Several writers have recently tackled the delicate question of how to reconcile the violence practised by God in the Old Testament with the forgiveness and non-violence taught and modelled by Jesus Christ.
The definitive work on this is without question Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. But that is 2 volumes, 1500 pages, and is written for a scholarly readership. Happily, he has also produced, for ordinary folks like us, a slimmer and simpler version. It is:
Cross Vision: How the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense of Old Testament violence by Gregory A. Boyd (Fortress Press, 2017).
Boyd holds to the divine inspiration of the whole Bible. At the same time, he recognises the shortcomings of the human authors, who were men of their time, with a typical Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mindset and cultural conditioning. As we would expect, they often portrayed God as a ‘man of war’, helping his people in their conquests and rejoicing when they slaughtered their enemies on his orders. God accommodated them in their twisted thinking as, in love, he met them where they were, in order to take them into deeper revelation about his nature.
If Jesus alone is ‘the exact representation’ of the Father’s nature—and this is the truth on which everything else depends—there’s no way God is really the genocidal deity portrayed in some parts of the Old Testament. The cross gives us a clue as to how we can resolve the problem. There, we not only see the immense love of God reaching out to reconcile the world to himself, but his amazing condescension in allowing his enemies to crucify him. God was acting on humanity, but also permitting humanity to act upon him.
The author applies this broad principle to a substantial cross-section of OT incidents where God is portrayed as bloodthirsty and violent. He does it in great detail and with careful exegesis of the relevant passages. He explains the meaning of the ‘wrath’ of God, and tackles incidents of violence by Israel’s enemies (like the Babylonians, who were his instrument of judgment), by cosmic forces of evil (like the Flood and the Red Sea crossing), and by his servants (like Elijah, Elisha and Samson). To my mind he has a sound case from start to finish.
But you must read it for yourself to get the full picture. If it will help, I have prepared a synopsis of the book, which you can read/download here: Cross Vision synopsis.
Meanwhile, here is a selection of quotations.
I am not going to try to minimize the moral awfulness or put the best possible spin on the OT’s violent depictions of God, as Evangelical apologists typically do. (p7)
The biblical authors believed they were complimenting God when they proclaimed that “the Lord gave David victory wherever he went” (2 Sam 8:14), which meant leaving no man or woman alive. (p11)
While I continue to affirm that the whole Bible is inspired by God, I’m now persuaded that the Bible itself instructs us to base our mental representation of God solely on Jesus Christ. (p19)
To say that a passage is divinely inspired is not to say that it necessarily reflects an unclouded vision of God. (p21)
Augustine defined love as an inner attitude that did not have any necessary implications for how we actually treat others. He went so far as to argue that Christians could imprison, torture, and, if necessary, even execute heretics in the name of love. (p35)
If Jesus is the center to which all Scripture points, then the cruciform character of God that was supremely revealed on the cross must be regarded as the epicenter of this center. And if all Scripture is about Christ, then all Scripture is more specifically about Christ crucified. (p38)
Whereas the OT consistently presents people who are victorious in battle as being blessed by God, Jesus taught that it is the peacemakers who will be blessed (Matt 5:9). (p41)
Paul didn’t view the cross merely as God’s means of achieving salvation. It was for him also the clearest expression of the power that God uses to rule the world and to defeat evil… This cross-centered understanding of God’s weak-looking power and foolish-looking wisdom is so radical that even the majority of Christians throughout history have not been able to fully accept it. (p45)
Putting the best possible spin on the OT’s violent portraits of God isn’t going to cut it. In fact, the very attempt to defend the violence ascribed to God in these portraits indicates that we still believe that God is capable of this sort of behavior, which in turn indicates that we do not yet fully trust that the crucified Christ is the full revelation of God’s true character. (p46)
[Re Jeremiah 13:14] When read in light of the cross we are able to look through this ugly sin-mirroring surface to behold the beautiful cruciform God stooping to bear Jeremiah’s sinful conception of him, which is why God takes on this ugly appearance in Jeremiah’s contribution to the biblical narrative. Interpreted through the looking-glass cross, violent divine portraits like Jeremiah’s become both beautiful and revolting for all the same reasons the cross is both beautiful and revolting. (p53)
Insofar as the cross is beautiful, it reflects God acting toward us… But insofar as the cross is ugly, it reflects God humbly allowing other agents to act upon him. (p55)
God allowed the sin of humanity to act upon him and to condition the way he appeared when he breathed his supreme revelation on the cross. And this is also why God has always been willing to allow the sin of his people—including their sinful conceptions of him—to condition how he appears whenever he breathes revelations of himself. His breathing always reflects the reciprocal give-and-take of a noncoercive, authentic relationship. (p58)
While the cross-centered interpretation of the OT’s violent divine portraits that I’m proposing in this book has clear precedents in the early church, I nevertheless concede that it runs counter to the way the church has interpreted these portraits for the last 1500 years. (p63)
…my conviction that we should interpret the OT through the lens of the cross instead of restricting ourselves to the authors’ originally intended meaning. (p65)
The supreme revelation of God in the crucified Christ requires us to conclude that the author of the biblical Flood account (Genesis 6–8) was reflecting his fallen and culturally conditioned view of God when he portrayed God as the agent who caused this flood. Yet, my commitment to the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle nevertheless compels me to affirm this author’s claim that a flood occurred and that it was indeed a judgment of God. I must therefore give an account of how the Flood could be a judgment of God while denying that God was the agent who brought it about. (p67)
Given that God created people free and thus with the potential for love, he must work by means of a loving influence rather than coercion. God has therefore always worked to reveal as much of his true character and will as was possible while accommodating the fallen state of his people as much as was necessary—though…it certainly grieved God deeply to do so. (p84)
Even the Ten Commandments reflect highly accommodating elements, however. For example, they reflect the common ANE assumption that women are the property of men. Men are told not to covet a neighbor’s wife, nor his house or male or female servant, nor his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to their neighbor (Exod 20:17). In other words, men can’t covet their neighbor’s wives because they are his neighbor’s property, which is why there’s no similar prohibition on wives coveting husbands. (p93)
Let us settle on this guiding principle: Insofar as any law reflects an improvement over the prevailing laws of the ANE, I submit that it reflects God acting toward his people. As barbaric as many of the OT laws are, most reflect an improvement, and sometimes a significant improvement, over the laws of Israel’s neighbors, and this surely is the result of the influential work of God’s Spirit. But insofar as any law falls short of the character of God revealed in Jesus’s cross-centered ministry, it reflects the point at which the fallen and culturally conditioned state of his people resisted the Spirit and, therefore, the point at which God stooped to allow his people to act upon him. In my view, all portraits of God in the Bible should be assessed by this criterion. (p98)
In light of the material we’ve covered, it seems that when Yahweh said, “I want my people to dwell in the land of Canaan,” what Moses’s fallen and culturally conditioned ears heard was, “I want you to slaughter the Canaanites so my people can dwell in the land of Canaan.” For again, in Moses’s ANE worldview, acquiring someone else’s land and slaughtering the inhabitants of the land were two sides of the same coin. (p117)
One of the primary ways we battle cosmic foes is by refusing to battle human foes, choosing instead to love and bless them. (p125)
All ANE people believed their chief warrior god lived on top of a sacred mountain, and we find this belief reflected throughout the OT. (p127)
If the violence that biblical authors ascribe to God reflects their cultural conditioning, does this mean that God never actually judged people? If so, does this imply that we must interpret every story of God bringing judgments on people to be nothing but a reflection of the fallen and culturally conditioned imaginations of biblical authors? In short, have I erased God’s judgment with my interpretation? While there are some Bible scholars who accept this conclusion, I cannot. (p131)
Sometimes love leaves us with no other choice but to let go of a loved one and allow them to suffer the consequences of their own self-destructive decisions. And this is as true of God as it is of us. (p136)
It surely is not a coincidence that soon after the “myth of redemptive violence” was introduced into the church’s thinking about the atonement in the 11th century, there were five centuries of almost nonstop, church-sanctioned, violence. (p138)
Prior to the eleventh century, most Christians believed that Jesus died not to free us from the Father’s wrath, but to free us from Satan’s wrath. This is known as the Christus Victor view of the atonement, and in contrast to the penal substitutionary view, this view doesn’t implicate God in any violence. (p139)
God longs to mercifully protect people from the destructive consequences of their choices, like a hen protects her chicks. But when people are not willing to be protected, and when God sees that his mercy is simply enabling their sin, he has no choice but to “hand them over” to suffer these consequences. (p140)
God wisely used the evil of Satan’s loveless heart and inability to understand love to get him to orchestrate the destruction of his own evil kingdom. In other words, God used evil to vanquish evil! This was God’s Aikido strategy in action. (p145)
Contrary to what many people think, the Bible generally construes God’s punishment of sin as organic in nature. God doesn’t impose punishments on people. The destructive consequences of sin are built into the sin itself. And this is why God only needs to withdraw and let sin run its self-destructive course when he judges people. (p148)
Some of God’s judgments in the Bible did not unfold quite the way God intended, and the attack on Israel by Nebuchadnezzar is a case in point. Scripture tells us that this king and his army went beyond what Yahweh had intended. “I was only a little angry,” the Lord said, “but [the Babylonians] added to the calamity” (Zech 1:15). This sort of thing actually happens quite often in the Bible, and each instance makes it clear that God doesn’t micromanage the agents he uses to express his judgments. (p157)
The very narratives that attribute violent actions to God usually provide clues that this violence was actually carried out by other agents who were already bent on violence. (p160)
Like all other ANE people, the Israelites assumed it was an insult not to “credit” God with the violence that resulted from his judgment. And this is reflected in the fact that God and God’s agents are frequently made “the subject of the same destructive verbs” in the writings of many biblical authors. In other words, the cloudiness of their vision of God is reflected in their dual speech pattern of depicting God simultaneously doing and merely allowing the same violent actions. (p166)
When the violence that an author ascribes to God can’t be attributed to humans, it must be attributed to violent cosmic agents. (p179)
The Gospels uniformly attribute afflictions not to the mysterious providence of God, as so many do today, but to the corrupting influence of Satan and demons. (p181)
It is the narrative that is divinely inspired, regardless of what we think about the historical event it is based on. (p194)
[Re Genesis 6:12-13] The same root word (sāhat) is used to describe the sinful condition of humans, the effect their sin was having on the earth, and the punishment for this sin, which indicates that all three are organically related. And this means that the Flood was an organic, not a judicial, divine judgment. (p196)
The Flood was not the result of something God did, but of something God stopped doing. (p200)
While the author of the Exodus narrative believes he is exalting Yahweh by attributing the violence involved in each plague to him, these passages provide further confirmation that Yahweh merely permitted a band of cosmic agents that were already bent on destruction to do what they wanted to do. (p214)
Moses later struck a rock with his staff out of anger, causing water to gush out of it in order to quench the thirst of the complaining Israelites (Num 20:11). Yahweh was so angry with Moses and Aaron over this outburst that he did not allow them to enter into the Promised Land (v. 12). Yet the supernaturally endowed staff worked, in spite of the fact that it was used in a sinful way! (p220)
[Re 2 Kings 1:10-12; Luke 7:51-56] It seems that Jesus attributed violent supernatural feats like Elijah’s incinerating fire to “the way of the devil, rather than the way of God.” (p222)
At no point does the author show Samson seeking God’s will about the use of this supernatural power. Nor does the author ever depict Samson aspiring to use this power for the glory of God. Samson rather uses the divine power that was entrusted to him for personal gain and personal retaliation. (p229)
If we are to believe that the God who is fully revealed on Calvary went to the extreme of uttering this barbaric command [for Abraham to kill Isaac], we must assume that he had sufficient reason for doing so. And for me, the suggestion that God was merely trying to find out if Abraham trusted him doesn’t suffice. (p235)
I’m suggesting that Yahweh didn’t merely stoop to allow Abraham or others to believe he gave this command. In this one instance, the heavenly missionary stooped to actually give it! And Yahweh did this to have Abraham undergo a highly emotional paradigm shift in his view of God that removed any doubt that Yahweh might be like other ANE gods who required this ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, far from demanding this sacrifice, Abraham needed to learn that Yahweh is a God who makes sacrifice. (p236)
In Abraham’s pagan upbringing, sacrificing one’s firstborn child was the ultimate “work” a human could perform to prove their loyalty to a god or to court a god’s favor. So if there remained any suspicion that Yahweh was in any respect like other ANE gods, it would be about this. As a means of finally freeing Abraham from every remnant of this cursed view of divinity, God humbly stooped to temporarily take on the likeness of this cursed view. As we’ve seen throughout this book, God was once again stooping to meet his covenant partner where he was at in order to lead him to where he wanted him to be. (p240)
The test boils down to this: Will we trust God’s loving character even when God appears to be acting in ways that contradict this character? This is the question all followers of Jesus must face. (p243)
The cross only functions as a looking-glass that enables us to discern what else is going on behind the scenes of the OT’s violent divine portraits when we remain fully confident that Jesus’s cross-centered life and ministry fully reveal what God is like. (p246)