Over at TGC-Australia is a great article by my Ridley College colleague Andy Judd on Thinking Through Old Testament Violence.
For me, reading the Old Testament through the lens of the cross reveals a God who is anti-violent, rather than non-violent. It is not in his nature to destroy, but to redeem. He is not bloodthirsty like the Canaanite gods, but nor will he sit by passively while evil takes over his world. God does not delight in the death of the wicked, but he is not above getting his hands dirty to win back his world. When he uses force it is as a last resort, a measured response to restrain wickedness. He destroys only ever with tears in his eyes, and with a view to future salvation. Christians do well to remember that most of us, as gentiles, belong on the Canaanite side of the story in Judges. We are living proof of the grand scope and glorious mercy of God’s rescue mission.
How do we work through a book as horrifically violent as Judges? Just as in Michael Rosen’s classic children’s story, I would say: “we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, oh no! we have to go through it!”. I would suggest that as Christians we cannot simply reject the witness of scripture in the Old Testament. Jesus treated the Old Testament as the authoritative word of God, and so must we (Matthew 5:17). It may be necessary to re-interpret the texts in context to understand exactly what is and isn’t being commanded. We affirm that God is right in judging the world. Ultimately we need to re-contextualise the violence in light of the cross of Christ.
Also recommended from me is a fairly new book by William Webb and Gordon Oeste on Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts from IVP. I found this very helpful. According to the blurb:
They address the ethics of reading biblical war texts today. Theirs is a biblical-theological reading with an eye to hermeneutical, ethical, canonical, and ancient cultural contexts. Identifying a spectrum of views on war texts ranging from “no ethical problems” to “utterly repulsive,” the authors pursue a middle path using a hermeneutic of incremental, redemptive-movement ethics. Instead of trying to force traditional Christian answers to fit contemporary questions, they argue, we must properly connect the traditional answers with the biblical storyline questions that were on the minds of Scripture’s original readers. And there are indeed better answers to the ethical problems in the war texts. Woven throughout the Old Testament, a collection of antiwar and subversive war texts suggest that Yahweh’s involvement in Israel’s warfare required some degree of accommodation to people living in a fallen world. Yet, God’s redemptive influence even within the ugliness of ancient warfare shouts loudly about a future hope—a final battle fought with complete and untainted justice by Christ.