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Mike K

Thanks John for the interaction. I think I probably need to read how more OT theologians have wrestled with the issue, from Goldingay or Brueggeman or Childs have wrestled with the issue. I still find that Joshua's attempt to preserve the holiness of the community by "imagining" (Albright's conquest model not vindicated by the archaeological record and contradicted by other literary evidence in Judges and even parts of Joshua) a situation where they rid the other peoples of the land to morally fall short of the higher ideals laid out in both Testaments (the call to social justice, loving the alien, loving one's enemy). But there is material in the New Testament that should equally disturb us, such as images of Gehenna that maybe should likewise be historically contextualized (the cry for justice and reversal of oppression) and should be judged in the same light? So I do not really know if I have an answer to this question, but happy to continue the conversation.

Bob MacDonald

I suspect you are right in promoting this to a law and grace issue. I wonder if it is possible to use the holy law without prejudgment.



The book of Joshua probably poses as many ethical problems for me as it does you, but I think you fail to compare apples to apples when you compare the conquests of Joshua with the call to social justice, loving the alien, loving one's enemy.

The theory and practice of war as found in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and beyond: is it similar to our own, or radically different? That would be comparing apples to apples from my point of view.

The fact of the matter: the way war was fought in WW I and WW II, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, to name examples in which the US was a perpetrator, not to mention massacres perpetrated by others, such as the Armenian genocide and the rape of Nanking, make it clear that war has become more brutal, not less, since the days of herem in Iron Age Syria-Palestine.

As bad as war was in Iron Age Syria-Palestine, with the practice of herem (proscription of entire villages, man and beast, woman and child, with property also utterly destroyed) now attested for Israel, Moab, and ancient South Arabia, the way Europeans and Americans have fought war in the last centuries is even worse.

That's the first responsible question to ask: why has war and other acts of aggression, since the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, outdone all previous ages in destruction and horror? Improved technology is not a sufficient answer.

Furthermore, generally speaking, people in our day do not care a wit about the killing that is going on every day as we sip our coffee in Africa. This is the example I've paid the most attention to:

I don't know what to make of people who get all upset about the "African" style of warfare in the book of Joshua, but won't lift a finger to stop African warfare going on this very moment.

Gary Simmons sent me a link that shows that not everyone is asleep at the switch:

For the rest, Goldingay in his trilogy does a remarkable job of covering the bases on this issue - without resolution.

Justin R

There are some weird instances in the New Testament that reveal how pacifism and love can be retributive in and of themselves. For instance take Romans 12:20, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in doing this, you are pouring hot coals on his head." Atleast to me, love is not opposed to the imprecatory Psalms, but it actually is the way that they are brought to fulfillment. Love as vengeance, should we expect any less than an another Biblical paradox.

Justin R

On a side note, Paul takes this ethic from the Old Testament. Proverbs 25:21-22 to be specific.


It's typical of the Bible to accept the full range of human emotions and think of them as springboards for good or evil. It's typical of modern thinking to imagine that it's fine to do objective evil if your heart is in the right place.

Where does the commandment to love one's enemies come from? From the Old Testament. Of course:


i'm finding this series of discussions fascinating. Although I can't quite get my head around the whole thing. Especially contracting John's opinions here with the likes of Matt Page who posts on Doug Chaplin's blog with:
"From my reading it seems that the OT is almost obsessed by violent vengenace and a God threatens and carries out violent punishment on a regular basis. Everyone knows that Joshua is difficult, and the odd Psalms, but the prophets go on and on and on about it. We tend to read them in a way that picks out the odd positive verse, and this creates the shared illusion that the prophets are largely positive. But when you actually work through the text more systematically it’s plainly rubbish. "


I think Matt Page is right to contextualize the Psalms and Joshua in a larger group of texts, the prophets for sure, former and latter, texts which think of justice and reconciliation and reparation in ways that are light years away from whatever set of presuppositions Matt is working from. Of course, vast swathes of the NT should be just as problematic for Matt as is the OT.

It might be helpful to begin with an analysis of modern concepts of justice, retribution, and so on. We live in a world in which the lifestyle we take for granted is the direct consequence of draconian applications of retributive justice. But we pretend otherwise.


Phil-style "contracting" or contrasting?

goose/gander and all that! ;-)


oops, well spotted terri,a typo on my part. "contrasting" is what I intended.

Thank for the reply John.


An Arabic lexicographer once said that every word in Arabic has four meanings: its primary meaning; the opposite; something to do with sex; and something to do with camels.

Substitute "politics" or "religion" for "camels" and you have a description of English lexicography.


I need an explanation.

If Joshua isn't "true", in the sense of historical fact, as some have suggested by the lack of archaeological evidence....then why is important to retain the text as a proof of God's anger/wrath/what have you.

Is it even relevant to the discussion?

If it's an imagination and not based on can we ascribe it as a "true" attribute of God?


John if you'll allow me to spread your comment "justice and reconciliation and reparation in ways that are light years away from whatever set of presuppositions Matt is working from" out a little further over the bread?

Would it be fair to say that the ancients saw God as their only/greatest chance for justice (albeit retributive)? Obviously, their idea of justice would be tied (however losely) to the notion that an evil doer should be paid back in kind for his deeds. Thus destruction would be "just", retributively, for any prior invasions/sackings or any number of other horrific activities.

Transporting that theme of God into modern times, it cuold be compared to viewing God now as the ultimate and final determinant of retributive justice. I would point to the Nuremberg Trials as an example of such "justice" in action. Would it be too unreasonable for a survivor in 1946-1948 to demand that God 'hang their enemies from ropes until the life was taken from them'? It sounds horrible, taken in isolation; but given the circumstances, even to our modern ears, most people would probably agree that it was just.



Great questions. I'm happy you are asking them. Most people don't have the courage. Even fewer people have the chutzpah to think out loud about possible answers and possible ways of framing the questions in a constructive way.

But you've come to the right place. I'm a firm believer in taking on, as fearlessly as possible, these kind of questions.

First of all, it is a misleading to suggest, as is sometimes done, that the difficulties in correlating details in the book of Joshua with the archeological record means that there wasn't a conquest of some sort. That is a non sequitur.

Some of the difficulties have to do with the incompleteness of the record extant to date. Other difficulties have to do with the complexities of the ethnogenesis of Israel the biblical texts themselves make us aware of.

For example, 1 Chronicles elides the conquest and constructs a narrative in which all the emphasis is on tribes having settled in their ancestral lands earlier, and without a fight.

If 1 Chronicles preserves cultural memories which correspond to some degree with what happened once upon a time ("correspond," however, as do traditional accounts of the settlement of America via the single example of the Pilgrims - by way of simplification and abstraction), then the "peaceful infiltration" model is to some degree correct.

Secondly, Numbers-Joshua-Judges speak of defeats and non-conquest with startling frequency, right alongside of other passages that say, "We beat the crap out of them." Well, in some sense, the latter must be the case. At the time this literature was composed, a half millennium after the time period narrated (kind of like the Iliad and the Odyssey in ancient Greece), the former enemies of Israel really had been either circumscribed, subjugated, or more or less completely wiped out, nothing but distant (and hazy) memories. The only surprising thing is that cultural memories of defeat, not just victory, have been preserved. Take a look at historiographical texts from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Such honesty is nowhere to be found.

Thirdly, if Judges 5 (Deborah's poem) provides a window into goings-on in the formative days, and, along with Lawrence Stager and others I think it does, then the "internal revolution model" to some degree corresponds to the way things went.

But fourthly, I think a credible case can be made that conquest and, in particular, the use of herem (the proscription of entire villages, man and beast, woman and child, all property) was a feature of warfare in the pre-monarchic period and probably later. Herem is attested in Moab and South Arabia in the Iron Age.

It is a shocking practice, as shocking as are all "scorched-earth" tactics in warfare. But let's be clear. "Scorched-earth" tactics have been a constant in warfare up until the present.

Sometimes they are used out of pure spite. But more often, I would suggest, they have been used in good faith. For example, the Allies fire-bombed Dresden and the US annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki based on a calculation that such would shorten the war and lead to less total loss of life and limb, certainly for their own side, than otherwise would have been the case.

It is also clear that herem was controversial in ancient Israel. Just look at the account of Saul and the Amalekites in 1 Sam 15.

The hard thing about that passage, at least for people who want to wish away the hard realities of war - I fall into that category as much as the next well-adjusted middle-class human being, but not as a historian or an anthropologist - is that the text supports a "no-mercy" policy in warfare in which what is contended is land one considers one's own, and the security of one's own nation.

Speaking as a historian and an anthropologist, a way has ever been found to do without a "no-mercy" policy. If history is examined with objectivity, when the going gets rough, it kicks in with almost mechanical regularity.

In short, I think we need to give ourselves and the constants of warfare down through the ages a long hard look and only then re-examined the relevant passages in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.

One possible response: okay, that's how things are. At least we can be thankful that Pattonesque statements are not found in scripture:

This response bothers me greatly from several points of view. The one that comes to me right away is that Patton, though a complete jerk, was in the right place at the right time and we are all in his debt. There are still people around who served under him. I have one in my congregation, now in his 90s. They cannot indulge in the kind of denial that so many people do, and simply write off people like Sherman, Patton, and MacArthur as beyond the pale.

Another possible response: Isn't it shameful that God is conceived of as requiring scorched-earth tactics? To which I would respond, Isn't it even more shameful to engage in scorched-earth tactics *without* being convinced that to do so is the right thing to do (which is equivalent to saying the principle of justice, God, requires it)?



"However losely" - LOL. A Freudian psychologist would have a heyday with this thread.

Yes, I agree with you, and I would love to see smijer contribute to this thread:

The word people often use today for revenge is closure. For example, in some states, surviving family of a murder victim are invited to provide input at parole hearings for the perp. Even the most liberal of people talk about recommending that the perp stay in forever on grounds of "closure." And the parole board listens.

Is this right or wrong? For the moment I would simply point out that it is perfectly understandable.


I had better sharpen up on my comment's spelling for this blog ;)


Hi, John... I'm jumping in quickly without having time to follow the conversation quickly, just to mention one thing that I disagree with you on... you said this: "That’s why I got a speeding ticket for $225 a few months ago. That was retributive justice, and I haven’t speeded since." I would call the theory of justice that supports this principle "deterrence" rather than retribution. Deterrent effects (and other positive effects) are part of the appeal of retaliation or retribution, but when considering what differentiates retribution from these other efforts, I find that the core notion of retribution cannot be supported in terms of an ethical theory of justice. I'll try to visit back more this evening.


Thanks, smijer. You are right that I'm blurring together things that, at least to some extent, can be disentangled. And I think the effort to do so is worth it.

I look forward to future discussion. You know by now my modus operandi. I will seek to emphasize disagreements as much or more than agreements in accord, as it were, with the Socratic method.


Wow. I will excuse myself in advance by saying that it has been a very long day, and I am past exhausted. But I will take the opportunity to add my perspective to the conversation, and I thank you for the opportunity.

I suppose I shouldn't have made it sound quite so easy to disentangle retribution from other effects such as deterrence. It is my view that the human tendency for retribution evolved exactly for the purpose of deterrence. Studies have shown that humans have a psychological impetus to punish wrongdoing that is not rooted in philosophical theories of justice. It is hypothesized that, prior to the development of abstract notions of justice, a disposition in favor of retaliation served an adaptive purpose in terms of creating a deterrent: fear of retaliation. I am inclined to agree with this hypothesis.

Here is where I feel notional justice and genetic disposition in favor of retaliation diverge: if notional justice is to have any meaning apart from "whatever we (are born to) like", then it must be a philosophical notion first.

I think it is inescapable that at some point along the line, our inborn preferences for social well-being are bound to inform our notions of justice. But, it need not be at the level of indulging every impulse. In fact, we can define justice in very general terms that do not necessarily validate our every impulse.

In light of this, the only definition of justice that seems useful and meaningful is that of creating a right situation: one in which some balance on the values of life, liberty, health, and happiness is the goal to be maximized.

We need not all agree on the exact balance, but we can generally agree on the broad outlines of it, provided we are all looking at the biggest picture we are capable of.

Having done so, we can define justice in terms of what we can reasonably expect to work toward that end.

Where in our evolutionary past, our ancestors had to rely on an instinctive notion of retribution that might have protected their ability to procreate but might not have truly maximized "the good", in the modern world we can work toward solutions that minimize evil and maximize the good. This can (and should, in my view) take the form of a systematic theory of justice. So the difference is that retribution is a rough outline of justice - so rough that it can sometimes serve evil more easily than good (think of the condemnation of the innocent to death, harsh punishments - amputation or death - for minor infractions like petty theft, the results of vigilante justice, the genetic confusion that allows lynchings where the victim doesn't look like the perpetrator's tribe)... and justice is careful to avoid as much of that evil as possible and careful to at least attempt to maximize the good for all persons.

I'm tempted to join the fray over "scorched-earth tactics" and "genocide", and what examples of either in the Bible say about the Bible or the theory of God that comes from a conservative theology of it. I fear that would be boring. I feel that you could predict many of my views just by knowing that I am on the leftward end of the political spectrum, and that I am a non-believer in the supernatural as popularly construed. I'll simply say that I see an inconsistency in belief that God commanded, endorsed, or even tolerated genocide against the Canaanites and the belief that God, by any definition of the word that conveys meaning to English speaking humans, is "Good". ... Well, I'll add also that I think that neither is the case. I think that the Canaanite genocide depicted in Joshua is probably not entirely historical, that it was not commanded by God, and that in any case whatever is real and transcendent - God, if you will - doesn't conform to human notions of "goodness". To call what is real and transcendent - be it "nature" or "YHWH" - "good" is to anthropomorphize in a misleading way.


Thanks, smijer.

You write very well even at the end of a long day.

I find your description of the evolution of the distinction between retribution and justice eerily similar to the narrative trajectory of the Bible beginning with Cain and Lamech, continuing through Moses' murder of an oppressive taskmaster, interrupted by the gift of the Torah and the conquest of the promised land, with the rule of anarchic retaliation reinstated in the period of the Judges, filled with all manner of examples of vigilante justice, superseded then, by state-administered justice, though, interestingly enough, the prophet Samuel is reported to have foreseen the inevitable abuses of that - something I miss in your discussion, but then, your remarks were brief and could not cover more than a few points. Nor does the trajectory of the discussion within the Bible end with the monarchy by any means.

What I can't figure out is how on your understanding a distinction between good and bad deterrence strategies is made. Pre-emptive military action, for example, has proven deterrent value; defensive military action, little at all.

I guess all that example proves is that deterrence is just one principle among many that ought to inform our actions.

What I have the greatest difficulty believing is that a concept of "closure" can be done away with. I don't think this can be put down to different political predispositions. A very good and very liberal friend, when a relative was shot dead in cold blood in an act of caprice, dedicated years of her life to seeing that the perps were put away for good. She really could not rest until the goal was reached. The goal was retribution, so far as I can see. As proportional as possible. Am I missing something? At the very least, I think it's important to distinguish the perspective of the state and the perspective of co-victims. Both perspectives are imbued with logic; both have legitimacy, even if they will sometimes be at loggerheads or difficult to reconcile.

Re: the question of exemplary acts of destruction in war, on an individual or a genocidal scale. Is this not a constant in war and, in some sense, of conflict resolution in general? Making an example of someone is horrific but, at the same time, isn't this precisely what law enforcement *at its best* does, rather than pursuing all transgressors of the law with equal vehemence?

I guess I see a lot of loose ends that need to be tied up.

David Ker

I certainly like the Road Runner metaphor. That is what I try to do on these sorts of posts. We have to stake out the extreme position and then see if it's defensible. I love the Old Testament. I read it every day. But I have to say that after hearing everyone's rebuttals I get the feeling that either people aren't responding to what I actually said or that they simply don't have a very good argument.

I'm not a NTO Christian but I am a Gospel First Christian and as much as I am dedicated to the Bible (I'm a Bible translator for goodness sake) I still think we need to guard ourselves from preaching the Bible to the detriment of the Gospel.

As always I am drop-jaw amazed that I get to tangle horns with prestigious folk like yourself for whom I have the greatest respect (even if I do say naughty things about you).


I left out the part wherein you make me feel like Coyote in these escapades.

And you're probably right. All of those who try to chase you down end up going splat! at some point. And you snicker on.

As you know (though I try to shake you of that certainty once in a while), you enjoy my respect to the full extent as well.

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  • PaleoJudaica
    by James Davila, professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland. Judaism and the Bible in the news; tidbits about ancient Judaism and its context
  • Pastoral Epistles
    by Rick Brannan and friends, a conceptually unique Bible blog
  • Pen and Parchment
    Michael Patton and company don't just think outside the box. They are tearing down its walls.
  • Pisteuomen
    by Michael Halcomb, pastor-scholar from the Bluegrass State
  • Pseudo-Polymath
    by Mark Olson, an Orthodox view on things
  • Purging my soul . . . one blog at a time
    great theoblog by Sam Nunnally
  • Qumranica
    weblog for a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught by James R. Davila (archive)
  • Ralph the Sacred River
    by Edward Cook, a superb Aramaist
  • Random Bloggings
    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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