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How do we reconcile the “violent” Old Testament God with Jesus?

The slaughter of the Canaanites is one of the most troubling passages in the Old Testament. Not only has it been used to justify colonialism and ethnic violence, it also seems to reveal a picture of God that appears at odds with Jesus’ portrayal of God in the New Testament.

How should we try to understand this apparent contradiction?

Branson Parler, writing for the Missioalliance blog, offers some good thoughts about this question and particularly the attempt to downplay or dismiss the accuracy of the Old Tesament portrait.

“One popular answer is that the conquest narratives record Israel’s projection onto God rather than God’s actual instructions to Israel. God is not really judging the inhabitants of Canaan with Israel as his instrument, its proponents say, Israel is simply rationalizing its own selfish drive to possess the land. In order to transcend Israel’s faulty and murderous self-justification, they then encourage us to read later texts, such as the Gospels, over against these problematic earlier texts. The more this interpretation prevails the more popular it has become to speak of “God’s violence” rather than “God’s justice” or “God’s judgment.” After all, if unseemly OT texts simply amount to human projections onto God, then we create “God” in our violent image rather than witness to a God who is just in all his ways…

Yet there is a fatal flaw with this interpretive approach. In the biblical narrative, the logic of conquest, exile, and cross are actually tied together. The way we approach one determines how we approach all three.

….If you think the conquest narratives are problematic, the exile narratives are more so. In terms of sheer volume, the Bible talks far more about God’s judgment on disobedient Israel through Assyria and Babylon than it does about God’s judgment on the Canaanites. In terms of judgment and terror, the narrative in Joshua is quite tame in comparison to the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28, which promise Israel that the destruction of one’s family, land, and property will drive people mad, that the horror experienced by Israel will become a “byword among the nations,” and that parents will cannibalize their own children. As Jeremiah laments, “With their own hands, compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed” (Lamentations 4:10). If the idea that “God judges sinful people through a chosen instrument” is a projection, then no one is projecting more than the biblical prophets who warn God’s covenant people repeatedly to turn or suffer the consequences.”

Parler points out that explaining away the conquest passages also has implications for how we understand Jesus and his mission:

“…[I]f accounts of God’s judgment are mere projections, of course, then Jesus’s beliefs about the exile and his own role in bringing about the end of exile were wrong. … if Jesus’s account of Israel’s covenant and his role in relation to it was wrong, then Jesus doesn’t reveal Israel’s God. Far from it, he reveals his own confusion and ignorance by projecting onto God the idea that he had to die for the sins of his people (a confusion then perpetuated throughout the rest of the New Testament). And of course if Jesus was confused about what the Father wanted, then he was neither the Messiah nor the eternal Son. In other words, if you pay close attention to the biblical narrative, you cannot consistently interpret Joshua as a projection onto God and Jesus as the full revelation of God.”

But what about using these passages to justify violence today?

“Many people think that if one affirms that God commanded Israel to do what they did in Joshua, then it implies God’s stamp of approval on any and all actions of war (or at least just war). But this is not at all the case. I affirm God’s providential use of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome to judge, but that does not mean that the actions of the rulers or armies of those nations were morally good. For example, after Isaiah notes that God is going to use Assyria to judge, his application of the message is not “Go join the Assyrian army”; for they too will be judged in turn for their wickedness (Isa. 10). Likewise, when Jesus notes that Jerusalem will be judged, he doesn’t encourage his followers to defect to the Roman armies…

The point of all this is recognizing God’s proper place and authority to judge. God has the right to do this; we do not.”

He concludes,

“[H]ere’s the rub: the God created by those who insist on talking about divine “violence” is more a projection than the God attested to by Joshua, Jeremiah, and Jesus. A violent God rather than a just God is the product of the contemporary failure to read Scripture closely, faithfully, and directionally.”

Read the whole thing here. It’s a great post.

For more books on the topic of the Old Testament wars, check out Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan, God Behaving Badly by David Lamb, The God I Don’t Understand by Chris Wright, and Holy War in the Bible edited by Heath A Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan.

Reconciling the God of Love with the God of Genocide?

David T. Lamb, author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, has written an article in the September/October issue of Relevant on the alleged incompatibility of the Old Testament wars and the Christian God. He shows why two common responses fail to resolve the problem (one offered by liberals, one offered by conservatives) and then offers five arguments that take both the problem and the text seriously.

Read it here (jump to pages 108-111).

Tim Keller on Justification and Justice

Tim Keller talks about his book Generous Justice and shows how Christianity is not a hindrance to doing justice, but that its central doctrine – justification by faith – is essential to having a heart for justice and the poor. The talk took place at the Christ and City conference in Chicago.

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If you want to hear more from Keller on Biblical justice, check out his lecture on Doing Justice or his sermon on Isaiah 58.

God is wrathful because God is love

“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”

Miroslav Volf, quoted by Dr. Christopher Wright in The God I Don’t Understand, p. 131

How can God be loving yet send people to hell?

New Testament Research Professor Don Carson discusses the doctrine of eternal punishment and whether this is compatible with a God of love.

The Unique Gift of Christmas

“No other religion–whether secularism, Greco-Roman paganism, Eastern religion, Judaism, or Islam–believes God became breakable or suffered or had a body. Eastern religion believes the physical is illusion. Greco-Romans believe the physical is bad. Judaism and Islam don’t believe God would do such a thing as live in the flesh.

But Christmas teaches that God is concerned not only with the spiritual, because he is not just a spirit anymore. He has a body. He knows what it’s like to be poor, to be a refugee, to face persecution and hunger, to be beaten and stabbed. He knows what it is like to be dead. Therefore, when we put together the incarnation and the resurrection, we see that God is not just concerned about the spirit, but he also cares about the body. He created the spirit and the body, and he will redeem the spirit and the body.

Christmas shows us that God is not just concerned about spiritual problems but physical problems too. So we can talk about redeeming people from guilt and unbelief, as well as creating safe streets and affordable housing for the poor, in the same breath. Because Jesus himself is not just a spirit but also has a body, the gift of Christmas is a passion for justice.

But Christians have not only a passion for justice but also the knowledge that, in the end, justice will triumph. Confidence in the justice of God makes the most realistic passion for justice possible.”

Tim Keller in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas, edited by Nancy Guthrie (Crossway Books, 2008).

The mystery of the cross

Into this kind of self-centered, earthly kingdom, Jesus brought a different and dramatic – albeit radical – response to pain and suffering. His answer was a stumbling block then, and it is a stumbling block now. But only if it is properly and seriously understood can its beauty be seen amidst its obvious pain and hatred. I refer to the cross of Christ. The cross stands as a mystery because it is foreign to everything we exalt – self over principle, power over meekness, the quick fix over the long haul, cover-up over confession, escapism over confrontation, comfort over sacrifice, feeling over commitment, legality over justice, the body over the spirit, anger over forgiveness, man over God.

[I]n the cross alone, pain and evil meet in consummate conflict. In the cross alone are integrated love and justice, the twin foundations upon which we may build our moral and spiritual home, individually and nationally. It is theoretically and practically impossible to build any community apart from love and justice. If only one of these two is focused upon, an inevitable extremism and perversion follow. Throughout history, mankind has shouted its ideals of liberty, equality, and justice; yet the ideologies that have risen, supposedly in the pursuit of human progress, have left in their wake some very dastardly experiments that echo with the whimpering sounds of man, like a trapped animal. Rising above the cry of liberty, equality and justice is the more rending plea for that sense of belonging we call love. And love unbounded by any sense of right or wrong is not love but self-centeredness and autocracy. In the cross of Jesus Christ, the demands of the law were satisfied and the generosity of love was love was expressed.

Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God, Word Publishing (1994), pages 171-172.