The work of William Webb and Gordon Oeste

I have really appreciated the research done by William Webb and Gordon Oeste in the book entitled Bloody, Brutal and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts. It was published in 2019 by InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, Illinois. The book is heavy reading and quite detailed, but I highly recommend it for those who are willing to put out the effort and the time to dig deeper into this topic. I will be sharing a number of insights from the book along with thoughts of my own in this blog and the ones that follow.

Webb and Oeste approach texts like Deuteronomy 21:10-14 from four perspectives. I will label these four with the capital letters A, B, C, and D, for easy comparison. The first perspective is to understand the reality of the times in which the Bible was originally written. The Bible is not directly addressing the issues of our times, it is addressing another world a long time ago. While human nature has not changed all that much in the last 3500 years, human culture and practice has changed quite a bit in more recent times. The Bible was not written to address our questions and concerns, it was written to address the world of the Ancient Near East. So “perspective “A: seeks to understand the wider world to which the Bible was written, as far as that understanding is available to us.

The second perspective, which I will label “B”, addresses the ethics of the Bible itself. In the Bible we see a God who understands human weakness, and does not expect His people to understand or practice the highest ethical levels that He is capable of. Instead, He encourages His people to “be all that they can be” in their fallen condition and in the context of a very messed-up world. The ethics of the Bible are, in a sense, “frozen in time”, God’s recommendations within a specific context, not God’s ultimate ideal. One of the key insights we learn from the stories of the Bible is how God meets people where they are. God encourages people to reach for the “ideal”, but is accepting of the “real” as humanity’s best effort. In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, we will come to see God “settling” for small, incremental improvements in His peoples’ understanding and practice.

The third perspective, which I will label “C”, approaches the Bible from the ethics of today. And while this may come as a surprise to some, the ethics of today are often better than whose of Bible times. Why would that be the case? In part, it would be the influence of the Bible as a whole on the culture and ethics of our world today. Whether or not people acknowledge it, we are living in the light of Jesus’ teachings and example, and the world is a much better place because of it. Given the influence of Jesus on our world today, the ethics of today can often seem superior to the ethics of the Bible, because we are reading from the perspective of a world that has gained much from the gradual influence of the Bible as a whole, when read in light of the life and death of Jesus.

The fourth perspective, which I will label “D”, reads the Bible in the light of God’s ideals and in light of the ethics of the final judgment. D discovers in the Bible the way that God always wanted to rule on this earth, but was not able to because of the hardness of human hearts. The final judgment will be a time when all the injustices of this world will be set right, and God’s true ethic will be clearly seen. Perspective D moves beyond God’s specific responses to specific situations to see the heart of God in the biblical text as a whole. The ethics of the final judgment will move far beyond the Geneva Conventions and other ethical advances of our time. But we are not there yet.

When you compare C (the ethics of today) with B (the ethics of the biblical text) the Bible often looks out of date. It can even seem repressive, a step back from what we know today to be right. But that is misreading the character of the biblical God, who steps into the sewer of human depravity to reach us where we are and take us a step or two in the right direction. He takes us no faster that we are able or willing to go. In so doing, He takes the risk of being misunderstood by later readers of the Bible. Instead, if you compare B (the ethics of the Bible) with A (the realities of the Ancient Near East) you will see in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 a tangible movement in a positive direction. It is an incremental, redemptive movement toward a better ethic that the ethic of the time. When we read the Bible in its original context, we will discover the goal of that strange text in Deuteronomy, better treatment of female prisoners of war. From our perspective (C) that step may seem too small, but it is a real step and led Israel to treat women much differently than their neighbors at the time did.