L. Daniel Hawk is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Ashland Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He is the author of Ruth in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series.
L. Daniel Hawk says:
The violence of the biblical God confronts faithful readers with a host of perplexing challenges. The God who decrees “Thou shalt not kill” nevertheless commits and commands killing, sometimes on a massive scale. God’s collusion with violence throughout the Old Testament is difficult to reconcile with Jesus’s commands to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek. Then there is the matter of how God’s violence has been used to legitimate and direct Christian programs of violence throughout history, from crusades to colonialism. Doesn’t a violent God produce violent followers?
The conversation about God’s violence in our day has largely centered on the question of whether the Old Testament depiction of the violent God is compatible with the God revealed through the teachings and ministry of Jesus. A number of recent and influential books (for example, Gregory Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and Eric Seibert’s The Violence of Scripture), respond with an emphatic “No!” They argue that the violence of the Old Testament God cannot be reconciled with the non-violent teaching and life of Jesus.
It follows then, the argument goes, that all references to God’s violence –whether in word or deed–reflect false or fictional representations of God. These are to be attributed to the incorporation of the violent imagery associated with the religion and deities of the ancient world. Since violent portraits of God arise from flawed ideas about the divine, they do not reveal who God really is and cannot be taken at face value. One must therefore find an alternate way to interpret the images–for example, to allegorize them–or to reject them altogether.
I am uncomfortable with this way of dealing with the issue for a number of reasons. I begin with the assumption that two parts of the canon witness to one and the same God; the God revealed in Israel’s testimony is the God incarnate in Jesus Christ. I see the Bible’s diverse and disparate representations of God as presenting a paradox that requires hard thinking and resists attempts to harmonize.
I’m also uncomfortable with approaches that assert that what the Bible plainly says is not what the Bible really says. How and who decides when the Bible speaks plainly or truly reveals God seems a slippery process. Equally slippery is the tendency to derive theological conclusions from reconstructions of what ancient people were thinking, especially since some reconstructions rest on pure conjecture.
I, therefore, decided to come at the topic of divine violence from a different direction, beginning with approaching all canonical depictions of God as revelatory and the Bible as a revelatory text in its own right. I think it better, as a corollary, to draw theological conclusions from what the biblical text plainly says, rather than on what biblical interpreters think biblical writers were thinking. Finally, I view the Bible as a diverse assembly of witnesses that draws interpreters into an ongoing conversation about how to think and act in alignment with God’s work in our time–as opposed to mining the Bible for categorical moral principles.
In The Violence of the Bible God, I focus specifically on the way that the Bible tells the story of God’s work to restore a damaged creation by working through and with human partners, following the thread of the Primary Narrative (Genesis through 2 Kings) and picking up it up again in Luke and Acts. The narratives, as I read them, depict a God who enters the ungodly mess that humans have made of the world and who, in the process of working and identifying with human partners, is drawn into the maelstrom of violence that configures the world. As the story unfolds, we encounter a God who is deeply committed to those partners and adapts to their situations and behaviors for the sake of the relationship. As a result, over time God becomes entangled in the very systems of human violence and oppression that God opposes.
The project eventually comes crashing down, with God’s chosen people in exile and humbled by the dominant power of their time. The story picks up again, however, in the New Testament, with a new divine approach, which entails God disengaging with rather than working within the oppressive systems of the world. Now standing outside those systems, God is free to fully and clearly reveal God’s nature and priorities through God’s Son.
Taken as a whole, the story of God’s work to renew creation recounts God’s determination to work with and adapt to a collaborative relationship with flawed human partners. It presents multiple, disparate portraits of God working within and God working outside the systems created by wayward humanity. The diversity of canonical portraits, I suggest, signals how the Bible may guide reflection on violence. The canon places various contexts and perspectives in conversation and in so doing invites Christians to extend the conversation into their own contexts.