At one point in his work Disturbing Divine Behavior, Eric Seibert presses his readers with a choice, “God either is or is not merciful” (173). If we decide God is merciful, then we should recognize that all texts involving violent judgment sit uncomfortably with that basic axiom.
At which point, we might realize it is wise to make a distinction as Seibert does between the “textual God” given in these violent narratives and the “actual God” who is merciful. You can have a coherent God or try to affirm all the contrasting portraits of God in Scripture, but you can’t do both.
W. Derek Suderman raises a number to telling criticisms of Seibert’s work (“Wrestling with Violent Depictions of God: A Response to Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior” Direction 40/2 ), but the one I want to focus on is his complication of the matter of God’s mercy. He does so by pointing out the apparent contrast between the prophetic portrayals of God’s relationship to Nineveh in Nahum and Jonah.
The book of Jonah famously tells the story of God’s forgiveness–at least temporarily–of Nineveh in the face of their repentance. God threatens judgment, but then relents. Nahum, on the other hand, prophesies the Lord raining down judgment, fury, and violent destruction upon Nineveh for its iniquities, sins, and gross wickedness.
What’s funny is that both Jonah and Nahum appeal to God’s self-definition in Exodus 34:6-7. Jonah highlights the fact that he is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger” (Jonah 4:2), while Nahum notes that while he is “slow to anger”, he is “great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (Nahum 1:3). Both prophets are wrestling with what it looks like for the fullness of God’s character to be exercised and revealed in history.
Now, Suderman points out that against Seibert’s suggestion that we allow historical-critical criteria help us to discern the textual God versus the actual God, things don’t work out cleanly for him here. We know Nineveh and the Assyrians did actually have the hammer laid on them by the Babylonians. But that’s violent. Meanwhile, on a historical-critical read (which I’m not endorsing), Jonah is the historically more dubious prophecy–but it’s the nice, merciful God Seibert wants.
More than that, though, Suderman points out that the situation itself reveals how facile the choice between a God who either is or is not merciful is when posed with respect to God’s historical dealings. For one thing, mercy conceptually assumes the propriety of judgment. Second, consider the context of Nahum’s prophecy of judgment against the Assyrians: it is one of comfort and mercy for Israel!
This is what the Lord says:
“Although they have allies and are numerous,
they will be destroyed and pass away.
Although I have afflicted you, Judah,
I will afflict you no more.
Now I will break their yoke from your neck
and tear your shackles away.” (Nahum 1:12-13)
If God’s punishment upon Israel is the exile and judgment executed by the Assyrians, then the judgment of God upon Assyria is actually the exercise of mercy towards Israel. Judging Assyria is God’s way of breaking the yoke from their neck. The same thing can be seen in God’s mercy towards Judah after the Babylonian exile. Babylon had to be judged, to fall at the hands of Persia, for Israel’s salvation and rescue to come. Conversely, if God were to show mercy to Assyria and Babylon forever, he would never show mercy to the people of Israel who live under their boot.
The same tension is at work in many other texts in the Prophets and the Psalms. Consider Psalm 6, David cries out for God to have mercy upon him (v. 1), to save him from his afflictions, and by the end of the psalm we see that means turning back his enemies and putting them to shame (v. 10). God’s mercy upon David, hearing his cries and pleas, means working against his enemies.
In God’s dealings with Israel and the nations, then, it is not a simple matter of God being merciful or exercising punitive justice. Rather, the questions of whom, why, when, and how to show mercy all enter into the portrait. This is the work of merciful judgment. And at times, that merciful judgment looks like exercising punishment against oppressors.
Soli Deo Gloria