Saturday, July 18, 2009

A God of Intolerable Violence?

There is an interesting discussion on the God of the First Testament vs. the God of the NT on the question of God's violence in the Hebrew scriptures. See Michael Whitenton, Daniel Kirk and Michael Gorman.
As someone who studies the New Testament writings, I value and appreciate the Hebrew Scriptures as the necessary story within which to locate the narratives of the first Christian writers. I love the Hebrew scriptures and both affirm their value and necessity for understanding Jesus and the first Christians. BUT!
I cannot reconcile the GOD revealed in Jesus of Nazareth with a few of the depictions of YHWH in the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, this is a significant problem for me. I'm currently wrestling through this issue, and I've tentatively arrived at some very uncomfortable positions. It appears that only a Christological reading of the Hebrew scriptures can solve this dilemma. But But I take a more radical position than Daniel Kirk appears to take.
If, as I believe, Jesus fully reveals to us the identity of God, and we are to live and decide what's right and wrong within the trajectory of Jesus' teachings, actions, ethics, life, etc. (the NT), why can't we read the Hebrew scriptures retrospectively, and through the lens of Jesus, assess whether or not Israel got it right when they heard God? I realise this sounds slightly like Marcion, but I have no desire to throw out the Hebrew Scriptures. However, I've got to question whether or not they (Israel or the particular writers of these traditions) heard right, or faithfully represented the intentions of YHWH when engaging in such horrific acts. I'm perfectly happy to concede that we are quite ignorant concerning the surrounding circumstances of these events and actions, and so our conclusions are tentative, but I think this Christological approach may help us.
Anthony Thiselton argues, concerning prophecy, that: The authentic is to be sifted from the inauthentic or spurious, in the light of the OT scriptures, the gospel of Christ, the traditions of all the churches, and critical reflections (Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, pg. 1140). Could a sifting perhaps apply to the writings of the Hebrew scriptures themselves? Could we, in light of other portraits within the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christ event, the teachings of the New Testament, and critical reflection, sift our teachings/traditions of these violent narratives which do not in fact accurately portray the intentions of YHWH? I'm almost convinced we instinctively do this anyway. We read 2 Sam 13 and affirm that the actions are heinous and evil. We read of a Elisha's cruel punishment of childish pranks (2 Kings 2:23-24), and we conclude what? That God really gave him the power to do this?
While I would not advocate deleting these traditions, it would then be possible to see them as instances where Israel or a prophet appealed to the authority or agency of God for these horrific events, but were in fact wrong to do so. AGAIN these are tentative thoughts which I find very uncomfortable because it challenges what I believe about the Bible. But I can't help but think this may be a better solution to the problem than just claiming we don't have enough information to make an informed decision. Or perhaps I'm wrong.
Does this make sense? Questions, comments and criticisms are all welcome.


Odysseus said...

I have thought the same thing. Without such reading, there is no way of reconciling the two.

But I think we are on pretty solid ground here. Over and over again, the NT writers had to re-read their scriptures through the lens of the Christ event. And in doing so, they discovered that, gasp, some of their traditional readings and understandings were wrong.

However, I'm pretty certain that many people of the Jewish faith would argue the opposite direction -- that Jesus couldn't really be G_d in human form because it doesn't reconcile with their Holy Scriptures.

But from a Christian standpoint, that is the only way to do it that I have found. Unless we really want to go to the extreme and say that there is a different God faithfully represented in the Hebrew Scriptures. And I'm pretty convinced that is not the case.

In the Grace of the Three in One,


trj said...

I'm not adverse to a Christologocal reading of OT, but this sounds like a revisionist approach.

It's one thing to offer a different interpretation of scripture, but it sounds to me like you're proposing that the scripture should actually be rewritten - specifically in the passages that are uncomfortable to Christians, which in itself is a suspect approach.

I see in my mind footnotes distributed on every other page in OT: "Actually, that's not what really happened. God didn't do that." ;-)

I don't buy it, but then again I'm not a believer.

Loïc Jacob said...

Hi Sean,

Interesting question!

Maybe I can give some ways to think :

-Does miraculous (from God) always necessarily means God's will? Elisha was anointed by God, even if he was doing something bad. Maybe a part of the anointing is to be able to do some miracles even if it is not for godly purposes. Challenging, isn't it?

-Otherwise I'm thinking about David and Saul. Why God gives to David twice the possibility to kill Saul? And the second time it is definitely throught a miraculous way. In this point I don't understand the purpose of the miracle. To kill Saul? To reveal David's heart? To legitimate David as the coming king?

-About Sodom and Gomorrha I was thinking as an act of love. As a surgeon removing a metastasis, it does not stop the source of the problem, the first tumor (i.e. the sin and the fall of humnanity) but stop a dangerous spreading of the cancer. A kind of I cut the arm in order to save the full body.

So, finally, those are few ways maybe helping to understand the problem. Does miraculous always means godly? Does God sometime punish few people in order to protect the whole?

What do you think?

Sean Gordon said...

I suspect there will always be the tension between Christologically imposing the person (and now by your suggestion the character) of Christ onto the OT versus Judaically imposing the OT's Messianic requirements onto Christ. But both approaches accept the same assumption, namely that human morality and divine righteousness ought to correspond. Christians use this assumption to deny that suicide bombings are divinely inspired and to affirm that the Sermon on the Mount is superior to, say, the Sutta Nipata. But as Plato pointed out if we can recognize the evil of a supposedly divine command then we already have the "stuff" needed to arbitrate moral dilemmas without God. What place then has God in any of this? If divine righteousness and human morality conflict then they are either fundamentally different or one is non-existent.

Obviously, if divine Righteousness is nonexistent then there is no point in asking the question.

But if there is such a thing as the big "R" there are good reasons to think that it would be fumdamentally different than human morality. Only basic theism is required to demonstrate this. His omniscience and eternality would transcend the human prohibition to kill preemptively. His authority in judgment and provision of afterlife would transcend our proscription of killing innocents, including children. His intervention in natural events would include the ability to notify humans (including Israeli prophets) of his plans. Human morality under Righteousness then becomes like free will under the canopy of divine sovereignty: real, but limited.

(As a side note, a case could be made that in the limited window of history when God told a nation to kill certain foreign children, Israelite soldiers may well have chopped off their heads. In other words, it may have been completely painless.)

All of this may still seem to leave the question of what to do today when we think we've received a divine message to kill. And the answer is obvious: ignore it, because we lack all the required ingredients to confirm such a message as legit - nationally affirmed miracles, a temple with holy of holies - and have a new mission (exclusive of all killing) that Jesus spelled out pretty plainly. I'm curious though, in the interpretive method you're considering, with all of God's apparent effort to get Israel's attention in these traditions: wouldn't a failed communication reflect more poorly on Him than on Israel?

Love the blog,

Eddie said...

Would God instruct people to carry out an action which is less than ideal, but which in the circumstances is the best option?