Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’ — Conquest & Monarchy

{This is the fifth post in a review of Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. Previous posts here: 1, 2, 3, and 4}

Fight.SprinkleIn chapters 4 and 5 Sprinkle covers the Israelite conquest of Canaan (“Kill Everything that Breathes”) and the rest of the OT (i.e. Judges-Malachi; “Swords Into Plowshares”). For the sake of brevity I’ll limit my interaction to three summary statements contained in these two chapters.

Concerning the relevance of Joshua’s conquest Sprinkle states:

. . . nowhere in Scripture, Old or New Testament, is Joshua’s conquest prescribed for future generations. It’s only a description of what happened. There is nothing in the Bible that appeals to the conquest as justification to wage war or engage in violence. Nothing. The conquest, like the flood and the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, was a one-time, non-repeatable event whereby God judged a particularly wicked people. (91)

The Conquest was indeed a unique event that is “non-repeatable” for the Church. Unlike the Israelites, today’s Christian hasn’t been commanded to eradicate people groups or seize territory. Granting that point, however, still leaves us with two related questions: (1) Does God continue to exercise judgment in human history through human instruments? (2) If yes, may a Christian ever be that instrument?

Turning his attention to the period of judges and kings, Sprinkle detects a national “digression into a warfare state.” As messy as Judges is, however, it’s not until 1 Samuel 8 that “Israel’s descent into secular militarism hits rock bottom.” But support for Sprinkle’s interpretation of this period can only come by a very selective reading of certain passages. For example, he sees Israel’s demand for a king as a demand for military might:

As we saw earlier, merely having a king isn’t the issue. Kingship was sanctioned by God. The issue, according to Deuteronomy 17 and here in 1 Samuel 8, is militarism: they want a military leader who will flex his muscles on the battlefield. Such misplaced trust is tantamount to idolatry, which triggers God’s wrath–wrath toward Israel’s thirst for military might. (100)

The claim that militarism is the issue in 1Samuel 8 just isn’t supported by the text. The contextual evidence makes it clear that the issue is who Israel would trust to rule (i.e. judge) them in Samuel’s absence.[1]  To be sure, a king would also be a military leader. But suggesting that Israel was only after a military leader is a stretch. 1 Samuel 8 isn’t the support he assumes it to be and this is characteristic of several other passages he would leverage for his view.

Finally, Sprinkle points to the pacifist strand in the prophets:

The prophets certainly don’t answer all of our questions about war and violence . . . For now it’s important to see that the prophets proclaim a message that in general moves away from violence and toward peace. And this is how the Old Testament ends. Longing for peace. This longing creates the seam that stitches together the seemingly contradictory portraits of violence in the Old Testament and nonviolence in the New. (113)

But this longing for peace didn’t begin with the prophets. It was the ideal even in times of violence and war (Deut 12:10; Josh 11:23; 2Sam 7:1, 11; 1Ki 5:4). The flip side of the prophets’ message is that, regrettably, war will always have a place in this world until the true King wages that one last battle that will end all war. Until then, is it possible (and even permissible) for the Christian take violent action even though he desires peace?

[1] That a ruler/judge, not a military commander, is the overall interest is shown by: (i) the repetition of the word judge (5x) (ii) the occasion — the people were facing a succession crisis when Samuel’s corrupt sons were set up as judges (iii) the elders’ request was “Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” (iv) the stated consequences for choosing a king cover a variety of societal issues–military inscription, taxes, servitude, family intrusion, property rights.

Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’…and ours? (pt. 2)

Sprinkle begins his fly over of the biblical narrative by looking at God’s creation ideal–shalom (peace, well-being). Sin wrecks the ideal and violence begins to spread throughout the creation. Summing up the storyline prior to Abraham Sprinkle states, “. . .the early chapters of Genesis celebrate peace while showing disdain for violence among humans–even as just punishment for a killer.” (40) [emphasis added]

For support Sprinkle points to God’s dealing with Cain over the murder of his brother. He says:

Interestingly, God responds not by killing Cain–meeting violence with violence–but by placing a mark on Cain so that no one else will take vengeance on him. God responds to the first murderer with grace–a visible preservation of shalom. (40)

Two things need to be said. First, a hint of moral equivalence lies behind the notion that had God killed Cain he would be “meeting violence with violence.” Second, on Sprinkle’s reasoning this is exactly what God does–and on a global scale!–in Genesis 6-8 when he kills all living things for the corruption and violence in the earth.

Turning to the patriarchal narratives (Gen 12-50), Sprinkle asserts that “God’s desire for nonviolent peace remains the ideal—even when confronting injustice and enmity.” He goes on to say “There are two main exceptions to this nonviolent shalom in the book: Genesis 9 and 14.”

Genesis 9

Sprinkle quickly glosses over Gen 9:6 (just one paragraph!) which has traditionally served as a biblical warrant for capital punishment. One would expect this passage to require an extended response for a pacifist. But Sprinkle treats this section as little more than a wrinkle. His handling of the text generates ambiguity but he makes no attempt to bring clarity:

. . . several questions surround this verse. Is Genesis 9:6 a proverb or a command? In other words, does Genesis 9:6 give a general principle or an absolute command? . . . And does this verse give humans authority to administer the death penalty, or does it say that God will punish the murderer? These questions should caution us against racing to Genesis 9:6 to show that God wants all societies to institute the death penalty. (43)

The immediate context sheds light on these murky riddles: (1) Gen 9:6 is part of a covenant discourse. Covenants are by nature prescriptive; that is, they declare a new agreement and/or relationship. Accordingly, God grants punitive authority to man in the case of murder (2) that Gen 9:6 is a command is further signified by 9:5 which states that the Lord “will require your lifeblood . . . I will require the life of man.” (3) the reason for requiring a murderer’s life is because murder snuffs out one of God’s image bearers (9:6b). It is an offense against God Himself.

Sprinkle also betrays the significance of this passage for his overall argument. In the scheme of redemptive history he characterizes Gen 9:6 as an anticipation of the death penalty in the law of Moses (so Gen 9:6 is capital punishment after all). But even this admission is insufficient in light of the otherwise universal and timeless aspects of the Noahic covenant. If other features of the covenant—animals for food, no future flood, etc.—are granted to all of humanity for the duration of this present age we have good contextual reasons to read the murderer’s punishment as a universal, timeless stipulation.[1]

In my view Sprinkle not only obfuscates the meaning of the passage, he begs the question concerning capital punishment by limiting it to a distinctive of the Mosaic law. It doesn’t take much thought to get the idea that, in Sprinkle’s view, capital punishment will be only as permanent as the Mosaic law.

Genesis 14

Genesis 14 records a battle between two federations (14:1-10) which results in Lot’s captivity (14:11-12) and subsequent rescue by Abraham (14:13-16). Sprinkle acknowledges that “it’s probable that Abram’s militia used violence” but also notes that “Genesis 14 doesn’t say that God commanded Abram to do this, nor does it sanction his actions.” He concludes “the Bible often describes what a person did but doesn’t say that we should imitate him or her” and “Genesis 14 doesn’t clearly endorse violence, and it doesn’t celebrate violence in any explicit way.”

But the argument that God didn’t command Abraham to fight cuts both ways. If God didn’t declare “Thou shalt fight” then we may infer that Abraham chose to fight. And if Abraham chose to fight in defense of his nephew, what should the reader think concerning the blessing that Abraham receives in the aftermath of his violent raid?

Genesis 14:19-20 [Melchizedek] blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Interestingly, Sprinkle doesn’t even mention the blessing.[2] So his contention that Genesis 14 doesn’t clearly endorse violence is true to a point. The text has no “and God saw that the fight was good” or “Go and do thou likewise.” But neither does Genesis 14 clearly condemn violence. In fact, by concluding the narrative with a word of blessing, this story ends on a decidedly positive note.

In sum, I find Sprinkle oddly dismissive of Genesis 9 and less than even-handed in his statements on Genesis 14. The majority of Fight‘s Old Testament perspective is shaped by the Mosaic era which we’ll turn to in the next post.

[1] Just as the creation mandate delivered to Adam & Eve was for all humanity, so too was the “second” creation mandate delivered to Noah. It is not a simple foreshadowing of Israel’s national law-covenant.

[2] In an endnote he alludes to the blessing as recorded in Hebrews. “Heb. 7:1 [says] that Melchizedek blessed him upon his return. Hebrews still doesn’t explicitly endorse Abram’s violent actions. It says only that Melchizedek blessed him when he returned.” [279, n. 9]

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