Thoughts on Old Testament Violence

Death of Abel (engraving by Gustave Doré from ...
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Cain kills Abel and the violence begins. There is, of course, more than violence in the Old Testament. Never the less, there’s no two ways about it, there’s a lot of violence in the Old Testament.  You may have heard people contrast the violent, vengeful god of the Old Testament with the loving God of the New Testament. The contrast is over simplified but the Old Testament is violent enough for one to understand that perception and the questions such violence raises.

I don’t have a complete answer to the ‘problem’ of violence in the Old Testament. I do have a response to offer. It is a partial response, but perhaps together we can arrive at a more complete response.

Understanding the Bible as “story” helps to provide a framework for reading and interpreting the Bible. When I use the word “story” I don’t mean “fiction” or even “non fiction”. The Biblical story is true in a way that is deeper and more real and more complex than the simple categories of “fiction” or “non fiction”. Story is a helpful concept for us. A story has a beginning, middle and end. A story is about something. The Bible is God’s revelation of God’s self to us. The written Word that points us to the living Word.  Through the Biblical story we learn the story of God at work in the world, at work in history, at work in and through human beings.  It is also the story of our unfolding understanding of who God is. God is telling us who God is by how God interacts in the world and human history and we  (and this includes the writers of the Bible) are trying to understand what we have seen, heard and experienced.

How does this help us make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?  Honestly? It makes things more difficult. We can’t simply say something along the lines of, “God told Joshua to wage war, so God approves of, at least some, wars.”  Understanding the Old Testament as part of a larger story of God at work in the world raises questions about the ways God is at work in the world. Does God work through flawed humans and flawed cultures? If so, does that imply God’s endorsement of the culture and its systems? We also have to ask ourselves how much of the story has been shaped by the limits of the humans who first received the story?

This isn’t a new approach, we’ve done this with other issues. God gives Israel rules concerning slavery. Does that mean God approves of slavery? Not too many of us are willing to make that claim. Many of us would be more comfortable thinking that God was working within flawed human institutions, making them more humane with the ultimate goal of redeeming them. In the case of slavery, its redemption  means it’s abolition.

Polygamy is another example. Polygamy is obviously present in the Old Testament. But even those, perhaps especially those,  who look to the Scripture for a “Biblical model of marriage” don’t suggest that polygamy is God’s ideal. We recognize that the cultural and societal norms of the time influenced the actions of ancient people. And the practices of ancient people are not necessarily normative for us.

I think the same reasoning can help us as we confront the violence in the Old Testament. Scholars tell us that over the long course of history, humankind has become less violent. Are we moving toward God’s ideal? And can we acknowledge our history of violence without using it as a warrant for violence in our times?

It also helps to take the long view. When we look at the violence in the Old Testament, what we see is that it didn’t work. All the fighting on God’s behalf didn’t establish God’s kingdom on earth. People might have been trying to establish God’s kingdom. They might have believed they were fighting God’s fight on God’s behalf. But when the fighting was over and it was time to rule as God’s agents, it wasn’t God’s rule that happened. Old Testament warriors may have won battles but they didn’t win the war.

When we read the Bible as story, that practice helps us realize that what was culturally normal or appropriate in the Ancient Near East does not have to be made normal or appropriate or palatable for us. We are not called to live Joshua’s way in Joshua’s world. Or David’s way. Or the way of any Old Testament leader. That is not the part of the story we inhabit. We are followers of the risen Christ.  What is to be normal and appropriate for us is not based on Joshua, or Moses, or Abraham, or David, but rather Jesus. Can we learn things, important things about God and humans from reading the Old Testament?  Of course. But our benchmark for behavior, the way we live in the world is Jesus. The world is different since the resurrection.  We are called into a new world, a new way of being.

We may still wrestle with the question of whether the violence in the Old Testament was God’s will at that time. But we can know, because we know Jesus, that it is not God’s will for our time.

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