old testament violence: is God really genocidal?

On this blog I have written a good number of posts on violence in the Bible, arguing for a robust theology and practice of nonviolence based primarily on the ethics of Jesus.

The number one question I have received in response to these posts has been, “But what about violence in the Old Testament?”

This is an important question, for it is not simply about whether the Bible advocates violence – it is about whether or not God himself is violent.

There are many ways to approach this question, and I do not have space to deal with them all in a single post (though I may write about other approaches another time). Indeed, I could talk about the date that different Old Testament books were written, and how this affects how we should read them. I could talk about the questions being addressed by different Old Testament books in their particular time in history. I could talk about the different ideologies presented by different Old Testament books, and how they give us different, even sometimes opposing perspectives on God and history.[1]

I think though that the best place to start dealing with the Old Testament and violence may be with a hermeneutical question. First though here is a New Testament passage that will act as an analogy:

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them,”Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:2-9)

Here in Mark 10 we find Jesus responding to a question about divorce. Jesus mentions in his answer Moses’s command allowing a man to write a certificate of divorce and send his wife away, a reference to Deuteronomy 24:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

I know right now some of you are asking – if the subject of this post is violence, then why am I talking about divorce? Stick with me…

My point is that in Mark 10 (and the parallel account in Matthew 19) Jesus seems to overturn an Old Testament command on the basis that the command was originally given because of man’s hardness of heart and apparently not because God ultimately desired it.

Does God ever give commands that are not in complete congruence with his character and will? Jesus seems to imply as much; God gave commands regarding divorce that were not his ultimate will for humanity. What was the reason for such truncated commands? Though this is unstated in Mark 10, perhaps God knew humans were, at that stage in history, unable to obey his ultimate will due to social, cultural or other reasons.

If it is true that God gives temporary and unideal commands to humanity when they are unable to fulfil what is in his eyes ideal, then perhaps this opens up an important way to look at some commands of the Old Testament that contradict Jesus’ life and teachings (beyond a cliched and inconsistent “Old vs. New Covenant” dualism).

Here’s my central question – could this hermeneutical possibility be applied to violence?

I find this question compelling, given that Jesus expresses at a number of stages in the Gospels that violence is ultimately not the will of God (despite commands to the contrary in the Old Testament). Could Old Testament violence, as commanded by God, be the unideal commands of a God aware of ancient humanity’s inability to be nonviolent (for whatever reason)?

What are your thoughts?


[1] In a brilliant article on August 15th entitled The Bible is a Library, Not a Book, Karl Giberson made an astute argument against any accusation that one should not read sections of the Bible non-literally, though I think it could potentially work well against claims that different parts of the Bible cannot have an inherent tension between them:
“The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together. The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous. It would be like going into an actual physical library and saying “Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?” And then “Aha! I have got you! So much for your library.””

Posted on August 22, 2011, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Hermeneutics, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thom Stark also points out another troubling example in ‘The Human Faces of God’ and particularly in his analysis of Copan’s ‘Is God a Moral Monster’, “Is God A Moral Compromiser?”

    After pointing out that there are numerous biblical references to God condoning human sacrifice and in particular child sacrifice (Judges 11: 29-36; Micah 6:7; Numbers 21:1-3, for example), Stark refers to Ezekiel 20:23-26 where God claims he gave the Israelites ‘statutes that were not good’ to sacrifice their firstborn in order that ‘they would be horrified and know that I am YHWH’

    I know I’ve mentioned this to you in the past, but it still troubles me, because it speaks deeply to some of the fundamentals of what we believe about God, particularly within the modern church… or perhaps my unease is just a remanent of my fundamentalist past?

  2. I’ve been trawling through a lot of old posts – interesting stuff!
    I was so sad there weren’t more comments on this one (I’ll have to read the pingbacks) because I really want to know the answer(s) to your question!

    I find your use of the ‘divorce’ passage really interesting – it highlights to me the notion that Jesus did not come to get rid of the law, but fulfil it. The law, as it was intended… ?

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