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Jesus’ Repudiation of Old Testament Violence
Hello Internet comrades,
Some of you who have been visiting this site for a while may recall that I spend several months last year, beginning around March, blogging mostly about the problem of reconciling the Old Testament God of war with the God of the cross revealed in Jesus. The more clearly one sees the unconditional and completely non-violent nature of God’s love, revealed in Christ, the more difficult and the more important this problem is to resolve.
Well, believe it or not, after further research, reading and praying, I think I’ve actually got an adequate response! I say “adequate,” because I can’t claim to have fully and definitively resolved this issue. There’s always going to be an element of mystery. But I feel I’ve hit upon some insights that provide a framework that allows me (and hopefully others) to affirm the inspiration of the Old Testament, including its violent strand, while at the same time holding that Jesus alone reveals the real character of God.
This material has actually got me pretty pumped, to the point that I sense God is leading me to take yet another break from my monstrously huge two volume project on Greek Philosophy and Early Church Theology (tentatively entitled The Myth of the Blueprint) and share my reflections in a book. (This is my last break for sure…probably…possibly….unlikely). I’ve tentatively entitled this forthcoming book, Jesus Versus Jehovah: Understanding the Violent God of the Old Testament in Light of the God of the Cross. I’ll periodically share aspects of this new project in this blog.
Here’s a thought to start with. I think its very clear Jesus affirmed the divine inspiration of the Old Testament. Out of fidelity to Jesus, I feel compelled to accept this collection of ancient writings as divinely inspired. Yet, also out of fidelity to Jesus, I feel compelled to emphatically repudiate it’s violence.
What’s interesting is that Jesus himself repudiated the violence of the Old Testament — despite his belief that this collection of writings was inspired. Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also (Mt 5:38-39).
It’s true, as many scholars have argued, that most of the contrasts between what people had heard and what Jesus taught (“you’ve heard it said… but I say“) do not repudiate Old Testament itself but Jewish interpretations that rose up around Old Testament teachings. But this is clearly not the case with this passage, for the “eye for an eye” commanded is explicitly and repeatedly given in the Old Testament (e.g. Ex 21:24; Lev 24:19-20). In fact, this quid pro quo philosophy lies at the very heart of the law, especially its required violent punishments.
Most interestingly, in Deuteronomy Moses goes so far as to stress that the law must not be waved aside out of compassion. “Show no pity,” the text says, “ life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut 19:21). Yet, Jesus not only commands people to “show pity,” he replaces the Old Testament quid pro quo ethic with his radical ethic of unconditional love.
For example, while the Old Testament allowed Israelites to hate their enemies and sometimes command them to slaughter them, Jesus forbid his disciples from ever hating or doing any harm to an enemy. Instead, he commanded people to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-45). Luke includes the command to “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you” and “pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:27-28).
Most surprising of all, Jesus emphatically makes loving enemies rather than hating them the precondition to being a child of God. We’re to love, bless, pray for and do good to our enemies “that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:45, emphasis added). Only if we love indiscriminately can we “be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Lk 6:35). Small wonder, therefore, that when Peter drew his sword in self-defense — acting in accordance with Old Testament norms — Jesus rebuked him.
No where is the contrast between Jesus and Jehovah more evident than on this point. Jehovah commanded his people to “show no pity” on offenders and toward enemies. Jesus emphatically commands God’s people to do the opposite while teaching that this type of hostile attitude and violent behavior disqualifies one from being child of God. In other words, if you obey Jehovah, you’re not a child of God according to Jesus.
And yet, Jesus is the incarnation of Jehovah. His name means “Jehovah saves.” And, as I said, Jesus clearly believes the Old Testament is inspired. Quite a conundrum isn’t it? This is the nut Jesus Versus Jehovah is going to try to crack.
I’ll leave you with this teaser thought: Is it possible that some divinely inspired material is not supposed to reveal to us what God is like but what he is not like? Is it possible that some material is inspired precisely because God wants us to follow Jesus’ example and repudiate it?
Abraham believed God told him to sacrifice his child, yet he trusted that God was not really like the bloodthirsty Canaanite god Molech and thus would not make him follow through with his request, even though he had no choice but to move forward in obedience. He trusted thatw God would supply the commanded sacrifice , if only at the last minute (Gen. 22:8).
Think about it.