And Brief (and let’s hope final, but If I know me probably not) Comment on God’s Violence in the Old Testament

And Brief (and let’s hope final, but If I know me probably not) Comment on God’s Violence in the Old Testament July 30, 2012

I’ve been writing some posts lately, beginning here, about God’s violence in the Old Testament, especially toward the Canaanites. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse (pardon the violent metaphor), and I am certainly not pressing the issue because I am bored and don’t know what to do with myself.

I am taking the time to talk about God’s violence in the Old Testament because it is a window onto a large and perennially central theological topic that can be expressed as follows:

What is the Bible, anyway, and what are we supposed to do with it?

To put it another way,

What do we have a right to expect of the Bible as the Word of God?

Or yet another way,

Does the Bible give us unerring, brute factual information, or are we seeing something more complex and subtle there? 

These strike me as important questions to ask, though in my experience, for many they are rarely raised deliberately. Topics like God’s violence force us the articulate what we mean by “Bible.”

Further, however tempting it might be, these questions cannot be settled in the abstract, a safe distance from how the Bible itself behaves. You gotta deal with texts, because dealing with texts is what raises the issue in the first place.

How God acts in the Old Testament is a rather obvious point of entry to look more closely at what the Bible is. Other points of entry are things like (1) the similarities between the Old Testament and the literature of other ancient peoples, (2) the diverse voices found in the Old Testament, and (3) the unexpected ways in which the New Testament authors transpose the Old in view of the Christ—-all three which are topics I address in Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

But, back to my point: God’s violence is a laboratory (to switch metaphors) for working out what it means to call the Bible the Word of God.

O.K., so, with respect to God’s violence in the Old Testament, here is my point for today: it’s a hard topic to avoid.

God as a warrior who kills a lot, or threatens to kill if disobeyed, is a dominant theme of the Old Testament, not tucked away in a few verses of Deuteronomy and Joshua.

I’ve been plowing through through the prophets in English over the past few weeks. (Commercial break: I’ve been using The Jewish Study Bible so I can read with fresh eyes. Plus the introductory essays and study notes are a refreshing change from some of the more apologetic tendencies that beset conservative Protestant study Bibles.)

You catch a lot by reading through large doses of Scripture at a time. Throughout the prophets, mixed in with a words of hope and deliverance for Israel, you can’t help but notice that God is extremely angry.

He is angry with the nations largely because they are enemies of Israel and they worship false gods. God is also angry now and then because their rulers are arrogant and unjust, but definitely God is mad more often than not because of how they treat his people and lure them into worshiping false gods.

Quite often God seems just as angry with the Israelites, mainly for two reasons: (1) forsaking the covenant, which typically can be reduced to worshipping foreign gods and so not trusting the true God, and/or (2) unjust treatment of the poor and oppressed on the part of the political and religious leaders.

So, God’s anger “burns” against the nations and Israel. We could pause here and parse this out a bit more, but let’s keep moving. The issue I am interested in is not that God is angry, but that moves quickly to violence to deal with it.

His solution regarding the nations is either to kill a lot of them through warfare or divine pestilence, thereby either beating them into submission under Yahweh’s rule via Israel’s king or wiping them off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again.

You certainly see an occasional word from a prophet that holds out some hope for a nation here or there, but without question, the dominant theme is that God will avenge himself and his honor will be upheld, and the world will know it by how he blows away the [insert nation here].

God seems like a warlord, whose preferred method of righting wrongs and protecting his honor is through death and destruction of his enemies (who are clearly not limited to the Canaanites).

As for Israel, there is no question that the prophets speak freely of God restoring the fortunes of Israel one day–namely by bringing them back to the Promised Land after exile in Babylon. But, all that follows God teaching them a lesson by having the Assyrians and Babylonians invade the land, destroy a lot of things, kill a lot of Israelites, and then cart the upper-crust away to captivity in a foreign land.

The Assyrians and Babylonians, dominant superpowers, killing war machines, are said to be God’s instruments of vengeance upon his own people. Falling by the sword, famine, and pestilence–a common divine trifecta in the Old Testament–is how God will make his point to Israel, that he is a “jealous God” (Second Commandment) and will tolerate no rival. Harsh physical punishment is how gets the message across.

This is nothing earth-shattering in terms of information, but I wonder how easily we pass over these scenes without stopping to think about the kind of God that is portrayed there. Violence toward human beings, which began in the flood story and extends through Israel’s story and the prophets, is not an occasional event but a character trait, a preferred means of conflict resolution.

The question we’ve been asking in these posts is this:

Do these episodes of violence tell us what God is like or is the picture of God in the Old Testament mediated for us through ancient tribal culture the Israelites and their neighbors participated in?

A follow-up question is how the gospel affects, one way or the other, how we answer this question.

This is a true theological problem that is hard to avoid if you are reading the Old Testament and want to take it seriously.


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