A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Letting God Off the Hook: Adam Hamilton on Violence in the Old Testament

Pastor Adam Hamilton has recently posted a three part series on his blog dealing with the question of violence in the Old Testament. I very much appreciate Adam's willingness to delve into controversial issues. Many pastors avoid such issues because they are afraid of offending someone in their congregation, and let's also say that more than a few parishioners want their pastor to stay away from the controversial, preferring to reflect only upon a gospel that is nothing more than sweet and sentimental platitudes. But we do need pastoral voices to weigh in on the difficult issues of Christian faith and the violence in the Old Testament is one of those concerns.

Having said that, I must also say that as I read Adam's posts, I found his possible solutions less than satisfying when it comes to John Wesley's counsel to take the "whole tenor of Scripture" into account. I have asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Dan Hawk to offer a response to Pastor Adam's reflections. Dan is Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Ashland Theological Seminary. He has his Ph.D. from Emory University. Dan is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church (East Ohio Conference) and has researched and written extensively on the Book of Joshua. His books include a commentary on Joshua in the Berit Olam series, Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny, and Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua.

Dan's posts are written in two parts-- part 1 is published here and part 2 will be published on Thursday. On Friday I will repost something I wrote on this subject that was inspired by a comment Dan made to me in conversation a while back.

Just before Dan's post begins, I link to Adam's three part series on his blog. I encourage you to read him first and then read Dan's response.

We offer these words as part of the continued discussion that Adam has brought to the forefront in his writings. We thank him for that.
"God's Violence in the Old Testament: The Problem," by Adam Hamilton

"God's Violence in the Old Testament, Part 2: Possible Solutions," by Adam Hamilton

"God's Violence in the Old Testament, Part 3: Possible Solutions," by Adam Hamilton
The Violent God: A Response to Adam Hamilton's "God's Violence in the Old Testament"
by Dr. L. Daniel Hawk, Ph.D

We have a problem with the violence of God, and we can't get away from it. A paroxysm of religiously-justified violence wracks and wrecks societies around our world.  Modern Christians are slowly coming to grips with a legacy of Christian collusion with myriad programs of mass killing, conquest, and colonialism. What are followers of the Prince of Peace to do with biblical texts that generate the kind of violence that mirrors the brutality we see daily on our television screens?

I appreciate Adam Hamilton for addressing the issue in a series of recent blog posts (God's Violence in the Old Testament) and am grateful to Allan for the invitation to respond. Hamilton's posts manifest the impulses and thinking that define the way many if not most thoughtful Christians are responding to the issue today. In light of the situation I referenced above, it is not surprising that we Christians are energetically seeking ways to distance ourselves from the violent God of the Bible. My hunch is, however, that our attempts to get God off the hook have more to do with our own anxieties and cultural dispositions than with grappling forthrightly with the vexing and difficult God we find in the pages of Scripture.

To get to the point. Hamilton states his program succinctly in the introduction to his second post. He writes, “How do we resolve the moral and theological dilemmas that confront us in these Old Testament texts? As I see it, there are two broad paths forward.”

I see two problems, the first having to do with the approach and the second with the task itself.

First the approach. Hamilton addresses the issue by creating a false dichotomy ("two broad paths"), between those he characterizes as following a "verbal, plenary inspiration" position on the one pole versus those on the other who "recognize the Bible's humanity – that it was written by human beings whose understanding and experience of God was shaped by their culture, their theological assumptions, and the time in which they lived." Suffice it to say that there are other, innumerable positions in between, not to mention different paths altogether. Dichotomizing may be a way of simplifying a complex discussion for the common reader, but it also allows Hamilton to construct something of a straw figure that aids in supporting his own location on the "humanity" side of the continuum.

And that's where the problem lies. Hamilton's solution, as well as the general stream that informs it, is but a contemporary version of an approach that was first proposed by Marcion, who addressed the problem of divine violence by positing two gods. Marcion declared that the God of the Old Testament could not be and therefore was not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The modern approach reprises this move by opposing the humanly-contrived god of violent texts to the God manifested in Jesus Christ. The violent God, we are told, is a human fabrication formed from culturally-embedded tropes and figures – "what they believed about God rather than what God inspired them to say" in Hamilton's words. This "humanistic" god is completely inconsistent with the gospels' testimony of Jesus Christ and so can be discarded. There are two gods: an invented god and an inspiring God. Same approach. Different packaging.

Here's the main flaw in this line of reasoning. Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis? This is a slippery business to say the least, and especially so when historically-oriented interpreters attempt to ground their decisions by discerning the intent of ancient authors and redactors. While we have learned a great deal about the historical and cultural environments of the ancient world, we cannot even today confidently locate the composition of most texts in a particular historical and social context. Furthermore, our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives.

In giving and transmitting a Bible in two testaments, the Church has rejected the various iterations of the "two-god" hypothesis and confronts faithful readers with a fundamental claim: The God revealed in Jesus Christ is the God revealed in and through Israel's scriptures. The very fact of the canon forces Christians to grapple with how the Christ who taught his disciples to turn the other cheek is the God-in-the-flesh who ordered the killing of Canaanites. The acclamation of Yahweh as Divine Warrior, furthermore, stands at the center of Israel's testimony. The violence of God cannot be surgically removed without doing violence to the entirety of Israel's witness.

I conclude this post – the first of two – by referencing the core of that witness. Discussions about the violence of God, as does Hamilton's, inevitably gravitate toward the so-called Canaanite genocide related in Joshua. I note, however, that the conquest and occupation of the land is tied inextricably to the exodus from Egypt. In Egypt as well, Yahweh slaughtered innocents through a divinely-appointed agent, in that case when the Destroyer killed all the firstborn of Egypt. Yahweh's slaughter of innocents through divinely-appointed agents, in other words, lies at the heart of the two instances of God's mighty acts that form the foundation of Israel's testimony. If we discard one as false, we must declare the other so as well. And if we do, we knock the floor out of the biblical witness.

In my second post, I'll respond to Hamilton's objective; that is, the attempt to resolve the moral and theological dilemma that God’s violence provokes.


Jonathan Marlowe said...

I find chapter 4 of John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, entitled "God will fight for us" to be the most helpful approach to understanding the Old Testament war stories. I haved learned a lot from Adam Hamilton over the years, but I wish he had read Yoder.

Sandra VandenBrink said...

yes, please elaborate. I'm on tenterhooks.

J. M. Hochstetler said...

I appreciate this discussion very much and am looking forward to part 2!

Jonathan Marlowe said...

Yoder writes:

When modern Christians approach the Old Testament with the question of war in mind, their attitude is a legalistic one and the questions they ask generalize. We ask, 'Can a Christian who rejects all wear reconcile his position with the Old Testament story?' If the generalization that 'war is always contrary to the will of God' can be juxtaposed with the wars in the OT, which are reported as having been according to the will of God, the generalization is destroyed.

This approach hides from us the realization that for the believing Israelite the Scriptures would not have been read with this kind of question in mind, whether it confirms certain moral generalizations or not, the Israelite read it as his story, as the account of his own past. A story may include a moral implication, or presuppose moral judgements, but it does not necessarily begin at that point.

One of the traits of the OT story, some times linked with bloody battles but also sometimes notably free of violence, is the identification of Yahweh as the God who saves his people with their needing to act. When we seek to test a modern moral statement, we are struck by the parts of the story that do not fit our modern pattern; but the Israelite reading the story was more likely struck by the other cases, where Israel was saved by the mighty deeds of God on her behalf.

Whether the taking of human life is morally permissible or forbidden under all circumstances was not a culturally conceivable question in the age of Joshua. It is therefore illegitimate to read the story of the Joshuanic wars as documents on the issue of the morality of killing. Although the narrative of the conquest of Canaan is full of bloodshed, what the pious reader will have been most struck by in later centuries was the general promise according to which, if Israel would believe and obey, the occupants of the land would be driven out little by little by the angel or the terror or the hornets of God, or the most striking victories of of Joshua over Jericho or Gideon's defeat of the Midianites after most of the volunteers had been sent home and remaining few armed with torches in order not to let Israel think military strength or numbers had brought the victory; to 'believe' meant, most specifically and concretely in the cultural context of Israel's birth as a nation to trust God for their survival as a people.


Jonathan's summary: The OT war stories actually undermine the militaristic view of history. Whenever Israel trusted in its military might, it lost. Whenever it trusted in God's power (explicitly against the power of the horse and the rider[empire]) Israel won. Israel never won any battles because they had superior military might. Thus the overall message in the OT concerning warfare is that it is wrong to trust in weapons. Instead put your trust in God's power to redeem in what seems like impossible situations.

Kevin Baker said...

I haven't read Adam's blog posts yet, but just recently finished his new book: "Making Sense of the Bible," which I am assuming shares a lot of the same elements.

In the book - though there were perhaps a few things I would state a bit differently in his approach to biblical inspiration, interpretation, and exegesis (perhaps for a new blog post of my own) - I found the bulk of it to simply be a way of taking a seminary intro course on the Old and New Testament, attempting to make it more readable and accessible to a wider, lay audience.

As for a false dichotomy in approach to OT texts on violence, perhaps he overstated things a bit, but I felt that his larger point, in the book at least, (one I would be more careful to state clearly and repeatedly) ... was that Christians must read both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Christologically. Christians believe that Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, is nothing less than the fullest revelation of God. This theological reading of Scripture is essential, especially when reading the texts in question.

I am not sure about the blog posts, which I hope to read soon, but I find this theological/christological approach to be far from a straw figure (but if oversimplified, perhaps it can seem so).

Dan Hawk said...

Yoder is a good example of someone who has profound misgivings about the violence in the OT yet does not duck the problems it raises. Kevin, the false dichotomy doesn't arise from Hamilton's theological/ christological reading of the OT - which I also affirm. Rather, it has to do with presenting only two options (tethered it seems to different views of scripture) and presenting them in opposition to each other: "divine, plenary inspiration" vs. a view that recognizes the human situatedness of biblical texts. While I'm not sure what he means by the former, it's clearly loaded language, as it is associated with a dictation theory of scripture (which he references obliquely) held today only by hardcore fundamentalists - few of whom I have encountered in the UM circles he and I inhabit. It's a way of caricaturing an opposing view with extreme terms - thus constructing a straw figure. Most Christians recognize both the divine inspiration and human embeddedness of scripture in some form or other. But Hamilton sets his and the other extreme as the only options. That's what I mean by a faalse dichotomy.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I too agree that the Old Testament should be read christologically, which is why I find Adam's treatment of these violent narratives problematic. To read christologically means God is intimately involved in the world and with his people. Yet, Adam seeks to remove God from that narrative precisely because it implicates God in the violence. But if our doctrine of incarnation tells us anything, it is that out of his love and concern for his people and the world, God is willing to involve himself in the mess of human history-- even its violence and bloodshed.

PamBG said...

There are so many points I'd want to make, it's hard to know where to begin.

I think a false dichotomy is being made here: "Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis?"

Speaking for myself rather than Hamilton (although I understand him to make a similar point in "Making Sense of the Bible.")...all texts are both humanly-contrived and inspired. A hermeneutic of suspicion should be applied to all texts that violate Jesus' articulation of the Great Commandment.

Even before Jesus, the Rabbis questioned biblical texts that violated what they considered to be ethical principals. They did not see such a process as questioning the inspiration or authority of Scripture.

As Methodists, we have traditionally applied tradition and reason to Scripture as a way of being guided in our Scriptural interpretation. So what about the early tradition of Christian pacifism?

I can tell you my motivation for pushing back against reprieving the God of violence: we have too much violence in our world. Especially in this age, too many people are taking up the mantel of Phineas and claiming to have license to kill and destroy in the name of God.

I'm curious about the motivation to reprieve the concept of God blessing the human use of violent retribution?