William J Webb & Gordon K Oeste, Bloody, Brutal and Barbaric?  Wrestling with Troubling War Texts, IVP USA, 2019

Two reviews of this new book by Ashley Hibbard and Howard Peskett.

Review by Howard Peskett. Howard has taught in Newcastle upon Tyne, Singapore and Bristol and now lives in west Cornwall.

I will use WO to refer to the two authors.

There are sixteen chapters in this book,  twelve introductory blurbs of scholarly appreciation at the beginning, a list of nine online appendices which may be consulted at ivpress.com, a sixteen page bibliography and author and scripture indices.  The son of one of the authors died of a degenerative brain disease during the fourteen years this book was in preparation.  The title is a resonance of a phrase used by a bright young friend, a dialogue-partner of the authors, who was shocked and strongly opposed to the portrait of a violent god which he saw in the Old Testament.

Structurally the book is  clearly set out with six theses set out in the introduction and reviewed in the conclusion.  Part 1 is one chapter which explains why the book mainly focusses on the two issues of war rape and genocide.  Part 2 has two chapters in which WO set out reasons why, in their view, traditional answers to the ethical questions do and don’t work. Part 3 is the heart of the book, containing thirteen chapters which set out what WO believe are “better answers”  to these ethical issues, which they called a “re-aligned traditional view: Incremental Redemptive-Movement Ethics”.  A slightly annoying feature of the book is the constant referring forward to future chapters and the online appendices, which gives a jerky feel at times to the argument.

One version of the “traditional answers” given to these ethical problems is found in the book Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, Zondervan, 2003.  WO are not satisfied with the traditional answers given by three of the authors in this book  (WO think there are in effect only TWO views in this book, not four); but their review of the arguments, pro and con, seem very abstract and conceptual on the whole; very remote from the real world of dead Canaanites and kidnapped women.

Part 3 is set out as follows:

chapter 4 reviews WO’s methodology.  Chapters 5 and 6 confront the ugly and “redemptive” sides of war rape.  Chapter 7 discusses the differences between the kidnapping of women (which is allowed) and the killing of Canaanites (which is commanded).  Chapters 8 to 12 and Appendices A-C discuss the issue of genocide; and chapters 13 to 16 and Appendix C set out what WO believe are “better answers” before concluding with “the unfinished justice story”.  The diagram on p.79 is not explained well.

The six main theses of the book, which are woven together into one argument, may be set out as follows:

  • Our search for answers to the ethical issues raised by the two issues of war-rape and genocide cannot be framed within the terms of war conventions from the Hague or from Geneva.  They must be framed within the biblical story-line and the context of the Ancient Near East;
  • The “total-kill” rhetoric of some narratives is byperbolic language, not to be taken literally, but as communicating emotive force;  “Yahweh puts on hip waders as he walks within the ethical sewer of this fallen world…” (361).  But Israel’s warfare practices were hugely more humane than was widespread in the Ancient Near East.
  • Anti-war and subversive war texts also found within the biblical story-line are a sign and a signal that God is accomodating himself to human war ethics.
  • But even in the ugliness of Ancient Near Eastern war practices God is nudging his people towards a better life.
  • The portraits of Yahweh in the Old Testament, the portraits of Jesus in the gospels and Paul, and the portrait of Jesus as the apocalyptic warrior in Revelation converge in what WO call “the realigned traditional view”.  This view challenges both those who deny that they are any ethical problems in biblical war texts; and those who think these texts are utterly deplorable in all respects.
  • At present we live in a world where the justice story is unfinished.  But eschatological justice will right all wrongs

Attempting to summarise these theses in one paragraph might go something like this:  WO specifically insist that the HEAVY DARKNESS OF WAR RAPE (Deut 21 and Numbers 31) “… is pierced by numerous shafts of bright redemptive light…” (364).  The biblical accounts are NOT GENOCIDAL; the language used is hyperbolic.  Walking through the museum of Ancient Near Eastern of widespread war customs helps us to see that Israel’s war practices are RELATIVELY MILD BY CONTRAST (365)  and redemptively directed towards greater respect and dignity for one’s enemies on the battlefield.  This redemptive movement is also seen in DOMESTIC ETHICS.  And finally, at the end of the age, our eschatological hope is that all remaining ethical gaps will be closed and all things will be made right.

Zooming into these chapters in Part 3 is somewhat great detail:

Chapter 5 sets out the ugly side of Deuteronomy 21.10-14, known in Judaism as the “pretty woman text”.  There are nine troubling components behind this ugly text which permits the taking of beautiful female captives in the context of war.   Chapter 6 notes that no battlefield rape is permitted to Israelite soldiers; there is no glorification of war rape in Israel’s art or annals; there is no rape of temple slaves; and their is reduced rape of domestic slave prostitutes.  WO note what they call “five redeeming features” (120ff) of the Deuteronomy passage.

Chapter 8 sets out the conventional hyperbolic language used in Ancient Near Eastern conquest language – numerical hyperbole, speed hyperbole, severity, extent and attribution hyperbole.  Awareness of these “hyperbolic conventions” (150) becomes a hermeneutical key for the interpretationn of Old Testament war texts.    Chapter 9 looks at the total-kill rhetoric of Joshua and Judges and chapter 11 looks at 1 Samuel 15, asking if this chapter “undoes” the hyperbole argument. Chapter 12 discusses how to relate the “kill all” and the “drive out” languages in these narratives.  The intention, WO tell us, is to clear the land, to make it a sacred space, a terra sancta, a new Eden for the exclusive worship of Yahweh.  In Deuteronomy 12 the real threat is not the Canaanites – but their forms and gods of worship (250).  Page 252 n.29 sets out the texts regarding the land as God’s gift to the Israelites.

Chapter 13 sets out the social context of unrestrained military violence in the Ancient Near East, which is the background to the biblical texts.   It is disconcerting to discover that ancient Egyptian practices of binding prisoners in agonising, torturous positions has recently been reported as being copied by the Boko Haram militants in Nigeria.  WO argue that Israel’s war behaviour demonstrates “..a significant incremental movement in a good, redemptive direction” (285).

In chapter 14 WO admit that there are texts which depict Yahweh as a warrior, as sanctioning war.  But there are also texts which subvert this image – which present Yahweh as an uneasy, highly reluctant war God.  WO differentiate “seedbed ideas” which modify cultural norms and “breakout ideas” which overturn cultural norms (290).  There was no chaoskampf in Genesis.  God was not a warrior-king God but a shalom-king God (314).

In chapter 15 WO discuss how Jesus’ arrival forever changes the nature of the battle to a spiritual one.  Holy war will never involve killing other human beings to further Jesus’ kingdom.  Chapter 16 insists that the war-language of Revelation is metaphorical, revealing how God will finally bring about the enactment of perfect justice, with no embedded injustices; how rhetoric and reality are untainted by accomodation; and hence the prayer, “Maranatha!”  In a final eschatological reversal pristine, untainted, individualised justice will be applied to all – believers and unbelievers and all things will be made right.

I emerge from the reading of this book tired, dishevelled and thirsty. WO have done their work in vast, dusty detail even though they mainly focus on two issues.  It is hard to apply the word “redemptive” to some of the practices which remain or to see “bright shafts of light” in these texts.  Whose blood does not run cold at the great cry which rose up from the land of Egypt when the firstborn were killed; or at the sight of the bodies of all the Egyptian soldiers on the seashore?

How are we to interpret the judgement of the Flood?  Or the repeated words of warning from the lips of Jesus about the unquenchable fire and the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”?  On the whole we may judge that the war practices of the British in WW2 were more “humane” than those of the Japanese or the Russians; but can some sort of “accomodation argument” whitewash the bombing of Dresden as compared, for example, with the bombing of Coventry?  What did James finally think of his friends’ book after its long gestation?  How do we receive these passages as the word of the eternal God to us?

Review by Ashley Hibbard
Ashley recently obtained her PhD in the Old Testament through Trinity College, Bristol. She is a research associate of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.

It is likely not an overstatement to say that the Old Testament is fraught with ethical issues. And while on many pages one has a sense that the narrator or lawgiver is deeply disapproving of the horrors that are reported, it becomes much more difficult to understand texts where such atrocities appear to be excused – or worse, commanded. Some of these ancient texts become so troublesome that even people of faith would prefer to look past them, relegate them to the pages of history, and move on. In Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts, William Webb and Gordon Oeste refuse to look away from these texts and commit to wrestling with them until they understand how they would have been understood in the ancient world, and how we are to understand the nature of the God who inspired their writing.

William Webb and Gordon Oeste are adjunct professors at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Webb in New Testament and biblical studies, and Oeste in Old Testament. Both have served in both the academy and the church, and they are deeply concerned that academics be done in service to the church, and that Christians should approach their faith with reason and understanding.[1]

The book itself is divided into three parts of quite unequal length. Part one raises the problem of ethically difficult war texts: particularly, war rape and genocide. Part two discusses both the pitfalls and merits of the traditional answers to these issues, and part three looks for better answers. However, for descriptive purposes, it may be more helpful to divide the content of the book into four main sections. Chapters 1-4 lay the groundwork. Chapter one highlights the significant problem of biblical war rape and genocide texts, and chapters two and three discuss the traditional answers. The fourth chapter concludes the groundwork by laying a hermeneutical foundation that uses redemptive movement hermeneutics, an approach developed by Webb in his 2001 work Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.

Chapters 5-6 discuss the issue of war rape, both the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) realities and the ethically difficult law in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 that allowed for Israelite soldiers to take beautiful women who were captured in battle as brides. Chapter 7 then serves as a hinge, as it explains the rationale for treating war rape and genocide in the same body of work.

The Canaanite genocide then proceeds to be discussed in chapters 8-13. These chapters focus mostly on the theory that the “total kill” language of the text is hyperbolic, and carefully addresses the probability of this theory, drawing from similar texts in the ANE, as well as raising and responding to possible objections and giving a careful analysis of texts that would at first appear to be literal. Chapter thirteen takes a somewhat different turn, and discusses the typical atrocities of ANE warfare, thus demonstrating the relative restraint that was supposed to characterise Israelite conduct in war.

In the final chapters, the authors move beyond the immediate issues to consider first the divine warrior motif in the Old Testament, and then the New Testament’s relative rejection of violence, as in Jesus we see a God who submits to violence and torture. The book concludes by considering the ways in which Jesus is established as the divine warrior in Revelation, and how this violent image by no means invites the church to be a people of violence.

This book has many strengths to commend it. It is a book that successfully applies the lenses of hermeneutics, biblical theology, and ANE culture to read the text closely and provide better answers to the ethical issues raised by these troubling texts. The assessment of the war rape text in Deuteronomy 21 relies heavily on divine accommodation. As abhorrent as this law is to modern ears, it should be understood as God’s regulation of and improvement upon an evil that, due to cultural realities, could not easily be prevented. They manage to walk the knife’s edge balance of refusing to whitewash the terrible realities for women captured in battle, but also of explaining how Deuteronomy 21 is a good God’s gracious provision to women of the utmost protection and status that they could be afforded in the case of capture.

If anything, the war rape text is the easier issue, for here they deal only with an evil that is regulated by God. The Canaanite genocide, however, is the most difficult kind of ethical problem in the biblical text: evil that is commanded. While divine accommodation remains a part of the answer, Webb and Oeste add two major arguments. They carefully demonstrate that the language of warfare in the ANE frequently employed “total kill” language that was not intended literally. This strongly suggests that the issue of genre is at work in our reading of these texts: that we don’t pick up on the clues that indicate that the “total kill” language is hyperbolic because we don’t share that genre. Further, through an analysis of ANE art and literature, they note that the commands regarding Israelite prosecution of war were marked by a completely unprecedented level of restraint, particularly regarding the rape and torture of prisoners, which was virtually absent. Webb and Oeste clearly and repeatedly acknowledge their biases, likely shared by most of their readers, that modern sensibilities about the conventions of war make it difficult for us to see the strong movement towards ethical conduct of war that is present in scripture.

The three arguments are that war was not as total as the language suggests (hyperbole), not as evil as the culture would allow, and not an ideal way to combat evil (divine accommodation), and taken together these are a profoundly compelling movement towards understanding the texts of genocide. However, they go a step further and observe that in the Old Testament, the much discussed “divine warrior motif” in many places has a strong flavour of reluctance, perhaps most pronounced in the lack of war imagery in the temple, and God’s refusal to allow David the warrior to be the one to build the temple.

While this book only deals with two of the ethical issues in scripture, it perhaps deals with two of the thorniest, and so an argument may be made from the greater to the lesser. If these texts can be understood in the context of a God who is ultimately good, loving, and just, then we can have confidence that other problematic texts may also be understood in such a way.

The book’s weaknesses are few and minor; nearly every concern or question that occurred to me was raised and answered usually quite immediately, or in one case in the appendix. The extensive and excellent appendices mostly appear to be material that otherwise would have fallen on the cutting room floor. While it is good that this material is available, it is unfortunate that it is not bound in with the book. It is possible that two books would have been better, to treat separately the issue of the war rape text and ANE war atrocities compared to Israel’s prosecution of war, and the issue of the genocide texts.

On a similar note, the chapter on ANE war atrocities (13) would have more logically followed the hinge chapter (7), and perhaps helped the reader to understand more clearly why the authors see these two issues as having sufficient similarity to treat them in the same book.

The final chapter on Jesus as the New Testament realisation of divine warrior spends a great deal of time discussing how Revelation’s picture of the final battle does not imply that there will be a final, physical battle in the last day. There appears to be an assumption in these texts of a post-tribulation premillennial approach to Revelation, and this probably should have been stated. An investigation into amillenial eschatology (or at least an acknowledgement of it) would surely have been helpful, as this system begins with the assumption that Revelation has few (if any) literal elements.

Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? is not an “apologetics book,” providing solutions to fix people’s faith. What it does provide is a helpful set of understandings and perspective that reach forward toward thoughtful and honest answers to questions that have plagued many who have wrestled with these troublesome texts. Pastors and seminary students will benefit from this as a helpful reference, both for their own study and for helping to construct responses to those who are seeking help in understanding the most difficult of their holy texts. Interested lay-people may also benefit from the book, although some of the terms and concepts may be somewhat unfamiliar. While it is hard to call any work “definitive” on scriptures and issues that are this complex, Webb and Oeste come close. This book has pulled together some of the best resources, research, and responses to these issues, and it will provide much help for the people of God for years to come.

[1]    It would be remiss of me not to mention my personal connection to Gord Oeste, who capably supervised my master’s thesis.

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