If you’re a proponent of nonviolence, you will definitely hear the question: what about the conquest of Canaan? How does this fit with the call to nonviolence? How does this “violent” God fit with the nonviolent Jesus? Numerous books have engaged this issue and the problem of God’s violence, often focusing on the Old Testament (usually meaning the conquest recorded in Joshua). These questions must be answered carefully because the answers given have far-reaching implications and not simply for our view of nonviolence. My contention is that Christian pacifists must affirm certain points of continuity between Joshua, Jeremiah, and Jesus—conquest, exile, and cross—or else they may undermine the central logic of the biblical narrative and, along with it, our doctrine of God.
One popular answer is that the conquest narratives record Israel’s projection onto God rather than God’s actual instructions to Israel. God is not really judging the inhabitants of Canaan with Israel as his instrument, its proponent say, Israel is simply rationalizing its own selfish drive to possess the land. In order to transcend Israel’s faulty and murderous self-justification, they then encourage us to read later texts, such as the Gospels, over against these problematic earlier texts. The more this interpretation prevails the more popular it has become to speak of “God’s violence” rather than “God’s justice” or “God’s judgment.” After all, if unseemly OT texts simply amount to human projections onto God, then we create “God” in our violent image rather than witness to a God who is just in all his ways. So the idea that the conquest narratives are projections onto God correlates closely with talk of divine violence.
Yet there is a fatal flaw with this interpretive approach. In the biblical narrative, the logic of conquest, exile, and cross are actually tied together. The way we approach one determines how we approach all three. The logic of the conquest is better interpreted as God judging sinful people through his chosen instrument. God is patient; he does not bring Israel out of Egypt until the Canaanites’ evil has reached its fullness (Gen. 15:16). Even if God’s choosing of Israel as his people is unmerited, God’s judgment on the Canaanites is merited and just. Note, of course, that the conquest is not given as a repeatable pattern for Israel or for Christians. Even so, the notion that “God judges sinful people through a chosen instrument” is repeated in Scripture, most notably in the exile.
If you think the conquest narratives are problematic, the exile narratives are more so. In terms of sheer volume, the Bible talks far more about God’s judgment on disobedient Israel through Assyria and Babylon than it does about God’s judgment on the Canaanites. In terms of judgment and terror, the narrative in Joshua is quite tame in comparison to the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28, which promise Israel that the destruction of one’s family, land, and property will drive people mad, that the horror experienced by Israel will become a “byword among the nations,” and that parents will cannibalize their own children. As Jeremiah laments, “With their own hands, compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed” (Lamentations 4:10). If the idea that “God judges sinful people through a chosen instrument” is a projection, then no one is projecting more than the biblical prophets who warn God’s covenant people repeatedly to turn or suffer the consequences.
Jesus, exile, and the cross
But there is a further consequence. Jesus saw himself as ending the exile, the time of God’s judgment that would continue until the Messiah came to restore and commission God’s people as light to the nations. The time of God’s judgment (Deut. 28) was coming to an end, the sins of Israel were going to be forgiven (Matthew 1:21), and God’s people were going to experience the renewal promised in Deuteronomy 30:1-10. How was the exile going to end? In the cross, Jesus himself was going to bear and exhaust the covenant curse that applies to all who break covenant with God. He will be the suffering servant who fully bears and bears away the just judgment of God upon sin.
But if accounts of God’s judgment are mere projections, of course, then Jesus’s beliefs about the exile and his own role in bringing about the end of exile were wrong. But if Jesus’s account of Israel’s covenant and his role in relation to it was wrong, then Jesus doesn’t reveal Israel’s God. Far from it, he reveals his own confusion and ignorance by projecting onto God the idea that he had to die for the sins of his people (a confusion then perpetuated throughout the rest of the New Testament). And of course if Jesus was confused about what the Father wanted, then he was neither the Messiah nor the eternal Son. In other words, if you pay close attention to the biblical narrative, you cannot consistently interpret Joshua as a projection onto God and Jesus as the full revelation of God.
Jesus and the justice of God
Closer attention to Jesus clarifies what we mean when we talk about nonviolence. Jesus certainly was nonviolent. But he also talked about exacting judgment as the Danielic Son of Man, that is, as the rightful judge and ruler of all nations. Echoing the Old Testament prophets, Jesus symbolically enacts the destruction of the Temple, curses the present religious regime, and says that the day of the revealing of the Son of Man will be as the days of Noah and Lot for those who do not believe. What happens in A.D. 70? Exactly what Jesus said: Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. What happened in Joshua 10 and Jeremiah 52 happens again. If we are going to classify Joshua 10 as a projection, then we should also classify Jeremiah 52 and Matthew 24:1-2 as projections, for the same theological framework undergirds all three.
Pacifism and the justice of God
So what’s a pacifist to do? Here are two reasons why I have no problem affirming Christ-centered pacifism while also affirming God’s justice, as seen in the conquest, exile, and cross.
We have to give a thick description of the conquest narratives.
John Howard Yoder identifies five principles for thinking through these texts. First, don’t make hasty interpretations that try to jump straight from “what they did” to “what we should do.” Second, interpret the meaning of the text in terms of the cultural options of the time. Third, identify what is translatable here to other places and times. Fourth, read this in the context of the whole Bible, including the New Testament. Fifth, recognize that the question of rightness/wrongness of killing is not the primary theological or ethical focus of these kinds of texts.
Yoder is right: we have to actually pay attention to the text itself. These are not wars that follow the pattern of other nations. Instead, they employ laughable military strategies, such as having a parade around Jericho. You’re not going to find that in the Pentagon’s playbook. John Nugent points out that the holy war in Joshua is part of “a holistic political orientation that stands as an alternative to humanly devised strategies for security and well-being that depend on numerical, technological and martial supremacy.” Because the conquest narrative is not depicted as normal military maneuvering, it cannot be taken as validation for such in our day. The point of holy war in the context of the overarching biblical story is that God miraculously delivers his people and that they must trust him alone for their survival. When we read the Bible canonically and directionally, as Nugent suggests, we can understand why God’s people no longer need war to defend their existence without having to make recourse to “projection” as the explanation for the conquest.
To say that God can justly and providentially judge is not a call to arms.
Many people think that if one affirms that God commanded Israel to do what they did in Joshua, then it implies God’s stamp of approval on any and all actions of war (or at least just war). But this is not at all the case. I affirm God’s providential use of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome to judge, but that does not mean that the actions of the rulers or armies of those nations were morally good. For example, after Isaiah notes that God is going to use Assyria to judge, his application of the message is not “Go join the Assyrian army”; for they too will be judged in turn for their wickedness (Isa. 10). Likewise, when Jesus notes that Jerusalem will be judged, he doesn’t encourage his followers to defect to the Roman armies.
The point of all this is recognizing God’s proper place and authority to judge. God has the right to do this; we do not. One could even make the case that Jesus didn’t either until his death, resurrection, and ascension. Our language here is important. Scholars such as Willard Swartley and Peter Leithart point out that the Bible never uses the term “violence” for God. Violence is connected to “violation” or sin against someone. God does not violate or sin against his creatures. So we might ask why some insist on using this term to talk about God’s action. It is not consistent with biblical language and testimony about God. And here’s the rub: the God created by those who insist on talking about divine “violence” is more a projection than the God attested to by Joshua, Jeremiah, and Jesus. A violent God rather than a just God is the product of the contemporary failure to read Scripture closely, faithfully, and directionally. Only when we understand the continuity between Joshua, Jeremiah, and Jesus will we move from projection to reality.