Ted Grimsrud—July 26, 2021
In Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?: Wrestling with Troubling War Texts, William Webb and Gordon Oeste have given us a clearly written, comprehensive, and helpful treatment of the perennial challenge Christians face in seeking to understand the writings on divinely approved violence in the Old Testament. While overtly addressing a fairly narrow evangelical audience, the authors are sophisticated and insightful enough that anyone interested in this issue will find their book to be of value.
Webb and Oeste focus on two deeply troubling themes in the Old Testament, the stories of God-approved genocide along with what they call “war rape.” Theauthors argue that the “traditional view” of Old Testament violence is not adequate. This view holds that factual accounts of profoundly violent genocidal war in our present day are “roughly equivalent to what was happening in the biblical text” (34). And the presence of such accounts that (accurately) attribute such violence to God and God’s people should not trouble people of faith today. The traditional view sees: (1) God to be the source of the holy war commands, (2) biblical holy war to have “lofty and good purposes,” (3) the enemies of Israel to be evil and deserving of such violence, and (4) the holy wars to prefigure the final judgment at the end of time (34-35).
Webb and Oeste are actually fairly sympathetic with the traditional view. They dismiss without discussion what they call the “antitraditional view” (20). They write: “We do not develop the differences between our view and that antitraditional view. This omission reflects our intention that this book primarily addresses readers who either hold or have been raised within the traditional view” (20-21). This move significantly limits their potential audience—and seems unfortunate because many of those who have come to question their traditional views have found writers such as Eric Seibert and C.S. Cowles (the two examples of the antitraditional view cited by Webb and Oeste) to be helpful because, in spite of the impression given by Webb and Oeste, they share many theological convictions. Engagement with their views would have made Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? stronger.
The biggest problem the authors have with the traditional view is its tendency to see too close a connection between the Old Testament violence and our present-day. They are concerned about present Christian acceptance of war and strongly disagree with the traditional view’s understanding of the place of literal violence in the final judgment.
Webb and Oeste look closely at texts that describe “war rape” and at texts that describe the “total-kill” of ancient Israel’s enemies. They also discuss the main alternative to the “total-kill” approach in dealing with the enemies, the “drive out” strategy. They emphasize what they call “hyperbole” in the descriptions of violence. The Old Testamentaccounts often greatly exaggerate the details of the various violent incidents. The use of hyperbole was typical in ancient near eastern war rhetoric in general and understandably is present in the biblical literature from the same time.
Due to the use of hyperbole, the actual events were not nearly as severe as the biblical accounts seem to indicate when taken at face value. “While lives were undoubtedly lost, not everyone was killed, and genocide did not take place…. Israel fought its wars in much the same way as did other ancient armies” (173). This view makes a lot of sense, but we are left with the question of whether the authors might be stretching their evangelical doctrine of scripture a bit far. Aren’t they saying that the Bible’s accounts actually are not accurate in how they describe the violent incidents?
Webb and Oeste argue that the key goal with the violent incidents in the Bible was to make it more possible for the children of Israel to offer exclusive worship to Yahweh, not the destruction of the Canaanites per se. The emphases in the story of entry in the promised land and the establishment of the Hebrew kingdom are, we could say, positive in showing why God is worthy of worship—not negative in focusing on getting rid of the Canaanites. This seems like a helpful way to decenter the violence—even if problems do still remain at a lesser level.
Webb and Oeste also make the helpful point that as the story proceeds it moves away from valorizing warfare. In fact, once human kingship is established and the kings begin their inevitable turning away from Torah, warfare becomes more and more of a problem. Chapter 14 (“Yahweh as Uneasy War God: The Subversive War Tests”) provides important evidence of anti-war sensibilities of the Old Testament itself. This important chapter should have played a more central role in the book’s argument, I think. The authors cite numerous examples that show that Yahweh often did not embrace warism.
The undeveloped insights of chapter 14 point to one of the biggest problems with Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? The reader never learns that along with containing much that affirms violence, the Old Testament actually even more presents peace as the core calling of God’s people. The pro-violence materials should be seen to be subservient to the pro-peace materials. God creates what is as an act of shalom-making according to Genesis 1 and 2. At key moments in the stories of the patriarchs, we see extraordinary deeds of peacemaking (e.g., Esau’s response to Jacob and Joseph’s response to his brothers). Yahweh liberates the Hebrews from enslavement and presents them with a blueprint in Torah for an alternative-to-Egypt society that lifts up the vulnerable as the measuring rod of the health of the nation. Throughout the generations of the territorial kingdom, prophets rise up as the voice of God calling the people back to a Torah-centered life of shalom.
The key incidents of violence, especially in the conquest of Canaan, should be seen as elements of a failed strategy of centering the living out of the promise to Abraham in the context of a territorial kingdom. This kingdom inevitably descends into the ways of power politics and structural injustice—and, as the prophets taught, for that reason was overthrown and replaced by a Torah-centered politics. Webb and Oeste make the common mistake of reading the war texts as standalone stories of immense violence. An approach that emphasizes the Bible as a whole would recognize that those “difficult texts” serve, in the overall story the Bible tells, to help Christians better understand how the workings of God with the people of the promise culminated in the one revered as the Prince of Peace.
To their credit, the authors do provide a helpful brief account of how Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension bring peace, though they could have brought his life and teaching into this account in a more central way. Their discussion of “Jesus as Apocalyptic Warrior” (chapter 16) is terrific, though. They make it clear that the outcome of the biblical story is not a vision of catastrophic, world-ending, God-initiated violence. Rather, the finale is God’s healing of the cosmos through the persevering, suffering love of Jesus.
So, overall, this is a solid book notable for its seriousness and honesty. I do think that if the final three chapters had played a more central role in the examination of the violent texts, the book would have been even more helpful.