God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today?
176 Pages
English

God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today?

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176 Pages
English

Description

Do you find the violence in the Old Testament a problem?
Does it get in the way of reading the Bible--and of faith itself?
While acknowledging that there are no easy answers, in God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today?, Helen Paynter faces the tough questions head-on and offers a fresh, accessible approach to a significant issue. For all those seeking to engage with the Bible and gain confidence in the God it portrays, she provides tools for reading and interpreting biblical texts, and points to ways of dealing with the overall trajectories of violence.

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Published 20 May 2019
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EAN13 9781532691058
Language English
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God of Violence Yesterday
God of Love Today?God of
Violence
Yesterday
God of Love
Today?
Wrestling honestly with the Old Testament
Helen PaynterGod of
Violence
Yesterday
God of Love
Today?
Wrestling honestly with the Old Testament
Helen Paynter
WIPF & STOCK • Eugene, Oregon GOD OF VIOLENCE YESTERDAY, GOD OF LOVE TODAY?
Wrestling Honestly with the Old Testament
Copyright © 2019 Helen Paynter. All rights reserved. Except for brief
quotations in critical publications or reviews, no part of this book may be
reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the
publisher. Write: Permissions, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave.,
Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401.
First published by The Bible Reading Fellowship.
Wipf & Stock
An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers
199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3
Eugene, OR 97401
www.wipfandstock.com
PAPERBACK ISBN: 978-1-5326-9103-4
HARDCOVER ISBN: 978-1-5326-9104-1
EBOOK ISBN : 978-1-5326-9105-8
Manufactured in the U.S.A.
Unless otherwise acknowledged, scripture quotations are from The New
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Anglicised edition, copyright © 1989,
1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the
Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All
rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked NASB are taken from the New American
Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975,
1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
(www.Lockman.org)
Scripture quotations marked NIV are taken from The Holy Bible, New
International Version (Anglicised edition) copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by
Biblica. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, a Hachette UK
company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK
trademark number 1448790.
Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from the Holy Bible, English
Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers, © 2001 Crossway
Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights
reserved.
Scripture quotation marked NET is taken from the New English Bible,
copyright © Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press 1961,
1970. All rights reserved. Contents
Acknowledgements ..............................................................................7
Introduction ..........................................................................................9
Part I: Building a foundation
1 The Bible as God’s word ...............................................................16
2 What is violence ?...........................................................................29
3 Reading the Bible well ..................................................................42
Part II:Unpeeling the lay ers
4 Violence described ........................................................................65
5 Violence implored .........................................................................76
6 Violence against animals ..............................................................86
7 Violence as divine judgement ....................................................104
8 Violence commanded .................................................................125
9 Shalom: God’s great plan ...........................................................156
Glossar y.............................................................................................162
Bibliogr aphy ......................................................................................164
Notes ..................................................................................................166
Further study .....................................................................................1757
Acknowledgements
I write this book because I am convinced to the core of my being that
God is Love. And the love of God is fierce, it is exacting and it is utterly
faithful.
So I am grateful to those who have taught me of God’s love, those
who have modelled God’s love to me and those who have called me
and urged me and encouraged me to model the love of God in my
own life – imperfectly though I do so. This book is dedicated to all my
teachers from my earliest days to the present; and to those who have
been my companions along the way, who have prayed for and with
me, laughed with me and cried with me.
I am grateful to BRF for commissioning this book from me: to Mike
Parsons, who first had the vision; and to Olivia Warburton, Rachel
Tranter and Felicity Howlett, who have so ably managed the editing
and publishing process for me, and who have been such enthusiastic
allies in the project.
I am grateful to four friends who road-tested the book for me afer
the first draf was written: Clare Mellis, Fiona O’Driscoll, Neil Dunlop
and Alastair Hay: your comments were invaluable and I hope you feel
that I took them seriously. I am likewise grateful to the many people
I have had challenging conversations with during the writing of this
book, particularly those who attended my 2018 Whitley lecture tour
and spoke to me or emailed me aferwards.
And then there is my family: those who see me at the moments
when I least resemble the love of God, and yet who staunchly love
me, support me and encourage me. I am grateful to my husband
Stephen, who has read more draf chapters than he could possibly 8 god of violence yesterday, god of love today?
have envisaged when he promised ‘for better, for worse’ 27
years ago. I am grateful to my parents Eleanor and Bruce for their
unwavering support, their utter belief in me and their fierce love
always. I am grateful to my daughters Susanna, Louisa and Victoria
for encouraging, inspiring and bearing with me.
At my baptism 32 years ago, I promised to be Christ’s faithful disciple,
obeying his word and showing his love. At my ordination eight years
ago, I promised to seek peace, work for justice and walk in the way
of love. But human promises are always flawed, always imperfectly
kept, always tainted. My confidence is not in how successfully I have
kept these vows, but in the steadfast, faithful, committed love of
God that means he keeps his promises to me and to all the world.
So, above all, I am grateful to the God whom I serve, whose name is
Wonderful and whose being is Love.9
Introduction
‘There’s just so much wrath in the Bible!’
‘The God of the Old Testament is so diferent from the God of
the New Testament!’
‘Why is there so much violence in the Old Testament?’
If I had a pound for every time someone had said something like this
to me, I’d… well, let’s just say I wish I had. And chances are, if you’ve
picked up this book to read, or to browse in a bookshop, then you
have similar questions.
It’s a problem that has niggled at me for a long time. I think it started
long before I’d had any theological training, when the youth leader
in my church phoned me for some advice. One of the young people
was in danger of losing her faith because she was so disturbed by the
violence in the Old Testament. Could I help?
I suspect whatever fumbling attempts I made that day didn’t help
at all. But the problem didn’t go away for me, and I’ve been thinking
about it ever since. Eventually I did my theological training, prepared
for ministry and undertook postgraduate study in the Old Testament.
And a lot of the time, the things I am talking about and writing about
relate to this general area. I guess that’s why Mike Parsons of The
Bible Reading Fellowship wrote to me in 2017 to ask me to write a
book on the subject.
There is a well-known story that an ancient Thai king who wished
to humble, or even ruin, a subordinate would do so by presenting
him with a white elephant. The hapless recipient of the gif had no 10 god of violence yesterday, god of love today?
option but to accept it, house it and feed it, since white elephants
were regarded as sacred. Eventually the cost of the upkeep of such a
huge animal would bankrupt him.
When one is approached by a publisher with a request to write a
book, the natural response is to be pleased, and perhaps flattered.
Certainly this is how I felt when I read Mike’s email. In reality, of
course, the gif was a white elephant – though I’m not suggesting that
the editorial team of BRF were trying to humble or ruin me! Because,
though they didn’t say so, the request to write a book on the subject,
aimed at people in churches with no specialist theological training,
might have been phrased like this:
Please write a book explaining what is inexplicable. Please
help people who have never yet found a satisfactory answer to
these problems to finish your book feeling satisfied.
Well, that’s a tall order! Better scholars than I have written on this
subject and failed to ofer a wholly convincing answer – at least as
judged by the majority opinion in the western church. Over hundreds
and hundreds of years of biblical interpretation, no one has managed
to make the problem of Old Testament violence go away – at least
not without doing serious violence to the Bible itself.
So with a gulp and a sense of humility, I hereby ofer my best efort to
grapple with the matter without making the book too heavy to read
in bed. It will not provide a complete answer to the problem, but it is
not true that we have nothing to say about it. There are many things
we can work out and understand. Some of the issues stop being
problems when we look at them carefully. And others – even some of
the hardest ones – become less problematic.
But in order to get there, we have to be prepared to do some hard
thinking. Afer all, we wouldn’t expect to be able to understand
Chaucer without putting in some mental spadework. And the world
and the writing of the Old Testament is far, far more alien to us than Introduction 11
Chaucer’s. So I’m going to ask you to be willing to unlearn some things
you thought you knew, to imagine some new things you may never
have dreamed of and to allow some assumptions to be challenged.
Let me at this point make a comment about honesty. It is increasingly
acceptable these days to press for a ‘good’ outcome with any tool
that is available – whether it is honest or not. An example might help.
A while ago, a Facebook friend of mine copied a social media post
which related to MP attendance in certain parliamentary debates.
Her intention, I imagine, was good. She wanted to hold our MPs
accountable, perhaps. Maybe she wanted to highlight the gravity
of certain decisions that Parliament makes (such as whether to go
to war or whether to accept child asylum seekers). These seem to
me to be valid, indeed laudable, aims. But the particular allegation
she posted was false. So I showed her that; I posted a link to some
factual information that debunked the claim. Her response was
to acknowledge the validity of this new evidence. But she did not
withdraw the original post. And so people continued to see it, to
believe it and to propagate it.
I do not believe that the cause of righteousness is ever served by the
manipulation of truth or by the suppression of contrary evidence.
I believe that all truth is God’s truth and that we can fearlessly follow
truth where it leads (to the best of our ability to discern it). I do not
believe that God’s righteousness needs defending by sleight of hand
or smoke and mirrors. I do not believe that we have all the answers,
and I believe it is dishonest to pretend that we have.
What might we regard as a ‘good’ outcome to the writing and reading
of this book? Perhaps that God’s righteousness will be seen more
clearly; that explanations for ethically challenging texts can be set
out and tested; and that believers will have more confidence in the
value of the Old Testament. Ultimately, this amounts to an aspiration
that God will be glorified through this book. And I do not believe that
God will be glorified if I am less than honest in the writing of it.12 god of violence yesterday, god of love today?
So this is my promise to you, to myself and to God: within the
limitations of the size and scope of this book, I will not wilfully
manipulate evidence or suppress contrary testimony. I will be honest
when a problem is dificult, and I will tell you when something
remains unknown or when I am dissatisfied with a proposal I am
ofering.
Finally, a note on how I have constructed this book. Although we
sometimes speak of ‘the problem of Old Testament violence’, it is
not a homogenous thing. We can’t compare Balaam’s beating of
his donkey (Numbers 22) – for instance – with the mass abduction
and rape of hundreds of women (Judges 21). The incidents vary, not
just in severity but also in quality. The stories are serving diferent
purposes. They are found in diferent types of writing.
So I have tried to break the problem down. We will begin with some
essential starting points for our thinking. There are certain baseline
beliefs that we need to agree on in order to proceed – or at least, we
need to be willing to work within that thought-world for the sake of
understanding the argument. We will then go on to consider some
crucial introductory ideas. What is violence in modern and ancient
society? How does the Old Testament relate to the New? What does
it mean when we say that scripture is inspired by God? What are
the important principles that we need to bear in mind as we try to
interpret the Bible? These preliminary ideas will be explored in the
first three chapters.
Afer that, I will try to work my way towards the most problematic
texts by way of the easier ones. First, we will consider instances
where violence is described, not pscribed. Nere xt, we will look at
places – mainly the psalms – where violence is implored: where the
psalmist prays for vengeance. Third, we will consider the issue of
violence against animals, particularly the flood story and the system
of animal sacrifice. Fourth, we will look at the use of violence as
divine judgement. And fifh, we will look at the knottiest problem of
all: the texts where God appears to command people to be violent to Introduction 13
one another. At the end of most of the chapters in this section I ofer
some more practical suggestions. How should we handle these
texts in our churches – in our pulpits, our home groups, our Sunday
schools? And then, in the final chapter, we will ‘zoom back out’ and
take a look at the big picture of the Bible.
In the end, it is my hope that if this book were to fall through a time
warp into the hands of the teenager whose struggle sparked my
interest in the first place, she would find it helpful. And, even though
some of her questions might remain, she would conclude that belief
in a good God is not incompatible with the Old Testament. And it is
my hope and prayer that it will do the same for you. So buckle up for
the ride, and let’s start.15
Part I
Building a
foundation16
1
The Bible as
God’s word
I start with this: Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians
1:15); to know him is to know the Father (John 8:19).
The fullest revelation of God is in Jesus
This is a Christian enquiry into the violence of the Old Testament. We
begin with the presupposition that we know God is good, because we
have seen him revealed in Jesus Christ. This starting point is at once
problematic and essential. The problem is this: some of the stories
in the Old Testament seem to describe a God who is not wholly good.
Let us be honest about it. Here’s an example:
As for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is
giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that
breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites
and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites
and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded.
DEUTERONOMY 20:16–17
Immediately, I  suspect, our hackles rise. What about the
noncombatants? What about the babies? What about ‘Thou shalt not
kill’? What about the God who loves the world?The Bible as God’s word 17
But really, this text is only a problem if we feel we need to defend
it or if we feel it challenges our belief in a good God. If we do not
believe in God, like prominent atheists the late Christopher Hitchens
or Richard Dawkins, then this text is welcome evidence that religion
is dangerous, that the Bible is perverted or that God, if he does exist,
must be evil.
If we have not formed an opinion of God that is shaped by the biblical
testimony that he is altogether good, then such texts do not present
a conundrum. But because we have encountered Jesus Christ, and
studied his words and life and death, they cause a dificulty.
But such a starting point is also essential. We might not immediately
think so. It might seem a better alternative to approach the reading
of the Bible with an ‘open mind’. Afer all, in my introduction I argued
for following truth wherever it leads. Perhaps we should lay all our
preconceptions aside and just read these texts on their own terms.
But the truth is, no one is a blank slate. We always begin reading
from a starting point. We have a history. We have read books,
watched films; we may have experienced violence; we have probably
sufered bereavement. All of these things will afect the way we read
a text. We always start with assumptions, preconceptions, biases,
memories, hopes and fears. One of the fundamental principles of
biblical interpretation is to understand our own preconceptions. We
will be discussing this further in chapter 3.
So our choice to begin from the starting point that God is good is a
choice to ground ourselves in one of the few things that we really
know to be true. There are things we do not understand about
the text. (What does the Hebrew word here translated ‘annihilate’
mean in this context?) There are things wstand about
ourselves. (Why do certain things evoke sudden anger in us?) So we
choose to begin with something we know (albeit imperfectly) – that
God is good. We know this because Jesus has shown him to us.