The Violence of God

The rest of this summer our pastors are going preach on what David’s life teaches us about leadership. Jonna got things started this past Sunday with a fine meditation on how God, when he chose David to be anointed as king, looks beyond the superficial to see the heart. (A good fit with the Tom Troeger hymn I mentioned earlier.)

But throughout her sermon, I actually found myself coming back to an earlier verse in the account of David’s anointing. As the prophet arrives in Bethlehem to see Jesse and his sons, “The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?'” (1 Sam 16:4)

Why “trembling”? Because those elders no doubt had heard that Samuel had just “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (1 Sam 15:33b).

I’d be scared to talk to a holy man who had just hacked a king to death.

That killing was the startling conclusion to an already bloody chapter. As you may recall, Samuel was anointing a new king because Saul had lost the favor of God. Why? Because he did not completely fulfill one of God’s more violent commands, also delivered through Samuel: to “utterly destroy” Agag and his people, the Amalekites, killing “both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam 15:3). After winning the battle, Saul’s army “utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword,” but he “spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed” (1 Sam 15:8-9). Just before he “hewed” Agag, Samuel prophesied to Saul, “As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women.” By the book’s end, Saul has committed suicide — and his own sons have been killed.

Copley, Saul Reproved by Samuel
John Singleton Copley, “Saul Reproved by Samuel” (1798) – Wikimedia

I’d heard a version of 1 Samuel 15 earlier this year, when I finally watched the wrenching 2008 TV play, God on Trial. Inspired by a possibly apocryphal story from Elie Wiesel, it dramatizes Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz trying God for breaking his covenant with Israel. Its climactic end features a remarkable soliloquy by a rabbi, Akiba, who had been sitting silent throughout the entire trial.

Akiba is presented as a “living Torah,” a nod to his revered namesake, who before being executed by the Romans told his disciples, “some of us may perish in the trials of these days; but as long as there is Torah, the people will live.” When this fictional Akiba finally speaks his mind, he demonstrates his extensive knowledge of that book, but not in the way his followers anticipate. The rabbi mentions scripture after scripture in which God brings about mass killing — including the story of Saul and the Amalekites. As he reaches his terrible conclusion, Akiba looks around at his fellow prisoners:

We are learning how it was for the Amalekites. They faced extinction at the hand of Adonai. They died for his purpose. They fell as we are falling. They were afraid as we are afraid. And what did they learn? They learned… that Adonai, the Lord our God… our God… is not good. He is not good. He was not ever good. He was only on our side.

The verdict is rendered, just before SS guards enter to take most of the trial’s participants to the gas chambers. (“What do we do now?”, the play’s primary skeptic asks Akiba. “Now, we pray,” he answers.)

Fearlessly acted and tautly directed, the play is all the more powerful because writer Frank Cottrell Boyce gives all sides a fair hearing. All arguments are both persuasive and soon countered by equally strong rebuttals.

Until the rabbi’s final soliloquy, which has no answer. I don’t think Anthony Sacramone exaggerated in his review for First Things: “Rabbi Akiba’s appraisal of God’s goodness, delivered with such eloquence, intensity, and terrifying honesty by Sir Antony Sher, is unlike anything you have seen or heard on television.” I don’t believe that God was attempting to eradicate his chosen people in the Holocaust, but that speech is still with me, months later.

But in truth, the larger problem of God’s violence has been with me for most of my life.

I think all people of faith wrestle with particular doubts, more than doubt in general. For some Christians it’s the nature of the Trinity, or the miracles of virgin birth or bodily resurrection. For many it’s the problem of evil, so evident in the Holocaust. Perhaps not surprisingly for a scholar drawn to the histories of warfare and genocide, my overriding theological tension has always been the one named in the publisher’s description of Greg Boyd’s newest book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God:

A dramatic tension confronts every Christian believer and interpreter of Scripture: on the one hand, we encounter Old Testament stories of God commanding horrendous violence. On the other hand, we read the unequivocally nonviolent teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Reconciling these two has challenged Christians and theologians for two millennia.

Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior GodThought-provoking as I’ve found Greg’s writing and preaching, I know that I’ll struggle to make my way through a two-volume theological treatise that checks in just under 1,500 words. (You can find a summary of the book’s key themes from Roger Olson, plus Greg has blogged often about the book at ReKnew.) So I’ll open up the comments section in case anyone wants to share a shorter book (or even article, blog post, or sermon) that has helped them wrestle with this tension.

In conclusion, I just want to encourage Christians not to hide from such questions. If we believe that all of Scripture is inspired and authoritative, then we can’t simply ignore the most challenging passages.

I don’t mean any of this as a critique of Sunday’s sermon, which was about David — not Saul or Samuel. But it was striking that the two scriptures read earlier in our service had been constructed so as to dodge the problem of God’s violence. Following the Revised Common Lectionary, our Gospel lesson came from Matthew 11, which closes with Jesus praying:

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vv. 25-30)

But what are “these things” that have been hidden? The reading had started with v. 16 (“But to what will I compare this generation?…), but then skipped the five verses that actually led into Jesus’ prayer:

Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,

will you be exalted to heaven?
    No, you will be brought down to Hades.

For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” (vv. 20-24)

What “deeds of power” were done to Tyre and Sidon? Not coincidentally, our scheduled Old Testament text was Zechariah 9, whose first eight verses promise God’s judgment on various ancient Near East peoples, including the people of Tyre and Sidon. (It didn’t stop there: “I will arouse your sons, O Zion,” God promises later in that passage, “against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword…. The Lord of hosts will protect them, and they shall devour and tread down the slingers; they shall drink their blood like wine….”)

But the lectionary cut out all language of violent judgment; all we read was the messianic prophecy of vv. 9-12.

Truly, I “[r]ejoice greatly” that our King has not only come to us — and will again — “triumphant and victorious,” but that he did so not as a warrior like Saul or David, but “humble and riding on a donkey,” to “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” But if “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt 11:27b), then Christians need help understanding the mystery of so peaceful a Son revealing so violent a Father.


One thought on “The Violence of God

  1. A friend of mine (who happens to be on IV staff) and I were recently talking about this over a Facebook thread. One thing that struck me during the conversation was in thinking how three different scenarios of violence compare in my head:

    1. God unilaterally destroys a city on His own (e.g., Sodom).
    2. God commands His people to kill a group of people (e.g., the Amalekites).
    3. The U.S. military kills combatants in the course of striking a military target.

    For whatever reason, I find the second scenario far more disturbing than the first or third. I’m not sure if it’s completely logical that I feel that way, but I think it’s because in only the second scenario are people uniting with God to take life. When God destroyed Sodom, God’s people weren’t really a party to its destruction beyond simply getting out. When the U.S. military strikes a target, it may or may not be completely justified, but it at least doesn’t have the pretense of being done in faithfulness to God. I Samuel 15 is one of the most disturbing chapters in the Bible for me because even though I’m not a pacifist, I’d like to think that the closer I align with God, the more I will value human life, even that of an undeserving person, and the more I will trust God rather than a weapon. I Samuel 15 turns that sentiment on its head. And then I look at our modern age of al Qaeda and ISIS and also consider those who were killed by those who claimed to follow Christ over the centuries, thinking about people who killed others sincerely believing God wanted them to, it makes me have an even more visceral distaste for I Samuel 15, even if I can accept that God’s command to kill the Amalekites was justified. With all the bloodshed in the world, often committed by people of faith, I just want to grab on to the story of Jonah, believing that faithfulness toward God would lead me toward wanting peace and redemption for my enemies and not destruction.

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