What can we do with the violence in the Old Testament?

We have been visiting some old passages in the Bible at our Public Meetings, pondering old poems and how we can relate to them. When we start reading and thinking about those passages, the violence that God seems to be really into is hard for us to reconcile, especially with our image of a nonviolent Jesus. What do we do with God destroying the prophets of Baal or the Egyptian army? Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times the other week that the Bible “recounts God ordering genocides, such as the one against the Amalekites.”

So what do we do with that cognitive dissonance between the character of Jesus and the violence of his Father? (Especially after Luther and Calvin reinforced such violence in their theory of the atonement.) How do we reconcile seemingly different personalities of God in the New and Old Testament? For some people, this is a real sticking point to following Him. Here a few of my reasons why it is not a sticking point for me. I’m not trying to present a perfect argument, just some food for thought.

  1. I don’t start by looking for problems in the Bible. Even though deconstruction might be the starting point for many postmodernists, it isn’t mine. If you look for trouble, you will find it. I’m looking for inspiration, understanding, mutuality, and depth of faith in the scripture. I find it, too! It’s an ancient text, not a contemporary volume.
  2. The Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity. The Bible is authoritative, true; but I hesitate to label is with defining labels like “inerrant” and “infallible”—defining the scripture by what it is not is not helpful for me. If the first and second half don’t match up, that doesn’t cause me too much trouble because I don’t think that detracts from its authority. I’m not looking for the scripture to work itself out in some reconciliatory way for it to be revelatory.
  3. The Bible isn’t a handbook or a style guide. In other words, it is a book written by many different people that serves the purpose of conveying a variety of messages in a variety of voices in a variety of genres. There are parts of the scripture that are meant for instruction, but even then, they are instructive to an audience (specific or otherwise) and need more than just comprehension to apply.
  4. Generally, the so-called violent passages are meant to encourage oppressed people, not enflame them to violence. In the modernistic era, we might read Exodus 15, for example, and be perturbed that we are celebrating the violent destruction of Pharaoh’s army. But for the people for whom it was written, it is an exciting narrative that sustains them when they are oppressed. If we put on the “lens of the oppressed” we might see this more clearly.
  5. There is a meta-narrative happening in the scripture. The books of the Bible are telling a greater story. One shouldn’t read a single verse out of context (like Kristof does above), nor can an entire book or chapter be removed from its context in the greater narrative. Furthermore, believers are a part of the greater narrative and so we cannot be removed from the context of a relationship with Jesus or being filled with the Holy Spirit. When there is seeming endorsement of ethnic cleansing or genocide, I think it is OK to call them wrong. Not even just wrong today, but wrong then. I think God can change his mind, actually; and I think Jesus changes everything again.
  6. If you can’t get the whole thing, start with what you can. The Bible was meant to be a whole story. But if it’s too much for you to consume (which I think is the wrong mentality), start with what you can and see if God can’t change your mind about the parts that were too hard to stomach.
  7. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and prophets. John calls Jesus the Word of God. That’s a term that is sometimes used to describe the Bible itself. But Jesus is the fulfillment of all that is in the Bible. He did not come to abolish what came before, mainly in the Old Testament, but to literally birth it again. For me, I start reading the Bible with Jesus-lens on, and begin reading it from the Sermon on the Mount out.

There is much more that we could say about this subject, but we can at least start here. Terry Brensinger has many good things to say in this great article: War in the Old Testament: A Journey Toward Nonparticipation. You can add more thoughts in the comments.

2 Replies to “What can we do with the violence in the Old Testament?

  1. In Jesus, God has taken responsibility for all violences ever: ours and I daresay even God’s too. God’s been convicted, and he died willingly, and resurrected with the promise to heal all violences and wrongs in the whole world forever. I can’t ask for anything more from God than what Jesus has done.

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