God in Gray: A Response to "God's Violence in the Old Testament," Part 3.
by Dr. L. Daniel Hawk
1. Theological inquiry must be grounded in the canonical text rather than historical reconstruction. Attempts to do theology based on historical reconstruction culminated in the Biblical Theology movement that flourished in the mid-20th century before imploding under its own weight. While incorporating the fruit of historical inquiry, contemporary North American biblical theologians (among them Brevard Childs, Walter Brueggemann, Terence Fretheim, and John Goldingay) have re-centered theological reflection on the biblical text, rather than what historians say happened or what they claim biblical writers thought. That however has not stopped interpreters like Hamilton from making theological claims on the basis of historical scenarios. To be clear: The biblical text is revelatory. The historian's reconstruction of Israel's past…not necessarily.
2. Theological inquiry of the canonical text and of the canon as a whole must address the evasive, multiform, paradoxical character of the Bible's witness to God as fundamental to its warp and woof. The Old Testament confronts readers with reports, depictions, and claims about God that cannot be reconciled or harmonized, and are not meant to be.
3. The Bible as a whole narrates God's work to renew a world ruined by human sin. It witnesses to a Creator who enters the world and identifies with humanity. The Incarnation was not a new move on God’s part but the culmination of what God had been doing since befriending a single family almost two thousand years earlier. God's problem is that, when stepping into the world, God steps into an unholy mess. God is caught up in the maelstrom of violence that saturates the human condition. The God who commands "thou shalt not kill" cannot avoid commanding and endorsing killing on a massive scale in order to accomplish redemptive ends. Basically, when God steps into humanity, God gets slimed…gets covered with human stuff. For this reason alone, God's story cannot be told apart from paradox.
4. This does not mean that there is no coherent thread within the canon. Theological and Christological interpretation are invaluable for discerning it. The message of scripture as a whole, as it is proclaimed by Christian communities, comprises the framework for theological reflection on the diverse, conflicting threads of the canon. The sense of the whole is articulated by what has been traditionally called the Rule of Faith or, in terms of the Wesleyan tradition, the analogy of faith.
5. The canon presents God at work in multiple locations and multiple ways within human society-- at the center, on the periphery, and at all points between. In the New Testament, God speaks from outside the power-structures, stands over against them, and calls them to judgment. In the Old Testament, God not only speaks from outside the system but also from the center and the circles that radiate from it. God works through and within the monarchy, priesthood, and civic institutions as well as outside them. These diverse locations reveal that God is not absent from any sphere of human life, and in this way the canon opens points of contact for Christians who believe God is at work within the systems of the world, those who believe that Christians must remain separate from them, and all spaces between.
6. Understood in this way, the canon can be viewed as a divine gift that enables Christians of different locations, perspectives, and experiences to join together in conversation and discernment. The moral dilemmas we face are of such complexity that we cannot adequately deal them apart from prayerful humility toward the text and those who hold profoundly different ideas about what the Church is and what God is doing in the world.
7. On the issue of violence, some hermeneutical approaches must be rejected as not faithful and fitting to the biblical witness. These include interpretations that view violent narratives as templates to be imitated or taken up to endorse a partisan or nationalist agenda. The Church has done this kind of thing for so long and in so many ways that justifying violence has become our default mode of thinking and response. We must do better. It will take a lot of work to change our dispositions, so that peace becomes our first and best reaction to every manifestation of violence. The Bible, read well and read together, can help us do this.
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.