One of the difficulties people sometimes experience with Christianity is understanding how the Old Testament and New Testament relate to one another.
This is nothing new, as far back as the second century there were guys like Marion who struggled with this, teaching that the god of the Old Testament was not the true God, but rather, that the true God had been revealed only with Jesus. But a significant problem with split level approaches like this is that they come at the cost of discounting the fact the Jesus was himself a Jew.
For my own part, the aspect of this problem that I struggled with most in my first year as a disciple was the Old Testament wars, and the book of Joshua in particular. What helped me work through this, to begin to see how the Bible fit together as a whole, was “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder. Written in 1972, way before the new perspectives on Paul became blog worthy, “The Politics of Jesus” sits solidly within my personal “most influential books” list. Following are a few samples from the book that I hope may wet your appetite.
In particular I draw attention to chapter 4, “God will fight for us”. It starts:
When modern Christians approach the Old Testament with the question of war in mind, our attitude tends to be a legalistic one and the questions we ask tend to generalize. We ask, “Can a Christian who rejects all war reconcile his position with the Old Testament story?” If the generalization that “war is always contrary to the will of God” can be juxtaposed with the wars in the Old Testament, which are reported as having been according to the will of God, the generalization is destroyed.
This approach hides us from the realization that for the believing Israelite the Scriptures would not have been read with the modern question in mind.
I think this is a very important point. All too often we can project our expectations anachronistically back onto the Old Testament in a way which does violence to the text and the original intentions of the authors. Yoder challenges us to think contextually as we engage the text.
One of the traits of the Old Testament story, sometimes linked with bloody battles but also sometimes notably free of violence, is the identification of YHWH as the God who saves his people without their needing to act. When we seek to test a modern moral statement, we are struck by the parts of the story that do not fit our modern pattern; but the Israelite reading the story was more likely struck by the other cases, where Israel was saved by the mighty deeds of God on their behalf.
Yoder begins to hint here how it links up with the New Testament gospel and Christian soteriology.
Wars are the outworking of the unwillingness of Israel, especially of the kings, to trust YHWH.
The more Israel came to trust in kings, standing armies and foreign alliances for their national survival, the more the prophets God sent them, to warn them of the consequences of such idolatry and invite Israel to trust in God as the “one who would fight for them”.
The crowning example of this theme of Chronicles is chapter 20, recording the response of Jehoshaphat to a massive attack from the neighbouring tribes to the south. The whole population of Judah, led by the prophet Jahaziel, paraded out to meet the enemy, with the temple singers, the Kohathites and the Korahites, groups of Levitical musicians, leading the total people in songs of praise. As the singing procession advanced they discovered that the enemies had come to blows among themselves and destroyed one another before they even got to Judah.
Yoder then moves beyond the exilic period.
It had thus become a part of the standard devotional ritual of Israel to look over the nation’s history as one of miraculous preservation. Sometimes this preservation had included the Israelite’s military activity; at other times no weapons were used. In both kinds of case, however, the point was the same: confidence in YHWH is an alternative to the self-determining use of Israel’s own military resources in the defense of their existence as God’s people.
Our purpose in summarizing this story here is not to seek to reconstruct in just what way whatever happened did happen when YHWH saved Israel, or whether in each case any of the Israelites used weapons or not. Our present concern is rather with what it meant for Jesus and his contemporaries and his disciples to read this kind of story in their Bible.
There is more of course, but hopefully that provokes some thinking.
You see, in this age of fear over religiously motivated violence and rumours of holy war, I feel it is important for Christians to re-examine the wars of YHWH as depicted in the Old Testament with fresh eyes. As we come to realise that the true heir to Israel and agent of God in this generation is the church and not nation-states, Christian or otherwise, and that reliance on military superiority was regarded as idolatry by the prophets of old, the claims of modern day crusaders to be fighting in the tradition of the Old Testament, and under the authority of God, begins to look decidedly shaky.
The truth is the wars of YHWH and the cross of Christ are directly related to one another, they are both about how kings of Israel exercise trust, how holy wars are won, and how kingdoms are established. Both are equally political and our understanding of war, as Christians, should be grounded in both testaments. They are complementary, not contradictory.
- The Old Testament lays the foundation for the New Testament.
- The New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old Testament.