The Nonviolent God of the Exodus?

sacrificial lambI keep returning to the issue of the consistency between the Old Testament and the New Testament in it’s portrayal of God because the issue keeps getting brought up in popular (and academic) forums. Driven largely by a particular, non-violent hermeneutic, a significant drive towards screening out large sections of the Old Testament portrayal of God is afoot.

The basic argument is that while the Old Testament is fine for what it is–a limited, time-bound telling of God’s dealings with his people according to their lights–Jesus came along and corrected that view. But now we need to go back and look at the Old Testament in light of Jesus and judge it according to his standard of non-violent love as given us in the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount, but most of all in his enemy-loving death on the cross. By that standard, much of the Old Testament’s depiction of God’s activity falls short and we ought to gently set it aside as not a full or accurate revelation of who God is. God allowed his children, the Israelites, to tell stories about him as best they could, but now that his children have grown up into the Church, we must speak more accurately of God.

We can call this the “Nonviolent God” premise or hermeneutic. Note, this is not the “Christian nonviolence” position. Though this is inevitably a form of nonviolence, there are many like Preston Sprinkle, or even my Mere Fidelity companion Andrew Wilson, who would advocate for nonviolent practices as a part of the progressive ethic revealed in the New Testament, while still accepting the full truth and authority of the Old Testament.

Still, if we set out the basic argument in logical form, it flows something like this:

Nonviolent God Premise 1: Jesus shows us what God is like in a way that supersedes and corrects all prior conceptions.

Nonviolent God Premise 2: Jesus’ nonviolent practices show us that his God would never perform acts of violent judgment, because he would rather die for his enemies on the Cross than kill them.

Nonviolent God Conclusion 3: Accounts like those of the Invasion and Conquest of Canaan are inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ, therefore God did not command them or perform them.

These narratives, then, are highly-accommodated tellings or permissible falsehoods allowed in God’s benevolence. But thankfully we have Jesus now, we can see clearly that this is wrong, and we can move on, applying a Jesus-hermeneutic and still appropriating the OT Scriptures as they fit.

But here’s the rub that occurred to me when I was reading Psalm 78: acts like those are the chief events by which the God of Israel is identified and identifies himself in the OT. They are ineliminably at the core of Israel’s narrative understanding of the Lord with whom they are in covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2, Deut. 5:6; cf. also, Lev. 26:13; Ps. 81:10). Indeed, one of the main OT confessions of faith is found in Deuteronomy, where worshipers coming to celebrate the festival of the first-fruits. Worshipers were supposed to respond to the priests as they brought their offerings to the LORD:

“And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10 ESV)

The “great deeds of terror and signs and wonders” are precisely those events which our Nonviolent God Hermeneutic ought to lead us to reject as less than appropriate for the God of Jesus Christ.

Which leads me to posit couple more premises and a logical entailment that isn’t usually accepted by more Evangelical advocates of the Nonviolent God hermeneutic, but I think follow naturally.

OT Data Premise 4: The Exodus from Egypt and Redemption of Israel was accomplished by similar, if not more aggressive divine acts of violent mercy and judgment such as: the 10 plagues (rivers of blood, sickness, deadly hale, economic devastation, etc) , the drowning of a massive Egyptian army in Red Sea, and finally, the execution of the firstborn in all the land as an act of Judgment on the gods of the Egyptians (Exod. 12).

OT Data Subpremise 4.5: It is clear from the narrative that each of these acts of divine violence was not ancillary to process of redemption. It occurs precisely in and through these acts of divine judgment. There is simply no way to read out God’s activity (even those who distance God via the destroying angel must admit that it is by God’s permission, will, and command that the angel goes out. Exod 12:13 depicts God himself speaking of passing over house and destroying the firstborn in others).  

OT Data Premise 5: Yet, the God of Israel willed to be known primarily as the God who accomplished the mighty acts of mercy and judgment in the Exodus and Redemption of Israel (cf. Exodus and the hundreds of celebratory references in the Prophets and Psalms). Indeed, the foundational Passover celebration and meal memorialize an act divine violence and mercy–the death of the firstborn–which is surely as problematic as the accounts of the Canaanites (though I think there are better approaches to contextualizing that). 

Logical Entailment of the Nonviolent God Premises: Jesus reveals to us a fundamentally different God than the God of the Exodus and Redemption and therefore a different God than the God of Israel.

At this point, my question becomes, “How is this not some form of Neo-Marcionism?” Note, I don’t mean full-blown Marcionism. That would require a Gnostic rejection of Creation, materiality, and a whole lot more. But how does this hermeneutic not slowly but surely lead us to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is a significantly different being than the God of Jesus Christ? How can we continue to narratively-identify them when the chief liberating acts of the one allegedly deny the chief liberating acts of the other?

Again, I don’t really have as much of a problem with the kind of nonviolence approach that says God has a multi-stage plan in which his people can participate in warfare in one stage (Israel) and then move away from it in another (the Church/New Israel). I actually do believe there are significant discontinuities as well as continuities between the Old and the New Testament. Thank God for that, or I, a Gentile, wouldn’t be here. I don’t think the OT Law in its entirety is for applicable, or even advisable to today. I think Jesus has changed some things. Still, the problem comes when we arrive at a “Jesus”-hermeneutic that ends up retooling our entire doctrine of God, the cross (atonement), and entire telling of salvation history.

Let me be clear: most of the Evangelicals flirting with or advocating the Nonviolent God hermeneutic have not gone this far. I am not call them Marcionites straight out or even all Neo-Marcionites. What I am saying is that unchecked or ungrounded by other concerns, it logically flows into something like this. That’s something that ought to give us pause.

Losing the Exodus means losing the God of the Exodus. And that’s a bridge too far.

Soli Deo Gloria

13 thoughts on “The Nonviolent God of the Exodus?

  1. Questions like these seem to come up not knowing the very nature of our revelation of the mind of God of that which He desires us to know.
    The basic thing with the Exodus is that at one point, the people were told to come up and observe God so they would be frightened enough to obey, but when Moses went down the mountain to find them, they were off in some corner, cowering from the spectacle of the God before them in fire, and smoke and thundering and other types of loud noises.
    They told Moses they did NOT want to see or hear this terrible violent God, but noting Moses’ immunity against the violent God, said that if HE would but go to this God and find out what He desires of them they boasted that they would do whatever was demanded of them.
    A sort of sad scene follows when Moses gives them this message and God replies almost in a “oh YEAH?” type of manner wishing that they could indeed do it, and then sets Moses down to give not just the ten commandments which I think that only God desired them to follow, but gave them statutes while righteous and good in their own conception were not good for the Children of Israel who could NOT do them. This event seems important in that while the germ of it is found in Exodus, it is expanded upon in Deuteronomy when Moses rehashed the attitude of the first “this evil generation” God had to deal with (the second and third “this generation”(s) will be found in the New Testament, the second being that of Jesus peerage and the last “this generation” the incomplete one which will see the return of Christ before the establishment of his thousand year kingdom after the church age saints are raptured, and it IS dealing with the real ETHNIC ISRAEL of the Bible not the bogus one of corrupted church doctrine of men).
    What is promised in Deuteronomy is a GOD who is NOT VIOLENT, but a mighty GOD in a soft human skin glove that is NOT LOUD nor will HIS RAW FORM be exposed to the sensitive eyes of the people. BUT He will continue to give them things to do and if they do not do it the threat of a violent retaliation seems to be given…so Jesus is NOT without a concept of violence in terms of retribution for disobedience, it is that WE are not to advance Christianity by the sword or other fleshly weapons. Self defense and that of protecting our loved ones from criminals are going to be done by government, righteous governments that bear a sword, provided this caveat, “for rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil,” and if governments BECOME a terror to good works then we are not beholden to their authority that only God can give, but follow the admonition of Peter who gives amen to Paul’s admonition of submitting to righteous government, “we should obey God rather than men.”
    Jesus’ answer to the Deuteronomy promise of a manlike and meek prophet is found in John 5 as follows:

    John 5:37-47(KJV)
    37 And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. YE HAVE NEITHER HEARD HIS VOICE, NOR SEEN HIS SHAPE. (That was an answer to the Children of Israel’s request not to listen to the noise nor see the fire of God’s presence)
    38 And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not.
    39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.
    40 And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.
    41 I receive not honour from men.
    42 But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you.
    43 I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.
    44 How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?
    45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust.
    46 For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.
    47 But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

  2. Derek, I think you are right on here. I’ve spent a good portion of my scholarly energy on John Howard Yoder, who I think is the most articulate pacifist voice out there. What strikes me, though, is the way that Yoder actually gives a thick description of the OT texts and clearly acknowledges that God’s prerogative to judge justly is distinguished from our call as the church to love and act nonviolently. Most contemporary writers (including many who cast themselves as heirs of Yoder), however, never distinguish in any way between divine judgment and “violence.” To lump any act of judgment under the heading “violence” is to do violence to our words and concepts.

    In addition to the doctrine of Scripture, I think there are other hefty theological issues at stake, as well, that go to issues of the two natures of Jesus and our understanding of the Trinity.

    • I think articulating that point is very important. We had Preston Sprinkle on our podcast the other day (forthcoming) and I told him that his case was probably the most convincing I’d read because he doesn’t make some of these moves that I’m so opposed to. Arguing that judgment and violence is a unique divine prerogative has some heft in a way that that the totalizing pacifist hermeneutics simply can’t have for someone with a strong doctrine of Scripture.

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  5. Derek,
    Premise 1 alone is correct.
    The mind of Christ through the Spirit that lives in us allows us to understand the context and purpose of the whole Bible including the contentious verses.
    It is vital we KNOW Jesus.
    This cuts through, stimulating, but fruitless and devicive argument.
    Blessings.

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  7. Something that should be said is that attributing non-violence to God is not even remotely unique to Marcion. Early church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa, Irenaeus, John Cassian and especially Origen felt compelled to embrace all canonical material as divinely inspired and thus considered it impossible to dismiss. YET, largely because of the revelation of the enemy-loving, non-violent God in Christ, they also felt compelled to reject a literal interpretation of the OT’s violent depictions of God. They therefore embraced this violent material, but they did so while reinterpreting it.

    If the early church fathers can reinterpret the violent passages in a way that excludes God from violence, perhaps we can as well?

    But of course, if the way we read Scripture is “Everything LITERALLY happened this way” that is going to be difficult to come to terms with the narrative, metaphorical, myth type readings encountered in the Early church.

  8. Not just Psalm 78. Stephen in Acts 7, Paul in Acts 13, Hebrews 11… There’s just too much NT acknowledgement of the Conquest of Canaan without any sort of critique or sense that anything’s changed. I’m preaching through Joshua right now and the non-violent God thing just doesn’t hold up.

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  10. Derek, I believe that God was, is, and always will be, nonviolent. When you reference “the destroying angel,” I think you are moving in the right direction; but when you say “even those who distance God via the destroying angel must admit that it is by God’s permission, will, and command that the angel goes out,” you’ve gone too far. I make no such admission.

    God is not the author of evil. In fact, He has disallowed all evil through the finished work of Christ. And so, Satan is no attack dog for God.

    In defense of God’s nonviolent goodness, please consider two reading recommendations:

    1. With reference to the question of inerrancy:

    Is God Violent, Or Nonviolent?

    2. Concerning modern science and Scripture:

    Evolution, The Flood, and God’s True Nature

    Best regards.

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for commenting.

      In the narrative of the Passover (Exod. 12), the Lord gives Moses instruction on why and how to keep the Passover feast. In it, we find this passage:

      “11 In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”

      The Lord directly says he is the agent at work in either passing over the Israelite houses with blood on them. He also claims to be the one who will strike Egypt. In other texts, it speaks of the angel. What this implies is a mediated agency which by no means is a loose one. Texts like this are promiscuously scattered through the Scriptures with God claiming credit for and being named as the main actor in works of judgment and wrath. He is known for and praised for these works in Israel’s Psalms and Prophecies, since they are at the heart of his identity as the Redeemer and Savior of Israel. Now, one can either admit that these texts are revelatory of God’s will and works, or one can try to erase them away with appeals to a version of progressive revelation which imply internal contradiction within revelation. I have read a number of these accounts and find them unconvincing, especially in light of just how much Scripture you have to scrap.

      I’ll look those up, but I would just encourage you to scan through Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah and ask yourself just how many of the Oracles of judgment present God either doing or threatening to do exactly what you say he cannot ever do. And then ask yourself about what that does to Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah’s authority as prophets (not to mention all the rest of the prophetic canon).

      Best,
      Derek

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