God, Violence, and War in the Old Testament

1.    God’s purpose and design for creation is divine-human communication/communion/community with humanity on this earth (pictured in Gen.3 by God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden). In other words, God always intended to come among us and be with us as one of us. It was always his plan to send the incarnate Jesus Christ into the world to effect his purpose.

2.    God’s strategy was incarnational: to identify and enter into solidarity with his creatures in ever more intimate ways as his purpose unfolds through history. Development, change, and deepening were always to be features of this history. The principle: God meets the people where they (takes history seriously) and takes them on in the direction he wants them to go.

3.       After the Fall, this strategy is complexified. God now has to deal with the problem of sin and its distorting effects in his world to achieve his purpose. Violence is the chief effect of sin (Gen.6:11). He continued to do that through the new family he created by calling Abraham and Sarah out of Ur and leading them to Canaan. There this family was to declare and demonstrate God’s will for human life (Dt.4:5-8).

4.       At the Exodus God rescues and claims Abraham and Sarah’s people as his nation over which he is king. This is a new step toward fulfilling his purposes. And at that time, in a fallen, violent world, being king meant protecting the people’s boundaries and interest for the sake of their survival. That meant repelling and defeating enemies. And God played his role in a way the people could recognize and embrace. Remember, the people are on the way with God meeting and identifying with them ever more closely as their sovereign. This is not the end toward which he is heading but a necessary incarnational step in that direction. The strategies of Holy War (literally YHWH War) is appropriate for this stage of the relationship. It is a but a moment in Israel’s history which God sets on a trajectory that ends in the nonviolent Shalom of Jesus. We can trace this development in a number of ways, particularly in Isaiah 40-55 where God’s New Exodus and Holy War to free and return his people is headed by one “suffering servant” who is God’s ideal and from whom God’s people will derive their identity and practice forevermore.

5.       Old Testament scholar Stephen Chapman from Duke offers the most cogent summary of this process I am aware of in his essay in the book Holy War and the Bible:

“Warfare in the Old Testament, as indeed all killing in the Old Testament needs to be recognized within Christian theology as a strictly circumscribed divine concession to the brutal reality of human sin (Gen.9:3-6). However, someone still might ask, ‘Couldn’t God design a world in which war wasn’t necessary?’' The appropriate theological response is that God in fact did so (Gen.1-2), but human sinfulness spoiled it precisely by generating violence (Gen. 6:11-13). Someone might push further and say 'Even with the advent of human violence, couldn’t God have devised a strictly nonviolent method for dealing with it?" Here again the theological response is that God did just that in Jesus Christ, but in order for Christ to appear in the fullness of time (Gal.4:4) it was necessary for God to elect and preserve the people of Israel. And apparently - this is the hard part - God was not able, given the violence of the world, to preserve Israel purely nonviolently although, even so, Israel's history witnesses to and moves toward nonviolence as it moves toward Christ.” (63-64)

Yes, that “hard part” is where many stumble today. They prefer to believe the authors of these kinds of texts got God wrong erroneously painting him in the colors of the deities of the surrounding cultures they knew. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, they painted their “genocidal” wars of aggression into Canaan as carried out at God’s behest and with his support. But God, whatever he was doing in and with the people at this point (which is not clear), was not involved in these wars and did not approve of them. Others take the same tack but actually accuse God of perpetrating these atrocities and is thus himself morally in the wrong.

Yes, this is a “hard part.” Simple answers here usually play us false. One such answer, we might call “justifying” says “The stories are true. God did what they say he did. And if he did it, it is alright because God after all can do whatever God wants.” I hope none of you readers want to take that line! Another too simple answer, the “suspicious” one faults God or the narrators for doing wrong or falsifying the story to justify the nation’s nefarious, self-serving acts.

I don’t believe either answer suffices. It seems inadequate to me justify God by appealing to a dubious “God can do whatever he wants” principle or because they’re in the Bible they’re true. Equally, the “suspicious” answer seems inadequate too. Vindicating God by removing him from the stories is too easy in my judgment. As is blaming him for involvement in these wars. How else could God show himself a faithful king able to guide and direct his people in that time but by so acting. If God incurs guilt thereby, so be it. That seems part and parcel of the incarnational movement from God to humanity. Jesus incurred guilt through his baptism into full solidarity with his people and the world and so too we as his people incarnating him in our world are to bear sin and incur the guilt of responsible action in the world (Bonhoeffer). If that’s the price incarnation costs, that’s a price God is willing to play. And it seems to me a cost we as readers must pay to keep God ever-increasingly involved in the life of the church and the world.

I realize these brief comments require much further argument to make them compelling. But I want to register them here as a warning against a too easy acceptance of what I deem inadequate answers. Especially the “suspicious” answer because it is widely trumpeted on the internet. More and better thinking on the matter from all of us can only be a good thing!  


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