Violence In The Old Testament is an ongoing series of reflections designed to help Christians make sense of Jesus’ teaching on peace and enemy love when juxtaposed with the images of an often violent and vengeful God found throughout the Old Testament. After all, violent Old Testament passages, such as those attributing genocidal acts to God, ought to be problematic not just for pacifists, but for every moral, Bible-believing Christian.
Many Christians genuinely struggle to reconcile Jesus’ teaching on peace and enemy love with the images of an often violent and vengeful God found throughout the Old Testament. If you’re confused about how to resolve these conflicting teachings, you are not alone. In fact, the violence of the Old Testament tends to be the primary roadblock preventing Bible-believing Christians from otherwise embracing what they see as Jesus’ clear teaching to love our enemies and never harm them. This is not a new predicament for the Church. The violence of the Old Testament has been a point of contention, debate, and scandal for Christians throughout Church history.
The Next Three Posts In This Series:
Before explaining how I, as a Christian pacifist, have come to reconcile the seemingly contradictory teachings on violence contained in the Old and New Testaments, it is important that we address here at the onset three preliminary questions. They are:
- Is there really a contradiction between the Old and New Testament teaching on the permissibility of violence and treatment of enemies?
- What are some of the ways that Christians throughout history (including today) have made sense of these seemingly incompatible teachings?
- What ethical stance should Christians embrace while they are still grappling with these apparently incompatible teachings? In other words, until we have figured out how to reconcile these two sets of teaching (which admittedly is a goal we may never attain in this life), what stance should Christians take? Do we solely follow Jesus’ teaching or the Old Testament’s ethic, or do we compromise both by devising a middle-of-the-road stance?
A Word of Pastoral Advice:
This first question is the focus of today’s post. But before diving into it, permit me to offer a word of pastoral advice: The most important topic to be discussed in this entire series is the third question I just listed. What or whose teaching should we follow during those times in which we are confused by (what at least appears to be) varied and incompatible sets of biblical instruction? More important than knowing how I and other Christians have come to make sense of the violence-condoning portions of Scripture, is for you to know which teaching to follow while in the midst of being confused by apparently contradictory biblical teaching.
Let’s face it. There’s a good chance that you may be dissatisfied or even disagree with the way in which I’ve come to reconcile these two sets of teaching on violence. I’m all right with that, as long as you have learned what criteria to use in determining your ethical stance during those seasons of confusion. And those seasons will occur often…not just on this specific topic. So stay tuned for this upcoming discussion!
Just How Extensive Are The Opposing Teachings On Violence & Peace?
In this post—which is the second reflection in our ongoing series entitled Violence In The Old Testament—I want to highlight the extent to which violence is a theme in the Old Testament and peace an equally common motif throughout the New Testament.
Violence In The Old Testament:
It is no exaggeration when I state that violence saturates the pages of the Old Testament. For example, based upon one comprehensive study into the prevalence of violence throughout the Old Testament, Raymond Schwager calculated there to be “six hundred passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Scriptures, one thousand verses where God’s own violent actions of punishment are described, a hundred passages where Yahweh expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason (e.g. Exodus 4:24-26).”[i]
You and I may disagree with Schwager’s conclusion that “violence is the most often mentioned activity and central theme of the Hebrew Bible” (emphasis added). Still, few of us are likely surprised by his findings on the sheer extent of violence throughout the Old Testament. We all have read with uneasiness those passages in which war and violence are sanctioned or even carried out by Yahweh. For example, in Deuteronomy 20 we read God’s instructions to Israel about destroying the inhabitants of cities. If a city did not unconditionally accept Israel’s terms of defeat, then “when the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it (verse 13). For some other cities, the passage commands Israel, “Do not leave anything that breathes” (verse 16). Similarly, in that classic Sunday School story, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, the Israelites “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21).
But there aren’t just passages in which Yahweh is credited with instructing Israel to commit violence. In some cases, the act of violence is attributed to God Himself. In Joshua 11:20 we read, “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that He might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses” (emphasis added). And what are we to do with those savage events that can only be explained as an act of divine intervention? As a case in point, in the final plague against Egypt, it is said that “at midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well” (Exodus 12:29, emphasis added). Only divine intervention could explain such a vicious act.
Now admittedly, this is a one-sided picture of the character of Yahweh as depicted in the Old Testament. For example, in Ezekiel 18:23 God announces, “Do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked? Certainly not!” But for the purpose of this series, I hope the above cursory run through of the Old Testament confirms that violence is indeed a common theme.
Peace & Enemy-Love In The New Testament:
The prevalence of violence throughout the Old Testament becomes all the more shocking when juxtaposed with the themes of peace and enemy love contained in the New Testament.
Before Jesus ever came on the scene, He was prophesied in Isaiah 9:6 to be the Prince of Peace. In fact, Isaiah went so far as to prophesy that Jesus would “do no violence” (Is. 53:9). This message of peace and enemy-love explodes onto the scene once we turn our attention to the writings of the New Testament. One of Jesus’ customary greeting was “peace be with you,” which interestingly enough also became the customary greeting of the early Church (e.g. John 20:21). In His famous mountainside sermon, Jesus exclaimed, “Happy are those who make peace”, and then he went on to describe them as “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). In that same sermon, Jesus also taught a radically new ethic the likes of which had never been uttered before. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). He prefaced this new ethic with the words, “I tell you not to resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39). Finally, Jesus made it quite clear that violence was not an option for His followers when He stated, “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight” (John 18:36).
In the years immediately after Jesus’ life and ministry, Peter (in Acts 10:36) and Paul (in Ephesians 6:15) summarized His message as the “Gospel of Peace”. This is a good title, yet personally, I like to refer to Jesus’ good news as the Gospel of Enemy Love. Here’s why: Paul understood the heart of Jesus’ saving work to be that “while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:20). In other words, loving enemies is a central motivator in every act of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Gospel message is that God reconciled us to Himself while we were still treating Him as our enemy.
Warrior God or Prince of Peace?:
Perhaps the contrast between the Old and New Testament stances on violence and treatment of enemies can most succinctly and sharply be seen by the juxtaposition of two titles attributed to God. In Exodus 15:3 God is referred to as “the warrior Lord.” Yet, how do we reconcile this view of God with Jesus who, as we’ve already seen, is known as the Prince of Peace? The Warrior Lord and the Prince of Peace. These titles are meant to be descriptive of God’s essential character. Yet these attributes are polar opposites!
Hopefully by now we can all agree that the teachings on violence and treatment of enemies contained within the Old and New Testaments at least appear to be antithetical. There may be a reason that justifiably explains this difference in teaching, yet it is safe to say that they do in fact promote two very different ethical stances.
So how do we as Bible-believing Christians make sense of all these two sets of teaching that at least appear to blatantly contradict each other? An answer to that question is the end to which we’re moving. As we move in that direction, our next post will address this question: What are some of the ways that Christians throughout history (including today) have made sense of these seemingly incompatible teachings? In a cursory fashion, we’ll look at the strengths and weaknesses of various proposed solutions.
Time for Your Feedback:
Keep in mind that I am striving for this series of posts to become the core content of a chapter in the book I’m attempting to write on Jesus’ approach to peacemaking. As I wrote this post, I felt concerned that most readers will lose engagement at this point in the chapter. What advice do you have for making this post’s content more engaging? Did I go into too much detail or not enough? Did you find my “word of pastoral advice” regarding the third question we’ll discuss to be helpful?
[i] Wink, Walter. Engaging The Powers, pg. 146.