December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 2)

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

Part II: Justifying the Violent God?

Even as I write that we must admit the God of the Old Testament is violent, that hardly seems a comforting thought. Who wants to worship a violent God, especially in a post-Holocaust era? One conviction Christians must hold, though, is that we must be shaped by the world that Scripture creates and not the other way around. In the same way that people like Hitler distorted the Bible by militarizing it, so those who domesticate it of violence undermine its own revelatory power.

Still the question lingers on, even when we are humble enough to submit ourselves to Scripture’s message fully, could God have not avoided violence? This question leads into the first of three points I wish to make about the violent God of the Old Testament and understanding his purposes in taking forceful action.

The first point I wish to underscore is that, while we may idealize a quiet and placid God and heaven, warring gods were par-for-the-course in the Ancient Near East. In fact, in comparison to surrounding nations’ religious texts, the Old Testament seems rather PG-rated. Let me offer an example.

The creation scene we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is one of a single God creating a good world. Imagine the potter in his home studio, classical music playing in the background, and there is a sense of serenity and peace as he shapes clay in rhythmic fashion. Compare that to the Babylonians’ Enuma Elish myth of creation which involves, from quite early on, warring and raging gods that trick, plot against, and take revenge on each other. In these stories, the gods model hostile forms of evil for humans.

In the story of Genesis 1-11, we find a different conception. In seminary, we read a book with the apt title: Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Cornelius Plantinga). Sin invaded God’s good creation and was not a part of the original plan. Violence is not the way its supposed to be. The story of Cain is really the first act of violence in the Bible. To call God “violent” is not to say that he is that by nature and was just waiting for an opportunity for his personality to surface (as in when God judges Korah and his conspirators by having the earth swallow them up; see Num 26:10). Perhaps he is violent because we (as humans) started a pattern of destructive force and he needed to intervene.

There is another option that some take to “get God off the hook,” as it were. You could take the deist’s position that all violence is only human violence and God sits in peace up in heaven. However, then we don’t have the Christian (or Jewish) God anymore, because our God is deeply invested in matters on earth. The incarnation of Jesus is surely a sign of God’s involvement in this world, but so is his active approach to judgment and justice.

Could God not just snap his finger or wave his magic wand and make our violence go away? Entertaining these kinds of thoughts could lead into infinite absurdity. If God wanted to solve problems this way, he didn’t need Israel at all, or Jesus as a human on earth, or the cross, or the church, and on and on. He chose a redemptive plan that actively involved working together with humans (like Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David, etc.). I think of the decision in the Lord of the Rings of leaving the world’s fate in the hands of hobbits. It is a risk. They are small and weak. For all its benefits, it has its challenges as well.

This leads to a second point I want to offer. John Goldingay, another Old Testament scholar, puts forward the theory that God (in the OT) is willing to accommodate to the methods and manner of the times and culture, to work towards the progress of his redemptive plan. Goldingay puts it this way,

[Becoming a divine warrior] is a price Yhwh pays for being involved with Israel as an ordinary people in the world. Eventually Yhwh will give up being involved with Israel in that way…In that period [with Israel], how else can you live when Amalek attacks? What else is Israel supposed to do? Is it supposed to lie down and die, unless God intervenes miraculously? (Old Testament Theology: Israel's Gospel, 345)

That does not mean that God simply strikes out willy-nilly, in the kind of petty, self-seeking ways that humans so often do. Rather, even if we call it accommodation, it is never violence without cause. It is a violence that has purpose in the world after “The Fall.” Old Testament scholars tend to refer to this as counter-violence. Walter Brueggemann writes this:

[T]he violence undertaken by Yahweh as warrior is not characteristically blind or unbridled violence. It is rather an act of force that aims to defend and give life to the powerless against demonic power that aims to give life to none (Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, 79).

This is the third point. The kind of counter-violence indicative of God’s activity never stands independently, but always in relationship to a world out of control. When God acts in violence it is, in Brueggemann's words, “to undermine and destabilize other violence.” (OT Theology, 244)

What Brueggemann and others are getting at is that God’s purposes involve bringing a chaotic world to order. Some might use the word “judgment” here, but we could also refer to this as “justice.” God wants to set things right — to be “just,” and he desires for his world to be “just” (read Jeremiah 7:1–7). We may wince when we read in Deuteronomy 32:35 that God says “Vengeance is mine,” but the apostle Paul takes this to mean that we should leave the “righting of wrongs through force” to God alone and not retaliate against our enemies. Paul was not trying to “trump” the OT with pacifistic love. I am sure that he would have seen this as to heart of the Mosaic covenant of Israel “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will help you” (Prov 20:22).

If we can admit that the God of the OT is violent (without malice), and that his heart is only for justice and for fulfilling his wider plan of redemption to restore the kind of peace indicative of pre-fall creation, what about the New Testament? After all, doesn’t Jesus say “turn the other cheek”? How might the cross re-imagine the problem of violence in the world and God’s own violent approach to justice? Could it be that the cross is the end of God’s forceful mode of justice? Does the cross eliminate counter-violence? How?

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