How should we think about the violence in the Old Testament? [Questioning Faith #19]

Ted Grimsrud—April 7, 2023

I have heard it said that the stories in the Old Testament about God’s involvement in war, punishment, and various other forms of violence have been responsible for more Christians losing their faith than any other single thing. I have no idea whether that is actually true, but I do know from my career as a pastor and teacher that Old Testament violence is a problem for lots and lots of people. Because the Old Testament is so big and diverse and the issues so complex, it is impossible to give a quick, clear, and concise answer to the questions. But because they are so often present and distressing, I think it is important to try to have some kind response in mind. What follows is mine—which is admittedly not likely to change anybody’s mind.

Starting with God’s love

My starting point for all theological questions is my core theological conviction: God is love. It follows from that, for me, that I would affirm that God is nonviolent, as I believe that violence and love are mutually exclusive. And, I happen to believe that the Bible supports these convictions. So, when I turn to the Bible, I am seeking to understand what the Bible’s teachings are that give us the best images of God. What in the Bible leads us to confess God’s love and, thus, nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?

Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out of love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.

Also, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would.

Jesus’s nonviolence?

As a Christian, I believe that the story of Jesus is the central point of the Bible. By that, I mean that we should read it all in light of Jesus’s message—discerning what in the Old Testament sets the foundation for Jesus and what in the rest of the New Testament helps us better to understand and apply what Jesus said and did. So, I see a lot of continuity between the story the Old Testament tells and the account of Jesus. Jesus affirmed the basic truths of Torah and the prophets, and in so doing he helps us read the stories of where those truths came from and how they are to be understood.

A key element of the NT’s portrayal of God as revealed in Jesus is that Jesus’s witness, in his life and teaching, is in full continuity with the witness of the Old Testament (properly interpreted). The OT is not deficient nor in its core story in conflict with Jesus’s message of God’s nonviolence. The revelation of God we see in Jesus is not a new revelation that marginalizes Torah and the prophets. As Jesus himself said, he confirms the law and prophets.

Jesus’s message may be summarized by his central affirmation—that what matters most is to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart. He insists these words summarize the message of Torah and the prophets. When we recognize this connection, we will see that Jesus provides a lens for reading the OT on its own terms. Read in light of Jesus’s core command, the OT is not mainly a source of predictions or foreshadowings of a future messianic figure whose death would move things in a different direction—where the death is the central revelation.

I believe Jesus helps us see that the main message of the OT is the same as his message—the call to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts. As Jesus does, so does the OT place love and compassion at the center both of the human vocation and of the self-revelation of God. As well, Jesus and the OT both teach us that the flip side of the coin that tells us to love is the call to critique and resist domination and oppression. Jesus’s message clarifies and continues the OT message that affirms God’s mercy and rejects domination and violence. Jesus himself does not so much offer a new or distinct message centered on his identity as God Incarnate revealed in his death, but more a message that God’s kingdom is distinctively present in his life and teaching.

The Big Story

Affirming the Bible’s truthfulness and inspiration is important for Christian theology. However, I understand the meaning of that affirmation in light of what the famous prooftext, 2 Timothy 3:16, actually says. This is the verse that affirms that the Bible is “god-breathed” (that is, “inspired”). However, instead of indicating that each individual word in an infallible Bible comes directly from God, 2 Tim 3:16 (and Jesus in his teaching) actually take a practice-centered view of the Bible. The 2 Tim text emphasizes the practical significance of inspiration—that the Bible is confessed as inspired because it is useful for guiding us to live faithfully. It does not give some more formal doctrine of inspiration. Likewise, Jesus emphasizes in his use of the Bible that it is useful for helping people of faith to embody his peaceable message.

To approach the Bible as preeminently a practical text whose main purpose is to guide faithful living is to recognize that we should focus on the content of the Bible as it comes to us (as written by historical human beings in particular and diverse contexts and with human fallibilities) rather than imposing a doctrinal filter between the readers and the texts that leads us to worry more about the Bible’s “infallibility” and historical accuracy than its actual content. The Bible teaches us how to live faithfully through its humanness.

I believe, consistently with 2 Tim and Jesus, that the best way to appropriate the Bible as useful for faithful living is to read it in terms of its overall message when read as a whole—what I call its “Big Story” of “God’s healing strategy.” God is a God of healing and wholeness whose character as such a God is the central theme of the Bible. The Bible’s inspiration works as apparent more on the level of the truthfulness of the Big Story than on the level of each particular text being equally authoritative or truthful nor on the level of the historical facticity or the accuracy of each text. The story as a whole provides life-shaping guidance into key themes such as God’s character, the human predicament, the path we are offered for faithful living, and critiques of the world we live in.

The key move for understanding the Bible, then, is to consider each part of the Bible in light the Big Story. We recognize that sometimes we will encounter tensions in that reading where some specific parts do not seem to be in harmony with the Big Story. Those tensions are important and deserve careful attention. However, they do not lesson the truthfulness of the Big Story when we consider all the pieces together.

The centrality of peace

I will acknowledge that it’s not accurate to say that the Bible obviously has a single Big Story. And, not everyone who agrees there is a Big Story will agree precisely about its content. Identifying that content is a bit of a subjective exercise. Nor should we want to insist on a single interpretation of the Bible’s storyline. Part of what it means to be part of the community that respects the message of the Bible is that we engage in conversations with different views of what that message actually is. We are not given an objectively provable interpretation of the Bible. What we should do is engage the Bible as an exercise in discernment for how it speaks to our lives in our world, expecting that it will offer guidance and encouragement.

At the same time, though, I think that most serious readers of the Bible over the ages do share a general sense of what the Big Story is about—a story of creation, fall, peoplehood, and ultimate healing. My version of the Big Story emphasizes God’s “healing strategy” (see my book, God’s Healing Strategy, 2nd edition). God creates the world out of love; humans exercise their freedom in ways that disrupt their relationships with God, each other, and the natural world; God initiates a long process to bring healing to all those relationships centered on communities of faith that culminates in the ministry of Jesus; and story ends with hope of completed healing in New Jerusalem.

To say that this Big Story is where the inspiration of the Bible finds its most important expression is to say that the reader of the Bible should consider each discrete part of the Bible in light of this Big Story. The Big Story is about God’s commitment to peace, to wholeness, to healing. Along the way it tells of many human acts, beliefs, and commitments that violate peace and lead to brokenness. The ways of healing only ever find partial expression—often characterized by mixed motives on the part of the human players in the story. But there is a direction, a trajectory, a hope that understands the plot in terms of movement toward knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of God’s healing strategy.

The Bible as a whole is a book of peace. The God of the Bible as a whole is a God of peace. The clearest manifestation of God’s will to peace comes in the life, death, and resurrection of the one called “the Prince of Peace.” A reading strategy for the Bible that places the Big Story at the center will not see the presence of violent portraits of God as overturning the message of peace and of God as nonviolent. The discordant bits are to be expected in an ancient human document. They provide context, creative tension, and a counter-narrative that must be integrated with the Big Story. It is altogether possible that at times specific biblical authors intend to present a violent God, a God who approves of human violence. However, the intention that matters more, the intention—we could say—of the Big Story, is to illumine how God is a God of peace. The various pieces do together give a peaceable portrait of God.

When we read the violent portraits, we ask how they serve the Big Story, not how to understand them as autonomous accounts that contradict and invalidate the centrality of the overall message of peace. We privilege the parts that reinforce the message of peace and subordinate the parts that challenge that message—recognizing, though, that the violent parts are necessary parts of the peaceable whole and should not be simply ignored and discarded.

With Jesus as the outcome of the Story (Jesus understood mainly in terms of his life and teaching, not the later doctrinal construct of credal Christianity), we read the OT with special attention to its elements that Jesus makes clear are the center of the Story. We don’t pit Jesus over against the OT, but we look for how Jesus catches up the core aspects of the Big Story, especially the aspects that portray God as merciful, healing, just, and peaceable. Jesus’s message confirms that from the start the Bible presents a vision of peace—which includes a sense of perspective about the non-peaceable elements. These non-peaceable elements are a genuine part of the Story but are subordinate to and interpreted by God’s healing work.

Israel and the land

To illustrate the Big Story-focused reading strategy, I will look at perhaps the most challenging set of texts in the OT, the Conquest story in the book of Joshua. This well-known account of the entry of the Hebrews into Canaan to takeover the Promised Land celebrates extreme violence both by God and by God’s people. Taken as a straightforward account of how Israel gained the land, the Conquest creates many difficulties, not only for pacifists but for any believer who does not want to believe that their God is the author of genocide.

A Big Story reading strategy does not provide a magic resolution for the difficulties. But it does allow for a more peaceable interpretation. A key point is that we should read the Conquest story in the context of the rest of the Big Story, asking how this particular story contributes to the peaceable message of the overall Story. When so read, we may recognize that the takeover of the land actually was the first move in what proved to be a failed strategy for sustaining the community of the Promise. This community was established in Genesis 12 when God called Abraham to found a people that would ultimately bless all the families of the earth. With the takeover of the land, the community entered into an era of what we may call “territoriality.”

The community in their Promised Land territory required boundaries that in turn required violent protection, fostered a sense of possessiveness, and ultimately led to efforts to expand the territory. Before long, the community desired to be like the other nations, and its elders requested and received a human king—who, among other things, gathered weapons of war. The story that follows is largely a story of the failure of this kingdom to embody the main directives of Torah. Prophets rose to confront Israel’s leadership over its injustices. Before long, the prophetic warnings of the ending of the territorial kingdom were fulfilled.

Dramatically, the story tells how shortly before the destruction of the Hebrew kingdom of Judah, servants of King Josiah learned of an old law book. Its rediscovery triggered a reform movement that sought to reinstate observance of Torah. The reforms did not prevent the destruction of the kingdom, but they did provide the key element that allowed the community to sustain its identity—which from then on was to be a people that centered their faith around Torah, not the possession of a territorial kingdom. The people of the promise would be a widely scattered people, not a people in a particular territory with its inevitable violence and injustice.

So, the meaning of the Conquest became not a positive story of the permanent founding of a territorial kingdom that required profound violence at the start and on-going violence to sustain its existence. Rather, the Conquest begins the story of a path that ended as a dead end. The promise remained in effect, but its sustenance became non-territorial, centered around the practice of Torah in communities where the people of faith were often a relatively powerless minority in relation to the wider society. So, the peaceable meaning of the Conquest story is that territorial conquest and a territorial kingdom are not ever again going to be part of God’s healing strategy.

Jesus seems to have embraced this change of focus when he proclaimed as his central message the presence of God’s kingdom as a decidedly non-territorial kingdom. That kingdom would be constituted of scattered communities of faith that did not require violence for their sustenance. A kingdom of peace. Jesus, the new “Joshua,” rejected violent conquest when tempted by Satan at the beginning of his ministry. Instead, he offered a vision echoing the call that Jeremiah made to the people of the promise to seek the peace of the city where they lived (Jer 29:7)—to embody nonviolence. Jesus was not apolitical and only concerned about getting people to heaven. But his politics were the flexible, resilient politics of witness to God’s will for humanity through local communities of faith in nations that they did not govern.

The Bible and peace

What I have sketched above is a reading strategy that starts with the conviction that the Bible as a whole presents God as a loving and healing God whose justice seeks to restore wholeness in human relationships with God, each other, and the natural world. The coherence of this understanding of God and the Bible does not depend upon a perfect harmony where each part of the Bible directly supports the whole. We may accept the presence of counter-images and seek to learn from those “problematic” texts.

However, the plot is clear, and from the very beginning we find testimony to God’s peaceable character and intentions for humanity. The Bible presents the life of faith as being a process of choosing among various options for understanding what’s most important in life—some options contribute to the healing project of God, and some do not. The process of choosing appropriately requires wisdom, collaboration with other people of faith, and the willingness to turn away from paths that lead to brokenness—even when turning is difficult.

The choices also involve discernment into the teachings and stories of the Bible. How might we use the Bible as a resource for peace and not for brokenness? That God’s people have made wrong choices about how to read the Bible is shown within the Big Story itself—and certainly is visible in the past 2,000 years. Simply saying that we believe in the authority of Bible is not enough to assure that we choose the healing path over the path of brokenness. I believe, though, that when we read the Bible in light of the message of Jesus and with confidence that the Bible indeed does guide us toward wholeness when we let it, we will accurately perceive the Bible’s Big Story and be empowered to move toward peace.

Questioning Faith blog series

3 thoughts on “How should we think about the violence in the Old Testament? [Questioning Faith #19]

  1. Thank you so much for this. Today is Good Friday. How are Christians committed to Jesus’ nonviolence supposed to celebrate Passover? I’m not sure why, but this holy week I am struck as never before by the violence we attribute to God in the story of the last plague where God’s special people are taught how to get God’s extremely violent action to pass over their houses, not killing their firstborn. I have previously largely come to terms with interpretations of the atonement that portray God as violent, or even a child abuser. Ditto for OT wars, God’s apparent commands to mercilessly slaughter conquered peoples (and their animals), the story of Abraham’s thoughts of pleasing God by killing his precious son, etc. Though many of my fellow Christians, particularly those with different views of infallibility of Scripture, or of Jesus’ divinity (admittedly huge things) come to different resolutions than I, I have found ways to live with that. Though I do not think my commitment to Nonviolence supersedes my belief in God nor my practice of seeking to follow Jesus, I do see how it could reasonably appear so to some outside observers. I have come to some level of acceptance of being insufficiently orthodox and Orthodox, catholic and (Roman) Catholic, evangelical and Evangelical, while remaining an ardent follower of Christ. For me nonviolence is admittedly WAY more important than worship of a written word. But how are Christians committed to Jesus’ nonviolence supposed to celebrate Passover? Your more general points in this essay, Ted, are very helpful, and I hope and believe one day I will find them satisfactory in helping overcome the violence portrayed in the Passover in ways I have previously followed the advice you give here and come to some resolution re biblical stories of conquest, some of the NT references to Jesus’ death, etc.

  2. Interesting and eye opening article. The territoriality of the post Moses epoch was already doomed because of the lack of faith or trust in God by the Israelites when their self belief took precedence over the presence of God with all of them rather than just the leader Moses. After all the supernatural miracles their hearts did not perceive what Moses saw in the burning bush. God’s plans work when we give precedence to his wisdom rather than our wisdom and understanding. Subjugation of our will to Divine will as Jesus did is the primary step to God using us for fulfilling his purposes. The Old Testament territoriality was supposed to be done with God walking with each one of them which was rejected when they preferred Moses to be representative along with their own self belief in the face of the great adversary devil who took them to the cleaners as expected. The New Testament is beginning with that relationship sorted out first to the external territoriality.
    I am going against the grain when I say that God’s essence is Love and peace while non violence is what appeals to most of us. Loving somebody involves intervention even when they don’t appreciate the context and so is divine justice a part of God’s love. I can see God’s love in the Old Testament when he intervenes and also when He expects us seek his will in our lives and do it as a more mature child of his. Peace begins when we are at peace with God and it permeates to the people and territory around us and it involves the centrality of Jesus modelling of lot of sacrificing self to the will of God. God has infinite time and ability for His plans to be fulfilled and waits for humanity to rise to the occasion as in revelations when all the nations put their crowns at His feet.

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