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Befriending the Old Testament: Part 7

WelCom September 2019:

Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm continues her eight-part series about the Old Testament.

Elizabeth Julian RSM.

So far, we have seen that the Old Testament, describing God’s love affair with a particular group of people, follows a basic storyline involving many different characters, places and events, spread over 46 books. Inspired in its origins and inspiring in its effects it is true in the religious sense; that is in what it reveals about God’s character and God’s dealings with humankind. But what on earth are we supposed to do with all its violence? Doesn’t God at one point wipe out all humankind apart from Noah and his family; cause all the Egyptians to drown in the sea of Reeds; order Abraham to sacrifice his son? Weren’t women to be stoned to death for adultery according to the Mosaic Law? I could go on. So how do we deal with all this violence attributed to God? How can we possibly claim that the Old Testament is the Word of God?

“God is good.
God is love (1 John 4:8).
God is not violent.
God is not vindictive.”

Let’s be very clear from the outset: God is good. God is love (1 John 4:8). God is not violent. God is not vindictive. God does not order the slaughter and total annihilation of anyone. While the Old Testament describes some appalling violence and attributes much of it to God, we can never move from a description of violence to claiming that God prescribes or sanctions such violence.

However, if we understand the historical and cultural context of the stories then we can make more sense of them. For example, ancient stories of conquest were always highly exaggerated. Hence, the book of Joshua depicts the total destruction of the Canaanites, yet in the very next book (Judges), the Canaanites are still in the land. The image of the Israelites storming in and quickly gaining control of Canaan is more a product of their religious imagination than fact. Furthermore, by the time Joshua was written, the Israelites had lost their land and were sitting in exile in Babylon!

Many attempts over the centuries have tried to reconcile the warrior God of Joshua with the God of mercy revealed in person of Jesus. A suggestion made towards the end of the 2nd century by Marcion, a famous teacher, concluded the vengeful God of the Old Testament couldn’t possibly be the God who sent Jesus. Consequently, he threw out the Old Testament altogether! However, the Church decided otherwise – we have a Bible with two Testaments because various bishops argued that the violent texts with a seemingly barbaric God were not historical but metaphorical. Ronald Rolheiser suggests when the Old Testament describes God as being angry, vengeful, demanding we kill someone, it is speaking anthropomorphically, that is, putting human feelings, emotions and desires onto God. We get angry, we want to pay someone back, we may even feel like killing someone, and so forth, God doesn’t. So, the passages that attribute violence to God are not meant to be taken literally. They are texts that teach us about our own hearts and desires. For example, who are the Canaanites in our hearts that we need to destroy in order to reach our particular promised land?

The Old Testament story that tells us most about God’s heart, God’s very character, is the Exodus story. It is there we meet the redeeming and rescuing God who hears the cry of the Israelites and frees them from their terrible oppression. This God reveals Godself to Moses as the God who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exod 34:6). This moving proclamation becomes a creedal recital, appearing in different versions in different contexts with different functions throughout the entire Old Testament. It’s like a constant drumbeat and is deeply entrenched in the Israelites’ memory. They turn to it especially in moments of crisis. In contrast, however, the violent conquest story in Joshua is a highly specific, one-off story, never appearing again in the Old Testament. The behaviour it describes is never regarded as the norm.

So the God who we see in Jesus blessing foreigners and holding them up as models for us, is the same God who, according to the biblical writers, seemingly ordered the annihilation of the Canaanites! (Note that Matthew includes Rahab and Ruth [foreigners] in his Jesus’ genealogy.)

Another suggested way to deal with the violence requires examining the Old Testament carefully. Numerous perspectives about what happened and why are evident. Many examples of opposing viewpoints suggest that over time the Israelites themselves reflected on events in the light of their own experience of sin and salvation. The final editors included all voices.

So for us, the Old Testament is the Word of God but it is in human words. It can be seen as a mirror holding up to us both our goodness and our sinfulness. The depictions of horrific violence challenge us to reflect on all forms of violence in our own lives, and our own image of God.

God is good. God is love. The best ‘picture’ of God for Christians is, of course, Jesus.