Saturday, August 02, 2008

“Christ, Our Hope: Part II - God of Peace in the Old Testament

A commenter on my first post of the series asked the following question: "How do Christians like yourself conciliate your pacifist view of Jesus with an often war-friendly God of the Old Testament?" In order to properly and fully answer the above question, I would need to write a book. Being that a book ain't happening, hopefully the following will suffice. Now first we must have a general understanding of a Catholic approach to Sacred Scripture. Painting in broad strokes we can say that Scripture is inspired by God and written by men. It is not dictated, but inspired. Scripture is free from error.

all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the HS, we must acknowledge that the books of scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God , for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided in the Sacred Scriptures (Dei Verbum 11)
However, when speaking of inerrancy we must also keep in mind the intent of the Biblical authors, both human and divine. Generally speaking, Scripture is not a history or science text book. It is not intended to speak to that sort of truth. Rather, it reveals God to us, and reveals how we are to respond to His gratuitous gifts in order to accept (and receive) salvation. All of the above affects how we interpret the Bible. The Catechism lays out several guidelines. 1. We must pay attention to the intention of both the human and Divine authors. 2. We must keep in mind the content and unity of the Bible. Everything is to be read in context and in light of the whole, and the Old Testament (OT) is always to be read in the light of Christ. It is preparation for him and points toward him; therefore Christ, in Himself, unveils the deeper, hidden truths of the OT. 3. Augustine adds that when we come across something in the Bible which appears to be self-contradictory we are either dealing with a translation error or some error on our part in interpreting the texts.

Now we can actually consider the Old Testament of an apparently "war-friendly God" in light of Christ. At the onset we must acknowledge that the pages of the OT are dripping with blood. War abounds. Israel seems to commit genocide in some cases. Furthermore, it is not only that God is war-friendly, but He himself is even called a warrior. (Exod 15:3). Not only can this not be reconciled with the "pacifist" views held by some Christians, but it cannot be reconciled with a God who is just and merciful. I do not want to worship a God who condones genocide.

So, what is going on here? First, we must recognize that in the Bible we see the slow development of God's self- revelation. Just as we slowly reveal to children the truth about any number of things (i.e. sex, death, math, etc.), God slowly reveals himself to humanity after the fall, after they have forsaken him. He makes covenants, first with a couple, then a family, a tribe, a kingdom, and finally with all humanity. At first no other God is to be worshiped before him. Later, he is the only God. God, in revealing himself to us meets us, where we are and guides us into a fuller understanding of Truth. God meets the His people, the Israelites, as a nomadic group living in a pagan world and slowly purifies their conceptions of God (from polytheism, to monotheism, to Trinitarianism) and the world. Ultimately he is preparing humanity and the world to receive his full revelation of self in the incarnation, in Christ.

Second, we must remember that God is God -- and we, well, we're not. It is conceivable that the Author of Life could, in all justice and mercy, allow/command death, famine, war, as a punishment (which is still always also an act of love and mercy), whereas we, in our limited knowledge and typically selfish motivations, cannot rightly make such judgments. We have no right to claim authority over anyone else's life.

Third, we must not proof text or take passages out of context. The passages that appear to depict God approving of or commanding genocide or the like, when in context, do not reveal that at all. Before looking at cases of war, let's take a step back and briefly consider a few paradigm cases. Sodom and Gomorrah: We can find background info on this in Gen 13-19 and scattered throughout the NT. Glen Miller sums up the situation as follows:
It is important to note that (1) they had plenty of access to 'truth' (at LEAST 25 years); (2) their crimes were perverse, public, and the cause of international protest/outcry to God(!); (3) the annihilation was a judgment; (4) God was willing to spare the innocent people--if any could be found; (5) children living in the households of their evil parents apparently died swiftly in the one-day event (instead of being killed--as homeless orphans--by a combination of starvation, wild beasts, exposure, and disease; or instead of being captured and sold as slaves by neighboring tribes, for the older ones perhaps?); (6) the one innocent man and woman are delivered (along with their children of the household).
We can find the same situation in the story of the Flood. Humanity has devolved into horrid sin and violence. Noah preached warning and repentance for 100 years. It was an issue of divine judgment and punishment. Yet, the innocent, again, were spared. Again in Nineveh we see a similar situation. A society wallowing in sin and defilement, which God gives an unconditional warning. John 3:4-10:
Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day's walk announcing, "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed," when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: "Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the VIOLENCE he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish."
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.
Notice that violence was part of the evil for which the Ninevites repented and that upon their repentance the Divine judgment is not carried out.

Now that we have background of the OT's depiction of God's judgment and punishment and mercy, we can consider the issue of war more directly. Due to the size of the OT let us choose one case example, which certainly will not prove to relieve all doubts, but I have no intention of writing a book. Let us consider the annihilation of the Canaanites (aka Amorites). 1. Was this a divine judgment? Gen 15:16 - "In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." Seems like it was, 2. What their sin really that bad? Was this warranted? Lev 18:2-5 - The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: `I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD'." The passage continues listing all sorts of sinful practices apparently common among the Canaanites. Referencing the same group, the Bible also states, "You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods." (Deut 12.31) In short, on top of their violent warlike tendencies, Canaanite religious practices were...
  1. Child sacrifice (with at least some of it in fire)
  2. Incest
  3. Bestiality
  4. Homosexual practices
  5. Cultic prostitution--both male and female.
Through Abraham, Melchizedek, Joseph, etc., repentance and Truth were preached for 400+ years. Throughout the years several different types of threats were issued:
  1. "wipe them out" (e.g. Ex 23.23)
  2. "throw them into confusion" (e.g. Ex 23.27)
  3. "make them turn their backs and run" (e.g. Ex 23.27)
  4. "drive them out of your way" (e.g. Ex 23.28)
  5. "struck down" (e.g. Ps 135.10)
  6. "dispossessed" (e.g. Num 21.32)
  7. "drive out" (e.g. Num 33.52)
  8. "thrust out" (e.g. Deut 6.19)
  9. "destroy them" (e.g. Deut 9.3)
  10. "subdue them before you" (e.g. Deut 9.3)
  11. "annihilate" (e.g. Deut 9.3)
  12. "delivered them over to you" (e.g. Deut 7.2)
  13. "defeated them" (e.g. Deut 7.2)
  14. "perish" (e.g. Deut 7.20)
  15. "give kings into your hands" (e.g. Deut 7.24)
  16. "wipe out their names from under heaven" (e.g. Deut 7.24)
We should be aware of the vast difference between words like "annihilate" and "drive out." About 10 of the phrases, about 2/3, could be said to be of the "driving out" variety, rather than "annihilation." If we consider the above passages in context it grows increasingly clear that God is planning on "moving" a nation, instead of "destroying a people"... interesting. Even after all the evil they've committed? But, how are we to reconcile the driving out with the annihilating? It seems, upon reading in the context, that the people were driven out and the nation/culture annihilated. The Canaanites who refused to leave were killed by the Israelites, enforcing the punishment of God. Again, the Canaanites had waged periodic and often unheraled wars with Israel for generations. They practiced all kinds of abominable acts and were a threat not only the physical survival of the people, but also to the purity of Judaism. Nevertheless, the Biblical data seems to agree with the historical and archaeological data -- there was no genocide. Further, God used the same criteria, warnings, and punishment with Israel. After generations of disobeying God and falling into the same sinful practices (child sacrifice - Is 57:5; temple prostitution - Jer 13:27, & I Kgs 15.12; 22; etc.), after generations of prophets preaching repentance, God issued his judgment:
Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, "This is what the LORD God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: `If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live. 18 But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be handed over to the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from their hands.'" (Jer 38.17ff)

"This is what the LORD says: `Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. He will escape with his life; he will live.' 3 And this is what the LORD says: `This city will certainly be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.'" (Jer 38.2)

"Furthermore, tell the people, `This is what the LORD says: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. 9 Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; he will escape with his life. 10 I have determined to do this city harm and not good, declares the LORD. It will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will destroy it with fire.' (Jer 21.8)

Thus God uses war, both for and against Israel, to enact his mercy, justice and punishment. God, as the omniscient Author of Life has that Authority. We do not.

Furthermore, we cannot consider the OT passages which depict war without considering the, in some ways, central concept of shalom in the OT. A few examples will be helpful. Shortly after leading several peoples into a victory in war, Abram runs into a man named Melchizedek whom we don't hear from again until the letter to the Hebrews, which refers to Jesus as "a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." (Christianity has picked up this enigmatic figure as a type of Christ.) The verse in Genesis in which he appears reads as follows, "Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram with these words: Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything." (Gen 14:18-20) We can glean a few interesting bits from this. Melchizedek, whose very name means "priest-king" and is called righteous, is king of Salem or shalom. Melchizedek, who is a type of Christ, is the king of a mountain called Peace. Immediately after a war, Abram meets with the King of Peace and offers a sacrifice. The mount on which Abram met Melchizedek is the same mount on which the sacrifice of Isaac took place. After the event (which is whole other series of posts) Abram names the mount "the place where God will provide" or Yahweh-yireh, which eventually comes to be known as Yireh-Salem or the Mount where God will provide Peace. God is the God of Peace. As the whole OT points forward to Christ, it also points forward to a time of peace. The book of Isaiah contains one of the many prophecies that speak of an eschatological future without war. Isaiah 3:2-4 says:
In days to come, The mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: "Come, let us climb the LORD'S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths." For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.
War brings death. Death is a result of sin. No one wants war. It always represents a failure of some kind. The OT presents a God who wants to bring peace (lasting universal peace) to the world. The OT as a whole represents a slow move away from the prevalent culture of war to Christ. This makes sense in light of Christ, who as the revelation of God himself, reveals himself as a non-violent, but powerful and eminently loving yet just God of peace. We shall consider the words and witness of Christ in the what is to come.

Sources: Walter Wink, John Dear, Catholic Peace Fellowship, Pax Christi , Adrian Helleman, Albert Winn , Glen Miller

Part 3 can be found here.

Edited for grammar and readability


Craig Baker said...

"whom we don't hear from again until the letter to the Hebrews" Don't forget about Psalm 110. Good post.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog and I thought that you might be interested in the musical act called The Priests. What separates this classical trio from others is that they really are catholic priests, who have recently signed a recording contract with Sony BMG. They are currently recording an album of classic hymns from the Latin Mass but you can find them on their
and even on youtube If you like what you hear it would be great if you could help them become better known to the public by mentioning them in one of your blog posts one day.

Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you for taking the time and effort to respond to my question.

This is not a logical or persuasive argument for me, but I can at least see where it could be for a Christian predisposed to wanting the inconsistencies to be explainable.

Even if we were to agree that wiping out a city of wicked people (or killing the stragglers of a sinful people who refuse to leave a certain land) is just and merciful, it is not congruent with a pacifist deity. Even if we agree that God gave the sinful plenty of time to repent and change their ways, His use of violence is not consistent with a being who would not condone the use of righteous violence. You are giving me examples of God using just violence or just warfare. And IMO muddying your own point. Is it acceptable for God to use just violence, but not humans because as you say, God is God? If God is capable and justified in using violence to His own ends, aren't humans who are following His religion and presumbaly His will justified as well?

Moreso, how is the killing of the firstborn male of every Egyptian child on Passover night just? Children! It seems random and unfair and not even remotely pacifistic (real word?)

I personally don't find this attempt to conciliate the OT (or OG) God with a pacifist Jesus a compelling argument. If I've missed or misrepresented the point (or several of them), please correct me.

Also, this is my first time hearing about this idea that God slowly revealed himself to humanity after the fall and this prepares us for and culminates in Jesus. This is a very interesting way to explain some of the OT inconsistenices.

Thanks again for taking the time to look into and respond to my question. This was an interesting post.

JB said...

Pinky..or is it Brain? ;-)

It is not congruent with a pacifist deity.

I’m not at all making an argument for a pacifist deity. I am not really sure what that means. The God who is Being or Existence, whose name is I AM, who is eternal and the Author of all created things, cannot rightly be called either pacifist or violent, etc--that would be, I think, of anthropomorphism akin to that of the Greek gods. We may be able to debate whether He reveals Himself in Scripture to just and loving God or malicious and cruel, but as Creator he cannot rightly be called violent or pacifist. A limited being, like human, we he discovers another being, has only finite authority over that being, if any at all. However, the Maker of a being has infinite authority over that being--the authority to choose to give life or to revoke that gift, etc.

I am not arguing that God is a pacifist deity.I am claiming that the most virtuous response, the Christian response, to conflict is a non-violent response. Hopefully the difference will be becoming more clear in the final few posts.

There are certainly incongruencies and perhaps even flat out contradictions between the OT and NT. Heck, Jesus himself admits as much in the “you have heard that it was…., but I say to you…” sermon. Nevertheless, for the Christian, Jesus is the Christ, the Word made Flesh, the full and complete self-revelation of God, thus he is the final interpreter of Sacred Scripture.

Also, as I mentioned before, God is revealing himself slowly to sinful humanity, and in doing so, he is slowly revealing man to himself. This revelation is also completed and perfected in Christ.

Finally, the Bible is not primarily a history book, or a science book, or even a morality book. It is primarily a book of proclamation. A legit use of the historical-critical method reveals that ancient literature did not so much intend to convey fact as to convey truth. Thus “what happened” and “what is true” do not always coincide perfectly (although it is difficult if not impossible for us to draw that line).

The Bible tells a story. It tells us about Salvation history. It speaks Truth, but this Truth is not always historical or scientific fact or moral platitude. God works with us where we are. Thus it is possible to conceive that what is in the OT is a lot of an imperfect and muddled following of God’s will. They may have intended to do what He willed, but were incapable of conceiving of the radical Hope they could have in him. This becomes more explicit later in the OT. As Israel is responding, perhaps “justly” and perhaps not, according to the reason of men, the prophets are calling for peace and mercy and repentance. Even David, who despite his obvious flaws, could be called a “saint” of the OT, is denied the honor of building the Temple because he has blood on his hands.

David, it seems to be, could be a microcosm of what I am talking about. God calls him and blessed him. David sins and repents. God forgives him and blessed, granting him success and kingship, but God tells him that his hands are stained with blood. He may not build the Temple.

Considering briefly your question about Passover, I would like to make a few points. We must ask ourselves a series of questions, questions for which I do not yet have well articulated answers.

What is being proclaimed here? What is the historical situation of the event? Of the authorship of the story?

We can say that it was Pharaoh who initially ordered to killing of the Hebrew first-born. Thus the Passover is not rightly conceived absent from this. This is yet another case of self-inflicted judgment, and God, as God, has the right to judgment. However, I would add that his judgment cannot be separated from his mercy. Thus Pope Benedict argues that the transcendent concept of Justice, which can never be achieved on earth (thus how was it originally conceived?) is itself an argument for the afterlife. Thus God, who is God of both the living and the dead, who is the Author of Life, has the authority and ability to the judge the Egyptians in this way, but in His justice, may reward to the “innocent” children infinitely more than justice would demand.

Much of this is somewhat speculative and will probably come across as grasping for straws, but I can only add this. For me, Jesus is no longer merely some piece of information I was taught in school and raised to believed. Jesus is a person whom I have encountered in very real, but unempirical and difficult to articulate ways. I do not question the existence of God or the Love of Christ anymore than I question the love of my wife or parents. The Christ whom I have encountered is the Word made flesh. Integrity and authenticity compel me to interpret life and scripture in light of Him. I do not fully understand the intricacies of the Bible. But I trust in its Truth and hope to grow in understanding. I thank you for continuing to push me, because it is forcing me challenge some of my preconceptions and helping my knowledge to grow in depth.

Finally, I would suggest listening to the following, which is a little more coherent although less specifically directed to your question, than my response: click here