The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest
John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton
IVP Academic, 2017. 269pp.
In the world of oft-retreaded and wearying debates, the discussion of Old Testament violence done in God’s name is high on my list of over-discussed and over-obsessed topics. Maybe I am a little tired of the topic because I found Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God to be a huge let-down. I have heard that another recent release, Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, has made an attempt to advance a thesis that would tag-on to Boyd’s nicely. There are even rumblings in the anti-atonement camp (those who reject the concept of God’s wrath being poured out upon His Son) of a sea-change in evangelical theology as a result of these two works (see, for instance, William Paul Young’s Foreward to Zahnd’s book), which only serves to tell me that I will inevitably run across more attempts to solve “the problem of OT violence” in the near future. Exciting.
It was in the spirit of “Goodness, There’s Gotta Be A Better Way To Deal With This Problem” that I requested John H. Walton (and son)’s latest entry of the acclaimed Lost World series for review. Having heard of the strengths of Walton’s engagements on the Book of Genesis, in particular his astute knowledge of the ancient Near-East (ANE) world, Hebraic syntax, and religio-cultural matters, and having tasted of those strengths first-hand through The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, of which Walton is an editor, I figured that this new release could provide the sound engagement with Old Testament conquest narratives that I hungered for. Or, at the very least, I hoped that Walton could put the unsettled ghosts of Boyd’s poorly-argued thesis to rest, so I could get some sleep at night. After all, it does no one any good for a bad thesis to go to the grave disquieted.
Hermeneutics: Pre-Modern Assessment for a Pre-Modern Text
As I just mentioned, one of Walton (and son)’s (and hereafter I’ll just called Walton & Walton as “Walton” with the pronoun “his” instead of “their”; it’s nigh-impossible to separate their voices in the text anyways) strengths is his incredible background in ANE texts. From beginning to end, the whole matter is dripping with far more linguistic-cultural analysis of ANE practices and literary tropes than I could have ever recognized. From little matters, like the DINGIRS which set various individuals or places as “holy places” dedicated to this or that god, to big matters, like the trope of the invincible barbarians and the commonalities between this trope and the OT portrayal of the Canaanites, Walton stuffs this book with a wealth of ANE perspective that is so rarely addressed in other sources. It is one kind of thesis to suggest that maybe the Canaanite conquest fits a literary motif (and it is a weak thesis, one easily dismissed by Boyd in his CWG); but it is another kind of thesis — a far stronger kind — to put a particular ANE literary motif side-by-side with the accounts in Joshua and see a strong parallel. It was this kind of persuasive argument that sold me on Walton’s reading of Genesis in the first place, and I find him well-grounded again here.
What is most helpful about Walton’s reading of the OT accounts is that he is particularly mindful and careful of the wide array of modern assumptions that present-day readers of the OT bring with them to the text. As he wisely observes, even when we set down a word like “genocide” we are already making a moral judgment on the text based in our modern assessment, rather than letting the text judge for itself its own terms. (This is something that Boyd radically fails to accomplish.) By systematically setting aside a wide array of modern concerns, Walton slowly begins peeling away a huge eisegetical framework that most readers of the OT (myself included) have attached to these stories.
One great example of this is how we almost universally think of the Israelite conquest as some kind of punishment on the Canaanites for their sins. But Walton reads the Torah and Joshua very slowly, and he discovers that this “punishment-narrative” is, simply put, unfounded. One piece at a time, he reveals that the Canaanites are not being punished for their sinfulness, that they are not sinful because they cannot transgress the Law, and, as a result, the Israelite conquest is not an example of God’s wrath. This is particularly shocking given that most counter-arguments involving the conquest stories (especially those from atheist authors, but also from Christians of the Boyd-Zahnd ilk) begin by refuting this view of God’s wrath. Walton undercuts all such interpretations which rely on God’s wrath (and he rightly emphasizes how God’s wrath operates with Israel during the exile, etc.).
Instead, as we read onward, the conquest of Canaan is like-unto God’s conquest over the waters of Creation and His conquest over the waters of the Red Sea and His conquest over the waters of the Jordan. Walton savvily weaves his previous ANE work into this project to proclaim the great unifying theme of the OT: Yahweh, King of All Creation, is the God of Gods who rules over even Tiamat, the serpent of chaos. Unlike the other gods, Yahweh does not contend with Tiamat; He rules her absolutely.
At the end of the work, Walton ties this theme together with the New Testament, identifying the hermeneutically-correct application of the OT conquest narratives: not the destruction of enemies (which would be opposite to Christ’s own commands), but the clearing out of the chaotic force of sin in our lives. For Walton, the conquest theme is all about the Lordship of Yahweh, His absolute dominion, and His sovereign right as ruler of the universe to claim the land as His own and to make of it what He wills. This sovereignty-centered reading, at the end of the day, attributes more power and more glory to Yahweh, while Boyd’s reading relies so heavily on Open Theism that it allots for, at the end of the day, a very weak vision of Yahweh the King.
Ethics: (Is There A) Problem of Violence?
Of course, where Boyd’s thesis was an utter mess in its hermeneutics, he still nevertheless raised a serious question in the form of ethics: How can the Yahweh whose embodiment is in the Person of Jesus Christ be the same Yahweh who commands Israel to kill Canaanite people? In particular, Boyd finds of chief offense the problem of herem, the word typically translated as “totally destroy” in most English Bibles.
What I find applaudable about Walton’s thesis, however, is that while he is clearly aware of the ethical problem within and without the
Canaanite conquest, he keeps to the narrow goal of his claims and objectives. He does not wander into the depths of ethics, he keeps to a centered, organized thesis. This alone makes Walton a far greater academic than Boyd, whose CWG was a miry, over-complex, all-over-the-place mess of far-too-many academic disciplines. Walton gladly sticks to his task at-hand: How do we read the OT conquest narratives? Boyd jumps from topic to topic without as much as a second glance in order to answer a question that Walton isn’t even sure is a reasonable (that is, a biblical) question: How can the God who is Jesus command wanton death and destruction?
Walton advances a worthy re-reading of herem, tying it into, again, other ANE cultures and their usage of similar concepts. In so-doing, Walton brings us into the difficult complexities of cross-language discourse. As any student of language will tell you, to know the denotations of a word is a simple as having your cross-language dictionary on-hand; but to enter into the thought-life of a word (not just its connotations, but all its associations and founding cultural practices) is a huge task. This is probably why Christian scholars are still arguing about the meaning of agape. But somehow Walton succeeds in bringing the reader into the ANE linguo-cultural world in order to navigate the conversations on order and place and meaning that constitute the foundations for herem.
The result? It doesn’t have anything to do with “destruction”; instead it has more to do with “de-use-ifying” a thing. Maybe “retire” is an appropriate synonym. It turns out that herem is more like taking a lamp down from a table and putting it in a closet, than lighting that lamp on fire and tossing it in the trash can.
Of course, at the end of the day Walton’s work only changes the OT conquest stories from a full-scale genocide (as Boyd would say) to a conquest, where armies fight armies and the occasional city is raided and destroyed. This is enough for some just-war types, but it leaves an ethical problem for me.
Still, again, I applaud Walton for sticking to the problem at hand. Rather than answering our ethical questions (and, let’s be honest, answering ethical quandaries is such a modern thing to do), he leaves us with a more faith-filled account of the OT conquest narratives than any other scholar I’ve seen working on the topic and leaves those “problems” unanswered. Maybe they don’t have an answer. That is an answer that our (very-) modern writers like Boyd find quite incomprehensible. It would be far more satisfying to have an answer to such ethical quandaries.
Rhetorics: But, Oh!, the Proposition Format…
Lest the reader of this review think that I am all sunshine-and-flowers for Walton, let me share that I found his proposition-by-proposition (almost in the vein of the 95 Theses-like proposition) structure to be thoroughly aggravating. Sure, it may well account for his particularly convincing thesis and, sure, it may have been a necessary measure to accomplish his delightful prepondering slowness that allows for his thesis to be narrow, tight, and rigorous. But, gosh darn it, it was aggravating to read!
As a student of rhetoric and the humanities, I am so often tempted to request a mastery of both content and rhetoric in monographs (see: Freud, Foucault, et al.). But I can’t win every time.
Walton’s work is not without some minor hitches. He has a weird section where he eisegetically assigns a very particular view of Scripture to the Torah and rejects its moral vision. This seems unwise, given that his audience (through IVP) is predominantly evangelical and would find such an assertion liable to disqualify the rest of his argument. Fortunately, this claim doesn’t cause as much a problem to his broader argument as it possibly could thanks to the very narrow view of his thesis. Within the confines of this work, such a claim is just a strange parasite to a bigger, more healthy set of claims, and it can be safely left alone and ignored.
But the strengths of Walton’s work, rightly reading an ANE text from an ANE perspective, are massive. By re-orienting the whole way we think about the OT conquest narratives, Walton successfully makes the case for a new way to read the text without excising the unique power of its stories (something that Boyd’s proposed Cruciform Hermeneutic unintentionally does to the entire OT). Altogether, Walton has satisfied my curiosity and interest in the OT conquest narratives, answered some problems that I find many stumble over, and opened up new ground for wrestling with the ethical problems of OT violence without demanding their precise answers. If I were to recommend a text on this topic, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest would be my go-to choice.
I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.