Violence in the Old Testament: Pastoral and theological concerns

March 24th, 2015

I keep coming back to the issue of violence in the Old Testament because I have two concerns — one as a theologian, and the other as a pastor (I'll get to that a little later). Of late there has been a resurgence of a kind of quasi, neo-Marcionite reading of some of the Old Testament texts that simply dismiss difficult themes, in this case, God's participation in violence, particularly in the conquest narratives in the Old Testament book of Joshua. These texts are viewed as incompatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in the New Testament, so they are simply to be dismissed as primitive projections of a primitive tribal people. I have suggested in a previous post that a Christological understanding that leads to such a view of these Old Testament texts is itself based on a deficient Christology.

In the video posted below, Walter Brueggemann says that such a dismissive approach to the violence of the Old Testament is too easy, and I agree. What we have in such passages cannot be viewed simplistically as primitive projections from a primitive people, but such texts are, says Brueggemann, indeed revelations of God. Brueggemann's claim, thus forces us to take these text seriously as Scripture precisely because they are Scripture and are indeed difficult to understand in light of the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Brueggemann's approach is to be preferred over the dismissive approach that has once again reared its quasi, neo-Marcionite head. And that leads to my two concerns.

My concern as a pastor is that once we start dismissing certain biblical passages because they offend our 21st century, modern, Enlightenment, individualistic, self-determined and rationalistic sensibilities, we give Christians permission to dismiss any texts they don't like. I can tell you that in my 30 plus years as a pastor, I have heard it all in reference to Christians dismissing all sorts of Old Testament passages of Scripture because persons found them to be offensive. As a pastor, I want believers to take all the Scripture seriously, even the most difficult passages and, like Brueggemann, wrestle with how to understand them, instead of just cutting them out of the Bible like Thomas Jefferson and casting them aside. My friend and Old Testament scholar, Dan Hawk writes:

Here's the main flaw in this line of reasoning. Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis? This is a slippery business to say the least, and especially so when historically-oriented interpreters attempt to ground their decisions by discerning the intent of ancient authors and redactors. While we have learned a great deal about the historical and cultural environments of the ancient world, we cannot even today confidently locate the composition of most texts in a particular historical and social context. Furthermore, our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives.

My second concern is a theological one. For better or for worse, whether we like it or not, the canon of Scripture we have is the standard the church gave us. We simply do not have the luxury, and no one has been given the authority, to write off portions of the canon that offend them. Many years ago, a pastoral colleague of mine lamented that the book of Hebrews was in the canon, for its theology amounted to nothing more than, in his words, "slaughterhouse theology." My response to him was that he was not given the authority to cut it out of the canon, and if he was simply going to dismiss what he didn't like, instead of truly encountering the book and attempting to make sense of it in the larger biblical narrative, he was in essence dismissing it.

Moreover, as a theologian I must say that while the historical critical approach to the interpretation of Scripture is an important and necessary discipline, it suffers from what I call the "two-eyed keyhole syndrome." As the old joke goes, some people are so narrow-minded they can see through a keyhole with both eyes. Historical critical scholars are not narrow-minded, to be sure, but they are so narrowly focused on the historical minutiae that it can be difficult to see the larger theological picture. In other words, they are so focused on a single tree that they forget they are standing in an entire forest. Thus, the God in Joshua who tells the Israelites to exterminate a town cannot be the same God in Jesus who insists we love our enemies. But this is where theological reflection can rescue us from the two-eyed, keyhole either/or approach. As a theologian I want to try to understand how the God who fights for Israel in the Old Testament can be seen in the context of the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ who tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Can it not be that the conquest narratives are not the primitive projections of a primitive tribal people, but rather are actually proto-incarnational events that reveal a God who gets into the mess of history to preserve the people of Israel for the express purpose of leading them to the fullness of time and the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ-- a revelation in which nonviolence is at its heart? The historical critical reading of Scripture is necessary, but it has its limitations. We need a canonical hermeneutic as well.

It may seem strange to those who know me that I continue to take such an approach to violence in the Old Testament; after all, those who know me know how deeply I believe that nonviolence is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, I don't believe we can make sense of Jesus and his message and his work apart from his own refusal to resort to violence. I bemoan the sad truth that too many Christians today are so ready and willing to approve of and justify violence, sometimes using the Bible in support of what I believe are actions that Jesus would condemn. It would, therefore, be so easy for me simply to dismiss the violence in the Old Testament as primitive projections of a primitive people. It would sure make my argument easier.

But I agree with Brueggemann: such an approach is too easy. And actually, it's not very interesting.

Allan Bevere blogs at

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