How the Old Testament story refutes the God-as-punisher assumption

Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2014

I keep thinking of new angles for reflecting on the perennial question of how, as a Christian pacifist, to think about the portrayal of God in the Old Testament. What I will do in this post is think about how the main story line of the Old Testament does not work if we assume that the God portrayed there is fundamentally violently punitive.

Obviously, the Old Testament is a widely diverse collection of writings from many different times and places that reflects many different points of view. And equally obviously, some of these diverse writings tell us that God engages directly in violently punitive acts and directly commands some human beings violently to punish other human beings (both in the sense of general laws and in the sense of direct incidents). Modern critical biblical scholarship has strongly emphasized this diversity.

However, the writers of the Old Testament and the communities that gathered and utilize the writings have not approached this collection as mainly an inchoate accumulation of disparate texts. To the contrary, often in the Old Testament (as well in the New Testament), the writers themselves offer summaries of what they portray as the core story to which the collection as a whole witnesses. And the communities that have used these writings until quite recently have tended to read the Old Testament as containing a coherent story, one that offers clear guidance for those who see themselves as in continuity with the communities that created this collection.

The precise content of this “core story” of course has been and continues to be debated. What I offer is only one way to construe the story. I won’t make the case here that it’s the best one, though I do think it reflects the general orientation of the various summaries of the story line in the Bible itself. My main point is to suggest that looking at the story line is a better way to approach the God-as-violent-punisher theme than simply reporting and struggling with various specific incidents and commands.

My approach is to say that the most meaningful (or, one could say, the most authoritative) element of the biblical writings is the big story—the specifics should be understood in light of the whole. At some point soon I hope to spend more time reflecting on how this approach works in helping us use those texts that portray God as a violent punisher. For now, though, I simply plan to explain why I think the story line does not work if the God of the story actually is a violent punisher. Continue reading “How the Old Testament story refutes the God-as-punisher assumption”