|From flickr by Adam Dimmick|
A second possible way of making sense of the violence of the Old Testament, particularly related to war, is to recognize that Moses, Joshua, and David were Israel’s heroes. They were warrior-saints. These stories were written down long after their time to inspire others to courage and absolute commitment to God.
An analogy would be the story of William Wallace of Scotland. Wallace died in 1305, but to this day he is a legendary hero in Scotland. He fought against the English in the wars for Scottish independence. Every Scottish child is taught about William Wallace. Memorials to him are found throughout the country. Sir Walter Scott expanded the legend with his writings. And Wallace’s story was told in the 1995 Oscar-winning film Braveheart, with Mel Gibson playing the part of Wallace. Only the English criticized Wallace’s methods in war, accusing him of killing civilians. In Scotland he’s remembered for his heroism.
Here’s what I’m suggesting: Perhaps the stories of the conquest of Canaan were to ancient Israelites what the stories of William Wallace are to the Scots. Written long after the time of these heroes, they were meant to demonstrate courage, resolve, and faith and to inspire later generations still struggling against their own enemies. These stories were written from the theological perspective of the ancient Near East, where gods sent heroes into battle and fought alongside them. No one reads Sir Walter Scott’s book on William Wallace to find a model of ethics of war. They read it to be inspired by a national hero.
The same was true of the Book of Joshua.
There’s a lot more about this topic that should be said; entire books have been devoted to addressing the issue of violence in the Bible. My goal is to point you toward some possible ways of making sense of this violence without justifying it. The answers that make the most sense to me require that we recognize the humanity of the Bible’s authors, their intent in writing, and the culture that shaped them. This approach also invites us to question those parts of Scripture where God is portrayed in a way inconsistent with Jesus’s life and message. Where a particular teaching in Scripture is at odds with what Jesus said, we are right to consider that the passage may reflect the culture, the worldview, or the perspectives of the human author of Scripture rather than the timeless heart, character, and will of God.