Is God Violent? Reading the Bible Through a Jesus-Shaped Lens (Story of Scripture 8.5)

Listen to the podcast. Its my longest one so far (29 minutes!) and probably more fun to listen to than to read.

But if you’d rather read, here’s the script:


Hello and welcome to the Ancient Pathways Podcast. We are going through the story of scripture, from God’s creation through to the call of Abraham and Israel to the coming of Jesus. Last week we saw the Israelites, now in covenant relationship with God, conquering the land God had given them. Moses had died and now Joshua was the leader and in the book of Joshua, Israel goes on conquest. The Israelites had been commanded by God, in passages such as Deuteronomy 7, to annihilate the residents of the land.

This is deeply troubling to many readers. How could a good God command such violence? Last week we kind of touched on the issue by looking at how God is fair – Rahab, an outsider, is saved while Achan, an insider who disobeys, faces judgment. While it is helpful to recognize God does not play favorites, this does not answer the question: how could a good God command such violence? We could skip this question and simply move on with the story, for the story itself just presents this as simply happening. But it troubles us and I think its worth examining it a bit more deeply. Obviously, in twenty minutes we cannot go that deep, but hopefully something here will help. I have studied this subject quite a lot and think I have at least a few helpful things to say.

The Problem

The problem comes at us in two ways. First, the God portrayed in these passages appears to be evil, not good. God here is immoral. Criticisms of these stories have come from founding fathers such as Thomas Paine:

“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it a work of a demon, than the work of God” (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason)

Richard Dawkins, in his book the God Delusion, writes:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”

(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion)

If this was all it was, we could perhaps write these texts off. We could just cast them off as things people believed once. Yet people have used these texts to justify violence in the past. These stories in Joshua, for example, were used to justify the European colonization of the Americas, with the Europeans seeing themselves as the new Israel and the indigenous people were the Canaanites. The fear is that religious people will use such stories again. This fear is not wholly imaginary, for religious people have used violence to defend slavery and racism in America’s history and religious symbols were prevalent at the insurrection on Jan. 6.

With this in mind, what is a Christian to do with these passages?

The Solution

So I need to be honest with you: I recorded a podcast episode where I went through three or four different ways we could interpret these scriptures. It was based off books I have read in the past as well as studies I have done. This is a subject that I’ve struggled with greatly and thus I have read lots of books, listened to podcasts and lectures and shared ideas in Bible studies and discussions on campus. I tried to distill that down to what almost was a mini-lecture.

It was pretty boring.

I mean, I did one of those things where you share three views before sharing the one you believe in last. When I listen to things like that, I usually just want to fast forward to what the guy or gal actually believes. Instead of attempting, and failing, at some sort of point-by-point survey, I am going to share what I think is the best answer right up front.

But first, a story.

A few years ago I was part of an interfaith discussion at PSU Berks that included Jewish and Muslim participants. I represented Christianity. It was a wonderful night of answering questions and discussion. I love this kind of friendly dialogue. At the same time though, it seemed too fluffy at times. We all talked as if the best of our faiths were the norm. I can’t remember how it came up, but eventually the violence in scriptures came up. All of us were quick to assure the audience our religions taught peace and that those who use violence are wrong.

Looking back, I would have loved to ask – how do we know they are wrong? How do we know the peaceful Muslim, Jew, Hindu or atheist is correct and the violent one is wrong? If we are honest, all of our religions have histories which include violence against some other group. Some of us are parts of religions where that violence is more recent, or even still happening today. I can say Christianity is a religion of peace and those who have used the scripture for violence are wrong, but who says I correctly represent Christianity? The Muslim panelist can say Islam is a religion of peace and those who use the Koran for violence are wrong, but who says who correctly represents Islam?

I, of course, cannot speak for the best or correct representation of Islam, nor any other religion. So often these discussions go around in circles. Christians say the crusaders or slave-owners were not real Christians. We may even argue that rejecting God leads to a nihilistic world where violence is justified and we can cite godless, atheist regimes such as North Korea or the Soviet Union. I read a book by an atheist once who, perhaps learning from Christians, argued those were not “real atheists”. I cannot speak for my skeptical or atheist friends either.

I can speak for Christians. I am not going to say Christians who used violence in the past, or present, are not “real Christians.” Again, it feels like a cop-out to me. But I will argue that they got the core of Christianity wrong. I feel relatively confident in arguing that the only way to justify violence in Christianity is by ignoring Jesus, who explicitly called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him…to death on the cross.

Another way of putting this is that we bring a lens to scripture – to elevate Jesus and see Jesus as the true, perfect and inerrant word of God is to read all scripture through Jesus. God is revealed in Jesus and Jesus is our norming-norm. To read in this way though is to relativize the other pictures of god in scripture.

Reading the Old Testament Through Jesus

The Bible story presents us with different pictures of who God is and what God commands. In the Old Testament God commanded animal sacrifice, then with Jesus animal sacrifice came to an end. Even before this, the prophets and Psalms recognized that the sacrificial system was inadequate. Likewise, God commanded circumcision before the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles and people were saved by faith alone. When Christians think about how to be saved – to come into right relationship with God – Jesus is put front and center.

In terms of salvation, we make Jesus primary. Whatever it means for the scripture to be inspired, we recognize those rules on circumcision and sacrifice are no longer relevant. Yet, when we move into discussions of what God is like and does God command or use violence, we reduce Jesus to just once of many possible pictures of God. In his book Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Greg Boyd asks the question this way:

“The question for Christians in this: Will our view of God be completely determined by the self-sacrificial love revealed on the cross or will it also be influenced by portraits of God doing things like commanding capital punishment for homosexuals (Lev. 20:13) and rebellious children (Deut. 21:18-21; Exod. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9), commanding genocide (e.g., Deut. 7:2,16), incinerating cities (Genesis 19) and striking a servant down for trying to prevent a sacred object from falling (2 Sam 6:6-7)?”

To apply this more precisely to the question of violence: If Jesus is just one picture of God, then when we want a violent God commanding violence, we can find such a God in Deuteronomy and elsewhere. Essentially, reducing Jesus to just one picture of God alongside many others allows us to pick and choose which God to follow. When we feel like our people or nation is under attack, or we just want to justify taking what we want from a weaker people, then we assume we are the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7, as the European colonizers did. When we are the weaker people, or when we feel in a good place, we may reference Jesus’ commands to take up our cross.

If God sometimes commands violence and sometimes does not, then we can justify using violence against our enemies. We are called to be like God after all. This is why, for me, the only way to close the door forever on a disciple of Jesus choosing violence is to make Jesus central to our interpretation of scripture not just in terms of how we are saved and whether we should do animal sacrifices and circumcision, but central in all our understanding of who God is and what God is like. I’d rather be sure about Jesus and unsure of the rest of the Bible then relativized Jesus and make an idol of the Bible.

To put it all out on the table then, I do not think God ever commands violence nor actively employees violence. The God revealed in Jesus is one who accepts violence and even turns violence towards the good. The God revealed in Jesus does not destroy enemies but allows enemies to harm him on the cross. As Jesus is God, this is our clearest picture of God.

This means that the God who allowed the Romans to crucifying him and think him a criminal also allowed the Israelites to think and even write things about God that were inaccurate. Importantly, this interpretation does not jettison the Old Testament nor say it was written without divine inspiration. Instead, it is to say that the inspiration is seen in God working with humans – the Bible is both divine and human just as Jesus is both divine and human. Through Jesus, as we interpret the Old Testament, we see God’s truth shining through. This truth shines more clearly in some areas than others but it is always there. There’s a mix of things we reject in light of Jesus, such as some of the rules for how to treat slaves which we spoke of a couple weeks ago. In light of Jesus, we do not do as Exodus says and beat our slaves but we instead work to free all slaves. Mixed in with these sorts of ideas we move past are some, such as the year of Jubilee or how to treat the poor among us by leaving grain in the field for them, which in light of Jesus have a lot to tell us about how to treat the poor today.

I used the terminology of “picking and choosing” above and I am sure someone could accuse me of just picking and choosing. Perhaps, the accusation would go, I personally find violence distasteful so I am picking only the peace parts. God is justice AND love, I am told.

First, that is the way I interpreted these passages most of my life. The Canaanites were evil, sinful people and God simply called Israel to execute justice upon them. God is just can can kill people for all people ultimately deserve destruction. That said, God no longer acts in this way. These commands and this divine violence were one-time events. Now we live as disciples of Jesus.

The problem with this interpretation is it does not shut the door on violence. I have heard the book of Revelation brought out to endorse a violent return of Jesus. This makes Jesus in the gospels merely a parenthesis in God – God was violent and will be violent but is not right now. Along with that, God still uses violence. After any natural disasters, there is always some Christian quick to say God did this to get our attention. From all this, if you really believe God used violence, will use violence and sometimes uses violence then just what will it take for you to justify your own violence? Just a brief glance at history – defenders of slavery, defenders of Jim Crow, insurrectionists in DC – all use violence.

I admit most of my Christian friends probably interpret it this way and most will never use violence. I generally find this interpretation helpful, especially as I seek to immerse myself in the story as if I am living it along with the Israelites. When I read, I still begin by taking it at face value. Just this week in my Bible reading plan, I read of God wanting to kill the Israelites and Moses pleading not to. Before stepping back and asking big questions (Would God really kill? How? Does God change his mind?) I simply recognize the real problem is Israel’s disobedience. For me, its that stepping back and looking at the passage through the lens of Jesus which pushes me into a different, Christ-centered interpretation. From that, my second point is that, I would argue, the interpretation where God just commanded violence and that’s just the way it is, is more open to picking and choosing than a Christ-centered one.

Everyone, on some level, picks and chooses the way we read scripture. We all have lenses and assumptions and ideas we bring with us to scripture. The question is, are we aware of them? I have chosen my lens to be Jesus; Jesus is the plumb line I compare all else to. I admit that. I seek to interpret it all through Jesus. This means I cannot pick and choose what I want, I need to submit to what Jesus wants.

If you have a God who sometimes uses violence but sometimes does not, then how do you know what to do in a given situation? Do you follow Jesus and love your enemy until it gets too hard, then justify violence?

There’s a lot more we could say. Greg Boyd’s book is very helpful as are others who take slightly different positions and I’ll list some in the show notes. As with anything, there is a lot more that could be said. For example, when we get more into the nitty-gritty of how violence works, I would say its not God actively employing violence but rather removing protection from Israel, or whomever, and allowing violence to come upon them. Every nation and empire throughout history – Egypt, Israel, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Rome, the Mongols, the Turks, Britain, Germany America – they all want to conquer. God doesn’t put the idea in anyone’s head; the inclination for violence is already there. Yet, when a nation sins, God may step back and remove protection. Within this is the reality of other spiritual forces at work that do employ violence. Of course, some may say there is not much difference between God actively using violence and stepping away, knowing violence will then happen. I for one think it is a big deal, just as there is a difference between actively pushing my kid off her bike and stepping back to let her learn, knowing she may fall.

When we consider how we interpret the Bible, one question to ask is whether we interpret the Old Testament as if God never became incarnate in Jesus. If Jesus’ incarnation makes no difference in how we understand these passages, that should give us pause.

“In light of the material covered in this chapter, I trust it is clear that the NT does not present Jesus as merely revealing an aspect of what God is like, as though we need to supplement this revelation with everything else we find in the Bible. Jesus is rather presented as the one and only Son who is, in contrast to all revelations that preceded him, the very ‘radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being’ (Heb 1:3). He is the very ‘embodiment of the truth of God…I also trust it is clear from the material we have covered that ‘the Old Testament…is all about Jesus which means that there is no dimension of the Old Testament message that does not in some way foreshadow Christ,’ as Goldsworthy notes” (91).

To argue that we interpret the whole of scripture through Jesus is to put us in touch with a deeper, more profound history of interpretation. We do not jettison the historical aspect of scripture, but we recognize that these things happened and we have to wrestle with them. Yet, we know the mere history is not the most important thing. For example, that David killed Goliath is interesting. That there are two giants named Goliath who are killed may demand a historical explanation. But there’s more. To see David as an example of faith we can emulate is helpful. But if we stop there, then we have not brought Jesus to bear. When we see David as a representative of Jesus, representing his people to battle the forces of evil, we are moving deeper.

Likewise, whether Jonah literally and historically happened or not is an interesting question. But proving a person could survive in a whale doesn’t tell us much. Jonah, like all the Bible, is not just historical information. Perhaps the lesson from Jonah is not to be like Jonah, but instead to obey God. Deeper than that is the interpretation we get from Jesus, that Jonah points ahead to Jesus’ own three days in the tomb.

To sum up: we do not jettison scripture. We do not look at it as mere history nor do we look at it as just a story with a meaning. Instead, we look at it as history and as stories with meaning AND as stories about Jesus. We examine it on all these levels. Through this, when we develop our understanding of God, we filter it all through Jesus.

Jesus is the perfect word of God, our clearest revelation of who God is. The Bible is the written word of God which points to Jesus. We come to the Bible with a lens – a Jesus-centered lens.

I mentioned earlier that in this view, there are some things we reject in light of Jesus. One reason I love the Bible though, is God did not micromanage it but allowed these parts in. One example is Psalm 137, where the conquered Israelites cry out to God in the midst of their pain, praying that God would destroy even the babies of their enemies. This visceral pain by those who have been oppressed is valid. When people are hurt, God listens to their emotional pain. Yet, in Jesus we do not actually pray for vengeance. Contrast this with Jeremiah 29 where the people are told to work for the good of Babylon, in other words, to love their enemies. Both Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 are in the BIble and they present different attitudes towards enemies. We do not get to pick which we follow. Instead, in Jesus we both recognize the emotion of Psalm 137 while knowing we are called to live by Jeremiah 29.

As we have said before, we are called to love our enemies.

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