Crucifixion of the Warrior God, a book review

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Howdy friends! This post is coming from my husband Travis who is reviewing a challenging beast of a book: Crucifixion of the Warrior God. You know it must have been pretty compelling for him to finish this marathon of a study in a little more than a month’s time with all the crazy around here.

For the past few years, we’ve both gone through a phase of digging deeper for unanswered questions we have about faith and spirituality. To borrow a metaphor from Brian Zahnd, this is the “art restoration” phase of our faith where we dig deeper to brush off layers of varnish that have been put on top of Christ over the centuries. This is one of those books that questions the status quo to get you off of your fluffy theological couch in order to see Jesus more clearly. The teachings of this book are in line with some of the early Christian theologians, many that have been twisted and forgotten over the centuries. Fascinating stuff here, read on. Welcome, Travis!

Ever had a problem with the bloodthirsty, merciless God of the Old Testament? Can’t reconcile Him with the “peace & love” image of God as Christ in the New Testament?

You’re in luck! Greg Boyd has just written a new book called the Crucifixion of the Warrior God, where in just 1300 pages, he explains “what was really going on” when we read about the God of the OT commanding heinous crimes. This is possible, as Boyd claims in Part 1, if you agree with him on a few key ideas:

  1. It’s OK to question your faith. While doubt is unpopular among Christians today, God supports and even enjoys our questioning. After all, Jacob was called “Israel” because he “wrestled with God”
  2. Christ is the perfect revelation of God, and the crucifixion is the perfect revelation of Christ. “Show us the father” a disciple asked. Jesus responded “anyone who has seen me has seen the father, how can you say ‘show us the father’?’ (John 14:5-9).” This means all other images have to point to, not run parallel to, this perfect revelation of God’s love. Boyd may be guilty of beating a dead horse here, using about 250 pages to explain this idea, but other reviewers have found it the most inspiring section of the book.
  3. The “inerrancy” of scripture is a modern idea made popular by Evangelicals, but you won’t find it in the Bible. Instead, the Bible says “All scripture is God Breathed…(2 Tim 3:16).” In this view, Sometimes the Bible conveys a truth, sometimes it’s an allegory. A parable here, a metaphor there. Poems, songs, and mysteries. Also, God “breathing” his revelation through scripture means it wasn’t a one-way dictation. Instead of inerrancy, the reader is led to think of the “infallibility” of scripture, or to say if you trust scripture, what do you trust it for?

This approach was normal for Christians until about the 4th Century CE, when Constantine became Emperor of Rome and made Christianity the official religion. Since the Church now had political power, its leaders had less of a problem with the brutal images of the OT God, and instead embraced the stories of violence as a direct revelation to further the Church’s own warring adventures.

–>The impact of Augustine and others supporting Just War theology back then is still felt in Christian circles today, particularly in the West, where they hold significant political power.

  1. God is not coercive or deterministic. He wants humans to love him and each other out of their own free will.

Still with me? If you are, hang on to your rosary beads because when Part 2 opens, macabre images spew from the text as Boyd coughs up all the awful images of God in the OT we don’t want to think about. I was amazed and appalled at these images from the Good Book:

  • Directing ḥērem which loosely translates to genocide of entire cities including women and children, no fewer than 37 times. (Joshua 6, Deut 20, 1 Sam 15 to name a few).
  • Killing 70,000 innocent people because David ordered a census (1 Chronicles 21:14).
  • Encouraging taking slain villages’ widows as sex slaves, provided you shave their head first (Deut 21).
  • Causes fetuses to be ripped out of their mothers’ wombs (Hos 13:16).
  • Causes parents to cannibalize their children (Lev 26:29, Jer 19:9, Lam 2:20).
  • Calling for child sacrifice (Exodus 22:29, Judges 11 (Jephthah’s vow) and of course the Passover (Exodus 12).
  • Calling for death for Sabbath breakers (exudos 31:15).
  • Calling for death of blasphemers (Lev 24:16).
  • Calling for stoning of children who either strike (Exodus 21: 15) or curse (v.17) their parents.
  • Calling for the stoning of slothful or rebellious children (Deut 21: 18-21).
  • Elisha kills 42 children by having bears come out of the woods to maul them to death in the name of the Lord, for making fun of his baldness (2 kings 2:23-24).
  • God is glorified by lust for horrific violence like longing to bash enemies’ babies’ heads against the rocks (psalm 137:9).

These are only a few of the lesser-known images of a violent, merciless god in the OT; if you were hoping for the Flood, Samson setting foxes on fire, the conquest of Canaan and other Sunday School favorites, don’t worry—Boyd covers those too!

If you’re like me at this point, you might be feeling a little defensive, but may not be able to articulate why. If that’s so, read on. Greg Boyd will articulate why you feel defensive of these texts as he proceeds to break down all the common explanations for them.

  1. Those that reject it happened, or happened thanks to an evil god, not Christ.
  2. Those that synthesize the stories, thereby accepting God as deity with a split personality; simultaneously a genocidal maniac and also Christ on the cross. The synthesizers are broken down further into 4 groups:

2a. Might is right, or “you don’t have to like it” mantra of the Calvinists.

2b. Divine justice; they deserved it.

2c. Greater good; a larger, better purpose was served.

2d. Progressive revelation; it was what those folks needed at the time.

With humility and precision, Boyd dismantles each of these explanations, using a combination of logic and scripture itself.

Part 3 is where Boyd unravels his way to deal with OT violence, using what he calls a “cruciform hermeneutic,” or for non-scholars like me “an explanation based on Christ crucified.”

The idea is this: If God revealed himself perfectly through Jesus Christ, and the most perfect image of Christ revealed is Christ’s death on the cross in the ultimate act of non-violent self-sacrifice, all other scripture should be read backwards and forwards emanating from this perfect picture of God.

In that light, scripture that depicts God’s character as incompatible with that of Christ’s on the surface, should not be dismissed outright, but should trigger us to look deeper in these stories, as “something else must be going on.” In Boyd’s view, the ghoulish, bloodthirsty images of God in the OT are products of the fallen, culturally-influenced writers of the Ancient Near East (ANE) who conflated Yahweh’s divine revelation with what they assume a typical warrior-style ANE god commanded.

Just as God stooped to an unsurpassable level of love in allowing his son to be sacrificed, so too can these violent images of God in the OT be viewed as ‘mini-crucifixions.’ They were not God’s intent, but God stooped to bear our sins, as sinful people mistook their own evil desires as God’s commands, while God non-coercively tried to lead his people to him and suffered immensely during these bloody times. This means if Christ is the perfect revelation of God, then God loved the Canaanites just as much as the Israelites, and it must have immeasurably anguished him to see these atrocities happen, as well as the other cruel edicts carried out in his name.

Wait, so God didn’t actually command all those terrible things? The Israelites simply mistook God to be a brutal ANE god and assumed thats what he wanted?

If you’re not convinced, consider the evidence. Hebrews 1:3 (Phillips translation) mentions the OT authors having only seen “glimpses” of truth, before the coming of Jesus. In the Conquest of Canaan these glimpses of the non-violent God-as-Christ occasionally shine through the OT authors’ cloudy visions of their warrior God, for example:

  • God commands to “burn the chariots and hamstring the horses” or to “smash the idols of the Canaanites,” alongside the more-commonly known commands God supposedly gave to “leave alive nothing that breathes” and “show them no mercy.”
  • God’s will may have been to take Canaan non-violently. Exodus 23:27 God says he’ll send hornets ahead of the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites. In this way, Yahweh plans on having these people relocate themselves, “little by little…until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.” (Exodus 23:29-30, Joshua 24:11-12) Further, In Leviticus 18:24-25, God promises to have the land “vomit out its inhabitants” and in Deut 7:18-19, God says he’ll perform signs and wonders to remove the inhabitants of Canaan, just as he performed for the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt (italics added).
  • Last, there is the curious case of the Neutral Angelic Commander of the Lords Army in Josh 5:13. The Israelites were celebrating their victory in the land of Canaan when Joshua “looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand.” Feeling threatened, Joshua asks “are you with us or with our enemies?” The man, who later identified himself as the Commander of the Lords Army, replied “neither.” This happens without explanation and right before Joshua and the Israelites assault Jericho, killing every man, woman and child, a fact that Boyd states underlines the neutrality of the mysterious visitor even more.

 

Ok, but what about when it’s not the Israelites killing people, but when it’s God himself depicted in the Flood story, Sodom & Gomorrah, and other “acts of god” that are clearly violent?

In Volume 2, Boyd introduces four principles that can be used to understand these depictions of God, and how they point to Christ crucified.

  1. The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation. Here God can be thought of as a heavenly missionary. A missionary to a remote tribe doesn’t start trying to change all the cultural practices of that tribe he finds strange or revolting right away, but will rather live with the tribe, and develop their trust before guiding them in a more positive direction. Now picture God with Israel. God initially accommodated the Israelites’ need for a deity who was full of wrath, who wanted blood sacrifices, and who liked to be carried around in an Ark. However he eventually weans his people off of each of these ideas, and others.
  2. The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal. In a nutshell, since God is non-violent, destruction comes from demonic powers, who are constantly seeking to destroy humanity. Many OT authors say God brings destruction, but Boyd maintains this is better explained as God withdrawing his protective hand, which he only does after his non-coercive pursuit of humanity has failed. There’s ample evidence of this, such as Jesus’ mysterious cry on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  3. The Principle of Cosmic Conflict. In this absorbing section, God battles sea monsters, the sea itself, other gods and demons, each with its own thought-provoking impact: was God “hovering over the surface of the waters” a clue to a pre-creation battle against evil? What was Leviathan? Did the Exodus have more to do with escaping the sea than Pharaohs army? But most importantly for me regarding this chapter, is the reminder our real struggle is not against other humans, but against “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12 cf 2 Cor 10:3-5).” For this reason, humans are only supposed to engage in spiritual battles, never in human-against-human battles (Rom 12:17).

Jesus illustrated this “cosmic warrior” orientation perfectly. By siding with the poor and oppressed, he fought an economic system of exploitation. By praising faith of Roman centurion, holding up a Samaritan as the example of what a neighbor should be and interacting with a Samaritan woman, he fought sociopolitical hierarchical systems that put some above others based on ethnicity and created hostility between ethnic groups (matt 8:5-10, luke 10:30-37, john 4:1-20). By feeding 5000 people in the midst of a famine, rebuking a barren fig tree, and calming a storm, Jesus fought against the cosmic powers that are corrupting nature. Ultimately, by refusing to engage in violence to the point of death, Jesus cast out the ruler of this world with his self-sacrifice on the cross (John 12:31).

Boyd’s ability to illustrate the cosmic conflicts from scripture in a way we can see them today and then show us the way forward in examples from Jesus’ life is a real strength of the book.

  1. The Principle of Semi-Autonomous Power. In his last principle, Boyd demonstrates a few inanimate objects and select humans had divine power and say-so over how it was used. Strong cases are made for the staff of Moses, Jesus’ garments, and Jesus’ independence from the Father. To show how this semi-autonomous power is misused sometimes, Boyd cites Samson, Elisha, and the Ark of the Covenant. One wonders if these last three could have been included under the Accommodation principle, and Boyd’s sounds strangely defensive of Elisha calling bears out to maul the teasing youngsters, by debating the victims’ ages and nature of their insult.

The icing on the cake are the postscript and ten appendixes, which address common debates over more Biblical “contradictions” and other hard questions. Among others, Boyd tackles violence in Revelation, the hardening of people’s hearts, Abraham’s test and Supersessionism, which is theologian-speak for the idea that Christianity replaces Judaism and the Jewish interpretation of scripture.

Meticulously researched over ten years and densely packed with insights not written elsewhere, it’s the book I will judge all others by in this genre. With few exceptions, I found it gripping, even searching the footnotes for more angles to the stories. My soul is better off having read it.

 

 

 

 

 

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