Violence and the Old Testament II

I promised in my last post that I would address the issue of what to do with all the violence and battles of the Old Testament. I find that spiritualizing the battles of the Old Testament is an inadequate way of dealing with this "dark side" of the Bible, but because of the complexity of the issue it will be necessary to stretch out my answer in a series of posts. So let’s start by getting some preliminary issues out of way. First, let me say that I find it overly simplistic to say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of War and that the God of the New Testament is a God of Peace. In both the Old and New Testaments we are dealing with the same God. The God of the Exodus who battles Pharaoh and his minions to bring his people from slavery to freedom, the God who sends the Assyrians and the Babylonians against his people to punish them for their sins, and the God of unconditional love and forgiveness that Jesus proclaims in the New Testament is the same God. There is, to be sure, a shift in emphasis between the Old and New Testaments, but it is the same God who is loving and forgiving, who is angry and punishing. God in the Old Testament shows his love for his people in rescuing them from slavery and from their enemies. In Hosea God’s mercy overrides his anger against his people. It is because he is God and not human, that he will not carry out the punishment they so richly deserve (Hos 11:9). The Old Testament describes God as "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" (e.g. Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Neh 9:17). The language of violence is not absent from the New Testament. The war lamb of the Book of Revelation is not a warm and fuzzy creature. Eternal punishment is still on the horizon for those who fail to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned (Mt 25:41-46). Second, I would like to situate this discussion within its historical and theological context. The story of Israel’s life as a nation testifies to the notion of a God who is at work in the history of the nation, even in the horrific trauma of the wars that nation experienced. It is not easy to see God at work in the pain and misery of life, but Israel taught us how to do that so that we could see even in the cross of Jesus, God is to be found, and by extension we can find God in the pain and misery that may plague our own lives. The biblical witness affirms that God is not found simply in the glory of nature or is active only in the good things we experience in life, but also God is to be found in the messiness of life, even in the mess we make of life in war. Finally by way of introduction to this topic of war and violence in scripture, these battle stories of the Old Testament tell us something of the nature of God. In a world where the defeat of a nation was seen as the defeat of the gods of that nation, the Old Testament tells us that Yahweh is in control, his power is not to be doubted, even when Israel is defeated; indeed Yahweh is using the other nations to punish Israel for its sin. The biblical stories tell us that Yahweh does not use his power arbitrarily or for trivial reasons, as we find in some of the stories of the gods of Israel’s neighbors. To explain defeat in battle as the result of sin is to affirm that we live in a moral universe. There is a reason for what happens. If God sends punishment, it is because Israel has sinned, and so has merited punishment. That this answer is ultimately inadequate or at least incomplete is already addressed in the book of Job. The New Testament will be more radical in its view that God does not hold our sin against us, but has redeemed us in Christ. Holding these three things in mind, we need to address the thorny issue of Holy War which I will pick up in my next post. Pauline Viviano
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