From Herem to Hesed

Joshua 6:15-21New International Version (NIV)

15 On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. 16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! 17 The city and all that is in it are to be devoted[a] to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. 18 But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. 19 All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.”

20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

My friends, we have arrived. We have arrived at the conclusion of our four-part sermon series on how God is revealed to us. I’ve been using the metaphor of God’s revelation as a journey. First we find God in creation. The mountains, the sun, moon and stars all point us toward the Creator. Creation, I’ve said, is like a compass, which doesn’t tell us everything about our journey, but it points us in the right direction. We also need a map. Maps are made by people who come before us, people who have experienced the lay of the land. They know that there is a canyon over here, and a river over there, and the mapmakers pass that information on to us. Likewise, our Bibles are the accounts of those who have experienced God first hand. Our Bibles are a collection of divine encounters passed on to us for our spiritual, social, and physical journey.

Of course, our journey would not be complete without a destination, and our destination is Jesus. Our map, the Bible, brings us right to the destination, Jesus. And it is the Bible that tells us repeatedly that Jesus is the fullest and clearest revelation of who God is. In the past, God spoke through the prophets. In the New Testament, God spoke through his Son. If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus.

And while we are at it, let’s look at a few more guiding principles that we find in scripture. Malachi 3:6a says, “I the LORD do not change.” If God does not change, it should not surprise us that we find this in Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”

So we can say from these verses that if we look at Jesus, we see the clearest representation of who God is. And that isn’t just how God is today, that is how God was back in the New Testament days, back in the Old Testament days, and that is how God always will be.

Most days I find this helpful. Most days, but not all days. There are days when I read scripture like our text for this morning from Joshua 6–which is an instance of herem warfare, total destruction–and I must admit that I am confused. Jesus clearly teaches us to love our enemies. He tells stories about “Good Samaritans.” He even goes so far as to allow himself to be beaten, stripped naked, and crucified. He could have stopped that. Jesus said that he could call down legions of angels to fight for him, but he let the Romans humiliate and kill him.

And then he forgave them for killing him.

Today we are addressing the question of how to look at the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament because sometimes the God of the Old Testament just doesn’t look like Jesus. Now to be fair, the violent images of God in the OT are not the only images of God that we find in the first testament. The OT commonly speaks of God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love. Exodus 34:6b-7a is just one of many places where we read things like this profession of faith from the mouth of Moses, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” God is abounding in hesed, abounding in steadfast, unwavering love.

We must also keep in mind that God is often depicted as working toward some kind of peaceful vision, some type of peaceable kingdom. We read that the God of the Old Testament will one day lead the lion to lie down with the lamb. One day the God of the Old Testament will command his people to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. So don’t ever allow someone to set up this false dichotomy between the loving God we find in Jesus and the violent God of the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is still the God who is love. The God of the Old Testament is still the God who called out for forgiveness for those who crucified him.

But there are some passages that just don’t seem to fit, and I want to look at how we might approach those texts. For those of you who are expecting me to give the definitive answer on these passages today, I want to warn you that you will be disappointed. Nothing that I’m about to say has “fixed” these problem texts for me, but some approaches have been helpful. I’m going to be drawing a lot from two books, Philip Jenkins’s Laying Down the Sword, and Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God. FYI, Boyd’s popular version of this book will come out in August of 2017, which is about 1200 pages shorter than the original tome.

Boyd lays out three approaches to dealing with violent images of God in the Old Testament which we will look at briefly. He calls these approaches “Dismissal, Synthesis, and Reinterpretation.”

Dismissal is a strong word, and it can have a spectrum of meaning. For instance, around the year 144 AD a Christian theologian named Marcion was excommunicated from the church and labeled a heretic. Marcion presented a version of the Bible that only included eleven books, the Gospel of Luke and the writings of Paul. Marcion threw out the Old Testament and much of the New because it did not line up with his understanding of the God revealed in Jesus. Marcion was the ultimate dismissalist, which would make it a lot easier to read the Bible all the way through in a year.

If someone calls you a Marcionite, don’t take it as a compliment.

But you don’t have to be an outright Marcionite to be in the category of a dimissalist. Sometimes, when presented with these problem texts about herem warfare, you will hear someone say something along the lines of “God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts. God is beyond our comprehension.” That is true, and it is biblical. Yet this too is dismissing the text and does not really engage the scripture.

I would put Philip Jenkins in the category of dismissal too, even though he is a Christian scholar who works at a conservative Christian college. Jenkins, and others like him, don’t throw out the entire Old Testament, but they would question whether events like the herem warfare found in Joshua and Deuteronomy ever really happened. The truth is that archeology has not to this date found evidence that these wars occurred. So dismissalists often say that it is more likely that there was a small battle, but that years later, when these books were written down, the people injected their own ideas about God ordering complete annihilation of the people and animals. The idea is that God didn’t really command this, but the ancient people, who lacked our modern understanding justice and righteousness, wrote these things about God. These passages about herem warfare reflect the ideology and interpretation of God common among the people during the exile period.

The dismissal approach is really tempting, mostly because it is the easiest. It is really easy to just say that these things didn’t really happen, that God didn’t really command the annihilation of entire people groups. But if we take a high view of scripture, we can’t just dismiss the text. And just because archeology hasn’t proven that these events took place as they are listed, archeology also hasn’t proven that these events haven’t taken place.

Along the spectrum of dismissalists you will find people who try to spiritualize this event and others who will say this was meant to be read allegorically. This is a common approach where people preach on the walls of Jericho falling down in our lives. God brings down the walls of addiction, the walls of seduction, the walls of sin. Really, these people are trying to avoid the difficult teaching in these passages without neglecting the passage altogether.

I’m not comfortable with the dismissalist approach, regardless of where it might fall along the spectrum, so let’s see what other options are out there.

The Synthesis approach is simply an attempt to make a smooth transition from one testament to the next. The approach that I find the most helpful under the synthesis rubric is sometimes called “Divine Accommodation.” As I mentioned earlier, God’s goal has always been peace. But also remember that God never forces human beings toward anything, but is drawing us closer and closer to his will. However, often we are not ready. So God accommodates, God meets us where we are.

In Genesis 4 we find a brief story about Lamech. God has just made a promise to Cain that if anyone harms Cain, they will experience vengeance seven times over. Then Lamech starts boasting in verses 23-24, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

Don’t mess with Lamech, or you will pay for it seventy-seven times!

If we turn to the next book of the Bible, we find this in Exodus 21:23-25, “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Rather than allowing a punishment of seventy-seven times the offense, now the Torah is specifying that there is equal punishment for a crime.

Fast forward to the New Testament, and we find Jesus say this in Matthew 5:38-40, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

And let’s look quick at Matthew 18:22. Peter has just asked Jesus how many times he needs to forgive someone who offends him. Peter even has a suggestion, maybe up to seven times? “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”

I find it very interesting that Jesus uses the exact number that Lamech had used way back in Genesis 4.

Divine accommodation says that God meets us where we are; these verses reveal a progressive ethic. Lamech wants revenge seventy-seven times; God wants forgiveness. But instead, knowing that the people weren’t ready for that, God offers the teaching of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Then, when Jesus, the fullest revelation of God comes along, Jesus reveals God ultimate goal. Don’t take an eye for an eye. Don’t exact revenge seventy-seven times. Forgive people.

So if God always wanted to move in the direction of peaceful resolution and forgiveness, why didn’t God just give the people the teaching that Jesus offered thousands of years earlier? When God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, God uses a phrase to describe the Israelites. Exodus 32:9, “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.” Repeatedly, the Old Testament refers to the Israelites as stiff-necked people. They need a masseuse or a chiropractor!

This was a reference to the oxen who were used to plow the fields. The oxen had strong necks upon which a yolk was placed. Oxen are strong, but boy are they stubborn! So God calls the Israelites stiff-necked, and elsewhere we read about the hardness of heart that the Israelites suffered from. So if a chiropractor isn’t the solution, maybe they need a cardiologist.

On issues like monogamy, violence, lust, and anger we see God bending a bit to meet people where they are so that he can bring them closer to him. To quote Boyd, “God meets people where they are, not where he wishes they were” (399).

I think that is all well and good, but it doesn’t help with why God commanded the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. There is a difference between allowing violence and commanding it! Let’s look now at what Boyd calls the “Reinterpretation” approach.

Boyd’s central thesis is that all scripture must be interpreted through the cross of Jesus. All scripture, even the ones dealing with herem warfare. On the cross we see the length to which God is willing to go in order to save us. The cross was never God’s plan, it was his solution. So again, we see God bending a bit. And when God bends, God takes our sin upon himself.

Now look at some of these violent texts. In Exodus 23:23 God says, “My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” That sounds pretty violent, but we are probably reading that with our modern understanding of what it means to wipe out a people group. When I think of wiping out someone, I think of total destruction. But this could mean to wipe them away, out of the city.

Look at the details we are given just a few verses later in 28-30, “I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you.”

God’s plan for the acquisition of the Promised Land was not for the Israelites to enter into herem warfare. The plan was for God to slowly remove the other people from the land by literally bugging them until they left! And if we look at Leviticus 18:28, we get an even clearer picture of what was to happen: “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” The land itself will cause the people to leave. It will vomit them out.

But again, these are a stiff-necked people. Boyd quotes John Howard Yoder in saying, “Each [of these passages] helps confirm that if the Israelites had been able to place their trust in Yahweh, the Canaanites ‘would have withdrawn without violence.’”

God said, “I’ll send my hornet.” The people heard, “I’ll give you victory!” God said, “The land will vomit them out.” The people heard, “You will overtake them!” God acquiesced. God met the people where they were.

How does this point us to the cross? Well if killing the people was not God’s original plan, then it misses God’s perfect mark. We would call that sin. In this scenario, who takes the blame for the sin of killing the people? God does. The blame falls upon the shoulders of God. God literally bears the sin of the people, God accommodates the stiff-necked people. God meets them where they are to bring them to where he wants them to be.

Does the idea of God bearing the sins of people by allowing them and even commanding them to use violence solve the problem of violence in the Old Testament? Maybe not, but it does seem consistent with who God is. God accommodates and takes our sins upon himself.

One thing that we must keep in mind is that no matter how we read these problem texts from the Old Testament, it does not change how we are called to live today. The scriptures that Jesus had were our Old Testament, but he still called his followers to forgive, love, and live in peace. So no matter what was done, the question must turn to what we should do today.

I heard a debate this past week on Christian radio about whether or not it is okay for a Christian to carry a concealed handgun. The debate was between a Mennonite pacifist and the editor of Christian Concealed Magazine. I heard a lot of the same old arguments from both sides, but one statement from the gentleman arguing in favor of carrying handguns said something along the lines of, “Do you really believe that God asks different things of his followers in the Old Testament than in the New Testament?”

His debate partner was a little nicer than I might be, because I responded out loud (though I knew he couldn’t hear me), “Yes, you don’t?”

Let me think about that as I offer my sacrifice on the altar and prepare my lunch, making sure not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk. Maybe we can talk about it some more over lobster or a pork chop. We might have to take a break from our conversation, though, because at noon there will be a public stoning at the city gate of a woman who was caught in adultery. There is a section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you.” Most of those antitheses are quotations from the Old Testament that Jesus changes, tweaks, or adjusts, often making the teaching more intense.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. No, God does not change. God will always be the God who take our sin upon himself. But it is very clear that what God expects of us and what God calls us to changes. God calls us from herem to hesed.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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