Thoughts

The Lost God of Jesus II

A VIOLENT GOD?

In contradistinction to the love, grace, mercy and free forgiveness of Jesus presented in the pages of the New Testament, we have several incidents in the Old Testament which, at face value at least, seem to be totally contradictory to his teaching and representation of God as a loving Father. Among these is the destruction of almost all living beings in the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the total slaughter of people groups apparently demanded by god in Deuteronomy 20:16-18, the utter destruction of Amalek in 1 Samuel 15:3 and the subsequent hacking to death of its king, Agag whom Saul had spared, by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:33, the deliberate, and premeditated killing of Acan and his family (Joshua 7) to say nothing of the death, as the result of a plague, allegedly sent by god, of ‘seventy thousand men’ and no doubt many other innocent people recorded in 2 Samuel 24. Neither did the choices this god gave David as a punishment for taking a census of the people in the latter example seem very loving – seven years of famine (or three years if you take the same account recorded in 1 Chronicles 21), three months of losing battles, or three days of pestilence! In addition to the foregoing, we have alleged killing, again allegedly by god, of righteous Uzzah, for the seemingly innocent act of steadying the ark of the covenant when it was about to fall (2 Samuel 6:3-8).

And the slaughtering of many of these people groups noted above included, not only the men of fighting age, but women, children, babies, and animals. When, as a child, I sang ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumbling down’ – I had no conception that among the thousands who were supposedly slaughtered that day were children just like me! Now as an adult, I shudder at the thought – especially as I see on my TV screen the massacred blood-drenched children of Gaza – killed by the descendants of those who are credited with raising Jericho to the ground.

All of this then presents the picture of a violent, vindictive, unreasonable, bloodthirsty god who, as we have said, stands in total contradiction to the loving Father God Jesus represents. Frankly, there is no way to escape this very obvious conclusion. So how does anyone, especially the Christian or follower of the Father God of Jesus understand and deal with this?

Historically, different traditions have dealt with these problems in a variety of ways while modern biblical scholars of faith and no faith also offer a variety of opinions.

Within the fundamentalist tradition (in which I was raised) many simply accept these accounts as literal and factual and representative of the god they believe in. Very often they allude to the wickedness of the nations involved as justification for their utter destruction. They further claim that, as according to their dogma, all are ‘born in sin’ the killing, by their god, of anyone including children is quite acceptable – some even going so far as to claim that the killing of children in some historic circumstances was an act of mercy!

For sure I suspect that the wickedness of some of these nations was to a degree we cannot fully comprehend – involving child sacrifices, murder and gross perversions of all kinds. Indeed, the fact that the perversions and wickedness of the ancient Amorites had not reached their full zenith, was the reason god gave Abraham for the fact that he would never see the land he had been promised –

Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. 

(Genesis 15 NKJV)

Indeed, their fate was delayed for some 400 years – which some see as the gracious forbearance of the god of Israel. Be that as it may, it is still inconceivable to many who claim to follow the God of Jesus that the same deity once demanded the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women, children, babies and animals.

That the fledging church also struggled with this conundrum is very clear from early church history. Among the well-known early church leaders who tried to find a way of dealing with this problem was the theologian Marcion of Sinope (c. 85 – c. 160), the man to whom some attribute the first gathering of sacred documents which would eventually become part of the New Testament.

Marcion preached that God had sent Jesus Christ, who was distinct from the “vengeful” God (Demiurge) who had created the world. He considered himself a follower of Paul the Apostle, whom he believed to have been the only true apostle of Jesus Christ; his doctrine is called Marcionism.

(WP)

In fact, Marcion discounted the Old Testament as we know it. No surprise then that he was eventually declared a heretic by some of the other church fathers including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. However, in his day, Marcion had a significant following and his movement was a major rival to other emerging churches.

Interestingly, some still accept and follow Marcion’s teachings and many more are accused of doing so! In 2019 the well-known and highly regarded Eastern Orthodox philosopher and theologian David B. Hart was accused of Marcionism. Those who made the allegation were quickly rebutted by Hart. In his rebuttal, which feeds into our current discussion, Hart made the following statement –

Most of the Hebrew Bible is a polytheistic gallimaufry, and YHVH is a figure in a shifting pantheon of elohim or deities. In the later prophets, he is for the most part a very good god, yes, and even appears to have become something like God in the fullest sense. But in most of the Old Testament, he is of course presented as quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god. Neither he nor his rival or king or father or equal or alter ego (depending on which era of Cannanite and Israelitic religion we are talking about) El (or El Elyon or Elohim) is a good god. Each is a psychologically limited mythic figure from a rich but violent ancient Near Eastern culture – or, more accurately, two cultures that progressively amalgamated over many centuries.

He goes on to say of later Judaism and early Christianity –

Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time. Neither was ever literalist. The only ancient Christian figure whom we can reliably say to have read the Bible in the manner of modern fundamentalists was Marcion of Sinope. He exhibited far greater insight than modern fundamentalists, however, in that he recognized that the god described in the Hebrew Bible – if taken in the mythic terms provided there – is something of a monster and hence obviously not the Christian God. Happily, his literalism was an aberration.

So what is Hart driving at here? He is in fact standing in the tradition of another Church father – Origen. John Millam summarises Origen’s view as follows –

In his system, interpretation occurred on three different levels paralleling the tripartite nature of man (body, soul, and spirit). The first level of interpretation is the “body” representing the plain literal (obvious) meaning; followed by the “soul” consisting of moral principles; and lastly the “spirit” representing the deeper meaning that is brought out by allegorical interpretation. When the plain literal (“body”) interpretation seemed absurd, it indicated that the reader needed to look beyond it using an allegorical (“spiritual”) interpretation.

Millam, who is no friend of Origen (or Marcion) goes on to state –

Allegorical interpretation went on to dominate the theology of the Middle Ages. It was the Protestant Reformers who ultimately rejected it in favour of a literal (i.e., plain meaning) approach.

However, Hart, and many others in his tradition, appear to me, generally, to continue following Origen’s line of thinking. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church has no definitive theology on the subject, some, at least, appear to follow this method of interpretation. Interestingly one cannot be a priest or a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church if one has taken a life, even accidentally. But back to David B. Hart again –

Much of the Judaism of the first century, like the Christianity of the apostolic age, presumed that a spiritual or allegorical reading of the Hebrew texts was the correct one. Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways. Even when, in the New Testament, the history of God’s dealings with Israel is united to the saving work of Christ – as in Acts or Hebrews – it is in the thoroughly reinterpreted and intenerated form that one finds also in the book of Wisdom (a worked audibly echoed in Romans, incidentally).

One of Harts’s final salvos in the response referred to is worth finishing up with on this point of view –

I often have to remind myself how great a distance separates apostolic, patristic, and pre-modern orthodoxy from modern fundamentalism; somehow it always comes as a shock to the system. So let me say this upfront, and then return to it: fundamentalist literalism is a modern heresy, one that breaks from Christian practice with such violence as to call into question whether those who practice it are still truly obedient to the apostolic faith at all. That is not an accusation, but it is a lament.

Heart, along with many others, open the door to an allegorical interpretation to much of the Old Testament – particularly, in our context, those parts which present a violent God.  The late Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar of the history of Christianity, summed all this up when he wrote –

The Old Testament achieved and maintained its status as Christian Scripture with the aid of spiritual interpretation. There was no early Christian who simultaneously acknowledged the authority of the Old Testament and interpreted it literally.

Responding to a person on an online forum who was greatly troubled by the violence of the Old Testament and who was, as a result, losing all faith, one commentator replied –

You’re reading the Bible as if it is a historical accounting of facts, not the ancient library of books that it is. I sympathize with you, but you must forget the notion that the Bible is some sort of scientific or historically factual book, and recognize the influences of the culture and time periods. There is a lot of stuff attributed to God that probably wasn’t God, as well as a lot of stuff that presents itself to be truth but is really only allegory or mythos. I definitely recommend reading the Church Fathers. Especially Origen.

Again this response would appear to be in line with the thinking of Heart and Pelikan.

Fr. Stephen Freedman, an Eastern Orthodox Priest (OCA), from whom I have learned much over the last few years, is very honest in his assessment of all this –

To be sure, there are problems with allegorical readings (some took it too far). And, to be accurate, there were certainly patristic voices that pushed back against it and patristic voices that had no difficulty with OT genocide, etc. For me, it’s simply a matter of beginning with Christ. My faith rests on believing that He was raised from the dead and demonstrated to be God-in-the-flesh. I do not think we can read the OT (or anything) apart from Him and through Him. As it says in John 1:18 ‘He [Jesus] has made Him [the Father] known’ the word there being, ‘exegesis.’ Christ is the exegesis of the Father. So, when I read the OT, I read it for Christ, through Christ, and for Him only. I ponder the history of Israel, etc., but I ponder them in the light of Christ as made known to us. I do not try to get behind Jesus and think of God in any other way.

So far then, two responses from a Christian perspective – reject the god of the Old Testament as an aberration of the Father God of Jesus – or interpret passages which conflict with God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in an allegorical manner. 

But there is a third response which cannot be ignored – and that is the view of biblical scholars who may not hold to a ‘Christian’ view or perspective. If those who call themselves ‘Christian’ think such folk are unworthy of consideration we do them and ourselves a great injustice – even if, ultimately, we may not agree with their conclusions. After all many have made these things a lifetime study – and many (not all) do not have an axe to grind in this regard. It is not my intention to examine these biblical scholars/critics here – they are simply too numerous and their views too diverse. Added to this is archaeological evidence today that, at face value, and although always in a state of flux, places a large question mark over the literal historical accuracy of some recorded biblical events – the ‘Battle of Jericho’ being one such example.

Of course, if one holds to a fundamentalist point of view, including the unmovable conviction of ‘Biblical Inherency’ regarding the literal historicity of every event recorded in scripture then, of course, you will have to reject many, if not most, of the hypothesis we have been examining as well as much of modern academic criticism of the Old Testament story. 

All that having been said one of the most common arguments I have heard raised by such academics is, again, the strong suggestion of hyperbole and exaggeration contained in some of the texts where extremely violent acts are attributed to the god of the Old Testament. Again, just for clarity, many of these academics do not come from ‘faith’ perspective, but do, interestingly, agree with some who do on this whole issue.

But there is also something of an enigma surrounding God’s own attitude to violence in the Old Testament. One of the great sins of the pre-deluge world, highlighted by God, was that – ‘The earth was filled with violence.’ (Genesis 6:11). And this theme of condemnation, by God, of violence, is one found again and again throughout the ancient Jewish scriptures. Conversely, the mark of true blessing in a nation is the absence of violence – ‘Violence shall no longer be heard in your land, neither wasting nor destruction within your borders ..’ (Isaiah 60:18). Furthermore David, proclaimed to be a man after God’s ‘own heart’ (1 Samuel 13:14) is precluded from building the Temple because he had ‘Shed much blood and fought many wars.’ (1 Chronicles 22:8). Clearly then much of the violence we find in the Old Testament is condemned by God!

In all of this debate, it must be noted, as many point out, that there seems, throughout the Old Testament, to be a refinement of the way the true God is understood and presented. An ongoing revelation if you will (we will return to this in our next post). This, as we noted in our first article on the subject, is highlighted by the Apostle Paul himself when he wrote that there were things that ‘in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets.’ (Ephesians 3:5).

The Reformed Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge (1797 – 1878), is, I think, simply mirroring Paul when he says –

The progressive character of divine revelation is recognised in relation to all the great doctrines of the Bible … What at first is only obscurely intimated is gradually unfolded in subsequent parts of the sacred volume, until the truth is revealed in its fulness.

Of course that truth, many believe, is only revealed fully in the person, life, ministry and death of Jesus. But Jesus, as far as the issue under discussion is concerned, adds to our struggle in understanding the apparently genocidal god of violence we are presented with in much of the Old Testament.

Finally, I must return again to my own religious background and tradition – Evangelical Fundamentalism. As suggested earlier many within this tradition see no conflict between a violent god and the God Jesus represents. For them, the God of Jesus is simply the other side or face of the violent god we meet in the Old Testament. For those who hold to a dispensationalist point of view (many evangelicals outside the Reformed tradition) the problem is even easier to resolve in that Jesus is simply an anomaly and, at the end of the day, their god will return to his violent ways once the ‘Age of Grace’ has run its course. The problem with this is that, if it is true, Jesus is not, nor ever can be, the final revelation of God which they claim him to be.

Consequently, many such people are quite content to use examples of the violent god of the Old Testament to justify the slaughter of innocents in more recent times, be that historically, for example, of the native American tribes, or today the women and children of Gaza who have been slaughtered in their thousands over the last few months – cheered on by many Fundamentalist Evangelicals.

And this is my big problem. Was Jesus simply a blip in the almost universally accepted dogma that violence and ‘just war’ are acceptable in order to advance the cause of religion? In other words – do the ends justify the means? That is certainly the loud message of a substantial part of the Old Testament and much of the post-Christ history of Christendom. While there have always been those in the church who have rejected violence, and, very often, even in more recent times, paid a high price for it, the majority, or so it appears to me, from the time of the Crusades until now, appear to sit quite comfortably with a violent god to whom they can turn as a justification for their penchant to violence and hatred in the furtherance of their cause. However, in the light of the life and teaching of Jesus, and the history of the first 300 years of the church, this all appears to be an aberration.

To be continued ..

NOTE

Recommended Blog article for further reading – ‘Revelation as Cognitive Dissonance’ by Paul Axton –

Revelation as Cognitive Dissonance

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