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OT Violence and Christian Behavior

Hi folks,

Well, now that my toe drama is over we can get back to the topic we’ve been wrestling with the last several posts: How can the motif of divine violence in the Old Testament be reconciled with the Calvary-centered depiction of God in the New Testament? Before considering various possible ways of resolving this difficult issue, I’ve been addressing a very important preliminary question: What is, and is not, at stake in resolving this issue?

In previous posts I argued that even if one concluded that passages depicting Yahweh as condoning genocide are not divinely inspired, this wouldn’t in any way undermine our grounds for believing Jesus is the Son of God. And even if one concluded that these passages are divinely inspired, this wouldn’t in any way undermine our grounds for believing Jesus is the definitive picture of God. So, whatever other things might be at stake in this issue, our faith in Jesus and our picture of God are not among them.

In this post I want to address a third and final thing that is not at stake in this debate. Even if we conclude that the passages depicting Yahweh as commanding violence are divinely inspired, this shouldn’t in any way affect how followers of Jesus live. More specifically, it shouldn’t affect how we view war and other forms of violence. This is a very important consideration, for since the time of Augustine Christians have consistently appealed to the violent strand of the Old Testament to justify waging wars when they believed their cause was “just.” (This is Augustine’s famous “just war” theory).

Two things may be said about this.

First, the appeal to the Old Testament to justify Christians fighting in “just” wars (if there are such things) is illegitimate for the simple reason that the Old Testament knows nothing of a “just war” policy. The wars that Yahweh had the Israelites engage in were not fought on the basis of justice. They were fought simply because Yahweh told the Israelites to fight them. They were holy wars, not just wars.

Moreover, a major motif of the Old Testament’s holy war tradition is that the Israelites were to completely trust Yahweh to fight their battles. They were forbidden to take any practical and pragmatic issues into consideration when they went into battle. They were commanded to place no trust in their own military might or wisdom. (This is why David got into so much trouble for counting his soldiers before going into battle). Indeed, the Israelites often didn’t have to raise a sword to win their battles. The walls of Jericho came tumbling down, for example, simply because the Israelites obeyed Yahweh and marched around the city seven times.

On top of this, because the Israelites’ battles were holy wars – not wars fought out of a national interest or for a “just” cause — the Israelites were forbidden to benefit from them (except in cases where Yahweh specifically gave them permission to do so). From all the towns of Canaan, for example, the Israelites were forbidden to keep any spoils. To the contrary, everything and everyone had to be “utterly destroyed” (herem).

If any Christian leader is going to appeal to the Old Testament to legitimize their nation’s warfare, they must commit to fighting the way the Israelites were commanded to fight. They must be certain that Yahweh himself has told them to enter into this war and must do so without any consideration of whether or not it meets someone’s criteria of a “just war.” They must refuse to take any practical or pragmatic issues into consideration and must place no trust in their military might or wisdom. And they must refuse to benefit in any way from their victory.

I submit that, since the time of Joshua, no nation has ever entered into war on this basis. (One could perhaps argue that contemporary Islamic extremists fight on this basis, but they aren’t a “nation”). This fact clearly reveals the disingenuousness of appealing to the Old Testament to justify national or personal violence.

Second, appealing to the Old Testament’s motif of divine violence to justify Christians engaging in violence for any reason is illegitimate because disciples of Jesus are commanded to base their lifestyle on the example and teachings of Jesus, not the Old Testament. If we confess Jesus as Lord, we must follow his example and obey his teachings above all others (e.g. Phil. 2:5-8; Eph 5:1-2; Jn 15:10, 14). “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching,” Jesus taught (Jn 14:24). And in the first epistle of John we read: “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (I Jn 2:6).

Jesus chose to love, serve and die for his enemies rather than engage in “justified” violence against them. He chose to be killed rather than to kill. Followers of Jesus are called to mimic this attitude and behavior towards their enemies (1 Pet 2:18-23; 3:15-16; Heb. 12:2-3). Moreover, Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament) consistently taught that we are to love, bless, pray for and do good to our enemies (Mt.5:44-45; Lk 6:27-36). We’re to never retaliate or use violence in self-defense (e.g. Matt 5:38-39; Rom. 12:17-21; I Thess.5:15; I Pet 3:9 ). No where in the New Testament is this example or these teachings about non-violence ever qualified. No where do we find any exceptions to the commands to love and do good to our enemies.

Jesus himself seems quite aware that the attitude towards enemies he commands his followers to embrace is very different from some aspects of the Old Testament. For example, in the Old Testament God twice reigned down fire from heaven in judgment on various individuals and groups. Yet, when John and James wanted to do this same thing in the New Testament, Jesus rebuked them (Lk 9:52-55). It violated the spirit of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish to want God to act the way he did in the Old Testament! In some ancient manuscripts of Luke, Jesus rebuked John and James by saying, “you don’t know what sort of spirit you are of” (vs. 55). If this reflects the original text, it means Jesus was implying that an act that was considered to be “of God” in the Old Testament may be considered to be of a different spirit – demonic – in the New Testament!

Along similar lines, Jesus sometimes contrasted his teachings with various teachings of the Old Testament and various traditions that arose out of those teachings. For example, the Old Testament permitted one to retaliate against an offender, taking “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Mt. 5:38). But Jesus expressly forbids his disciples to act on this principle. His disciples were rather to express self-sacrificial love towards their enemies (Mt. 5:39-44). Clearly, the way of the Kingdom Jesus was establishing was very different from the way of Yahweh in the violent strands of the Old Testament.

My point is that, regardless of whether or not we can adequately explain the apparent contradiction between the violent strand of the Old Testament with Jesus’ radical example and teachings about loving our enemies, this shouldn’t qualify our commitment to follow Jesus’ example and obey his teachings in the least. Our call is to mimic the crucified savior, not the “warrior” portrait of Yahweh we sometimes find in the Old Testament (Ex. 15:3).

To sum up, we’ve seen that our faith in Jesus, our commitment to trust that God looks like Jesus, and our commitment to follow the non-violent example of Jesus are not at stake in resolving the apparent contradiction between the God who commands genocide in the Old Testament and the crucified God found in the New Testament. Still, since Jesus himself trusted the Old Testament as God’s Word, and since we are part of a community and tradition that have received the Old Testament as God’s Word, it is incumbent on us to do our best to explain away this apparent contradiction.

This is what I shall be attempting to do in forthcoming posts.

Till then, “Be imitators of God” and “[l]ive in love, as Christ loved you [while you were yet enemies] and gave himself for you” (Eph 5:1-2).



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