How should a Christian respond to the objection that the Bible, like the Koran, is a book of violence and bloodshed? Numerous answers have been offered by well-meaning exegetes, but none of them gets to the heart of the matter: God desires to place a sword in the hands of His children.
There is no escaping the fact that “the God of the Old Testament” commanded bloodshed. Worse, He occasionally also prescribed the slaughter of women and children, and even the livestock.
Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Jahaz. And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors. (Deuteronomy 2:32-34)
Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:21)
Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1 Samuel 15:3)
Any Bible commentator worth his salt will remind us that the destruction of the Canaanites was not an act of “genocide,” since they were nations that were wholly corrupt. Not only were they idolaters, but the false gods they worshiped reveled in the slaughter of their enemies. Having sex with temple prostitutes, both male and female, was regarded as an act of worship. Not only was adultery commonplace, but also incest. Homosexuality, bestiality, and child sacrifice were constrained to some degree by capricious and bizarre restrictions but allowed and even recommended in certain circumstances. Women often participated in dismembering enemies in battle and seduced men from other cities so that their men could kill them (Numbers 25:1; Judges 16:4-5). Men, women, children and beasts all participated in, and were victims of, the systemic lawlessness, the schizoid “ministry” of state-controlled predation and vengeance, the “ordered disorder” that confuses and consumes a culture that has rejected the knowledge of God.
Even well-regarded atheists seem ignorant of the context of these brutal judgments, ignorantly and arrogantly “devil quoting” isolated texts as if that somehow undermines Christianity. Even a cursory reading of the narrative reveals the background of the inheritance of the land of Canaan in the decree of Noah, and the contrast between Abraham’s evangelism in Canaan — even to the point of rescuing the Canaanites from invading kings — and the “all flesh” judgments that came with Israel’s entry into the land. Canaan served as a microcosmic sacrificial substitute for the actual “dry land” of the world to avoid the necessity for another global deluge.((For more discussion, see Cosmic Language, and “Cutting Off Canaan” in Michael Bull, Dark Sayings: Essays for the Eyes of the Heart.))
But that is not enough for Christians who believe that any kind of violence, and any stripe of bloodshed whatsoever, is evil. Clearly, all of that ended in the crucifixion of Christ, the perfect man who commanded His disciples to “turn the other cheek,” the gentle martyr who refused to live by the sword. Based on this truncated understanding of the ministry of Christ, pacifism has a long history in the Church. Preston Sprinkle writes:
While early Christian writers were divided on many issues (e.g. the mode of baptism, the role of women in leadership), when it came to killing, their voices seemed to be unanimous: believers are prohibited from taking human life. Several writers said this explicitly. Origen, for instance, said that Christ “nowhere teaches that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For he did not deem it in keeping with the laws such as His to allow killing of any individual whatever” (Against Celsus 3.7). Tertullian agreed that God prohibits “every sort of man-killing” (Spec. 2). Cyprian argued that persecuted Christians “do not in turn assail their assailants, since it is not lawful for the innocent even to kill the guilty” (Letter 56). Athenagoras went even further by saying that “we cannot endure to see someone be put to death, even justly” (Legatio 35).
Early-church writers, living in various parts of the empire, all agreed: Christians should not kill. These writers didn’t just condemn immoral killing (abortion, murder, etc.), but all types of killing. Most of these same writers didn’t think Christians should serve in the military. But even those who allowed converted soldiers to remain in the service instructed them not to kill. This is because early Christians believed that enemy-love is the hallmark of Christianity. You can mock us. You can torture us. You can even throw us to wild beasts. But we will still love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. And the church increased. Without the sword, the church spread. With no religious freedom, the church grew—like a mustard seed—shouldered by the stiff, persistent enemy-love of martyred saints.((Adapted from Preston Sprinkle, Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence.))
Taking it even further, there are even Christians today who, through agenda-driven sophistry, deny that God ever truly commanded bloodshed. Brian Zahnd writes:
Even a casual reader of the Bible notices that between the alleged divine endorsement of genocide in the conquest of Canaan and Jesus’s call for love of enemies in his Sermon on the Mount, something has clearly changed. What has changed is not God but the degree to which humanity has attained an understanding of the true nature of God. The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God; Jesus is. Jesus is the only perfect theology. Perfect theology is not a system of theology; perfect theology is a person. Perfect theology is not found in abstract thought; perfect theology is found in the Incarnation. Perfect theology is not a book; perfect theology is the life that Jesus lived. What the Bible does infallibly and inerrantly is point us to Jesus, just like John the Baptist did.
The Old Testament tells the story of Israel coming to know the living God, but the story doesn’t stop until we arrive at Jesus! It isn’t Joshua the son of Nun who gives us the full revelation of God but Yeshua of Nazareth. It’s not the warrior-poet David who gives us the full revelation of God but the greater Son of David, Jesus Christ. We understand Joshua and David as men of their time, but we understand Jesus Christ as “the exact imprint of God’s very being.”
Once we realize that Jesus is the perfect icon of the living God, we are forever prohibited from using the Old Testament to justify the use of violence. Using Scripture as a divine license for the implementation of violence is a dangerous practice that must be abandoned by we who walk in the light of Christ. If we hold to the bad habit of citing the Old Testament to sanction our own violence, how do we know that we won’t use those texts to justify a new genocide? This isn’t inflammatory rhetoric but a legitimate question. It’s a legitimate question because the Old Testament has been used by Christians to justify genocidal violence. This was the very justification used by European and American Christians during the American Indian genocide in North America…
If you leave the door open to justify the Canaanite genocide, don’t be surprised if modern crusaders try to push their way through that same door and then cite the Bible in their defense. We need to say something more responsible about the depiction of God-endorsed violence in the Old Testament. We should acknowledge that in the late Bronze Age, Israel made certain assumptions about the nature of God, assumptions that now have to be abandoned in the light of Christ. It is abundantly clear from the Gospels that Jesus has closed the door on genocide, just like he has closed the book on vengeance.((Adapted from Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.))
Zahnd makes a legitimate point about the historical abuse of Scripture to justify genocide as part of God’s crusade against evil, but his godly desire for peace relies upon a similar abuse of the text, just in the opposite direction. For a start, there is an inherent contradiction in his belief that the Bible is imperfect when compared with Jesus as “theology” since all our knowledge of Jesus comes from the Bible. Moreover, Zahnd’s interpretation is hamstrung by a gobsmacking naivety concerning human nature and an ignorance of the manifold nature of God’s work in the world.
Sadly, he is not alone in this “tunnel vision epiphany” of the cross. Most of modern evangelicalism has little idea of the purpose of the Old Testament beyond the occasional prefigurement of Christ or its presumed service as obsolete clay jars for the preservation of arbitrary universal morality tales. Aside from these, much of the text is discarded — even by those who studiously read it — as the chaff on the summer threshing floors.((For more discussion, see “The Text is a Husk” in Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture.))
What is overlooked is the continued desire of God throughout the ages to place a sword in the hand of His children. The “image of God” in Man is triune. It is not only physical (Genesis 1) and social (Genesis 2) but also ethical (Genesis 3). Adam was given great promises by God but his promised inheritance depended upon faithful obedience. Submission to heaven on Day 6 would have led to the beginning of dominion on earth on Day 7. Entering into God’s rest includes enthronement, but in every case in Scripture, the peace of enthronement is subsequent to the use of the sword. That was the case in Israel’s conquest of the land (Joshua 21:43-45) and it was the case in the ascension of the first “king of shalom.” Solomon dealt wisely with those who had betrayed his father, then asked God for wisdom to govern the people God had given him. This was demonstrated in his cunning use of the sword in the case of the dispute between the two prostitutes (1 Kings 2-3).
Solomon, like Joshua, and indeed, like Adam, was promised a lengthy and peaceful dominion if he would walk in God’s ways. Dominion upon earth always depends upon submission to heaven. In covenantal terms, faithfulness in the Covenant Oath is the precondition for positive Covenant Sanctions.
Submission to heaven is Priesthood, and dominion on earth is Kingdom. Priesthood is a willingness to place oneself under the sword of God as a living sacrifice. When one is deemed by God to be a trustworthy legal representative, one is qualified to bear the sword on God’s behalf. We can see this pattern in Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan, from slavery to sabbath. In Egypt, it was an angel who bore the sword against the faithless. In contrast, the just destruction of all flesh in Jericho relied upon the sword in the hands of the men who now represented God. This explains why Israelite males underwent the “second” circumcision before Yahweh commissioned them to “circumcise” the entire city. God’s men only bear the sword because they have voluntarily placed themselves under the sword. True Kingdom always depends upon prior Priesthood. Related to this is the fact that the Israelites were forbidden to plunder Jericho because it was a kind of “firstfruits” of the Land. The city itself was a priestly offering for the sake of the subsequent establishment of a godly kingdom.
This was the crux of the failure of Adam, who seized the power that would have been given to him as a gift if only he had submitted to God. Before God could make Adam a mighty man on the earth, Adam had to be a child before God. That is the nature of godly authority. Likewise, in order for the government to be “upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6), the nation of Israel that had been promised to Abraham was given the Law of Moses. The Bible is a book about swords because it is the story of growth into maturity, from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance to wisdom, from naivety to judicial maturity. The first man who was permitted to execute murderers was the prophet Noah. His submission to heaven with childlike faith gave him unprecedented authority on earth as a priest-king. Later, when it came to judging his own sons, Noah demonstrated divine perception and wisdom in his decrees of blessing and cursing.
So, a priestly man submits to the sword of God that he might rule with justice, mercy, and wisdom. God gives authority to priestly men, even if their submission is imperfect, as the life of Samson demonstrates. This principle is the reason for the dominance of Western culture in history and also the reason for its current decline. Like Israel, if men refuse to be priestly “heads,” God will make them the tail (Deuteronomy 28:44).
However, even the Levite priests bore swords, and that is because God always deals in fractals:
The roles of Priest, King, and Prophet comprise what is known as the “triune office.” This office is three-in-one, yet each of the three offices that comprise it is also threefold as a process of maturity. At the personal level, every office-holder in any human sphere is required to fulfill the three fundamental elements that these roles represent: submission to heavenly authority (Priesthood), action in light of that authority on behalf of others (Kingdom), and testimony as God’s legal representative with the wisdom resulting from this holy obedience (Prophet). At the governmental level, the demarcation between the nature of the service of the three offices relates to the spheres in which they operate. The Priest stands as a servant in the Garden, the King sits enthroned over the Land, and the Prophet walks with God throughout the nations of the World. So, although all three must submit, act, and speak, they do so within three different domains: the Levitical priests bore the sword like kings but only as cherubim within the domain of the Sanctuary. The kings of Israel were to submit to God and pronounce righteous judgments like the stars of heaven but only within their royal courts. The prophets submitted to God and bore the sword where necessary but like the birds of heaven and the beasts of the sea they carried authority over apostate priests and kings.((Michael Bull, Everlasting Arms.))
Although Adam was initially under the sword in the construction of Eve, he failed to bear the sword of Priesthood in the Garden — presumably the sword of the prophetic tongue and then the crushing of the serpent’s head: word then image. In the Land, Cain failed to submit to the ministry of his priestly brother who offered an animal substitute — the firstborn of his flock — in place of Cain himself, Adam’s firstborn. In image, Cain was under the sword, and it seems his initial sin was a rejection of that vulnerability, expressed in his “pushing in” to make a kingly “Land” offering before his brother’s priestly “Garden” offering. When this was rejected, his failure to “rule over sin” led to him being under the threat of the sword of men just as his father had remained under the sword of the cherubim.
Those who refused to repent naturally despised the offering of the sacrifices made on their behalf. The failure in the World began with Lamech, who rejected substitutionary atonement and replaced it with a “ministry” of systemic and entrenched vengeance. The despising of the faithful offering of substitutionary blood in the Garden always results in the unjust shedding of human blood in the Land. Now, through a culture-wide abuse of the sword, the entire World was under the sword.
For Part II, click HERE.
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia, and author, most recently, of “Dark Sayings: Essays for the Eyes of the Heart.”
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