New Series: Violence In The Old Testament

/New Series: Violence In The Old Testament

Over the sound of chatter, we suddenly heard the distinct ringing of a gong.  We were so caught up in our discussion that we had completely lost track of time.  The sound of someone hitting the gong reminded us that it was 9:00pm—the time we set aside each evening as a community to pray and reflect on the day.

As we all meandered across the house to the prayer room, I personally wished we could have continued our conversation a bit longer.  As a missional community Christians living in Canada’s poorest neighborhood, we had spent the evening grappling with how we ought to respond to the violence we often see on our streets.  Some Christians from a nearby church had joined us for dinner and the impromptu discussion that followed.

Most of our conversation had focused on how we could have better responded with active, nonviolent love in some very specific instances of violence we had witnessed during the previous month.  Various members of our community had witnessed fistfights amongst homeless neighbors, others of us were caring for a victim of police brutality.  And to top it all off, tensions between rival gangs were quickly escalating into multiple lethal confrontations throughout our city.

Though we spent most of our time discussing how one could attempt to be a peacemaker in the midst of these specific violent situations, near the end our discussion shifted slightly.  Some of our guests began asking us why we as a community unambiguously embrace nonviolence.  In an attempt to briefly explain our stance, we highlighted some of Jesus’ teachings on love towards enemies and concluded that since we are called to imitate Jesus and love as He loved, then we also ought to always love our enemies.  That is as far as we got in answering their question before being interrupted by the gong.

As we congregated in the prayer room, I silently thanked God that these guests had been here for our discussion.  I prayed that this church group would also commit to nonviolence.

For our community prayers at the end of each day, we’ve developed a rhythm of singing a song, reading an assigned chapter from the Psalms, and then using Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Daily Examen to prayerfully reflect on our day.

This night we began by singing through four times the following Taize song:

“The Kingdom of God is justice and peace
And joy in the Holy Spirit.
Come Lord, and open in us
The gates of Your Kingdom.”

The lyrics seemed especially appropriate and timely after our evening conversation.  I found myself thanking God that His Kingdom truly is one of peace.

Then came the assigned reading from the Psalms…chapter 144.  As soon as the opening line was read, I began to cringe.  “Praise to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1).

The psalmist’s understanding of God seems so foreign to me from the Jesus I read of in the Gospels.  Who is this poet’s God that trains His followers in warfare?  His God seems completely different from the One known as the Prince of Peace.  Furthermore, in numerous other psalms, the lyricist expresses a hatred towards his enemies and an earnest desire to see vengeance carried out on them that strike me as being antithetical to the mindset the New Testament writers call us to have towards enemies.

As I sat silently in the prayer room that night, I wondered if the reading of this psalm would cause our guests to dismiss the reasons we gave for embracing Jesus’ call to love our enemies with a love that never inflicts harm on them.  What we shared about Jesus seemed to be completely contradicted by this psalm.

Due in part to the events of that night, I am convinced that one of the most significant road blocks needing cleared before most Christians will embrace a nonviolent peacemaking approach is the seemingly contradictory teachings in the Old and New Testaments on violence and treatment of enemies.  That is why I’ll be dedicating a series of posts to this very issue.  I’m quite excited to share with you many of the lessons I’ve learned, especially because the insights I’ve gleaned not only remove this road block (at least they do in my opinion) but they actually deepen our understanding of Jesus’ approach to peacemaking.

Time For Your Feedback: Over the coming weeks as we dive into this series, I’m very interested in receiving feedback from each of you around its content.  As you comment on this particular post, I’d enjoy hearing whether or not this is an issue you’re keen to see addressed.  Has the violence contained in the Old Testament been puzzling to you?


About the Author:

Husband, father, writer on Jesus' approach to peacemaking, and North America Coordinator for Servants to Asia's Urban Poor ( Servants is an international network of Christian communities living and working in the slums of Asia and the West, participating with the poor to bring hope and justice through Jesus Christ.
  • My friend Jenny Scott posted on the Enemy Love Facebook page the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Can we, then, pray the psalms of vengeance? Insofar as we are sinners and associate of evil thoughts with the prayer of vengeance, we must not do so. But insofar as Christ is in us, we too, as members of Jesus Christ, can pray these psalms through and from the heart of Jesus Christ, who took all the vengeance of God on himself, who was afflicted in place of us by the vengeance of God, who was in this way stricken by the wrath of God and in no other way could forgive his enemies, and who himself suffered this wrath so that his enemies might go free” (Life Together).

    • So what do you all think of Bonhoeffer’s quote? Here was my response on Facebook to Jenny: “This is in many ways the direction I’m going with this series on Violence in the Old Testament. Although, I think Bonhoeffer might be emphasizing God’s wrath so much that he forgets it is subordinate to God’s lovingkindness. Let’s not forget all those verses in which God says, “My lovingkindness lasts forever, and my wrath lasts but a moment.”

  • jonathanhakim

    There’s a part of me that feels that saying the Hebrew scriptures are unduly focused on violence is like saying that Native American folktales are unduly focused on inter-specific relations within the animal kingdom. There may be stories in the Old Testament where the intention is to tell us how we should act violently, and we’ll need to unpack and understand those. But I think that the vast majority of violent incidents in the Old Testament have nothing to do with “violence” itself at all – violence is just the setting via which a story is told that has an entirely different point.