Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’–violence in the law of Moses

Sprinkle’s consideration of violence in the OT moves along four major periods in Israel’s history: (1) Mosaic era (2) Joshua’s conquest of the promise land (3) the time of judges & kings (4) the prophets. What’s most striking in this section is how much agreement can be had in the details only to disagree in the conclusion. Disagreement in this portion of the book revolves around two points. First, the OT narrative doesn’t offer the stark critique of violence that Sprinkle purports to find. Second, Sprinkle’s handling of the biblical evidence is better suited for a critique of militarism than violence.[1]

Mosaic era

According to Sprinkle, the Bible’s “aversion toward violence begins to change when we get to the law of Moses” (44). He considers God’s sanction of violence in two categories: civil ordinances and warfare.

Surprisingly, Sprinkle barely touches the issue of physical punishment in Israel’s civil law. What comment he does offer comprises barely a page. We find no substantive discussion of beatings, eye-for-an-eye, or capital punishment. The extent of his commentary on these items is:

. . . in fifteen of the sixteen cases where the death penalty is sanctioned, other penalties such as a stiff monetary policy are allowed. The criminal doesn’t have to go to the chopping block. And some crimes, such as theft or damage to someone else’s property, receive a rather light penalty compared to other cultures in the world at that time. The Bible doesn’t sanction mutilation as punishment, but other cultures would hack off hands, ears, noses, and other body parts for a whole range of offenses

So the perceived strictness or violent nature of these biblical laws must be understood in light of other ancient cultures rather than our own. (44-45)

Even if we grant Sprinkle all that he asserts, he still hasn’t explained why God would enshrine physical punishment in His Law in the first place.[2] Regardless, Sprinkle’s assertion concerning the death penalty is an empty claim. He offers no biblical support to show that the death penalty had an alternative punishment in every case but one.[3] Where is a fine offered as an acceptable punishment for the capital crimes detailed in Exodus 21-22 and Leviticus 20? Where is a “stiff monetary policy” codified? (And wouldn’t a stiff monetary policy give the wealthy an unfair advantage in capital crimes?) Sprinkle leaves us guessing.

Turning to Israel’s warfare policy Sprinkle wants to stress two features: (1) God limits Israel’s warfare policy and thereby makes it a moral improvement on the unchecked carnage of ancient Near Eastern warfare. (2) Scripture portrays God as the primary agent in Israel’s wars. Taken together we are to discern incremental steps toward nonviolence. God is limiting the range of options in war while establishing the divine right to exacting vengeance.

Two passages in Deuteronomy take a prominent role in articulating the gradual move toward nonviolence. Deut 17:16-17 prohibits and prescribes certain actions for a future king and Deuteronomy 20 details Israel’s laws for warfare.

Deut 17:14-20 anticipates Israel’s monarchy when they become settled in the land. Verses 16-17 state:

“Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way.’ 17 “He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself.

Sprinkle seizes on these verses to claim that the Law stripped the king of “all military might.” On his interpretation “the king is not allowed to build a professional army . . . nor can he make military alliances with other nations (59).

This is an extremely narrow (and misleading) reading of the passage. First, Sprinkle assumes that horses has strictly military connotations. Apparently, he fails to consider that horses were also a status symbol in the ancient Near East.[4] Second, a strict military reading doesn’t adequately account for the reasons why this behavior is prohibited. Namely, in multiplying horses and wives the king will drift from covenant fidelity (expressed by return, turn)—lavish living would turn his heart away from the Lord. Third, the explicit concern of Deut 17:14-20 isn’t military superiority but societal inequality: “[the king’s] heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen (Deut 17:20).” In short, only a forced reading can interpret Deut 17:16-17 as a strict polemic against violence let alone militarism.

Sprinkle characterizes Deuteronomy 20 as “the most descriptive passage about Israel’s ‘army’.”[5] Summarizing vv 1-18 Sprinkle says:

Talk about limited objectives! If you read Deuteronomy 20:16-18, you will see that Israel has a different war policy for those living in Canaan, and we’ll discuss that in the next chapter. For now it’s important to underscore the point: Israel’s “army” is deliberately weak so that God will be shown to be unquestionably strong. (59)

Time doesn’t permit a full discussion of Sprinkle’s interpretive conclusions but two key points are in order. First, nothing in Deuteronomy 20 necessitates a weak army. In fact, the “rules of engagement” actually appear to limit the actions of a superior force. Second, if all but vv16-18 regulate Israel’s warfare in Canaan, Sprinkle would have served his readers well by explaining why God grants His people the freedom to engage in foreign wars (i.e. “cities that are very far from you”). Divine sanction for foreign war seems to contradict Sprinkle’s later claim that Israel is never allowed “to invade a country to dismantle an unjust government or preemptively strike a nation building chariots of mass destruction” (62).

The Mosaic law just doesn’t work as an amicus brief in Sprinkle’s case for nonviolence.

In the series’ next post we’ll consider Sprinkle’s presentation of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan.

[1] For example, in the chapter entitled “Israel’s Bizarre Warfare Policy” Sprinkle says, “One important feature we will see in this chapter is that God never sanctions militarism—even when He allows warfare.” (53) The OT evidence would support nonmilitarism far better than nonviolence.

[2] It’s not enough to claim that God was merely accommodating cultural practices in the ancient near east. As we observed in the previous post, there is quite a difference between allowing a practice (e.g. divorce) and commanding a practice (e.g. execution).

[3] Sprinkle cites Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (p95) on this point but without any further explanation.

[4] See 1Ki 10:23ff where Solomon’s wealth is signified by an abundance of horses (and chariots).

[5] It would be more accurate to say that this is a descriptive passage of army conduct. Apart from “abstention clauses” the passage tells us almost nothing about the army per se.

Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’: a skewed framework

[This is the third post in a review of Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. Previous posts may be found here: 1 & 2]

I had intended to discuss chapters in which Fight reviews the beginnings of Israel’s history under the Law. But I’m going to put that off for the next post in order to deal with a theological premise that has a profound impact on how Sprinkle engages violent passages in the OT & NT.

Addressing the tension many Bible readers encounter as they traverse the Old and New Testaments Sprinkle asks:

So what does an enemy-loving, peacemaking, cheek-turning follower of Jesus do with this seemingly bloodthirsty God who condones violence in the Old Testament but not in the New? (45)

His answer:

One way to solve the tension is to recognize that the old and new covenants are different. Please note: I didn’t say that the God of the old and the God of the new are different. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But sometimes His rules change because His relationship to humanity is taken to a new level.[1] (45)

Now this answer is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that Sprinkle approaches the biblical passages with an interpretive/theological framework already constructed. Second, this theological framework will necessarily shape his reading and interpretation of those passages.

Now this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, theological presuppositions concerning Scripture are unavoidable and necessary for any meaningful study. But it’s important to recognize that interpretive factors are already in play when Sprinkle approaches the text. Therefore, it’s possible to examine all the right passages and ask all the right questions and still end up with a skewed conclusion. It’s like trying to solve a math problem with accurate figures and a faulty formula. No matter how precise you are in the parts, your solution is always going to be off.

In Sprinkle’s case, much of what he has to say concerning the change from old covenant to new covenant is good. But his framework shows signs of running just a bit askew. Specifically, we should take issue with his contention that God’s rules change because His relationship to humanity is taken to a new level.

The problem is that Sprinkle’s premise is far too simplistic and lacking in nuance. Take three subsequent statements that clarify his premise:

#1 …the law was not God’s ideal moral code for all people of all time. Rather, God met the Israelites where they were and began to take “incremental steps” toward His moral ideal. (46)

A moment’s reflection exposes the short-sightedness of this claim. “You will not murder” is most definitely a moral code for all people of all time. Aspects of the Law’s moral code are reiterated under the new covenant (Rom 13:9; Jam 2:11). Paul even goes so far as to say that “the Law is good if one uses it lawfully” (1Tim 1:8-11).

#2 . . . the law of Moses was designed to guide a particular nation, living in a particular land, for a specific time and in a specific culture. (47)

The implication here is that the Law no longer serves as a guide for God’s people today. But for all that might be said about the progress from old covenant to the new, the Law remains revelation for God’s people today (1Cor 9:9-10).

#3 What we have in the law of Moses is a moral code that both accommodates to and improves upon the ethical systems of the surrounding nations. (47)

Viewing the Law as accommodation leading to improvement is an essential feature of Sprinkle’s framework. To illustrate his point he references the laws concerning polygamy, slavery, and divorce. God didn’t forbid these practices (i.e. accommodates) although he did regulate (i.e. improve upon) them prior to forbidding them.[2]

In Sprinkle’s mind, OT laws concerning violence are the same. But what he fails to consider is that while polygamy, slavery, and divorce were permitted they weren’t commanded. Violence—whether in judicial action or warfare—was mandatory. We have good reason then to place violence in a different biblical category.

In short, Sprinkle should be commended for acknowledging the progressive nature of the Bible as we read from the old covenant to the new covenant. But readers of Fight should consider that his framework is overly simplistic and, as we’ll see, ends up flattening the contours of the biblical-theological picture.

[1] What Sprinkle articulates is an aspect of Scripture known as progressive revelation. Traditionally, this concept describes Scripture’s content not the quality. The message becomes progressively clearer & more complete even as it remains perfect at every stage. See, for example, Psa 19:7 and Rom 7:12.

[2] Sprinkle never deals with the fact that divorce (and slavery to a lesser degree) is still permitted in the NT.

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]

Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’…and ours? (pt 1)

Fight.SprinkleNot too long ago I was having a back-and-forth with a friend on a biblical stance concerning (non-)violence. Whether through that discussion or some other he made mention of Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence by Preston Sprinkle. I got my hands on a copy and found the book to be a very readable defense of what would typically be called Christian pacifism (Sprinkle himself doesn’t prefer the term for his position).

Working Sprinkle’s arguments into our discussion was good but it was becoming a little labor intensive. In the hope of killing two birds with one stone I thought I’d take the seeds of that growing exchange and use it as fodder for the blog. So for the next several weeks I plan to offer a series of posts in response to the book.

Ultimately, I disagree with Sprinkle’s final analysis. That’s unfortunate since I think we agree far more than we disagree. But more on that later. For now I’ll use this introductory post to present an overview of the book in Sprinkle’s own words.

The book’s purpose & modus operandi–establish a Christian position on violence by starting with Scripture:

I’m writing this book to help contribute to the ongoing discussion of how Christians should think about warfare, violence, and their close cousin, nationalism . . . But in order to address these issues from a Christian perspective, we need to dig into Scripture to see what God does say about them. So often in heated debates, the Bible is rarely consulted. Or if it is, it’s done haphazardly or with blatant bias. Oftentimes we start with a view we are convinced is right; then we go to Scripture to find verses to support it . . . But we should at least work hard at laying aside our preconceived beliefs about warfare and violence and invite God to critique our view in light of His precious Word. [23]

Sprinkle’s thesis–Christians should not use violence:

I believe that the Bible advocates nonviolence. I do not believe that Jesus wants Christians to use violence. And if I can be so blunt: I think that a large portion of the American evangelical church has been seduced, whether knowingly or not, by nationalistic militarism. Yet our inspired Word of God aggressively critiques this very thing, as we will see. [23-24]

His definition of violence:

I will use the term violence to refer to: a physical act that is intended to destroy (i.e. injure) a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent. [32]

Sprinkle’s goals for the book–rethink violence, snuff out militarism, & fight evil without violence:

First, I want everyone who reads this book to rethink what the Bible—and only the Bible—says about warfare and violence . . . Second, I hope that this book will help snuff out the militaristic spirit that has crept into the American church over the last few decades. Third, I pray that this book will help evangelical Christians to fight. Fight against evil. Fight against the schemes of the Devil. Fight against sin. Fight against injustice . . . But in light of what the Bible teaches, I pray that citizens of God’s kingdom would emulate their King and fight without using violence. [35]

I’ll close this intro by observing that Sprinkle develops his thesis by following a redemptive-historical approach to the texts. Consequently, readers will be disappointmented if they come to the book for commentary on a catalog of “violent” verses. Sprinkle is more concerned with seeing how violence fits in the Bible’s overall storyline as it moves from Creation to Christ to New Creation. Every systematic approach to Scripture has its strengths and weaknesses but Sprinkle’s choice served the discussion far better than mere proof texting.

So that’s the book in a nutshell (mostly in the author’s own words). In the next post we’ll take a look at how Sprinkle assesses violence in the Genesis narratives.

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