The Atonement

How to Make Sense of Old Testament Violence?

In two prior blog posts I’ve critiqued Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence. In this final post, I want to summarize my assessment and give reasons why I think Boyd’s proposal fails to deliver, indeed, in some cases it does the opposite. Boyd’s purpose is to explain how to make sense of the violence we find in the Old Testament in such a way that it is coherent with the love of God expressed in Christ, and expressed most clearly in Jesus’ life-giving sacrifice at Calvary. These are not new questions, and in many ways Boyd’s approach is not new.

The early heretic Marcion proposed ideas similar to what Boyd promotes. Boyd does not dismiss the Hebrew Bible, as Marcion did, but the dichotomy between the bellicose portrayals of Yahweh and the message of Jesus is, in a sense, Marcionite. Boyd achieves a subtler dismissal of the Old Testament through an allegorizing hermeneutic by which he radically reinterprets the words of the Old Testament. He attributes the warlike parts to the author’s fallen and culturally-conditioned Ancient Near East mindset, and repeatedly affirms that something else is going on.

Did God bring a flood upon the earth to judge its wickedness and rebellion? Not really. “We should interpret the Flood narrative not as a judgment that God violently imposed on the earth, but as an extreme example of what collective human sin looks like when God withdraws his merciful restraints to allow it to run its self-destructive course.”[1] How the flood is the natural consequence of sin is unclear.

Did God bring plagues upon the Egyptians as a judgment for not letting Israel go? Not really. Cosmic beasts, agents of destruction, did it. “It seems that prior to God allowing one cosmic serpent (the Red Sea) to swallow another (Egypt, Pharaoh), God had already allowed one band of destroying agents (the agents behind the ten plagues) to swallow up another band of evil agents (the ten chief gods of Egypt) and to begin to undo creation in the land of Egypt. And this is why God’s battle against Egypt and the Pharaoh, understood as yet another cosmic beast, is launched and is culminated with dragon-swallowing-dragon events…while the author of this narrative credits Yahweh with violence, the truth is that God was directly involved in none of it.”[2]

Every other instance where the Old Testament presents something distasteful is reinterpreted in such a way that God is not really involved, or at a minimum he allows himself to be portrayed inaccurately, because of the ANE people’s moral blindness. Boyd presents a kind of soft Marcionism, and one that leaves a person ultimately unequipped to be an intelligent reader of Scripture.

Ironically, Boyd claims to be conservative in his approach to Scripture.

“I am thus dedicated to what I call the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle, which stipulates that I must stick as close as possible to the original meaning of passages. My commitment to this principle has significant implications for my cross-centered interpretation of the OT’s violent portraits of God. Among other things, while I believe the cross requires me to reject the violence that OT authors ascribed to God when he brought judgments on people, this principle nevertheless compels me to affirm every other aspect of the narratives containing these judgments.”[3]

I don’t know what characterizes this as conservative when he freely ascribes the words of scripture to fallen, culturally-conditioned (and horribly wrong) understandings of the events the authors describe. Boyd positions himself somewhat like the one who sees the 3 blind men describing an elephant, but of course they get it wrong. None of them can see the whole thing. But he can. He is able to discern when the OT authors are speaking truth, and when they are mired in their culture. What allows him to do so? The interpretive lens of the cross. But, as I’ve previously noted, since he gets the cross wrong, everything else tends to be wrong as well.

Boyd puts much stock in distinguishing between God doing something, and God allowing something to happen. “It’s not that God made these nations want to attack Israel. They were ‘sent’ only in the sense that their attack reflected God’s judgment, for it was God who withdrew his restraining hand and thereby allowed these judgments to happen.”[4] But this seems to be a distinction without a difference. Is there really anything fundamentally different in God, who is all-powerful, doing something, and God allowing something to happen. He could prevent it but he doesn’t. What’s the difference?

The impression one gets from reading Boyd is that God is decidedly less than sovereign. Far from being in control, he is a victim of circumstances. “Whether they are crediting or blaming God, however, God is made to look guilty for having done what he in fact merely allowed, because he had no better option.”[5] God, it seems, is out of options.  He’s in a cosmic battle with the tribal deities of Canaan. He wins some, he loses some. But his battle is as much with his spokesmen, who continue to misrepresent him, as much as it is with the reality of evil.

How any of this provides practical help in reading Scripture is quite unclear. The Old Testament scenes of violence are “literary crucifixes”—signposts to Calvary. They represent sinful man doing the unspeakable, just as sinful man did the unspeakable to Jesus on the cross. That any of this is at all clear from the text of Scripture is decidedly doubtful.

Two final thoughts about what Boyd has overlooked. He is committed to non-violence. So am I. Yet, that commitment for him comes with the idea that whatever God forbids his followers from doing in this age must mean that He Himself can never do. This is not sustainable from either Testament. Paul was committed to non-violence. He suffered much at the hands of opposers, yet counseled Timothy “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” 2 Tim 2:24-25. Does this commitment mean that God cannot judge? On the contrary. “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” Rom 3:5-6. And also, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rom 12:19. God has reserved vengeance and wrath as his prerogatives—but they remain his to exercise.

Finally, Scripture presents our knowledge of God as limited and finite. We do not, nor cannot, know everything. I am aware that some view such an explanation as a cop-out, a capitulation. But it has scriptural warrant. When Abraham asked, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” the answer implied is a resounding yes, but it did not necessarily come with the assurance “and you will understand all of it here and now.” Paul’s doxology at the end of Romans 11 affirms

“How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,

or who has been his counselor?”

I don’t fault Boyd for trying to discern the inscrutable, but I cannot see how his approach has brought clarity to the question. Could it be that, as he has repeatedly noted “something else is going on,” that there is something else going on that he himself cannot see?

I trust the judge of all the earth to do right, and that even if I cannot make sense of all the events now, I know the justice and love of the one true God.

[1] Gregory A. Boyd, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2017), 196.

[2] Boyd, 215.

[3] Boyd, 67.

[4] Boyd, 189.

[5] Boyd, 163.

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