You may remember that a friend and I decided to read the Bible together, cover to cover, by the end of the year. I don’t think I’m going to reach that goal. I have been sidetracked for a variety of external reasons (ahem, pandemic) and yet, I have to admit that there have been days when reading the Bible has felt like a deterrent to reading the Bible. What I mean is, some of the content in the Old Testament is so upsetting and has so upset my childhood views that I’m not sure I want to keep reading it. For example, from my childhood, I remember Samson as the good man who was tricked by the wicked Delilah, but my current reading unveils a violent man with anger and impulse issues.
The critics know what I mean when they demand:
How can you believe in a God who commands the genocide of surrounding nations? How can a loving God cause so much suffering?
“Numerous studies have shown that violent depictions of God in literature that is regarded as sacred make believers more inclined toward violence. Given the rising fear surrounding religiously motivated violence since 9/11, this makes many people understandably concerned about the [Old Testament’s] violent representations of God.
“These divine portraits also give plenty of ammunition to critics of the Bible, and I have met far too many former Christians, and even former pastors, whose faith was destroyed because they found they could no longer defend these ugly portraits against these critics.” (5)
In his footnotes Boyd cites The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, and God, the Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction by Dan Barker. Regarding the last author, Boyd comments that “it’s worth noting that Dan Barker...was a Christian evangelist for sixteen years before losing his faith and becoming an atheist. And one of the main reasons is that he concluded there was no way to defend the immoral character of God in many narratives of the OT.” (5)
And how have Christians defended God? I can’t purport to be able to compose a comprehensive thesis on this issue here in this blog, but I can record my own experience -- of embracing Old Testament stories as a child with black and white, good guy versus bad guy thinking and then growing up to focus mainly on the New Testament, the life of Jesus and the practical life suggestions of Paul.
Boyd explains that my experience isn’t unique and that the violent “portraits of God have been taken at face value for the last fifteen hundred years,” ever since “Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 and began to shower the church with wealth and political power.” (77, 76) Boyd provides evidence that early Christians “took very seriously Jesus’s call to refrain from violence and to love and serve their enemies” and that they strived to interpret violent depictions of God in Scripture as tainted by the cultural and spiritual conditions of the recorders. (76) And “as the church of Christendom arose, the reinterpretation approach to the OT’s violent portraits of God quickly faded away. And the reason is obvious. As Christians acclimated to the use of violence, the OT’s violent depictions of God became less problematic.” (77)
Some churches I have been a part of, as I described above, gloss over this issue and choose to focus on Jesus. Christians believe he’s our best evidence for God anyway, so why delve into the hazy and distant past? Or, perhaps, as some scholars do, we can justify the violent actions of the OT because really, those people deserved it, right? In his book The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel wrestles with understanding compassion and mercy “when we see God ordering genocide by teling the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7 to ‘totally destroy’ the Canaanites and six other nations and to ‘show them no mercy.” (118) Strobel presses scholar Norman L. Geisler on this point who responds by explaining that God is “absolutely holy, and that he has got to punish sin and rebellion. He’s a righteous judge; that’s undeniably part of who he is. But, second, his character is also merciful. Listen: if anyone wants to escape, he will let them.” And yet, Geisler continues his justification by saying, [the Amalekites] were far from innocent. Far from it. These were not nice people. In fact, they were utterly and totally depraved. Their mission was to destroy Israel. In other words, to commit genocide. As if that weren’t evil enough, think what was hanging in the balance. The Israelites were the chosen people through whom God would bring salvation to the entire world through Jesus Christ.” (118-119)
The journalist and the scholar continue to debate this issue (and I recommend Strobel’s book immensely and find it heartening that Boyd’s father is quoted later in that chapter, that this discussion and debate is happening in real time, with the people around us), and yet, I worry that Geisler, with all of his years of study, has missed something fundamental: God doesn’t need our help to bring salvation to the world. If the Israelites had been killed back then, God would have found another way. Or rather, perhaps we can rest in the covenant God made with Abraham and be assured that God wouldn’t have let them be wiped out. God is greater than any enemy.
No, I like Boyd’s new argument much better: that perhaps violence was never part of God’s plan. It was in the world, of course, as a result of free will, but God doesn’t command it.
Boyd’s central inquiry: “How do macabre portraits of God, such as the portrait of Yaweh commanding Israelites to mercilessly engage in genocide, reflect and point to the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love of God that is supremely revealed on the cross?” (emphasis in original, 46-47)
Boyd argues that when violence is attributed to God, that is God stooping low and assuming the blame, bearing the burden of sin in place of the humans who committed it. Boyd provides plenty of biblical and historical backstory to support his claim, including detailed discussion of how we can continue to believe the Bible is God-breathed and see the flawed perspectives of its recorders. I’ll leave you to pick up a copy and delve into that yourself, but here’s one small example of God bearing the burden:
While the Bible makes it clear that God wanted his people to occupy the land of Canaan, there is Biblical evidence that God had non-violent plans to make this happen...if the Israelites would only be patient. Plans that included sending “the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way...not...in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you…[but rather] drive them out...little by little.” (Exodus 23:28-30) Leviticus chapter 18 describes a different non-violent plan: to make the land unfruitful so that the inhabitants would migrate in search of better pasture.
Boyd argues that someone with the worldview of the ancient Near East would have heard the instruction to acquire land and equated it with the slaughtering of its inhabitants. (116-117) The ancient cultures depicted in the Old Testament were proud of violent contests that demonstrated the power and victory of their gods. The Israelites were no different. They wanted to attribute the violent victories to Yahweh. Elsewhere in his book, Boyd discusses the theory of God working up to revealing himself fully through Christ, gradually doling out his character in a way that people can understand and receive it. Christians have a chance to see things differently. If we truly believe that Jesus is God and depicts God’s character completely, then we have to consider that perhaps the Israelites’ conception of God, as Boyd suggests, was cloudy.
Boyd knows that we need some reassurance that God is the same in Jesus as he ever was, that he is unchanging, because “the way [we] imagine God largely determines the quality of [our] relationship with God.” (18)
And if the critics only see a violent God, they will remain angry. This is the hardest part for me: I can picture the faces of those critics. I see the faces of my friends, and out of love for them, I want them to remember that God is faithful, the same as he has always been, and that we can be reassured of that by remembering and celebrating how Jesus lived and died and rose again.
If these concepts are difficult to digest, consider the teachings of Origen, a third century scholar in the early church, which Boyd leverages in the opening of his book:
“Origen taught that when we come upon a biblical passage that seems unworthy of God, we must humble ourselves before God and ask the Spirit to help us find a deeper meaning in the passage that is worthy of God. He sometimes referred to this as a treasure buried in the depth of a passage. Origen believed that God intentionally buried treasures beneath the ugly and “unworthy” surface meaning of various passages to force us to mature spiritually as we humbly wrestle with Scripture and become more dependent on the Spirit.” (16)
Boyd’s perspective may be a little new, especially in modern times, but I will be curious to see how churches embrace this opportunity to answer critics’ questions and complaints, not on the defensive anymore, but with our best offensive: Jesus. As Boyd explains, “at its heart, this entire book could be summed up as a plea for Christians to once again place their complete trust in the cross. Dare to believe that God really is, to the core of his being, as beautiful as the cross reveals him to be.” (78)
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.