Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Is the Old Testament Bloody?

Whenever readers embark on a bible reading journey beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation, inevitably somewhere about 1/4th of the way into the journey, you'll hear reactions like, "The OT is so violent. I'm sick of all the bloodshed and war." Then, you'll get this additional comment, "Thank God for the New Testament."

So without being too snarky on the point, I thought I'd at least register the following points:

1) How did we get the notion that the New Testament isn't as bloody or violent as the Old? All four gospels are centered on the crucifixion of Jesus. Each features the beheading of John the Baptist. And along the way lots of other smaller violences are perpetrated. Then, just read Acts, which includes the martyrdom of many saints. Then consider the sufferings Paul lists in many of his letters. And for one last hurrah, consider Revelation.

2) Similarly, remember that although the New Testament does not consider the world stage or the nations quite in the same way as the Old, nevertheless what was going on in the Roman empire and environs was nothing if not bloody, both bloody because of the Roman practice of animal sacrifices as part of their political and religious life, as well as their warring ways.

3) Next, although the Old Testament does record bloodshed and war, the clear line throughout is the peaceful intentions of the Lord, inasmuch as the ultimate goal of creation is that the lion and lamb shall lie down together, wanton and unjust violence is condemned (such as Pharoah's or Saul's), and ultimately both the Levitical code and the prophetic voice stands up clearly, in the midst of a pagan culture that cared very little, for the lost, the least, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the neighbor.

4) Perhaps the problem with this way of reading the bible is the surprise people have because it is their first read through the bible, ever. They've developed a certain assumed picture or image of the bible, and the bible doesn't meet the expectations they have. Which is to say, reading the bible disabuses them of the idealized bible of culture, and introduces them to the Scripture of faith.

5) I invite anyone embarking on such an "all bible" reading program to try to keep chart of the big picture. This means both looking at where the narrative goes, even if it includes war and bloodshed. It may help to read a commentary that places the bible in a larger cultural framework. But I invite readers also to keep in mind that perhaps the beauty of Scripture is that the God of Israel doesn't dwell apart from or separate from the world, but intimately in the midst of it, including those places where there is war, deceit, and strife.

6) Then, just go read the daily paper again. Plenty of blood there. Why would we be surprised at Scripture that includes bloodshed. That's simply the way of the world. Which is precisely why Christ has come into the world to redeem the world from itself in and through the world, incarnate Logos. It's important for us to remember this, and to avoid being slyly anti-Semitic by divorcing the God of Israel from the God of Christ. They are one and the same, and the continuity of how God works in and through Israel, and how God fulfills Israel in Christ, is one of the great mysteries that can best be explored by reading the whole Scripture, in one gulp, over and over and over and over again.

1 comment:

  1. Eric Evers11:41 AM

    Good stuff, Clint. I have two reflections, opposite sides of the same coin. One is the tendency to say "if it is narrated in the OT, then the author must want us to see it as normative" - so the argument goes that "the God of the OT" commands all sorts of horrid stuff. That strikes me as a naive reading of the OT.

    On the other hand, there are some pretty seriously "bloody" divine commands to be found. And while they do not discount the "big picture," they are still a part of the picture. I claim no easy answers on this...