Editor’s Note: This is the condensed version of an interview with Dr. Lissa Wray Beal for the full video and text transcript click the link here.
Have you also had to wrestle through these questions or even wrestle with your faith in God as a result of some of these things that the Old Testament bears witness to?
I would say yes and no to that. I mean because I was so captivated by the love of God and that has always been a pretty firm bedrock for me out of which I have been able to question. So, when I see things that are hard to understand or troubling in the text, I’ve felt I’ve been allowed to question. I think God invites us to question and to wrestle with that.
What are the ways that Christians have addressed these questions?
There has always been and today there are people who say “hey, we have no right to question what God is doing in the Old Testament and therefore we can’t even identify it as a problem. God is God, he’ll do whatever he can, we’re wrong to question.” Calvin does a bit of this in his Joshua commentary.
Another approach which still pertains today but was particularly used and found useful in the pre-modern era, would be something like the approach of Origen. What he does, and what the church did all the way up until the age of enlightenment, was really sort of spiritualize or allegorize the violence. They recognized it as being hard to comport with the picture of Jesus in the New Testament, and I think we do need to acknowledge that… And what they did to try and balance that tension was to say, well what we’re really seeing here is a picture of God’s action against our sinful human nature. So, the Canaanites become our sinful human nature.
Some of the things that have developed since then and which, especially since 9/11 are having a resurgence, are things like the assertion that what we see recorded in the Old Testament is simply what the authors thought about God. So, you actually end up in that scenario with sort of two gods. You’ve got the actual God and then you’ve got the textual God; the God that they’ve written about.
One of the reasons I think that this is applied comes from, I think, a pastoral motivation to lessen that tension that is perceived there, and the difficulty of God being seen to incite warfare violence. But what it effectually does is remove the authority of the Old Testament.
Jesus Christ himself never sort of wrote off the depictions of God in the Old Testament—never seemed troubled by them. Neither did the New Testament authors. And I think anything that is trying to write off two thirds of our Scriptures is problematic and does not accord with the work of the Church through the ages. It also neglects the fact that there is lots of violence in the New Testament…So, the hermeneutic that says we’ll use Jesus and if it doesn’t look like what we think Jesus looks like—and that’s a selective reading that cuts out any of the strong coercive violence that the New Testament applies to Jesus—if it doesn’t look like this manufactured Jesus, then we’ll just say that’s not a good depiction or a true depiction of God. That’s problematic. But that is another way that’s fairly current and people like Greg Boyd is doing that.
There are a couple of other ways, I think, that people today deal with the question of warfare violence which I actually find much more helpful than some of the ones that I just detailed.
When we speak specifically of warfare violence say in the book of Joshua, we do need to reckon with the fact that we’re reading a genre—so a type of literature—that is an Ancient Near Eastern type of literature… Within those Ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts which I would say that Joshua is drawing upon and is informed by—one of the things that we see specific to warfare violence is the use of hyperbole. In Ancient Near Eastern warfare accounts, one of the reasons you wrote this account was to tell everyone your god was bigger and better than every other god and therefore you should worship him… what that hyperbole does not do, is say that there was no warfare, but it does put that warfare into perspective… Additionally, when you compare Israel’s account in Joshua and other warfare accounts to the kind of warfare that was conducted in the Ancient Near East, Israel was required to tone down the viciousness of that warfare to a significant degree.
I think if God is dealing with his ancient people Israel and dealing with them as a nation, it is not that out of the realm of possibility that nations dealing with nations do so through warfare. So, there is this idea of God stepping into and dealing with Israel within the context of that ancient world in which warfare was how nations dealt with nation. And I think He moves them incrementally towards his ultimate ideal which is where we beat our swords into plowshares.
In light of the New Testament and the full revelation of God in Christ Jesus, is there still a role the Old Testament plays in forming our ethics today, especially as it pertains to questions of violence and war?
Well, the simple answer is yes, definitely… And I think I’d say that for a couple of reasons, and then I want to put in a qualifier. I think the first reason is that if you want to know God’s heart, one of the ways that you see that is through the Old Testament… Repeatedly the Old Testament reveals to us God’s heart of justice…We also see God in the Old Testament giving a pretty raw depiction of injustice, so economic injustice, sexual injustice, institutional, ecological injustice. He doesn’t always say, “And by the way, this is wrong.” …but the way the story unfolds and responses within the story reveal the heart of God.
Now let me put in my qualification.… Because the Old Testament is dealing with National Israel and it’s dealing in an ancient context which is fairly different from ours… We need to be careful between drawing direct correlations but allow that it shows us—it illustrates for us the heart of God and the kinds of things that he is appalled by and which we, as God’s people are to stand against and not to participate in in our own lives and times.
Sometimes Christians can justify things like militarism and military violence by using examples from the Old Testament where there is divine sanctioned violence. So, I’m just wondering if you can comment a little bit on that.
Where your question really comes to roost is in colonialism, both in the settlement of especially the US, but to some degree underlying the settlement in Canada, where First Nations people were often strongly displaced, violently resettled, unfairly treated… Sometimes underlying that is sort of this general idea that we’re Israel coming in and they’re the Canaanites, so we can just do whatever we want… And the problem with that, and I’ve alluded to it earlier, is that we today are not National Israel with whom God had an ancient covenant… I think the difference is that God today is—yes, he’s still dealing with National Israel, but for us as Christian nations or as Christian people, he’s no longer dealing with a national covenant. He’s dealing with a transnational covenant instituted in Christ… So, we are not a nation going in to take over another nation. We are the body of Christ that is living as aliens in this world.
After studying that, reading it, delving into it, what helps you… what allows you to sit down at the end of the day and trust in a faithful, loving God?
The primary thing that enables me to come to God with my questions [is]… knowing that he’s a God of goodness… you’re never going to fully understand God and you’ll always have questions. Good thing because then it’s always faith. Rest with those questions, with that discomfort in the loving revelation of God by the Spirit in Christ.
In the midst of our own violent culture—he is moving in the midst of it and he’s bringing us to his eschatological vision of peace and the kingdom of God made known in reality here on earth.
Whether we get, ever get all the answers to the questions does not detract from the reality that God is God who loves us and in Christ has shown that. And in Christ has shown us the love that He was demonstrating both in its kindness and its severity through all of the Old Testament. It’s one story, it’s one God.