The Hope of Holy War

The Hope of Holy War January 12, 2015

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 9.13.38 AMThat expression — hope of holy war — may jar most of us, but it is the expression Joshua Ryan Butler uses in the 3d main section of his book The Skeletons in God’s Closet.

So let’s get it out there. We are looking today at the God of holy war, at the morality of holy war, of passages in the Old Testament and in the Book of Revelation where God commands and sanctions war and apparently the ending of the life of many. One can, if they want, choose to turn the OT texts into fiction or exaggerations, but that view does not solve the problem but instead raises the problem of God and holy war and morality of holy war all the same. These things are in the Bible and in Revelation, at least one very common reading has Jesus as the Lord of the Battle. The Christus Victor atonement theory, say that one finds in Col 1:13-15, uses the image of battle and conquering and victory over one’s enemies as the core idea.

So how to think about this? And, in my own way of saying, How to find a teleology that makes sense of holy war? What do you think of Butler’s overall proposal?


“How can you believe in a God who commanded the genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites in the Old Testament?”

Don’t you realize what a dangerous and violent force religion is in the world?”

“Haven’t there been enough holy wars fought by people who think heir religion is right and everyone else is wrong?’ (207)

Butler sketches three big ideas of holy war: “First, those doing the fighting are “muscle-bound”: they are strong, like Rambo” (209)… “And the angry gods coach their champions with a simple message, “Conquer your neighbors and take their stuff” (210). It’s a theory: “A prime feature of mainstream holy war: the conquerors use God, )r the gods, to justify picking the fights they already think they can win” (210).

“Second, the fighters have “machine guns”: advanced weapons” (210). That is, “he conquerors se God, or the gods, to justify picking the fights they have the weapons to win” (210).

“‘Third, the winners call themselves “heroes”: justified by the greatness of their civilization” (210).

But Butler sees something else in the OT: “It was not a slight variation on mainstream holy war, with a few lines drawn in subtly different directions or a few colors painted in slightly off-color shades. It was as if someone had taken the mainstream picture of holy war, painted across the historical canvas of our world, and turned it upside down” (211).

What is this? “No, it is God arising on behalf of the weak against the tyranny of the strong when it has raged for far too long” (221). Israel was outmanned and outgunned by the Canaanites and Israelites trust in God. Israel is not muscle-bound. Thus, The Lord will fight for you so be still. Israel is not a nation of heroes.

Butler: the Old Testament war stories then are subversions of the mentality of holy war.

He contends Israel takes out military strongholds not cities of civilians (226); they take over military forts. He sees “women and children” as a trope for total victory. He thinks some of this is “ancient trash talk” (228). Sometimes it says “driven away” and that does not mean “killed off” but driven from the military compound or into exile. He thinks God is patient and Canaan was violent.

At the heart of Butler’s theory is to see Babylon as a city that becomes a trope. Of what? “Babylon is not simply a place we in the West can point to :rom the outside, but a reality we live in from the inside. We bear its characteristic marks of economy, autonomy, and exile. God’s coming holy war on the great city is a source of confrontation, not vindication, for our civilization” (260). Thus, he sees here empire. [He needs more Rome in his study.]

This has practical implications: “When properly understood, God’s coming holy war helps us live more peacefully, rather than more violently, in our sin-struck, ravaged, war-torn world today” (272). We are Babylon. Butler is a just war theorist.  Government is preservative not redemptive.

So what about the lake of fire? “The lake of fire is an apocalyptic symbol for the smoldering ubble of Babylon. It speaks to God’s judgment on empire,not the torture of individuals. Its context in Revelation and backdrop in the Old Testament make this clear” (286).

More Yoder, Joshua, more Hauerwas, Joshua, more Sider. More interaction with the story that is reformed and reframed by the cross of Christ that undoes violence by absorbing violence. I don’t agree with just war but Butler has the makings of the whole narrative that makes sense of the Bible’s eschatology. I want a detour in this chapter but we head toward the same teleology.

Now the teleology and why I like this book: the themes of this book are shaped toward the goal of God: redemption. Not just individuals but all creation in the new city. (Here we can tap again on J. Richard Middleton’s excellent new book, New Heaven and New Earth.) What is the goal of history? “God’s city—a city that will reconcile the world. God’s city reconciles heaven and earth, east and west, good and bad, weak and strong—through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, it establishes the new creation” (302).

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