What’s at Stake in Trying to Explain the Violent God of the Old Testament?

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drive out before you many nations… and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy…You must destroy all the peoples the LORD your God gives over to you.
Deut. 7:1-2, 16

I’m wrestling with the issue of the depictions of God as violent — to the point of commanding genocide — in the Old Testament (see my blog on Friday, March 14th). The main issue here is not just that passages in which Yahweh commands the Israelites to slaughter women and children (and even animals!) offend our modern sensibilities. The main issue, rather, is that these Old Testament depictions of God seem to run directly counter to what we learn about God in Jesus, who alone is the perfect revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-3).

In Christ we learn that God is the kind of God who chooses to suffer at the hands of enemies and on their behalf rather than use his supernatural power, or earthly powers, to defeat them. In Christ we learn that God loves his enemies, and commands us to do the same. In Christ we learn that it’s God’s will that his people refuse to engage in violence against enemies, and instead imitate Jesus by sacrificially serving them.

The problem we’re addressing, then, is far more serious than the fact that our modern sensibilities are offended by the Old Testament’s violent passages. The problem is that God reveals himself in Christ to be antithetical to the genocidal God of various passages in the Old Testament.

Before we attempt to explain this, I think it’s important to ask: What is at stake in resolving this issue? In fact, in my opinion, answering this question is even more important than resolving the issue itself.

One might suppose everything is at stake in resolving this issue, for one might wonder how we can affirm the Bible to be God’s infallible Word if it contains contradictory images of God. And if we can’t trust the Bible to be God’s infallible Word, how can we trust that Jesus is the Son of God and died for our sins, since we learn about this in the Bible too? One might also argue that, in light of the revelation of God in Christ, it’s not only logically impossible but also morally impossible to affirm any depiction of a God who commands the slaughtering of women and infants and who inspires the psalmist to celebrating the smashing of infants’ heads against rocks (Psl. 137: 8-9).

Now, I believe the Bible is God’s infallible Word (depending on how you define “infallible” – but that’s a separate issue), but I believe this way of approaching this or any other biblical issue is unhelpful and even dangerous. I’d like to offer a different way of approaching this issue. For I don’t believe my faith in Christ hangs on whether or not I’m able to adequately explain the apparently contradictory images of God in the Bible. Here’s why.

My belief that Jesus is the Son of God isn’t rooted in my belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word. Rather, my belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word is rooted (mostly) in my belief that Jesus is the Son of God. I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible says so. I believe in the Bible (mostly) because Jesus says so.

Now, you might be wondering, if I don’t believe in Jesus because the Bible says so, why do I believe in Jesus? There are a number of reasons, but here are the main two.

First, I find the historical evidence supporting the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels and Epistles to be very compelling [on this, see Eddy, Boyd, The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007) or its less academic equivalent Lord or Legend? (Baker, 2007)].

Second, I find that the over-all message of the New Testament, as well as the broader narrative of the Old Testament that forms its backdrop, harmonizes with my deepest intuitions about life. For example, at the core of my being I (and most healthy people) am convinced that, if there is any purpose to life, it’s centered on love. In the New Testament I find a story that makes sense of this core intuition, for the story of God becoming a human and dying a cursed death on the cross to save a rebel race of sinners is (if it’s understood rightly) the greatest love story ever told. If God is like this, I can understand why I have the core intuitions I have. The Gospel story thus “rings true” on an existential as well as a historical level.

Now, since I have historical and existential reasons for concluding that Jesus is the Son of God, it seems reasonable to me to conclude that God had something to do with providing the oral and written meta-narrative – the biblical narrative — that anticipates (in the Old Testament), looks back to (in the New Testament) and interprets Jesus’ coming. I thus have reasons for accepting that the Bible is inspired. What is more, reading the Gospels as generally reliable historical documents (see the above mentioned works for arguments supporting this assessment), it appears that Jesus himself viewed the Old Testament as God’s Word and that he saw himself and the community of his followers as carrying on this same Spirit-inspired authority. Since I believe Jesus is the Son of God and have made him Lord of my life, I’m inclined to think he was correct in his basic theological views, and thus correct in his assessment of the biblical tradition. (I have other reasons for believing the Bible is God’s infallible Word, but these are my main two).

If one roots their faith in Christ in historical evidence and the existential fit of the Gospel story, what is at stake in resolving the issue of violence in the Old Testament? Well, let’s imagine the worst case scenario. Suppose that, despite our best attempts to argue otherwise, we finally feel forced to conclude there is no way to reconcile the depictions of God commanding genocide and inspiring David to celebrate the killing of infants with the revelation of God in Christ. Suppose we thus feel forced to conclude that we have a logical as well as a moral obligation to reject this depiction of God. Does this undermine our faith?

If your faith in Christ is rooted in your faith in every passage of the Bible being infallible, this worst case scenario would obviously completely destroy your faith. But if your faith in the Bible is rather rooted in your faith in Christ, the worst case scenario would hardly be catastrophic. It would present us with theological problems, obviously. We’d have to modify our understanding of God’s involvement in providing the oral and written meta-narrative that interprets the coming of Christ. We’d perhaps need to rethink what we mean by claiming the Bible is “infallible,” and this might raise certain hermeneutical issues as well. And we’d certainly have to rethink our Christology. How could Jesus, the Son of God, have trusted that the whole Old Testament was God’s infallible Word if (as we are imagining in this worst case scenario) a major motif that it contains is simply wrong?

These are challenging problems, but it’s so important we notice that none of them need affect our most fundamental reasons for believing Jesus is the Son of God or that the over-all message of the Bible that interprets Jesus’ coming is inspired by God. If our faith in Christ is rooted in historical evidence and the existential fit of the Gospel story, we really lose nothing even if we end up concluding that the passages in the Old Testament that depict God as commanding genocide were not inspired by God.

So, let’s do our best to explain the depictions of God as violent in the Old Testament and to thereby reconcile them with the revelation of God in Christ. But for God’s sake (literally), don’t leverage your faith in Christ on the outcome of this investigation!

More to come. Til then,

be outrageously blessed!

Greg

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