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.

The peaceable elements of the core story

Creation. The story begins with an account of profound peacemaking. God brings order and harmony out of chaos in the creation of life. God authors wholeness and brings about a sense of fittedness for the things that are. And God also gives humanity the power themselves to shape their environment in peaceable ways. There is a profound non-coerciveness in the creation story, a factor that becomes even more apparent should we compare this story with other creation stories in the ancient near east. God is king here, but a king quite different from the dominating and punitive kings (and gods) of ancient Israel’s environment.

Abraham and Sarah’s calling. The story of the Bible’s peoplehood begins with the calling of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12. This calling stands as God’s response to the violence and disruption that begins with Cain’s murder of Abel in Genesis 4 and continues through the creation of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 as a profound expression of human autonomy over against God. Rather than resort again to the punitive destroy-and-start-over dynamic that God’s tries and abandons in Genesis 6–9, here God begins a new strategy. God calls into being a peoplehood that would know God’s peace and witness to that peace in order to bless all the families of the earth.

Brothers reconciled. If the basic problem the Bible speaks to may be called the “brother problem”—the dynamic where humanity ceases to trust in God and in their striving for autonomy resort of violence against others (ala Cain vs. Abel), the response that moves toward healing is where all the families will be blessed. That is a response of blessing, not punishment. As if to illustrate this dynamic, we have a couple of powerful stories in Genesis of brotherly reconciliation. Jacob returns from exile with a careful process of reaching out to his brother Esau that results in their embrace. And Joseph, the survivor par excellence, uses his position of power in Pharaoh’s court to save the lives of his treacherous brothers who had sought his death and finds ways to reconcile with them. Rather than revenge and violent punishment, the brothers embody peace.

Rejecting empire. Generations after Joseph’s death, the Hebrew people in Egypt found themselves in dehumanizing conditions as slaves in the deeply unjust and punitive Egyptian empire. They cry out in their trauma, and “God remembers the promise to Abraham” and purposes to intervene. The story of the exodus is complicated and subtle. There is indeed terrible violence, but the overall process is remarkably free from the kind of massive bloodshed one might expect in such a revolutionary overturning. The violence is mainly God allowing Pharaoh’s community to reap the consequences of its own violence—not God actively punishing the Hebrews’ oppressors. The main message here is one of liberation whereas God’s people leave slavery and the ways of slavery (including the empire’s punitive oppression) behind.

Torah. As the Hebrews move from Egypt toward their destination in Canaan where they can establish their peoplehood on the Land, they receive from God a blueprint for their common life, called Torah. Torah may accurately be read as an anti-empire manifesto, a guide to living life without domination. Certainly Torah contains warnings and provides for punitive responses to violations of commands. However, at its core, Torah seeks to provide for the well being of all in the community—and in doing so it singles out the vulnerable as deserving special care. Torah is not mainly about a rigid set of rules joined by punishments for violators of those rules. Rather, Torah is a vision for wholeness for all in the community and has as its driving concern the possibility of integration and reconciliation. To the extent there are provisions for discipline, they mainly serve the goal of integration and reconciliation. The purpose, in light of the entire Bible, is to empower the community to know God’s peace in order to be God’s agent bringing peace to all the families of the earth.

The failure of geographical nationhood. The main occasion for approved-of inter-human violence in the story is the “conquest” of the land of Canaan and the establishment and sustenance of Israel as a geographically bounded nation. This aspect of the story deserves extensive treatment in relation to how we understand its violence. All I can say here, though, is to point out that this pathway proved to be a dead end for the embodiment of the promise. The main lesson to learn from Israel’s geographical nationhood is something along the lines of “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The contribution this failure makes to the story is decisively to de-link the promise from geographical nationhood. The God of Israel proves not to be a God linked with specific nation-states, hence (among other things) not to be a God linked with the punitive violence of these nation-states (wars, death penalties, et al). As the kingdoms of Israel and Judah turn from Torah, they reap consequences that prophets attribute to God’s vengeance—in punitive ways. However, we need to note that all the actual events that brought Israel and Judah down were actions by human agents (e.g., Assyria and Babylon, hardly acting in service to God). Attributing these actions to God was a rhetorical act by the prophets to underscore Israel and Judah’s departure from Torah, not a statement about God’s direct action.

The prophetic vision. Amidst their critique and warning, the great Hebrew prophets reiterated the vision of Torah for shalom and blessing of all creation. The overall thrust of their message was that God seeks healing—and promises healing and restoration out of God’s mercy (not punishment as an end in itself or as retribution required to balance the cosmic scale of justice). The big problems were trusting in other gods (punitive gods such as Baal), treating the vulnerable unjustly, and acting violently. The answer, according most explicitly to Amos, is justice—which is seen as the alternative to punitive judgment not an expression of it. All God wants is trust, not “sacrifice” or other kinds of appeasement. God is not fundamentally a punisher, but rather is merciful and brings healing for those who trust in that mercy.

Blessing through diaspora. The amazing message of prophets such as Jeremiah, Isaiah of the exile, and Ezekiel, was that the destruction of the Hebrew kingdom and the temple did not signal the end of the promise or the end of God’s people and their vocation to bless all the families of the earth. Jeremiah 29 articulates a vision (that was in many ways fulfilled) for the embodiment of the promise in communities scattered around the world that would seek peace locally without themselves wielding the levers of power in their country. The core for these communities would be Torah, the blueprint for faithful living contra empire—a blueprint that ultimately works for minority communities without political power. The God that enlivens this vision is not a dominating, controlling, punitive God but a God of the powerless.

Reiterated in Jesus’s message. Jesus made the point over and over that he understood his ministry to be in full continuity with the Old Testament, that he understood the God he called Abba to be the same as Israel’s God, and that his message of love of neighbor summarized the message of the law and prophets. Jesus’s life and teaching, thus, may provide our strongest evidence that the God of the Old Testament is not violent, vengeful, and punishing. He stated it in a nutshell: “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.” To the extent that Jesus embrace the Old Testament story, to that extent we can be confident in saying that that story does not make sense if its God is fundamentally violently punishing.

[The first of a series of posts on why it’s best to see God as pacifist.]


4 thoughts on “How the Old Testament story refutes the God-as-punisher assumption

  1. Hi Ted,
    In my view:
    1. The word “punishment” incorporates both ‘PUNITIVE REVENGE’ whose intent is to make the punisher feel better for every ounce of suffering caused the other and ‘LOVING DISCIPLINE’ whose intent is to constructive teach the other something for their benefit. It is important to distinguish these two. Scripture teaches that God ‘punishes’ i.e. He disciplines us. Noah’s Flood, judgement on Israel, judgement on the Ruler of this world at Calvary, future coming judgement are all disciplinary.
    2. We need to see the BENEFIT of suffering and discipline as being fully realised only in the next life. We must not see death as the ultimate in God’s revenge – it isn’t! Rather death is a merciful release as we graduate to the next life! Yes, the bereaved have a terrible time of it; but for the dead DEATH IS “GAIN” as Paul states so plainly.
    3. You cannot have a pacifist God if you have Jesus paying a just PENALTY for our sins. For the first 1000 years the Churches position was only that Jesus was paying an (unfortunate) RANSOM. The conception of “justice” as synonomous with “punishment of the guilty” is completely a conception of (fallen) human criminal justice, which is nothing more or less than state-moderated revenge. God allowed a “life for a life” after the flood because it limited humanity’s bloodthirsty revenge, which revenge was the reason for the flood – Gen 6:11-13. God’s way of dealing with a murderer is seen in His discipline of Cain. God’s justice is like social justice and restorative justice. It is a righteous action which makes things fair and restores relationship. Repentence, trust and personal transformation are necessary for God’s justice – and through the Gospel (and through His loving discipline) God works these things in us. Retribution is never a part of God’s actions.


  2. Ted, I’m wondering if your Biblical reading wouldn’t be helped by reading through the lens of the differentiation between God’s primary and secondary will? That is, God has a primary will that is a pure outflow of his nature. But, because of human sin, human incapacity, etc., God wills something other than his primary will in order to make the best of a messy human situation, so to speak. A wonderful example of this in Scripture is when God chooses Saul in response to the people’s rejection of God as King. God would rather have had judges, prophets, and elders as leaders. The people reject this and desire a King. Then God tells Samuel to anoint Saul. Now, fast forward to the post King David era and we see all this language about God’s election of King David and eternal promises made to king David, etc. Well…obviously these eternal promises about Davidic kingship are not expressive of God’s original will at all, for God’s prior will was judges not Kings. In other words, what God does or commands or wills in Scripture changes to best suit the situation or context, which situation is conditioned by a prior decision on God’s part to abide by the decisions (right or wrong) that Israel itself makes in relationship to God. Now, what this means is that God’s will by the time of Christ is not a little ambiguous. Should Israel violently overthrow the Romans…should Israel totally accomadate to Caesar…or what? By the time of Christ, which is also the very time when the canon of the OT was beginning to take a more closed state, it was really rather an open question Scripturally what God’s will was in their own time and place. BUT…that ambiguity was clarified and set right by Jesus Christ, which setting right we know to be approved by God through his resurrection from the dead. Thus in Jesus Christ, in his teachings and his example, we see the primary and original and direct will of God taught, embodied, and enacted in time and space.

    What does this mean for your reading of Scripture? How might it be helpful?

    Well, instead of saying, as you do, something like, “Scripture is diverse and multivocal it needs to be clarified on some basis,” you can argue that because Christ has enacted God’s primary will for creation from within creation itself, it is indeed Christ who shows us God in way that sheds retrospective light upon what God willed/commanded/did in the Old Testament. Thus it’s not as if God never did those violent things or never commanded violence (which is obviously not true to the plain reading of the Scriptures) but that they were not pure expressions of God’s being because not his primary intent for creation and humanity.

    Any thoughts? Is this helpful? Is this consistent with your readings of Scripture and/or what you’re trying to accomplish here?

  3. Interesting concept that God is not in transition, rather man is and God’s will is a reflection of this arbitrary relationship man has with God. For conscince sake, the relationship is maintained according to the demands man makes upon God. God is not an unjust judge. Though he would prefer mercy through restorative justice, in order to maintain faith and confidences amongst those of a lower spiritual capacity, God renders unto the widow her desires for punitive justice. The result of a tradition established amongst men, from which God hopes man will repent before the time, is made manifest by the third and fourth generations. The wicked destroy the wicked. Diaspora. Restarting from scratch. When man goes to law with man, he subjects himself to law and few there are who do not reap the whirlwind that has been sown. Even the innocent. Human nature runs its course. God is with mankind so long as there remains flesh upon the earth. God’s focus is upon the Powers because they ultimately destroy mankind.

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