Resolving the Dilemma: A Response to "God's Violence in the Old Testament," Part 2.
by Dr. L. Daniel Hawk
In the previous post, I took issue with Adam Hamilton's proposal that we deal with the question of divine violence in the Old Testament by regarding the texts that report it as "a reflection of the values and the theological and moral vision of some of its human authors, not of the God they sought to serve" ("Part 3: Possible Solutions"). I raised two problems with this approach. First, it deals with the problem by creating two gods, the humanly-contrived violent god versus the God revealed in Jesus, and so opts out of grappling with the canon's challenge to see Jesus and the God of the Old Testament as one and the same. Second, it rests on a historical sensibility that grounds claims about what the Bible says in putative historical contexts and modern analyses of ancient minds, both of which are very slippery enterprises.
I now turn to the task Hamilton undertakes, "to resolve the moral and theological dilemmas that confront us in these Old Testament texts" ("Part 2: Possible Solutions").
We agree on this: the God who commands and endorses violence in the Old Testament, sometimes on a massive scale, is inconsistent with the God we see in the life and teachings of Jesus. Where we disagree is on what we should do with the inconsistency. Hamilton wants to resolve it. I believe we are called to confront it head on, as a feature of the whole of Scripture and a challenge to participate in a complex, contentious conversation about who God is and how God is at work in the world. By disengaging from this challenge, we give up too easily, and we give up too much.
I understand the temptation to resolve the incompatible portraits of God we encounter in the Bible. We live in a culture and age that wants answers and explanations. We seek reassurance that all the dots can be connected, and we want to know how they are connected. We look for certainty and clear, clean delineations of right and wrong. We cannot abide ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox. We demand that God make sense to us.
The Bible, however, confounds, provokes, and frustrates our demands and the thinking beneath them. Moral and theological ambiguity is part and parcel of its testimony. God asks Abraham his faithful servant to sacrifice his son, then stops him at the last minute. God repeatedly insists that Israelites show no mercy to the Canaanites when they enter the land, but says and does nothing when Israelites spare a Canaanite prostitute’s family and an enclave of Hivites. God accedes to the nation's demand for a king, chooses one, seemingly sets him up to fail, and then chooses a different one. God destroys in order to renew, at the beginning of the Bible (the Flood) and at its conclusion (Seals, Bowls, Trumpets and an orgy of cosmic violence).
The Bible does not speak in a monologue. It confronts us with a vigorous and combative argument, carried by diverse voices with starkly different perspectives, between books and within them-- and allows all to have their say. It exposes our pretensions to absolute moral rectitude by revealing the world we live in as a place where moral decisions are not often clear-cut and where even God must act in ways that counter the ideals God sets before humanity. The pastoral task, I suggest, resists the impulse to defuse the offensive voices but rather invite readers to participate in this confrontational rhetorical and moral discourse, so to determine how to live and respond faithfully to the dilemmas that arise in the sin-saturated world we inhabit. Resolving its inconsistencies transforms the biblical witness into a monologue. It flattens theological reflection. And it so settles issues for us that we need not continue to pray and discern the work of the One who is working relentlessly and resolutely to redeem a world gone bad.
"After we have done our best work and vigorously pursued our most passionate modes of reading," Walter Brueggemann has aptly written, "the text-- and the God featured in the text-- remain inscrutable and undomesticated." The attempt to make coherent sense out of the Old Testament material "is characteristically hazardous because our explanatory modes of discourse run immediately in the direction of idolatry, of producing a God who is discernible, explicable, and therefore to some extent manageable" (Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Abingdon Press, 2008, page 18).
On the question of divine violence as in so many others, the canon calls faithful readers out black-and-white thinking and into the gray; out of an impulse that seeks to simplify, dichotomize, and resolve in order to determine who is right-- and into a communal conversation as fluid and contentious as the clamor of voices that vie with one another in the biblical canon. The plurality of voices, postures, testimonies, and declarations that configure Scripture reflect the diversity of the same that characterize the church. The very nature of Scripture, then, directs the community shaped by it to seek the truth from all sides and prayerfully ponder together what God is doing in any given day and age and so to align its witness and involvements accordingly.
Dr. L. Daniel Hawk 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.