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The Violence of God and the Hermeneutics of Paul

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Sometimes I (Josh) want to share around certain academic works. Sometimes its a PDF that I want someone to download and read, sometimes it’s text from a book I’ve read, and cannot otherwise get a sharable format of. So, I laboriously take photos of pages, use an optical character recognition tool to copy-paste the text from the image to my computer, clean it up, and repost it here.

What follows is an excerpt from The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective: Essays in Honor of J. Denny Weaver

The Violence of God and the Hermeneutics of Paul

By Christopher D. Marshall

The jarring dissonance between the God of vengeance and violence in certain parts of the Old Testament and the God of indiscriminate love and mercy proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospels has long perplexed Christian interpreters. Echoing the verdict of many, Paul Anderson maintains that reconciling these contrasting portraits of God constitutes “the greatest theological and hermeneutical problem in the Bible.” 1 It is a theological problem because it challenges the notion of a unitary and self-consistent divine will. It is a hermeneutical problem because it forces the question of how apparently contradictory views of God can exercise authority as equally part of sacred Scripture. It is also a moral problem, for the way believers resolve this ten sion will have implications for how they live their lives as servants of God, even if the common assertion today that violent religious texts lead directly to violent behavior must be dismissed as simplistic.2

These difficulties are not unique to Christians, of course. Jewish interpreters, too, have long wrestled with how the compassionate God of, say, Ezekiel 33 is to be reconciled with the punitive God of, for example, Numbers 16.3 But these problems of interpretation confront Christian readers in a particularly acute way in light of the theological, moral, and hermeneutical privilege which Christianity accords, at least in theory, to the Jesus tradition.

One early solution to the dilemma, proposed by Marcion and the Gnostics, was to unhook Jesus entirely from the God of the Jewish Scriptures, who was deemed to be a lesser deity. This option was roundly rejected by the early church. The heresy of ditheism not only leads to theological oblivion, it actually inscribes competitive violence in the nature of ultimate reality, something which biblical monotheism avoids. Christian orthodoxy has therefore always insisted that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ must be none other than the one true God of Israel, the Creator of all that exists.

But what does this identification tell us about God? Has God changed? Did God give up his violent ways with the advent of Christ in favor of nonviolent love? Is God’s fearsome career as a warrior over? Or does God remain fundamentally unchanged? Is God, by definition, unchangeable: the same yesterday, today, and forever? If so, what does that tell us about God’s involvement in violence? Is lethal coercion still an important part of God’s repertoire of methods for achieving saving and judging purposes in human affairs as it was in biblical times?

If the testimony of Christian history and doctrine are indicative, the latter appears to be the most common conclusion Christians have reached, since God’s use of violence has continued to be as notable a feature of the Christian story of God as it was in the earlier Israelite story of God. Much atonement theology, for instance, as Denny Weaver spells out so clearly, envisages a patriarchal God who visits punitive violence on his only son to defend his personal dignity or uphold his superior justice. Similarly the post-Constantinian church’s majority endorsement of Christian participation in war has disclosed a willingness, if not an eagerness, to equate the violent shedding of human blood with the work and will of God.

Then there is the projected violence of final judgment. Even those who feel squeamish about the idea of God using human agents to visit wrath on his enemies in present history still often espouse a concept of eschatological judgment where God, patience finally exhausted, violently destroys the wicked-or worse, callously consigns them to the everlasting violence of eternal torment. It is not uncommon even for Christian pacifists, who conscientiously renounce lethal violence themselves, keenly to anticipate God’s retribution on the un godly at the end of time. Some even argue that Christian renunciation of violence is materially dependent on the reality of God’s ultimate retributive justice on evildoers, for only an absolute confidence in God’s perfect judgment can free believers from the need to take matters into their own hands in the interim.5 Put crudely, from this perspective Christian nonviolence is sustainable only if there is a violent God giving ultimate backup.

So Christian belief and practice have not, by and large, done away with the concept of divine violence. Even peace theology has not felt the need to posit a nonviolent God. Of course, retention of a militant deity eases the hermeneutical dilemma mentioned earlier, in that the violent God of early Israel does not cease to be violent in the Christian era but merely becomes less blatantly so. Instead of regularly deputizing human agents to slay the wicked, God now largely reserves that task for God’s self at the end of time (although exceptions may apply in the event of justifiable war).

Yet arguably a theology that substitutes a conspicuously violent God with a cautiously violent God remains mired in what Walter Wink famously calls the myth of redemptive violence-the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. As long as God is understood to rely on lethal force to achieve redemptive goals, whether in present history through appointed human instruments or at the end of time by God’s own clenched fist, disturbing implications follow, and especially for Anabaptist peace theology.

One such implication is the absolutizing or deifying of violence. To reserve to God the right to use overwhelming violence is to pay violence the ultimate compliment. Violence is dignified by its association with God, and God is diminished by dependence on violence. In deed, the more violence is reserved as God’s prerogative alone, the more uniquely and terrifyingly violent God appears. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” But if frail humans are expected to feel angry without resorting to violence, why should not the same be expected of God? Is God unable to withstand the temptation to hit back? Is crushing the opposition God’s only solution?

Again, a willingness to exempt God from the normative requirement of nonviolence sustains the kind of exceptionalism that always leaves the door open for human beings to perpetrate violence on God’s behalf or approve of it when done in God’s name. As long as killing is sanctioned by God-whether now in times of war or during some future apocalyptic maelstrom – no moral condemnation can apply to those who carry out the killing.

Note, however, that whenever exceptions are permitted, there is a human propensity to expand the loophole endlessly. Each and every act of violence can be defended as a legitimate exception to the rule. Not surprisingly, it is always the perpetrators of violence, not its victims, who appeal to exceptional circumstances to legitimate their actions. Something similar happens with respect to those who cherish the expectation of God’s final destruction of sinners. They exempt themselves and their loved ones from the awaited firestorm while insisting that God’s justice requires others to be consumed by it. 3

The grounding of Christian non-retaliation on trust in God’s eschatological vengeance also has troubling corollaries. The more one waits for God’s violent intervention to rectify the world, the less incentive there is to work for peaceful change now. Indeed, it could be argued (and often has been historically) that since God is clearly not yet riled enough by sin and injustice to intervene to overturn it, the unjust status quo ought to be accepted as something God permits to exist. Christians should not then actively oppose it, for that would be to usurp God’s work. Pacifism then slides into a passivism that leaves it over to God to sort out the mess while keeping one’s own hands clean. Although John Howard Yoder rejects such quietism, this could be one way of construing (or misconstruing) his contention that Christian nonviolence bears witness to Christians relinquishing control of history. Their call is to be faithful to the slain lamb, not to be “effective” in directing historical processes, a goal which is frequently taken to justify violence and is an illusory ambition at the best of times. 4

Does this then mean that assuming responsibility for the direction of human history necessarily requires violence, even for God? Is violence an inescapable corollary of exercising supreme authority? Perhaps a better grounding for Christian pacifism would be the recognition that, in a real sense, humans are in charge of this world, and that it is only by emulating the nonviolent rule of God that we have any real chance of undoing the yokes of oppression and recover ing the true purpose of our existence. After noting the vast literature written on theodicy and on whether God can ever be forgiven for the atrocities permitted on his watch, such as the incineration of a five year old girl called Esther before the eyes of her parents, or the random assassination carried out by a Palestinian gunman called Omar, J. Harold Ellens comments:

I have figured out that the question is erroneous. It is not a question of justifying God or of bringing God to justice. It is not a question of forgiving God or holding God accountable. It is a matter of recognizing the limitations of God. God is not in charge of this world. We are. We should have gotten that clue at a more profound level of awareness than we seem to have done, from Genesis 1:28, where the ancient Israelite narrative informs us that God assigned us the task of dominion in this world, to bring it to its potential fruitfulness. If we do not take care of beautiful blond and blue-eyed Esther, God cannot. If we do not find reconciliation with Omar, God cannot stop the mass murders. If we do not reach beyond the alienations and transcend the terror of the terrorists, God cannot save us. 5

But perhaps the biggest problem with continuing to imagine a God who employs violence to advance his cause in the world is that it leads to an incoherent Christian monotheism. On the one hand, Jesus Christ is held to be the perfect revelation of the one true God. On the other hand, the God whom Jesus is said to reveal bears little resemblance to Jesus.


The Christian story rests on two fundamental truth claims which set it apart from all other religious and ideological systems. First, it claims that the Creator God is made most fully known in the human person of Jesus Christ. If we want to know what God is really like, the New Testament authors submit, we must look at Jesus. He is the supreme benchmark for our understanding of Deity, “He is the image of the invisible God,” the apostle Paul writes, the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Hebrews declares. He is also the one “through whom God created the worlds.” 6 “ All things came into being through him,” John’s Gospel begins, “and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” 7 “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and in visible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him.” Jesus, then, is both the human embodiment of God’s very being and the one through whom and for whom God created the universe.

This conviction invests the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth with unparalleled revelatory significance. When Jesus teaches and practices nonviolence, therefore, it is not enough to see it as a tactical expedient he employs because revolutionary violence against the Roman superpower was not a viable option at that time. It must be understood more profoundly as an articulation of what God is like and of how God exercises divine rule. That is why Jesus explicitly grounds his summons to enemy love and non-retaliation in the imitation of the heavenly Father, who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Jesus instructs his followers to conduct themselves as “children of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” They are to be merciful “just as your Father is merciful.”8 Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence, in other words, is predicated on the premise of a nonviolent God, a God who, as Raymund Schwager puts it, is “exactly the opposite of violence,” a God whose “limitless forgiveness and boundless love are distinct in every respect from the mechanism of violence and the vicious cycle of mutual destructiveness.”9 Those who claim to follow this God must therefore be nonviolent too.10

The second truth claim Christianity makes is that God has acted uniquely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to restore the world to its originally intended state of freedom. In Jesus, God has entered fully into the human condition, shackled as it is to the power of sin and subject to the scourge of suffering and death, and has acted through him to defeat the power of evil and reconcile its victims to himself. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness,” Paul rejoices, “and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…. For through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. “11

Not only is “the blood of his cross,” by which Paul means his violent death on a Roman gallows, the decisive event that defeats evil and brings about peace, it is also the definitive revelation of what God is really like. Christian faith asserts that God is never more truly God than he is in the dying of Jesus. In the cross, as the gospel writers put it, the veil of the temple is torn in two and God stands revealed. God’s justice also stands revealed,12 The cross shows that God’s justice is a peacemaking justice,13 a reconciling, restoring, and healing justice. The God who is made climactically known in the cross of Christ is a God who secures justice not by violent imposition of his will on his enemies but by freely subjecting himself in suffering love to the violent impulses of humanity to liberate creation from its bondage to violence and to restore people to relationship with God and with each other.

These, then, are the two mind-boggling assertions the New Testament authors make. They dare to propose that Jesus of Nazareth is the human face of God, “the flesh and blood embodiment of the perfections of God, and that the true character and the justice of this God are nowhere more evident than in his death and resurrection. But this is not all. From these two claims they arrive at a critically important deduction that what we learn of God in the story of Jesus is the key to understanding the meaning, inter-connectedness, and destiny of all created reality. As Ephesians states, “All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. In him God has made known his “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heave and things on earth. “14

What an astonishing assertion this is! All things have been created for, they are sustained by, and they find their ultimate meaning in Jesus Christ. All things are eternally imprinted with the moral character and career of the crucified and risen Lord. From this it follows that the central principle of creation is not naked power, or control, or order, or balance, but vulnerable, passionate, reconciling, self giving love, a love which subverts evil, not by an overwhelming dis play of coercive force, but by acting in amazing grace to redeem of fenders and to heal sin’s victims, and at great cost to itself. In short, the Jesus story reveals that God’s nonviolent love is the ground of the universe.

This is not a wholly new revelation, however. It is already evident in the creation narratives of Genesis. It is hugely significant that, notwithstanding the violence ascribed to God in the pages of the Bible, the canonical record opens and closes with surprisingly peaceful scenes – the two accounts of creation (Gen. 1-2) and the presentation of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21-22). Peace is both ontologically anterior to violence and eschatologically posterior to it. it. Violence has no role in God’s work of creation; it only enters into the picture later as a result of human sin and will eventually come to an end. This is quite different from other ancient Near Eastern creation myths, such as the Babylonian Emuna Elish, where creation is the result of a violent act of deicide and humans are created from the blood of the murdered god. There evil precedes good, chaos is conquered by violence, and the king serves as Marduk’s representative on earth, ruling by means of holy war. By contrast, as Walter Wink observe:

The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is before evil. Neither evil nor violence is a part of the creation, but enter later as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Gen. 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring a solution. 15

The creation narratives, in other words, presuppose a divine ontology of peace. They portray a nonviolent God who speaks the world into existence and who makes human beings in the divine image and likeness to cultivate creation as devoted gardeners, not to pillage it as rapacious warriors. Things go badly wrong, however, and violence invades this peaceable reality. This is no minor problem that can be easily fixed. It not only escalates out of all control in the human community, it even provokes God to an act of massive counterviolence, something God apparently later regrets. Thus begins the long canonical story of divinely induced violence, a story which stands in stark contrast to what we have seen of God in the story of Jesus and cries out for some theological explanation

It is important that this explanation is theological in character, not just traditio-historical or psycho-cultural or phenomenological, be cause the canonical text is principally intended to exercise a theological role in the community that created and preserves it. The biblical traditions, for all their diversity, once gathered together as canonical Scripture, combine to tell a single overarching story about Israel, God, and the world. The texts constitute a narrative world into which readers enter, with its own plot, its own cast of characters (including God), and its own universe of meanings, a story which serves authoritatively to interpret God to Israel and Israel to itself.”In this connection it matters little whether the biblical accounts are historically reliable in all their details; of primary importance is the theological claim they make to narrate the story of God. This means that the problem of divine violence cannot be dealt with adequately simply by deeming this or that episode to be legendary or fictitious. Whether or not God actually killed the children of Egypt, the biblical story says God did. This is how the biblical writers understand the involvement of God, and it is their interpretation of God that has normatively shaped and conditioned how the subsequent community of faith (including Jesus) has apprehended God.

What is needed, then, is some explanation for God’s violence that both accords with the inner logic of the plotted narrative and that ac counts for why it is that God is characterized in this way, especially when there are strong indications at the outset of the story that the Creator God works by peaceable means. Given the many incidents of divine violence that follow, it is also worth pondering how Jesus could possibly have conceived of God as being unfailingly kind to the ungrateful and wicked when he knew full well that within the biblical drama God discriminates in favor of friends, bears grudges against opponents for generations, and visits retribution on sinners.


The Hebrew Bible has a reputation for being one of the bloodiest works in existence, Firmly fixed in the popular mind is the image of the “Old Testament God” as a God of war and destruction, a brutal, reactive, and ruthless deity who brooks no rivals and leaves no infraction unpunished. Whether this menacing reputation is fully deserved is debatable. Patricia M. McDonald argues that there is far less violence in the Hebrew Scriptures than is generally supposed and that the deepest concern of the biblical authors is to encourage ways of living that overcome violence and foster compassion. The problem with any textual portrayal of violence, she suggests, is that it tends to have a disproportionate impact on readers. Violent language and imagery take over our imagination and absorb our interest, so that we “find” more violence than is actually there.

This rhetorical impact of the violence also diverts attention away from other themes in the text that are often of more fundamental importance to the author. The peripheral thus becomes central and the central peripheral. Nor, McDonald adds, does all the violent imagery used in the Bible function to endorse actual violence. The specifically military imagery for God, for example, is plainly metaphorical. God’s defeat of Egypt may be spoken of as a triumph of war,33 but in practice it was achieved by non-military terms. Although Yahweh uses “weapons” to overthrow his enemies, his weapons are the forces of the natural order. The language is analogical, not literal, although, as McDonald concedes, this choice of military analogies did encourage dangerous perceptions about God to emerge.

As helpful as these considerations are, the fact remains that the biblical narrative attests to a deep and pervasive association between God and deadly violence. The connection between them is varied and complex. Sometimes God resolutely opposes the use of violence and identifies wholly with the victim. At other times God is portrayed as the perpetrator of violence, either by direct fiat or by organizing and sanctioning others to visit judgment on a disobedient people. Often it is precisely God’s capacity for superior violence that serves to establish Yahweh’s credentials as the only true God. Violence thus emerges as the most frequently mentioned activity in the Hebrew Bible. Schwager has counted some 600 passages in which violence is recorded and at least 1,000 verses in which God’s violence is de scribed. In some 100 passages God expressly commands people to kill others, and in some stories God tries to kill people for no apparent reason.4 God’s violence is particularly evident in the wilderness stories. It has been calculated that in the forty year period between Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their entry to Canaan, the Lord executes at least 30,000 of his own people. 35 Three times Yahweh threatens to annihilate them entirely, and on a number of occasions strikes them with plagues as he did the Egyptians,37 Even greater in number than such narrative acts of violence are the potential acts of violence commanded in the enforcement of the laws of the Sinai covenant.38

The blood of Israel’s enemies runs even more freely. Yahweh smites innocent Egyptian children in Exodus 12, drowns the Egyptian army in the sea in Exodus 14-15, opens up the ground to swallow the Korahites in Numbers 16, orders the impaling of Baal worshippers in Numbers 25, calls for reprisal on the Midianites in Numbers 31, and orders the conquest of Canaan in Joshua 1. The most chilling of all biblical texts to do with war and violence are those that refer to the herem or “ban,” under which all human beings among the defeated are “de voted to destruction,” sometimes at God’s explicit command.39 Emotions of pity are expressly forbidden in such cases.40 Susan Niditch identifies two main ideologies undergirding and justifying this practice of genocide. In one, the ban is understood as a sacrificial offering to God, which presupposes a God who appreciates human sacrifice. In the other, the ban is viewed as an act of divine justice upon idolatry, which was thought to threaten Israel’s own purity and survival. In both cases mass slaughter is a means of gaining God’s favor.

It is possible to identify certain ameliorating features in the institution of herem. McDonald mentions, for example, its role in discouraging the use of war purely for plunder, since all captured possessions were to be destroyed.42 Niditch detects a paradoxically high view of human dignity implicit in the ban. The “terrifying complete ness and fairness” of the ban’s indiscriminate massacre “may be viewed as admitting more respect for the value of human life than other war ideologies that allow for arbitrary killing of soldiers and God is still cast in the role as author or condoner of immense brutality, civilians. “43This sounds like special pleading. But even if it were true, the instigator of repeated episodes of ethnic cleansing, the perpetrator of what today would be termed crimes against humanity. Accord ing to one critic, the God of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua is little better than a violent, murderous, genocidal land thief. “Troubling images of God cascade from biblical texts like waterfalls after a violent storm. God’s repugnant words and pathological behavior are so widespread as to be considered normative behavior for God!”44 This judgment may be one-sided. But the fact that it can seriously be made at all is testimony to the extent to which God is deeply embroiled in gut-wrenching brutality in many parts of the biblical narrative.

The most graphic accounts of divinely approved violence are set in the context of Israel’s early history, even if they were composed at a later stage. With the establishment of the monarchy, the pure ideal of holy war comes to an end and Israel learns to rely on conventional military might. War still carries a sacral element to some extent, but, as Mark McEntire explains “God is removed from the battlefield and eventually closed off in the temple along with the ark… the of God is no longer an essential element of a battle.” 45 In later presence prophetic and apocalyptic literature, emphasis shifts from the mediation of divine violence through historical agents to the expectation of God’s eschatological victory, which is portrayed in language no less violent than is found in Deuteronomy and Joshua. The Psalms also celebrate and anticipate the coming of the “God of salvation” who will “shatter the heads of his enemies” and will enable his own people to “bathe their feet in blood” and to feed their enemies to their dogs.46

Not that God ever deserts the cut and thrust of present history. McEntire points out that the Hebrew canon (unlike the Greek canon and Christian Old Testament canon) closes with 2 Chronicles 36, which tells of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Although the term herem is not used, the many parallels between 2 Chronicles 36 and Joshua 6 give the unmistakable impression that the city has fallen because God has instituted a ban on Israel. The classical prophets toyed with the possibility of Yahweh turning against Israel for breaking covenant,47 now it has happened. Yahweh disowns his people and brings devastation upon the holy city. No mercy is shown to its inhabitants; the chosen people are either killed or carried off into exile. “Yahweh begins the story as the compassionate, patient God of a disobedient people. As the story progresses, Yahweh becomes a wrathful avenger whose actions are confused with and indistinguishable from those of an earthly tyrant.” 48

To be sure, bringing such episodes of divine violence into the limelight in this way is potentially misleading, for there is quite another side to God’s character in the biblical accounts as well. Hosea 11, for example, depicts Yahweh in emotional turmoil, torn apart by conflicting feelings of outrage at his people’s sin and tender compassion for their plight, contemplating terrible punishment but recoiling in horror from the prospect of executing fierce anger against them and promising never again to destroy Ephraim. Elsewhere too God is revealed as a God of mercy, forgiveness, and love, a God who displays a special concern for the most vulnerable members of the covenant community, a God who liberates the poor from oppression and who heals and restores the victims of violence. Indeed, this biblical notion of a God who sides with the weak and the downtrodden is radically different from that which prevailed in the ancient Near East, where the gods inaugurated and upheld the hierarchical structures of wealth and power.50

Even so, God’s concrete actions at times belie God’s words. Yahweh appears not only as the God of victims but also as the God who devours victims. How the head-smashing God of the historical narratives, the psalms, and the prophets can be reconciled with the nonviolent God disclosed by Jesus still needs to be answered.


Many different interpretive strategies have been employed to try to resolve this problem. One common tactic is to refuse to question anything God does, as a matter of principle, for God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts higher than ours (Isa. 55:9). God is sovereign and holy; it is simply wrong for human beings as mere creatures to subject God’s actions to moral scrutiny.

But this pious concern to save God from criticism ducks the problem. Even Abraham was prepared to challenge God’s projected violence against the inhabitants of Sodom on the ground that the judge of all the earth has a moral obligation to abide by the principle of justice. If God’s deeds are beyond all moral valuation, so that nothing God ever does can be called bad, then it is equally true that nothing God does can ever be called good, and no way finally exists to differentiate between God and the Devil. There is also no ground for challenging religious zealots today who cast themselves in the role of human agents of divine wrath on the basis that whatever God is said to have done in sacred Scripture must be inherently good.

Another common strategy is to offer pleas of mitigation on God’s behalf, to find in each episode of bloodletting a justifiable reason for divine judgment. The dispossession and extermination of the Canaanites, for example, is seen as fitting punishment for their idol try and wickedness. It is also often observed that given Israel’s precarious predicament in a hostile world, God simply had to employ lethal violence to safeguard the chosen instrument of salvation for the benefit of us all. God’s violence is an example of “good violence rather than “bad violence” because it is a redemptive or salvific violence 52

Such appeals to mitigating circumstances, however, come perilously close to an ends-justifies-the-means style of moral reasoning It is true that the conquest of Canaan is sometimes defended in the biblical text as deserved retribution for the idolatry of the inhabitants. But the justice of the penalty is by no means self-evident. As McEntire points out, “The inhabitants of Jericho, and Canaan in general, are never accused of anything other than two dubious transgressions. They happen to live in the land Yahweh promised to Abraham and they do not exclusively worship a god, Yahweh, who has never been revealed to them.” McEntire notes that “As punishment for these transgressions, they become victims of destructive violence.” The net result is “people minding their own business becoming dead so that nomads can become farmers.”54

It is also true that the continued existence of Israel as a holy people is of overriding importance to the story of salvation and that God favored their interests for the ultimate good of all humanity. But it is extremely doubtful that every episode of divinely sanctioned blood shed was critical to the maintenance of Israel’s national and religious integrity. Sometimes relatively minor infractions attract massive retribution while at other times mercy is extended to serious breaches of covenantal boundaries. It also needs saying that the ease with which some interpreters defend the necessity and morality of the “redemptive violence” employed in biblical history attests to an imaginative failure on their part to recognize the hideous suffering endured by its victims. Christian readers recoil in horror at the Christmas story of Herod’s slaughter of the infant boys in Bethlehem, yet often barely flinch when reading of God ordering the massacre of the Amalekite infants, and some two centuries after the offense for which the people were allegedly being punished.” Readers may delight in the sparing of Rahab and her family when Joshua “fit de battle of Jericho” but spare no thought for all the other inhabitants of the city who were devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Josh. 6:21).

A third interpretive strategy is to sanitize the real-life violence of the biblical text by allegorizing or spiritualizing it. There is a long and venerable approach to biblical interpretation that is so convinced of the text’s divine origins that where the literal sense of the words pro duces impossible results, one must look for a deeper allegorical meaning, a meaning, as Origen put it, that is “worthy of God.” By this method stories of war and mayhem are transposed into uplifting moral and spiritual truths. But despite its impressive pedigree, allegorization is hardly a viable method in the modern world for dealing with offensive texts. Moreover, even if the allegorical meaning may be counted as worthy of God, the literal historical meaning remains deeply problematic.57 Allegorists and Sunday school teachers may find comforting spiritual messages disclosed by violent texts, but the texts themselves were initially intended to portray and validate actual bodily suffering and death.

Yet another hermeneutical strategy is to dismiss the violent portrayals of God in the biblical text as historically and theologically false. They are the product of the biblical authors projecting onto God their own violent fantasies and vengeful impulses, seeking to justify human atrocities by claiming God decreed them. God thus gets the blame for what in reality were acts of human malice. This means that rather than blithely accepting the truthfulness of everything the text says about God as guaranteed by divine revelation, it is important to separate the wheat from the chaff, to distinguish the voice of divine truth from the voice of human self-deception.58 Nelson-Pallmeyer makes this point with uncompromising clarity:

The Bible tells us more about human beings than it does about God, and it does so even when it claims to be talking about God. Revelation within the biblical story, in my view, is rare, and often overwhelmed by distorted human projections. The Bible is both sacred and dangerous. It is sacred because God is revealed partly within the experiences of those responsible for its pages. That is why many of us return to it day after day and year after year in search of meaning and guidance. It is also a dangerous book because we often ascribe divine will to the many human distortions it contains. We undermine the sacredness of the Bible and fuel its dangers whenever we fail to discern the difference between distortion and revelation…. Stated simply, the Bible can inform our religious experience, but it is often wrong about God.99

The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective For Nelson-Pallmeyer it is not enough just to recognize the metaphorical character of the violent images used for God. Violent metaphors must be utterly repudiated as false and abusive. They distort the truth of God and should be expunged from the language of theology and worship. Other scholars, however, warn against discarding such morally offensive material, for, as John Collins suggests, violent texts still possesses revelatory power insofar as they give “an unvarnished picture of human nature and of the dynamics of history, and also of religion and the things that people do in its name.” 60

This fourth hermeneutical strategy is helpful in alerting us to the complexity of the interface between divine revelation and human reception. Comprehending God’s self-disclosure in the biblical narrative is like following a fine silver thread woven into a dense and colourful tapestry, a tapestry embroidered from a wide range of human reflections and actions that are always culturally conditioned and ideologically slanted. Accordingly, just because God’s permission is frequently evoked by biblical figures does not necessarily mean that God has spoken in every one of those instances. Yet how do we make allowance for this possibility without remaking God in our own image? How do we avoid simply favoring those parts of Scripture that suit our own prejudices and biases and discarding the rest as false projections, thus reducing the text to an echo-chamber of modern liberal values and preconceptions? And how is the canonical status of the text sustained if we accept only the nice bits?

The violence of God material is not easily separable from other more peaceful conceptions of divine activity. In one form or another, divine violence is woven into warp and woof of almost the entire biblical tradition. The self-same texts that extol God’s graciousness and mercy and forgiveness and slowness to anger, also warn of God visiting the iniquity of the parents on their children for three or four generations.61 No wonder Nelson-Pallmeyer is forced to conclude that revelation is rare in the Bible.

This brings us to a final, and more promising, hermeneutical strategy, one that allows for a substantial change in God’s relation ship to violence in the course of the biblical story. In this approach the violent texts are not to be rejected as a simple distortion of divine reality. They are a reliable reflection of how God was experienced at this time. Amid the violence that pervaded human life and society, people encountered God as someone directly involved in the messiness of human life and conflict. They knew that God abhorred the squander ing of human life, for it was invested it with sacred significance. Yet they also wanted a God who would employ coercive power in great measure to punish, protect, and correct. Elijah, for instance, invited God to cast fire down from heaven to consume his opponents, for this was how any self-respecting deity should prove his superiority when challenged by competitors. 62

With the coming of Jesus, a fresh experience of God is afforded. When Jesus’ disciples wanted to emulate Elijah by calling down fire on a Samaritan village, Jesus “turned and rebuked them. He did so not simply because such an extreme reprisal would be unfair in this particular circumstance, but because he considered violent vengeance to be wrong in principle and because he knew that God should no longer be understood to work in this way. God has disarmed! God’s perceived involvement in the infliction of violence is over. God no longer fights fire with fire. God has changed – or, perhaps more accurately, the human experience of God’s association with violence has changed. God will no longer permit his identity to be defined by violence; God actively repudiates the violent behavior which has hitherto clouded his character so that the duplicity of violence itself may be exposed and defeated.


I noted earlier that the creation narratives presuppose a divine ontology of peace. Violence is neither part of God’s creative activity nor of God’s internal being. Violence appears only after the human community has fallen into sin. Interestingly the subsequent account depicts an initial reluctance on God’s part to employ violence, then a decision to do so, followed by a recoiling from its drastic consequences. This imaginative portrayal of divine ambivalence toward violence in the early scenes of the human story is, I suggest, an important key for understanding what follows. It dramatizes a profound insight into the perversity of violence, namely, that once violence is entrenched in human society, even the sacred is captured by its allure. Once “the earth is filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11,13), humanity’s apprehension of the divine is inescapably framed by its desire to have a deity whose power is greater than that of human violence and whose greatness is shown precisely in a heightened capacity for violence. The violence-of-God material that pervades the biblical narratives is thus symptomatic of this capture while also disclosive of it.

God’s reply to Adam and Eve’s disobedience is not, at first, a violent one. Along with other consequences they are banished from the Garden to prevent their fallen condition from becoming everlasting (Gen. 3:22-24). When in the second generation the problem of sibling rivalry arises, God tries to warn Cain off from succumbing to his feelings of jealousy and resentment, but without success. Sin is personified as a hungry animal lying at the door ready to spring (4:6-7). It is so powerful that it overcomes the will of God and overtakes the passions of Cain, and he turns to violence. After Cain murders his brother, God still does not respond violently; instead the Lord acts to protect the life of the killer, though now threatening sevenfold vengeance against any who disregards the protective mark on Cain (4:15). God’s next response to human sinfulness is to impose a 120 year limit on the human life span (6:3) and to express regret over the decision to create human beings in the first place (6:6). But as violence spins out of control and fills the land, God plans, for the first time, an act of violent retribution in which “everything that is on the earth shall die” (6:17). In due course God carries out the plan, blotting out all but a tiny handful of creatures (7:21-24).

Afterward, however, God is deeply disturbed by the indiscriminate nature of the punishment employed. Non-human creation has been made to bear the brunt of humanity’s sin. At the same time, God recognizes that wiping out sinful people still has not actually removed the problem of sin, “for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21, cf. 6:5). God therefore promises never again to curse the ground and destroy all living creatures because of human evil (8:21-22; 9:11, 15). As McDonald observes, “God tried violence once and now knows better.”God then makes two telling concessions to the descendants of Noah: humans may now kill animals for food (9:3-4), and those who take human life will face the death sentence (9-5-6), an attempt to use judicially circumscribed violence to break the spirit of vendetta displayed earlier by Lamech (4:23-24). In a sense, God makes a compromise with violence. Lethal violence in the human community is forbidden, but those who resort to it can expect God to respond in like manner.

The patriarchal narratives that follow are remarkably peaceful. There is very little violence described at all, although God is often involved in what does occur, such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s long-term plan to dispossess the Canaanites of their land is frequently alluded to. Violence only becomes more pronounced during and after the deliverance from Egypt, and especially during the conquest of Canaan where, as we have seen, genocide is commanded. Thereafter in the waxing and waning of Israel’s fortunes, God is frequently depicted as the author and instrument of violence, ranging from incidents of individual retribution to episodes of large-scale war-making.

God’s actual responsibility for authorizing this violence is, of course, doubtful, if not impossible. It is a standard feature of biblical idiom to ascribe a causative role to God for almost everything that happens, both good and bad, as well for narrators to assume a God’s eye perspective in interpreting events. It is crucial to recognize this interpretive technique. Raymund Schwager divides the texts that speak of God’s violence in the Old Testament into four categories: those where Yahweh strikes out irrationally for no apparent reason (which are extremely rare), those where God personally takes revenge on human wrongdoing, those where God uses other human beings to punish evildoers, and those where the wicked are punished by their deeds rebounding back on them under God’s supervision.”1

But the distinction between these categories is more rhetorical than real, for the narrative texts show that even where God’s direct retribution is talked of, it is almost always mediated through human instruments.72 Both direct and indirect divine violence amount to the same thing; “it is always a question of human power interpreted as God’s action.”73 Direct heavenly intervention is rare, though it does happen (and presumably here natural calamities are being attributed to God).74 Much the same applies to those texts which speak of self punishment. The penalty may be conceptualized as the inherent con sequence of a wrongful deed boomeranging back on the doer, but in practice the penalty might still be inflicted by another person or be initiated by God.75 While violence, then, is explicitly ascribed to God in the biblical text, it is almost always committed by human beings. Texts on Yahweh’s violence normally refer to human deeds that are thought in some way to be related to God’s will, so that we may safely assume that “human violence is meant when there is talk of divine anger and retribution.”76

But why is it that human violence is so naturally identified with the action of God? Why is God conceived as the author of so much carnage? Why are harmful human experiences viewed as the punishments of God? Part of the answer lies in the desire to affirm God’s transcendent immanence in all of historical experience, and part of it lies in the corrupting impact of violence itself. Such is the intrinsic nature of violence that once unleashed it changes everything, including humanity’s experience of God. In the Genesis story God is initially portrayed as one who resists and opposes violence, albeit without success. But as violence grows and spreads God is driven to counter-violence. Once this step is taken however, God is enmeshed in the very problem that needs addressing.77

Redemptive violence takes on an irresistible logic of its own, that even the knowledge of God falls victim to it. It is almost as if it is imagined that God compromises with violence, God ends up being compromised. Consistently in the Bible the experience of violence changes people’s identity, the way individuals are perceived and known and relate to one another. The same happens to God’s identity, as the peaceable God of creation is inexorably defined in militant and aggressive ways. Counter-themes of love and mercy and forgiveness and restraint are always present, but the larger conceptual framework fundamentally remains one of redemptive violence.

Once conceived as violent, God’s only option is to tarry with humanity in its misconceptions to win redemption by other means. God is forced to accommodate revelation to the limitations of human perception, not least so that the ultimate futility of redemptive violence – already intimated in Genesis 8:21 – might become apparent. 79 In the process horrendous acts of violence are attributed, or misattributed, to God. But God’s apparent capture by the categories of sacred violence becomes the precondition for exposing violence for what it is – an enslaving and self-perpetuating deception that contaminates all that it touches, including knowledge of God. With the coming of Jesus however, God finally casts off the illusions surrounding righteous violence to disclose “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Eph. 3.9) – to reconcile all things by an act of self-giving, nonviolent, victorious love. Significantly this requires God-in-Christ personally to fall victim to divinely sanctioned lethal violence, making it plain once and for all that God-authored violence is a falsity, that “whenever sacred violence is mentioned, it is always human beings attacking one another.” 82

It is God’s definitive renunciation of redemptive violence in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that requires us to re-read the earlier biblical narratives of divine violence in such a way that God can no longer be seen as the ultimate author of the cruelty and killing they record. Certainly these bloody narratives attest to God’s providential presence amid human degradation. But insofar as they ascribe to God responsibility for acts of barbarism, they attest only to the veil of violence through which the experience of God has been filtered since the days of Cain. In Christ, however, the veil is taken away and God stands fully revealed.

I am suggesting then that the biblical accounts of divine violence are both true to how God was experienced following the entry of sin, yet ultimately untrue to God’s real character. In this respect they are hermeneutically complex. It could be objected that allowing for such misrepresentation of God’s initiative in violence by the biblical authors undermines the authority and trustworthiness of the scriptural text. But this is not necessarily so. The text remains trustworthy in that it reliably discloses how God has been apprehended in history and how God perseveres with human fallibility. Those passages that ascribe violence to God should not be censored or sanitized or discarded; instead they should be read with a “critical charity” that embraces them, for all their gruesomeness, as a gift of God to aid in our instruction and formation. But neither should such passages be absolutized as an unassailable revelation of God’s true being; that role belongs to Christ alone.

Objections might also be raised to the notion of God being “captured” by the mythology of violence, of God allowing the divine identity to be clouded by images of vengeance and viciousness. But this phenomenon can be seen as testimony to the seriousness of the cognitive and moral distortions created by the entry of sin and the irruption of violence (cf. Rom. 1:18-23). Also there are precedents within Scripture itself for questioning whether established understandings of God’s behavior are truly consonant with the character of God. Jeremiah, for example, despite repeated affirmations in sacred tradition that God employs the practice of collective punishment, extending down through many generations,85 looks forward to the day when this will no longer be so,86 and Ezekiel is rebuked by God for failing to see that the principle no longer applies.87

An even more instructive analogy is the way in which the apostle Paul rethinks the role of the law in salvation. Paul faces a hermeneutical dilemma similar to the one explored above. He discovered that when God played his trump card in Jesus Christ, it looked disconcertingly different from what God’s hand had hitherto looked like. Until that point, God had insisted that obedience to the Torah was the in dispensable source of righteousness for the chosen people and the ground of hope for Israel’s redemption. The law was central to God’s saving purposes. But then something unexpected happened. When God finally intervened to secure salvation for Israel, it took place “apart from the law,”88 in some respects even contrary to the law.

Paul was therefore forced to think his way through how and why God’s familiar ways in the past had altered so dramatically. The zealous young Pharisee, who himself had been prepared to use righteous violence to defend and uphold the law, 89 was compelled to read the Scriptures afresh, to interpret them from a new perspective, to discern in them a new understanding of God hitherto hidden from sight but now revealed through his son. In doing so Paul suggests a relation ship between God, sin, death, and the law that parallels, in broad outline, the relationship between God and violence I have sketched above.


The meaning and self-consistency of Paul’s extensive reflections on the place of the Mosaic law in the Christian era is a storm center in current Pauline scholarship. Over the last twenty-five years, the so called “New Perspective on Paul” has thrown up a series of objections to the traditional or “Lutheran” understanding that has dominated the interpretation of Paul since the time of the Reformation. Yet the New Perspective is itself coming under sustained criticism, with some scholars claiming that it lacks the theological depth and exegetical precision of the traditional model. No consensus has yet emerged, although there is a growing feeling that some mediating position is required that combines the insights of both older and the newer perspectives. There is no room here to explore this further. Suffice it to say that any satisfactory explanation of Paul’s critique of the law must, in my opinion, do justice to three main realities: the diversity of views on the Torah in first-century Judaism, Paul’s radical commitment to Gentile inclusion in the messianic community, and the apostle’s darkly pessimistic view of the human condition. All three inform and shape his reconsideration of the role of the law in God’s purposes, now that the Messiah has appeared.16

It is noteworthy that Paul approaches the issue within a narrative framework. That is to say, he reads Scripture primarily as a story, with an overarching plot, a set of characters, and a forward-reaching momentum that climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Paul recognizes that there are different ways of interpreting this story. As a Pharisee, he read the biblical story through the lens of the Torah, with Moses being the key actor in the drama and Israel’s holiness being its central concern. Now as a Christian, Paul has learned to read the story through the lens of Jesus Christ, with Abraham being the key figure and the eschatological uniting of Jew and Gentile in a new covenant community being its true message. Of course, for Paul, these two readings of the biblical narrative are not equally valid. The former is the product of viewing Scripture through a “veil” of ignorance, of lacking true enlightenment about the real import of God’s saving righteousness. Only in Christ is this veil removed; only in him do the lights come on. Only then does the true meaning of God’s activity in preceding history come clearly into view.

From this hermeneutical vantage point, Paul is able to see the Torah in a completely new light. Once he viewed the law as God’s answer to Adam’s sin, the gracious means by which Israel could recover humanity’s true role in the world and secure admission to the world to come. Now, however, Paul considers the law to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Paul faults the law on three main counts. First, the law has proven powerless to free God’s people from the grip of sin. Far from controlling sin, as God intended, the law actually makes the situation worse, because it simultaneously highlights Israel’s accountability to God’s requirements (Rom. 2:12; 3:19) and her impotence to achieve genuine righteousness no matter how sincerely she strives for it (9:31, cf. 2:17-29). Consequently the law cannot deliver the hoped for vindication; on the contrary it brings “the knowledge of sin” (3:20; 5:13; 7:7), the weight of God’s wrath (4:15), and the inevitability of God’s curse (Gal. 3:10). More than that, it actually exacerbates human sinfulness. The law functions to stir up the very passions it condemns (Rom. 7:5), so that the coming of the law resulted in trespasses being multiplied rather than being reduced (5:20).

The reason for this sorry state of affairs is that the law, for all its divine qualities, is unable to overcome the indwelling and all-pervasive power of sin (3:9-18; 7:14-25; Gal. 3:22). The law is fatally “weakened by the flesh” (Rom. 8:3; 7:14, 25); it is stymied by that fallen human condition that “does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot” (8:7). The law has even become a weapon in the hands of sin (7:7-13), so much so that Paul can boldly declare that “the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56, cf. Rom. 7:22-23). What God intended for life has become a vehicle of death. The source of the problem is not the law itself, which Paul considers to be “holy, just and good” (Rom. 7:12, 14, 16). The problem is the deep-rootedness of sin, which lies beyond the reach of any external legal code, even one given by God.

The second problem Paul finds with the law is that it is limited to one ethnic community. Notwithstanding the ironical tone of his comments, Paul accepts the premise that the law was given uniquely to Israel to enable her to be “a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (Rom 2:19-20). But this mission has been subverted by Israel’s failure to practice what she preaches, so much so that Paul can even charge the covenant people with causing God’s name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles (2:24). What Israel’s track record proves, Paul argues, is that sin is no respecter of ethnic boundaries. Nor, conversely, is the capacity to perceive and obey God’s will. Paul believes that it is quite possible for uncircumcised Gentiles, who do not possess the Torah, “instinctively to do what the law requires” since “what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness” (2:14-15, 27).

So law and righteousness are not co-extensive realities; there is no necessary overlap. If there were, justification could legitimately come through the law and Gentiles would need to become observant Jews to appropriate it. But Israel’s own servitude to sin proves that this is not the case. In any event, even if it were the case, an additional problem would arise, for God would then be reduced to the status of a tribal deity rather than universal lord, and God’s promise to bless all the nations of the world through Abraham would be null and void (4:9-16; Gal. 3:15-22). If the unity, sovereignty, and justice of God – to which the law itself bears witness – are to be vouchsafed, justification must come by some means other than the law. It must potentially be open to every member of the human family.

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom. 3:28-31, cf. 10:11-13)

The third problem Paul has with the law is that an overriding emphasis on law-keeping shifts the spotlight from God’s empowering grace to autonomous human achievement, Paul is adamant that justification cannot come from reliance on the works of the law. Now it is true that by this phrase Paul most likely has in mind ceremonial practices such as circumcision, food laws, purity regulations, and Sabbath observance which served visibly to demarcate the boundary between the law-keeping covenant community and the Gentile world. He is not thinking of legalism in a moral sense but of proud reliance on badges of ethnic distinction. He is not accusing Judaism of advocating an individualistic works-righteousness whereby people can earn their own salvation by merit. He is more likely targeting some conception of national-righteousness, whereby adoption of certain Jewish distinctives was thought essential to securing final vindication. Even so, Paul still recognizes the potential for a law-centered spirituality to over-emphasize human capability and to underestimate the insidiousness of sin and the necessity of grace.

Viewed from the perspective of law-keeping, sin tends to get equated with a set of external behaviors that can be avoided with sufficient vigilance, rather than being recognized for what it really is – a deadly poison that permeates the entire life-system of humanity, a cosmic power that enslaves all humanity by habituating everyone to self-centeredness and idolatry.93 A certain kind of complacency can therefore emerge that is so assured of its own sincerity that it underrates the unmerited nature of grace (cf. Phil. 3:4-16). This is partly why Paul sets law and grace in such stark opposition.

The only solution to this predicament, Paul argues, is the rupturing of sin’s lordship and the radical renewal of human nature from the inside out so that God’s law is written on the human heart by means of the indwelling of the Spirit. This is exactly what Christ achieves through his death and resurrection on behalf of all humanity, as a kind of second Adam.95 Those who participate through baptism in Christ’s victory (Rom. 6:1-14) are empowered by the eschatological Spirit to fulfil the true intention of God’s law (8:1-4). That intention is a life of freedom wholly devoted to the love of God and the love of neighbor, including even the love of enemies (12:9-21). Paul saw his own life experience as proof of this. Once supremely zealous for God’s law, he perpetrated violence on God’s behalf. Now graciously freed from the grip of sin through faith in Christ, he proclaims the peace of God, even taking up the cause of his former opponents in the interests of universal reconciliation.

In light of this analysis, Paul concludes that the regime of law was only ever intended by God as a temporary holding measure, until Christ should come (Gal. 3:19-26). It served negatively to imprison all under sin (Gal. 3:22; Rom. 10:32) in preparation for the great liberation which Christ would win through his vicarious death and resurrection. Those united with Christ in this way are no longer “under law but under grace” (6:15). They have “died to the law” (7:4; Gal. 2:19), they are “discharged from the law” (7:6), they are “freed” and “redeemed” from the law (Gal. 3:13; 4:5;5:1), they are “no longer subject” to the law’s rule (Gal. 3:25) or its condemnation (Rom. 8:1). “For Christ is the end-goal [telos] of the law” (10:5). Things have changed!

In none of this, of course, is Paul wrestling with the problem of divine violence (he is actually struggling to make sense of the prodigiousness of God’s mercy!) But there are several features of Paul’s approach to the law that constitute a kind of hermeneutical template for the type of approach to divine violence I have advocated above. To begin with, in both cases, the presenting problem is a substantial shift in God’s modus operandi from what was apparent in previous tradition. Paul openly acknowledges that God’s methods have changed. This is implicit in the ringing adversative declaration “But now, apart from law…” that commences his account of the revelation of saving justice in Christ in Romans 3:21-26. It is also evident in the way he divides Israel’s story into sequential phases (Adam to Abraham, Abraham to Moses, Moses to Christ), with the law entering 430 years after the promise to Abraham and serving as a disciplinarian “until Christ came,” after which time “we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian” (Gal. 3:15-26). Paul thus allows for real change in God’s ways.

The sheer radicalism of this change ought not to be underestimated. It required for Paul a thoroughgoing revision of understanding of what had hitherto been the most fundamental ingredients of covenantal faithfulness-circumcision, Sabbath observance, food laws, and separation from all sources of impurity, including Gentiles. That the apostle can boldly declare that “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14) and that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything but a new creation is everything” (Gal. 6:15), is a measure of the extent to which he reckoned on a major revolution having occurred in God’s way of working.

Second, in problematizing the law Paul seeks an explanation that both accords with the plot of the canonical story and explains why God appears to act differently than previously thought, which is exactly what I have said is needed to deal with the issue of divine violence. Paul accepts that radical changes have taken place in God’s priorities, but he is equally emphatic that there is a profound consistency between the realities of the present and the revelation of the past. The “new creation” afforded in Christ is not arbitrary or capricious; it accords with the deepest themes of the previous story. It is both “at tested by the law and the prophets” (Rom. 3:21, 31) and compatible with God’s own being (3:29). That authentic righteousness can come “apart from the law,” Paul argues, is already evident in the story of Abraham as a foreshadowing of what was to come (4:1-25), and it is only by transcending the limitations of Mosaic law that the promise of universal blessing to Abraham can possibly be realized (Gal. 3:6-17).

The negative role of the law is thus balanced by its positive role in anticipating and illuminating eschatological events.” Even Moses can now be heard to speak of “the word of faith that we proclaim” (Rom 10:8): It is the fulfillment of eschatological hope in Christ and the Spirit that accounts for why God’s activity now seems so different. It is also what impels Paul to read the canonical story afresh to discern in it a meaning and dynamic once hidden from view. A similar strategy is needed, I have suggested, with respect to the narratives of divine violence.

Finally, and most tellingly, Paul does not shrink from depicting God’s law as having been captured by the power of sin and becoming a source of enslavement and death. The law itself, Paul is clear, is imbued with the very attributes of God; it is “holy, just, and good,” it is even “spiritual” (Rom. 7:12, 14, 16). But regardless of its divine credentials the law has been bamboozled by sin. Seizing the opportunity created by the revelation of God’s will, sin commandeered the law to deceive and kill its adherents (7:11). Consequently, despite its intrinsic goodness, and despite its promise of life to those who observe its commandments, the law has in effect functioned to lock in, as it were, Israel’s servitude to sin and death.

This is an incredibly daring claim for Paul to make! He asserts that not only has Gentile humanity’s knowledge of God been corrupted by the tyranny of sin (1:18-23, cf. 1 Cor 1:20-25), even Israel’s apprehension of God’s intentions in the law has fallen victim to sin’s death-dealing deception. It is only by taking this insight with full seriousness that we can begin to make sense of the attribution of violence to God in the biblical record. Arguably part of sin’s deception is the identification of human violence with the will of God. Jesus Christ explodes this deception, and in him a new humanity emerges that is now in the process of “being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10).

In these ways, then, Paul’s grappling with the ambiguities of the law in salvation history furnishes something of a hermeneutical analogy for the approach to divine violence sketched out in this chapter. To be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that Paul’s ruminations on the law in themselves relate to the issue of God’s recorded violence, only that he models a style of hermeneutical engagement with Scripture that can be usefully reapplied to this question. Whether the biblical stories of violence caused any discomfort for the apostle is hard to say. Certainly he never explicitly disavows a violent God. If anything, the real scandal for Paul was not the violent exclusivity of God’s past actions but the gratuitous inclusiveness of God’s saving activity in the present. When Paul takes refuge in the inscrutability of God’s ways it is not to justify divine violence but to underscore the mystery of God’s indefatigable mercy, a mercy displayed equally toward disobedient Israel and toward wider Gentile humanity (Rom. 11:28-36).

Paul may never have consciously reflected on how best to reconcile this present experience of God’s mercy with past episodes of grotesque violence. But it was his apprehension of the crucified and risen Christ as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) that trans formed Paul from a violent religious zealot into a peacemaker extraordinaire. It was this that led him to speak distinctively of God as “the God of peace, “100 the God who has reconciled the entire world to God’s self not by violent conquest but by self-giving sacrifice. This crucified God is the same God who made the world and everything in it, the same God who called Abraham and chose Israel, the same God that Jesus called Father, and the same God to whom Jesus pointed his followers as the supreme paradigm for the way of nonviolent discipleship.


3. As Dale C. Allison Jr. notes,”… the problem of conflicting theologies was not born with Christianity. The problem was already internal to Judaism …. If, after Marcion, the issue for Christians became which God to a edge, this was only a later variant of the earlier question, Which texts should we sanction?” “Rejecting Violent Judgment: Luke 9:52-56 and its Journal of Biblical Literature 121/3 (2002): 459-78 (at 478).

4. See J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2001). I am in general sympathy with the direction of Weaver’s argument, though I depart substantially from his reading of the New Testament evidence. See my “Atonement, Violence, and the Will of God,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 76/1 (2003):67-90.

5. See for instance. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Ex planation of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), esp. 275-306. Cf. also Kenneth R. Chase, “Christian Discourse and the Humility of Peace,” in Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology, ed. Kenneth R. Chase and Alan Jacobs (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003), 119-34 (esp. 128-31); Dan McKanan, “Is God Violent? Theological Options in the Antislavery Movement,” in Must Christianity Be Violent?, 50-68

6. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 1-31; idem, The Powers That Be Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 63-81. 7. Heb 10:31

7. Heb 10:31

11. Col. 1:15, 19, cf. 2 Cor. 4:4

14. Col. 1:16

15. N.T. Wright offers a powerful presentation of Jesus’ nonviolent opposition to Rome in Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996). But he stops short of grounding it in any distinctive apprehension of God’s character by Jesus.

16. Matt. 5:44-48

23. John C. Haughey, “Jesus as the Justice of God,” in The Faith that Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change, ed. J.C. Haughey (New York: Paulist Press, 1922), 279. See also Marshall, Beyond Retribution, 259-63.

24. Col. 1:16-17

26. Gen. 4:8; Rev. 21:3-4,24; 22:2

28. Gen. 4:1-16

29. Gen. 4:23-24;65-7, 11-13

30. Gen. 7:1-24;8:21-22:9:11-17

31. This is not to deny that the canonical tradition is full of tensions, disagreements, contradictions, and revisions. Later biblical authors and tradents felt free to disagree with the perspective of their predecessors on certain theological positions even while accepting the authority of the tradition they bequeathed. Indeed, the authority of the tradition is shown precisely in the commitment of later recipients to engage in radical rethinking of its meaning and implications. See further Ellen F. Davis, “Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic,” Anglican Theological Review 82/4 (2000): 733 51.

32. Of course, legendary elements may well exist in the tradition. As Simon De Vries notes, “Battle and war passages in the Old Testament range from the legendary to the mythical, to the realistic and immediate, from the schematic and ideological, to the bizarre and apocalyptic.” – “Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament: in Ritual and Warfare,” in Destructive Power of Religion, ed. Ellens, 1:99-121 (at 120).

33. Exod. 15:1-3

34. Schwager, Must There be Scapegoats?, 47-71.

35. Jack Miles, “The Disarmament of God,” in Destructive Power of Religion ed Elkins, 1:123-167 (at 147).

36. Num. 11:1-6; 14:10-12; Deut. 1:34-40

37. Num. 12:1-16; 14:10-12; 16:41-50, 25:6-9, cf. Exod. 11:4-5; 12:12,13, 23, 37

38. Mark McEntire, The Blood of Abel: The Violent Plot of the Hebrew Bible (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1999), 61-62.

39. Relevant texts include Exod. 17:8-13; Num. 21:1-3, 23-24; Deut. 2:30-35; 7:2-6; Josh. 6: 1-16,7:1, 24-26a; Judg. 3:16-25; 4:6-7,9-10, 13-15, 17, 21-22; 15:4 8,1 Sam. 17:12-18:2; 31:1-13; 2 Sam. 18-6-9, 14-15; 1 Kings 22:31-38; 2 Kings 9:30-35; Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3; Ezek. 38:14-23; Joel 3:9-10; 2 Chron. 149-15

40. For example, Deut. 7:2: Josh. 11:20.

41. Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 28-89. See also John J. Collins, “The Zeal of Phineas, the Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” in Destructive Power of Religion 1: 12-33, ed. Ellens (at 13-17).

42. McDonald, God and Violence, 123, 126, cf. 127, 128, 131.

43. Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible, 50. Collins is unconvinced. “Rather than respect for human life, the practice bespeaks a totalistic attitude, which is common to armies and warfare, where the individual is completely subordinated to the interests of the group.” – “Zeal of Phineas,”

44. Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity, 37,

45. McEntire, Blood of Abel, 90.

46. Ps. 68:20-23, cf. Habakkuk 3:13-16,

47. Amos 2:4-16; 5:127; Isa. 43:28. See Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible, 78.

48. McEntire, Blood of Abel, 114.

49. See my Crowned with Glory and Honor: Human Rights in the Biblical Tradition (Telford/Scottdale, Pa.: Pandora Press U.S./Herald Press, 2001).

50. McEntire, Blood of Abel, 44.

51. Gen. 18:16-33

52. In Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004), Hans Boersma argues that in a sinful world violence is necessary to defend the boundaries which enable hospitality to function. In such a world, God employs “redemptive” violence, which is a “good violence” because it serves to uphold monotheism, to punish immorality, and to protect the poor and underprivileged. But Boersma makes little attempt to measure this sweeping defense of divine violence against the concrete suffering endured by its victims. See my critical review in Stimulus 13/3 (2005), 51-52, which includes my own attempt to spell out the semantic parameters of the term violence.

53. For example, Gen. 13:13; 15:16; Deut. 9:5; 20:17-18. The general perfidy of the Canaanites is pervasive in the biblical tradition, although the purported wickedness of the Canaanites is never actually substantiated within the conquest accounts.

54. McEntire, Blood of Abel, 118

55. Matt. 2:16-18

56. 1 Sam. 15:2-3, cf. Exod. 17:14,16; Num. 24:20; Deut. 25:17-19

57. So Collins, “Zeal of Phineas,” 24-25.

58. So Anderson, “Genocide or Jesus,” 51.

59. Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity, 16.

60. Collins, “Zeal of Phineas,” 25.

61. Exod. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18-19, Deut. 5:9-10

62. 2 Kings 1:11-12, cf. Gen. 19:24; Lev. 10:1-2; Job 1:16; Ps. 97:3

63. Luke 9:54-55

64. So rightly Allison, “Rejecting Violent Judgment,” 476.

65. McDonald, God and Violence, 54, cf. 57.

66. Gen. 12:3, 17; 14:20; 15:14-16; 18:20; 19:15-29; 22:1-19;

67. Gen. 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:16; 17:8; 22:17; 28:3-4, 13-15; 35:12; 48:4;50:24

68. For example, Exod. 4:24-26; 2 Sam. 6:6-7. Ezek. 38:10

69. See Lev. 26: 14-39; Exod. 12:29; Ezek, 21:3-4, 9-15; Jer. 25:32-33.

70. For example, Deut. 20:16-17; 1 Sam. 15:2-3; Isa. 19:2; Jer. 51:20-24; 21:31; Ps. 44:11-12; Zech. 8:10.

71. For example, Isa. 50:11; Jer. 44:8; Ps. 7:13-17; Prov. 8:36; 26:27

72. See, 22:25-26; Isa. 19:2; 13:17 for example, Ezek. 21:31; Jer.

73. Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, 63.

74. For example, Gen. 19:24; Num. 16:29-32.

75. See, for example, Isa. 64:6-7; Ps. 81:11-12.

76. Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, 63 (emphasis mine).

77. Whether some actual primeval act of violence by God is the reason for God’s subsequent identification with violence, or whether the flood story it self is the product of prior projection of violence onto heaven, is open to discussion.

78. This is one of the major findings in McEntire’s study Blood of Abel

79. Cf. Wink, Engaging the Powers, 146-47.

80. God’s sovereign self-disclosure is the necessary presupposition for all and any knowledge of God. But divine revelation is also necessarily filtered through fallible human language and categories, which can distort as well as report God’s truth, and often both at the same time. For a helpful discussion of the relationship between revelation and Scripture, see William C. Placher The Domestication of Transcendence (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 181-200.

81. Jesus is condemned to death on the charge of blasphemy (Mark 14-55 64), a capital crime in Mosaic law (Lev. 24:15-16).

82. Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, 67.

83. Collins is clear that what makes violent religious texts dangerous is not their violent content but the certitude with which they are received by readers as divine revelation, “Zeal of Phineas,” 23-26. So too Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity, 277,

84. 1 borrow this term from Ellen Davis, “Critical Traditioning.”

85. Exod. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18-19; Deut. 5:9-10

86. Jer. 31:29-30

87. Ezek. 18:1-4

88. Rom. 3:21; 8:1-4

89. Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6; 1 Cor. 15:9; cf. Acts 9:1-2; 22:4; 26:9-11. On the violent implications of “zeal,” see Terence L. Donaldson, “Zealot and Convert: The Origins of Paul’s Christ-Torah Antithesis,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51/4 (1989): 655-82; Vincent M. Smiles, “The Concept of ‘Zeal’ in Second-Temple Judaism and Paul’s Critique of It in Romans 10:2,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 64/2 (2002): 282-99; Mark R. Fairchild, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Zealot Associations: A Re-Examination of Gal 1:14 and Acts 22:3,” New Testament Studies 45/4 (1999): 514-32. For a thematizing of the place of zeal in the biblical tradition and American self-understanding, see Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2003).

90. See 2 Cor. 3:12-18; Rom. 10:2-4.

91. Rom. 7:5,9-10; 10:5; Gal. 2:19, cf. 3:12, 21; 1 Cor. 15:56; 2 Cor. 3:6-7

92. Rom. 3:20, 27-28; Gal. 2:16; 32,5,10, 12, cf. Rom. 3:27:4:2,6;9:12, 32; 11:6; Eph. 29

93. Rom. 1:18-32; 3:9-20; 5:12-21; 612-14, 20-21;7:7-25; etc.

94. Rom. 4:16; 5:20-21; 6:1,14; 11:5; 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 1:6; 2:21; 5:4; cf. Eph. 2.5-6.

95. Rom. 5:6-21; 1 Cor. 15:42-49; Col. 1:10; 3:10

96. Rom. 5:5; 13:8-10; 14:15; Gal. 5:6, 13-14, 22-23; Phil. 1:9; 1 Cor. 8:1; 13:1-8; 16:14; Col. 3:14, cf. Eph. 4:32-35.

97. Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:5-6; 1 Cor. 15:9; cf. Acts 9:1-2; 22:4; 26:5, 9-11.

98. See Rom. 11:28-36.

99. Cf. Rom. 4:23-24; 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11; 9:10.

100. The phrase God of peace is a favorite of Paul’s (Rom. 15:33; 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 4:9; 1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Thess. 3:16, cf. Eph. 2:14), though he did not in vent it (Heb. 13:20). In early Jewish literature the phrase occurs only once (Test. Daniel 5:2).

Footnotes #

  1. Paul N. Anderson, “Genocide or Jesus: A God of Conquest or Pacifism,” in The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. J. H. Ellens (Westport, Connecticut & London, Praeger 2004), 4:31-52 (at 31). 

  2. See D. Andrew Kille, “The Bible Made Me Do It’: Text, Interpretation, and Violence,” in Destructive Power of Religion, ed. Ellens, 1:55-73. See also Charles Mabee, “Reflections on Monotheism and Violence,” in Destructive Power of Religion, ed. Ellens, 4:111-18. Cf. also Karen Armstrong, “Unholy Strictures,” Guardian Weekly (Aug. 19-25, 2005): 13. 

  3. I attempt to construct a non-retributive view of final judgment in my Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime and Punishment (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2001). 

  4. John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1994), 228-47. 

  5. J. Harold Ellens, “Revenge, Justice and Hope: Laura Blumenfeld’s Journey,” in idem, Destructive Power of Religion 4:227-235 (at 235). 

  6. Heb. 1:2-3 

  7. John 1:3-4 

  8. Luke 6:35-36 

  9. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible (New York: Harper & Row, Gracewing & Crossroad Publishing Company, 1987), 207. So too Wink, Powers that Be, 89. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer observes that “Jesus was not the first Jew to promote or use nonviolence when resisting injustice…. Jesus may have been the first, however, to specifically reject the violence of God as the foundation for nonviolent resistance. Rather than rooting nonviolence in the assurance of God’s ultimate and re deeming violence, Jesus saw nonviolent action as a faithful embodiment of a nonviolent God, that is, as reflective of the very Spirit that is God.” – Jesus against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 2001), 320. 

  10. Cf. Ulrich Mauser, The Gospel of Peace: A Scriptural Message for Today’s World (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 183-84. 

  11. Col. 1:15, 20 

  12. Rom. 1:16-17;3:20 

  13. Rom. 5:1 

  14. Eph. 1:10 

  15. Wink, The Powers That Be, 44-48, at 46. Also Patricia M. McDonald, God and Violence: Biblical Resources for Living in a Small World (Scottdale, Pa. and Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2004), 35-49. 

  16. Or, to slightly reformat the prior sentences:

    Suffice it to say that any satisfactory explanation of Paul’s critique of the law must, in my opinion, do justice to three main realities:

    1. the diversity of views on the Torah in first-century Judaism
    2. Paul’s radical commitment to Gentile inclusion in the messianic community
    3. the apostle’s darkly pessimistic view of the human condition.

    All three inform and shape his reconsideration of the role of the law in God’s purposes, now that the Messiah has appeared.

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