Ted Grimsrud—October 3, 2011
It seems to come up all the time in discussions about pacifism. What about all the violence in the Old Testament? I’m not sure why the OT is considered to be a problem especially for pacifists—the violence there should be a problem for any moral person, I think.
I remember my Old Testament teacher, Millard Lind (of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary), speaking at the University of Oregon and making the point that the violence in the Old Testament creates problems for all Christians. We all say that the OT is revelatory, and it portrays God ordering or performing some horrendous and indiscriminate acts of violence. The OT is not about “just wars” in the sense that the western moral tradition has used that term. It positively portrays acts of indiscriminate murder, acts that are condemned by just about all moral systems.
I had a student a number of years ago who signed up for one of my Bible classes with the intent of refuting the pacifism I taught. To get ready for the class he began to read through the OT, making note of all the materials that went against pacifism. He did not get far into this project before he faced a major crisis in his faith. He realized it was actually too easy to prove his point; his own non-pacifist moral framework was also under assault by the Bible’s stories. Ultimately, he resolved the problem by giving up on the Bible and Christian faith.
So, it could be (1) that those who evoke the OT as evidence against pacifism are being disingenuous in acting as if the OT does not equally provide evidence against the just war theory or any other view that places moral limits on lethal violence used against civilian populations. Thus, it could also be (2) that non-pacifist Christians should be just as concerned about this dilemma as pacifist Christians. That they don’t seem to be is itself an indictment against the lack of moral rigor in the easy Christian acceptance of warfare.
Rethinking the Bible’s historical factuality
Perhaps the first step, one I simply don’t see any way around, is to recognize that the Old Testament is not a collection of historically accurate facts. It’s ancient literature, written by human beings for human purposes. It’s about evoking and sustaining faith, not about providing factual historical reconstruction.
Now, I don’t see any reason why taking this step should be problematic. The Bible never presents itself as anything but ancient, faith-forming writings set in particular historical contexts serving particular historical interests (contexts and interests different than modern, history = facts sensibilities). The Bible does not develop a very detailed notion of the Bible as revelation, but even if it did, I don’t think it would present God’s involvement in the writing and ordering of the materials as overriding human fallibility. That the Bible is a human book need not mean that it is not also divinely inspired. It’s just that if we believe that the Bible is divinely inspired (as I do), we should let the actuality of the Bible itself define the consequences of the inspiration—not our pre-existing definitions of “inspiration” that actually leave out or override the text’s humanity.
A helpful recent book that addresses the “problem of the Old Testament,” Eric Siebert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior, ultimately makes the argument that we must recognize that, say, the stories of Joshua are not actual historical records of actual events. They are stories, told long after the events they supposedly recount, with the purpose of sustaining faith. This is a notable concession, since Siebert comes from a pretty conservative, evangelical theological perspective. As I worked through his book, I kept thinking this is pretty good, but ultimately he is going to have to take the bitter medicine and admit that Joshua, et al, is not historical. Finally, Siebert does just that. And, hence, I believe, his book moved from a generally helpful but not particularly important treatment of this challenging issue to an essential contribution that genuinely helps us move toward a resolution.
However, Siebert only takes the first (essential) step. My way of resolving the problem of violence in the Old Testament goes in a bit of a different direction than Siebert does after that first step. If we recognize that the OT is not to be read as historically accurate in its portrayal of God-ordained, immoral violence, the next step should be to recognize that the truthfulness and meaningfulness of the Bible is found most profoundly in its overall message or story.
While appreciative of the historical-critical task that mainstream biblical scholars devote themselves to, I find it of only moderate assistance in negotiating the issues of how the Bible speaks morally to our present day. More important than historical-critical work is holistically reading the entire collection of writings; that is, taking a more literary and theological approach.
The plot of the Bible and the issue of warfare
I don’t have time right now to develop with appropriate thoroughness the way reading the Bible as a whole as a story helps us resolve the warfare problem. So I will simply sketch, very briefly, my latest thinking on how to present the argument against warfare as a biblically acceptable human activity.
Let’s pick a place fairly early in the story. Say, let’s start with David’s ascendency to kingship in Israel. With this starting point, let’s think of two different elements of the story at this point—(1) ways in which political developments in Israel parallel those of “the nations” and (2) ways in which political developments in Israel go counter to the ways of “the nations.” Then let’s follow the biblical story to the end of the New Testament comparing the evolution of these two elements.
So, David has become king following a pretty careful path. Israel, under threat both by is Philistine neighbors and by internal disarray, seems to be coming to a point of stability and security. David, with cause, is on his way to becoming Israel’s model king, the embodiment of the ideal expressed in Deuteronomy 17.
So, the first element, ways in which Israel’s politics tend to reflect “the nations’ ” include certainly the establishing of itself as a state, with geographical boundaries, a human king who exercises centralized power, an emerging military class and economic elite, the basic building blocks of a political structure that will require a standing army and rely upon military and police violence for its security and the general advancing of the nation’s interests.
However, the events leading up to David’s early kingship and the ideals still being expressed among the Israelites of his time, also reflect the presence in the story of this second element, ways in which Israel’s politics reflect an approach contrary to the nations’. Israel’s emergence as an independent nation relied on God’s direct intervention and not on human warriors and kings and elites. The story of the exodus from Egypt highlighted Moses’ frailty as a leader and presented him as anything but a mighty warrior. The entry into Canaan as told in Joshua also emphasized God as the center of Israel’s politics and made a point of denying the reliance on greater military firepower than the nations that were defeated. The heart of the society, Torah, presents itself as grounded in God’s will to care for vulnerable people and establish a society based on justice for all in the community as opposed to being based on the aggrandizement of power and wealth on the part of the human elite. When Israel takes decisive steps toward human kingship, the charismatic leader who spoke on God’s behalf, Samuel, expresses great misgivings about the movement to be “like the nations.”
But David does come into power and seems to be adhering to many of the elements of the story that pointed away from the ways of the nations. Then he gives in to his lust, seduces beautiful Bathsheba, has her husband killed, and moves toward the nations-ways.
Biblical politics: Against the nations for the nations
As we follow the story, reading it from the perspective of the prophets and leaders that the biblical account itself favors, we see something quite striking in relation to these two elements. If, we could say, the two elements were roughly of equal weight in David’s early kingship (that is, God’s people were existing in a political arrangement that seemed to give equal weight to the like-the-nations and over-against-the-nations elements), this weighing changes completely over the course of the story. In the end, the like-the-nations element is rejected pretty thoroughly, and the over-against-the-nations element is embraced as the biblical political vision.
Of course, and this is crucial, the point the story seems to make is that this over-against-the-nations emphasis serves the call from the very beginning for Abraham’s descendents to “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12) and the hope from the very end that “the nations” will be healed (Revelation 21–22). The vision critiques and creates alternatives to the nations’ way of being political in order to transform the nations themselves. This is not a sectarian vision.
Going back to David, the years of his early kingship seem to be a time when the vision of Deuteronomy 17 of a king living in subordination to Torah and in service to the well-being of the wider community was actually a possibility. However, from the time of David’s starting his process of “taking” (see the warning about kings in 1 Samuel 8 ) Bathsheba, the practices of Israel’s kings and the basic dynamics in first the unified kingdom and then the divided northern and southern kingdoms leads inextricably to the injustices captured so vividly in Amos and the violence captured so vividly in Hosea.
The failure of the like-the-nations track finds poignant expression late in the history of the southern kingdom of Judea. Finally a king who matches David’s faithfulness to the ideal arises, the story tells us. Josiah came into power as a young man and in his all too brief career works wonders in reforming the kingdom. The books of the law are rediscovered, and Josiah tries to implement their teachings. That it was too late to reform the kingdom arrangement becomes clear, though, when Josiah goes out on an ill-advised military expedition and is killed, ironically, by Egypt’s Pharaoh. Almost immediately, Josiah’s reforms bite the dust. We are told that the sins of his grandfather Manasseh were simply too great (2 Kings 22). That is, the institution had evolved to the point where it simply could no longer serve as a channel to the promise.
Nonetheless, Josiah achieved much. By bringing Torah back to the forefront, he provided the community with the crucial resource needed for their sustenance as a carrier of the promise apart from the nations-like path of a geographical kingdom whose interests required the use of the sword. A bit later, the prophet Jeremiah made the experience of exile and diaspora into a virtue with his call to “seek the peace of the city where you find yourselves” (Jer 29).
The final stage of this evolving political stance, the final turn in embracing the counter-nations element over the like-the-nations element as definitive of biblical politics becomes clear in the New Testament. Jesus indeed embraced his calling to be a “king” (messiah, Christ) and to proclaim a message of a vital, Promise-furthering community (that he comfortably spoke of with “Kingdom of God” language). But this community, political to the core, was to stand unequivocally with the counter-nations element over against the nations-like element. His mission statement makes this clear: “The rulers of the nations are tyrants over their people. It must not be like this for you. The greatest among you must be servant of all” (Mark 10).
The resolution to the problem?
In light of this big picture account, the wars and other horrific violence of the Old Testament may be seen not as undermining pacifism but as a key part of the long story that ultimately repudiates such violence and affirms pacifism. We don’t get the final clarity on biblical politics as the politics of compassion that the big story ends up with without the early ambiguities that needed time to resolve. Much of the violence is portrayed as occurring in service to the Promise through a nation-state approach to peoplehood. This approach was a failure, repudiated by the prophets and by Jesus—not because it was too political or too this-worldly, but because it was self-destructive of the core vision of Torah and the Promise to Abraham.
The failure of the like-the-nations approach clears the ground for a clear affirmation of a counter-cultural politics of shalom, of restorative justice, of caring for the vulnerable ones, of compassion and welcome, that are clearly present from the beginning in exodus story and revelation in Torah. The process of clarifying the normativity of the counter-to-the-nations element requires a long time of sifting and trial by error. In the end, though, the resolution is clear. The OT violence then is part of coming to this resolution, not a repudiation of it.