Category Archives: Violence in the Old Testament

Cosmic Warfare in the Book of Joshua

Cosmic Warfare in the Book of Joshua

Ancient Jericho and Cosmic Warfare
Ancient Jericho or Tel es-Sultan, illustrates the aspect of Cosmic Warfare in Joshua. Courtesy of pininterest.

The book of Joshua has suffered a damaged reputation in recent years. Many archaeologists consider the account of the Conquest as fantasy. Kathleen Kenyon’s dating of the fall of Jericho to 1550 BC has led them to conclude that there was no city to conquer in the time of Joshua (1400, or 1250 BC, depending on the date accepted for the Exodus). This has been ably challenged by Bryant Wood and the team at ABR (Associates of Biblical Research), but conservative voices are easily overlooked these days, even if they offer persuasive evidence (see the article here, and the video here). The Book of Joshua has also come under fire for its language of “utterly destroying” the inhabitants of Canaan (e.g., Josh. 6:17, 21). I have written elsewhere on the problem of violence in the OT (see my series, Violence in the Old Testament). Here I would like to focus on a point that is far too often overlooked. This involves the Book of Joshua’s outlook on the Conquest as Cosmic Warfare.

What is Cosmic Warfare?

Cosmic Warfare
Battling the prince of Persia (Daniel 10).

It is sometimes stated (and I have probably done so myself), that warfare in the OT is physical, whereas warfare in the NT is spiritual. However, a more accurate picture of what Scripture teaches would be to affirm that both testaments teach that warfare is physical AND spiritual. Cosmic warfare involves understanding the Bible’s teaching that spiritual forces battling it out in the heavenly realm often manifest that conflict in the physical realm. Daniel 10 gives us a glimpse into this dynamic. Daniel is given a vision and waits 21 days until a heavenly messenger is able to come and reveal to him its meaning. This heavenly being states that he was opposed in arriving sooner because of opposition from the prince of Persia (Dan. 10:13). The vision, however, reveals what will happen “to your people in the latter days” (Dan. 10:14). Daniel’s visions involve the revelation of real historic events. Thus there is a combination of spiritual and physical realities. While this is widely recognized as a feature of the Book of Daniel, a similar dynamic is at work in the Book of Joshua. This outlook is pervasive throughout the book, but I will limit my observations to 5 (groups of) passages.

Meditate on the Word and Follow It (Joshua 1:7-8)

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

The theme of Cosmic Warfare is inaugurated from the outset of the Book of Joshua. When God appears to Joshua promising to give Israel the land (Josh. 1:2-3), He does not do what we would expect. Certainly a general who is being sent on a military expedition, especially one as vast as the conquest of Canaan, needs some sage military advice. A clever plan outlining successful military tactics is what most commanders would hope for. Instead, Joshua is told to know and keep the Law of Moses! The Lord specifically says that if Joshua knows the Word, then he will prosper and have good success. Such a statement clearly implies that Canaan will not be won because of brute military strategy and force. The battle is more than a physical battle; it is first and foremost, a spiritual one! Although Joshua will battle a physical enemy, he needs to know that the physical resistance is a symptom of a greater spiritual reality.

The Preparation for Cosmic Warfare (Joshua 3-5)

Cosmic warfare-Crossing the Jordan
Israel prepares for cosmic warfare by following the ark across the Jordan.

The emphasis on spiritual preparation for battle continues in chapters 3-5. In chapter 3, the people are called upon to consecrate themselves as they prepare to follow the ark of God across the Jordan River (Josh. 3:2-4). Following the ark reinforces the idea that God is leading the way and fighting for Israel. The parting of the Jordan emphasizes God’s presence and recalls the similar miracle at the Red Sea when Israel left Egypt (Exod. 14-15). Just as the Lord had done battle with Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt and had triumphed (Exod. 15:4-12), so now He was leading Israel in the conquest of Canaan and its gods. After Israel crosses the Jordan, they do something counter-intuitive–they circumcise all the males (Josh. 5:2-9). Since the generation born in the wilderness had not been circumcised, this meant that every male of the nation needed to be circumcised except for Joshua and Caleb (the only two remaining from the previous generation). Such an action left the entire nation vulnerable to attack! All one need do is recall the story of Simeon and Levi attacking and wiping out the town of Shechem after all the males were circumcised (Gen. 34:24-29). For Israel, however, keeping the covenant (Gen. 17:9-14) was more important than physical vulnerability to the enemy. Following the recovery from being circumcised, Israel observes the Passover (Josh. 5:10-11). Once again, Israel is not following proper or even logical military protocol. The text is teaching us that being spiritually fit in order to maintain the Lord’s presence in the camp is far more important.

The Commander of the Lord’s Army (Joshua 5:13-15) and the Battle Plan for Jericho (Joshua 6:1-5)

Joshua and the Commander of the Lord's army
Joshua and the Commander of the Lord’s army by James Tissot. The Commander’s appearance is a clear announcement of Cosmic Warfare.

On the eve before the conquest of Jericho, Joshua has a strange and surprising encounter. He sees a man with a sword and inquires “Are you for us, or for our adversaries” (Josh. 5:13)? The man reveals that he is under allegiance to no one but the Lord by his response of “No.” He then proceeds to identify himself as “the commander of the army of the Lord” (Josh. 5:14). His deity is emphasized by the fact that Joshua falls down before him and the commander tells him to remove his sandals as he is on holy ground (Josh. 5:14-15). This statement is, of course, a direct allusion to God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai in the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-6). The continued references to the Exodus story remind us that just as the Lord conquered Egypt, so the Lord will conquer Canaan. The appearance of the commander of the Lord’s army could not be a more explicit reference to the nature of the coming conflict. What faced Joshua and Israel was not only a conflict with the people of Canaan, but a cosmic conflict.

The Fall of Jericho
The destruction of Jericho emphasizes that Israel was engaged in Cosmic Warfare.

The battle plan against Jericho (Josh. 6:1-5), as well as the subsequent account of the battle, continues to emphasize the spiritual nature of the battle. From a human point of view, Israel could not have had a worst strategy. March around the wall everyday with the ark and the priests leading the way and on day 7 march around 7 times, blow the trumpets and shout, and the walls will fall down. The skeptical would surely say…”Right, now there’s a sure-fire plan!” Yet the text states that this is what Israel did, and as the song says, “the walls came a tumblin’ down.” Even archaeologists who are skeptical of the biblical account will admit two things that the Bible makes clear. 1) The walls fell outward (a very unusual thing–usually they fall inward); and 2) Jericho was well fortified. This initial story of the conquest not only emphasizes that the Lord fought for Israel, but that the battle could not be won by flesh and blood alone. Again, cosmic warfare is being waged.

Cosmic War and the Sun and Moon Standing Still (Joshua 10:12-14)

Cosmic Warfare
Joshua 10:13-14 clearly demonstrates cosmic warfare, as Joshua calls on the sun and moon to stand still.

One of the most famous stories of the Book of Joshua is the battle to save Gibeon in which Joshua calls on the Lord to have the sun and moon stand still (Josh. 10:12-14). While there is no consensus on what Joshua was asking the Lord to do, our point here is to notice how the theme of Cosmic Warfare is once again being emphasized. The mere fact that the sun and moon are involved in this story suggests that the focus is cosmic. It is not uncommon in the Bible to see the Lord use the elements of nature (or the cosmos) to fight against the enemy. In Exodus 14-15, God uses the sea. In Judges 5:20-21, Deborah and Barak celebrate by singing that the stars and the Kishon River fought against their enemy Sisera. 2 Samuel 18:8 declares that, “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.” In Joshua 10, we are told that the Lord sent great hailstones upon the enemy and that more died from the hailstones than by the sword (Josh. 10:11). Once again, the Book of Joshua could not be more explicit about the nature of the conflict. This is not merely a physical war between two nations, this is cosmic warfare.

The Destruction of the Anakim (Joshua 11:21-22)

To this point it is evident that the Book of Joshua depicts cosmic warfare. But the emphasis on the destruction of the Anakim clinches it beyond all doubt. Militarily speaking, the Israelites would have had little chance against the population of Canaan on their own. This is emphasized by the strength of the Canaanites and their fortified cities (Num. 13:28; Deut. 3:4-5). However, while Israel would have needed God’s help to defeat the Canaanites, the Scripture reveals that there was an enemy even more fearsome whose roots were in both the physical and spiritual realms. This enemy was the Anakim, the descendants of the Nephilim (Num. 13:32-33). No one has done more to demonstrate the cosmic view of Joshua than Michael Heiser by his investigation of the significance of this people group for the Conquest (see Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, especially Part 5 Conquest and Failure, pp. 181-217). Heiser writes, “Since the Nephilim were part of Israel’s supernatural worldview and their descendants turn out to be Israel’s primary obstacle for conquering the promised land, the conquest itself must also be understood in supernatural terms” (Unseen Realm, p. 185).

Cosmic warfare
The sons of God and daughters of men produced the Nephilim (Gen. 6:1-4)

We first learn about the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4. The union of “the sons of God” (spiritual beings) with “the daughters of men” (human women) results in the birth of these hybrid beings. It is specifically the presence of the Anakim that terrify 10 of the 12 spies. They report, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Num. 13:32-33). A number of passages in the OT demonstrate that the Nephilim and their descendants were spread throughout Canaan, Transjordan (Bashan), Edom and Moab (Gen. 14:5-6; Deut. 2:10-12, 20-23; 3:8-11; Amos 2:9-10). These passages show that they were called by various names including Nephilim, Rephaim, Anakim, Emim, Zamzumim (Zuzim), Horites, and Amorites. Heiser contends that the spiritual powers of darkness purposely planted their progeny in and around the Promised Land in order to prevent God from giving it to His people Israel. The main task of the Conquest was to rid Canaan and Transjordan of these people groups, as well as those who were intermixed with them such as the Canaanites, so that Israel could take up possession of the land. If Heiser is correct, and I think he is, this makes the Conquest more than just a clash between nations. It makes it cosmic warfare. This point is driven home in Joshua 11:21-22 which purposely focuses on the destruction of the descendants of the Nephilim. There we read, “And Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua devoted them to destruction with their cities. There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel. Only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod did some remain.” (For more on this aspect of the Conquest, see my article Giants or Canaanites? The Conquest.)

Joshua and Cosmic Warfare

More could be said, but the above discussion is sufficient to establish that the Book of Joshua pictures a cosmic conflict. When interpreting and teaching the Book of Joshua, as well as any discussion about the violence in Joshua, it is important to keep this ancient context in mind. In fact, the biblical worldview would teach us that with any conflict we need to see beyond the mere physical manifestation of that conflict. Scripture is clear, in both testaments, that there are spiritual enemies attempting to thwart God’s plan for this world. It is this worldview that prompts the apostle Paul to use the language of cosmic warfare as he reminds believers, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

The Deuteronomic History and Violence According to Fretheim

The Deuteronomic History and Violence According to Fretheim

Deuteronomic History is available at Amazon USA / UK
Deuteronomic History is available at Amazon USA / UK

I realize to some of my readers the title for this article may be perplexing. What is the Deuteronomic History, who is Fretheim, and why should I care? Let me begin by answering the next to last question first. Terence E. Fretheim is the Elva B. Lovell Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary and he is the author of many books on the Old Testament. Now that you have a brief introduction to Fretheim’s identity, I’ll let him explain what the Deuteronomic History is. “The deuteronomic (or deuteronomistic) history is a shorthand designation of fairly recent vintage for the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, with Deuteronomy often recognized as the introduction to them” (Fretheim, Deuteronomic History, p. 15). In my last article in the “Violence in the Old Testament Series” entitled “Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?,” I took issue with Fretheim’s interpretation of Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal. While doing some reading on 1&2 Kings for my next (long overdue!) article on Violence in the Old Testament, I pulled an old book off my shelf by Fretheim (the one you see to the right), and began to read a fuller explanation of his understanding of violence in the Old Testament, especially as it relates to the Deuteronomic History. I found some of Fretheim’s explanations very interesting and helpful. So to be fair to Fretheim, as well as to offer some helpful explanations about violence in the Old Testament, I wanted to share his insights with those who may not have read his book on the Deuteronomic History (thus my answer to the last question above).

Fretheim’s Views on Violence in the Deuteronomic History

Terence E. Fretheim
Terence E. Fretheim

At the end of his discussion on the destruction of Jericho in Joshua 6, Fretheim pauses to present his views on violence in the Deuteronomic History (his full discussion can be found on pp. 68-75). He begins by framing the issue, of which I will share one small quote that sums up the problem as he sees it: “A perceived theological sophistication leads us to object to the idea that this God, whom we define largely in terms of love and mercy, could be associated with (or even command!) such violence” (p. 69). Next, Fretheim enumerates 6 explanations sometimes given in defense of the violence found in the Old Testament. Due to space considerations, I will not list them here, but I am in agreement with Fretheim that the explanations are inadequate (see pp. 69-71 for more detail). Finally, Fretheim lists his 7 explanations for the violence recorded in the Deuteronomic History. The rest of this post will dwell on these 7 explanations.

1. His first statement is brief, so I will quote it in full. “God has chosen to be dependent on human beings in the achievement of goals in the world. Even where divine activity so fills the scene as it does in this text [meaning Joshua 6], the human element is not missing” (p. 71).

2. Fretheim’s second point builds on his first. He states, “God works in the world with what is available, i.e., with human beings as they are, with all their foibles and flaws, and within societal structures, however inadequate.” He continues, “God does not perfect these aspects of the world before working in and through them….Thus the results of such work will always be mixed, and less than what would have happened had God chosen to work alone. Hence, as an example, there will be violence associated with God’s work in the world because, to a greater or lesser degree, violence will be characteristic of those through whom the work is done” (p. 71).

These first two explanations are very similar to what I argued in a previous post in this series (The Pooh Principle: Violence in the Old Testament Part 8).

3. Next Fretheim argues that our perception of serving God is informed by the historical context we are in. Therefore he states, “It is very difficult to evaluate such perceptions because our context is not that of Israel’s” (p. 72). I believe this to be a very important point. Critics often argue against the violence in biblical stories from a 21st century perspective, often forgetting that had they lived in the context of ancient Israel their outlook would have been very different. We cannot expect God to work in 13th century Israel (or pick another century), the way he might choose to work in 21st century America or Western Europe.

4. Fretheim makes several significant points in this assertion. First he notes that, “Israel gave a twofold theological rationale for waging wars against the Canaanites the way they did” (p. 72). God did not want the false religious practices of the Canaanites to influence Israel (Deut. 7:1-5, 16) and second, Israel was to be God’s instruments of judgment because of the Canaanites wickedness (Deut. 9:4-5). Fretheim points out that, “Divine judgment in the OT was thought to be enacted within history, and not in some after-life. This made for a decisiveness of action that was not common in NT literature. Nevertheless, apocalyptic writing and the NT have an even more severe understanding of judgment; consigning the wicked to the eternal fires of hell. Thus, whether in the promised land or in heaven, utopia might be thought possible only by means of radical surgery” (pp. 72-73).

Fretheim’s insight about the Old Testament’s “this-worldly” viewpoint and thus the decisiveness of judgment is significant. But as he also points out, the New Testament is even more severe in describing judgment. This is important for all of those who argue that God, through Jesus, projects a less violent attitude. It seems to me that God’s character, whether we are speaking of mercy or judgment, is consistent in both testaments. Although it is true that the Old Testament emphasizes a physical judgment in this world, and the New focuses more on spiritual judgment (although not exclusively).

The other significant insight by Fretheim in this section is that, “Israel did not understand judgment in a narrow way” (p. 73). By this he means that the punishments visited on the Canaanites were also pronounced against Israel as well, and eventually carried out. He also notes that the Old Testament not only speaks of God giving Israel the land of Canaan and thus destroying, or driving out, the Canaanites, it also speaks of God doing the same thing for other nations (e.g., Deut. 2:5, 9, 12, 23). This is very significant, as it shows that God does not play favorites. God worked in other nations in similar ways to Israel, and if the Canaanites could be driven from the land because of their wickedness, so also could Israel.

5. Fretheim’s next point is that, “One simply has to recognize that with Israel’s world being the way it was, war (along with other trappings of government) was necessary for Israel’s survival” (p. 73). He does, however, argue that Israel may have been mistaken in respect to the severity of the wars against the Canaanites. Admittedly  the conquest of Canaan was an offensive war, at least in the initial stages, whereas most of Israel’s wars were defensive. However, I am not convinced that Israel was “mistaken” regarding the severity of the wars with the Canaanites given that Israel was following God’s commands. In this aspect then, I am in disagreement with Fretheim.

6.  The last two points that Fretheim makes I find particularly poignant. I quote him at length here. He writes, “That God would stoop to become involved in such realities as war is finally not a matter for despair, but of hope. For God to be absent from such aspects of the life of the world would be to give the world up to its own violence. But, God being involved in the evil of the world means that evil is not the last word. What a greater tragedy war would be if God were not involved, struggling in that human violence to bring about good ends….Moreover, because of the presence of evil in this world, for God to work toward redemptive goals inevitably involves conflict and violence; the forces of evil will not surrender voluntarily” (p. 74). Again, I argue a similar point (but with less elegance) in my post “The Pooh Principle.”

7. Fretheim’s final point relates to point number 6. He notes that by involving himself in the violence of war, “God takes the road of suffering and death. Through such involvement, God not only uses flawed human efforts, but also absorbs the effects of their sinfulness and thus suffers violence” (p. 74). To my way of thinking, this is similar to that much greater act of Jesus on the cross when God willingly absorbed the violence and hatred of this world in order to redeem it.

How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?

How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?

In this picture by James Tissot, Goliath is pictured as falling backward when he is hit by David's stone.
In this picture by James Tissot, Goliath is pictured as falling backward when he is hit by David’s stone.

One of the most popular biblical subjects for artists is the story of David and Goliath. In fact, many paintings (or drawings) focus in on the moment of how David killed Goliath. These renderings of this popular event either zoom in on the moment that David slings the stone in Goliath’s direction, or the moment when David stands over Goliath to remove his head. While we have to allow art to be art and recognize that not every artist is going for a literal representation of the actual story, I am often struck by how many artistic renderings get the basic facts wrong. Based on your recollection of the David and Goliath story, can you tell what is wrong with the paintings on the right?

What's wrong with this picture?
What’s wrong with this picture?

I would argue that these paintings get at least 3 things wrong. First, they either portray Goliath carrying his own shield and omit his armor-bearer (picture 1) who is said to be carrying his shield (1 Sam. 17:41) or they show no shield and armor-bearer at all (picture 2). Second, they show Goliath falling backwards, when the biblical narrator tells us that Goliath fell face down (1 Sam. 17:49). It’s actually surprising how many pictures show Goliath falling backwards when the story clearly says he fell face down! (Check it out on google.) I’ll talk more about this in a moment. Third, and here is where I expect to lose you…the pictures show Goliath being hit in the forehead instead of where David’s stone probably hit him. At this point you’re probably doing one of three things: You are either rereading my last statement to make sure you read it correctly; scrambling for your Bible to look up the verse that says Goliath was struck in the forehead (I’ll save you the trouble, it’s 1 Sam. 17:49–in fact, it says it twice!); or simply thinking that I’m crazy because you KNOW that the Bible says he was struck in the FOREHEAD. My real interest here is not simply to be controversial or to pose as an art critic, for which I am ill qualified, but to use these artistic renderings as a way of raising the important question of how David killed Goliath. Everyone who’s heard this story thinks they know. It’s quite simple right? David’s stone hit Goliath in the forehead which knocked him unconscious. David proceeded to hurry over and finish the task by cutting off Goliath’s head with his own sword (we know the stone didn’t kill him because 1 Sam. 17:51 says David killed Goliath by cutting off his head).

Although this most popular of Bible stories is always told this way, and even reads this way in our English translations, I want to introduce you to a position advocated by several biblical scholars that diverts from the norm. My interest in doing this is not simply to put forward some wild theory by a few “eccentric” scholars, but because I think this version of how David killed Goliath more accurately reflects the original text, and has a very significant theological point to make. So, if I haven’t lost you yet, please read the following arguments and then judge for yourself how you think David killed Goliath.

A Description of Goliath and His Armor ( 1 Sam. 17:4-7)

Me and friends at the Ashdod museum mixing it up with some Philistines. The figurines give an idea of Philistine armor, however, Goliath's armor was more extensive.
Me and friends at the Ashdod museum mixing it up with some Philistines. The figurines give an idea of Philistine armor, however, Goliath’s armor was more extensive.

The story of David and Goliath begins in a somewhat unusual way. The biblical narrator spends a great deal of time describing Goliath’s appearance. This is rare in biblical narrative. Just think about it. How many indepth descriptions do we have of Abraham, David, Hannah, Mary, Jesus, or Paul (to name only a few)? In spite of the fact that Goliath only appears in one chapter in 1&2 Samuel, 4 verses are dedicated to describing his appearance. One reason for this is to impress the reader with how intimidating Goliath looked. This description helps us to understand why Saul and the rest of the Israelite army responded in fear (1 Sam. 17:11). Besides Goliath’s height (9’9″ according to the Hebrew text; 6’9″ according to the Septuagint), the writer describes 3 pieces of his armor. Goliath wore a helmet of bronze, a coat of mail weighing 126 pounds (57.15 kg.), and bronze greaves on his legs. Two of the weapons he carried are also mentioned. These weapons included a bronze javelin (some would say that “scimitar” is a better translation), and a large spear with a shaft the size of a “weaver’s beam,” that included an iron tipped head weighing 15.1 pounds (6.85 kg.)!

Although Goliath’s height is impressive, as is the weight of his armor and spear tip, most people read over these verses and don’t think much more about them. However, the list of Goliath’s armor and weaponry plays a very significant part in the story that follows. In fact, 4 of the 5 items in 1 Samuel 17:5-7 are mentioned later and shown to be ineffective. For example, once Saul agreed to allow David to fight Goliath, we are told that he clothed him in his armor and gave him a bronze helmet (1 Sam. 17:38). These are the same items found in the description of Goliath’s armor (same Hebrew words). David rejected the armor and helmet because “he was not used to them” (NIV–1 Sam. 17:39). David’s rejection of Saul’s armor is significant for a number of reasons. First, it suggests that Saul, like Goliath, trusts in his weaponry and armor rather than in the Lord. Second, the brief glimpse of David in the king’s armor prefigures his royal destiny. Third, David’s rejection of Saul’s armor is evidence that his trust lies elsewhere. As far as the spear and javelin (scimitar) go, David also dismisses these items of Goliath’s arsenal as inconsequential (1 Sam. 17:45-47).

Goliath’s Greaves

A replica of greaves worn by Greek warriors.
A replica of greaves worn by Greek warriors.

In a very insightful study entitled: “A Farewell to Arms: Goliath’s Death as Rhetoric Against Faith in Arms (Bulletin for Biblical Research 23.1 (2013) 43-55), Gregory T. K. Wong points out that since 4 of the 5 items mentioned as part of Goliath’s arms are mentioned later in the story, one would expect that the fifth item might also be mentioned. The fifth item are the greaves (leg protectors). Can we find a passage in 1 Samuel 17 that also demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the greaves? Many years ago the daugther of an American Rabbi named Ariella Deem wrote an article entitled: “… And the Stone Sank into His Forehead”: A Note on 1 SAMUEL XVII 49 (Vetus testamentum, 28 no 3 Jl 1978, p 349-351). In this article Deem argues that the Hebrew word for “greaves” in 1 Samuel 17:6 is the same as the word for “forehead” in 1 Samuel 17:49. I can confirm that, except for a feminine ending in 1 Samuel 17:6, the words do look identical. This interpretation, then, suggests that David’s stone did not hit Goliath in the forehead, but in the greave, or knee area!

A carving from Medinet Habu in Egypt, showing a Philistine warrior in a helmut. Notice the helmet goes to the bridge of the nose.
It is doubtful that David killed Goliath by hitting him in the forehead. A carving from Medinet Habu in Egypt, shows a Philistine warrior in a helmet. Notice the helmet goes to the bridge of the nose.

While some would argue that the word (greave) in verse 6 comes from a different Hebrew root that doesn’t occur anywhere else in the Old Testament, there are a number of reasons why Deem’s argument is persuasive. First, as she points out, the story specifically states that Goliath wore a bronze helmet. We have pictures from antiquity of what Philistine helmets looked like and they cover the forehead (see the photo to the right). Some would argue that since the story says Goliath wore a bronze helmet that this would have been different from the typical Philistine headgear. Since the Philistines were a Greek people, it’s possible that Goliath’s helmet had a construction similar to that worn by ancient Greek peoples. If you google “greek helmets” as I have, you will be even more impressed with the protection offered to the wearer of one of these! Most of them, not only cover the forehead, but the nose as well. While a stone to this area might still knock a warrior unconscious, I don’t see anyway that the stone could become embedded in the forehead as v. 49 states. Second, recalling our pictures above, why is Goliath frequently shown falling backwards in artistic renditions of this story? It’s quite simple: if you got hit in the forehead with a stone travelling with great velocity, which direction would you fall? There are various estimates at the speed a stone will travel when released from a sling. Googling articles on using a sling suggested anywhere from 60 mph (97 km/h) to 100 mph (160 km.h) for the speed of a stone (click here for one example). If we take the low estimate one would still expect that being hit in the forehead by a stone at 60 mph would send a person reeling backwards. It’s difficult to believe they would fall “face down” as the biblical text states (v. 49). This observation has caused scholar J. P. Fokkelman to write, “We have all been brought up on the idea that Goliath was hit in the forehead. This, however, is unlikely. In the first place it is strange that he does not collapse, or fall backwards as a result of the impact of the projectile” (Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative, p. 32). Fokkelman continues by citing his agreement with Deem’s article.

A stpne slung from a sling travels at a velocity that can kill or incapacitate a victim.
A stone slung from a sling travels at a velocity that can kill or incapacitate a victim. David killed Goliath with the help of one of these.

But how can a “greave” be a “forehead”? Deem argues that the ancient Israelites had no word for “greave.” She reasons that since the curved shape of a greave had a similar shape to the helmet, that the Israelites simply adopted the word used for forehead. Fokkelman argues that “This Hebrew word means ‘front’ and thus is less specific than ‘forehead'” (p. 32). The point is that the biblical author carefully chose each word to describe Goliath’s armor and weapons, in order to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of each later in the story. What was perceived to be Goliath’s greatest strengths turned out to be his greatest weaknesses. The very armor that should have protected him, made him vulnerable! This contributes to the theological theme of the story so eloquently expressed by David when he states, “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands” (NKJV–1 Sam. 17:47).

The Valley of Elah. Photo taken from http://nw-connection.com/blog1/2014/09/06/the-eternal-war-between-israel-and-the-palestinians-part-i-in-series/
The Valley of Elah where David killed Goliath. Photo taken from http://nw-connection.com/blog1/2014/09/06/the-eternal-war-between-israel-and-the-palestinians-part-i-in-series

How David Killed Goliath

So how exactly did David kill Goliath? As Goliath approached wearing his heavy armor, David recognized a vulnerable place in the big man’s attire. Greaves must leave a space for the knee to bend in order for the wearer to walk. David carefully aimed his stone at the knee of Goliath. Here is the rest of what happened in Deem’s own words: “Thus the stone would hit the upper shin or knee and fall into the space which must be left to allow the knee to bend and enable the warrior to walk. It is exactly at this vulnerable space that David deliberately aims, thereby causing the stone to ‘sink’ into the greave, that is between the greave and the knee, so that the Philistine—who at the moment is awkwardly making his way towards David—will stumble forward and fall, ‘on his face'” (p. 350). While some scholars do not think that hitting Goliath in the knee would incapacitate him, I must disagree for two reasons. First, consider the weight of Goliath’s armor. Once on the ground, it would be very difficult to get back up with 126 pounds of armor weighing you down. Second, and most important, imagine a stone flying at your knee at 60 mph and embedding itself in your knee. I don’t think anyone is going anywhere if that happens! Goliath would be totally helpless, as the biblical narrative depicts him to be. This allows David the time to come over, pick up Goliath’s sword and cut his head off.

There is one more piece of evidence that further backs this interpretation. Deem’s and Wong have both written about an incident recorded in the ancient Jewish writing “The Testament of Judah.” The Testament of Judah is part of a book called “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” and is among what is known as the Pseudepigraphal writings (see link for definition). In this (fictional) story, Judah the son of Jacob kills a heavily armored Canaanite king by striking him in the greave (chopping off his feet is another translation). The point, as Wong shows (“Goliath’s Death and the Testament of Judah,” Biblica, 91 no 3 2010, p 425-432), is that this story has many similarities and clearly alludes to David’s killing of Goliath. Therefore, this suggests that there was an ancient Jewish tradition that David had struck Goliath in the greave. If this is so, it is further evidence that David killed Goliath by striking him in the knee with a stone and finished the job by cutting off his head. (click here for Goliath’s Death Part 2)

Note: Unfortunately, I was unable to find a copy of Deem’s or Wong’s articles available on the internet. Anyone who has access to professional journals through a library can look these articles up.

Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?

Fire From Heaven: Is God’s Judgment Just?

Elijah calls down fire from heaven
Elijah calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38). Image from http://michael2011.blogspot.com/

I am currently teaching through the Books of Kings and we have been looking at the ministry of Elijah. This portion of Scripture (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2) contains a number of stories that disturb believers and unbelievers alike. One of the major themes of these chapters is idolatry. A number of the stories focus on Elijah’s battle to re-establish the worship of Yahweh, Israel’s God, over the worship of Baal. A number of violent incidents are recorded in these chapters. After Elijah calls down fire from heaven, demonstrating that “the Lord, He is God,” he commands the people to seize the prophets of Baal and execute them (1 Kgs. 18:40). Another story within these chapters relates how an unnamed prophet rebukes Ahab for showing mercy to Ben-Hadad King of Syria, insisting that he should have killed him (1 Kgs. 20:38-43). Returning to Elijah, we read of him once again calling down fire from heaven, this time to incinerate two companies of 50 soldiers each (2 Kgs. 1:9-15). Perhaps the “icing on the cake” in terms of violence, concerns Elisha’s (the successor to Elijah) curse of the young boys who are mauled by two she-bears (2 Kgs. 2:23-24). Not only do these stories raise the ire of many atheists, but one can also find certain Bible commentators who seem embarrassed by these stories, even offering apologies! What then are we to make of these stories? Are they examples of a brutal, unjust God? Do they give us just one more reason to reject the Bible as advocating “religious fanaticism?” I will look at the objections raised by some as I examine each of these stories (including future posts), while offering responses for you the reader to consider.

The Execution of the Prophets of Baal

Although this picture is supposed to represent Elijah's execution of the prophets of Baal, there is at least one inaccuracy. The story says nothing about burning any cities. The blogger also comments on the laurel wreaths worn by the slain as a symbol of peace--another inaccuracy.
While this picture is supposed to represent Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal, Derek Murphy makes two mistakes in his interpretation of it. First, it is not a fort being burned in the background as Murphy alleges, it is Elijah’s altar. Second, Murphy comments on the laurel wreaths worn by the slain as a symbol of peace. The prophets of Baal are not depicted with laurel wreaths, nor are they positively represented as “peaceful” in the story in 1 Kings 18.

As noted above, following the contest on Mount Carmel, when Yahweh rains down fire from heaven, Elijah orders the execution of the 450 prophets of Baal. One blogger commenting, not only on the story, but on an artistic rendering of it reproduced here (on the left), writes, “Elijah, being the most holy and most loyal, simply did what any conservative religious person of faith would do when threatened with extinction in the face of other, more popular religious  movements: kill all trespassers. Israel was being punished by God because Israelites were worshipping Baal. Solution? Kill the priests of Baal. Burn their temples, destroy (or steal and put in Christian churches) their artifacts. This pattern is repeated throughout the history of the Jews and the Christians, who often did the same thing to Pagan counterparts” (Derek Murphy, read the whole article at http://www.holyblasphemy.net/elijah-kills-the-prophets-of-baal). There are several problems with Murphy’s objections. First, some of his comments are directed toward the artistic rendering of the account and do not accurately reflect what is written in the story (see my comments under the picture). It is one thing to take issue with the story, but basing an argument on artistic inaccuracies, or on a misinterpretaion of the picture itself, is no way to establish the validity of a position. Second, Murphy’s main point in the article seems to be that the motivation for slaughtering the prophets of Baal merely had to do with Baalism becoming more popular than worship of Yahweh. So when Christians and Jews feel that their religion is threatened, they respond by killing their opponents. However one interprets other events in history, such an argument distorts the context of this story. The issue is not “your religion’s becoming more popular than mine so I’ll kill you,” the issue is idolatry. I realize that to an atheist, idolatry is a poor excuse to execute people. I will deal with the rationale behind this later in this article.

A bronze statue of Baal discovered at Ugarit from the 14th-12th centuries B.C.
A bronze statue of Baal discovered at Ugarit from the 14th-12th centuries B.C. Baal was worshipped as the storm god who could rain down fire from heaven by hurling lightening bolts.

 

Several other responses are important to the objections raised by Murphy. First, the context of the story clearly shows that the initial aggressor (in terms of slaughtering prophets) is not Elijah, but Jezebel. 1 Kings 18:4 begins, “For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the Lord, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water” (NKJV). This “cutting off” (literal rendering) of the Lord’s prophets forced those who were left to be hidden. When Elijah appears on Mount Carmel, he is outnumbered 450-1. If the prophets of Asherah had shown up (1 Kgs. 18:19–which apparently they didn’t), Elijah would have been outnumbered 850-1. At this point in the story, the people are not on Elijah’s side (1 Kgs. 18:21); he is clearly alone. Elijah is not operating from a point of numerical strength! These observations are important because the Israelites, or their godly leaders, are often pictured by atheists as the bullies on the block who outnumber and outgun their opponents, when actually, the opposite is true (not only here, but in other stories as well). To be clear, I am not arguing, “I better kill you before you kill me” to justify the execution of the prophets of Baal, I am only establishing the proper context. Again, the motivation behind the execution is more than self-preservation (although I would be surprised if even atheists would not seek to defend themselves against an aggressor!).

fretheimWe should not be surprised when atheists attack stories like this when even some Bible commentators seem apologetic about Elijah’s actions. For example, Terence E. Fretheim seems to want to excuse God by blaming Elijah and his times for the execution of Baal’s prophets. He writes, “Yet human violence is in evidence here as well (v. 40). This should not be explained away, but neither should it be considered necessarily just, even if it is understood to obey the law (Deut. 13:1-5). Once again…God does not act alone; but God works in and through that which is available, with human beings as they are, with all of their flaws and foibles” (First and Second Kings, Westminister Bible Companion, pp. 106-107). Although I appreciate many of the insights from Fretheim’s books, I believe he has missed the mark here. He himself admits that the Law prescribes the death penalty for false prophets (see Deut. 13:1-11).

The Wisdom and the Folly is available at amazon.
The Wisdom and the Folly is available at amazon.

Dale Ralph Davis’s remarks are more on target. Here are a few comments that he makes on this passage. “This Kishon slaughter [the river where the execution took place] was not an act of personal revenge but of capital punishment in line with the Torah [the Books of Moses]….Remember Israel was a theocracy; what we call church and state functioned as one. And here Elijah simply carries out Israel’s constitution, the provisions of Yahweh’s covenant law, relating to solicitation to apostasy” (1 Kings, “The Wisdom and the Folly,” p. 241). Davis continues, “The problem is not with Elijah or the Old Testament but with us. We react the way we do because, in our subliminal view, apostasy is not that big a deal. We simply don’t understand Yahweh’s violence against rebellion in his people. He uses surgery not breath mints on cancer. The problem is not God’s lack of refinement but our lack of sanctification….The nasty episode at the Kishon testifies that we have little horror of sin and calls evangelical Christians in particular to repentance” (p. 242).

Idolatry is a serious matter
Idolatry is a serious matter

I am in agreement with Davis on many points, but particularly his statement that we (meaning many in our contemporary western society) don’t see apostasy as a big deal. Certainly this is Richard Dawkin’s point of view when he writes about God breaking into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god” which resembles “nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind” (“The God Delusion,” p. 243). Dawkin’s reaction demonstrates the naivete or the ignorance of the atheist who sees no harm in idolatry. In a previous post in this series entitled “The Necessity of Judgment: Violence in the Old Testament Part 5,” I examined in some detail the biblical concept that God is the Giver and Source of life. Since God is the source of life, any choice that excludes God is a choice for death (see the article for a more indepth treatment). This is why God is adamantly opposed to idolatry and the worship of false gods. Idolatry leads to death. Therefore, God seeks to protect people from idolatry by destroying those who, not only persist in idolatry themselves, but who also lead others into idolatry, such as the prophets that Elijah executed. Davis’s assertion that sin is no big deal to many today, is at the heart of the problem. Sin is tolerated, excused, denied, ignored, or glorified by many in our society, therefore, few are willing to hear the message that sin is dangerous and deadly. The title of an article by Clay Jones states the problem clearly: “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites” (Philosophia Christi, vol. 11, no. 1, 2009, pp. 53-72. Click on the link provided to read the entire article). Jones pinpoints the problem on the first page of this article when he writes, “Could it be that because our culture today commits these same Canaanite sins we are inoculated against the seriousness of these sins and so think God’s judgment unfair?” (p. 53).

Looking at the immediate context of the Elijah story, as well as the overall biblical context, brings clarity to the story of Elijah’s execution of the prophets of Baal. It also challenges our passivity or acceptance of idolatry in our own lives. This story is not the only one that speaks of fire from heaven. In our next post, I will look at 2 stories: the unnamed prophet who condemns Ahab for sparing his enemy (1 Kgs. 20:38-43), and Elijah’s destruction of two companies of soldiers by calling down fire from heaven (2 Kings 1).

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

This past summer I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Robert B. Chisholm Jr., department chair and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. The interview was primarily about his new commentary on 1&2 Samuel (you can see the entire interview here). However, I did take the opportunity to ask him about his views on Violence in the Old Testament. As part of my on-going series, I thought I would repost his comments on this topic. Bob’s comments particularly focus on the idea of justice and the biblical concept “you reap what you sow” (see my treatment of this idea here). I have reproduced Bob’s comments as they originally appeared in the interview. The only change I have made is to include Scripture references that were not part of the original interview so that the interested reader does not need to look them up. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read these comments, or if you’ve never read the entire interview, I hope you enjoy the following recap.

Here is my question followed by Bob’s answer.

I am currently writing a series of articles on my website entitled “Violence in the Old Testament.” This seems to be an important topic given the publications of books by the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Christians are often embarrassed about the violence in the Old Testament and many shy away from reading and studying it. I know this is a big topic but do you have any comments you’d like to share on this subject, especially as it relates to the books of 1&2 Samuel?

This is also a topic of great interest for me and I hope to do more writing on it in the days ahead. At the 2011 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I delivered a paper entitled: Fighting Yahweh’s Wars: Some Disturbing Acts of Violence in Judges-Samuel. It should be published soon; I’m still working on the logistics of where. I study six different episodes where God endorses violence. I am not as apologetic as some and prefer to give God the benefit of the doubt. It’s a messy fallen world filled with a lot of evil people and sometimes God rolls up his sleeves, so to speak, and enters into the fray as the just Warrior-King. Here’s the conclusion to my paper: A close reading of these six accounts reveals that in each case the act of violence involved the implementation of divine justice against the object. In two instances (Adoni-Bezek–Judg. 1:5-7, and Agag–1 Sam. 15:32-33) an individual was treated in a way that mirrored his crimes against others. In four cases a people group (the Amalekites–1 Sam. 15) or representatives of a people group (the Moabite king Eglon–Judg. 3:14-25, the Canaanite general Sisera–Judg. 4-5, the thirty Philistines murdered by Samson–Judg. 14:15-19) were, at least from Yahweh’s perspective, the objects of violent acts of justice in response to crimes committed or intended (in the case of Sisera) against Israel. In Goliath’s case (1 Sam. 17), David refused to view the Philistine’s taunt as simply a verbal assault against Israel’s army. Yahweh identifies with his people and so he was the ultimate target of the Philistine’s slander. Consequently, David’s victory over Goliath was an act of justice that vindicated Yahweh’s honor by punishing a blasphemer.

Though these violent acts are disturbing at an emotional level, they are, as acts of justice, gratifying at a deeper, more elemental level. Ultimately, it is not worth living in a world in which there is no justice. Such a place would be nothing more than a jungle in which superior strength breeds arrogance and evil, and the strong take what they want, dishing out pain and suffering with reckless abandon. But justice, to truly be justice, must be implemented fully and appropriately. To use a contemporary example, when the Harry Potter saga finally reaches its climax, Nagini, Bellatrix Lestrange, and, of course, Voldemort cannot just die; they must be killed the “right way” for justice to be satisfied and for some sense of moral equilibrium to be realized. Bellatrix cannot be pitied as long as the image of a dying Dobby persists in the mind’s eye.

So it is in the biblical story: Those who cut off the thumbs of others or make mothers childless eventually discover that what goes around comes around. Those who attack, oppress, and abuse Yahweh’s people eventually pay the price in “the right way.” Those who dare defy the living God and challenge him to step into the arena may end up a decapitated torso. And though the scene may make one want to vomit, in the end the image prompts a sigh of relief and more. As the psalmist declares: “The godly will rejoice when they see vengeance carried out; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then observers will say, ‘Yes indeed, the godly are rewarded! Yes indeed, there is a God who judges the earth!’” (Ps. 58:10-11) In conclusion I leave you with this scene: “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev. 19:11). Even so, come Lord Jesus!

For a list of some of Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s works click on the links here for Amazon USA / UK