By David Baggett
Marcion (born ca. 100) took troubling Old Testament passages and rejected them along with the “lesser” Creator God of the Jews, the God of justice and wrath. Marcion considered the God of the New Testament quite different from that of the Old, but was he right? Did Jesus attempt to distance himself from the God portrayed in the Old Testament? Is there a wide gap between the worldview of ancient Israelites and the teaching of Jesus?
Peter Enns doesn’t think the Gospel permits, condones, or supports the rhetoric of tribal violence in the OT, but he denies being a Marcionite. Eric Seibert, too, writes that not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us, while still repudiating Marcionism. They reject the notion that there are two distinct Gods in view; they claim that the testaments portray God differently.
Both Enns and Seibert claim that their interpretive frame of reference is Jesus of Nazareth. F&C say this is praiseworthy, but that we are presented with a limited picture of Jesus and one that ignores authoritative affirmations by NT writers and speakers about Yahweh and his actions in the OT.
Seibert argues that the OT is part of the reason the Bible has been used by some to justify violence, colonialism, and the abuse of women. The OT writers, he thinks, often appropriated the values and beliefs of their own ancient Near Eastern context, including its ethnocentrism and patriarchy, which don’t reflect the character of a compassionate, merciful God.
Seibert distinguishes between the textual God (the author’s literary representation) and the actual God (the living reality), especially in the OT, where the gap between them is sometimes wide. The OT authors made assumptions we should reject, looking to Christ instead and construing God’s judgment as eschatological and not temporal, and that end-time judgment need not be violent.
Seibert urges us to read the Bible carefully, conversantly, and critically—not compliantly. For example, carefully follow the rule of love, a commitment to justice and valuing people. Remember some OT voices challenge “virtuous violence.” It can be read as subverting a picture of pitting bad Canaanites against good Israelites. Another strategy is to read with the victims and their families. Read the Bible from the margins, from the outsider’s point of view. Seibert also thinks we should name the killing of the Canaanites “genocide.”
The God of Jesus Is the God of Moses
F&C make a few replies. First, it is true that we should think more deeply about difficult, ethically troubling OT passages rather than gloss over them. And notable scholars have been doing just that. F&C also agree we should be distressed by professing Christians’ abuse of scripture, using such texts to justify the subjugation of women, the horrors of the slave trade, and the oppression of people groups. At the same time, they would note all the moral gains brought about by Bible-reading Christians—moral reforms, protection of indigenous peoples from colonial powers, literacy, human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, abolition of slavery, etc.
Second, Seibert’s negative comment that the church “grandly proclaims” the Bible to be God’s Word is rather unfair. Jesus himself does so! Likewise Paul. Ironically, while Seibert claims that Jesus is the hermeneutical key to his ethic, he does not actually adopt Jesus’s own attitude toward scripture.
Third, we must be careful not to appeal to Jesus’s authority selectively. Jesus regularly engaged in denouncements and threats of judgment, both temporal and final. And Jesus takes for granted the general theological outlook of the OT.
Fourth, we must not pit Jesus’s teaching (or a certain understanding of it) against the affirmations elsewhere in the NT. The problem for both Enns and Seibert is that Jesus and the NT writers don’t actually read the OT in a nonviolent way. None of them shrink from the God of the OT, or from an assumption that the relevant OT texts were historical.
To impose a nonviolent or pacifistic grid on the words and actions of God/Jesus requires significant hermeneutical gymnastics—an approach that creates an interpretive straitjacket. To proclaim an absolute pacifism and a rejection of any association between God and violent action requires dismissing or ignoring Jesus’s own authoritative statements, vast tracts of scripture pertaining to divine judgment, like the prophetic books and the book of Revelation. It’s also to ignore God’s ordaining of the state to bear the sword.
Note that the NT is filled with words about divine justice. Paul said those who refuse to love the Lord are “accursed”; he even wished that those troubling Judaizers would go the whole way and mutilate themselves. He called them “dogs,” and Jesus used similar language about those who despise the sacred things of God, calling them “dogs” and “swine,” and did so in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, in which he speaks of loving enemies! Even expressions of satisfaction at divine wrath and judgment can be justified (Rev. 16:6), and this does not oppose Jesus’s call to love and pray for our enemies, indeed to desire their salvation.
“Behold then the kindness and the severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). Reading the scriptures with discernment shouldn’t mean an undiscerning selectivity that ignores the very stance of the NT and Jesus himself. Even the chief OT text describing the God of Israel as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6) immediately is followed by, “He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.”
Jesus and his earliest followers took for granted the same unchanging character of the God of the Hebrew scriptures. F&C finish this chapter with a flourish: “To assume that Jesus rejected divine temporal judgment in the Old Testament Scriptures runs contrary to Jesus’s own assumption of the historicity of these events, his own wrathful pronouncements, and his strong identification with the Old Testament worldview. So we should carefully study and qualify the nature of violence in Scripture, but we must not do violence to Scripture in the process.”
Image: “Jesus holding the Book of Life” by Waiting for the Word. CC License.