Disarming Scripture: Derek Flood tackles the problem of violence in the Bible

Disarming Scripture: Derek Flood tackles the problem of violence in the Bible December 10, 2014

coverMedDerek Flood’s new book Disarming Scripture has just been released this month, and has already received endorsements and accolades from some pretty big names: Walter Brueggemann, Jim Wallis, Peter Enns, and Steve Chalke to name a few.

Disarming Scripture deals with the problem of violence in Scripture, taking on some pretty huge issues—from commands to commit genocide and infanticide in the Old Testament to passages in the New Testament that have been used to justify slavery, child abuse, and state violence.

Moving beyond typical conservative and liberal approaches, which often end up either defending or whitewashing over violence in the Bible, Disarming Scripture takes a surprising yet compelling approach: Learning to read the Bible like Jesus did.

The following is an excerpt from the book:

Excerpt from chapter 5

Contrary to popular opinion, the Old Testament is not a single book with one unified view of who God is and how life works. In reality it’s a collection of books from multiple authors who articulate a multitude of opposing perspectives. It is therefore not surprising that we find contradictions in the text. This is precisely what one would expect to find when reading a record of a dispute.

Throughout the Psalms, prophets, and Job we find examples of people arguing with God—in each case questioning the legitimacy of suffering and violence attributed to God’s will. However, we find something even more surprising within the multi-vocal Hebrew canon:

Not only do we find examples of humans arguing with God, we also find examples of God arguing with God.

That is, we find within the Old Testament the direct words of God proclaimed by the prophets contradicted by the direct words of God proclaimed by other prophets, again reflecting how central dispute is to the character of the Hebrew Bible.

For example, the law declares that God takes pleasure in destroying people, while the prophets, in contrast, emphatically state that the opposite is the case. In Deuteronomy we read, “Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you” (Deut 28: 63). Yet Ezekiel declares, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked!” (Ezek 33: 11). In one account God takes pleasure in destruction, and in another this is emphatically denied. “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Similarly, we read in the law the declaration that God punishes sons for their father’s sins: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers” (Exod 20: 5; Deut 5: 9). This is stated as a direct quote from God.

We later read how such “inherited” punishment is said to have been carried out as a consequence for King David’s sins. Samuel prophesies to David, “Because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die” (2 Sam 12: 14).

The text goes on to describe a father’s anguish. “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground” (v. 16). But David’s prayers were not heard. Instead, we are told that “the Lord struck the child” (v. 15) with sickness, and he soon died. So in this account King David sins, and God kills his little boy. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers!” Thus saith the Lord.

In contrast to this, the prophet Ezekiel directly contradicts this principle, declaring, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel” (Ezek 18: 3). His prophecy continues, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live … The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (v. 17, 19). “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Here we have a statement placed directly in the mouth of God, confronting and contradicting the previous declaration of the Lord in the law.

Each of these above contradictory statements claim to speak for God in no uncertain terms. In one God is said to kill children for the sins of their parents. In the other God is said to emphatically deny this. Is this an example of God’s character changing? I doubt that anyone would want to argue that. A much more obvious and likely conclusion is that we have here a record of dispute and disagreement between the law and the prophets—each claiming to truly speak for God, each declaring “thus saith the Lord.”

These are not examples of unintended contradictions. Rather, they are intentional contradictions, a record of the dispute found throughout the Hebrew canon, cataloging developing and conflicting views of God. Logically, we cannot accept two mutually contradictory statements. We must make a choice. The multi-vocal nature of the Bible means that the biblical canon— by including these conflicting views— forces us to deliberate, to morally engage with these statements, rather than passively accept them unthinkingly.

Now, it’s important to acknowledge here that the Old Testament was not composed with the intent of being an open debate, as if both sides agreed to respectfully make room for the other to be heard. Instead, the majority voice on the side of unquestioning obedience sought to enforce its view alone through violent threat. There is no intention here of allowing for other voices of dissent to be heard. Obey or else, no questions asked. This is the ethos of the majority narrative of unquestioning obedience.

Yet in the canon of the Hebrew Bible we nevertheless find these minority voices of protest, examples of faithful questioning included alongside the majority view. The fact that the minority voice managed to find a place in the canon alongside the majority voice says something remarkable about the Jewish faith that we as Christians really need to learn from. For it is by listening to these minority voices, speaking from the margins— giving a voice to the victims of religious scapegoating violence— that we can become aware of how our own interpretations and theology, intended for good, can become hurtful. When we can learn to hear these protests from the margins this leads us to reform and compassion.


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