Thursday, December 20, 2012

Judging Judges

I’ve been reading Barry Webb’s new commentary on Judges. Webb is a conservative Anglican. It’s striking to compare the approach of a real Christian like Webb to unbelievers like Randal Rauser and Roger Olson–unbelievers who are regularly honored by the Society of Evangelical Arminians. Among other things, Webb says:

Part of the challenge of being a Christian is to bring our thoughts and feelings under the discipline of scriptural teaching. A thing is not necessarily wrong because it is presented in an insensitive way, or because we experience a strong negative reaction to it. So, with reference to the book of Judges in particular, what are the relevant facts?

The opening chapters of the book tell us that after Joshua’s death the Israelites tried to occupy all the territories that had been assigned to them, but they did not succeed in doing so completely, or to Yahweh’s satisfaction (1:1-2:5). As a result they ended up immersed in Canaanite culture, with dire consequences. The rest of the book shows the progressive Canaanization of Israel…

Fundamental to this undertaking is the recognition that Judges is one of “those canonical books of the Old and New Testament whose authority was never in any doubt in the Church”…Among other things, this means that certain options are not available to us as Christian people.

First, we cannot simply view the wars of the judges period as an unfortunate episode in the history of religion, like the Crusades, from which we can draw various salutary lessons depending on how we view them. There may be similarities between the wars of Judges and the Crusades, but the former are part of the canon and the latter are not. Hence they are not subject to our judgment in the same way the Crusades are. On the contrary, we are bound as Christians to let them inform our doctrine and practice.

Second, the acceptance of the Old Testament as part of the church’s canon acknowledges that there is an organic relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The church has been grafted into Israel, not only by direct statement but by the way it is so densely referenced to the Old. As Paul it put, “Abraham is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16 NIV). So we cannot view the wars of Judges as a purely Jewish affair–something that Jews have to own as part of their story, as Christians have to own the Crusades as part of theirs. The acceptance of the Old Testament as canon means that the wars of the Judges are part of our history too.

Third, the church’s rejection of Marcionism means that it is committed to the view that the Old Testament does not present us with an alternative God from the New, or a fundamentally distorted view of the character and purposes of God. It acknowledges progressive revelation (and therefore difference between the Old Testament and the New), but affirms that it is the same God that is revealed in both.

Fourth…the acceptance of these particular texts as Scripture rules out the extension of the accommodation principle as a strategy for avoiding the moral and theological dilemmas they pose for us. Holy war is a case in point. The relevant Scriptures insist that the obligation to utterly destroy the Canaanites and their culture was not something the Israelites were naturally inclined to do. In fact, they did not do it in many cases, even though they were commanded to do so. This command was not a case of God accommodating himself to Israel’s worldview, but of overturning it. In short, acceptance of Judges as canonical rules out such strategies of avoidance. Positively it commits the Christian to listening respectfully to what the biblical text has to say about such war, with a view to learning from it.

First, it was to test (nissa) that next generation (2:22; 3:1,4). It is the same word that is used in Gen 22:1 for the “testing” of Abraham by requiring him to offer up Isaac. In other words, the task of the post-Joshua generation was given was difficult for them, and would therefore force them to confront the basic issue of whether or not they would choose obedience to Yahweh over following their own inclinations. As the whole book of Judges shows, they failed this test.

Second, it was to teach that next generation warfare (3:2). This is not explained, so we are left to draw inferences from common sense and the clues we are given elsewhere. The most obvious is that this generation needed to be “taught warfare” in order to prepare them for what lay ahead. The rest of the book shows how frequent military crises were; people who had no experience of war would not have survived in such circumstances.

The third reason is given less directly, by showing us the consequences of Israel’s failure to fully carry out the charge Joshua had given them: “They took their daughters [the daughters of the Canaanites] in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods” (3:6 NIV). This was the danger that the command to destroy the Canaanites and their way of life was intended to protect them from, as spelled out explicitly in Deut 7:1-6 and elsewhere. It was to stop Israel from simply merging into its pagan environment and ceasing to exist. In the context of the canon as a whole, the importance of this derives from the central place of Israel in God’s long-term purpose for the world–a biblical theme which arcs right across the canon from Abraham to Christ to world mission. These reasons may shock us, or at the very least leave us profoundly uneasy, but they are the ones that this part of the canon gives us.

First, it tells us that culture is not morally neutral; it is simply the manifestation of what we are, and is therefore no more exempt from moral judgment than individual people are…Second, evil is something far too deep to be eliminated by the simple punishment of this or that particular act or person. It so corrupts the nature of men and women and their whole way of life that nothing and no one is exempt from it, and only wholesale destruction can remove it. In short, “evil is irremediable,” that is why radical root-and-branch judgment is necessary. Without hell there can be no heaven. The view of both the Old and New Testaments is that there were times in the past when such judgment was justified (e.g., the world of Noah’s day, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canaan of Joshua’s day), and that the present world stands under the very real threat of similar destruction (e.g., Mt 24:37; Lk 17:26; 1 Pet 3:20).

Third, and closely related to this, is the biblical message that not all religion is good, and that religion does not guarantee protection from divine judgment. Everyone in Judges is religious, Canaanites and Israelites alike. Even at their most reprobate the Israelites are religious, but their religion does not secure God’s favor or make them proof against judgment…The Bible’s view is that religion, like everything else, is capable of being true or false, good or bad. The idea that all religions are equally valid, and therefore exempt from moral judgment, is contrary to the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments. The books of Joshua and Judges make this point in a particularly powerful way.

If we find Judges shocking, that may be no bad thing. It is not the task of the Christian scholar to tame the Bible, but to play his or her part in helping the church listen to it.

B. Webb, The Book of Judges (Eerdmans 2012), 61-67.


  1. Steve, thanks for posting this. I think Prof. Webb is quite wrong in the way he poses the issue (no surprise there) but he expresses himself clearly and forcefully and is a worthy interlocutor. I will put "providing a critical response to Webb" on my to do list.

    In the interim, Merry Christmas!

  2. I heard about this commentary coming along via Jim West's blog. It's sounding like a commentary that I might want to pick up in a month or so.