Sprinkle’s ‘Fight’–violence in the law of Moses

Sprinkle’s consideration of violence in the OT moves along four major periods in Israel’s history: (1) Mosaic era (2) Joshua’s conquest of the promise land (3) the time of judges & kings (4) the prophets. What’s most striking in this section is how much agreement can be had in the details only to disagree in the conclusion. Disagreement in this portion of the book revolves around two points. First, the OT narrative doesn’t offer the stark critique of violence that Sprinkle purports to find. Second, Sprinkle’s handling of the biblical evidence is better suited for a critique of militarism than violence.[1]

Mosaic era

According to Sprinkle, the Bible’s “aversion toward violence begins to change when we get to the law of Moses” (44). He considers God’s sanction of violence in two categories: civil ordinances and warfare.

Surprisingly, Sprinkle barely touches the issue of physical punishment in Israel’s civil law. What comment he does offer comprises barely a page. We find no substantive discussion of beatings, eye-for-an-eye, or capital punishment. The extent of his commentary on these items is:

. . . in fifteen of the sixteen cases where the death penalty is sanctioned, other penalties such as a stiff monetary policy are allowed. The criminal doesn’t have to go to the chopping block. And some crimes, such as theft or damage to someone else’s property, receive a rather light penalty compared to other cultures in the world at that time. The Bible doesn’t sanction mutilation as punishment, but other cultures would hack off hands, ears, noses, and other body parts for a whole range of offenses

So the perceived strictness or violent nature of these biblical laws must be understood in light of other ancient cultures rather than our own. (44-45)

Even if we grant Sprinkle all that he asserts, he still hasn’t explained why God would enshrine physical punishment in His Law in the first place.[2] Regardless, Sprinkle’s assertion concerning the death penalty is an empty claim. He offers no biblical support to show that the death penalty had an alternative punishment in every case but one.[3] Where is a fine offered as an acceptable punishment for the capital crimes detailed in Exodus 21-22 and Leviticus 20? Where is a “stiff monetary policy” codified? (And wouldn’t a stiff monetary policy give the wealthy an unfair advantage in capital crimes?) Sprinkle leaves us guessing.

Turning to Israel’s warfare policy Sprinkle wants to stress two features: (1) God limits Israel’s warfare policy and thereby makes it a moral improvement on the unchecked carnage of ancient Near Eastern warfare. (2) Scripture portrays God as the primary agent in Israel’s wars. Taken together we are to discern incremental steps toward nonviolence. God is limiting the range of options in war while establishing the divine right to exacting vengeance.

Two passages in Deuteronomy take a prominent role in articulating the gradual move toward nonviolence. Deut 17:16-17 prohibits and prescribes certain actions for a future king and Deuteronomy 20 details Israel’s laws for warfare.

Deut 17:14-20 anticipates Israel’s monarchy when they become settled in the land. Verses 16-17 state:

“Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way.’ 17 “He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself.

Sprinkle seizes on these verses to claim that the Law stripped the king of “all military might.” On his interpretation “the king is not allowed to build a professional army . . . nor can he make military alliances with other nations (59).

This is an extremely narrow (and misleading) reading of the passage. First, Sprinkle assumes that horses has strictly military connotations. Apparently, he fails to consider that horses were also a status symbol in the ancient Near East.[4] Second, a strict military reading doesn’t adequately account for the reasons why this behavior is prohibited. Namely, in multiplying horses and wives the king will drift from covenant fidelity (expressed by return, turn)—lavish living would turn his heart away from the Lord. Third, the explicit concern of Deut 17:14-20 isn’t military superiority but societal inequality: “[the king’s] heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen (Deut 17:20).” In short, only a forced reading can interpret Deut 17:16-17 as a strict polemic against violence let alone militarism.

Sprinkle characterizes Deuteronomy 20 as “the most descriptive passage about Israel’s ‘army’.”[5] Summarizing vv 1-18 Sprinkle says:

Talk about limited objectives! If you read Deuteronomy 20:16-18, you will see that Israel has a different war policy for those living in Canaan, and we’ll discuss that in the next chapter. For now it’s important to underscore the point: Israel’s “army” is deliberately weak so that God will be shown to be unquestionably strong. (59)

Time doesn’t permit a full discussion of Sprinkle’s interpretive conclusions but two key points are in order. First, nothing in Deuteronomy 20 necessitates a weak army. In fact, the “rules of engagement” actually appear to limit the actions of a superior force. Second, if all but vv16-18 regulate Israel’s warfare in Canaan, Sprinkle would have served his readers well by explaining why God grants His people the freedom to engage in foreign wars (i.e. “cities that are very far from you”). Divine sanction for foreign war seems to contradict Sprinkle’s later claim that Israel is never allowed “to invade a country to dismantle an unjust government or preemptively strike a nation building chariots of mass destruction” (62).

The Mosaic law just doesn’t work as an amicus brief in Sprinkle’s case for nonviolence.

In the series’ next post we’ll consider Sprinkle’s presentation of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan.


[1] For example, in the chapter entitled “Israel’s Bizarre Warfare Policy” Sprinkle says, “One important feature we will see in this chapter is that God never sanctions militarism—even when He allows warfare.” (53) The OT evidence would support nonmilitarism far better than nonviolence.

[2] It’s not enough to claim that God was merely accommodating cultural practices in the ancient near east. As we observed in the previous post, there is quite a difference between allowing a practice (e.g. divorce) and commanding a practice (e.g. execution).

[3] Sprinkle cites Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (p95) on this point but without any further explanation.

[4] See 1Ki 10:23ff where Solomon’s wealth is signified by an abundance of horses (and chariots).

[5] It would be more accurate to say that this is a descriptive passage of army conduct. Apart from “abstention clauses” the passage tells us almost nothing about the army per se.

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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