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10: Natural Theology and the Future of Biblical Theology

Let us begin by summarizing the results of our discussion so far. We have shown, I think, that principles akin to those of natural theology are present in the Bible, both in the New Testament and in the Old, and that the connection between them is enhanced and deepened when we take into account the transmission of ideas as between the two testaments and especially as illustrated by the so-called apocryphal literature. Even if the elements of natural theology are considered as a somewhat minor constituent within the Bible, the functions of these elements remain very essential. In particular, in certain relations they form the cement which links together various themes of scripture, and equally they form one of the channels through which themes are enabled to pass from the earlier stages of their formulation to the later, most importantly in the connection between Old and New Testaments. Thus we are in a position to say that theologies which in principle denied natural theology ran into a deep inner contradiction. Though they aspired to provide, through the rejection of natural theology, a much deeper and more consistent base for the deployment of biblical truth, in effect their own principle forced them away from the realities of the Bible.

Nor was the Bible the only consideration. Theological tradition was another. In so far as theologies which rejected natural theology also aspired to be a return to older, more traditional, theological patterns, they ran into the difficulty that natural theology had been a significant ingredient in most currents of traditional orthodoxy. This, however, has already been mentioned and will not be followed up further, since our concern here is with the Bible itself.

Now, as I have indicated, it might still be possible to maintain, on philosophical or on dogmatic grounds, that natural theology was a false track for Christianity to adopt. It could be said that, even if it was tried out within the Bible, more mature thought or analysis had shown that it was a wrong turning. It could be argued that people were no longer persuaded by it, or that, even if it had worked positively in the past, it now misled them into belief in a God quite different from that of traditional Christianity. But, if it had to be admitted that natural theology had nevertheless been present within the Bible, any such modern theology which rejected natural theology would have to stand rather aloof from the Bible and work explicitly in a very different way. Thus one of the most paradoxical consequences of our argument would be that, even if philosophical or dogmatic theology were to reject natural theology, biblical theology would have to accept it and integrate it into its own work, because natural theology is there in the Bible itself. The consideration of this problem will be the next part of our thinking.

The concept of ‘biblical theology’ has proved very difficult to define, and many people have found it simplest to deny that any such thing exists or can exist. I think, on the other hand, that it does exist and has some importance. But, rather than defining it in its totality, I will take one aspect, one of its limits, which may help us to see that part of its definition which is for our purpose most important. This is as follows: biblical theology, to be meaningful, must work within the meanings of the biblical culture. Only within that area can it have resources to work with, only there does it have criteria to assess assertions that are made. Only that condition makes it meaningful that there should be such a thing as ‘biblical’ theology as distinct from the totality of theology.

Now the position of biblical theology in this century has been much affected by the same question of natural theology which has been our subject here. Relations in this regard have been highly paradoxical. Few would doubt that the complete rejection of natural theology by Barth and others formed a strong stimulus to the growth of biblical theology. Natural theology being out of the way, it seemed as if any true theology would be based squarely on the Bible and on it alone. The entire Bible had an intrinsic community of thought, the harmony of which was destroyed as soon as ideas from without this community, of which natural theology was the supreme example, were admitted. Extra-biblical ideas and influences would all be seen as negative and distorting: the removal of them would enable the Bible to be clear and effective in its expression and direct in its relation to final theological affirmations. Greek thought, which had provided the terms for most classical natural theology, was the stock example of a distorting influence which could be and must be eliminated. Thus modern biblical theology to a large extent excluded the subject of natural theology from its purview. It spoke as if biblical theology and natural theology were mutually exclusive categories. In so doing it made itself something like a slave to the classic Barthian position on the matter, though scarcely to the final Barthian position as attained in the later years, the consciousness of which hardly penetrated into biblical theology at all. Thus even where biblical theologians ignored Barth, or disagreed with him, or took little account of him, they accepted a working atmosphere the outlines of which had been largely set by his side of the dialectical theology.

In this, however, there were many paradoxical aspects. Although, as I have said, Barth did much to stimulate biblical theology, it is not clear that he actually approved of it. He thought, of course, that biblical scholars should be ‘more theological’, a demand which is still being re-echoed in various quarters.1 But even those biblical theologians who were most ‘theological’ were also fairly clear that they were not working as dogmaticians. They did not class themselves as such, and in this they were right. Their modes of demonstration lay still within the area of biblical studies. Barth himself, on the other hand, did not think that there was any legitimate mode of biblical study other than the dogmatic, and that meant in effect his own dogmatics. Thus a truly insightful Barthian approach might have been one that condemned the project of ‘biblical theology’ altogether, and voices of this kind have been raised from time to time.2 In the central period of twentieth-century biblical theology, however, little attention was given to this aspect: biblical theology was supposed to have its main contrast and counterpart in historical study of the Bible, and biblical theologians for the most part thought that ‘theology’ was on their side, and not against them, in what they were doing.

Thus, as mentioned above, the subject of natural theology, even the possibility of it, more or less disappeared from works of biblical theology. The first time I recollect the mention of it reappearing within any of the major works in the latter field is in the work of H. H. Schmid.3 In contrast with many earlier trends of biblical theology, Schmid put forward a very interesting and original proposal, according to which creation was the main and comprehensive horizon, the history of religion and the common ground with other religions was positively valued, and the themes of order and peace were given centrality. Anyone who thought in this way, however, he soon found, fell under suspicion for ‘intending a natural theology’, and for many people this was enough to rule out any thinking along these lines. Hostility to natural theology, it thus turned out, acted as an obstacle which prevented the progress of ideas within the field of biblical theology itself.

In fact the enslavement of biblical theology to the Barth-Bultmann axis of the dialectical theology was disastrous to the subject. I agree with the Finnish scholar Heikki Räisänen in his recent book Beyond New Testament Theology when he writes: ‘New Testament scholarship made a fatal mistake when, in the aftermath of the First World War, it turned its back on the liberals and the history-of-religions school and succumbed to the rhetorical-theological appeal of dialectical theology.’ And, as he says, the further development of the subject depends on the abandonment of the attitudes inherited from that period.4 In fact, I have no doubt that the long-term effect of Barthianism has been to create a wider gap between theology and the Bible than was there before. In the beginning it looked as if Barthian theology was striving towards an enormous appropriation of the Bible into the work of theological understanding. This stimulated work of all kinds among biblical scholars. But the value of that stimulus was negated in the long run through the contemptuous ignoring of the main tradition of biblical scholarship by Barth and his followers and by the impossibility of even talking with Barthians about the methods or criteria of decision. The countless pages of wearisome, inept, and futile exegesis in the Church Dogmatics, especially in the later volumes, were only a testimony to the fact that the Bible cannot be used theologically when the work of biblical scholarship is brushed aside. Barth offered nothing to that scholarship and in the end achieved nothing for it. Some of the most truly ridiculous and useless pieces of biblical interpretation in this century came from the Barthian tradition,5 and it was precisely the false intellectual assurance that that theology offered that was the cause of their ludicrousness. The later years showed that the justification of Barthian theology depended upon philosophical considerations and arguments from the history of ideas, and not upon the Bible. Seen in the long term, Barthianism led away from biblical authority.

For this ironic situation our topic of natural theology provides one set of illustrations. For if, as we have argued, natural theology does have a place within the Bible, and indeed a fairly important place within it, this fact is bound to make a very considerable difference to the idea of biblical theology and to the modes by which one may operate within that sphere.

We thus come to something close to the diametrical opposite of what it has been the fashion to think. The biblical theologian has to take account of processes of natural theology. Even if he or she personally dislikes natural theology, if it is there in the material it has to be taken into account. It forms part of the essential linkage between one part of the Bible and another, and these linkages, which hold the Bible together, are just the matter with which biblical theology is supposed to be concerned. There may, on the other hand, be philosophical or dogmatic reasons, or reasons arising from the modern situation, why natural theology should be ruled out. If that is so, then the dogmatic theologian has to explain why this aspect of biblical thought should be rejected and what effect such a rejection will have on the idea of the authority of the Bible. To most people, however, it would seem odd if natural theology was accepted as part of the working machinery of the Bible and yet was condemned as anti-Christian by dogmatic theology.

From this several features of any future biblical theology must follow. First of all, the purpose of a biblical theology cannot be primarily to demonstrate the distinctiveness of the Bible. The biblical scholar will have to accept openly the existence of non-distinctive elements, and to interpret them not merely as negative hindrances but also as positive and creative tendencies. Even from such an approach, it is very likely that the Bible will emerge as highly distinctive: but that conclusion is one that must be left to emerge of its own from the evidence, and not one that the scholar should feel compelled to demonstrate.

Secondly, the same will have to be said about contacts with other and environing religions. As we saw from the beginning, any transreligiosity, any degree of adoption within the Bible of concepts and styles that exist also within some other religion, brings us close to the thematics of natural theology. The earlier biblical theology of the twentieth century sought above all to produce something that was different from a religionsgeschichtlich perspective on the Bible. But experience has shown, and this has been agreed among many more recent practitioners of biblical theology, that there is no real chance of producing a convincing theology of either Old or New Testament which does not adopt and take within itself the perspective of the history of religions. The biblical evidence itself makes this directly necessary. Such a view, however, must have important indirect systematic consequences, to which attention will have to be drawn.

Needless to say, this implies also that biblical theology should abandon, not only in practice but as a matter of principle, the attempt to contrast Hebrew thought as the contours of revelation itself with Greek thought as the paradigm of autonomous human reason. Hebrew thought has many differences from Greek thought, but this fact does not make it symmorphous with revelation, and the thought-forms of the Hebrew Bible show many aspects of coincidence with other Semitic and ancient Near Eastern thought-forms, which aspects make that side of the Old Testament more comparable to the operations of natural theology. Conversely, great as the differences of Greek thought may be, the entry of substantial elements of Greek thought into the later strata of the Bible—especially some of the Apocryphal books and the New Testament epistles—is too evident to be left unrecognized. Biblical theology has to abandon the attempt to canonize one current of thought, more or less ethnically6 defined, as definitive for revelation. And even if we take the Hebrew thought forms for themselves, they are like the Greek, in that they also, if in a quite different way, bear the signs of intrinsic relationship to the processes of natural theology.

Or, to put all this in another and a succinct way, biblical theology cannot work in a purely and strictly canonical mode. It has to move across the boundaries of any strictly defined canon of scripture. The matter of the materials which lie within the canon is such that it cannot be properly understood unless the lines of connection with extra-canonical materials are considered. Or, conversely, a strictly canonical interpretation could not fail to produce distortions in the resultant biblical theology. Most obviously is this the case in considering the connections between the Old Testament and the New. This is not to say that the canon of scripture is without importance. To most of us, Daniel is ‘Holy Scripture’ but Enoch is not, the Wisdom of Solomon is somewhat marginal, the Pauline letters are ‘Holy Scripture’ but the Didache is not. Let it be so; ‘Scripture’ is what the Church has decided ought to be normally read in worship. But, for the understanding of the books within this canon, writings that lie outside may be of first-rate importance. Paul, as we have emphasized, is likely to be ill understood if the Wisdom of Solomon is ignored, and Daniel—perhaps even Genesis—cannot be properly explained if Enoch is not taken into consideration. Biblical theology, even when understood strictly as the theology of the canonical books, can be practised only when the theology of the non-canonical books is positively taken into account.7 And, of course, when we consider that natural theology, which may have relations lying entirely outside the biblical tradition, has a part within the Bible, then the incorporation of the books that are ‘biblical’ but not canonical is a very much smaller step, since these books clearly belong to the same general type and style as the canonical books.

The relevance of all this becomes clear when we think of some of the deep problems which have beset biblical theology. Primary among these is the perception of the unity of the two Testaments. As against the separation of the text into many elements, supposed to have been the effect of historical criticism, biblical theology was to be synthetic in method and bring together the large bodies of text into one. And let us say that this was indeed in some measure achieved for the Old Testament and also for the New. But, it seemed, the more the biblical theology approach succeeded for these two great corpora or canons, the more difficult it was found to be to bring these two into one great body and enunciate the theology of the Bible as a whole. Now for this there are, no doubt, several reasons, but one of them lies within our subject-matter in these lectures: the elimination of natural theology from the reckoning was one of the factors which made more difficult the perception of the ways in which the two Testaments were interrelated. As we have illustrated in these lectures, the faith of ancient Israel articulated itself in various ways, but one of these was a sort of natural theology by which certain basic tenets and practices were explained, justified, and defended. This explanation, justification, and defence in turn became part of the ‘biblical’ basis of New Testament Christianity, without which important parts of it cannot be understood. Natural theology is thus part of the set of historically given linkages between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (or parts of it), and an approach which seeks to eliminate natural theology is very likely to run into difficulties for this reason. The rejection of natural theology, which at first sight appeared to guarantee the unity of the Bible, turned out in the end to obscure it.

Similar thoughts emerge when we consider the hermeneutical aspect. It was widely, though not universally, felt that biblical theology had a hermeneutical function. It would help to provide the path towards an understanding, not just of how it was in ancient times, which might be a matter of historical-critical interpretation, but of what this should mean for people in the modern situation. But once again it has not been clear that much was achieved along this line. And one reason for this weakness follows from our discussion. The rejection of natural theology meant that interpretation was strongly inclined to restrict its sources of guidance to the internal relations perceptible within the biblical text itself. Because much (or most) biblical theology saw itself as in principle hostile to natural theology, and therefore forced to interpret texts entirely on the basis of their internal networks of indications, which (supposedly) derived purely and directly from divine revelation, hermeneutics were forced into an unnatural and ultimately sterile position. The contradiction is obvious on the modern academic scene. People say: a historical description is not enough, you must go on to actualize this for the life of the Church, for the modern situation. So you actualize it for the life of the Church, for the modern situation, and what happens? Immediately the same people say: But you cannot get this out of the text, the text does not actually say what you are discovering in it. Well, of course it does not. Interpretation for the modern situation can occur only when you bring to the text other factors, other ideas, other knowledge of situations, which are expressly other than the internal content and internal relations of the text. But the bringing to the text of these extra-textual factors is something close to the application of methods belonging to natural theology, or at least may sometimes be so.

This is not surprising, since we have seen that, from the beginning, within the Bible itself, texts were being reinterpreted, not on the grounds of their own terminology and their own assumptions, but on the grounds of the question: how does this fit with reality as we know it from other sources? Something of the apologetic axis was already operative, and with it the critical function which was the other end of that same axis. Biblical interpretation for the modern world cannot be carried out without recognition of this theologically critical function. Of this the Old Testament provides one startlingly vivid example, namely the practice of the ~wt (ḥerem), the ‘ban’ or ritual destruction of the population of conquered Canaanite cities, a practice that is heavily emphasized in several books and especially in Deuteronomy and Joshua, and this we shall discuss in the next part of this chapter.8

This institution is, of course, as everyone knows, one of the supreme cases in regard to which people feel a moral revulsion against the Old Testament and its God. Can one believe in a God who, it appears, not only permitted or used, but commanded and insisted upon, what seems to be the genocide of a large population? Conversely, those who insist on the revelatory character of all the Bible and its complete authority are at pains to justify this practice, invoking the supposed wickedness of the Canaanites and/or the long-term advantages of the divine plan of salvation which could not have proceeded if Israel had not become sole occupants of the land. It is a classic example in which, at least at first sight, revelational theology seems to be at loggerheads with natural theology or natural morality. And, traditionally, one may say, even the revelational party, though they thought they could (somehow) justify the institution, have mostly followed the defensive policy of keeping quiet about it unless they were pressed about it; in other words, even they hardly put it forward as a shining example of the moral excellence of the Old Testament.

The biblical theology movement, by contrast, succeeded in making a very positive use of the ~wt and indeed of the entire holy war tradition, as it came to be called. Its centrality and positive importance were emphasized in von Rad's little monograph Der heilige Krieg im alten Israel (1951). This and other studies cast a great deal of light on Israelite warfare in general and on the command to destroy the Canaanites in particular. It was easy to show that the background and motivation of these practices are very different from what the general lay public, seeing the matter from outside, might imagine. Thus, for example, it can be pointed out that consecration to destruction is not a sanction for hatred and vengefulness. On the contrary, it is something more like a ritual, a sort of sacrifice, whereby the population of captured cities, including even the domestic animals, are destroyed; notice in particular that, by the same rule, indestructible assets, objects of gold and silver, are not plunder to be kept by anyone but are to be taken and donated as offerings to the God of Israel. To the non-Hebraist it is not visible that the root ḥ-r-m belongs to the semantic field of ‘sacred, holy’, which fact justifies our rendering as ‘consecration to destruction’ or the like. It seems to indicate the negative side of being sacred, that is, the aspect of removal, making inaccessible or unavailable for common use, while the more familiar term q-d-š indicates positive qualities of holiness. Thus a person could ‘devote’ to the Lord, using the same Hebrew expression, an animal or a field, and that entity then could not be recovered and put to normal use. As Brekelmans expresses it, in moments of extreme crisis one dedicated to Yahweh enemies and/or booty, in order to be sure of his help in battle; the fulfilment of this vow was an utterance of gratitude to the God of Israel who had granted the victory.9

In other words, the whole thing was the negation of an ethic of mere plunder and exploitation. It was a kind of ritual sanctification,10 in which the captured persons, animals, and objects were devoted to Yahweh, and while objects, being indestructible, were simply donated to the sanctuary, persons were donated to the deity in the same way in which sacrificial animals were donated, that is, through returning their life to God the giver of life. Many people would doubtless have preferred, for themselves, to keep people alive as slaves, for human beings were a valuable asset, as were oxen and sheep and other animals, and it was for this reason that there were always persons who broke the ban, keeping something or someone for themselves. Stolz uses the expression ‘the ḥ-r-m taboo’ in this connection: captured spoils were taboo to the Israelite victors. There were, however, differing theories of the extent of this taboo. Old Testament texts again and again return to the question whether and under what conditions it was proper to gain and keep any booty taken in the wars.11

Moreover, it has been argued that the holy war in full-dress form, as depicted in Deuteronomy and Joshua, may never have been carried out by Israel. In many cases compromises with the existing inhabitants of the land were reached, as the story of the Gibeonites (Josh. 9) exemplifies, and there is considerable evidence of this. As is well known, the first chapter of Judges depicts the defeated Canaanites as remaining in the land and subjected to forced labour. Thus the holy war institutions as depicted may have a theoretical aspect about them: they may sometimes be rules that were not put literally into practice but were used to inculcate other principles altogether, such as a resistance to Canaanite religious practices. Even if the whole tradition of the holy war was ‘a fiction’, this does not deal with the problem: the problem is not whether the narratives are fact or fiction, the problem is that, whether fact or fiction, the ritual destruction is commended. The total destruction of the Canaanite population is commanded in the texts, and accounts of its being carried out, as at the capture of Jericho, are very emphatically phrased. If it was a fiction, it seems it was a fiction of which people approved and one which parts of the Bible sought to inculcate as a good model. And, though there is a wide variety of biblical depictions of warfare, there appears to be no passage that explicitly states disapproval of the ḥ-r-m or denies that it was commanded by God.

Moreover, we know from the Moabite inscription that the entire practice was not unique to Israel but, doubtless with variations, was common property with at least one neighbouring and closely related nation and was in fact carried out against Israel on certain occasions. Since the inscription (the one piece of extant Moabite literature) may well be unfamiliar to readers who are not specialists in Old Testament, it may be helpful to quote a portion of it:

I am Mesha… king of Moab… Omri had taken possession of the land of Medeba and he [or: Israel] dwelt in it his days and half the days of his son, forty years; but Kemosh dwelt in it in my days… The men of God had long dwelt in the land of Ataroth, and the king of Israel had built Ataroth for himself. But I fought against the town and took it and I slew all the people of the town, a spectacle for Kemosh and Moab… Kemosh said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo against Israel’. And I went by night and fought against it from the break of dawn till noon; and I took it and slew all: seven thousand men, boys, women and [girls] and female slaves, for I had consecrated it to Ashtar-Kemosh. And I took from there the vessels of Yahweh and dragged them before Kemosh.12

The inscription is nothing new: it has been known since 1868. It dates from about 830 BC. Mesha and his revolt against Israel are mentioned also in the Bible (2 Kgs. 3). The language of Moab is extremely close to biblical Hebrew; the identical term ḥ-r-m is used, in verb form (translated as ‘consecrated’ in the extract above).

This Moabite text is of great importance. On the one hand it supports, at least in some degree, the realistic character and historical credibility of some of the biblical narratives and laws. On the other hand it suggests that the practices and principles involved were inherited by Israel from a background shared with the Moabites. This again is striking, for we have noted other possible elements of common religious elements between the two peoples, and of course the Old Testament itself regarded them as related, Moab being descended from Lot, Abraham's nephew (Gen. 1937). Were the practices of war a heritage of a common natural religion?

On the other hand, the Hebrew practice of consecration to destruction can scarcely be explained or extenuated, as many writers seem to imply, on the ground that they were only doing the same as was universal in the contemporary culture. It seems clear that this was not so. Brekelmans in an exhaustive discussion considered possible parallels to the Hebrew ḥ-r-m in the Hittite, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian cultures, and also in later contexts (Roman, Celtic, Gallic, and Germanic), but found nothing: apart from the Moabite Stone, the answer was negative.13 Kang, who in general wants to show that there is ‘nothing unique about divine war in the Old Testament texts’,14 writes that ‘the idea of ban [= our consecration to destruction] is not attested in the ancient Near Eastern context except in the Moabite Stone and in the Bible’, though he does go on to consider a suggestion by Malamat which would find a parallel at Mari. In other words, the Hebrew practices or theories, even if shared with the closely related Moabites, are by no means common to the general environment: on the contrary, they seem to be quite distinctive. Massacres of a general kind were of course common but these are not the same thing as the Hebrew practice, with its strict divine requirement and punishment for failure to execute. In this respect, the positive evaluation of the Hebrew practice fits with the customary approach of biblical theology, which sought to stress that which was distinctive as against the environment. But these same features mean that there can be no moral extenuation on the grounds that Israel simply fitted in with what was normal in the environment. And, seen from a general moral point of view, this distinctiveness may prove to be no recommendation, but only an embarrassment: in this particular case that which is distinctive turns out to be the most offensive element in the general subject of ancient warfare.

So, as a part of the total enterprise of biblical theology, we can probably build a sort of theology of holy war, within which all these commands and practices and their social spin-off in ethics and rhetoric and in later religion can be brought together and make excellent sense. Seen this way, the whole thing looks quite different from the way in which the uninitiated Bible-reader sees it.

Nevertheless, this leaves the whole central issue in a new way unapproached and unilluminated: according to the Old Testament texts, this is not just something that happened, not only something that can be understood as a meaningful part of ancient anthropology, not just something that can be fruitfully used in theological paraenesis; it is something that God commanded and very strictly insisted upon. It is here that a critical ethical voice can be heard: this cannot be justified as the picture of a moral deity. How can it be reconciled with what we otherwise know and believe of God? Quite possibly, natural morality or natural theology cannot settle the question: but they do succeed in insisting that the question should at least be raised. By contrast, biblical theology, through its general, if not universal, ignoring of natural theology, has led to a position where the issue is not raised at all, and where it would seem wrong even to raise it at all. Thus, in most works of biblical theology, during the twentieth-century floruit of that subject, we look in vain for even a discussion of the matter. Apparently, no moral problem exists, or if it does exist biblical theology seems unable to say anything about it.

Now indeed recent years have seen a growth of serious discussion of the question. The (long-delayed) appearance of the English translation of von Rad's monograph, with introduction by Ben Ollenburger and helpful bibliography by Judith Sanderson, shows evidence of considerable concern about it. Some shift of ideas seems to have taken place. People can be found who will argue for a ‘pacifist’ interpretation of the war traditions of ancient Israel.15 The traditions of Hebrew warfare are to be understood, we are told, ‘as a limitation of militarism and nationalism’.16 Such interpretations may have something to be said for them, but it is to be feared that they are also in part optimistic attempts to obscure the serious moral offence that the texts seem to present.17

It is not our purpose here to evaluate this newer discussion. Its character, however, confirms what has been said. A substantial portion of this discussion emanates from particular groups like the Mennonites who combine a convinced pacifism with a profound belief in biblical authority.18 It has not, so far, been typical of the main stream of thought in biblical theology. Moreover, a great deal of it comes from very recent times: say, since about 1980, a time in other words, during which the influence of the older biblical theology was declining and social and moral problems which had been neglected were coming to receive fresh attention. For the main stream of biblical theology in this century our evaluation still stands: ‘holy war’ was creative as a theme in biblical theology, and there was no moral problem to bother about. Concern about the morality of the ḥerem was a sign of theological ‘liberalism’ and threatened an outbreak of a ‘Marcionite’ attitude which would diminish the authority of the Old Testament.19 Not all formulated it as simply as did George Ernest Wright with his ‘Yahweh was no pacifist, nor am I’,20 but this was the general impression.21 Although there were many scholarly contributions that proposed revisions to von Rad's seminal monograph,22 many of these were concerned only with the outlines or history of the phenomenon as taken strictly within the Old Testament context itself, and did nothing to revive discussion of the ethical questions involved. Only late in the century did serious renewal of discussion of the problem take place, and only contributions like those of Norbert Lohfink and Dwight van Winkle faced squarely the central problem of consecration to destruction itself.23

How did a system that rejected all natural theology cope with this question? There were various traditional justifications, such as the extreme wickedness of the Canaanites: but the degree of their wickedness is probably in large measure legendary, having been invented or exaggerated precisely in order to furnish extenuation for the mass destruction which the texts insist upon. There is no historical evidence outside the Old Testament which could support such an evaluation of Canaanite culture, except one possible aspect, which will be mentioned shortly. And even within the Old Testament, although the Canaanites are frequently referred to as abominable, much of this may rest upon the cultural estrangement which one people experiences in its perception of another, and the Old Testament actually provides little hard evidence of such exceptional evil-doing.24 On the contrary, where it gives detailed pictures of contacts with Canaanites and other non-Hebrew peoples, these are often remarkably sympathetic and suggest no such intolerable levels of ‘wickedness’. Certainly various religious abuses identified in the period of the kings were regarded as being imitations of Canaanite abominations, but these were abuses committed by Israelites, and some of them may have arisen from indigenous Israelite motives and instincts which the Old Testament texts found it convenient to combat by suggesting that they were of Canaanite origin. Comparably, the notorious homosexuality of the people of Sodom is depicted in Genesis 19, but a very similar story is told of Israelite Benjaminites in Judges 19.

What comes nearest to a recognizable Canaanite abomination is the sacrifice of children in fire. The grim reality of this practice, and its extent, have been vividly shown by recent excavations at Carthage, where the Tophet or place of sacrifice and burial has been recovered.25 Some evidence may suggest that child sacrifices were a deeply entrenched practice, sometimes reaching major dimensions. Greek sources reported something of this kind. According to Diodorus as many as 500 children were sacrificed in the time of crisis when Carthage seemed to face military disaster in 310 BC. They feared that their catastrophe was caused by the anger of ‘Heracles’ (= Canaanite Baal?) and also of ‘Kronos’ (El?): ‘There was in their city a bronze image of Kronos, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereupon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.’26 Naturally, there may be an element of legend and imaginative exaggeration in this. Nevertheless, since the evidence may go back as far as 700 BC, it may be that it reflects conditions of the Phoenician homeland and is relevant for the world of the Old Testament.27 Moreover, according to Diodorus’ account, the entire intent of the Carthaginians was based on memories of earlier times. Having been colonized from Tyre, they had in the first times regularly sent back tithes and the like to the Tyrian gods, but gradually, capitalistic motives overtaking them, they had given up the practice, thus slighting the deity. Overtaken by serious crisis, they returned to it. At first sight, therefore, child sacrifice looks like a good example of Canaanite ‘iniquity’. Later several Hebrew kings are severely blamed where they have indulged in this or a related practice: thus Ahaz king of Judah (mid to late eighth century) is censured because he had ‘made his son to pass through the fire,28 according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel’ (2 Kgs. 163, and compare the cases of Manasseh, 2 Kgs. 216, and the Moabite king of 2 Kgs. 327). It is interesting that the Carthaginians expected the royal and other aristocratic families to provide the children for sacrifice; but this requirement had been neglected, and wealthy families had been buying unwanted children and keeping them for the purpose. This is why the sacrifice of 310 BC was a particularly important occasion, since it involved the genuine children of these same families. This aspect again may fit with the biblical narratives on the subject. Certainly, the matter was of real importance in Israel, and the destruction of the Tophet was a major element in the religious reform of Josiah (2 Kgs. 2310).

The reality of Canaanite child sacrifice is therefore, very likely, an important fact. One should hesitate, however, before supposing that it provides a moral justification for the ritual destruction of the entire Canaanite population by Israel, and this for several reasons. First of all, as indicated above, in the narratives of early Hebrew contacts with the Canaanites, a quite sympathetic atmosphere is often evoked: for example in the story of Dinah and the Shechemites in Genesis 34, where the Canaanites (or ‘Hittites’ as they are called) are very willing to make amends and co-operate with Jacob's family, and the story looks unsympathetically on the violence done by Simeon and Levi. While vague mentions of the ‘iniquity’ of the Canaanites occur, no explicit picture of terrible evil-doing is produced, and nothing at all is said about the sacrifice of children. Moreover, in the narratives that mention particular destructions of cities, notably that of Jericho, nothing is said about child sacrifice or any other abominations. As far as that story indicates (Josh. 6–7), the people of Jericho are consecrated to destruction for only one reason, namely that they are people living in Jericho. Thirdly, the Old Testament tends to conceal the probable relations involved, because it gives the impression that the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land (variously called Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, and other names, as may be) were quite unrelated to the Israelites and deeply alien from them: thus, as is well known, the genealogical map of Genesis 924 ff. and 10 classifies Canaan as son of Ham and as thus belonging to a quite different portion of humanity from the Hebrews, who are children of Shem. In fact the Canaanites—or at least the ones among them who can be related through Phoenicia to Carthage and thus to the evidence of child sacrifice—were closely related to the Israelites, and their language was very similar indeed. And this means that such evidence as there is of child sacrifice may well go back to ancient religious drives and instincts which were inherited in common by Phoenicia, by Carthage, and by Israel.

Child sacrifice was forbidden by the laws in Israel, but it was forbidden because it needed to be forbidden. One of the ways to reinforce that prohibition was to represent the practice as foreign and an abomination. Moreover, if the sacrifice of children was an abomination, it is a peculiar way to overcome this by slaughtering wholesale the entire population, including those same children of whom it is felt to be iniquitous if their own parents sacrificed them. The sacrifice of children, though indeed a gruesome practice, thus provides no sort of explanation or justification for the requirement that the Canaanite population should be totally exterminated. And, apart from this particular practice, there is no serious evidence of extraordinary ‘wickedness’ within Canaanite culture.

In any case, wickedness, however serious, does not constitute a justification for what appears to be genocide. The fact is that these massacres were commanded, not because of the wickedness of the populace, but for a quite different reason. Wickedness, however great, provides no reason why, for instance, the cattle and other animals should be destroyed. Canaanite populations were to be exterminated because that was part of the rule of warfare accepted in the society and hallowed by the commendations and narrations of religious tradition, and because they were the people of the land which Israel was to settle in.29 If God's people needed a land of their own to live in and work out their role in the world's salvation, why could the inhabitants of Jericho and other cities not have been offered the choice of emigration, which they might well have grasped as an alternative to total extermination? (In fact the terms Xrg, ‘expel, drive out’, and Xyrwh, ‘dispossess, take over possession from’, are both used quite a lot, for example Exodus 2331, and Judges 1 repeatedly, but neither do the narratives depict, nor the laws envisage, expulsion as an alternative to extermination.) Again, to maintain that biblical practices of warfare were ‘time-bound’—another suggested theological explanation—seems to mean that, though genocidal massacre is wrong in the modern world, there was an earlier time when there was nothing wrong with it. All such arguments are pitifully weak apologetic. Moreover, if the Moabites practised the same form of destruction, did they also have a mission of world salvation to perform? Or does the Moabite evidence not point in the opposite direction and suggest that the whole institution in Israel was in fact a piece of natural religion, practised by Israel because it was shared with elements of the surrounding culture? Perhaps it was itself part of that same notorious wickedness of the Canaanites, taken over rather than suppressed?

The fact is that, on the face of it, the command of consecration to destruction is morally offensive and has to be faced as such. Although, within the ancient Hebrew literature and society itself, it is only one part of the wider context of warfare and goes along with the images of God as warrior and other aspects, it is the ḥerem itself that is uniquely and outstandingly a problem for Christian theology and ethical understanding. As soon as we consider interpretation for Christianity and for the modern world, it is an exceptional case. Over questions of war and peace it is accepted that there is room for disagreement; it is often held that war can be necessary for the long-term maintenance of peace, and Christians who are impressed by the high degree of human sinfulness often think that pacifism is over-optimistic in its hopes. But over the deliberate destruction of entire populations by divine command there is no room for disagreement of this kind—not least when this century has seen horrifying examples of genocide at work. Moreover, the attitudes engendered by attempts to justify consecration to destruction spill over into wide areas of religion: into the invention of a sort of racial ‘wickedness’ of which there is no real evidence, into the production of views that ‘wickedness’ justifies mass destruction, into non-discrimination between innocent and guilty, into the perception of a sort of racial guilt, and above all into the belief that religious commands override morality and that it is good for us that this should be so.

As Stewart Sutherland expresses it:30

When difficulties arise, there is a retreat to the self-indulgent intellectual comfort of talk of ‘mystery’ and ‘inscrutability’. Less often, but more strikingly, the gauntlet to moral belief is thrown down, and we are reminded of our status as finite creatures who have to live with paradox in one form and another.

In fact, the usual thing, as I remember it from the Barthian period, was to wheel out the saying of Kierkegaard about the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’: that is to say, there are occasions when, for an ultimate supreme goal, normal moral judgement may be suspended.31 In view of an ultimate salvation which requires appropriate preparation, an immediate genocide, though unpleasant, may be necessary and therefore acceptable. Against this we may set Sutherland's principle, from the same page of his book: ‘A religious belief which runs counter to our moral beliefs is to that extent unacceptable.’

Now I do not think that, in this last chapter, I can hope to provide even a first step towards an answer to this problem. All I indicate is that the problem is there. It is one that biblical theology is simply unlikely to take seriously, so long as it holds that considerations of natural theology are to be ignored. But I would say this: that we cannot hope to make progress without willingness to accept that the whole tradition of the matter of the Canaanites involves a picture of God which is seriously defective in relation to the reality of his nature, and this on the grounds which Sutherland sets out, which are, in a way, grounds of natural theology. But in any case, when we have done this, we find that the same judgements may follow on the ground of revelational theology too. Even a purely revelational theology cannot ignore the question, for such a theology has to consider how the practice of holy war fits with Jesus’ teaching, with his own life, and with the entire account of him that traditional Christian doctrine provides; and it is just on that ground that some of the recent discussion has been inspired. But the acceptance of natural theology as a legitimate conversation-partner is the course most likely to lead to a real discussion, while the denial of natural theology tends to be accompanied with a refusal to see any importance in the question at all, a simple confidence that, if God has commanded something, that fact must override and blanket out all other ethical considerations. Possibly a more sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of salvation through Christ can be worked out, which would in some way take into account the moral problem of the destruction of the Canaanites, and this on revelational grounds. But, unless attention is given to the verdict of natural theology, it is likely that no attempt at any such improved understanding will be made. And, in particular, any attempt at a meaningful interpretation for the present day is bound to take extra-biblical facts, values, and considerations into account. For the situation in the present-day Middle East sufficiently demonstrates the result that follows, when ancient ideologies of war, people, and land are allowed to survive and grow without adequate ethical evaluation.

Biblical theology, then, being based within the meanings of the biblical culture itself, must take within its concerns the natural theology or theologies of that culture; and to some extent it has in the past done this, but often without recognizing that it was doing so. In so far as it seeks to debouch into an interpretation of the Bible for modern times, it is there likely to be particularly handicapped if it disregards the currents of more modern natural theology. And, of course, it is perfectly proper that it should lead towards a critique of natural theology; but, in so far as it does so, it is bound also to look critically at the elements of natural theology which operate within the Bible itself. And, since these elements are by no means insignificant, any such critique of natural theology must carry with it a revision of our ideas of the character of scripture itself.

It is now time to conclude with some thoughts about the long-term importance of our theme. First, it concerns the central problem of theological scholarship, namely the unity of theology as an enterprise. As we have indicated, the insistence on rejection of natural theology had in the long run a completely unintended result: the violent separation between biblical studies as they are actually carried on and the ideas of theologians about the place and authority of the Bible. Secondly, it is an ecumenical question.32 The question of understanding between Protestant and Catholic Christianity is in considerable measure a question of the place of natural theology. Natural theology of course deserves to be subjected to a critique, but such a critique must be something different from a dogmatic rejection. Thirdly, it is a question of the relation between Christian belief and the actual beliefs and principles of the societies in which people live. Since the Bible itself built its account of revelation, at least in part, upon beliefs and principles of its own people and those of their ancestors and neighbours, it should not be surprising if modern theology has to do the same in relation to the beliefs and principles of our own time.

  • 1.

    Cf. recently John Barton, ‘Should Old Testament Study be More Theological?’, Exp. T. 100 (1989), 443–8.

  • 2.

    See my ‘The Theological Case against Biblical Theology’, in G. M. Tucker, D. L. Petersen, and R. R. Wilson (eds.), Canon, Theology and Old Testament Interpretation (Childs FS; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 3–19. Cf. also Dietrich Ritschl, The Logic of Theology (London: SCM, 1986), 68 f. (German original, Zur Logik der Theologie (Munich: Kaiser, 1984), 98 ff.: ‘Die Fiktion einer biblischen Theologie’).

  • 3.

    H. H. Schmid, Altorientalische Welt in der alttestamentlichen Theologie (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1974), 9.

  • 4.

    See H. Räisänen, Beyond New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1990). xv; cf. 90, etc. As my quotation implies, the same is true of Old Testament scholarship: and one might add that it was, on the whole, more persuaded by the Barthian side of the dialectical theology than were New Testament studies, which were more influenced by the dominant figure of Bultmann.

  • 5.

    Examples abound in my The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

  • 6.

    That this ‘revelational’ style of work ends up with a sort of ethnic, almost racial, principle is well perceived by H. C. C. Cavallin, Life after Death (Lund: Gleerup, 1974), where he points out (16), that much scholarship implied that Paul and other early Christians can have thought in only one way about life after death ‘simply because they were Jews’. In the reduction of modern revelational theology to this sort of ethnically defined approach, nature was taking a well-deserved vengeance on revelation.

  • 7.

    A ‘canonical’ reading, strictly restricted to the canonical books, may indeed be possible, but what it would produce is indeed a reading and not a theology.

  • 8.

    I agree with Lohfink that ‘ban’ is a quite unsuitable rendering for this term: he suggests Vernichtungsweihe, which follows the ‘consecration to destruction‘already used by Ullendorff in his edition of the Moabite Stone (D. Winton Thomas, Documents from Old Testament Times (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1958), 196).

  • 9.

    C. H. W. Brekelmans, De Ḥerem in het Oude Testament (Nijmegen: Centrale Drukkerij, 1959); see German summary on 185–90.

  • 10.

    See the classic passage Lev. 2728 f., and cf. BDB's article, 355 f.

  • 11.

    See F. Stolz, Jahwes und Israels Kriege (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1972). 136 f. The (obviously very explosive) topic of spoil and booty is explored from different viewpoints in numerous biblical passages, e.g. Num. 31, 1 Sam. 30, etc.

  • 12.

    Translation of E. Ullendorff, from Winton Thomas, Documents, 196–7, slightly modified. The word rendered as ‘spectacle’ is uncertain: it might be more a term for some sort of sacrifice.

  • 13.

    Brekelmans, Ḥerem; cf. the summary in Sa-Moon Kang. Divine War in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East (BZAW 177; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1989), 81 n. 43.

  • 14.

    The words are those of Sanderson in her bibliography to the translation of G. von Rad, Holy War in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 147. See Kang, Divine War, 80–4.

  • 15.

    See for instance works by Barrett, Eller, and Lind in Sanderson's bibliography in von Rad, Holy War; Eller and Lind not seen by me.

  • 16.

    Sanderson, reporting views of J. H. Yoder, in von Rad, Holy War, 166.

  • 17.

    Thus I am surprised by the rather slight attention given to the ḥerem in a number of these works. A more pacifist-looking interpretation of Hebrew warfare can indeed be gained if this practice is left out of the picture. But I cannot see that it is marginal, either to the texts themselves or to the ethical questions arising from them. The same applies, but in a different way, to Craigie's The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978). This popular work is not pacifist, but like many others it is rather apologetic in intention, and, far from being ‘very sensitive’, as Sanderson says in her annotation (von Rad, Holy War, 139), it seems to me to be extremely naive and ethically crude. Thus on his p. 98 he writes, ‘The Old Testament also provides a realistic view of warfare; the violence endemic in the state may result in warfare, and warfare by definition involves ruthlessness and killing.’ But even realistic views of war do not ‘by definition’ require genocidal destruction.

  • 18.

    There is, indeed, a great gulf between the issue of war and pacifism on the one side, and the matter of extermination or genocide on the other. My purpose here is to deal strictly and only with the latter. Nevertheless, in theological discussion some overlap commonly takes place. The position here sketched for biblical theology, which tended to bypass the moral problem of extermination, had a certain parallelism with the influence of Karl Barth on matters of war and pacifism. Barth had in fact a rather sophisticated and nuanced approach to the pacifist position; Yoder correctly writes: ‘Karl Barth is the only European theologian of his stature in modern times to have gone as far as he did toward the [pacifist] position he criticizes. He declares the pacifist case to be “almost overwhelming”’ (John H. Yoder, Karl Barth and the Problem of War (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 51). But in the earlier reception of Barth this was little known, even by many who were his followers in other respects. The relevant volumes of KD had not been translated. He was appreciated rather as the ‘hammer of the pacifists’. What was remembered was his blithe remark in an early essay, ‘The Strange New World within the Bible’, about ‘how unceremoniously and constantly war is waged in the Bible’ (The Word of God and the Word of Man (Boston: Pilgrim, 1928), 39), an expression which, in its context, seemed to make it clear that ‘moralistic’ qualms about war should be forgotten. The Scottish Barthianism of my earlier experience, in spite of some theoretical quibbles, was strongly pro-war, and it was commonly said: ‘if a man is a pacifist, you know that there's something wrong with his theology.’

  • 19.

    For a critique of the arguments, common in the apogee of the biblical theology movement, which identified ‘Marcionism’ in this way, see my article ‘The Old Testament and the New Crisis of Biblical Authority’, Interpretation 25 (1971) 7 24–40.

  • 20.

    Reported by P. D. Hanson, ‘War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible’. Interpretation, 38 (1984), 342, as a response to the rise of the peace movement during the Vietnam war.

  • 21.

    Cf. recently for instance Christoph Barth, God with Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), with its section headings ‘The Canaanites were corrupt’ (p. 171) and ‘The Canaanites were to be exterminated’ (p. 172). His discussion mentions certain qualifications, such as I have mentioned; but the effect of these qualifications is not to emphasize the moral question, but to keep it out of sight.

  • 22.

    For good recent surveys, see Ollenburger's introduction to the English translation of von Rad, Holy War, and G. H. Jones, ‘The Concept of Holy War’, in R. E. Clements (ed.). The World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 299–321.

  • 23.

    N. Lohfink, ‘Der “heilige Krieg” und der “Bann” in der Bibel’, Internationale katholische Zeitschrifl: Communio, 18/2 (Mar. 1989), 104–12; D. van Winkle, ‘Canaanite Genocide and Amalekite Genocide and the God of Love’ (1989 Winifred E. Weter Faculty Award Lecture, Seattle Pacific University). And Lohfink too seems to me to seek to soften the problem through apologetic suggestions on the one hand and through a scheme of progressive revelation on the other.

  • 24.

    By contrast, see the attractive recent treatment by Niels Peter Lemche in his The Canaanites and Their Land (Sheffield: JSOT, 1991).

  • 25.

    See Lawrence E. Stager, ‘The Rite of Child Sacrifice at Carthage’, in J. G. Pedley (ed.). New Light on Ancient Carthage (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1980), 1–11, along with illustrations in Aïcha ben Abed ben Khader and David Søren, Carthage: A Mosaic of Ancient Tunisia (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1987), 150–4. I am grateful to my colleague Dr Barbara Tsakirgis for help in obtaining information in this regard.

  • 26.

    Diodorus Siculus, 20, 14, 1 ff.; Teubner text, v. 192 f. The English wording follows Stager, ‘Rite of Child Sacrifice’, 3.

  • 27.

    If it is felt that Carthage is too far distant in time and space from ancient Canaan, then my argument is not affected: it only means that the one piece of possibly hard extra-biblical evidence for Canaanite abominations is removed. However, Punic sacrificial documents or ‘tariffs’ use some technical terms very similar to those of the biblical sacrificial system of Leviticus, and this supports the idea that a relationship in sacrificial concepts existed.

  • 28.

    It is conceivable—I will not say more—that the strange Hebrew expression ‘make [a child] to pass through the fire’ implies a sort of token sacrifice, in which the child was not in fact destroyed. But even such a token sacrifice would still count as an abominable practice to the biblical writers. I have not seen this discussed, however.

  • 29.

    For example, the very central law of Deuteronomy 20 provides three categories: (1) if a city outside the land (given by God as an inheritance to Israel) accepts an offer of peace, it is to become subject to forced labour; (2) if a city outside the land resists attack, all males are to be killed, but women, small children, cattle, and all other goods are to be taken and enjoyed as spoil; (3) if it is a city within the land of the inheritance, including Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, and so on, nothing that breathes is to be left alive.

  • 30.

    In God, Jesus and Belief (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 16.

  • 31.

    Kierkegaard used this expression in his explanation of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.

  • 32.

    Cf. the quotation from Schillebeeckx already cited above.