December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 1)

Part One in a series of guest posts from our Autumn Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:


Do a Google search for the words “church” and “peace” and you will mostly find church names that are something like “Church of Peace” (Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin, France!). Clearly something connects the Christian faith to peace. Scripture refers to the “God of peace” (Heb 13:20); the “peace of Christ” (Col 3:15), peace for the whole community (Eph 6:23). Jesus promises to leave peace with his disciples (John 14:27). Even in the OT, the herald of Zion, the long awaited evangelist, announces the good news of world peace and salvation in a vision of a world where God rules ultimately (Isa 52:7).

The Bible is not a G-rated book, though, and I hate to break the news to you that, when it comes to violence, it seems that God is not just quietly putting out the fires, but seems to be fighting fire with fire. In 2007, LifeWay Christian Stores began putting on some Christian books in their stores “Read with Discernment” labels, because the theology and ethics of these books may be dangerous and overly provocative. Perhaps the Bible itself needs such a label!

I have three small children and I read them a Bible story from their Children’s Bible every evening. These “kid-friendly” versions censor most of the OT stories. The story of Noah saving the animals from the terrible storm is invariably told, but it is never mentioned that God sent the storm in the first place! [By default, I presume we are meant to think the storm was “naturally occurring” and God graciously predicted it for Noah.] When David knocks Goliath out with his Dennis-the-Menace slingshot, we rarely read in the kid’s version that David afterward cuts Goliath’s head off (why add injury to insult?)

Again, the Bible is not G-rated.

The question before us right now, though, involves God’s own participation and plan in violence. We will deal with three sets of questions.

  1. What is violence? Is the God of the OT violent?
  2. Why is the God of the OT violent?
  3. Do Jesus and the cross change how we understand God’s use of or attitude towards violence? Do things change with Jesus when it comes to necessity of force?

The Issue of Violence and the Habits of God

Let’s start with the question of definition. This is important because it has been argued in the past by some that, when Israel participated in acts of violence, it was because of human sin and not because God is violent. Sometimes the buck of blame for violence is passed to Israel as if they misunderstood or misrepresented God in their warfare.

Think about Exodus 15 – a celebration of the drowning of Pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea. Moses sings a song of victory and a memorial to the Lord. He cries,

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.” (15:1-13).

The song goes on and on, but you get the picture. Lest we think Moses simply misunderstood God, we have a very clear account of God warning the Israelites before he sent the “destroyer” to kill the firstborn of Egypt (Exod 12). Israel had nothing to do with that except get out of the way. The Divine Warrior flew solo on that mission and no human dare “take the credit” (or blame).

Back to definition. What is violence? The always trusty Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “The exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property.” Does God injure or damage by physical force? It would be hard to read the OT in such a way that he does not (read 2 Sam 24). So, I would say that God is violent. However, if you notice, the OED definition does not place a value statement on the term, nor does it penetrate to the deeper (emotional?) motive. When we think of “violent” people, we think of out of control, crazy, hateful, angry people (like a disgruntled teenager taking a gun into a school with the intent to kill). Is there ever good violence? That may sound like a contradiction, but I think it is a legitimate question in light of the OED definition. Is there ever good reason to destroy or damage by force? Think of a fireman, having to hack his way through a door or wall to get into a house to save someone. Is that an act of violence? I think it counts (according to OED), but none of us would abhor such an act.

What about a doctor re-breaking a bone that did not heal correctly. Is not damage done? By force? To a person? But we would not treat this as violence.

So what bothers us about violence? It is that often enough it is done gratuitously, meaninglessly, or with evil intent. We naturally associate force with malice when we hear the word “violent.” I may be skewing the discussion, I suppose, by focusing exclusively on the definition from OED. Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim defines violence as “any action, verbal or nonverbal, oral or written, physical or psychical, active or passive, public or private, individual or institutional/societal, human or divine, in whatever degree of intensity, that abuses, violates, injures, or kills” (see “God and Violence in the OT,” W & W 24.1 (2004): 19).

While Fretheim is sensitive to the fact that violence can be emotional and often involves abuse, the God of the Old Testament clearly still fits this definition in its most basic sense: God sometimes chooses to injure and kill. Just think of when Jacob wrestles with God and his hip is put out of socket (Gen 32:25).

Our problem with conceptualizing God as a violent God is that we think about human violence. We cannot even comprehend human violence that is free from malice, because we naturally see so much hatred and revenge. That does not disqualify the possibility that God is violent with good reason. In Lewis’ enchanting The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there is a key scene when the Pevensie children are in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and learn that Aslan (the ruler of Narnia) is a lion and not a human. The Pevensies, new to the Narnian world, ask whether he is “safe.” Mrs. Beaver replies, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” Lucy Pevensie, still perplexed, responds, “Then he isn’t safe?” Mr. Beaver chimes in incredulously, “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So, it is hard to get around the idea that God is violent. However, maybe it is a purposeful violence. For what purpose? We will get to that next time.

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