One of the greatest road-blocks for many in accepting a peace-theology is the Old Testament, or more specifically the violence contained within the Old Testament. The thinking here is that because God allowed violence in the OT, then violence, cannot be inherently wrong. This tension really is magnified by a 'flat reading' of the Bible. Those that read all texts of bible as equally authoritative really start to feel the strain between a God who would say, "Show them no mercy", and the Crucified Saviour that cries out, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
Historically, the problem of Old Testament violence has always been a problem for the church. An early church leader, Marcion rejected the Scriptures of Israel, believing that they portrayed a God other than that known in Jesus Christ. (Curiously, Marcion also tried to collapse the Gospels into one document.) Irenaeus and other early Christian leaders vigorously opposed such a move.
"Thinkers like Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian and especially Origen felt compelled to embrace all canonical material as divinely inspired and thus considered it impossible to dismiss. Yet, largely because of the revelation of the enemy-loving, non-violent God in Christ, they also felt compelled to reject a literal interpretation of the OT’s violent depictions of God. They therefore embraced this violent material, but they did so while reinterpreting it." - Greg Boyd, The Coming Storm
(Side note: Right now the discussion on violence in the OT is a bit of a hot topic. Check out this article for some background. And this one. Don't forget about this one. )
It might seem laughable to some, to suggest that the Old Testament (OT) points and hopes for a peace-theology. I want to suggest that the narrative movement of the Old Testament strengthens the commitment to non-violence by pointing to the promise of shalom.
But isn't the Old Testament filled with endless accounts of violence, genocide, and tribalism?
Yes and No.
Yes. There are accounts of the nation of Israel participating in genocide, wars, and personal retaliation.
There is also a stream of texts that point beyond the violence of the OT to (1) a God who does not act like the other pagan gods and is progressively moving God's chosen people to a fuller understanding of God's self, (2) a view of peace (shalom), justice and mercy that promotes the breaking down of hostility for hospitality and (3) the coming reign of the Mashiach (Messiah), who would proclaim peace to the nations. (Zec 9:9)
What's going on here?
Firstly, the Old Testament is theologically diverse. We cannot just point to any passage in the Bible and say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it". The OT is immersed in a discussion on differing theological assumptions. A good example:
Proverbs says, “Live righteously and good things will happen.”
Job says, “Have you heard about me?”
"The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. But it’s a process. God doesn’t mutate, but Israel’s revelation and understanding of God obviously does. Along the way assumptions are made. One of these assumptions was that Yahweh shares certain violent attributes with the pagan deities of the ancient Near East. These assumptions were inevitable, but wrong. For example, the Hebrew prophets will eventually begin to question the assumption that Yahweh desires blood sacrifice. Jesus was fond of quoting Hosea’s bold assertion that Yahweh doesn’t want sacrifice, he wants mercy." - Brian Zahnd, God and Genocide
Secondly, the Old Testament is meant to be read through the lens of Jesus. When we go to the Bible (the words of God), we learn about Jesus, The Word/logos (logic/reason) of God, who has authority over all scripture. Scripture contains the words and revelation of God. We must remember that Jesus is the ultimate end goal of the book that tells his story – its telos. The book is not the destination for a believer in and of itself. This book is the place where I learn about Jesus who claims to be the final destination for our Christian lives. The whole of scripture is about one thing: Jesus.
If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what grief is, look at Jesus -N.T. Wright, Look at Jesus
The writer of the book of Hebrews puts it like this:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
"The earliest Christians read the Bible messianically, or in the words of Warren Carter, with their “Jesus-glasses on.” That is, they saw Jesus in the Old Testament where others had not seen him or a Messiah." - Scot McKnight, Jesus Creed
A few examples of the peace witness in the OT
1.1. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"
- God creates the cosmos using words. "let there be light"
- The God of Israel differs from other near eastern and greek gods whose creation accounts were often great cosmic battles.
- "It is reasonable to suggest that the Genesis story is meant to be contrasted with the reigning Babylonian ideology; that is, one could argue that an important purpose of the Genesis story is to argue that the God of Israel is solely and fully in control of the cosmos. God's creation is...not the result of a power struggle within a dysfunctional divine family." - Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation
4.1-16 Cain and Abel
The first act of violence recorded in the Bible was a fratricide. The older brother Cain, in a fit of jealousy, killed his younger brother Abel. Did this murder demand retaliation? No, Adam did not think to take vengeance into his own hands. And God did not demand retaliation. In fact, God protected Cain to break the cycle of retaliation.
"In Genesis we encounter a different voice. The voice of the God who takes the side of the victim unjustly violated. Of course we recognize this voice in the Prophets and their concern about the widows and orphans, but have we read the Cain and Abel story from this perspective?" - Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life
4.23-24 "If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times."
"As in the story of Lamech, the problem of violence tends to escalate out of control. Right from the beginning of the Bible the connection between violence, sacrifice and civilization is being made". -- Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life
Solomon is said to have been chosen by the Lord to build the Temple because 'he has shed no blood'. (1 Chronicles 28) Solomon leaves behind some indications of the wisdom of peace in book of Proverbs. In the NT, Paul quotes Proverbs in Romans 12, to further drive home the wisdom of peace making.
16:7 When a man's ways please God. God makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
17:13 If a man pays back evil for good, evil will never leave his house.
18:14 Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.
18: 19 He who loves a quarrel loves sin; he who builds a high gate invites destruction.
10:12 Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
24:17 Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove
25:21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
26:17 Like one who seizes a dog by the ears is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.
The Prophetic witness to the Prince of Peace:
The Prophets tend to critique warfare and call for restoration of shalom. There is a hopeful looking forward to the days of the Messiah who would come to make peace.
2.4 “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation will not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
9.6"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end."
32.17"The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever."
52:7 "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news,who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation."
"The Lord will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." (Micah 4:1-3)
|Jesus fulfilling Zechariah's prophecy|
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth. - Zechariah 9:9-10
What do we say of the Old Testament hope of a peaceful kingdom?
There is a temptation to read the prophetic promises of peace and think: "that will be nice... one day" or "Won't that be great when the Prince of Peace comes?" The problem with this dispensationalist thinking is that it functionally denies:
(1) the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in the life, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.
(2) The 'now and not yet" breaking-in Kingdom (inaugurated eschatology)
(3) That Jesus is Lord. Not will be, might be, could be. Jesus is Lord, now on the earth and Christ follower confess this subversive Kingdom that is breaking in 'on earth as it is in heaven'.
The OT peace witness is fulfilled and being fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The New Testament goes to great lengths to make it clear that Jesus’ life and teaching are grounded in Old Testament faith and practice. Jesus self-conscientiously presents himself as anchored in the story of Israel. He intended to fulfill Torah, not abolish it. His summary of the path to eternal life—love God and neighbour—is presented as the core message of the Law and Prophets.
Jesus deepens the extent of the Torah by, extending love to the enemy, defining justice as mercy, and sending the church to fulfill Abraham's calling to bless the nations.
(More on this in the next post)