The Old Testament and a theology of non-violence

The sheer volume of bloody violence one can observe in a brief survey of the Old Testament is overwhelming and, naturally, this is very much at odds with the God that Jesus reveals.  I’ve been reflecting upon this for some time now and thought I’d share something of what I have been wrestling with. Please don’t take any of the following as a definitive statement of belief, but rather an expression of my wrestling to make sense of God as revealed by Jesus in contrast to God as revealed by the Old Testament.

Jesus, being the exact image of our invisible God, calls us to revolt through loving one another and non-violence.  When Peter strikes an ear from a guard, Jesus berates him and heals the guard.  Jesus said that it is by love that people will recognise his disciples.  Finally, when tortured and led to be crucified, Jesus, with legions of angels at his command, demonstrated meekness and obedience and let his life be taken from him.

This God, whom Jesus perfectly represents, seems to be a very different God from the one we see in the Old Testament.  One such example is found in Deuteronomy 20:10-18.

Deuteronomy 20:10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.

In brief, if the city being attacked is outside of Canaan, then offer a peace treaty.  If they accept then they become your slaves, if they do not, then kill all the men and make them your slaves anyway.  If, however, the city being attacked is inside of Canaan, then destroy everyone, including the women & children.

Traditionally this has been justified through a number of means, for example, “God owns everything anyway, so God owes these people nothing”, and “some of these cities were involved in child sacrifice and God had to bring an end to it somehow and replace it with something good”, both of which are morally dubious – if God wants someone dead he is perfectly capable of doing it himself, as the Egyptians saw of their own first-born – but thankfully all these have been dealt with elsewhere thoroughly so I will not repeat their work here.  I would, however, like to introduce an approach to this portion of scripture that I have yet to read of elsewhere:

God’s expected Moses & Israel to do the opposite of what they did.

God, I think, is more horrified of what Moses & Israel did than you and I.

When examining scripture, particularly a list of instructions as the one above, it is very easy to assume the person speaking is God.  This unconscious attributation of divinity to the narrator is common within modern practical hermeneutics, something that is borne out every week from the pulpit, but to do so is to treat inspired scripture with contempt – the moment we start treating the bible as a magic book is the moment we stop taking scripture seriously.  Instead, what is required of us, particularly within narrative portions of scripture, is to step back and reflect upon the story and dialogue within the entire breadth of the context – in this case the whole story of God’s interaction with humanity and creating a righteous people that would point lost nations to Himself.

So what does context tell us?

The first insight that the context gives us is to reveal that it is not God that is speaking, but rather it is Moses.  In this I am not raising the authorship of Deuteronomy for debate.  Rather we need to look at the scripture that comes before chapter 20 in order to identify who is literally speaking out these words.  In the articles and debates that I have read, none so far have identified the speaker of this monologue. In order to do that we must turn all the way back to Deuteronomy 10 to find that it is Moses who is speaking.

This is an important distinction because what God says and what Moses say are very different.  Moses is relaying events at Mt Sinaii.  God had told him to take up a set of stone tablets which God would then write his law on.  After this Moses continues:

Deuteronomy 10:10 Now I had stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, as I did the first time, and the Lord listened to me at this time also. It was not his will to destroy you. 11 “Go,” the Lord said to me, “and lead the people on their way, so that they may enter and possess the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.”

After this Moses exhorts the people to fear God, love God, be obedient and observe the law (which God has just written on stone tablets).  Moses then speaks for the next 16 chapters giving instructions as to how they are to live as a nation, and how they’re going to enter into the land that God will make them fruitful in.  This includes the above instructions to kill the women and children in the cities of Canaan.

So all of what Moses says comes after speaking to God! So what did God say?  Here we must widen the context.  The Israelites had spent 400 in Egypt, many years of which they were slaves.  The babies of the generation before they left Egypt suffered complete infanticide.  They had intimate knowledge of the effect of infant killing as they had their younger siblings taken from them.  After God rescued them from Egypt they took flight and found themselves at Sinai.  Here, atop a cloud-covered mountain, did God teach them with His own hand the difference between right and wrong by writing His ethical law on two stone tablets.  Two of these laws speak particularly into the topic we are discussing: Thou shall not kill; Thou shall not steal.  For reasons we shall not look at, Moses soon requires that God write these laws afresh on new stone tablets – so Moses sees God state these ethical laws twice.

So, putting it all together, among other things, God gave these three commands directly to Moses:

  1. “Do not kill.”
  2. “Do not steal.”
  3. “Go and lead the people on their way, so that they may enter and possess the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” (Deuteronomy 10:11)
Putting all this together it seems obvious that God has a clear expectation that Moses & Israel should carry out the command (3) while adhering to the two ethical instructions (1 & 2).  In response, however, among other instructions Moses issues the decree about killing women & children.  This clearly contradicts God’s stated ethical law. 
How then do we understand Moses’ words and actions without writing off whole swathes of scripture?  First, we must have a clear idea of what the ‘inspired’ part of scripture relates to.  Is it that Moses’ spoken words are inspired or that the recording of his words was?  (While some would go further to say that scripture is inerrant and infallible, scripture does not describe itself this way.  Further, it raises the question: was every word Moses spoke infallible & inerrant, or just the ones that happened to be heard & recorded?  But I digress and will remain with ‘inspired’.)  For scripture to be inspired it need be no more than the latter – that the recording of Moses’ words was inspired, not necessarily the words he spoke.  For example, Job’s wife suggests Job “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), yet clearly we must not follow her instruction.  Job’s friends speak nonsense in their long and repetitive monologues, again we do not agree with them or follow their instruction – why not?  In order to make sense of Job we look at the breadth of the whole book: it’s a discussion about the suffering of the righteous.  We cannot lift text from the book within which it sits, and Moses’ monologue is no different. 
If this is the case, we must then ask why God inspired Moses’ words to be recorded & written?For me, the writing of this text enables us to observe the process of learning to trust God, His ways & His ethical law – something that Israel & Moses prove that they are not yet willing to do – and reveals what happens when we don’t.  Yet God is faithful and does not allow them to be destroyed – he has promised their survival as a whole.  This may explain why God is with them through many battles and only withdraws His help from them when they are unfaithful to Him. I freely admit this point requires further thought.  
The land at the time was not full – not as we know it to be full nowadays.  Sure, many nations occupied many lands – but that was really a statement of the range of a nations military, not the actual occupied land.  There was space for everyone back then, but the best spots for habitation would be taken by indigenous peoples.  Yet, the God who saved Israel from Egypt can bring any barren land into fruitfulness (think Abraham & Lot), so they were presented with another opportunity to trust God to make them fruitful wherever they went.  I wonder whether God’s hope was was for them to move into the land God had promised them and to point to God, God’s ways and God’s law, for the people around them to be convinced of Yahweh and see that the only way to live, be protected and fruitful was according to God’s ethical law.  It is speculative, but God’s ethical law would seem to at least point in that direction.
Interestingly genocide and ethnic cleansing that Israel perpetrates is justified by claiming that the Israelites couldn’t be faithful to God with others in the land – but that would seem to be the problem of the Israelites, not a reason to kill those from other cultures. Can murdering to show that murder is wrong ever achieve its purpose?  We have little to tell us of the indigenous peoples were like, but as we said before, God is capable of doing his own killing (as demonstrated with the precision killing of Egyptian first born) and does not need us to do it for him. Again, I digress.
I realise that this approach opens up more questions than it solves, but I think there is much to be found by looking further down this path of taking scripture & inspiration seriously, rather than treating the bible as a magic book.
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5 Responses to The Old Testament and a theology of non-violence

  1. Darin Edgington says:

    Deut 9:3 Understand therefore this day, that the LORD your God is He who goes over before you. As a consuming fire he shall destroy them and he shall bring them down before your face: so shall you drive them out, and destroy them quickly as the LORD has said unto you.
    :4 Speak not you in your heart after that the LORD your God has cast them out from before you, saying, “For my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land”: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD does drive them out from before you.
    :5 It was not because of your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you go to possess their land; but it was because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God does drove them out from before you, and that He may perform the word which the LORD swore unto your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  2. Johnby says:

    On inspiration I like where Barth goes (dog 1:1) and the inspiration happens between the reader and God. The weakness is clearly the lack of a concern about a historical inspiration. That been said it can be conjecturer from Barth that the inspiration also happened when the first readers encountered the text.

  3. Matt Parkins says:

    Great counter-point Darin – I need to keep digging, researching and thinking this through!

    Johnby, interesting approach! I certainly think reader-response is a factor in scripture’s purpose, but I would struggle to defend inspiration being solely reader-response.

    I feel I have an awful lot more reading to do on this whole subject.

  4. Josh Kapczynski says:

    Matt, I see you wrote this 2 years ago, have you landed comfortably on a preferred view. I wonder if this approach might help, if you took the Torah as a whole, and used the Abraham and Lot story as definitions for what we might expect was happening in the land (before God called for it’s destruction.) If you read Deut. in it’s form as a Suzerin vassel treaty, can your view still work.


  5. Josh Kapczynski says:

    Sorry I didn’t do 2 paragraphs there. I meant to express 2 ideas. 1. Maybe the victim tribes were really bad. 2. Can the form of Duet. work with your theory?

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