This is a piece I wrote years ago that I was eager to revisit and update. There is a lot of violence in the Old Testament (hereafter OT), which provokes a host of unhelpful reactions from my perspective. Some want to chuck the whole OT in the bin like Marcion or treat the God revealed in Jesus as almost an entirely different character than Yahweh of Israel. Some read the other direction using the violence of the OT as justification for violence in real life. Whereas I think the OT provides ample support for my pacifist convictions. So here are 10 Propositions on Violence in the Old Testament, offered as part of the synchroblog on #TheNewPacifism at Political Jesus.
#1 The text of the OT is not synonymous with God’s Word. All the books of the Hebrew Bible were written by human beings in historical circumstances and were shaped by those contexts. The writers of the OT often use their medium as polemic to justify ungodly things. Usually, when the text seems to justify violence (as in the book of Joshua which is a piece of propaganda supporting Josianic revanchist reform) it is neither historically accurate, nor the will of God. In such texts we are more likely to find the Word of God by reading against the text than with it. God does not condone, let alone command genocide.
#2 God’s mercy always outweighs his wrath and is MORE fundamental to her character. Though the OT does appear to identify God with violence, suffering and disaster at times, this is not God’s normal mode. God does not enjoy seeing her people suffer – God suffers too. The final word in every case is that God redeems Israel. God is identified MORE with exodus/return from exile than with punishment/entry into exile. We should not think of the God of the OT as a wrathful God and the God of the NT as a merciful one. This is a gross mischaracterization. Israel always understands its God to be merciful above all.
#3 In fact, one of the characteristic dilemmas of the prophet is that God does not carry out the dread punishment pronounced. The punishment declared in Amos at first is total, but it is never completed. A remnant is always preserved. The book of Jonah is a midrash of this dilemma in Amos and other prophets – the prophet is put into a precarious position, because his honour is dependent upon his predictions coming true, but he knows that God is merciful and will not carry out the sentence given, making the prophet look dishonest. Jonah runs away because he knows that God will NOT do the things he threatens. Much of the condemnation language in the OT should therefore be read, not as something God intends to do (or has done), but as a call to repentance put in dramatic terms.
#4 God sometimes uses violent events for good ends without condoning that violence. In this case God is not the source of the violence, but she works through the violence to accomplish her goals. The succession of imperial occupations of Israel is the perfect example of this. On the one hand the text proclaims that God is responsible for allowing the armies of Assyria, Babylon and Persia to conquer Israel, but almost every time, immediately afterward the invading empire is condemned for their violence. The Empires appear to work as an instrument of judgment against Israel, but they are themselves judged for using violent means. We might choose to see God at work in violent circumstances (though not as the source of the violence), but God certainly does not condone the violence. The cross is exactly this kind of action. God does not will the crucifixion, but we identify God at work in a unique and powerful way in that event.
#5 God’s wrath is a response to our violence. Where God is identified in the OT as bringing punishment it is always a response to our being violent in the first case, which is a violation of God’s will for us. In other words God’s use of punishment in the OT is a device that condemns violence and doesn’t condone it. It is a dreadful irony that our violence upon each other merits violent consequences. The irony is that we bring violence upon ourselves by being violent (live by the sword…) – a useful and timeless point, which is undoubtedly true.
#6 Violence done by God in the OT is not a justification for our own violence. The distinction is made terribly clear in the OT – God is God and we are creatures. A different standard applies. Therefore, even if you choose to read certain texts as literal examples of God acting violently they are no justification for our doing so.
#7 In fact, God’s violence is the reason for Israel’s nonviolence. The metaphor of YHWH ‘warrior king’ is a prophetic critique of monarchy. God’s control of violence toward others prevents us from being violent. BECAUSE God and his army of angels is our defense we are not to defend ourselves. This metaphor is a destabilizing critique of the whole social structure. God the king/judge replaces all human institutions that rule over others. The basis for power by threat of force is completely destroyed by this way of thinking.
#8 The ideal Israel is a nonviolent Israel. Wherever a prophet begins to wax poetic about a repentant Israel it always involves turning swords into plowshares, not making treaties with Egypt, not buying horses for chariots and a king who spends every second of every day reading the Torah and praising YHWH. Israel is told again and again to put their trust in the Lord. Hezekiah is punished for having faith in his own armory instead of in God’s protection. Again and again the thrust of the text is that Israel should be a peaceful people because YHWH is strong to save them from their enemies. THE major crime of Israel is looking elsewhere for their security, whether in foreign idols (representing treaties with those nations) or in building armies by exploiting the poor, Israel violates its covenant by failing to be nonviolent.
#9 Both the beginning and end of time on the cosmic scale are marked by nonviolence. In the Garden of Eden there are no predators and humans eat only plants. The very first act of a fallen human being is a violent one (Cain kills Abel). God eventually accedes to our fallen state by allowing Noah to eat meat, but this is held by the writers to be against the natural order. In Isaiah and elsewhere when the cosmic order is restored the wolf feeds with the lamb, the lion eats straw like the ox etc… The essential character of created goodness is nonviolence. Since we have as bookends for the whole of salvation history the described intent of God to have all of nature living nonviolently it is absurd to suggest that violence in our present state is the will of God. Instead violence is precisely what marks our present condition as fallen and is always against the will of God.
#10 YHWH of Israel in the OT is Jesus of Nazareth. We cannot read the OT as Christians and see a different God there from the one revealed in the man who preached forgiveness and love of enemies. The man who disarmed his disciples and commanded them to return blessings for curses. The man who died on a cross rather than raise an army to overthrow Rome. The man who forgave those who were in the act of crucifying him and when he returned in triumph came proclaiming peace.