Can I Always Give Jesus the Last Word?

My last Musing (“Seeing Through Partisan Politics or the Eyes of Jesus”) raised some important questions that were left unanswered; questions that beg for more in-depth analysis. What follows is a coherent set of four essays that provide this “deeper” analysis

The first essay by Harold Heie poses and reflects on the overarching question posed as the title for thisMusing, at the end of which Harold confesses that, being neither a biblical scholar nor theologian, he doesn’t know the answer. The second essay by Ben Lappenga, a biblical scholar, is Ben’s response to Harold’s essay. The third essay, by Cambria Kaltwasser, a theologian, is her response to both Harold’s essay and Ben’s essay. The fourth essay, by Harold, is the final conclusion he arrives at from his consideration of the first three essays: There is an enormous need for educating Christian laity regarding biblical interpretation.

Ben Lappenga currently serves as a Visiting Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College (MI) and Cambria Kaltwasser currently serves as Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Northwestern College (IA).

Jesus clearly taught that he came to earth to fulfill the Old Testament law and the prophets: “I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

It appears to me that there are two differing strands of thought in the Old Testament as to the nature of this “fulfillment,” one of which is consistent with my understanding of Christian values, with the other strand, in my estimation, being extremely destructive of Christian values.

The Old Testament strand of thought which I enthusiastically embrace is comprised of the writings of the Old Testament prophets that contain numerous references to God’s intention that the Israelites be agents for the realization of God’s redemptive purposes on earth. The grandest reference is the covenant promise to Abraham that Israel is a people chosen by God to bring God’s blessing of shalom to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). This is elaborated upon in teachings from the Old Testament prophets, including the following teaching emanating from the prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh” (Isaiah 58: 6-7).

When I hear the following words of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 25: 34-36 as to who will “inherit the kingdom,” I hear clear echoes of the words of Isaiah:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Surely this passage from Matthew 25 points to an indisputable way in which Jesus fulfilled the teachings of the prophet Isaiah, pointing in both cases to a call to care for the disadvantaged and marginalized in our midst, those who Jesus referred to as the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

But what I find to be very troublesome is a second strand of thought in the Old Testament that appears to condone violence.

My concern is not abstract and academic in nature, because there is a growing cohort of Christian nationalists who, based on an erroneous belief that America was ordained by God to be a “Christian nation” (rather than the pluralist nation relative to religious expression that the Founding Fathers intended), express a willingness to resort to violence to accomplish that goal. For example, an alarming statistic emerged from a PRRI/Brookings Christian Nationalism Survey: 40 % of Christian Nationalists polled agree with the following statement – “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.”

The apparent willingness of Christian nationalists to resort to violence could be prompted by their reading of Joshua 6, which appears to approve of the Israelites killing all the men, women and children in the land of Canaan.

Believing in the inerrancy of Scripture, by which I mean that the Bible is true “in all that it affirms” (which doesn’t by-pass the challenging hermeneutical question as to what it is that a given biblical passage affirms), I believe that the author of the Book of Joshua believed that Joshua had received such a command from God. But I believe he was wrong. Why? Because, as is clear from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would never approve of such a violent action.

But, can I give Jesus the “last word?” My inclination to do so is prompted by the fact that the overarching interpretive framework that I bring to my reading of any scriptural passage is Christocentric; I always ask what Jesus would say and do if he was situated in the context of the passage. Am I justified in doing that?

I don’t know! I am neither a biblical scholar nor a theologian. Therefore, the following two essays, by biblical scholar Ben Lappenga and theologian Cambria Kaltwasser contain their responses to my essay and their answers to the question of whether I am justified in giving Jesus the last word regarding the apparent condoning of violence recorded in Joshua 6 and other Old Testament passages that appear to condone violence.


While I ultimately resonate with Harold’s Christocentric reading of Scripture, as a biblical scholar I start to get a little nervous when what is meant by “giving Jesus the last word” is essentially to invalidate or erase the unique voice represented by another part of the Bible. I believe Christians are invited to express uncertainty or even alarm at things we encounter in the Bible (and the New Testament also contains disturbing things!), but I also believe that our wrestling with these texts should be undertaken withoutrecourse to a “get-out-of-jail-free” card in the form of “Jesus wouldn’t do this.”

A thoughtful voice in this regard is that of Christopher Seitz, who, in publications such as his Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), promotes attention to what he calls the “per se” witness of the Old Testament. Seitz believes that the Old Testament is allocated too limited a role as the Word of God, and that more must be done to articulate the unique voice of the Old Testament within Christian theological discourse.

Harold’s Christocentric understanding of the Old Testament finds support in the story of Jesus’ encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13–27, in which Jesus indicates that the Old Testament is “about himself” (24:27). What is less appreciated about this famous scene, however, is that the relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus’ death and resurrection flows in both directions. The disciples know all about what’s just happened to Jesus: his tomb was empty, and some women said that Jesus is alive. Yet they are confused and upset by the death of Jesus, rather than rejoicing at a resurrected Lord. What they lack, according to Jesus, is adequate instruction in “Moses and all the prophets” and “all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27)—that is, the voice of the Old Testament.

Now, what might seem good in theory sometimes gets very, very difficult in practice. As John Collins has said of texts like Joshua 6, “While it is true that…terrorist hermeneutics can be seen as a case of the devil citing Scripture for his purpose, it is also true that the devil does not have to work very hard to find biblical precedents for the legitimation of violence” (“The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” Journal of Biblical Literature 122, No. 1 [2003], 3). In the case of the endorsement of genocide in Joshua 6 (and the related sentiment in Deuteronomy 7), I believe the best scholarly (and Christian) reading is that of Walter Moberly (found in his Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013], 41–74).

Moberly posits that the passage itself actually thwarts any effort to read it literally, if we pay close attention to the details and context of the passage. We can summarize Moberly’s reasons in three parts. First, Moberly notes that what is being written about the conquest of Canaan was composed long after the events it depicts. So, for the first readers of Joshua, there are no Canaanites in the land to be violent against! The text was most likely produced during a time of purification and reform under the leadership of Josiah, so it would not be understood as a literal account about how to deal with outsiders—it’s a metaphor for complete devotion to God. Second, Moberly notes that the Israelites under Josiah are about to go into exile and experience centuries under the thumb of world superpowers. They do not have power. A story about destroying an enemy spoken to Israel in weakness differs significantly from such a story spoken at a time of strength. (And here it is horrifying to think of white nationalists, living in the most powerful nation the world has ever known and having easy access to weapons that were unthinkable to the ancient Israelites to whom the text is addressed, reading Joshua as a legitimation of violence). And third, the book of Joshua emphatically denies the notion that God favors Israel to the detriment of others. The setup for this very passage, in Joshua 5:13–14, is this: “Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’ ‘Neither,’ he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.”

I don’t pretend to have a fully satisfying response to God’s violent command as portrayed in Joshua 6. But as we continue to wrestle with this passage, I think we need to respect the “per se” (discrete, independent) witness of Joshua itself, rather than simply say that “the author of Joshua is wrong because Jesus wouldn’t do this.” What might be said, then, about the enduring value of this text? Moberly suggests that rather than throw it out, we take seriously that the practice envisaged in the story is still in effect for Israel, but it is no longer military. The “ban” could in fact be practiced, but in ways other than on the battlefield. This story, as difficult as it is for us, is best received as a metaphor for unqualified allegiance to God. Such allegiance takes with full seriousness the commitment to peace, mercy, love, and forgiveness so widely attested throughout both the Old and New Testament.


Harold has posed to us an intractable problem for Christian students of scripture: how do we reconcile the apparent condonation of religious violence in the book of Joshua with the liberative message of Jesus? The problem was further defined by Harold’s embrace of a doctrine of inerrancy that suggests each text of the Bible bears equal weight. Given this, Harold wants to know if we might nonetheless prioritize the testimony of Jesus over the problematic passages of Joshua. In his response, Ben cautioned that such an appeal to Jesus might easily be used as an excuse not to engage portions of scripture deemed out of keeping with or inferior to Jesus’ testimony. There is value, he insists, in wrestling with the Old Testament on its own terms.

I take Ben’s point. As Christians who follow a Jewish messiah, we ought not wish to avoid the task of wrestling with the very books that comprised Holy Scripture for Jesus, in all their complexity and depth. Ben has pointed us to some invaluable resources for taking the book of Joshua with full seriousness in its own time and context.

As a theologian, meanwhile, I can best contribute to this conversation by highlighting its implications for Christian confession, in this case, what we confess about the character of God.

What must our understanding of God be if God commanded the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Jericho? Could God command a similar slaughter of some by others today?

One way in which Christian theologians have justified the violence in Joshua 6 is by appeal to the otherness of God’s justice. In this view, God is not bound to any principle of justice we could recognize. Instead, whatever God wills simply is just by the fact of God’s willing it. If God commands that Jericho be destroyed, along with every man, woman, and child, that action is good and just. It is not our place to question it. This is Calvin’s response to this text. God’s action “puts an end to all discussion” (See Calvin’s Commentary on Joshua, chapter 6).

Many who embrace this line of reasoning would be quick to add that God’s command in Joshua 6 ought not be treated as an ethical principle, and yet the fact is that Christians have used conquest passages to justify atrocious violence in the past. For instance, in the seventeenth century, the English commander Captain John Underhill appealed to scripture’s precedent to justify the Puritan slaughter of the Pequot tribe, including 400-700 men, women, and children: “Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”

Nonetheless, it might be argued that we human beings are bound to the express ethical norms found elsewhere in scripture, whereas God is not. Let us consider the implications for the doctrine of God, then. The consequences of embracing a God who commands the destruction of whole people groups, however infrequently, is itself devastating for the Christian life. It raises doubts about the merciful nature of God’s posture toward me. For, neither my own righteousness, nor my faith in God—lukewarm on most days—supplies me with confidence that I’m in a better position to claim God’s favor than one of the children of Jericho. Is God’s approach to me more like the condemnation of Canaan or like Jesus’ words of comfort to the thief on the cross?  In the end, I can’t say. Calvin taught that we should not concern ourselves with these questions, but simply look to Christ, the “mirror” of our election (Institutes of the Christian Religion,III.24.5).  This answer is cold comfort, however, since the very thing at stake is whether the almighty God behind the mirror is or is not like Jesus. The portrait of a God morally unconstrained suggests that God has many faces, Jesus being only one. When I turn to God in prayer, then, who is to say that I will meet the God of Jesus Christ and not another? The idea that God can determine what is just willy nilly or that God’s justice is inscrutable completely unmoors my trust in God.

For theological and spiritual reasons, therefore, as much as for moral reasons, I reject the proposition that God commanded the wholesale slaughter of Jericho, as a straightforward reading of Joshua suggests.

Against the above perspective, God is not free to will just anything, but only what is in keeping with God’s eternal character. This poses no constraint upon God, however, since God simply is identical with justice and goodness and all other genuine virtues. Although it remains true that God’s justice, mercy, and love go beyond our human understanding, it is also true that God communicates these to us in such a way as to secure our trust. When Paul writes, “in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells” (Colossians 2:9), we can take it to the bank, without wondering whether a higher, hidden God lies behind Jesus.

Ultimately, this theological reflection leads us back to consider the purpose of scripture itself. I follow Daniel Migliore in understanding scripture as “the unique and irreplaceable witness to the liberating and reconciling activity of God in the history of Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ” (Faith Seeking Understanding [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans], 47). Jesus, after all, is the Word though whom God created all things, and who, when the time was ripe, came to dwell among us (John 1). The scriptures are a testimony to God-with-us, first in the history of Israel and, definitively, in Jesus Christ.

This reflection obviously has not solved the problem of how to understand the testimony of Joshua 6. For that, we need the detailed work of biblical scholars like Ben Lappenga and Walter Moberly to help us discover the original rhetorical purpose of the passage that cuts against a literal historical reading. What the above reflection does is to put that testimony in its place as a secondary witness to the same God made fully known in Christ. The larger problem may be, in the end, our habit of treating scripture like a compendium of propositions, each possessing its own independent authority. Even Calvin understood that scripture gains its authority exclusively “from the character of him whose Word it is” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4). If we are able to find that character at all, we must be able to find it in Jesus Christ.

Jesus has the last word because he is the Word, the same One from whom scripture receives its authority. In agreement with Ben, we should not expect that following Jesus allows us to skirt around the very scriptures that Jesus knew intimately and that he proclaimed, but, in the spirit of Harold, neither should it let us draw from scripture meanings that are in plain contradiction with the character of that Kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate. The belief that God sometimes commands massacres is among the latter.


After reading Ben and Cambria’s helpful responses to the question I pose in my initial essay (“Can I Always Give Jesus the last word?”), I now believe that the answer is “no” because what Jesus taught and how he lived is not particularly pertinent to many of the issues that followers of Jesus struggle with today. For example, I do not discern help from the teachings and life of Jesus as I think about the contentious issue of how to deal with the pervasive use of social media.

Therefore, rather than dealing in generalities, as suggested in the title for my first essay, I now believe it is wiser to address concrete specific contemporary issues; asking how the teachings and life of Jesus provide his followers with direction as to how to address such a given issue.

In that light, I remind the reader that a central concern that motivated me to ask the question posed in my initial essay was a position taken by many Christian nationalists that violence may be called for “to save our country”; which position, at first glance, seems to fit the report in Joshua 6 that God commanded the Israelites to kill all the men, women and children in the land of Canaan. So, the specific, concrete question that needs to be addressed is whether, in light of Joshua 6, Christian nationalists are justified in allowing or promoting the use of violence to “save our country.”

For starters, the specific simple answer that I reject is that violence is absolutely never called for under any circumstances. As I explain in-depth in chapter 21 (Tragedy, Just War, and Peacemaking) of my book Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking, I believe that on very rare occasions, a person can be faced with a “tragic moral choice, where all the options for action are destructive and one must choose the “lesser of evils.” Therefore, I believe a Christian nationalist could argue that choosing violence is an exemplification of one such tragic moral choice.

If I had the opportunity to have a respectful conversation with a Christian nationalist about such a choice of violence to “save our country,” I would first point out the weakness in asserting that our country needs “saving” (in light of the intentions of the Founding Fathers that the USA should be a diverse nation relative to religious or secular worldview commitments). And, even if one believes that the USA needs to be “’saved,” there is no compelling argument that resorting to violence is the only option for accomplishing that purpose. And, if this is not a case of having to make a “tragic moral choice,” violence is not justifiable, based on the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love all others, even including those who consider themselves to be our enemies.

But the response of my Christian nationalist conversation partner may be that Joshua 6 allows for the use of violence if it is a “means” to accomplish the good “end” he/she envisions. My response to that response would be that Romans 12:21 says “Do not overcome evil, but overcome evil with good.” In my own words, a “good end” never justifies an “evil means” for accomplishing that end, and resorting to violence is such an “evil means.”

However, as a “last resort,” the Christian nationalist could appeal to Joshua 6 as justification for the use of violence. Therefore, the remaining thorny question is what a biblical scholar or theologian thinks about using Joshua 6 to justify the use of violence by a Christian nationalist or anyone else. As I will now briefly summarize, both Ben Lappenga and Cambria Kaltwasser take the position in their respective essays that the apparent call to violence in Joshua 6 is not to be taken “literally.”

I take Ben’s response to my initial essay to suggest that the author of Joshua 6 would be horrified to discover that contemporary readers of Joshua 6 take the apparent call to violence “literally.” In sharp contrast, drawing on the biblical scholarship of Walter Moberly in his book Old Testament Theology, Ben proposes that the Joshua 6 account should “not be understood as a literal account about how to deal with outsiders,” but should rather be viewed as a “metaphor for complete devotion to God.

Similarly, Cambria argues that the apparent call to violence found in Joshua 6 cannot be taken “literally.” In her own words, “For theological and spiritual reasons …, as much as for moral reasons, I reject the proposition that God commanded the wholesale slaughter of Jericho, as a straightforward reading of Joshua suggests.” She adds that “To understand the testimony of Joshua 6 … we need the detailed work of biblical scholars like Ben Lappenga and Walter Moberly to help us discover the original purpose of the passage that cuts against a literal historical reading.”

Cambria concludes by asserting that “In agreement with Ben, we should not expect that following Jesus allows us to skirt around the very scriptures that Jesus knew intimately and that he proclaimed, but, in the spirit of Harold, neither should it let us draw from scripture meanings that are in plain contradiction with the character of that Kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate. The belief that God sometimes commands massacres is among the latter.” Cambria is accurate in reporting my strong belief that resorting to violence is “in plain contradiction with the character of that Kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate” (emphasis mine).

It is clear that both Ben and Cambria reject the idea that the apparent call for violence that a straightforward reading of Joshua 6 suggests is to be taken literally. Their reflections point to a huge need for educating Christian laity regarding biblical interpretation, the main point I wish to make in this essay, which I will now explain.

The plain truth is that the typical person in the pew of most Christian churches is woefully educated  with regard to interpreting the Bible (biblical hermeneutics). Too easily latching onto the simplistic slogan “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” the typical church goer does not adequately understand that the bible contains different genres (e.g., narrative – the stories of God’s people in the past – poetry, letters, parables) such that not all scriptural passages are to be interpreted “literally.” Readers of scripture must seek to understand the context for each biblical passage and the intention of the author to adequately discern what can be taken literally and what is not to be taken literally.

Therefore, the leadership in every Christian church (the pastors and governing boards) must provide for educational opportunities for its congregation to become knowledgeable regarding the complexities of biblical interpretation. We are fortunate at the church where I worship (American Reformed Church (ARC) in Orange City, Iowa) that Ben Lappenga and Cambria Katltwasser are both members and they have generously given of their time to teach a number of very helpful Adult Discipleship classes (Sunday School for Adults) dealing with the intricacies of biblical interpretation. We at ARC need to reach more of our members with such educational opportunities, and many other Christian churches need to begin offering such educational opportunities to its members, bringing in visiting biblical scholars and theologians to provide such instruction if it cannot be provided by church members.

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