The question of genocide in the Bible is a serious one, and one which frequently is brought up in discussions with non-Christians. Christians who think seriously about the question no doubt also feel severe discomfort as they attempt to understand these war texts. William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste address the most difficult questions presented by the biblical texts in their book Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wresting with Troubling War Texts.
The book has disturbing content related to violence, sexual violence, torture, and violence against children. For this review, I will not be delving deeply into the content in these parts, but it is important to note that there are graphic descriptions from the ANE related to these horrific acts. They are relevant to the point of the book.
After an introduction providing an overview for the course of the book, the authors turn to the hard questions found in the biblical text: questions related to genocide and war rape. The authors are refreshingly honest when it comes to the text, showing how the traditional answers given to the question of genocide in the war texts often fail. The traditional answers are answers like “God as source of holy war commands”–just having God command something makes it justice. Another traditional answer is the good purposes for holy wars. Along with this, the non-innocent status of the Canaanites and their own atrocities are often given as one of the traditional answers–these wars were God dispensing justice against the wickedness of the Canaanites. A final answer is that the wars are a foreshadowing the eschatological war. The problems with these traditional answers are provided in brief discussions of each. For example, the answer of the wickedness of the Canaanites cannot account for the awfulness of genocide and war rape: “The evil nature of any crime, no matter how insidiously evil it is, does not legitimize any and every sort of punishment action taken against the perpetrator” (42).
The authors do note, however, that the traditional answers can do some of the heavy lifting regarding questions of the war texts, but it depends on the type of question being asked. The questions being asked in the texts aren’t about military ethics but rather about the justice of various acts in question–such as driving others out of a land. Those questions are questions the traditional answers can do work on, but they don’t work for many contemporary ethical questions. In order to answer questions of modern ethical concern, one must approach Scripture holistically and also seeing how better answers can come from reading the Bible redemptively in conjunction with other answers.
Reading the Bible redemptively implies that there is movement within the biblical text that directs readers towards drawing ethical conclusions in the future. This isn’t a reductionist approach that says this is all there is to the war texts (82) but rather an argument that movement is a crucial meaning for the text. Alongside this, the authors focus quite a bit both on the argument that the “genocide” aspect of the texts includes quite a bit of hyperbole (and answering objections to this thesis). The most obvious argument in favor of the notion of hyperbole in the text is that in the texts themselves one sees statements that none were left alive set right alongside statements of people being left alive. Accompanying this, there is broad evidence from the Ancient Near East that hyperbole regarding military conquest and victories was the norm rather than a modern invention. But these answers still don’t quite get at the heart of the push for real ethical responses to questions on things like war rape.
To answer the awful questions related to war rape, the authors explore the broad evidence for the practice in the Ancient Near East alongside the way that Israel was not allowed to engage in the practices typical for their time and region. Along with this, the authors closely examine the texts noting that arguments for implied war rape don’t seem to align with the evidence from the entire stories. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 [the book references this as Deuteronomy 21:4-10 on more than one point, but that reference is contextually not what they meant] is one of the most awful passages in the Bible. Webb and Oeste note the many ways this diverges from the broad ANE behavior regarding war rape, and how it provided for time to grieve, acknowledging the intensity of grief, providing rights, and protecting the woman’s honor. None of these, of course, undermines how brutal and awful this text still is, but the providing of strictures that go well beyond anything in the ANE shows a counter-cultural, surprising ethic for its time. Combining answers like this with the argument that the Bible shows a redemptive movement towards a better ethical standard provides a more holistic approach to the text that both acknowledges its horrors while also not downplaying its counter-cultural standards.
There is much, much more detail related to the biblical text, as well as examination of counter-proposals and evidence found throughout the book. Webb and Oeste do a better job than almost any book I’ve seen that tries to provide an answer to the questions of genocide and war rape from a position that does not simply write off the passages as irredeemable. They don’t completely ignore the texts, nor do they try to say nothing in them is awful. The redemptive-movement hermeneutic allows them to do this while also arguing for a cohesive text.
A final part of the authors’ argument is to argue that God is uneasy with war and that several verses show that God is uneasy with war and moving towards redemption. The crown of this argument is, of course, Christ. The authors argue against others who have strong discontinuity between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Their own approach sees Jesus as apocalyptic warrior who brings the Kingdom of God.
Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? is a challenging book that will force readers to think about some of the most terrifying topics in the Bible. The authors do an admirable job of not shrinking from the horrors in Scripture while also seeking a holistic understanding that honors the notion that the text is God’s Word.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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