Boyd’s “cruciform interpretation” of the Conquest [chapter 20]

Ted Grimsrud—December 13, 2017

[This is the 21st 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 20th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]

In Chapter 20, “When God’s Nonviolent Plans Fail: The Cruciform Interpretation of the Conquest Narrative” (pages 961–1002), Boyd elaborates in more detail the way his understanding of Jesus’s cross shapes his response to the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament.

The “Spirit-inspired depth” of God’s self-revelation?

Boyd’s “crucicentric theological approach” focuses on what the violent OT portraits of God now communicate to us in light of the message of Jesus’s cross (963). In light of the cross, we can say, according to Boyd, that God “acts toward his people, as much as possible, but because God persuades rather than coerces, God allows his people to act on him.” As a consequence of this non-coercive stance, God’s self-revelation is shaped by human sinfulness. Because of the presence of human sinfulness, we must work hard to discern “the revelatory content of all depictions of God that fall short of the self-giving God revealed on the cross.” The revelatory content may be found “in the Spirit-inspired depth of those portraits” (963).

So, Boyd is looking for revelatory content deep within the violent portraits of God. He is not content with looking for the meaning only on the surface. Now, it is true, I think, that the surface meaning of those portraits seems to be reprehensible. Boyd’s approach to dealing with this is to retain his high view of biblical inspiration but to look deep within the story for meaning that is quite different from the surface meaning. I worry that such an approach is in tension with seeing the meaning of the Bible as straightforward and clear. Boyd seems almost to advocate a kind of hidden meaning available only to “enlightened” readers. I’d rather work with the “surface” meaning and place the Joshua story in the context of the Big Story of the rest of the Bible in order to find peaceable meaning there.

Part of the problem with Boyd’s approach may also be seen in how he applies only a quite narrow sense of the “cross” to his interpretation of the violent portraits. It’s just the actual event of Jesus being killed and the sacrificial meaning of that death rather than looking at the much broader context of Jesus’ life and teaching understood, in turn, in the context of the story of God’s promise to Israel. The broader view makes possible linking the revelation of God’s politics as seen in the rise and fall of the Hebrews’ territorial kingdom with the politics that were embodied and taught by Jesus that led to his execution by the Romans.

Boyd clearly rejects the assumption that the genocidal message actually came from God. “The macabre portraits of Yahweh uttering the herem command to Moses and then helping his people carry it out … was not, in fact, God’s plan. Viewed through the lens of the cross, these genocidal portraits of God rather reflect the fallen heart and mind of Moses and of God’s people as a whole at this point in history” (963).

Now, I strongly agree that the portraits here are indeed “macabre” and that they cannot possibly accurately portray God. I would also say, though, that the story itself, which is all that we’ve got, does think the command came from God. The text gives no indication of the view Boyd draws from it. To read a “mask” on God into the text seems like a strange way to affirm its “inspiration.” If we can ignore the text’s own intention, why not see the whole thing as not inspired? And it does seem as if Boyd is inferring some sense of historicity when he talks about Moses as the source of the command and not the storyteller—if God inspires the written text and it tells us what God told Moses, how does it make sense that it is not telling us the truth about God?

Boyd’s answer: “We must assess the portraits of God uttering the herem command to be literary testaments to just how low the heavenly missionary was willing to stoop on behalf of his people. It is a sin-bearing literary mask that bears witness to God’s eternal, humble, other-oriented, self-sacrificial nature, as supremely revealed on the cross” (964).

I don’t think this statement is very coherent. Boyd insists that these portraits are “inspired”—but not on the level of what they actually say. And it seems strange to make the portraits witness to God’s nonviolent love (despite their content to the contrary) in that God allows the bad content to be part of the inspired text—especially since, as Boyd has noted, the actual impact of the text in history is to enable more violence. Given the legacy of these violent portraits, it seems like a terrible price for God to pay in order to allow a false view of God to be embedded in the inspired and infallible text.

What about the “land”?

Boyd accepts the view that God from early on intended for the Hebrews to be in the land. “From the time of Abraham, it seems God wanted to give this land as an inheritance to Abraham’s descendents…. Land is what gives a nation its physical identity…. One of the primary goals Yahweh had for his people was for them to draw other nations to him, and the location of this particular parcel of land was strategically ideal for this purpose” (977).

This is the standard view and certainly has strong textual support. However, I note that this “strategy” of centering the furthering of the promise in a territorial kingdom is precisely what the actual events of the story repudiate. When the promise was linked to this particular land, it proved to be profoundly corrupting to the promise, and the territorial kingdom ended in failure. Ultimately the promise survives only as a non-territorial, diasporic reality—e.g., in synagogue-centered Judaism and Jesus’s “kingdom” oriented Christianity. I am not sure where Boyd will go with his discussion of the land, but I read the establishment of a territorial kingdom after the Conquest of Canaan as an attempt to follow a path that proves to be revelatory mainly in how it shows future generations what not to do.

In terms of the message of the Big Story, it seems to me that we have two possible choices, neither of which is mentioned by Boyd. We could say that the original promise of land was not actually from God. Or we could say that God tried the territorial option and realized that it was not going to work. In either case, the plot eventually comes to a point of making it clear that the promise is not linked with territorial kingdoms. This clarity is present in the ministry of Jesus, whose “kingdom” was proven to be non-territorial, diasporic, and congregation (not State) centered. Boyd, however, seems to be uninterested in this political reading of the Big Story.

Instead, he seems to look for a kind of “religious”—not political—resolution to his conundrum: What can we believe about the cross and how can it encourage a selfless piety and deal with the sin problem. In contrast, I look more for a political philosophy. He will focus on particular texts, including problem texts, whereas I want to focus on the bigger themes. He does more of a purity agenda where each text in some way reiterates his understanding of the message of the cross. In contrast, I am fine with the problem texts being there as problems. They add to the texture and depth of the portrayal of biblical politics.

How do we understand the Conquest?

It is possible, it seems to me, that Boyd’s explanation of the Conquest could be correct—“when Yahweh had said, ‘You will possess the land,’ Moses and the people heard, ‘You must mercilessly destroy the indigenous population’” (979). Boyd suggests that when God had a plan for a nonviolent takeover, Moses and the others heard “violence.” Boyd does not say so right at this point in his book, but from elsewhere we should understand that he believes that God’s response to this misunderstanding by Moses involved God’s accommodation to the Hebrews’ “fallen desires”—an accommodation that meant that God would enact the violent conquest Moses expected.

I see a number of problems with this approach, though. The text itself tells us that the violence comes from God and at God’s initiative. If something else actually happened, it is hidden pretty well in the actual passage. Now, to rewrite the story does not necessarily violate my doctrine of inspiration (though I don’t think doing so is helpful here), but it seems to me that it should violate Boyd’s. I also don’t like the way Boyd’s analysis seems to denigrate the hardhearted and oblivious “Jews” who don’t have the insight and courage to follow God’s actual will for their entry into the land.

To reiterate his point, Boyd writes, “the presence [in the final text] of [God’s plan to take over the land nonviolently] confirms what the cross leads us to expect—namely, that the depictions of God ordering his people to annihilate others as an act of worship to him are sin-bearing, literary crucifixes” (980). That is, God “bears the sins” of God’s unfaithful people who misunderstand God’s will be carrying out their (mis-directed) desire for God to give them the land through massive violence.

As I read the Joshua account, though, these “plans” for a nonviolent takeover are quite ambiguous in the text, and they are not the point the storyteller attempts to make. When read straightforwardly, the text simply reports that God orders and intervenes with intense violence. The point of the story seems to be that God wins the victory on behalf of the Hebrews—with great violence.

Part of Boyd’s argument here is that Jesus’s crucifixion had to happen in order for the story of the Conquest to make sense. It seems like he wants to go further than saying that the cross helps us to see meaning that was already there—he wants to say that the cross was necessary for the meaning of the story to exist at all.

I would rather say the Big Story gives us a better way to read the Conquest story. While I believe the events did not happen and that the peaceable meaning in the story comes most of all from the story as a negative example, I do think I respect the meaning of the story on its own terms quite a bit more than Boyd does. I think my reading helps us to deal with the violent portraits in a way that is more in line with the ways Jews might read it and that sees more intrinsic value in Torah and the prophets.

Draw the line to exclude God’s violence—or punishment itself?

Boyd uses violence as a key factor that helps him determine what’s of God and what’s not of God in the story. Because of his belief that God is not violent, he argues that any time the Bible presents God as violent, “something else must be going on.” He does not have the same belief about punishment. Because he accepts that God can be a punishing God, he does not suggest that when the Bible pictures God as a punisher that something is going on.

He argues as a general principle that his “Conservative Hermeneutical Principle requires [him] to stick as closely as possible to the biblical narrative” (981). However, his nonviolent God assumptions allow him to depart from the text in major ways. But he doesn’t do this in relation to punishment. I suspect this is because his own acceptance of punishment as compatible with how God works in the world (after all, he sees punishment in the cross as part of God’s saving work) shapes how he reads what’s possible in these texts: “I feel compelled to explore the possibility of a cruciform interpretation of the punishment motif within the conquest narrative” (981). I think this statement gives us a clue into what is wrong with Boyd’s interpretation of the cross. It seems to me that if we were to anchor the meaning of the cross in the story of Jesus’s life and teaching we would be less likely to link punishment with God because Jesus presents a non-punishing view of God.

Boyd sees punitive judgment to be part of God’s disposition toward the Canaanites. Because God “now saw that the [Canaanites’] hearts had become hopelessly resistant to him, [he] planned on bringing a judgment upon these people, and at the same time, [open] up the way for his covenant people to occupy this strategic geographical location” (982). This idea that God would conclude that someone “had become hopelessly resistant” does not follow from what Boyd claims to be his core theological affirmations that lead to his cruciform hermeneutic.

I think that Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic should show that the cross teaches us that God never concludes people might “become hopelessly resistant.” If Boyd recognized this, he would realize that any textual evidence that God does treat people as “hopelessly resistance” is another case of divine accommodation to sinful humans. That is, if Boyd consistently followed his own method, he would recognize that God accommodated to sinful humanity when God allows the Old Testament to portray God as punitive—and, hence, would argue that in those accounts where God is presented as punitive “something else is going on.”

I wonder if we might want to say something similar in relation to the idea of God’s people “occupying” territory. Perhaps, following Boyd’s method, we could say that allowing for “occupation” is also a case of accommodation and that in reality “something else is going on.” I think that Boyd should include both punishment and occupation in his purview because they are two key factors in the biblical story that are used to justify later human violence. A God who was truly nonviolent would recognize the violent dynamics in punishment and occupation of territory. The problem may be that Boyd’s pacifism is too apolitical and hence too superficial. A broader understanding of the cross that sees the dynamics from Jesus’s life and his conflict with the powers-that-be as central would help alleviate this problem.

To be clear, I do not advocate the accommodation approach. My point here is that that approach would be more credible to me if Boyd used it to challenge punishment and occupation as well as overt violence.

More on punitive judgment and the Bible’s violence

Boyd’s problematic views of punishment are captured in this sentence: “God’s decision to withdraw and allow his stiff-necked people to carry out their violent proclivities against the Canaanites was just” (982). That is, it appears Boyd is saying, the Canaanites’ wickedness and idolatry meant they deserved to be genocided (remember that Boyd says this story tells of genocide). God could have stopped this, but rather God “justly” chose to withdraw. The Hebrews may have been “stiff-necked” in insisting to “carry out their violent proclivities,” but in doing so they were in some sense doing God’s will—while conveniently allowing God to remain “nonviolent.”

This is not how Jesus presents God—as allowing just punishment that results in mass murder. Jesus’s God is a God of mercy who loves the just and unjust alike. I don’t think this picture of God becomes more palatable when Boyd suggests that God suffered greatly because of this violence and God’s love for the Canaanites. Boyd seems to imply that the key element here is that God unavoidably had to “drink from this terrible cup” of the violence against the “Canaanite people whom he loved more profoundly than a parent could ever love their new born infant” (983). It is difficult to see that a God who could do otherwise but allows genocide against the Canaanite people could in any sense be seen as loving them in this way.

Boyd continues: “To remain in covenant with his fallen and culturally conditioned people, God, with a grieving heart, acquiesced to his people’s reliance on the sword” (984). I see many problems with this statement. The one I’ll note here is that the actual story in the “inspired, infallible” Bible describes the events very differently. The book of Joshua tells us that Conquest happened because the people relied on Yahweh instead of the sword (this is a key point emphasized by Millard Lind in Yahweh is a Warrior). The story goes to great lengths to present the Conquest as the work of God and that the Hebrews did not, in contrast to the other nations, create a centralized military apparatus or structure themselves with a warrior-king at the top of their pyramid of power (this did come later, clearly as a departure from God’s will for them).

The story also tells us that it was Yahweh who destroyed many Canaanites directly (the model here is Jericho) and directly commanded the Hebrews to destroy many others. There is little if any sense that these events happened the way they did due to the people’s lust for violence—and no sense that God resisted the violent path the Conquest followed.

The book of Joshua make the point that the Conquest was the working out of Yahweh’s will to destroy—and that the people were faithful enough (though not perfect) for this to happen. And there is little evidence of Yahweh’s “grieving heart” concerning the fate of the Canaanites. Because of this picture of a violent God, I don’t think the book of Joshua in isolation from the Big Story is revelatory. It is deeply problematic and has a terrible legacy. Boyd’s attempt to rewrite it is not persuasive—and seems like a strange way to treat a “God-breathed” and “infallible” text that comes to us the way it is because that is how God wanted it.

At the same time, in the context of the Big Story I do believe the Joshua story shows us some important things that contribute to a peaceable appropriation of the Bible: (1) We see in the Joshua story, reiterating the account of the exodus, a picture of what Millard Lind calls the theo-politics of ancient Israel. This is a politics with God and not a human king in the center where the survival of the community depends most of all on trust in God and not on gathered horses and chariots at the service of a centralized militaristic kingdom. (2) We also learn of the problems inherent from the start of territoriality, where violence is required to establish a boundaried political community and where the capability to sustain the promise would require faithfulness to Torah—a faithfulness very much in tension with the use of violence. This is only the beginning of a story that culminates in the rejection of territoriality in the name of a universal God. These two factors remain central in the vision of the thoroughly nonviolent Kingdom of God embodied in Jesus’s ministry.

Problems with trusting in the sword

Boyd has a good summary statement on the dynamics of Israel’s inevitable deterioration due to its trusting in the sword. “While Israel temporarily prospered under David and Solomon, its unfaithfulness to Yahweh, including its ongoing reliance on the sword, eventually led to the defeat and exile of the Northern Kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians and the defeat and exile of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians” (985).

I would interpret the dynamics a bit differently, though. Boyd is saying that they were the result of Israel not trusting in Yahweh’s plan for how they could be a territorial kingdom the “right way.” I’d say, in the context of the Big Story, the problem was territoriality itself—an approach that Yahweh ultimately abandons in principle (which is at the core of the politics of Jesus).

More on divine withdrawal

Boyd’s argument seems to boil down to his belief that the cross of Jesus defines everything else in the Bible. So, even when the Bible seems to say one thing, when we factor in the cross it is actually saying something different. “While OT authors sometimes attribute an active role to Yahweh in bringing about violence, the superior vantage point of the cross allows us to see that God, with a grieving heart, merely withdraws his protective presence, thereby allowing evil to run its self-destructive course. Hence, to say God ‘delivers over’ an army or nation is simply to say, ‘their protection is gone’” (999).

I appreciate Boyd’s desire to protect God’s nonviolence. I strongly agree with him in his assertion that the God of Jesus simply could not have done and ordered the kinds of things that the OT attributes to God. Furthermore, to me this is such an important point that I am deeply grateful to Boyd for insisting on it. However, but I can’t see how Boyd’s argument about how to apply his conviction about God’s nonviolence succeeds. I find it just as morally problematic to say that God withdrew “his protection” if God truly could have prevented the violence as it would be to say that God did directly cause the violence. Plus, it just seems like a far-fetched reading of the text that overrides what seems to be the clear intent of the writer.

Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic provides “an account of why God needed to acquiesce to [the violence of Joshua, etc.] and the fallen conception of God and why this material was allowed to be incorporated into the written witness of God’s covenantal faithfulness” (1001). It was to “bear witness to a God who not only respects the personhood of people even when they reject him but who also is willing to humbly stoop to bear the sin of his people as he continues to further his historical purposes through them, in the fallen condition he finds them…. [These passages, like] all Scripture, are ‘breathed’ by God for the ultimate purpose of bearing witness to the cross” (1001).

I find Boyd’s argument here to be too complicated to be persuasive. It seems as if Boyd is saying is that these stories are part of the infallible Bible because they show that God accommodates Godself to the fallenness of sinful humanity (even to the point of being egregiously misrepresented as the author of genocide) because that was how God chose to “further [God’s] historical purposes.” This is the same way God works in the cross. Part of the question for me is: What possible “historical purposes” would require the genocidal punishment of the Canaanites—or the incredible humiliation and torture of Jesus? I’d rather say God could not stop those things but does provide for some sense of meaning in them.

The next post in the series may be found here

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


5 thoughts on “Boyd’s “cruciform interpretation” of the Conquest [chapter 20]

  1. Pingback: Boyd’s critique of divine genocide defenders [chapter 19] | Peace Theology

  2. Pingback: Boyd and Old Testament Spiritual Warfare [chapter 21] | Peace Theology

  3. Rob

    “I find it just as morally problematic to say that God withdrew “his protection” if God truly could have prevented the violence as it would be to say that God did directly cause the violence. Plus, it just seems like a far-fetched reading of the text that overrides what seems to be the clear intent of the writer.”

    Perfectly summed up, Ted.

    It’s now approaching a year since I read CWG, and still I’m left wondering what possible benefit Boyd’s hermeneutic offers (over other non-violent hermeneutics) other than that it allows one to maintain a fairly rigid view of biblical inspiration and infallibility…?

    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      Thanks, Rob. I think the main value of Boyd’s approach is that he does vigorously assert the centrality of nonviolence in thinking about God and the Bible. But compared to other nonviolent hermeneutics, I would rate his approach pretty low.

      To allow readers to “maintain a fairly rigid view of biblical inspiration” seems more like a mark against Boyd’s approach than for it. As well, as seen just lately in a discussion at the CWG Facebook page, Boyd’s approach also allows readers to maintain a pretty retributive view of God—also a mark against Boyd!

      It strikes me that the Boyd acolytes I have encountered online seem to share his smugness and resistance to thoughtfully engage criticism. I started out being happy that he wrote this book; now I question whether it might not mostly be counterproductive. I plan to read Cross Purposes soon (but without a chapter by chapter critique!). I’ll reserve my final judgment until I finish it.

      1. Rob

        “To allow readers to “maintain a fairly rigid view of biblical inspiration” seems more like a mark against Boyd’s approach than for it.” Yes, of course – unless you’re someone for whom such a view of inspiration is seen as a vital credential.

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