Genocidal God…And a Genocidal People

(This is more of a book review/presentation of one theory kind of post. I do not endorse everything the author in question claims or supports, though I do attempt to keep an open mind toward his viewpoint.)

One of the biggest arguments about the god of the OT being violent and malicious is his command to the Israelites to destroy the peoples inhabiting Canaan. God’s literal command was to wipe them out, the Israelites carried this out almost to the T (some peoples lived).

This…is kind of a hard one to answer to.  Just being honest.  Pointing this out in Scripture, along with tales such as Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, and other pre-Egypt examples, sort of makes my ethical evolution theory look small.  I stand by it, stating that the people of God were in no position morally or intellectually to understand God’s ways, so he allowed for exception for a morally weak people, commanding them only the minimum in commandment, with a few extrapolating beyond the minimum (and by a few, I mean VERY few).

Honestly, I have difficulty feeling like I can really answer this one.  I can, however, offer you some resources regarding this, and discuss some things I’ve read.

When I was writing my senior research project at the esteemed Valley Forge Christian College (ha ha), I came across a book entitled Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God by Eric Seibert, a professor at Messiah College. One of the things that Seibert promotes is what he calls a Christo-Centric Hermeneutic, where we view all things in scripture, Old and New Testament, through the lens of Jesus Christ, His teachings, and His life.  I’ve promoted this view in previous posts, because I believe that Jesus, in claiming the fulfillment of the Law, established a new covenant that does away with the old one.  This has a lot of implications for theology, especially for nonviolence.  We don’t understand the Mosaic Law as completely done away with, for if he had simply abolished the old Law, what would He have to build on?  The people Jesus originally attempted to reach understood morals and ethics in the context of what Moses dictated, and Jesus preached within that context and expanded it to its fullest potential.  It is the Christian’s belief, then, that the new Covenant gives new understanding to the original law, which provides us with a new way to live.

The problem I had with this book is how much Seibert seemed to manipulate the concepts behind the inspiration of Scripture.  While I do question some of the history within Scripture in light of archaeological evidence (which Scripture often does do well to line up with), I’ve largely remained an inerrantist as far as inspiration goes.  I also question how much the human element affected our understandings of what actually happened, but for the most part, I would say that I affirm the historical claims of scripture.

Seibert…not so much.

In the book, Seibert holds to the light of archaeological evidence certain things such as the invasion of Jericho.  Based on the age of the earliest known Israelite pottery and other factors, it is widely believed that the Israelite nation arrived in Palestine around 13th century BC. According to Scripture, they entered through the Jordan River and encountered the great walls of Jericho.  It was here they did their famous marches around the wall for a week, shouted, and the walls fell down, and they killed everyone inside (save for Rahab, a harem owner who hid Israelite spies). However, according to Seibert and some of the archeological research he’s done, there is little to no evidence of their actually being a Jericho present at the time of Israelite presence.

The above archeological finding, as well as other contestable events attributed to the action of God, requires some sort of explanation.  Eric Seibert of Messiah College suggests that we “must differentiate between the textual God and the actual God” so that we can “deal responsibly with disturbing divine behavior in the Old Testament.”  He draws this understanding from the teachings of Terence Fretheim, professor of Old Testament Studies at Luther University. Fretheim says “The God portrayed in the text does not fully correspond to the God who transcends the text, who is a living, dynamic reality that cannot be captured in words on a page.”  Essentially, the Old Testament, though still inspired by God, does not convey a true and accurate understanding of the nature and character of the living God, and to truly reach our understanding of the living God, we have to understand the Old Testament from a different context: the Christo-Centric Principle.

As for stories such as those of Jericho, or perhaps the battles of King David, Seibert places stories such as these under the category of Old Testament literature that he calls “conquest narratives.” Though their factual accuracy is disputed, they do serve purposes, according to Seibert.  Some of these purposes include the explanation of national disasters, promotion of the elite and their policies, and the encouragement of certain behaviors and practices.  As I put into layman’s terms while speaking with Seibert: propaganda, more or less.

I actually did get to interview Seibert at the time I was writing my paper (really nice guy, by the way), and these answers prompted a question as to his views of the inspiration of Scripture.  Naturally, he rejects inerrancy and infallibility (“There are no errors” and “there can be no errors” in scripture, respectively), and goes for more of a “general inspiration feel, viewing God as a sort of foreman, watching over the writers of the Old Testament, while not necessarily correcting their style or view of the work, allowing the individual to show through.  Claiming actual historicity of the Old Testament, Seibert claims, “misconstrues the nature and function of Old Testament Narratives (as described above), jeopardizes Christianity’s credibility, and distorts the character of God as understood through Jesus Christ (our center for biblical interpretation).

I want to be clear: I fully respect Seibert for his contributions to biblical interpretation and the nonviolent cause, but this one bothers me a little.  I feel as though he is writing off portions of Scripture that don’t suit his views.  He does well to answer objections about a violent God of the Old Testament, in my opinion, but at the potential cost of a great lack of historical evidence for biblical validity in our skeptical academia.  How much historical backing Scripture needs I don’t know.  I know God is much greater than any textually critical boundaries we place on His word, and often, that’s enough for me.  I don’t feel a need to claim lack of historical evidence on the goings-on of the Old Testament to justify my nonviolent stance.  After all, Christ did come promoting a NEW covenant, a true fulfillment of all that had taken place previously throughout the old covenant, and this new Way was how God meant us to truly live.

All the same, if you find a copy of Disturbing Divine Images, you might want to pick it up.  I can honestly say I learned a lot from it, and going over it again for this post makes me want to read more of it. Still, what do you think?  Do you think that the Old Testament dismisses quickly the nonviolent cause?  Should we question its historicity so harshly?

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