Addressing the Old Testament
(Part 1 of 2)
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” Gen. 6:11 (ESV)
In nearly every instance where the subject of Christian Nonviolence/Pacifism is discussed or brought up, someone in the room has the understandable question: “What about all of the violence in the Old Testament?”. Their question is reflective of a broader question, which is: how do we reconcile the call of Jesus to love our enemies with the call of God (the Father) in the Old Testament to slay them?
Before I go on, it is important to note that I do not believe that the Old Testament by itself teaches the ethics of non-violence as portrayed by Jesus, but I do believe that the Old Testament is heading in that direction, and because I believe Jesus is God, I interpret all Scripture through his message and teachings. In his book “Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence”, evangelical pastor Preston Sprinkles says the following on the subject of how to address these hard differences between the Old Testament and the message of the New Testament:
“Not everything in the law was intended to embody God’s ideal ethic— His perfect way of doing things for all people of every age. The law, rather, was intended to meet the Israelites where they were and set them on the right path toward the ideal. Many laws given in Exodus through Deuteronomy, in fact, were not God’s ideal moral code— His Edenic ethic, if you will. Rather, they were glimpses of God’s ideal that would be revealed fully in Christ. In other words, the law of Moses was designed to guide a particular nation, living in a particular land, for a specific time and in a specific culture. What we have in the law of Moses is a moral code that both accommodates to and improves upon the ethical systems of the surrounding nations.” (Sprinkle – Kindle locations 488-494)
As an example of his argument, Sprinkle uses the issues of polygamy, slavery, and divorce to show how God tolerated His people’s flawed views, but that He also worked to improve them, and how the new testament continues that transformation of culture. However, as tempting as it would be to just say “Eh, different times, different revelations”, that still would leave too many stones unturned. Sprinkle recognized this as well, and he did a good job in addressing the hard questions and passages surrounding this argument.
The purpose of this chapter is to attempt to communicate that while the Old Testament does not, by itself, support nonviolence, it does communicate the following: God’s perfect will as revealed in the Scriptures, the way God dealt with the Israelites back then and for that purpose, instances where things were done that seem to be contrary to that perfect will, and it point us to the full revelation of the nonviolent ethic through Christ.
I will break this chapter up into five segments:
- Starting at the beginning: Cain and Abel
- The Great Flood
- Egypt, Captivity, and Liberation
- God’s use of government to carry out His Will
- The Canaanite Conquest
Starting at the beginning: Cain and Abel
The Lord created the heavens and the earth… everything was created to be “good”. God created a Man named Adam, a Woman named Eve, and they lived together in a perfect paradise of plentiful harvest, and they had the opportunity to live like this for the rest of their lives. They only had to follow one rule: Do not eat the forbidden fruit. But we all know the story…they ate the forbidden fruit.
This act of disobedience broke their chances of staying in this perfect paradise, and their punishments for eating the apparently tasty looking fruit made life harder for them. But God did not break communion with them; He still desired to care for them, and to love them.
Later on in their story, they had two sons, Cain and Abel; Cain worked the fields, and Abel tended to the livestock. These two desired a relationship with God as well, so they wanted to make an offering to Him of the best things in their respective responsibilities; Cain brought some of his fruits and veggies, and Abel brought in the best animal he could. (Gen. 4:3-7)
But Cain’s offering was not accepted…And this is where the fallen nature of man comes in; instead of being distraught that God did not accept this sacrifice, Cain became angry. This anger is reflective of Cain’s heart at the time; if Cain truly loved God, he would be upset with himself that his sacrifice was not accepted, and he would plead with God to show him what to do to make it right. The motive behind his sacrifice must not have been pure, and this is most likely why the Lord did not accept his sacrifice. And so, Cain’s focus turned to his brother as he became enraged that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted. This then led to what we all know happened: the first murder in human history happened when Cain killed Abel in a field out of jealously and rage (Gen. 4:8).
One would think that God would simply smite Cain for what he had done, and the situation would be resolved; after all, Adam and Eve did have many other Children (Gen. 5:3-4). However, God doesn’t do this, but instead punishes Cain while letting him live:
“9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” -Gen. 4:9-12 (ESV)
In this passage, God punished Cain by taking away the ease of his labor in working the ground; making it harder for Cain to do what Cain knew how to do best. This would serve as a regular reminder of the wrong which he had done, along with the second punishment he received, which was for Cain to be seen as a fugitive, and for him to be a “wanderer on the earth”. We see in this punishment that God is neither a God who is unforgiving, or a God who never punishes those he loves; God recognizes the wrong, forgives the wrongdoer, but at that time before Christ, Cain had a real earthly punishment that he had to receive upon himself.
The story could end there, but it doesn’t. God’s Grace extends even further past what we could imagine when the following conversation between Cain and God transpired:
“13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.” – Gen. 4:13-15 ESV
We see here that not only did God spare Cain’s life, but He also protected it from others. This is undeserved Grace in clear form, and it is in this that we see that although Cain took a life, and according to the Old Testament laws that would come later, he deserved death, God spared his life, and protected it; God boldly declared that even the life of a murderer was worth saving.
God declared, in this instance, that retributional killing is against His perfect will. It is in this example that we can see the perfect will of God apart from a culture that had been corrupted by generations of paganism and barbarism.
The Great Flood
I would like to briefly touch on the context surrounding the bible verse that I placed under the title for this chapter. To refresh yourself, please read it again below:
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” – Genesis 6:11 ESV
This verse is within the greater context of God becoming disgusted by the evil ways of man, and these ways included their use of violence. Contrary to all of the rainbows and happy animals that we remember on the flannel-graphs of our Sunday school classrooms, the story of “Noah’s Ark” and the Flood is actually a pretty problematic story for the Christian to consider; God was willing to kill all of the earth’s inhabitants, except for one family, in order to start over because he was disgusted by the corruption of humankind; their godlessness and their violence.
Through the earth’s history, we have personally seen how violence begets violence, and how it consumes humanity with its enticing lure for revenge, but that revenge is never quite satisfying. It is like when we were all children, and we do something to get back at someone if they wronged us, scared us, or whatever it is, and then that person somehow refuses to see that we are now “even”, and they retaliate back. Violence is an enticing “cure” that never heals, and it can, in many instances, cause even more problems.
God’s perfect will for the world and its people does include violence. We see this with Cain, with the Great Flood, and in Revelation when violence is no more…it’s time that we Christians start acting like what God ultimately desires for us to act. We have the Blueprints, we just keep pushing off the project until a later date…
Egypt, Captivity, and Liberation
Alright, I want everyone to get serious here: Imagine that your people group has been in slavery for 400 years, and that you have seen the slashes and bruises on your relatives backs and bodies all of your life, and then suddenly, two guys named Moses and Aaron come along and basically tell you, “God told us to go to pharaoh and say “Let my People Go!”.
I feel like after all of that oppression, the Hebrew people desired more of a “bang” than two guys coming back and saying they’d ask Pharaoh, and when Pharaoh said no, God would intervene. It is kind of like how the Israelites of the first century expected a militant messiah to free them from Rome, and then along came Jesus who had another motive.
In all seriousness, the story of the Exodus is very important in this topic because it informs us that God is more than capable of fighting for His people, and freeing them of their slavery without the need for them to take up arms themselves. And while at other times, God used Israel in battle and conquest, in this instance, he chose not to.
Here are the plagues that God sent upon Egypt:
- Water into Blood (Exodus 7:14-24)
- Frog Infestation (Exodus 7:25 – 8:15)
- Lice/Gnats/Fleas – depending on how its translated (Exodus 8:16-19)
- Swarms of Flies (Exodus 8:20-32)
- Diseased Livestock (Exodus 9:1-7)
- Boils (Exodus 9:8-12)
- Thunderstorms of Hail (Ex 9:13-35)
- Locusts (Exodus 10:1-20)
- Darkness (Exodus 10:21-29)
- Death of the firstborn (Exodus 11:1 – 12:36)
At this point, it is important for the reader to note that each of these plagues were administered because Pharaoh refused the request of Moses and Aaron to let the Israelites go each time before each plague struck. In knowing this, we should also look at the types of plagues poured out, and the order of them.
The first plague is in turning the water to blood. This killed the fish and other aquatic life, and made a big stink, but otherwise, the Egyptians still had livestock and grain to keep them going. The second, third, and forth plagues were more of a nuisance than a life altering event. However, a great nuisance they were, and they got in the way of everyday life.
Starting at the fifth plague of diseased livestock, the plagues begin to become more drastic and life-altering, until finally with the tenth and final plague, God takes away the life from the firstborn of every family who did not have the blood of a lamb painted above their doors.
FINALLY, Pharaoh lets the people go, and a short while later, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened again, and he ordered his men, chariots, and horsemen to chase after them to bring them back to Egypt. The Lord put a pillar of cloud behind the Hebrews and the approaching Egyptians as He made a way for the Hebrews to cross the red sea on dry land. The Egyptians followed, and in the morning, the Lord put a pillar of fire and cloud that caused the Egyptians to panic, and as the Hebrews were making their way across the floor of the sea, the waters came together again where the Egyptians were crossing, and the Egyptians, consumed with rage, perished in the sea. (Exodus 14:15-31)
Throughout the whole Exodus story, not a sword was raised by a Hebrew against an Egyptian…GOD freed the Hebrew people. And this story not only communicates God’s capacity to work FOR his people, it also communicates God’s divine authority to take life from those who are defiant to His will.
Since I hold the position that I do in regards to believers of God taking life, it is easy to place myself in a box that doesn’t allow for God to take life, or administer justice violently…but I simply cannot do that if I am honestly reading the scriptures. On this point, I could change my understanding (Lord knows that I would love to be able to write off divinely administered death), but for the moment, I stand in my statement that God has the authority to take life no matter how uncomfortable that makes me. However, even in this example, Pharaoh was given ample time and opportunity to let the Hebrew people go peaceably, and so the Grace of God shines through.
All Works Cited from parts 1 &2 are posted at the end of part 2.