The Teleological Exegetical Principle and O.T. Violence
These days we’re (mostly) discussing why the God of the Hebrew Bible sometimes commands people to slaughter enemies, including women and children, while Jesus reveals that God dies for enemies and longs for their forgiveness. Based on our recent exploration of Peter Craigie’s The Problem of War in the Old Testament, I’m in the process of formulating what I might call The Teleological Exegetical Principle. (Remember folks, I’m thinking out loud here. I’m exploring possibilities, not giving absolute conclusions). Basically, this principle stipulates that, all other things being equal, we should always interpret the beginning of any divine program from its end (telos).
Let’s first apply this principle to the law of the Old Testament. The Old Testament law initially looked like it was given to make us righteous before God, but it failed (as Paul frequently notes). Given that it ended in failure, the Teleological Exegetical Principle would lead us (along with Paul) to presume that this was the point (or at least one of the points) of God giving the law all along. He was proving to us that we can never be made righteous before God by striving to obey the law alone. In the light of this failure, we (along with Paul) can view the law as a “shadow” pointing us — as a negative object lesson — to the reality of “Christ.” Its failure prepared us to humbly accept God’s righteousness as a gift given through Christ.
If Craigie is right, this principle also applies to nationalism and violence (they are inseparable) in the Old Testament. Divinely sanctioned nationalistic violence initially looked like it could establish the Kingdom of God, but it failed. The nation of Israel tried to live by the sword but it ended up dying by the sword (as Jesus said would always happen). Given that nationalistic violence ended in failure, the Teleological Exegetical Principle would lead us to presume that this was the point (or at least one of the points) of God using nationalistic violence all along. He was proving to us that his Kingdom can never be brought about by nationalism and violence.
This negative object lesson laid the groundwork for the coming of the anti-nationalistic, anti-violent Kingdom, inaugurated through Jesus. And this leads to yet another application of the the Teleological Exegetical Principle.
Jesus’ death — which was brought about because Jesus refused to be co-opted by nationalism or to resort to any violence — initially looked like a failure but ended up in victory. Jesus’ sacrificial death defeated the Powers, set captives free, reconciled us to God and established the Kingdom of God on earth. Given that Jesus’ death ended in victory, the Teleological Exegetical Principle would lead us to presume that this was the point of Jesus refusing nationalism and violence. He was proving to us that God’s Kingdom can only be brought about by refusing nationalism and violence as we rather choose to love and sacrifice for our enemies, even to the point of death.
So, if the God who sanctioned genocide in the Old Testament looks antithetical to the God who died for his enemies on Calvary, this is because it’s supposed to! If you’re offended and angered when you read about Yahweh commanding the slaughter of women and children or David celebrating infants being smashed against rocks, it’s because being offended and angered by this sort of barbarism is the point. Only if you see how grotesque and futile this nationalistic violence is will you be able to fully devote yourself to a non-nationalistic and anti-violent Kingdom.
If Craigie is right, God was reluctantly condescending to the violent mindset of the world and playing the part of a tribal warrior god in order to ultimately show us (among other things) that he’s not at all like this. Or, if you will, God entered our violence filled Matrix (recall the movie) and played along with its violent rules, but he did this in order to wake us up to our bondage to this ugly, illusory Matrix. Once freed, we are empowered to see who God really is and who we really are. Christ is the “reality” to which all Matrix “shadows” point. In Christ we see that God is a God who would rather give his life for enemies than kill them. And in Christ we see that all people, including enemies, are worth God giving his life for.
Now, I’m not pretending this explanation for God’s treatment of enemies is without problems or is adequate in and of itself. But I AM convinced that something like this was going on in Yahweh’s sanctioning of violence in the Old Testament and that this must be part of a comprehensive explanation of this violence.
More to come. In the meantime, imitate God as he is revealed in Jesus (Eph. 5:1-2), not the God revealed in the Old Testament’s warfare tradition.