Review: Is God violent?

24 March 2018

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).

cvlargeBoyd 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 outstandingbookinstrument 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)


Review: Scapegoats, sacrifice and non-violence

12 February 2018

Frenchman René Girard, who died in 2015, is best known for his ‘mimetic theory’. This holds that people copy one another in desiring things, which leads to conflict. To deal with the conflict, a scapegoat is chosen and sacrificed. This pattern, he alleges, is the foundation of sacrificial systems, of all human violence and, indeed, of human culture. But the Bible, he believes, subverts the pattern at various levels, culminating in Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, who by his death made sacrifice redundant and indicates a new life-pattern of love, non-violence and forgiveness.

Steven Berry conducted a series of interviews with Girard shortly before the latter’s death. These have been edited into readable format by Michael Hardin, making Girard’s views more accessible to the average reader than his own learned writings. The book is:

Reading the Bible with René Girard: Conversations with Steven E. Berry edited by Michael Hardin (JDL Press, 2015).

rtbwrglargeIt makes fascinating reading, revealing some fresh and thought-provoking insights into some well-known passages of Scripture. Girard shows how he discovered and developed the mimetic theory from his early studies of great European literature (he quotes, among others, Cervantes, Flaubert and Shakespeare), and later came to see how the Bible reflected many aspects of it while, at the same time, marking a clear trajectory away from it.

If Girard’s concepts are new to you, it will take a while to get your head round them. But once you manage it, they are strangely compelling. They shed light on so many everyday aspects of social life. This book could be a good starter for you.

Of course, you will be uncomfortable if you can’t accept the principle of absolute non-violence, which Girard maintains that the Bible teaches, culminating in the teaching of Jesus himself. So be prepared to be a bit unsettled by this book. Maybe that could be a good thing, especially if you think you’ve got all your doctrine ironed out already?

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers.]

…the Caiaphas solution: “It is more expedient that one man should die, rather than the whole nation should suffer.” (John 11:49-53)  (235 – from Preface by Steven Berry)

The relationship between Don Quixote and all the other novels is that desire is not independent, not rooted in the self, or in the object. There is not a straight line between the desiring subject and the desired object; rather, there is a triangle with a model directing the desire of the hero towards an object which, if he had been all by himself, he would not have desired. The idea of what I call “triangular desire” was born there in the novel.  (417)

Rivalries in human beings don’t end with a dominant-dominated pattern; rather, they end with vengeance.  (543)

Sacrifice is repeating the event that has saved the community from its own violence, which is killing a victim.  (621)

Sacrifice is the lightning rod for the community’s violence, because it mobilizes the whole community against a fake enemy, who is not a member of the community, thus preventing people in the community from killing each other.  (762)

When you say that someone is a scapegoat, he is not your scapegoat. To have a scapegoat is to be unaware that you have a scapegoat, to think he really is guilty. It’s so simple that people don’t understand it. Scapegoating is effective only if it is nonconscious. Then you do not call it scapegoating; you call it justice.  (870)

The Bible shows that scapegoaters who slander the victim and wrongly accuse the victim have no basis on which to do so. The prophetic and Christian texts destroy that slander by demonstrating the innocence of the victim.  (1038)

Everywhere Christianity appears and seriously implants itself, blood sacrifices disappear. Where blood sacrifices disappear, you have no more real cultural protection against your own violence.  (1061)

[Re the Eden story]  …the general temptation of disregarding the will of God and preferring our own will, which always turns out not to be our own but our neighbor’s. In the Genesis text, the neighbor is represented as an animal that we call the serpent.  (1194)

All myths are wrong since they tell us that the scapegoat is guilty. They fulfill the function of mythology, which is to expel an innocent, but they don’t know it. That’s how they can do it. Whereas the Gospels tell us the victim is innocent. Once you have the Passion text inside your world, it contaminates all the scapegoats around and tends to make you discover that all collective victims must be a little bit similar to Christ, that they are condemned for no reason at all. That’s why the great stories of the Bible, which reveal the innocence of Joseph, of Job, and so on, are beginning to shatter the scapegoat system all around, but Christianity does this more completely as it invades the pagan world.  (1358)

Abraham is the symbol of that enormous change, which is from the sacrifice of humans and even children to the sacrifice of animals. It’s a sign of tremendous progress in civilization.  (1417)

[Re Judah’s sparing of his brother Joseph]  Scholars consider this story to be produced quite late in the chronology of the Bible; it can therefore be labeled prophetic, belonging to the spirit of the great prophets, which is explicitly anti-sacrificial. The idea of sacrifice is changing; God wants pity and compassion, not human or animal sacrifice. One can see this in Hosea, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and the greater prophetic tradition of the Jewish Bible.  (1525)

The desire that was prohibited in the Ten Commandments was mimetic desire.  (1741)

Christ is in the place of all victims since the foundation of the world, all sacrificial victims, revealing their innocence.  (1765)

The building block of animal culture is what the specialists today call dominance patterns; these are seen in physical encounters, for example, between wild wolves. The male wild wolves vie for the same female, but there is no death; there is surrender. When wolves fight this type of fight, the defeated wolf lies on his back and offers his throat to the victor, who does not kill him but becomes the dominant animal. So we can assume that the threshold of hominization is when this no longer happens but the killing of the submissive rival occurs.  (1776)

The Eucharist is really related to sacrifice, but rather than representing the violence against the victim, of it being the victim that you eat, you eat the total refusal of violence, which is Christ. It’s a reversal, but it’s still the same symbolism.  (1834)

Cannibalism means you eat the sacrificial victim in order to be your victim, because you want to be that victim. The reason you killed him is you want to be him or her. So if you absorb his or her flesh, you become them, just as if you absorb the flesh of Christ, you should become a little bit nonviolent, more than you were before.  (1847)

Satan has to be contrasted with the Holy Spirit because ‘Satan’ comes from a Persian word that means the accuser. The Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is called the Paraclete, which means counselor for the defense in a court. The Holy Spirit is the defender, the advocate.  (1884)

I feel that the resistance to the mimetic theory on the part of academic circles is understandable, because in a way the mimetic theory interrupts or reverses a trend that has been with us since the eighteenth century, since the Enlightenment. This is the trend of secularism, of expelling religious studies from academic life.  (2053)

Many aspects of the refusal of violence are perhaps more intelligible today, but it’s still not acceptable to most people. Most people, even Christians, don’t take the biblical emphasis on the renunciation of violence found in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels, very seriously.  (2159)

The ultimate test is not the interpretation of texts, of course, but how you behave with your neighbor. That’s a real example that you provide in the flesh, that’s going to convert people, and you’re lucky if your language and your actions coincide. But if your actions don’t coincide with your language, your language will have very little influence.  (2195)

Peter’s denial is, in a way, the most beautiful story. Here, Peter is a figure representative of all humanity, who cannot resist the powerful pull of the crowd. We cannot resist the mimetic contagion. When you’re in a crowd, you become literally possessed by the crowd.  (2207)

Those who accuse Christianity of being responsible for violence are not right, of course, but indirectly they are saying something which is true: the more the Gospel influences the world, the more it destroys the sacrificial apparatus that up to now has protected human culture.  (2325)

If you act like Christ you’re not going to be happier, you’re going to be persecuted. You’ll be happier in a higher sense, but you’re going to be persecuted.  (2445)

“They hated me without a cause,” as a prophetic word, is a fascinating phrase because it’s the definition of a scapegoat.  (2497)

Good mimesis is defined in the Gospels as not only imitation of Christ but also imitation of those who imitate Christ.  (2509)

[Re: “Resist not evil. Do not resist one who is evil, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”]  If you resist evil, you yourself are in evil. You imitate. Resistance and agreement ultimately amount to the same thing. This is one of the paradoxes of Satan where I’d say, “The more you resist him, the more he plays dead.” The satanic loves that kind of resistance. That resistance is what creates devils, what turns people into twins in the mimetic sense. So the key to this is readily accessible: If you resist evil, you do what evil invites you to do.  (2585)

[Re the Gerasene demoniac]  When the people show up, they notice that this man is just safe and sound. He’s acting normally, dressed normally, talking to Jesus, and they’re terrified. This shows that, in a way, the reason the demoniac was not tied sufficiently so he could always be safely imprisoned, was so he could free himself from time to time, so that the whole thing is a show that the people are playing for themselves. It’s part of their neurotic life. They need some of these people as fools in the medieval sense who perform the craziness of which they themselves are free, and which they want to scapegoat of course, but which they need, in a way, for the balance of the community. It’s a kind of sacrificial system where you don’t really kill people, but you perpetuate their sickness because you allow him to have these escapades from time to time, in which he goes on a rampage and they all watch with a certain pleasurable awe.  (2683)

Why is the first stone the hardest to cast? Because no stone before has been cast and you have no one to imitate. It’s really a mimetic phenomenon.  (2720)

In the story of the adulterous woman, the text tells us that when Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” he turns his eyes toward the ground. He was writing in the sand before and he starts writing again. Some people say silly things about that. They say that he’s writing down the name of those who will be sent to hell. But in fact, he’s trying to avoid eye contact. He knows that if he makes eye contact with his interlocutors, rivalry is going to be born in that mutual glance, and it will be impossible to avoid a violent resolution. The woman will be stoned. It’s not like Jesus to avoid eye contact, but in this case, he does so to save the woman, and it works.  (2731)

I believe Christianity today is the scapegoat for absolutely fundamental reasons, because it says something about humanity that people don’t want to believe, which sounds impossible. It destroys our pride. It says our cultures feed on scapegoats, so no wonder Christianity is the hated religion. For instance, if you look at the media, have you ever seen the media attack religions other than Christianity? No! They never do. As a matter of fact, concerning Islam, the media consistently sides with Islam. But Christianity has everybody against it, just as Jesus had.  (2779)

The God of wrath is always somewhat connected with the scapegoat system in which the god is both good and bad. This is no longer true of the biblical God. When the biblical God is wrathful, he’s wrathful for good reasons; we might even say just reasons. However, still there is a change, it seems, in the nature of God from the oldest part of the First Testament to the prophetic God of the great prophets and then to Christ himself. You see, this “new” God is no longer punitive; it’s people who punish themselves. It’s people who are going to threaten the survival of the world. It’s people who refuse to turn the other cheek and maintain peace who get into all sorts of trouble.  (2816)

 


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