Tuesday, 19 June 2018

What about Old Testament Violence? Part 2 - Some attempts at reconciliation

How do we reconcile troubling Old Testament violence with the Jesus Christ's admonition to love and bless our enemies?
Are you inspired by Jesus but disturbed by the violent portraits of God recorded in the Old Testament?

Many attempts have been made to reconcile these very different, often contradictory pictures of God and we'll look at some of those here.

Last time, we started with the question 'Is God Schizophrenic?' and ended with the statement that 'What we see is what we become.' If you see God as unpredictable, never knowing if you're going to get the Yahweh version or the Jesus version, it's harder to behave consistently yourself.

Do believers act more aggressively when they believe that God sanctions violence?

A study done at the University of Michigan by social psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues suggests they do - read it here.

History provides substantial evidence of its own though. The church has used the image of the war-mongering God of the Old Testament to justify all sorts of atrocities. They felt justified in committing acts of horrific violence because they believed it was the moral thing to do. God, who set the standard of morality, modelled violence as a solution to situations of conflict. (A fascinating article on how people resort to violence because they believe their moral codes require it can be found here.)

Divinely sanctioned acts of atrocious violence, seemingly contradicted by Jesus' instruction to love and bless our enemies, can be confusing. How should we respond to situations of conflict?

2 Corinthians 3:18 - What you see is what you become

I know enough of God to know that there must be an explanation. How do I know that? Here's a clue:

Whenever we see something about God that doesn’t match the character of Jesus, no matter how bad it looks, we can trust that there is an explanation.

But I must be clear: platitudes like: 'One day all will be made known,' and 'Each to their own,' and 'God's ways are higher than our ways,' are not, to my mind, satisfactory explanations.

So how do we explain it then? Some people simply dismiss the Old Testament picture of God by ignoring it. They just never read that section of the Bible. If it's not in their ‘Live your best life’ devotional they pretend it's not there.

Old Testament violence - How can I believe God is Good, even when He looks bad?

On the other hand, some will take those revelations as equal in authority to our revelation of God in Jesus, often thereby justifying atrocious acts of violence in God's name. - they get to choose which aspect of God they want to demonstrate in any given situation.

The difficulty with this view is that Jesus himself directly contradicts God’s words in the Old Testament. Which do we take as our example?

Even others find a way to show how justified the violence was in each situation; spin it one way or the other to make it more palatable.

Some will blame a translation error - that's a common one. Maybe there was some kind of mixup and 'slaughter' doesn't really mean 'slaughter'.

Maybe I'm just hard to please, but none of these approaches solves the glaring contradictions to my satisfaction.

We can't ignore chunks of the Bible - every word has to be taken seriously and acknowledged as inspired of the Holy Spirit, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Why do I believe that so emphatically? For starters, Paul, referring to our current Old Testament, described it as 'God Breathed'.

We have the added complication that Jesus believed the Old Testament. Nuts! Just when you thought you get away with leaving it on the shelf we see that Jesus directly quotes 24 of the 39 books in the Old Testament. Only 4 books in the Old Testament are not quoted by all the New Testament authors combined.

But what do we do now? Jesus is the peace-loving hippy and Yahweh is the warmongering despot, ready to chop everyone's heads off and Holy Spirit wafts about making windy noises.  With Jesus and Yahweh making up 2/3 of the Trinity - How can they be so at odds with each other? How do we reconcile these pictures of the persons within the Godhead? These are not just different behaviours as expressions of the same character - this looks like completely different characters. Is there disunity in the Trinity?

Old Testament Violence - Can I trust God?

Which one are we going to get in any given moment? We'd never be sure what to expect. It's a bit like growing up with an unstable parent - you never know if you'll get furious mom or patient mom or withdrawn mom or sweet mom - and that makes it harder to know how to behave because like all kids, you blame yourself for triggering the behaviour changes.

That's just exhausting, feeling like it all depends on you and your behaviour. You stop taking risks - even good ones - especially good ones - because you're never sure how mom / God is going to respond. And so you try to make yourself smaller and as invisible as you possibly can so maybe you won't be noticed and so no one can blame you for the inevitable outburst.

As usual, I've got myself in a bit of a hole - one I'm going to have to wrestle my way out of. Fortunately, I have a pretty good precedent in the Old Testament when it comes to wrestling with God.

Of the great patriarchs mentioned in Hebrews 11 as champions of faith, Jacob wrestled with God through the night, Moses repeatedly objected to God's intended course of action and had the audacity to suggest an alternative, as did Abraham. Usually, they were questioning the consistency of his actions with his character... which is precisely what we are doing here.

Even crazier than the thought that they could question God, is the thought that he changed his way that he was going to do because of them. On that precedent, I feel confident in asking God what he's up to.

The Cross is the lens through which God is seen, it is the means of Grace by which he is known. - Michael Gorman

I mentioned the clue to all of this earlier: If we see a portrait of God in scripture that doesn't match how he has revealed himself in Jesus, we can trust there is some explanation because Jesus is the standard by which we measure all revelation. How can I be so sure of that?
You'll have to wait for part 3 to find out... Or you could read ahead, but just know that if you do end up buying from one of the links below, I'll get a small commission at no extra cost to you. (Full Disclosure)

 Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence is the popular version of the more academic The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2 which Greg Boyd spent around 10 years writing in his quest to find out how to reconcile the troubling pictures of Old Testament violence with the self-sacrificial love of God revealed in Jesus' work on the cross. With the heart of a pastor and the skill of a theologian, he forges a path that shows how even the most horrific episodes in the Old Testament testify to a God of peace and love. Sound too good to be true? It's not, He really is that good! Get the book if you don't believe me.

Or, if you're willing to take the gamble that the next post will be ready before you get the book, make sure you subscribe via email to be notified of future posts, and/or follow us on Facebook.

And, if you'd like to hear a recording of me sharing this in person at Dwell Church in Durban, in May 2017, complete with South African accent, weird belly chuckle-laughs and a couple of family anecdotes, click on the Soundcloud link below.


  1. Interesting thoughts here, Leigh! Thank you for for this post!

  2. For me, understanding the cultural contexts of the people groups in the Old Testament help me understand why God would want them out. Just as we needed to fight the Nazis as a toxic culture, so too were there toxic cultures back then.