Jesus the Interpreter: Divine Violence in the Old Testament

“We may perhaps be allowed to look forward to a new day, in which Jesus himself is acknowledged, in his own right, as a thinking, reflecting, creative and original theologian.” – NT Wright[1]

I am committed to non-violence because I am committed to Jesus.[2] As a non-violent Christian, I’m commonly asked some form of the following question: “How can you think that God is nonviolent or that his people must always act nonviolently when there are so many examples in the Old Testament of God acting violently or encouraging such behavior?”

It’s a good question and one of the biggest obstacles for most Christians when they consider adopting a non-violent ethic.[3] However, I’ve always thought that this is a question that can actually be punted to Jesus himself. That is to say, I believe a more illuminating form of the question would look like this:

How could Jesus think that God is nonviolent and expects his people to be nonviolent in light of the many Old Testament texts that seem to contradict this?

 Of course this question assumes two things:

  • First, that Jesus was familiar with the major stories & themes of the Old Testament (including those that depict God as violent and his people as acting violently in obedience to God’s commands.[4]
  • Second, that Jesus still believed & taught that God was nonviolent and likewise expected his followers to be nonviolent.[5]

If both of these assumptions are true,[6] we are faced with important questions: How did Jesus interpret these texts? What was his hermeneutical logic? And even more to the point, are Christians obligated to agree with his conclusions, even if we aren’t necessarily predisposed to agree with his interpretations?

We might not normally think of Jesus as a biblical interpreter or theologian, but we should. After all, he grew up in a religious environment surrounded by many different popular interpretations of his religious tradition. In this context, Jesus inherited, learned, formed, and communicated very specific beliefs about what God was like and what he expected of his people. In so doing, he also explicitly and forcefully rejected certain interpretations & expectations that were popular during his lifetime.

I have to imagine that Jesus was often confronted about his non-violent teachings, especially by the more revolutionary Jewish groups common during the first-century. In Matthew 5, he preemptively and explicitly rejects the Old Covenant law of retaliation in favor of a new, radical ethic of nonviolence. In Luke 6, Jesus tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” It’s not a stretch to picture Simon the Zealot disagreeing with Jesus’ assessment of the Father as a merciful enemy-lover. “Jesus, are you not aware that God commanded the slaughter of men, women, and children who stood against his people?” What would Jesus’ response be? Would he recant or qualify his statement? Or would he provide an alternate interpretation and assume that it is more authoritative than any other reading of the text that would lead to a different conclusion?

This problem is even more acute in an account in Luke 9 where Jesus rebukes his disciples for attempting to imitate a story from the Old Testament by calling down fire on their enemies in (cf. 2 Kings 1:9-12). I can imagine the disciples reminding Jesus of this beloved Old Testament story – what was his response? How did he read such texts and come to such different conclusions than many of his day (and our day)? I believe that these sorts of questions are some of the most important ones to be asked in any conversation about Jesus and violence.

Jason Micheli recently offered an excellent post attempting to answer a question of this nature: How did Jesus read Psalm 94 and it’s cry for vengeance against enemies while at the same time commanding and embodying a responsibility to love his enemies? Read his engaging post here: Jesus’ Enemy Loving Offensive. Jason’s attempt embodies the posture Christians should take when engaging Old Testament texts that seem to contradict Jesus’ own teachings and example.

I can’t help but think that Christians are making a fundamental mistake when we use the Old Testament to qualify or change the teachings of Christ. It strikes me as odd that we might imagine our interpretations of various Old Testament texts to be more authoritative than Christ’s. Did Jesus not know about these Old Testament texts? Did he misread them? Can we qualify correct Jesus’ teachings because we are better equipped to read the Tanakh?

My evaluation of the current conversation surrounding God & Old Testament violence is that we have lost our interpretative imagination under the weight of years of tradition and cultural influences. The Old Testament is not as clear on the issue of violence as one might think. There are plenty of ways to interpret the classic “texts of terror” in ways that lead logically to Jesus’ non-violence. Again, I suggest reading Jason Micheli’s enlightening post. Other options remain: perhaps we should acknowledge a multiplicity of voices in the Old Testament (some more peaceful, even promising a future of peace), perhaps a reading of the “texts of terror” in light of comparable ANE texts would reveal a fairly radical non-violent trajectory, or perhaps the point of the cumulative narrative of the Old Testament is that violence did not ultimately accomplish God’s Kingdom. These are just a few of the many possibilities for reading the Old Testament in a way congruous with Jesus’ life and teachings. But these are the types of readings that I believe Jesus forces us to explore.

 


[1] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 479.
[2] I find myself unable to avoid the conclusions that Jesus unequivocally commands his followers to act nonviolently and also personally modeled this nonviolent commitment with his own life. I’m also unable to ignore a theological conviction that the historic life of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is the clearest and most complete revelation of the character and will of the Triune God that humanity has ever been given. Thus I’m always a bit surprised to find that many Christians view my nonviolent stance as mistaken (at best) or heretical (at worst).
[3] I’ve found that it is, along with the violent passages in Revelation, one of the biggest obstacles for most Christians when considering a commitment to nonviolence. For the violence in Revelation, see these posts: Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal (A Response to Mark Driscoll) and Interpreting the Violent Imagery in Revelation.
[4] Jesus is surrounded by Jewish groups with a violent revolutionary bent and explicitly rebukes such desires. Even more telling is that Jesus’ own theological agenda seems to be one that would fit nicely with these traditions (see the revolutionary language of his mother in her famous song), yet he interprets the revolution as a spiritual one – a battle against Satan, not Rome. Again – see N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
[5] Jesus is as clear as possible: see Matthew 5:38-48.
[6] (I know of few who would doubt the first and have yet to see good evidence against the second).

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