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.