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Conquest Narratives in Islam and Christianity (Alastair Roberts)

In a recent interview with the French Catholic newspaper, La Croix, Pope Francis was asked about the connection between the fear of accepting migrants and the fear of Islam in the West. He responded by commenting upon the theme of conquest within Islam and the fact that such a theme can also be found within Christianity:

Today, I don’t think that there is a fear of Islam as such but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam. It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam. However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.

There is considerable scriptural evidence to support the Pope’s claim. Although the theme of conquest is frequently found throughout the New Testament, due to the constraints of space, I will limit my discussion here to the gospel of Matthew.

The Old Testament narrative of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua is an integral part of the typological root structure of Matthew’s account. An association between Jesus and Joshua has a prima facie plausibility—an association not lost upon early Church writers such as Justin Martyr—on account of the fact that they share the same name in Greek and Aramaic. Matthew records both the divine revelation and explanation of Jesus’ name and the subsequent naming of the child (1:21, 25).

The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist on the far side of the Jordan invites some comparisons with both Joshua and Elisha. Both Moses and Elijah pass on the baton of ministry to their successors on the far side of the Jordan, Moses to Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:1-8; Joshua 1) and Elijah to Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-15).

The parallels between the Moses-Joshua, Elijah-Elisha, and John the Baptist-Jesus pairings are striking. In each case an eremite prophet who struggles with an oppressive king—Moses with Pharaoh, Elijah with Ahab, John with Herod—appoints someone to complete their ministry at the Jordan, inaugurating a leader who will enter and conquer the land.

That Elisha appears between Joshua and Jesus is significant. Jesus’ ‘conquest’ follows the pattern of Joshua’s, but does so in large part through its recapitulation of Elisha’s.

After miraculous dividing the waters of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:14), Elisha’s conquest of the land begins with a miracle at Jericho (2:19-22). Elisha travels throughout the land of Israel, performing powerful signs and effecting miraculous deliverances: overcoming barrenness with new life (2:19-22; 4:14-16), healing the sick (5:1-19), saving people from death (4:38-41), and feeding multitudes (4:42-44). While working to form faithful communities—‘the sons of the prophets’—Elisha also establishes the means by which defeat and sanguinary vengeance will be brought upon those who are rebellious, the enemies of God, and the oppressors of his people (2:23-25; 6:8—7:20; 9:1—10:36).

Themes of conquest are most pronounced in the middle of the gospel of Matthew. Matthew 9:36 describes the multitudes that flocked to see Jesus using the redolent phrase ‘like sheep without a shepherd,’ a phrase also used to describe the potential plight of Israel in Numbers 27:17, a plight to which the appointment of Joshua to national leadership is the answer (Numbers 27:18). Following these remarks concerning the crowd, Jesus immediately sets apart and commissions the Twelve.

Jesus sends out the Twelve to go throughout the cities of Israel, much as the twelve spies were sent to search out the land of Canaan in Numbers 13. As in the case of the spies, theirs is a task preparatory for judgment: the cities that reject them will be appointed for destruction when the Son of Man comes (10:14-15, 23). However, unlike the spies, the primary thrust of the Twelve’s ministry is to bring life to all those who accept their message.

As Peter Leithart has observed, the sending out of the Twelve is presented as a ‘quasi-military operation’. They are sheep in the midst of wolves (10:16), whose mission will herald the advent of bitter conflict (10:21), carrying out a campaign that will take them from city to city within the land (10:23). Like Moses commanded Joshua (Deuteronomy 31:7-8), Jesus instructs the Twelve not to be afraid (Matthew 10:26, 31), assuring them that he will confess their names before his Father.

In Matthew 10:34, Jesus declares: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ The presence of this statement in its context is suggestive. Simon Gathercole observes the ‘intriguing possibility’ that this intentionally echoes the ‘I have come’ statements of the sword-bearing Angel of the Lord, perhaps most notably in Joshua 5:13-15, when the commander of the army of the Lord met with Joshua immediately before the conquest of the land.

Taken with the immediately preceding verses, where Jesus casts himself as the heavenly advocate, the ‘I have come’ sayings of Matthew 10:34-35, with their potential allusion to the figure of Joshua 5, hints at an angelomorphic Christology, in which Jesus is identified with the Angel of the Lord. A possible identification of the pre-existent Christ with this figure, who overcame the Egyptians and led the conquest of Canaan, is found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. Jude 5; 1 Corinthians 10:4). Such a connection would be especially noteworthy: Jesus’ and Joshua’s conquests are not merely paralleled, but bound together by the fact that Christ initiates both of them.

Joshua themes may continue in the next chapter, as Jesus declares the failure of the ‘generation’ who went out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist—the Elijah who was to come (11:7-19)—much as the generation who went into the wilderness following Moses died out before reaching the Promised Land. However, ‘rest’ is given to ‘infants’ (11:25-30). Themes of Sabbath rest are prominent in chapter 12 (verses 1-14), where the Isaianic prophecy of the victorious Servant (verses 18-21) precedes an account of Jesus’ demonstration of the advent of the kingdom of God as he casts out demons and engages in direct conflict with the forces of Satan, portending their final overthrow (verses 22-30).

Although the driving typological motifs seem to shift—to the prophetic declarations of the destruction of Jerusalem—themes of conquest remain subtly present in later chapters of Matthew. As in the days of Joshua, where the land of Canaan attained to its full measure of wickedness, Jesus declares that Israel is ripe for judgment (Matthew 23:29-26; cf. Genesis 15:16). Just as the walls of Jericho came crashing down at the blasts of the priests’ trumpets, so the walls of the temple would collapse at the trumpet-heralded Parousia of the Son of Man (24:2; cf. Joshua 6).

In his statement, Pope Francis references the Great Commission of Matthew 28 as a particular example of the conquest metaphor in the New Testament. 2 Chronicles 36:23, the final verse of the Masoretic ordering of the Old Testament text, may be the more prominent Old Testament background for the commission (the Masoretic ordering is also alluded to in Matthew 23:35; cf. 2 Chronicles 24:17-25). Matthew begins with an allusion to the beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 2:4), so it is apt that it should end with an allusion to the Old Testament’s last verse.

2 Chronicles 36:23: Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!

Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In 2 Chronicles 36:23, Cyrus declares the universality of his kingdom, the divine source of his authority, the commission to ‘go’, the divinely commanded task, and the assurance of divine presence. Matthew 28:18-20 parallels it in each of these respects; through the call to make, baptize, and teach disciples of all nations, Jesus is implicitly commissioning the building of a new temple—a house of prayer for all nations—to replace the one that is destined for destruction.

The commission of Matthew 28 also parallels Joshua 1, however. There God declares that everywhere Joshua’s foot treads has been given to him, to the very ends of the land (verses 3-4). God assures Joshua of his presence (verse 5), and charges him to obey all that the Law of Moses commanded him (verse 7).

The mission of the Church is thus implicitly framed as a continued conquest of the world in the name of Christ. This conquest is not, however, a mere escalation of the sort of conquest led by Joshua. Rather, Matthew and the rest of the New Testament present us with a theological vision of the Church’s mission as conquest that is both continuous and discontinuous from Old Testament conquest.

There are continuities. The presence of sin in the camp and the execution of Achan for putting aside for himself some of the devoted things in Joshua 7 can be paralleled with the divine execution of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 for a similar crime (Acts 5:2-3; cf. Joshua 7:1 lxx). In both conquests, the Spirit of a departing leader is placed upon an appointed successor (Deuteronomy 34:9; Acts 1:7-8). Both conquests focus upon the destruction of a key city—Jericho in the first and Jerusalem in the second. Both the disciples’ movement through the cities of Israel and Paul’s missionary journeys are reminiscent of Joshua’s military campaigns.

However, there are also notable discontinuities. The scale of the mission has changed: Joshua’s ended at the borders of the land, but Jesus’ conquest extends into all of the world. The enemies have changed: no longer does the mission focus on warring against flesh and blood, but upon overcoming Satan and his forces (cf. Ephesians 6:12), which may be one reason for the prominence of demons in the book of Matthew.

While this does entail the downfall and destruction of some persons and political entities, the fundamental tenor of the conquest has changed, from one principally driven by wrath and judgment to one where mercy and love are the dominant themes. It is also a ‘conquest’ that extends outwards to persons formerly excluded and which is advanced through divine salvific action and the prayers of his people, rather than through military arms.

In Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus encounters a woman, anachronistically designated as ‘of Canaan’. As Chrysostom argues in Homily on Matthew 52:1, this reference is calculated to draw our minds to the ancient enemies of Israel that had to be driven out of the land. Here, however, the woman is made a recipient of divine favor and deliverance for her child (cf. 1 Kings 17:9-24). People are now to be ‘overcome’ as they are brought into new life.

The themes of judgment and destruction are also transformed as Matthew associates Jesus with the fate of the cursed city, through allusions to Jeremiah and Lamentations (as Peter Leithart argues). Jesus foretells and will execute the apocalyptic judgment upon the bloodthirsty city, yet he also, like the prophet Jeremiah, identifies with its fate.

In his death, he embodies the downfall of Jerusalem and its temple. In his resurrection, a new temple is raised up. The allusions to Cyrus’ decree to rebuild the temple in Matthew’s Great Commission make sense against this backdrop: Jesus proclaims new hope on the far side of judgment, the possibility of the recovery and even surpassing of what was once lost. Whereas the first conquest was primarily the divine execution of former conquerors, this new conquest is primarily the divine resurrection of those once conquered, the restoration of peoples once subject to Satan’s power.

Returning to where we began, Pope Francis is justified in his claim that themes of conquest are present in Matthew and in the New Testament more generally, themes that advance from earlier iterations in the Old. However, conquest is never a flat and predictable theme, but is one that undergoes a complex and frequently surprising development. Naming the motif isn’t sufficient apart from a discernment of the shape that it comes to take through the unique passage of the scriptural narrative.

Recognition of the theme of conquest and the importance of the Joshua tradition for the New Testament writers should also challenge us to do serious business with some of the more difficult texts in our scriptures. Although it may often be thematically sublimated, the violent conquest of Canaan is never disowned in the New Testament. Indeed, the implicit identification of Jesus with the Angel of the Lord may exacerbate the theodical tensions that it poses, highlighting that the violence of Joshua is stubbornly continuous with the story of the salvation of Christ.

As we appreciate the complicated role played by themes and narratives of conquest within our own faith, we should be encouraged to greater reticence and sensitivity in judgments concerning the role played by the theme of conquest in Islam. Within our own faith, the violence of the theme of conquest cannot be entirely sublimated, yet it can exist alongside and be interwoven with profound visions of peace.

Having a first-hand acquaintance with the ambivalence of the theme of conquest, when engaging with Islamic theologies of jihad it behoves us to extend the kind of charitable and careful hearing we would desire for ourselves, eschewing the precipitous judgments to which we are so often tempted in the current political environment.

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