparable to Boyd’s cruciform God, but I believe we get our clearest picture of this God from Jesus’s life and teaching more than simply Jesus’s death. Like Boyd, I would say that anything in the Bible that contradicts God’s love as seen in Jesus is untrue and must be rejected. However, I am comfortable with saying that such texts are not inspired. In fact, I think it is important to insist that such texts are not in themselves inspired because I think the message of God’s love is the criterion that establishes what is inspired (“God-breathed”)—or not.

So, I don’t think we need Boyd’s “accommodation” thesis. I think the “uninspired” materials that contradict the message of Jesus are best seen as existing on the micro level as specific elements of the Big Story. In themselves they are not inspired. But as part of the Big Story, they are inspired in the sense that they contribute to the macro level in ways that are necessary to the plot (for example, the conquest account in Joshua is necessary to get the Hebrews into the land as a territorial kingdom and thus we see what is ultimately rejected as part of the way God brings healing to the world). Boyd insists on the micro level being infallible too, which creates his conundrum.

So, I think Boyd is right insofar as he rejects the belief that God actually commanded genocide and, even more importantly, insofar as he helps us affirm that God is nonviolent. However, I think my reading of the materials better fits with the biblical story. Interestingly, though (unlike Boyd) I am comfortable with denying the divine inspiration of each part of the Old Testament, I actually think I see much more positive meaning in the OT (especially in Torah) than Boyd does. So, in a sense, I treat the Old Testament as more inspired than he does—albeit on the macro rather than micro level. I would say something similar with regard to the story of Jesus’s life. I place more importance on the entirety of his life and teaching (and on his resurrection) than Boyd does and place less emphasis on the narrow element of his crucifixion.

Necessary sacrifices?

Boyd offers a lengthy (and basically sound) critique of Paul Copan’s argument in favor of accepting the Joshua story as revelatory. Boyd asserts that the idea in that story that God demanded the sacrifice of the Canaanites (the herem), like the broader idea that God demanded the sacrifice of animals, was not actually revelatory of God’s will. “It was the ancient Israelites, not God, who needed to sacrifice animals to feel their sins were forgiven” (938-9).

Though I think Boyd is more or less right about this, I wonder if the point he makes here might actually undermine his understanding of the cross? We have seen (and will continue to see) how central his understanding of the cross is for Boyd’s whole agenda in CWG. It is still not clear to me what the actual mechanics of his understanding of the cross are. What does the cross actually do? Clearly for Boyd, the cross gives us a model of Jesus’s suffering love that in some sense is powerfully redemptive—and in doing so, it shows us what God is like as God also practices suffering love. But is there more, something necessary in the cross that is required for salvation to be present in the world?

Boyd does deny that he supports the view that gives us the strongest rationale for the necessity of Jesus’s death—the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) view that insists that Jesus’s death was necessary so he could take upon himself the necessary punishment from God for sin as a substitute for us. Boyd would say that the God of the PSA view is too bloodthirsty and violent. However, he still presents Jesus’s death as a sacrifice, and seemingly a necessary sacrifice. And he writes in an essay “Christus Victor Atonement and Girard’s Scapegoat Theory” about having an “objective” view of the atonement where there is something needed outside of human subjectivity to make salvation possible. So if Boyd rejects the idea that God “demands animal sacrifices” in the OT, doesn’t that take away from the need for Jesus’s sacrifice in the NT?

The “truthfulness” of the Joshua story

Boyd concludes his critique of people who think the Joshua account is truthful with a strong point: “The portrait of God commanding his people, who were themselves sinners, to massacre the entire population of other sinners is antithetical to the portrait of God choosing to suffer at the hands of enemies and out of love for enemies while commanding his people to do the same, which is precisely what we are given in Christ” (941). Here is a helpful example of how the story of Jesus, if we take it seriously as the core content of our faith, has to lead us to reject the story of the conquest as truthful and revelatory of God’s character.

However, I would take Boyd’s thoughts much further than he does. I think that Boyd’s criticism of the Joshua story is so persuasive that it shows that the belief in that story as accurate history in its telling of God commanding genocide is incredible for Christians. How could any Christian possible believe that the God of Jesus could possibly make such commands? They could only if their doctrine of Scripture has blinded them to logic and moral consistency. That is, I think that Boyd’s critique actually overthrows the entire doctrine of inspiration and infallibility of the Bible that underwrites the literalness of the acceptance of the unacceptable.

Still, Boyd himself still operates with this doctrine intact. Rather than take the logical (and necessary) step and simply affirm that this portrait of God is not God-breathed revelation, Boyd doubles down on his “conundrum”: “These difficulties and discrepancies … confirm that the portrait of God as a genocide-commanding warrior deity is a sin-reflecting mask that God humbly stooped to wear because of his commitment to remain in solidarity with, and to further his historical purpose through, this nation of fallen, violent, and culturally conditioned people” (942).

Among the many problems with Boyd’s stubborn retaining of a very problematic view of the Bible, I will mention one I have not yet brought up. Boyd himself has expressed horror at how Christians have and continue to use the Joshua story to underwrite their own violence and support for violence. However, to believe that God donned a “sin-reflecting mask” and guided the writer of Joshua to present God as a genocide-ordering deity seems also to imply that God could be understood as doing the same thing today with those who draw inspiration from Joshua to support 21st century warfare and militarism.

Neither “hyperbolic” nor “crucicentric” interpretations

Boyd seeks to present an alternative to Paul Copan’s argument concerning God and the allegations that the God of the book of Joshua is a “moral monster.” Copan advocates what Boyd calls a “hyperbolic interpretation” (i.e., that the Joshua story greatly exaggerates the events for rhetorical, motivational purposes). Boyd sees this as inadequate, though much better than the literalistic approach. The key challenge, Boyd insists, “is to demonstrate how violent divine portraits, as well as all other Scripture, bear witness to the self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing, nonviolent nature of God’s love that is revealed in the crucified Christ” (946). Copan’s interpretation does not satisfy that challenge.

However, I don’t agree with the need to interpret the violent portraits to “bear witness to the self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing, nonviolent, love of God revealed on Calvary.” I think Boyd wants this because he believes each part must be consistent with the end point (verbal plenary inspiration). I don’t think the end point is threatened by contradictory particulars. The Big Story is actually enhanced by the presence of counter-points that help clarify how the Big Story arose and what it leaves behind.

I also don’t think Jesus’s cross is the best source for our understanding of God’s love. I have discussed this before. I’d just say here that I would rather say that the key challenge in reading the Bible, including the violent portraits of God, is to discern how the story that the Bible tells, when read as a whole, gives a vision of God’s love and empowers us to embody that love. The love the Bible tells us about is seen most clearly in Jesus’s life and teaching.

The next post in the series may be found here

An index for the series as a whole may be found here

4 thoughts on “Boyd’s critique of divine genocide defenders [chapter 19]

  1. Pingback: Boyd on judgment and “divine withdrawal” [chapters 17 and 18] | Peace Theology

  2. Pingback: Boyd’s “cruciform interpretation” of the Conquest [chapter 20] | Peace Theology

  3. Rob

    Slowly catching up… For me this is one of the best posts in the series so far, Ted, because it very clearly exposes the contradictions inherent in Boyd’s hermeneutic. Particularly here:

    “If we truly believe that the Bible’s God (seen most clearly in the story of Jesus) could not possibly have given the commands that Joshua presents as from God, then we should not present the story of those commands as “God-breathed”—if “God-breathed” means that God was directly involved the writing and that the words are what God wanted written.”

    That’s a killer sentence right there.


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