Does the Old Testament teach us about a God of violence or a God of peace? Apart from the “just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it is condoned” approach, a proper method for answering a question like this is to probe the texts and find the patterns and the contexts and see what is happening in that text in that day. So David Lamb, in his excellent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, begins by examining a seemingly clear case of God behaving badly: Elisha’s praying for bears to destroy some boys (2 Kings 2:23-25, after the jump).
It is too easy to read this text quickly, see the horror and pounce on YHWH and Elisha and Judaism and Christianity. And many prefer that method, but there are factors here that deserve some consideration: first, the word “boys” is not gradeschoolers but probably teenagers, and they appear to be a gang or pack of boys up to no good in the wilderness. Second, though not our world, an insult of someone as worthy and noble as a prophet was serious — both violent words and an assault on the social order. This is not a harmless set of words by a group of innocent boys out playing a prank. [That's the superficial reading.] Third, Elisha a peace-seeking and healing prophet. Finally, the text does not say they were killed but “mauled” — short of death. It is severe, no doubt, but David Lamb says it is more an incident of God’s protection of a noble prophet.
Recently I’ve been pondering violence and God some, and I wonder if violence isn’t the way of the world and that God is depicted as entering into the violent ways of humans in order to redeem us from the ways of violence. Anyway, how do you deal with these texts of violence? Ignore, suppress, minimize, or ponder?
What then of the Canaanites being drive from the Land? David sees this as forced migration, it was not as severe as many text suggest in their hyperbolic forms, and the primary form of “violence” — if that is what you want for a term — is “driving out” and not “death.” David responds briefly to Eric Seibert’s (at times Marcion-like) suggestion that the God of the Old Testament, when he doesn’t conform to Jesus, needs to be rejected, but David prefers a method that seeks to get to the bottom of the text in another way.
The 185,000 bodies of Assyrians in 2 Kings 19:35? Tough one. People die in wars; Assyria was a notoriously brutal nation; the Assyrians mocked YHWH. Lamb: “… justifed in this context of war against a brutal empire to defend [YHWH's] honor” (104).
David also suggests that the justice system of Israel, in that context, needed to be swift, simple and straightforward. The lex talionis was a way of curbing the principle of escalating violence.
But what is best in this chp, and one that can’t be explained at length here, is how committed YHWH and Jesus are to peace. Yes, sometimes a sword, but over and over the sword serves peace. And the second text below is from 2 Kings 6:14-23, where you see the peaceful orientation of Elisha.
23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. 25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria….
14 Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city.
15 When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.
16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
17 And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
18 As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, “Strike this army with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked.
19 Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to Samaria.
20 After they entered the city, Elisha said, “LORD, open the eyes of these men so they can see.” Then the LORD opened their eyes and they looked, and there they were, inside Samaria.
21 When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?”
22 “Do not kill them,” he answered. “Would you kill those you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.” 23 So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.