I skip over Witherington’s second complaint for a moment and move to #3. For this one, he uses two exclamation points!! More than once!!
Witherington writes, “the enmity set between humans and ‘the serpent’ has nothing to do with an endorsement of war, it has to do with a spiritual battle against evil and the Evil One more particularly, or, if you prefer literalism enmity between Eve’s offspring and those of snakes!! Either way, the text has nothing to do with human wars. And indeed killing is what happens as a result of the Fall, almost immediately once outside the garden. Killing is not God’s creation order mandate for humans, it is a reprehensible act for which God places a mark on Cain. Adam’s fall was not a renunciation of war and so a capitulation to the enemy, as Leithart would have it (p. 334). Adam’s fall was caused by failure to avoid eating from a tree God prohibited!!”
Let me start with the last two sentences and work backward through Witherington’s comments. The fall is not capitulation, it’s disobedience. What about that?
Somewhere John Frame has suggested that the fall, being the primordial sin, is a composite of all sin. Frame makes the point by running through how the fall violates the Ten Commandments. It might be a stretch to see every one of the Ten Commandments in Genesis 3, but some are fairly obvious: The fall is idolatry, serving the creature rather than the Creator; it is a failure to bear God’s name weightily, and an act of sacrilege, seizing a fruit that God had prohibited to Adam; it is dishonor to Adam’s heavenly Father; it is spiritual adultery, harlotry; it is theft; it is covetousness. We could go on, but the point is a simple one. Witherington has posed a false dilemma: The fall must be either disobedience or capitulation to the enemy. It is not at all clear why it cannot be both.
Let’s stipulate that killing is not part of God’s creation order for humans, but it doesn’t follow that killing is “a reprehensible act” in a fallen world. Cain’s murder of Abel is indeed reprehensible, but the Bible never prohibits killing as such. Numbers 35, which details the treatment of man-slayers – both those guilty of accidental killings and those guilty of murder – the prohibition of murder stands side-by-side with the repeated demand that “the murderer shall surely be put to death” (vv. 16, 17). The blood avenger is commissioned to put the murderer to death (v. 21). Surely Witherington is aware that the law also imposes the death penalty for other crimes – kidnapping (Exodus 21:17), at least some forms of Sabbath violation (Exodus 31:14), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), inter-generational incest (Leviticus 20:11-12), homosexual sodomy (Leviticus 20:13), bestiality (Leviticus 20:15-16), and so on. How and whether these death penalties continue to be normative for Christians is a complex and hotly debated question. But that’s not the issue Witherington raises. He claims that killing is itself reprehensible; but the Bible repeatedly indicates that God endorses killing in certain circumstances. God has authority of life and death, but these passages show that He granted some of that authority to Israel. Witherington might attempt to deflect the force of these passages by saying that killing is a reprehensible act now, for Christians. That’s a different claim, and is haunted by the specter of Marcion.
And this is not even to mention Yahweh’s explicit command to Israel to fight a war of conquest. Was the slaughter of the people of Jericho reprehensible? How can one say this, given the fact that Yahweh Himself commanded it (Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 6:21)? Did Yahweh command something reprehensible? Failure carry out the ban was sinful. This is clearest in the case of Saul, who finally lost the kingdom because of his failure to utterly destroy the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). The Saul example is particularly relevant to the original question about Adam, since Saul’s entire life history is the story of a new Adam and a new fall. (Witherington, I suspect, will find my use of Saul’s story to interpret Genesis deeply suspect, even atrocious. That raises larger hermeneutical questions than I can deal with here.)
Which brings us back to Witherington’s original criticism, that the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent is a “spiritual battle” that “has nothing to do with the endorsement of war.” I grant that the battle in view is a “spiritual battle” with principalities and powers, but I don’t think that this battle can be neatly confined to a sealed-off spiritual sphere. Rather, the Bible seems pretty clear that the battle with the serpent takes physical, military form. The seed of the woman is to crush/bruise the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15), but throughout the Old Testament we see typological head-crushings carried out against serpentine enemies in military contexts. Jael crushes the head of Sisera, Oreb and Zeeb are decapitated, an unnamed woman crushes Abimelech’s head with a millstone dropped from a tower, David slings a rock at Goliath’s head before removing it. These all point to the ultimate head-crushing accomplished by Jesus, but they are not mere pictures. They are partial, very limited accomplishments of the promise of Genesis 3:15, and they are head crushings that take place in human wars. David v. Goliath is a special case, since David not only crushes the Philistine’s head, delivering Israel from bondage, but also faces a snaky opponent dressed in “scales” (1 Samuel 17:5; cf. 1 Samuel 11:1, where Saul fights “Nahash,” whose name means “serpent”). Here again, Witherington will likely raise hermeneutical objections; I have defended this mode of interpretation in Deep Exegesis.
And this in turn brings me to Witherington’s objection #2: “the fact that God is called a warrior in the OT tells us absolutely nothing about whether and when God’s people should be. It is irrelevant.” I note the revealing little phrase “in the OT.” But in one sense, I agree with Witherington here. Some pacifists will happily confess that God is a warrior, and draw the conclusion that since God fights battles, we need not and should not. The fact that God is a warrior doesn’t by itself resolve the question of Christian involvement in war.
The question is whether the Bible supports the pacifist logic or my alternative logic, to wit, because God is a warrior, we are warriors too; when He fights, He catches us up in His war. Witherington might agree, in a qualified way, that the latter represents the logic of Scripture, including the New Testament. Jesus exposed the principalities to open shame, but that clearly doesn’t mean that we don’t have to fight. When God dons His armor (cf. Isaiah 59:17), we are to “put on the full armor of God” to struggle with the forces of this darkness (Ephesians 6). That spiritual conflict (which always has physical components and manifestations) is the central warfare of the church, and that represents an important shift from the Old Testament. David crushed Philistine heads; we’re privileged to war against principalities and powers themselves, with God’s own weapons of righteousness, truth, the gospel, faith, the Word of God.
But in the Old Testament, the logic is the same. Yahweh is a gibbor who trains his gibborim to fight, and these battles are frequently military, as well as spiritual, conflicts. Yahweh is Yahweh of hosts, and His armies include mighty men both angelic and human (cf. 1 Samuel 17:45, note parallel between “hosts” and “armies of Israel”). We can and should make all sorts of qualification, noting that Christendom was infected with pagan militarism and concepts of heroism, acknowledging that Christians have often fought in unjust wars with the full support of pastors who are supposed to instruct the conscience. But when the qualifications have been made, we are left with this: Unless one posits a total shift from “military” to “spiritual” warfare in the transition from Old to New, then God’s warfare against principalities and powers might sometimes take a military form, and God’s mighty men might fight with Him as His hosts: “Don John of Austria is going to the war.”
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Friday, May 13, 2011 at 8:34 am
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