A response to Old Testament violence

Ted Grimsrud—September 17, 2018

The issue of the violence in the Old Testament has troubled and fascinated me for years. How do we reconcile the violent portraits of God with an affirmation that Jesus is our definitive revelation of God and calls us to a pacifist commitment? I have felt pretty resolved for some time that this issue is not a deal breaker for Christian pacifism. But I have yet to sit down and write out a full explanation of how I think we best think about how the OT and pacifism go together. I’m not yet ready to do that, but I think I recently moved a bit closer to doing it.

The two general historic approaches to OT genocide

I recently read and briefly reviewed a new book, Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages by Christian Hofreiter (Oxford University Press, 2018). Hofreiter surveys various ways Christian writers have “made sense of OT genocide” over the past 2,000 years. He suggests they break down into two broad categories.

One we might associate with Origen (arising in the 3rd century CE, a time when church leaders were essentially pacifist) and simplify by describing it as a view that ultimately suggests that the OT text does not accurately describe historical reality. There are two different versions of this approach—the first, echoing Origen’s own views, reads “beneath” the surface level on an allegorical or theological level, suggesting that a surface, more historical reading gives us an unacceptable view of God as a terrible killer and enabler of killers. The second version of the non-historical approach, much more modern, is to divide the OT between revealed portions (such as the stories that show God in ways consistent with the message of Jesus) and non-revealed (and non-historical) portions such as the genocide texts.

The second general approach we associate with Augustine (and arose after the 4thcentury “Constantinian shift” when church leaders affirmed the moral validity of Roman wars) and simplify as a view that suggests God has the prerogative to command (or intervene with) violent actions to serve God’s own purposes. This approach reflects the views of most Christians over most of history since Augustine’s time in their willingness to fight in and support wars.

However, many pacifists have also affirmed a version of this approach with the notion that God indeed has the prerogative to intervene with violence even while God also chooses to command Christians themselves not to use violence. This approach has the advantage of straightforwardness, in being able to accept the truthfulness of the OT stories as historical events.

Holding together (or not) five key propositions

Hofreiter helpfully provides a set of five propositions that gives us a framework for thinking about these issues (p. 9). An interpretation of the OT genocide texts must in some way come to terms with each of these propositions and with the set of five as a whole.

  • God is good.
  • The Bible is true.
  • Genocide is atrocious.
  • According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide.
  • A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity.

There surely have been Christians who would try to hold that all five of these propositions are true, and that it should be possible to explain how that can be the case. However, as Hofreiter tells the story, the Christian thinkers who have carefully engaged these issues tend to equivocate on one or more of the propositions.

Just taking Augustine and Origen, we see several such equivocations. Origen would have strongly affirmed #1, #3, and #5. His understandings of #2 and #4 were a bit complicated. The Bible is indeed true, but in a spiritual or theological sense, not always in a historical sense. The truthfulness of #5 challenges us to think carefully about #4. God is said, when the Bible is read in a literal sense, to have commanded and commended genocide—but that is not the case if we read the Bible in the best way (according to Origen), which is to say that when the Bible seems to say God commanded and commended genocide, something else actually is going on that we see only when we read the Bible with the eyes of faith.

For Augustine, we could see some equivocation with regard to #1, #3, and especially #5. Augustine certainly would say “God is good,” but this “goodness” could involve God acting in ways that would not be seen as “good” in normal human behavior. Augustine’s God is beyond human understanding and, it would appear, beyond human concepts of moral goodness. So, genocide may not be atrocious when it is commanded or enacted by God. Augustine does not hesitate to use the violence of the OT as a basis for accepting violence in the present if the violence is “just”. Because the Bible is true, in Augustine’s perspective, it must not be the case that God would never command an atrocity.

A different approach

I find Hofreiter’s five propositions to be a helpful way to think about the issues of violence and the Bible. I even think I would, in a sense, affirm all five—but only after defining them in my own way. I’ve never thought before that I agreed with Origen’s approach to the Bible, but if I had to choose between Augustine and Origen, I would certainly side with the latter. Let me sketch my way of thinking about those propositions and then reflect a little on whether this is an Origenist approach.

(1) God is goodI strongly affirm this proposition and strongly agree that it is a foundational affirmation for biblical faith. However, it does not seem totally obvious what “good” means. There are Christians who would say that “good” in relation to God means whatever God wants it to—and that could be something mysterious and beyond our ability as finite creatures to understand. That is, for some, God might do stuff that violates our sense of what is good but it is nonetheless “good” because it is God who did it.

I’m more attracted to the view that “good” is a pretty stable concept and that there are things that could be attributed to God that are not good (as we see in some of the other propositions). I would link “good” closely to “loving.” So, I would rather say “God is loving” than simply “God is good.” And I would add that I understand “loving” in terms of the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. So, Jesus shows us what is good and what God is like.

I would also say that any notion that God is not always loving and acts in ways that contradict love are false understandings. The point, thus, would not be that God could be good in ways that seem to us to be evil because God is above our understanding. It would instead be that thinking that God could act in ways that seem to us to be evil is a false humanidea about God. So, in some sense, our understanding of “good” provides us with a criterion for discerning whether our notion of what God is like is valid or not.

(2) The Bible is true. I tend to agree with this proposition. But what’s a bit complicated about it is what we mean by “true” in relation to the Bible. I want to say that the Bible is “true” in the context of the type of literature it is. It is no more or no less historically accurate than other ancient writings. It is an important artifact offering stories that ancient people told and retold and fashioned into sacred writings that carried weight in the communities that used them. The Bible does not seem to have any special qualities that show that it somehow transcends its own time and place. To say, as one New Testament writer wrote, that the Bible is “inspired” is not to say that it is more accurate historically or less likely to contain mistaken information than other writings. Rather, it is to say, as the author of 2 Timothy 3:16 wrote, that it is useful for instruction and guidance.

It is as being useful for instruction that the Bible should be affirmed as “true.” Christians affirm that the Bible is indeed extraordinarily useful for instruction (i.e., “true”)—about how to live, about what God is like, and about things that are wrong and need to be opposed in life. We approach the OT’s violent portraits of God in the spirit of discerning how they are useful.

The Bible gives us clear understandings of what is “useful” or “true” or “morally faithful” that we may use as we discern the meaning and application of its stories and commands. Most centrally, of course, we get guidance from the life and teaching of Jesus. As Jesus himself insists that his message follows from the law and prophets, we ourselves may find core guidance from the OT. I think the best way to think of the way the Bible is truthful is to think of it as telling a big story with a plot that culminates in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. With many subplots and tangents along the way, the Bible nonetheless may be read as coherent and truthful (even if some of the pieces are best seen as less than truthful).

(3) Genocide is atrocious. This proposition seems self-evident when it stands alone. Of course, genocide is atrocious. But it becomes a bit more complicated when linked with the Bible’s violent stories. We could say that what happens in the stories is not actually that bad when we read them carefully. Or we could say that it’s not truly a “genocide” or maybe it’s not really “atrocious” when God commands or commends it or enacts it.

I prefer, though, to say that whenever some people (or a divine being) massacres large groups of other people that that is atrocious. This is a kind of behavior that is objectively genocidal and objectively atrocious—or, to use other language, evil, wrong, sinful, morally corrupt. And it does not matter who does it or what the rationale is.

(4) According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide. This proposition also seems self-evident. There are some interpreters who try to downplay the starkness of the stories, especially in Joshua. However, I think such attempts miss the point of the stories. The Bible intends to present the stories in a stark manner—the God of the story does clearly command and commend the kind of comprehensive slaughter of people that we in the modern world label as genocide.

Our interpretive challenges involve deciding how these stories should be understood historically and discerning why they were told. I believe that if we think of the Bible’s truthfulness in the way I described above (i.e., it’s ability to offer us guidance on how to live) and recognize that it is ancient literature that had the same relationship to history as other ancient literature, we will recognize that these stories should be read as legends and not literal history. When they portray God as commanding and commending genocide, we should not assume that they tell us about what actually happened.

So, our big issue is whywere these stories that portray God in such a problematic way told. We are limited in our ability to answer this question. I believe that one reason why they were retold in the form they were was actually to witness against the idea of God’s people possessing a territorial “homeland” as a means of furthering God’s work in the world. The story of the Conquest is the first step of a story that ultimately shows how inherently violent the territorial arrangement of peoplehood was (and is).

The stories told in Joshua were part of the setting up of Israel as a territorial nation. As the story continues, this territoriality becomes a terrible problem. God and the prophets end up rejecting territoriality as the basis for peoplehood. We learn of this rejection when the corruption of the Judean state ends in destruction—and it is confirmed in Jesus’s non-territorial embodiment of God’s kingdom.

So, we may say, the “God” of the story commanded and commended genocide for reasons that we are not able precisely to determine. But, due to our convictions about God’s goodness (and our convictions about the nature of the Bible), we have no problem with saying that that “God” is not the true God. We may still affirm the violent portraits as truthful in the sense that they help us better understand the peaceable dynamics of the overall biblical story that conclude in the NT with a strong affirmation of the non-territorial kingdom of God as the channel for God’s healing work in history.

(5) A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or commend an atrocity. Again, we have a proposition that seems self-evident on the surface. And I do strongly agree with it—given the definition I gave to the proposition “God is good” above. If “God is good” means that whatever God does is good because it’s God that does it, then this proposition would not be true.

I believe that our challenge is how to fit this proposition with the propositions about the Bible being true and about God commanding and commending genocide in the Bible. I think we have to accept that the Bible is not always historically accurate but instead contains meaningful stories that find their ultimate meaning in the context of the rest of the stories (that is, in the context of the big story). So, we should separate (1) what we believe about God based on the big story the Bible tells that culminates with Jesus from (2) what some of the specific (non-historically accurate) stories tell us about God. Those specific stories contribute to the big story without being accurate as historical accounts—so they can be said to be truthful and worthy of respectful attention while not being revelatory of the true God in isolation from the rest of the Bible.

Affirming all five propositions (kind of)

As I think of these five propositions as a whole, I think they are set up to be self-contradictory. Of course, we may be expected to say, either the Bible is telling the truth when it portrays God commanding and commending genocide orGod is good, genocide is atrocious, and a good God would never command or commend an atrocity.

As I have suggested, though, I can think of ways in which each of the five propositions are correct. However, I can do that only by careful definitions that almost certainly are different from the more obvious definitions assumed by the formulating of the five propositions. Probably the most significant divergence is in defining how the Bible is “true.” In saying the Bible is true mainly in the broad sense of its big story, I am not troubled by the proposition that “according to the Bible God commanded and commended genocide.” The Bible can be true as a whole and still have specific stories that are not historically accurate and whose truthfulness lies only in how they contribute to the big story.

So, I would say, we may affirm all five propositions, but not as a unified, harmonious whole. They are helpful together as an exercise in clarifying our definitions—and, I think, especially is helping us to reject a literalistic sense of what it means to say “the Bible is true.”

Is my approach “Origenist”? Yes, in that of the two general approaches that Hofreiter discusses in Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide, I do—like Origen—take an approach that accepts that the Old Testament violent portraits of God are not historically accurate. I reject the approach Hofreiter links with Augustine that affirms that God has the prerogative to command violence when that suits God’s purposes.

However, I differ with Origen in where I see the truths in the Old Testament. I do not look for deep allegorical, spiritual, or theological truth that in some sense lies behind the text (I think Greg Boyd in his books The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and Cross Vision is much closer to Origen than I am). Rather, I seek to read the text in a straightforward way and find truth there that is accessible to ordinary readers.

I think the Bible should be read in the same way we read other ancient literature—we take into account the historical settings; we recognize the role of legends, myths, oral traditions; and we think about the purposes the communities had for using these stories and keeping them alive. I would add that as a Christian, I expect the Bible as a whole to make the most sense when we read it as a big story with its resolution in the story of Jesus.

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4 thoughts on “A response to Old Testament violence

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post Ted. I can see and appreciate the thought framework leading to the reasonable question you pose. Should we accept that the Bible is not always historically accurate?

    What other sources of authority would you or have you considered in arriving at this question? While I have some appreciation for the implications in the question, I would enjoy more foundation than human reasoning. Though, perhaps I’m asking for the impossible, humanness is unavoidable.

  2. I like your overall approach and conclusions, and appreciate your expression of it for us.

    However, I see a consistent omission of the New Testament teachings about divine repayment of Israel for shedding the blood of the prophets, Christ and Christ’s prophets, as if the genocidal material is limited to the Old Testament times and texts.

    Patently, Christ affirms that God’s wrath is poured out against unfaithful last days Israel in the Zealot and Roman destruction of the Great City, in his generation, as the righteous and just repayment, and the collective punishment of Jerusalem. He said ‘theses are the days of vengeance in fulfillment of all that has been written’. He explicitly acknowledged and warned that innocent pregnant women and infants would suffer and perish, and that women would mourn their children’s horrible deaths. He said that his own presence and vindication would be seen in that bloodbath, and that it would constitute him repaying every man according to his works.

    Paul said that it was a righteous thing for God to repay with tribulation those Jews who were then persecuting the Thessalonian believers, and that they would receive relief from that persecution at that time (i.e. in the First Century when the Jews were repaid), ‘when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.’ The repayment and vengeance language is very specific and explicit, this was the consequence of Israel filling up the measure of her sins in persecuting the Old Testament prophets, Christ, and his Apostles (see 1 Thes. 2:14-16), just as Christ himself had said in Mat. 23:29-39. And John said the same thing in Revelation 18:6.

    I fear even raising this issue again will just have my comment deleted. What you are deleting is not just an annoying commenter, you are deleting a significant doctrinal and teaching point of the Christ and the New Testament writers.

    Why not actually address the issue rather than censor the comments and dodge the issue? I don’t mean to be annoying or troublesome, Ted, but I would like to have you actually consider the material and acknowledge its existence and tell us how you think it should be incorporated into your ethics, theology and interpretative approach.

  3. I think a couple of points are important in considering this (and some other things as well).

    A Christian must consider the whole scripture in the light of Jesus Christ – his life and teachings. This is a fundamental Franciscan understanding, and I believe that understanding to be correct. Jesus Christ, not the written word, is the Word of God, as John clearly lays out. We must use Jesus’ own hermeneutic in looking at scripture:

    And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” — Matthew 22:35-40

    Therefore anything in the Law and the Prophets which appears to contradict these commandments must be reinterpreted to be consistent with them, or be viewed as a human understanding about God that is not fully developed and fully true.

    False understandings of “the Bible is true” cause great problems. It seems legitimate to me to view the scripture in a progressive sense showing development of a more complete understanding of God and divine ways. This is supported by Jesus’ “you have heard it said” statements. The written word was set down by human beings. No human being is inerrant, and the notion of “inerrancy” of scripture is a pernicious doctrine causing many problems. We should also note different strands in the Hebrew scriptures clearly expressing very different understandings of God. The prophets frequently contest understandings rooted in the priestly tradition. And Jesus seems clearly to be in the prophetic tradition.

    Should Christian understanding be fundamentally based around the person of Jesus Christ or in the written word of scripture? To me, the answer is obvious.

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