The Point of Hebrews: Further Conversation with Paul Copan

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Paul Copan and I have been having an ongoing conversation revolving around the issue of violence done in God’s name and the corollary issue of violence and the Bible. Although we have very different views on these subjects, I am grateful for Paul’s willingness to engage with me, and also very much appreciate his respectful and kind demeanor. I hope to return that same tone of kindness and respect.

Most recently the conversation has centered around chapter 11 of Hebrews. Referring to Hebrews 11:31 which states “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days” Paul asked me if I thought the author of Hebrews believed that “the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned and thus morally justified.” It’s worth noting that after the walls of Jericho fell, the book of Joshua states that “everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:20-21).

So I think it is without question that the author of Joshua did believe that the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned. That seems to be the clear point of Joshua 6. Now, there is strong archeological evidence, based on high-precision radiocarbon dating, that shows that Jericho was completely uninhabited at the time of Joshua. So as Robert Hubbard concludes, echoing the current scholarly consensus, “There was no fortified city of Jericho for Joshua and Israel to conquer.” Since it is made-up that Joshua conquered Jericho, it is a very short logical step to conclude that it is equally made-up that God commanded him to.

However, let’s return to the author of Hebrews, who obviously did not know anything about archeology. Do I think that the author of Hebrews believed that the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned and thus morally justified” as Paul asked?

No, I do not. Given the context of the central point the author of Hebrews is making in this chapter as well as in the following chapter, I would say it is clear that he is not trying to make the point that killing in God's name is morally justifiable, and in fact he is making the opposite point: The point of the entire chapter is encouraging believers who are suffering violent persecution to not resort to violence in their defense but to endure suffering in faith. Indeed, in the beginning of chapter 12 we read the author’s summary conclusion, “therefore, with all these examples before us... keep your eyes fixed on Jesus who looking beyond the shame of the cross, enduring it to get to the joy beyond it.” (Heb 12:1-2)

Paul seems to agree with me that the author of Hebrews is not using these OT examples to persuade his audience to similarly use violence in God’s name. He writes, 

“there is a new people of God who are the interethnic body of Christ--no longer a national entity with civil laws, national enemies, etc. So taking up the sword to rise up against their Roman persecutors in the name of Christ would be misdirected.”

He however disagrees with my saying the author of Hebrews is making the “opposite point” noting that the author of Hebrews speaks favorably of these OT examples who “conquered kingdoms, . . . became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Heb 11:33-34). The implication is that the author of Hebrews is speaking favorably of war here, using it as a positive example. That’s true. However, I want to point out that in the next chapter this same author writes,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. (Heb 12:5– 6, quoting Prov 3:11– 12 from the LXX)

The Greek word translated above in the NIV as “chastens” is mastigoō which in fact means “to beat with a whip, flog, scourge.” It’s the same word Jesus used to describe his being flogged by the Roman centurions before the cross (Mt 20:19; Mk 10:34; Lk 18:33).

Now, if we want to conclude that because the author or Hebrews cites being “mighty in war” positively, we should therefore see this as a New Testament endorsement of war in the OT, we would have to equally conclude that because the author of Hebrews cites being “flogged” by your father positively, we should likewise need to see this as a New Testament endorsement of what would unmistakably be regarded today as criminal child abuse in the OT.

This is not how I would read Hebrews 12, nor is it how I would read Hebrews 11. What I try to do is look at what the point is that an author is trying to make, and focus on that. In chapter 12 the point is to hold on to the idea that even when we suffer, we can trust that we are loved by God. The point of chapter 11 is to look to the past and take heart, while enduring suffering in faith. The point of the author is not to endorse violence in the OT, nor is it his point to condemn it. His point is not to make any sort of evaluation of the past, but rather to tell his audience how they should live now. That is pretty much always the point of NT authors. The Apostle Paul has plenty of really critical things to say about the OT, but it is always in the context of telling his audience how to live and love now. So he tells them that if they are under the Law they will be under a “curse.” He compares it to slavery, says it is “death” and gave birth to “sin” and on and on, always doing this in the context of how we should live now. Paul is not concerned with saying whether or not Joshua or Moses were justified, because they are not his audience. Jesus is the same. Jesus says everything with the focus on how his audience lives and loves now. So he breaks the Sabbath to heal, he disobeys the command to kill the woman caught in adultery (even though he is the one without sin who could have cast the first stone) and forgives her instead. He says “You know the law says this... but I say to you now...”

So I will thus concede that the author of Hebrews does say positive things about people in the past killing in God’s name. However, I maintain that it is quite correct to say that his clear point, the take away, the reason he is writing, what he wants his audience to do now is not to kill in God’s name, but to do the opposite: “choosing to be ill-treated with the people of God" (Heb 11:25), "regarding abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt" (Heb 11:26), and even calling his audience “to resist to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb 12:1), rather than to respond with violence. Hebrews 11 is not an endorsement of OT violence, nor is it a critique of it. It is, as the NT authors always are, telling his audience how to live now. That is his point, that is his take-away message.

Do I see difficulty with telling people to “to resist to the point of shedding your blood”? Yes I do. I can see how a text like this could be used to justify people accepting oppression. But that is the tight-rope that we need to walk here, we need to work out how we can understand this way, which seems to me to be a very hard way, and put it into practice in a way that brings us closer to a loving and just world.

Paul Copan next addresses a question that I raised, where I proposed that we must not stop at what we can justify, but must go beyond this towards working to reform and repair and redeem. He writes,

“As for your other question, of course, a broader ethical discussion must go beyond justifying difficult moral exceptions. But that isn't the specific point that Matt Flannagan and I are tackling in our coauthored book. We are addressing a specific moral difficulty, and we do go into great detail about the matter of divine commands. In that setting, we raise the question, "Is taking innocent human life ever morally justifiable?" We give, I think, plausible examples (e.g., in the case of an ectopic pregnancy) that lead us to conclude that while it is an objective prima facie duty not to take innocent human life, it would not be morally absolute. (We point out too that this view is not idiosyncratic but is fairly widely accepted.)”

I note that here we are in agreement that there are some rare cases where taking innocent human life could be considered morally justified. I also acknowledge that this is a relatively widely accepted view. Paul then continues,

“Issues of hyperbole in ancient Near Eastern war texts, etc. aside, could it be that under certain less-than-ideal conditions, that an all-wise, all-good God might have overriding reasons for issuing these difficult commands?”

No, it could not. Absolutely, categorically, no. There is no possible reason that would justify going into a city and slaughtering infants and children. None. I dare say that it is universally accepted that killing infants is never ever okay. I strain to think of something that could possibly be more self-evidently immoral than this.

Paul next comments,

“I do think that John Goldingay is on to something when he writes: “Perhaps Deuteronomy [20:17-18] was only being realistic in recognizing the power of Canaanite temptation when Israelite faith in Yahweh was a newly budded flower.”

I cannot help but mention that the reasoning John Goldingay is using here for justifying these accounts is literally the same reasoning that the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust. I hope that gives all of us pause. The logic is that it is necessary to kill an two-year-old child and and six-month-old baby because otherwise they will grow up to morally corrupt the chosen people, making them impure. That is a truly horrific kind of logic. As we know from history, that kind of logic has led to many genocides.

I do not know John Goldingay, but I would not be surprised to find that he is a fine, loving person. I do know that Pastor John Ortberg has said something very similar, writing that “The beliefs of the Canaanites were a cancer that had to be removed from the land before the people of God could live there with any hope of health.” John Ortberg is well known for his commitment to care for the poor and the oppressed. So here’s a guy who is actively working to help the poor and the oppressed, a person who is exhibiting compassion and care, a person who is likely a much better person than I am. Yet they are calling people a “cancer.” I had the opportunity to speak with John Ortberg about this, and he graciously agreed that this was a fair critique.

I want to emphatically stress here that my point is not to claim that John Ortberg or John Goldingay or Paul Copan are bad people because of such comments, but just the opposite: I wish to underscore how easy it is for all of us as Christians— even the most loving among us— to feel the need to justify violence in the name of defending the Bible. In doing so we find ourselves seeking to justify things in the Bible, which in any other context we would without question wholeheartedly condemn.

I note again that the New Testament author’s focus was always on how people should live now. I would like to propose that this is how we need to read the Bible, too. That is the task of discipleship and also the task of ethics. While we can perhaps make ethical evaluations of things in the past, we cannot stop there. The most important question is to ask how we should live out the teachings we find in the Bible. I maintain that when we do this in a way that promotes acting in love towards others and ourselves we are reading the Bible rightly, and when we read it in a way that promotes harming or hurting others we are reading it wrong.

Paul, thank you for bearing with me as I work through this. I wish you God’s grace, peace, and loving care always.


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5 Comments:

At 8:58 AM, OpenID Mike writes at What God May Really Be Like said...

Having kept up with Derek’s and Paul’s civil back and forth, I think it comes down to two scholars who can defend their interpretations well. What to do when two interpretations conflict?

Those of faith often don’t struggle to accept “an almighty God who should not be questioned. Who am I to challenge God?” I wonder if we should be more concerned with those who are open to God but struggle with what supposedly the Bible says about God? What do we do when an interpretation seemingly contradicts our moral logic?

Since interpretations cannot be infallible, I think we must choose the interpretation that makes God seem the most moral or humane. It could be argued that then everyone’s opinion is right, but common moral sense does exist. Do such challenges compare to challenges in Derek’s words of interpretations that “justify violence in the name of defending the Bible.” I don’t think biblical interpretations win over moral logic because general and scriptural truth involve the same source if there is a Creator – the Spirit (Jn. 14:16). If we are made in God’s image using human moral reasoning to discern truth isn’t necessarily godless.

 
At 9:05 AM, Blogger Don said...

You wrote: "Jesus says everything with the focus on how his audience lives and loves now. So he breaks the Sabbath to heal, he disobeys the command to kill the woman caught in adultery (even though he is the one without sin who could have cast the first stone) and forgives her instead. He says “You know the law says this... but I say to you now...” "

I disagree with this assessment of what Jesus is doing (and also what Paul is doing for that matter). As it is your blog, I defer to you. If you wish to discuss further, I am willing.

 
At 1:55 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Derek, I'm 100% with the idea that God never commands or requires these acts...but Paul's comment that the NT authors are happy to describe these events, whilst it would be ridiculous that they would ascribe faith to some other sin, is an interesting point. Were the NT authors still partially sighted in how they viewed these national 'crimes'? Would you mind addressing this?

 
At 7:01 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Don,
You would need to clarify exactly what it is you are disagreeing about.

 
At 7:16 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Steve,

Yes I do think that NT authors were "partially sighted" as you say. We can see this, as I mentioned above, in the example from Hebrews 12 where the author says that whipping children is loving. Here the author reflects what to us today seems like a pretty huge blind-spot. This view reflects the culture of the time, where most people thought beating kids was "loving." Similarly most people at the time (and quite a few people today) think of war in a very romantic way. This author appears to share that common cultural view here.

The challenge when reading the Bible is to differentiate the parts where the author is simply reflecting the culture of the time (including immoral aspects of that culture) and the parts where they are saying something that cuts beyond the cultural fog and opens the clouds to something morally eye-opening and radical and challenging and life giving. When I find things like that (and I find it a LOT in the Bible) my soul cries out "YES! that's it!"

Reading like that is a bit harder than having the assumption that *everything* they say is "the way God sees it too" but I find that way of reading to be untenable, because to read that way consequently one would need to maintain from the NT, among other things, that God wants us to beat our children with a whip. That's just one example, and I could cite many more, but in the end where it leads is towards justifying things that are really deeply immoral. The Bible is supposed to make us more loving, more good, not less. So that's why I think reading the Bible like that is wrong. I weigh the exegetical method by the moral fruits it produces.

 

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