John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE [Continued Conversation]

October 25, 2013


[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0830827226″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”” width=”107″]Page 5: John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE

A Different Hermeneutic
Leithart’s basic answer to the biblical trajectory I set forth in my “Politics of YHWH” article (Journal of Religious Ethics 39:1) is that “For every ‘be still and see’ story, there is a story of faithful battle. In fact, as the Old Testament goes on, Israel is given more responsibility for its own self-protection, not less” (647). But, as with Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, he bypasses a careful contextual reading. He also fails to cite how the direction of biblical scholarship supports his view. I suspect he would find some support if he looked hard enough, but I found it interesting that he dismisses all the support that I cite from Bible scholars who are not Anabaptists by claiming that they are pretty much indebted to Anabaptists anyway (646, n. 10). I wonder if Anabaptists are aware of this pacifist captivity of biblical scholarship! In reality, Leithart needs to choose decontextualized snippets from within the biblical story and string them together creatively to establish his desired biblical and historical trajectory because he has not offered a depth level reading of those specific passages that will stand under cross-examination from Bible exegetes. Here I cross-examine the examples Leithart offers in his rebuttal to my review.
(1) Leithart claims that the “do nothing” stance of the exodus is not permanent as exemplified by the fact that at Jericho God topples the walls, but Joshua defeats Ai by stratagem (647). This interpretation is undermined by the fact that God first defeats Joshua at Ai to show him who is in charge (Josh 7) and that it is actually God—not Joshua—who comes up with the strategy that would be used to overthrow Ai (Josh 8:1-2). There is no doubt that God frequently uses the sword in the hands of Joshua’s army, but Leithart must reckon with reality that the conquest of Canaan is framed in sacrificial terms that underscore God’s ownership of the land and its inhabitants and God’s choice to offer them up on behalf of the world in order to create a people who could be the divine instrument of salvation for the entire world.
(2) Leithart observes that whereas Yahweh overthrows Pharaoh, Samson harasses the Philistines by his own hands (647). This glosses over the fact that Samson’s strength relied entirely upon God’s miraculous provision and that Samson actually failed at his appointed mission of delivering the Israelites from the Philistines (Judges 13:5) precisely because he relies too much on his own strength and uses it to serve his own purposes. All he ended up doing was “harass” the Philistines by killing more of them in his death than during his life (16:30). They continue to be a thorn in Israel’s side until David finally subdues them (2 Sam 8:1). When read contextually, Samson foreshadows Israel’s kings who misuse their power and fall short of what they could accomplish on behalf of God and Israel.
(3) Leithart next turns to David (647) and argues that though David trusts God for victory, he is still a man of blood. Again, in the context of the narrative “being a man of blood” is not a good thing. As I spell out in Politics of Yahweh in greater detail (140-45), David’s Achilles heel was that he was a man of blood. Though he started out as a man after God’s heart who trusted God and not armor against Goliath and respected the life of his enemy Saul, he later begins to wield the sword of Goliath for his own purposes. He nearly becomes a mass murderer by slaying all of Nabal’s men, until Abigail intervenes and keeps him from shedding innocent blood. But after becoming king and nearly finishing what remained of the original conquest at God’s behest, David becomes a man of blood who kills Uriah after sleeping with his wife (for which he incurs swift divine judgment in 2 Sam 11-12), who relies on his fighting men by taking a census (for which he incurs severe divine judgment in 2 Sam 24), and who even in his dying days reneges on his vow not to avenge a man for cursing him by calling upon Solomon to have Shimei killed (1 Kgs 2:8-9; cf. 2 Sam 19:23). That even a man after God’s own heart eventually becomes a man of blood and is judged by God for it does not corroborate Leithart’s trajectory, but Yoder’s.
(4) Leithart observes that whereas cherubim and flaming sword watch Eden, armed Levites cut down intruders at the tabernacle (647). Although rhetorically savvy, this example glosses over the unique role Levites played as stewards of blood in ancient Israel. It is precisely because lifeblood belongs exclusively to God that God chose a select group within Israel to safeguard the shedding of blood so as to properly subsume it under divine jurisdiction. I discuss this at length in the epilogue to The Politics of Yahweh, but it is worth noting here that Levites must (a) consecrate a battle before it can be waged, (b) oversee the shedding of animal blood in the sacrificial system, and (c) host all the cities of refuge to safeguard the lifeblood of suspected killers until the proper authorities can confirm or deny guilt. They became the blood experts only after they were willing to forsake the bonds of blood and friendship to take the life of neighbors and kin on behalf of God after the golden calf incident (Exod 32:25-29). Because King Saul tried to subsume priestly oversight of blood under his jurisdiction (by consecrating a battle to God on his own in 1 Sam 13 and by allowing persons to live that God had previously set apart to be killed two chapters later), God rejected him as king. Later in life, David follows a similar path by killing Uriah and taking the military census. The Levite connection to blood is unique and should not be coopted as a proof-text for a trajectory that it actually undermines. This is especially so once we get to the New Testament and see that Jesus brings an end to all blood sacrifices in the book of Hebrews.

(5) Leithart’s stronger case has to do with Mordecai’s revenge (648). Yoder never deals with this aspect of the book of Esther, as far as I can tell. What he does show is that, even there, God’s people accept that the Persian king is in charge and can only lobby that he do the decent thing that even a pagan king should do, which is to keep innocent people from being wiped out. This kind of appeal to rulers to live up to their own rather low standards is what the apostle Paul does when he reminds the Romans that he is entitled to a fair trial on account of his Roman citizenship, which he acquired prior to following Jesus. Nonetheless, Esther cannot be ignored. Yet a depth level reading of Esther shows that we are dealing with a rather extreme situation—the extermination of God’s people—and that God responded to that situation with a conquest-like Yahweh war—a divinely commanded, sacrifice-like battle that underscores God’s exclusive claim on blood. For example, even though the king’s decree allowed the Jews to plunder the spoil of their enemies (Esther 8:11), Esther 9:10-16 explicitly states that God’s people refused to lay hands on the plunder, according to God’s original instructions for the conquest of Canaan. The genealogies of Mordecai (from Saul’s lineage) and Haman (from the ancient Amalekites whom Saul was commanded by God to exterminate but failed to) make clear that this book draws upon the conquest motif from long ago. Haman was trying to do to Mordecai’s kin what Mordecai’s ancestors tried to do to his ancestors.
Still, one cannot deny that Mordecai (and Nehemiah – although both such cases were defensive in nature and not empire building or purifying as with Constantine) did not interpret the Jermianic shift to mean that Jews could never wield the sword. As noted above, it is clear that Jews until Jesus’ day were divided on this issue. Several Jews expected the messiah to wield the sword to take over Jerusalem, then Rome, then the world. Another example is the Apostle Paul. Before his conversion, he thought it appropriate to kill fellow Jews—those who followed Jesus—whom he considered a threat to Jewish identity. Yoder’s point is that Jesus settled this debate and that when Jews like Saul converted to the way of Jesus, they forsook what remained of their sword-wielding ways. This was because Jesus made clear that this was not how his kingdom would come. It is not how he would do it, and it is not how his followers would. The Jeremianic shift was not the pacification of all God’s people; it was a shift in the nature of peoplehood that would begin to make way for Jesus who would complete the shift, make it normative for his followers, and give them clarity about how the kingdom would come in its fullness.
(6) As for the New Testament, Leithart goes after my interpretation of Cornelius’ conversion (649). In my review I demonstrate that his examples of Christian soldiers in the Gospels were not actually conversion accounts (since none of them became followers of Jesus and as Gentiles were not even candidates for Christian conversion until after Cornelius’ conversion), and then suggest that Cornelius is his strongest New Testament case. I meet this case by showing that the narrative emphasis in the book of Acts is that it signaled the incorporation of Gentiles into the church—not what Cornelius did for a living or how his profession may have had to change as a result of his conversion. The text is silent about what changes had to be made, so I cannot prove that he quit his job and Leithart cannot prove that he didn’t. In response, Leithart notes that it is irrelevant that the account was mostly about the conversion of the Gentiles.

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3 responses to John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE [Continued Conversation]

  1. Fantastically helpful contribution to the ongoing conversation, John; thanks for writing it up, and thanks to Chris for publishing it here.

    Re: Cornelius, your assessment seems to resonate with that of Kavin Rowe’s in World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age

  2. Nicely done, John. I think you make a powerful and coherent case for reading the Bible as a whole in a way that truly does see the culmination of the entire story in Jesus.