Why is the GOD of the New Testament full of love and eager to save us, when the GOD of the Old Testament was so angry all of the time, wanting to kill all opposed to GOD’s plan?
Even more important, how much of GOD’s activity in the Old Testament should we seek in our world today?
These two questions trouble both atheists and believers. The following “filter” helps me make sense of all the violence that I read in the Bible, and especially all of the violence commanded by God in the Old Testament (for example, see Exodus 17:14 and I Samuel 15). My “filter of historical perspective” contains the following three points:
- God works through people.
- We are shaped by our culture.
- God accepts us where we are.
In pursuing this filter, we must first take off our “blinders” and see the offensiveness of violence in Scripture.
Offensive Violence in Scripture
In my efforts to read the Bible each year, I cringe when Psalm 137 comes up next in my reading schedule because I dislike its conclusion:
“Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:8-9 NIV).
I am not comfortable visualizing this portion of God’s word. Something deep inside of me screams, “How did this psalm slip past the divine editor?!” I get that the Babylonians treated Jews living in Judah badly, “showing them no mercy” (Isaiah 47:6). But this level of vengeance sinks below darkness into the realm of evil. So, How should we interpret this text? And, How do we apply this text to our daily lives?
In his book, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), Eric Seibert differentiated between “wrongful” violence and “virtuous” violence. The death of Abel, who was murdered by his brother, resulted in God’s displeasure followed by a curse on Cain so severe that any reader comprehends this as a “wrongful” act of violence. Likewise, God pronounced judgment on King David when he ordered the death of Uriah the Hittite through battle in order to cover-up his affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (II Samuel 11-12). No doubt about the “wrongfulness” of this violence.
To Eric Seibert, “virtuous violence” refers to violent activity that is portrayed in the Bible as “being appropriate, justified, and perhaps even praise-worthy” (page 28). For example, Am I ok with David cutting off Goliath’s head and with the execution of Haman as described in the book of Esther (Esther 7:8-10)? Sisera “cruelly oppressed” the Israelites for twenty years! Did he deserve to die when Jael drove a tent peg through his head and into the ground with a hammer while he was sleeping (Judges 4)? Should Jezebel get what she deserved for ordering the death of Naboth (I Kings 21 and II Kings 9:30-37) and for a whole bunch of other bad stuff?
Think about it! We teach preschoolers about Noah building an ark to save his family from God’s judgment on Planet Earth. But do we encourage them to see children like them drowning, to hear their screams of panic, or to know that God caused their deaths? And what about the Exodus narrative? Do we focus on the liberation of Israel from their oppressors and pass over Egypt’s destruction? To the prophets of Israel, God seems to enjoy the sight of human blood and dead bodies! (Ezekiel 21, also Jeremiah 25:15-38, esp. verse 33 and Isaiah 13:9). It is this kind of “virtuous violence” that gives Eric Seibert, and many theologians, lots of discomfort.
Huge chunks of the Old Testament deserve the “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) film-rating system because of the pervasive, persistent and pernicious violence found within its pages – with most of it coming from the hands of God. Raymond Schwager wrote (Must There Be Scapegoats: Violence and Redemption in the Bible, 1987):
“…violence plays a prominent role in the Old Testament books. They contain over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others” (page 47).
“The theme of God’s bloody vengeance occurs in the Old Testament even more frequently than the problem of human violence. Approximately one thousand passages speak of Yahweh’s blazing anger, of his punishments by death and destruction, and how like a consuming fire (God) passes judgment, takes revenge, and threatens annihilation. He manifests his might and glory through warfare and holds court like a wrathful avenger. No other topic is as often mentioned as God’s bloody works” (page 55).
How do we make sense of this biblical carnage, with much of it demanded by God?
Any response to this question must be viewed within its complexity. I like to compare this complexity with the Mississippi River. The mighty Mississippi grows from a small wilderness stream out from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, into one of the greatest rivers on our planet, with a watershed that is the fourth largest in the world. Here is a short list of major tributaries that flow into the Mississippi River:
- the Minnesota River
- the St. Croix River
- the Black River
- the La Crosse River
- the Root River
- the Wisconsin River
- the Rock River
- the Iowa River
- the Skunk River
- the Des Moines River
- the Illinois River
- the Missouri River
- the Ohio River
- the Arkansas River
Like the Mississippi River, this topic contains so many “theological tributaries” that just one blog entry captures neither its majesty nor its complexity. The following “theological tributaries” will not be addressed in this blog:
- The historicity of biblical events, especially the conquest of Canaan
- Understanding God anthropomorphically
- Culture of warfare in the ancient world
- The nature of human sacrifice in Canaanite religions
- The reality of primogeniture
- Treatment of women in ancient cultures
- Role and place of slavery in the ancient world until the decline of the Roman empire
- Methods for interpreting and applying Scripture (wrapped up in ancient cultures) in the culture of today
- Issues of progressive revelation during the 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus
- Theological significance of war in ancient Israel
- Development and efficacy of sacrificial systems in ancient religions
- The death of Jesus as interpretted by the early church
- Philosophical issues surrounding God and the problem of evil
- Biblical treatment of children, especially parental use of spanking (the rod) when correcting children
- How the ancient Hebrews understood “Sovereignty of God” issues
Where we start in our understanding makes all the difference in the results that follow! Just as the Mississippi River has its own headwaters in its journey to the Gulf of Mexico, so my “filter of historical perspective” has served me as a kind of “headwaters” in my journey to make sense of the great chasm between the violence of GOD in the Old Testament and the love of GOD in the New Testament. It’s all about WHERE we start!
Perhaps the following three points from my “filter of historical perspective” will assist you as well:
1. God works through people.
What would the birth of Jesus look like if God did NOT work through people?
For maximum shock value, Jesus would materialize (Beam me up, Scotty?) during a full session of the Great Sanhedrin to announce, “My name is Jesus and I am God.” All present (about 70 Jewish leaders) would bow in worship and proclaim, “The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!” Then Jesus would reply, “Excellent, now let’s get to work.”
The ancient Greeks would improve on this theme with bizarre stories of their gods, like Kronos and Rhea. The father of Kronos felt threatened by him so Kronos killed his father. Likewise, Kronos feared his own children. As soon as Rhea, his wife, gave birth Kronos would eat the child. Thus, Kronos devoured Hera, Hestia, Demeter, Hades, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. When she finally grew weary of losing all of her children, Rhea gave Kronos a rock wrapped in a blanket instead of Zeus. She carried Zeus to Crete where he was raised by a goat creature. Eventually, Zeus defeated his father, Kronos, and forced him to spit up his siblings. Of course Kronos had swallowed them whole – they were not injured.
What would the birth of Jesus look like if God did work through people?
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38 NIV). This simple response from the mother of Jesus provides us with a template for cooperating with God. By working through people, God provides us humans with true meaning in life. This ultimate, exhilarating experience comes as we look back and sense God doing something through us.
“Without God I can’t, but without me God won’t” (attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo).
2. We are shaped by our culture.
Our culture impacts us so much that we don’t notice stuff until someone outside our culture points out the differences to us. Differences can be obvious, like photographs taken of a rock band in 1979. Other differences are much more subtle, like how we greet one another. For many living in the “hood” of Philadelphia, “the nod” communicates the “hello” greeting.
This morning I greeted a repair tech in the library parking lot and he responded, “How are you?” I decided to have some fun and said, “Tired, how are you?” This brief interaction caught him so off-guard that he grunted, “Get more sleep.” I moved to the Philly area ten years ago from the Midwest where I grew up on a farm in Iowa and lived my adult life in Minnesota (and four years in the Chicago area). I found people in the Philly area will ask how I am doing but never wait for my response. I quickly learned that the phrase, “How are you?” is ONLY a greeting, and nothing more. Even after ten years, I cannot respond to the “How are you?” greeting like a local resident. I am still outside their culture.
A recent update from Quora Digest (a question & answer web site) asked people to respond to this question, “What are American customs that seem weird to foreigners?” Here are a few responses from Veronica, a young lady that moved from Ukraine to the United States when she was thirteen:
- Pink and blue. I had no idea before, – -I suppose, it’s another aftermath of a highly successful marketing phenomenon I refer to as “Disney culture” — but my own culture shock was the realization that there is a fairly acknowledged concept of gendered colors. I still prefer dark colors personally, e.g. dark green / brown, but find it tricky to shop for such colors at a minimum for girls (adult styles are much more neutral). It doesn’t end with clothes — bicycles, gear, everything MUST be pink, or somehow your child is no longer considered girly. Very odd.
- This one is strictly in comparison with the former USSR, but I found it odd that the schoolchildren would not stand up to greet their teachers upon entering – this was a sign of respect in the old country. Also, no uniforms and everyone wears something different daily, and it’s considered nearly unsanitary to appear wearing the same outfit 2 days in a row
- Reciting the pledge of allegiance to the Flag in public school daily
- School buses
And this “blindness” that we experience within our culture can impact us in very unexpected ways. For example, Why is Barbie the “go to” doll for three generations of women? Only one in 100,000 women actually match the Barbie body image! Women have desired that Barbie look so much that some have even altered themselves via plastic surgery! Model Cindy Jackson morphed herself into Barbie after 31 operations in 14 years. She said on CBS News (2004), “I looked at a Barbie doll when I was 6 and said, ‘This is what I want to look like.’ I think a lot of little 6-year-old girls or younger even now are looking at that doll and thinking, ‘I want to be her.’”
Many believe that Barbie shapes self-perceptions of “body image” for girls– and warps how men view women sexually. Even professional counselors dismiss Barbie for “damaging women’s body images, or at least being a symbol for it.” Florence Williams, a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s public health school, said, “Kids are just bombarded with images that are really just not true to nature. It can potentially damage your self-esteem or limit your world view… It’s important for young boys to understand women’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes because they grow up expecting girls’ bodies to look a certain way.” Just this year, Mattel announced changes to their line of Barbie dolls, including dolls with a variety of height and size combinations.
I strongly believe that we are shaped by our culture so that our values and our world view changes as our culture changes. In 1963, my family traveled through Mississippi and Alabama on our way to Florida when I was ten years old. We stopped somewhere and I noticed two water fountains – and one was labeled “colored.” I thought to myself, “Wow! They have Kool-Aid here!” So I took a drink and discovered it was only water! Dad grabbed my arm with shock written all over his face. We never talked about that moment – my introduction to institutionalized racism. Now we look back in time and wonder how decent people could support such racism. How!? We were shaped by our culture.
If we are products of our culture, then we must see this same dynamic occurring in Scripture. For example…
In his article, “Banning Ba’al,” Hershel Shanks speculated that King David prohibited the naming of children using Ba’al in compound names (Baal means lord or master and referred to the Storm God, the lead deity of the Canaanites). People living before King David were given names such as Jerub-baal (“Let Baal contend with him” Judges 6:32), Esh-baal and Merib-baal (1 Chronicles 9:39-40). Hershel Shanks noted that “Ba’al names simply do not appear in the Bible after David’s time” and then cited archaeological evidence that supports this biblical phenomenon.
So, What was going on? Shanks thinks that King David, officially, wanted Judah to become monotheistic. But he also wonders if the name of the son of King Saul, who reigned for two years (2 Samuel 2:10), might have been an unofficial reason — his name was Esh-baal.
The ancient Hebrews were completely impacted by their Canaanite neighbors! Forgetting the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Joshua, the ancient Hebrews, and even King Saul, adopted the custom of naming their children using a foreign deity’s name! What was common in the culture of the ancient Canaanites became normal for the ancient Hebrews. They were shaped by their culture.
3. God accepts us where we are.
Since we are products of our time, God meets us within our cultures. God has chosen to meet people in every culture within the values of THAT culture. And this means that God works through us where we are and NOT where we should be! If God waited for us to “moral up” to divine standards, then God could never work through any of us. This is why God could empower someone like Samson even though he was a sex addict (Judges 16).
I believe, very strongly, that God really did command Moses and Joshua to commit genocide because cultural values in that ancient world demanded genocide as the only option in conquest. If we find God-initiated genocide reprehensible, then we have not made the effort to “get inside the heads” of people living in ancient times! We must study history and the social sciences in order to understand the cultural values that shape the actions of individuals, groups, and nations over time.
For example, in his book, The Gods of the Nations, Daniel Block identified the inter-relationships among a deity, the people worshiping this deity, and the land these people lived on. Because land resided within the jurisdiction of the local deity, the people living on that land became subjects to that deity in a kind of landlord relationship. All ancient peoples shared this world-view, including the ancient Hebrews.
This is why Naaman asked for “as much earth as a pair of mules can carry” back to his native land, Aram (II Kings 5:17 NIV). In Naaman’s world-view, he could not worship Yahweh in Aram because Aram belonged to the god, Rimmon. Taking dirt from Israel made it possible for Yahweh to be worshiped in Aram.
God accepted this feudal world-view and chose to identify with and work within the cultures of the ancient Near East. Daniel Block wrote extensively of this “deity-nation association” that was “intricately tied to territorial considerations,” making seven observations about the “extent to which the Israelite perspective shared or deviated from the prevailing viewpoints of their neighbors” (pages 149-50).
Therefore, we should not be surprised when God commanded Moses and Joshua to act in a way that would fit within the expectations of ancient peoples who lived on a divine estate under a covenant relationship with their patron god. Based on Block’s conclusions, we should not be surprised when God behaved like a king who managed land disputes in the following texts of Scripture:
When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot (Deuteronomy 2:19 NIV).
And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Leviticus 18:28 NIV).
It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end (Deuteronomy 11:12 NIV).
And, When we make the effort to “get inside the heads” of people living in ancient times, we should not be surprised when God commanded genocide in the conquest of Canaan. In his commentary on Judges, Lawson Younger defined and explained the Hebrew concept of “herem” (Hebrew: חרם, ḥērem) that is translated in the New International Version as “devoted thing” or “totally destroy.” He wrote:
The kind of warfare attributed to Israel in the conquest of Canaan does not originate in a theology of “holy war” peculiar to Old Testament theology. Rather, it is a political ideology that Israel shared with other nations in the ancient Near East. All wars waged by a country were “holy wars,” dedicated to the glorification of its deity and the extension of the deity’s land and reign (page 29).
This concept of “herem” was found among most Semitic peoples — Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Akkadian (source). For example, we know from the Mesha Stele that King Mesha “slaughtered all the inhabitants of Nebo because he made the city a devoted city to his god Chemosh” (source). This example of Moabite “herem” — total destruction of people/ things devoted to Chemosh — occurred centuries AFTER the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Like his Semitic neighbors, King Mesha made a deal with his god that would sound something like this: “If I completely give this city to Chemosh, then Chemosh will look upon me with favor and perhaps give me victory over Israel!” Bible scholars still debate motivations behind “herem” but ancient people tried to obligate their patron deity in a “tit for tat” strategy with sacrifices that included livestock, other products from their land, conquered populations with their personal belongings, and even their own children.
We should not be surprised when the actions of people recorded for us in Scripture mirror the actions of their surrounding cultures. We should not surprised that God would command Moses, Joshua and the Israelites to “herem” the inhabitants of Canaan – men, women, children. God operated within the value system of this ancient culture.
And if we hold God responsible for their actions, then perhaps we should consider how much our actions mirror the actions of our surrounding cultures. In spite of all the atrocities and shortcomings throughout human history (and yes, even our own personal history), God accepts us where we are — and humanity where humanity is throughout human history.
Likewise, God operates with the value system of our current cultures. How is this possible?
- God works through people.
- We are shaped by our culture.
- God accepts us where we are.
Ok! This blog is the blog that won’t end. I must stop here and continue in a future post to deal with concerns and questions about my “filter of historical perspective,” such as:
- John Calvin’s concept of divine accommodation.
- Issues of “political correctness.”
- Making cultural amends.
- When culture desensitizes us to destructive influences.
- The nature of progressive revelation.
- If “iron sharpens iron” with individuals, then “iron sharpens iron” with cultures.
- Approaches in current scholarship to address multiple voices within the conquest narratives.
- Problems with incarnational theology – that God identifies with people within their culture.