Violence in the Bible Part 2

In my previous post, I wrote about how we might interpret the violence seemingly commanded by God in the Bible, by looking at Jesus’ words about divorce.

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses order a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hardness of heart; but it was not this way from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:7-8)

Based on this I concluded that it wasn’t God’s ultimate desire to command violence, but that he permitted it due to their hardness of heart. Living in such a dark and violent time, God had to meet them on their level, feeding them the milk they could digest, rather than food too solid for them to chew. Violence and evil were not the way in the beginning, but man had fallen. As I said in the previous post, these are my own reflections and represent my personal understanding that is still in development. So please bear this in mind when reading.

To build on my previous points further, we know that God consistently uses what is imperfect or evil for his good purposes. If such an evil generation were left to its own devices, there would have been no chance of redemption for mankind. The challenging commands of God are always from the motivation of trying to preserve and nurture holiness in a corrupt and degenerating world. If the seed of holiness was to survive, then the weeds of evil would need to be purged, lest the plant be choked of life.

Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. (Deuteronomy 13:10-11)

It may seem shocking to read that God ordered people to be stoned to death, but we have to remember that this was a very different time to our own. This was a generation where violence and war was glorified, and humanity was getting progressively more evil. The wages of sin is death, and left alone, the whole of humanity was heading to spiritual death and permanent separation from God. God had to work with and lead evil men, and this led to actions on his part that would seem strange to his nature. As the above verse says, he did this in order to set an example and deterrent, so that man may not fall off the edge altogether. We see this also in the writings of Paul:

God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. (1 Corinthians 10:5-6)

So Paul is saying here that God used these terrible events to illustrate the consequences of evil, so that we might avoid them. So this is God’s heart, he wants to protect us. He doesn’t want us to fall so far into evil as the Israelite’s did.

The world of the ancient Israelite’s was a harsh place, full of evil men on a downward spiral. God’s discipline was all that kept them from total spiritual annihilation, but this time of discipline turned to a time of mercy, when Jesus Christ was born into the world. This chapter from Hosea illustrates this change from discipline to mercy, as God’s people are likened to Hosea’s adulterous wife. No longer would we call God master, needing his punishment and discipline to stay afloat, for a time was coming and has now come, when we would call him husband:

“Rebuke your mother, rebuke her,
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband.
Let her remove the adulterous look from her face
and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts.
Otherwise I will strip her naked
and make her as bare as on the day she was born;
I will make her like a desert,
turn her into a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.
I will not show my love to her children,
because they are the children of adultery.
Their mother has been unfaithful
and has conceived them in disgrace.
She said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
who give me my food and my water,
my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.’
Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes;
I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.
She will chase after her lovers but not catch them;
she will look for them but not find them.
Then she will say,
‘I will go back to my husband as at first,
for then I was better off than now.’
She has not acknowledged that I was the one
who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil,
who lavished on her the silver and gold—
which they used for Baal.

“Therefore I will take away my grain when it ripens,
and my new wine when it is ready.
I will take back my wool and my linen,
intended to cover her naked body.
So now I will expose her lewdness
before the eyes of her lovers;
no one will take her out of my hands.
I will stop all her celebrations:
her yearly festivals, her New Moons,
her Sabbath days—all her appointed festivals.
I will ruin her vines and her fig trees,
which she said were her pay from her lovers;
I will make them a thicket,
and wild animals will devour them.
I will punish her for the days
she burned incense to the Baals;
she decked herself with rings and jewelry,
and went after her lovers,
but me she forgot,”
declares the Lord.

“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the Lord,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.’

I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
no longer will their names be invoked.
In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.
I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.

“In that day I will respond,”
declares the Lord—
“I will respond to the skies,
and they will respond to the earth;
and the earth will respond to the grain,
the new wine and the olive oil,
and they will respond to Jezreel.
I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”
(Hosea 2)

Violence in the Bible

The Bible can be a challenging read, especially the Old Testament. What do we make of the violence we see in the story of Israel and their journey from captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land? At times it seems that God is commanding them to do evil in the name of justice. The things it appears that God commands Israel to do can be very difficult to reconcile with the revelation of God through Christ. Was God once violent but now gentle? Or is the God of the Old Testament a different being to the God of the New Testament, as Marcion believed? This blog post is my humble attempt to explain these things, but please remember my understanding is always a work-in-progress, so consider these things for yourself!

The correct way to interpret the evil seemingly commanded in the Old Testment is (and you shouldn’t be surprised by this) revealed by Jesus. We see in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus seemed to contradict much of what Moses had taught the Israelites. Moses taught “an eye for an eye”, but Jesus explicitly contradicts this and says, “but I tell you, do not resist an evil person”, and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Now the Pharisees pulled him up on this. We see this when Jesus teaches against divorce and the Pharisees confront him in Matthew 19:

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses order a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hardness of heart; but it was not this way from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:7-8)

So the Pharisees are asking why Moses made this ‘command’ (Greek: eneteilato), but Jesus doesn’t say ‘command’ he says ‘permit’ (Greek: epetrepsen). I think this is very telling of how the Pharisees viewed the scripture compared to Jesus.

Just like committing violence on someone, we know that divorce is also evil in the eyes of God, but God permitted it according to Jesus, due to their hearts being hard. The same could be said for the other teachings from the Sermon on the Mount that appear to contradict Moses, such as Jesus’ counter to “an eye for an eye”. So I believe Jesus is giving us an insight here into how to interpret these texts. The issue wasn’t with God, it was with men having hard hearts.

“My people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.” (Psalm 81:11-12)

God has to work with what is there, to use it for good. Like the Pharisees, it is easy to read these texts as being commands from God that reveal what God ultimately wants, but it seems to be more the case that these “commands” were more an act of grace from God, that he was willing to work with us in our mess and wretchedness.

Maybe we can understand this from our own relationship with God. God doesn’t demand your absolute perfection in order for you to have a relationship with him. He meets you where you are, and speaks to you in ways you can understand and accept, and step by step he helps you to grow. We always fall short of God’s absolute perfection, so in order to have a relationship with us at all, he has to come down to our level, and in his grace he permits much evil.

It’s a similar argument I’m making to one for egalitarianism. When Paul seems to be against women in leadership or equality between a husband and wife, he is not speaking in absolutes. We shouldn’t view him as the Pharisees viewed Moses, as making commands revealing what he ultimately wants. He speaks into a context and tries to move their hearts in the right direction. Perhaps, like Moses, Paul permitted some things due to their hearts being partially hardened.

Going back to what Jesus says in Matthew 19 that “it was not this way from the beginning”, we can see this in Genesis, where God created both man and woman in his image, as co-heirs, to rule together over creation, then due to their sin (or their hardness of heart), God gave them over to their evil ways, so now the man would rule over the woman. But the fact that this was a consequence or a curse shows that it was not this way in the beginning; the man ruling over the woman came after the hardening of heart. The man in his evil wanted to rule the woman, and God gave him over to it. So when Paul is speaking of these things, he is speaking into this context. They are not yet ready for the greater truth, to go back to the beginning, where man and woman walked in the garden in the cool of the day with God.