April 7, 2014 by mattwilcoxen
I am weary from one discussion that seems to be continually recirculated these last few years: the problem of violence in the Bible, specifically the Old Testament. Usually authors or blog writers will start like this–and without citing many specific examples: “The Old Testament is full of examples of God commanding and condoning violence–even genocide…”
Perhaps I am tired of the discussion because it’s a difficult one. Perhaps. I say I am tired of the discussion because I think it’s ill-founded and that it is typically not very well thought through by either those who are raising the violence in the Old Testament as a problem, nor by those who are attempting to come to the Bible’s defense in one way or another.
Here are some of the things that I think in relation to the question that is being raised:
1. My first thought is: show me!!! These discussions typically proceed with little to no mention of specific texts. It is sort of assumed by everyone that the Old Testament is chock-full of heinous acts that are endorsed by God. I actually don’t think that’s true, at all. So prove it. This brings me to the next point…
2. Often the people raising the question about violence in the Old Testament either have not read the texts carefully, or if they have, they have read them from a religious studies perspective that smuggles in the assumption that the events described in the Old Testament are nothing other than the actions of just another ancient near eastern nation. The idea that the text itself presents–that this nation was operating under the direction and leadership of the sovereign Lord over the entire universe–is ruled out beforehand. If God is the Lord of the universe, and if God was acting in ancient Israel, then some things that happened in the Bible should be seen as God acting within his right as God, and using his chosen vessel to do so.
3. I think there is a general idolisation of human life in Western culture that is not always recognised. I am sure that I will be stoned as a heretic by readers of all stripes for even uttering such a word, but I think it’s true. Similarly, any human suffering is typically regarded as the highest form of evil. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t take death lightly, and neither do think suffering is a joke. However, we have elevated these two goods–life and freedom from suffering–into the highest goods. And if anyone–even God–infringes upon them, then they are anathema. Is it possible that the Old Testament militates against this idea in some fashion. Perhaps there is a higher end than biological existence.
4. Nearly every Christian hermeneutic would deny that the people of God today are used by God in the same way that Israel was used on occasion–as an instrument of divine wrath. The heart of the Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus Christ has fulfilled the logic of the Old Testament, with God taking upon himself the results of human sin. God has stepped into the plight of those who made themselves his enemies, so that they could become his friends. Now the people of God have their primary mission in extending the good news of great joy to people.
5. It’s a simple point, but worth stating: a merciful God can be, and apparently is, wrathful. God mercifully acts to remove sin from the world, so as to make it just and peaceful.
6. These discussions of violence in the Bible are over-determined by reading them in the context of an imperial power (America and her allies). When we see Israel as it was–a small and oppressed nation–we remember that God is a liberator, not a tyrant.
7. Perhaps the largest single figure in the Old Testament–David–is radically marked not only by his basic fairness, but even his indulgence of his enemies. Really, David, the great warrior and the Messianic type is marked out by his loving-kindness more than anything else. And when he acts unjustly, he himself receives chastisement.
8. Aside from the places where God makes a determined and explicit statement that some person or group of people are to be killed because their wickedness has gone too far, the Old Testament itself goes to great lengths to show God’s concern for human life, and God’s mercy toward those who are sinful.
I would contend that in the end someone’s problems with the Old Testament will come down to either of these three possibilities:
–They (ignorantly) think the Bible is full of all kinds of heinous acts perpetrated by God because this is just what “everyone says”.
–They are committed to reading the Bible in a religious studies mode, treating it as the record of just any other ancient near eastern text.
–They imagine God to be part of a larger moral framework in which it is possible for us to declare God to be just or unjust.
Sadly, many Christians are operating in the third mode. They have no proper conception of what it means for God to be God. If God is God, there is no higher court of appeal–God is not only just, God is justice. Even if God acts with wrath (and again, I contend that such instances are much less frequent than we are often led to believe), the logic of God’s divine nature leads us to the conclusion that God is just in doing so!