The Violence of the Biblical God

I do not often write book reviews on my blog, but occasionally a book strikes me in such a way that I feel compelled to do so, a book like L. Daniel Hawk’s The Violence of the Biblical God Eerdman’s, 2019. Full disclosure I know Dr. Hawk personally and enjoy a cup of coffee with him about once a year, but that relationship has no bearing on my thoughts for this book. Individuals who write on the violence in the Bible typically take one of two approaches: just war theorists who see little difficulty with the slaughter and brutality in the Bible and pacifists who want to distance God and “true Christianity” from any of it. Of the pacifists typically there are two types those like Marcion who want to “unhitch themselves from the Old Testament” and those like Greg Boyd who parses out the Old Testament to exonerate God from any violence (see Crucifixion of the Warrior God). Hawk’s approach is different from either of these strategies though he too is as far as I have known him a committed to pacifism. To help illustrate this difference and why I think Hawk’s book is a must read I will compare it to Boyd’s which I think is among the best I have encountered in the traditional pacifist tradition.

Both scholars understand Jesus as the definitive expression of God in this world. What separates them is what this expression means. For Boyd Jesus teaches love and peace and his actions reflect this teaching, therefore God expresses these same characteristics and so God could not have acted sub-Christlike in the OT. Boyd then breaks down violent passages to exonerate God sometimes in creative ways. I appreciate Boyd’s commitment to his pacifistic ideals but at times his explanations were not adequate. He is right that at times people want to credit violence to God which is not accurately God’s doing, there are simply times we must face facts and the fact is God very much participates in some of the OT stories of violence and this is where Hawk’s approach is superior.

Hawk as an Old Testament and Hebrew specialist is far more attuned to the stories than Boyd, and where Boyd sees a God who will remain aloof rather than get his hands dirty, Hawk sees a God who is primarily interested in restoring humanity even if that means joining in the mess. And frankly the Incarnation is about this very thing, God enters the mess of human existence to live life alongside us and restore relationship. There is no way for me to fleshout in a few hundred words what Hawk does in the book but one illustration should help you understand the point. The story of Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 20 is treated on pages 62-63. Hawk’s reading of the text highlights the fact that Abraham’s actions (lying to Abimelech that Sarah is his sister) forces God into a box with three options and each of them requires God to do something which we would understand to be displeasing to God.

  • God can violate the covenant to bless those who bless Abraham (Genesis 12:3)
  • God can violate the covenant to give Abraham children through Sarah (Genesis 17:16)
  • God can reject Abraham

What Hawk sees in the OT is that God is willing to interact with humanity, including our sin; God is even willing to take sides even when that means harming people. A god who is aloof from human violence is a deistic god who is abstract from the world. Rather, what we see in the OT is a God who is willing to get involved in the lives of humans, willing to participate in our brokenness, and unafraid being identified with sinful humanity. If God is committed to living in a covenant relationship with humans, then to some degree it is necessary for God to participate in our systems– and these systems are often violent. Thus, out of a commitment to humanity God will inevitably be sucked into out violence. One area Hawk spends time on which few others consider is the motivation for the violence attributed to God. Is God angry or is there another reason God uses violence? This is important for understanding the text and what Hawk demonstrates is that all the motivating emotions attributed to God back up the idea that God is concerned with relationship. For instance God’s anger is never directed at Israel’s enemies only at Israel’s shortcomings. Such motivations are important for understanding the context, God’s passion is directed against the breaking of covenant but never against those people who are outside the covenant. Meaning the violence used against them is meant to preserve the relationship between God and Israel (a relationship which others are free to join).

Now, I am oversimplifying Hawk’s argument because of the length and format of this blog, which is why you should read the book (he does a better job than I am). But, I can already hear the objections coming to this approach, like why not just send Jesus and not mess with Israelite violence, or at least give Israel a command against violence, war, etc.. Anyone who makes such claims has not spent much time reading the Old Testament nor reflecting on humanity. One Old Testament laws are not simply do’s and don’ts (as we conceive of laws) meant as legislation. Second, humanity would not listen; life is not as simple as God speaks and people do– want evidence watch a child when a parent is trying to tell her something.

This is ultimately what makes Dr. Hawk’s book so compelling, he accounts for humanity and God’s desire to have a relationship with us. Other books do not treat the fact that to have a relationship with another person one enters that person’s world and mess. The violence of God in the Old Testament is a natural outcome of God trying to have a relationship with a specific family in a world prone to violence. God’s violent actions are about showing concern and protection for the covenants made with Abraham and Israel. Where Boyd and others want to remove violence from God, they inadvertently remove a notion of God’s compassion. I am not compassionate to my child if that child is being attacked and I do not intercede with measured and legitimate force. Am I participating in the violence of the word, yes. Am I arbitrary in my violence, no. And this is a distinction that is often missed in Boyd, God’s desire to protect Israel is at times going to include violence what we must do is differentiate the violent acts and ask if those are still within God’s revealed character, something Hawk does well.

Dan Hawk is one of a rare group of scholars who inhabits the part of the Bible which troubles him. He is a pacifist and yet has spent his career looking at the Book of Joshua (anyone interested should read Joshua in 3-D). Unlike scholars who spend their careers running away from the challenging part he allowed those to shape his thinking and this book is the result. That, I think, is what makes this book so attractive. Hawk wants us to live in a world of rest and peace and yet recognizes that our world is very violent. Unless God is willing to enter that mess to a degree God will not be able to have relationship with us; pulling us from the mess requires God to interact with our mess.

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