Violent YHWH: The God Who Fights For–and Against–His People

Pharoah’s army is pursuing the Hebrews. Their intent is clear—to kill and enslave. When the Hebrews see the approaching army, they cry out in terror to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?“ (Ex 14:11). Moses confidently replies: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (14:13-14). “The LORD will fight for you!”—Israel will long remember these words. After the Egyptians are destroyed by the waters of the Red Sea, Miriam sings in triumph:

I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The LORD is a man of war;
the LORD is his name. (Ex 15:1-4)

In the Exodus the LORD reveals himself as “a man of war”—a God who fights for his people, who makes their enemies his enemies, a God willing to employ the violence of historical existence to accomplish his covenantal and redemptive purposes. The LORD leads his people to the promised land and defeats the armies of Canaan, securing a place for them to live and prosper. And so the LORD fulfills the promise he made to Abraham generations earlier: “To your descendants I will give this land” (Gen 12:7). How else could this promise have been achieved but by sword and bloodshed?

But what happens if the inconceivable should happen? What if Israel should herself—through disobedience, injustice, apostasy—become God’s enemy? Surely this would be the end, and so Ezekiel prophesies:

And you, O son of man, thus says the LORD God to the land of Israel: An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, and I will let loose my anger upon you, and will judge you according to your ways; and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity; but I will punish you for your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the LORD. (Ezek 7:1-4)

Behold, the day! Behold, it comes! Your doom has come, injustice has blossomed, pride has budded. Violence has grown up into a rod of wickedness; none of them shall remain, nor their abundance, nor their wealth; neither shall there be preeminence among them. (7:10-11)

Because the land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence, I will bring the worst of the nations to take possession of their houses; I will put an end to their proud might, and their holy places shall be profaned. When anguish comes, they will seek peace, but there shall be none. Disaster comes upon disaster, rumor follows rumor; they seek a vision from the prophet, but the law perishes from the priest, and counsel from the elders. The king mourns, the prince is wrapped in despair, and the hands of the people of the land are palsied by terror. According to their way I will do to them, and according to their own judgments I will judge them; and they shall know that I am the LORD. (7:23-27)

An end, the end. The LORD sends Babylon, “the worst of the nations,” to make war on his own people. The God who fights for Israel may also fight against her.

Hard, disturbing questions are raised by the LORD‘s history with Israel. Is God a God of violence? Does he willingly inflict suffering and death? Modern Christians quickly say no, invoking the teaching and example of Jesus. Many argue that a strict pacifism is required of all disciples of Christ. “I am a Christian pacifist,” writes Stanley Hauerwas. “Being Christian and being a pacifist are not two things for me. I would not be a pacifist if I were not a Christian, and I find it hard to understand how one can be a Christian without being a pacifist.” And yet … if God had not providentially wielded the sword throughout the history of Israel, would there have been an Israel, and if no Israel, would there have been a Messiah?

Robert W. Jenson refuses to blink. Both Judaism and Christianity proclaim that God authors history, therefore entailing that it must be understood, not as a series of meaningless events, but as a coherent narrative and drama. Life cannot be, as Macbeth would have had us believe, “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” But if this so, then God must enter the fray and take up arms against his enemies:

Since Judaism and Christianity do not in either Greek or Indian fashion deny the drama of time, they must then face a hard fact: in what we know as time, there is no drama without violence. There is no plotted sequence of events that arrives at its end without conflict on the way. Nor can there be any penultimate sorting out of history that does not find some guilty of capital evil. If, therefore, God is to be active in the history of this age, he too must be “a man of war” (Exod. 15:3 KJV). Had the Lord not fought for—and against—his people of Israel, he could have had no people within actual history, and so no Christ of that people and so no church of that Christ. (Ezekiel, p. 76; emphasis mine)

We may not, argues Jenson, wash God’s hands of his involvement in violence and death. How can we do so and not subvert the story of humanity’s salvation in Jesus Christ? There would have been no Israel if the LORD had sat on the sidelines and allowed the Egyptians, Philistines, or Moabites to overwhelm and destroy his people. There would have been no Israel if the LORD had not chastised his people and taught them (oh what a harsh and terrible tutoring!) to obey his commandments and trust his promises. There would have been no Israel—no Israel to birth the Savior and thus no Savior to die by violence—if the LORD had not fought both for and against his people. Those are the facts on the ground. We cannot ignore them in the name of an idealistic pacifism.

Here is offense. For anyone to claim that God is on one side of a conflict appears to late modernity as a despicable error; God, supposing he exists at all, must stand above the fray. But we must hope that this is not so. For the fray is not going to stop short of an end of what we now know as history, and if God does not fight the forces of evil, they must triumph incrementally.

Surely, after the twentieth century’s oceans of shed blood and the beginning of the twenty-first century’s even more threatening prospects, we can no longer entertain modernity’s great illusion, that our creaturely good intentions are a match for sin’s energy and cunning. Moreover, in the conflicts of actual history, there is never a moral equivalency, however flawed and infected both sides may be; and we must pray that God fights for the better side. For if at this time of writing he does not, then the most hopeful scenario for “what must happen after this” is a long dark age. As to which side of a particular conflict God is in fact on, we must not presume to know that, since we will inevitably think he is on our side—the very error that according to our passage led to the destruction of Judah. (pp. 76-77; emphasis mine)

The last sentence is crucial. In any given historical moment, we may not presume that God is on our side. We must not suppose that God will protect us, either individually or corporately, from the consequences of our sins or ensure our victory against our enemies. Israel’s history clearly teaches he may not. The false prophets assured king and subjects that the LORD would never allow Nebuchadnezzar to conquer Jerusalem, yet he did and he did. In the words of the prophet Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

What of the Church today? Here too Jenson is realistic:

Entire renunciation of violence is the calling of the church herself and doubtless also of certain individual believers. But it can never be the calling of all historical agents, nor can God’s actual creation occur without those “who bear the sword.” (p. 76, n. 6)

Our God is a living God, not a philosophical abstraction. YHWH is his name.

(Go to “Abominations”)

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33 Responses to Violent YHWH: The God Who Fights For–and Against–His People

  1. Thomas says:

    > As to which side of a particular conflict God is in fact on, we must not presume to know that, since we will inevitably think he is on our side—the very error that according to our passage led to the destruction of Judah.

    Does this mean that, for instance, for Jenson we shouldn’t presume God is not on ISIS’s side? Their methods, after all, are probably the closest modern analogue to how the OT conflicts were carried out (many of which do not appear to have actually happened). Not having read Jenson’s commentary, perhaps he is adopting a pre-NT point of view? After all, the enemy God turns out to be fighting is not the Egyptians, Caananites, or Babylonians, but the entire cosmic disorder driven by sin and death (a disorder most apparent in ethnic wars).

    Given that both history and the Scriptures are pedagogical, it should be expected that earlier points of view (e.g., that God is one of a number of other Gods, that he is material in some way, that he requires sacrifices, that he is geographically restricted in some way, that he participates in genocides) are revised as we reach a higher, more adequate viewpoint. If the earlier limited viewpoints are not revised by later view points, there is no sense in speaking of the divine pedagogy.

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  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    Does God fight? I am not so sure. But I am sure that we do.

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  3. Tom says:

    Jenson: As to which side of a particular conflict God is in fact on, we must not presume to know that, since we will inevitably think he is on our side—the very error that according to our passage led to the destruction of Judah.

    Fr Aidan: The last sentence [of Jenson’s] is crucial. In any given historical moment, we may not presume that God is on our side.

    ——————-

    Tom: This sounds like a very good argument for pacifism. If no one can presume God to be on his side, on what basis can one justify doing violence to another? Whatever basis for doubting God to be on your side would be, logically speaking, a basis for refraining from enforcing your view violently. So once you admit we can never locate God’s point of view infallibly within the scope of our own human perspectives, how can enforcing one point of view violently ever be justifiable?

    Generally, I don’t know how Hauerwas defines that ‘violence’ which he believes pacifism right to refuse all engagement in, but by ‘violence’ I don’t mean wrestling an offender to the ground and other non-lethal means of restraining people.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      We do not need infallibility or for moral action, Tom, and indeed do not have it. If someone attacks your wife or children, will you hesitate to defend them because you do not know if God is on your side or not? Of course not (unless you’re a hard pacifist). We do the best we can, given the knowledge we do have.

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  4. Ed says:

    There is a wonderful passage of St. Gregory of Nyssa from, I believe, the Life of Moses which deals with the question of the killing of the firstborn of Egypt. It runs as follows:

    It does not seem good to me to pass this interpretation by without further contemplation. How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel who cries: “The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father?” How can the history so contradict reason? Therefore, as we look for the true spiritual meaning, seeking to determine whether the events took place typologically, we should be prepared to believe that the lawgiver has taught through the things said. The teaching is this: When through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil. For when he slays the beginning, he destroys at the same time what follows after it. The Lord teaches the same thing in the Gospel, all but explicitly calling on us to kill the firstborn of the Egyptian evils when he commands us to abolish lust and anger and to have no more fear of the stain of adultery or the guilt of murder. Neither of these things would develop of itself, but anger produces murder and lust produces adultery.

    Note that St. Gregory does not deny the historicity of the events of the Exodus. What I take him to be saying is that, while the events really took place in history, this is of little importance for the Christian. Moreover, it is the actual meaning intended by God which is important, not the events themselves nor even the literal meaning that the author of the text gives them. So, while the author attributes the killing of the first born to God, St. Gregory argues that the actual meaning of this is not that God literally destroyed the first born, but rather that sin in us is to be destroyed at its very beginnings. Moreover, St. Gregory seems to be of the opinion that, even within the OT, there is a later correction of earlier beliefs. He cites Ezekiel saying, “The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of the father.” This statement is a clear correction of any literal interpretation of the Exodus narrative. So, I agree with Thomas when he says that Scripture is pedagogical and that earlier points of view are corrected by later ones. So, even what follows a “thus says the Lord,” must be understood in terms of later corrections and in the light of Christ.

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    • Tom says:

      “…it is the actual meaning intended by God which is important, not the events themselves nor even the literal meaning that the author of the text gives them. So, while the author attributes the killing of the first born to God, St. Gregory argues that the actual meaning of this is not that God literally destroyed the first born…”

      I don’t know how to differentiate this from just ‘disagreeing with the text’, which is what I do in this case. The author(s) of a text say God did such-and-such, and we say (a) this meaning cannot be true (in light of Christ, what else?), and then we (b) construe the text differently, in some positive manner.

      I’m OK with (a); I have no idea how to ‘do’ (b). I don’t construe such texts toward an allegorized/non-violent application to the believer’s spiritual progress today. I simply leave the OT text false as it stands and refrain from allegorizing it, for I see no hermeneutical guidelines instructing us on how to allegorize such texts.

      If I need help to mortify the flesh or crucify the body of sin, I go to the NT for that (and to OT texts which specifically address that). But I have no idea how to construe the killing of the firstborn of Egypt as positively informing that progress.

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      • johnnsw says:

        I am with Tom on this. Although raised in an evangelical Anglican church with a very high view of the Bible, which view I certainly shared, eventually I found myself gritting my teeth when reading many passages in the OT. However, it took many years of reading the Bible for itself (and not reading any “naughty” books, I might add), before I was ready, somewhat reluctantly, to abandon the “certainties” of my upbringing. I still take the Bible very seriously, I still regard it as “God’s Word”, and I still read it every day. But I cannot deny the different picture of God I see in the words of Jesus to what I see in the words of the OT writers and prophets.

        And, yes, I have abandoned also, the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I have learnt, from the writings of Julian of Norwich, William Law and George Macdonald (are they “naughty” books”?) that God is love in all that He is, and in all that He does. This has taken me many years.

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        • It does take many years to dump the effects of Penal Substitution, especially if you, like I, have been beaten over the head with it for about 50 years. Hard to change the vision of God one has from this constant yammering about how angry He is with the whole world.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Tom, I thought you might find this short article of interest: “The Exodus is not Fiction.”

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    • Interesting interpretation, using an analogy of our own passions, but something is missing. There is something important here regarding the Covenant of God. Remember, the first-born of the family had covenant rights to inherit authority and power in the covenant structure of the family. Therefore, since God struck the first-born (the covenant heir) then there is something more to this, something tied up in the covenant relationship of God to people, and especially to His people.

      Any ideas?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Ed, for bringing St Gregory into the hermeneutical discussion. For those who may have missed it, do take a look at George Repper’s piece “St Gregory of Nyssa and the Allegorical Sense of Scripture.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In reading about the hermeneutics or St Gregory or Origen, I am struck by how differently they read texts than we do. We read them historically. We want to know what the author meant within his culture at that specific moment of time, etc., and we think that once we have done so, we have accomplished our task. Origen, I suspect, would have laughed at us and shaken his head.

      Like Tom, I do not know how to escape from historical consciousness. The best I can do at the moment is to put historical readings of Scripture into confrontation with ecclesial and theological readings. It is the latter which must be normative for the life of the Church, I think–at least much of the time. But I struggle with all of this (which is one reason I’m reading Jenson’s commentary).

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      • Grant says:

        I suspect this is an issue with our modern Western age as a whole, we are very information intensive, and have more that any time previous, but we think in often very flat and linear ways about many things, and often are unable to perceive depth that previous cultural periods (and other cultures still less effected by our ways of thought) had richer and deeper mental and spiritual mediation and engagement with a number of aspects of the world in which the lived, moved and have their being.

        One thing this comes out in is in their reading and dealing with various texts, stories, histories, myths, discourses and so on. In a culture that was oral, and in which such things were perhaps more living and dynamic then they are for us, for them seeing other and deeper depths, and the kind of engagement we see say in Origen, of expecting their to be spiritual and living depths to be meet in the text that would not be confined to the area, period, time and author in which it was developed were more the norm. Embedded living discourse, embedded in a dynamic and living reality and living humans and spiritually dynamic cosmos would have continually much to say, and depths and a truth beyond and truer than it’s face meaning.

        And of course this would be all the more true in relation to the Scriptures themselves, which are Scriptures only being heard, encountered and embedded in the Tradition that is the Church, which is the living dynamic of life in the Spirit in Christ Himself.

        I wonder if this is also related to the difficulty people seem to have sometimes in getting an understanding of God in the classical sense, as not some other being among beings, or not thinking univocally or ontologically, which I have sometimes found repeatedly even when it has been clearly articulated still seems difficult for a number of people to grasp, even when said people are seemingly very intelligent. I think this all is just part of the culture we are a part of, in which are very minds formed in and gave us our understanding, paths of thinking and conceptualization of the world and how we instinctively approach it. It is one tone deaf to the richness of myth and it’s points to reality, and it can be very difficult for us to really break free from completely (since every conversation, book, programme and even basic terms of conversation and meaning serve to always re-enforce this basic wordview).

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  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    It is to be noted that at the time that the plagues were being inflicted on Egypt, the Egyptians were, so the story goes, killing (and still killing) every single Hebrew male child born. Pacifism by God would sentenced every newborn Hebrew son to death as surely as his action sentenced to death the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.
    This is not a complete answer, but it is, I think, an important point.

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  6. I forget where I read this many years ago, but I remember the author talking about the fact that the devil was trying to wipe out the messianic line which existed in the Hebrew nation. At one time, apparently there was only one male heir left in all of Judah.

    The violence of God in the Old Covenant is precisely because there was a war over the salvation of the human race and the restoration of Creation. Destroy the Jews, you destroy the coming of the Messiah. God could not allow this to happen, nor would He stand by and watch passively as the attacks were being made. I think this also explains the attacks upon the Jews by God when they fell into idolatry. When they were taken captive and suffered, according to the Scriptures, it brought about a change of heart (repentance) and an opportunity for God to restore them.

    Why no violence as such in the New Covenant. Because with the Resurrection, the war is won. It is over. Everything is restored in Christ and what we have been going through for the last 2,000 years is simply a “mopping up” operation (as I heard one preacher state). To kill the Christian now brings him/her to Paradise, to the presence of Christ, to the restored Kingdom. That is all possible because the war is one and the victory is in hand.

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    • Tom says:

      “Why no violence as such in the New Covenant?”

      Well, you have the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 and the blinding of Elymas the Sorcerer in Acts 13. Some can’t contemplate God’s accomplishing these since that would mean God is doing violence. I don’t see it that way, and I’m not sure how to take the passages otherwise. One option on offer is to suppose that demonic forces accomplished the killing and blinding. Another is to suppose Peter and Paul (and other apostles) possessed power sufficient to accomplish such ends which they are free to exercise independently of God, and in this case they actually did do violence to people against God’s will. Peter essentially murdered A&S and Paul himself blinded Elymas. Not a view I can take seriously. I actually am not bothered by God’s taking A&S’s lives or blinding Elymas, but I can’t begin to conceive of his commanding genocide.

      Tom

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      • JGC says:

        I’m with you on this. As wrong as this may sound, I actually am (slightly) less abhorred by the Plagues of Egypt and the killing of the firstborn than by the genocidal herem warfare commands. In the case of the former, I can see the Pentateuchal writer(s), if we take the Torah as a synchronic narrative arc, which I do, attempting a moral account for what happened. Moses’ Pharaoh (Ramesses II or III, most likely) was actively contrasted with the righteous Pharaoh of Joseph’s time and the righteous Philistine Abimelech, who both listened to prophets and prospered. By contrast, Moses and God slowly, through a terrible pedagogy, tried to reach the “hardened” heart of Pharaoh by increasing punishment and demonstration of divine power over the tutelary Egyptian gods. And, what’s interesting, in my opinion, is that a synchronic reading of the Torah invites us to compare Pharaoh’s hardened heart to the stony heart of Deuteronomy and Sodom and Gomorrah (the latter narrative in turn is juxtaposed through certain key words to the “moistening,” of Sarah as a prelude to the birth of Isaac; Sarah is the literary counterpart of the cities and the Garden of Eden – see Andrew Davis, “Eden Revisited,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 78 (2016), and Nachman Levine, “Sarah/Sodom: Birth, Destruction, and Synchronic Transaction,” JSOT 31). By the end of reading the Torah, one has literally seen multiple iterations of the “two ways” so that Israel itself is on a level playing field with Egypt, who has become its object lesson. The Pharaoh is the quintessentially unwise king, whose own people can see his failure. Plus, the Exodus narrative goes out of its way to emphasize the “eye for eye” logic by pointing out the death of the firstborn Hebrews and Israel’s status as God’s persecuted firstborn son. I cannot, of course, for a minute defend this moral logic since, as even the OT recognizes elsewhere, one can only be responsible for, and be punished for, one’s own sins. But, I don’t think the writers are making Egypt out to be marked for destruction (cf. Psalm 68:32-33 and Psalm 47). There is an incipient universalism – reemphasizing the responsibility of God as “judge of all the earth.” Rather, foolish Pharaoh and Egypt play out like a tragedy – which is how the Wisdom of Solomon also interprets the events, except their main object lesson was idolatry, which is only a secondary theme in the Exodus story. What really bothers me is that those same writers, who elsewhere are interested in a sapiential reading of God – that is, in conversation with the ethics reflected in psalms and proverbs, thus giving us wonderful gems to imitate, like Joseph (who, in my opinion, is put forward intentionally as one of the few unambiguous object lessons among the Patriarchs for the reader), have very little interest in exploring the humanity of the Canaanites. Yes, they point to their visceral anxiety about idolatry brought about by intermarriage, played out at the Golden Calf and Baal Peor. But there’s no clear attempt to convert or provide repentance for them, a la Jonah. It is interesting to me that rabbinic Judaism does try to address these problems – so that they cite a story wherein Joshua sends them a letter enjoining them to adhere to the Noahide laws or resettle elsewhere, which most do not. Maimonides tries to say that peace had to be offered them on condition of following the Noahide laws, too. And, honestly, a close reading of Joshua might allow for something like this. Honestly, though, even these allowances today sound too uncomfortably close to our modern Near East. I recall reading somewhere Maimonides may well have been thinking of Islamic jurisprudence when he read Joshua that way. Plus, there’s always the fact that herem warfare, as opposed to the Plagues, allow for human beings to lay claim to divine authority over human lives.

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        • JGC says:

          By the way, I’ve been thinking, due to these posts on Ezekiel, a lot about Vatican II’s “Dei Verbum,” and, when I find the time, I’d like to read a little more research on how we can conceive of Scriptural inspiration and its mechanics in light of historical-criticism, philosophy of history, and modern philosophy of knowledge. I know I have some issues with “Dei Verbum” and how it presents certain things, but does anybody here have some good readings on the topic? Thanks!

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      • Ed says:

        Tom,
        I’d be interested to know how you reconcile the killing of Ananias and Sapphire with the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Does God command us to love our enemies while He is allowed to hate them?

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        • Tom says:

          Hi Ed,

          If the only way to conceive of God’s taking A&S’s lives is to assume he hates them, then I’d join those who suppose God wasn’t involved, for I don’t think God hates. If God did bring about their deaths (which seems to me to be the most likely way to understand the text), it has to be that such an act is consistent with God’s loving them and with their highest good in God. I can imagine that. That is, I can imagine God, knowing what he knows, making that determination. I can’t imagine a human being being in a position to decide such a thing.

          Forgive the plug, but this might help. I’m still thinking on it.

          https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/toward-a-theology-of-violence/

          Tom

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        • Grant says:

          Sorry, I’m slightly butting in here, but this is an interesting bit of the Acts narrative 🙂 . Another thing to consider is the Gospels and Acts are literary works, as indeed were all works of ancient histories and biographies, in which authors both did and were expected to use their literary skill to weave the events gained from witnesses (ideally themselves, but otherwise from witnesses they could gain insights from as those who were participants in the events and situations, and who could give understand to them) into a narrative that would bring the meaning and understand of those events/situations to the surface. This including deploying literary motifs of the time, authorial judgement in crafting the story (the timing of events might be changed up and so on) and sometimes things that might not in our modern understand have happened had you been there, and weaved in to bring out and emphasis the meaning of a certain event.

          A simple non-biblical example night be the night of Julius Ceasar’s assassination in both Plutarch and Suetonius with various omens and dreams of prophetical and supernatural natures happen to both foreshadow and emphasis the events depicted. The same would be true with the Gospels and Acts, which follow the same literary world and had the same understandings, our absolute separation between fiction and non-fiction (in that we would regard someone writing a biography embellishing the events and using literary motifs and so on as engaging in fiction writing) is not how the ancient Greco-Roman and beyond thought or engaged in doing history. For them, understand events was more important then just a flat reporting of what happened, not to say that historians could just make things up (hence the importance of witnesses either being the ones to be biographers or those to whom the biographer/historian interviewed extensively), but through their narrative they would bring correct interpretation and understanding of the events, persons and situations through the literary skill. Within the Gospel according to St Matthew the rising from the tombs of those who had passed could be this (we it is this even if some were raised from their tombs to be seen), as it works principally to emphasis the defeat of death.

          With Ananias and Sapphira we have an number of meanings at play, drawing on various Old Testament pictures, with Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit descending like tongues of fire on the Church it is marking the Church as the new temple, like the pillar of fire or the glory of the Lord in the Torah or again with Soloman’s dedication of the Temple. Then, in this new community, the new Temple in which God’s presence and Spirit dwells in, the narrative reminds us the community is devoted in love to one another, and shares all things in common, repeated in Acts 2 and Acts 4. So in the Acts narrative, what Ananias does is a offense against the new temple, and the devotion of this community, which is the temple. All were selling their things in an act of devotion to serve the poor amongst them, but they break that devotion and love and held something back. This brings in the illusions of Leviticus 10 with Nadab and Abihu, which is the context of instituting the tabernacle and the correct system of worship and sacrifice, so that God’s presence is maintained among His people. When Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, disobey God’s instructions in this, they mess with that which the Old Testament deems the most dangerous thing on earth to interfere with, God’s covenant with His people. They play with fire, and are burnt, an archetypal story of treating the sacred thing, the most sacred thing, as light or even in an offensive, unjust manner. This also links with other Scriptural allusions Acts is making, with the book of Joshua where Achan stole some of the plunder dedicated to the Lord, and just dies when he is found out, to Eli’s sons in 1 Samuel, to Uzzah catching the ark and bring struck down. All these images and allusions are bring brought into play and weaved in here, to audience which would be immersed in these stories.

          So it gives an understanding of the nature of the community the Church is and was just coming from receiving the Holy Spirit as fire, their were the temple, the very tabernacle in which God’s Presence dwelt. And the narrative depicted how to truly interact in the Presence of God, with St Luke revealing that teh Church is the ark of God, which is to be lived in and interacted within through self-less love and devoting to each other in the Lord. Anaias selfishly looking out for his own interests instead of devoting himself to the poor is basically the act of unjust priestly work in the temple, to bring strange fire in God’s Presence, like Nadab, Abihu, Uzzah or Eli’s sons. And perhaps even more deeply, they are this, with a lack of love and sharing to those in the Church in need to be compared with being both an unjust priest, and is indeed messing with the area of God’s connection with humanity, of playing with fire, and therefore damaging themselves, In this we can easily like the Judgement of the Sheep and Goats, and St James epistle warning that the rich’s wealth or refused to give to their poor brethren, their own wealth burned themselves. Not the most comfortable picture for many of us, including myself, and I’m reminded of David Bentley Hart’s recent articles of the subject of Christ’s emphasis on the poor, but there it is,

          It also could quite possibly be intended to interact with the later second Ananias, particularly as it;s Ananias that emphasized with Sapphira being complicit. This then acts as a contrast to the second Ananias which functions symbolically and literately as the opposite. He gets a dream to talk to Saul, who has been murdering all his fellow Christians, and he must to talk to him and help him through his conversion, to act in brave and self-less love. The second Ananias goes to Straight street, which is also important because straight in Acts is also often a metaphor for uprightness or righteousness. He riks his life going to and down Righteous street and risks his life to bring another person into the new fellowship, into God’s Presence. So one Ananias is presented as part of this self-giving community, and giving of himself to help the other, and one who doesen’t. One who acts as a priest in correct worship and practice in the Presence of God and one who does not, and in brings into focus what the community of the Church really is, and what as Christians St Luke is indicating we are to be like. That as we ourselves are the Temple of God, the Ark of God, how we are to live in the Presence of God, what is life-giving and what can become harmful to us (and again we can remember St Paul warning about taking the Eucharist unworthy to our own condemnation and harm).

          Does this mean that I can say if this event both, A happened, and B whether it happened as depicted? I don’t know, but it seems as you say, to contrast with Christ, and with God as revealed in Him, and much of Acts, but given what is clearly at play here, while there may have been an Ananias and Sapphira who did act unworthily and were remembered, and possibly even did die in some manner, this scene is being constructed by St Luke to understand the Church that has been formed, and to link this Ananias with the one to come, to act in contrast to each other, with the Scriptural allusions that would be picked up by his audience. With these levels of the narrative, we see what the Church is, and how Christians are called to be, to live in the Presence of God, and what those Old Testament pictures were truly indicating. This gives a meaning beyond an strange and frightening incident of God striking down just these two for lying and cheating (which never seems to happen again), and is giving an insight into what has just been created and birthed to the world. I personally think God did not actually strike down two people, and don’t think we are invited to read this at that level as such.

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  7. Grant says:

    I’m not sure I agree that it would be desiring to wash our hands for some ideal pacifism (not even sure I know what that is) to question surface readings and depictions of God, and His motives, actions and intentions in to us the Old Testament, particularly where these directly contradict the picture of God given in Christ, and the way and revelation He brings. Moreover things concept brings with it much more disturbing problems with it.

    That is that God is not unchanging and the same, but was actively involved in terrible acts, both to non-Israelite and Israelite alike, supporting (and causing, such as in Exodus) genocides, including the suffering, agony, pain and death of children, He who mourned outside Lazarus tomb inflicted directly that loss and suffering on thousands, parents mourning their children taken in actions directed by, caused by, or ordered by God. He wears the mask of Zeus and brings violence and death, He who would later command us to love our enemies always, just as He does, and give blessing instead of harm, who forgave those hurting Him even as He was crucified, in rage brought suffering, pain and death upon any who opposed His purposes. And this is seen as okay because it was to lead to Christ, and it was just those poor saps who got born at the wrong place and wrong time (and so didn’t like us get the benefit of bring born after the Incarnation and New Covenant) who had to just suck it up and deal being the factory to lead to the Messiah. And of course, they were intended to be born then, intended then to live under such ruthless utilitarian intention, were their main purpose is to fall under this suffering and pain to lead to this eventual salvation. God who could do it another way in this view still chooses this, there is something profoundly disturbing in such a view, and picture of God that is not reconcilable with Christ in my view. It’s basically the view that, well it lead to Christ so that makes it all alright, can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs view, which also justifies terrible acts because their is some good that comes from it. And seems to produce either a Janus two-faced image of God (which was Marcion’s accusation) or something even more alien in that neither that nor Christ may give us any idea of what God might either do, intend, or desire towards us, let alone that we could ever confidently say He is love.

    Thankfully much of the events in the Old Testament didn’t happen, or didn’t happen in anything like the manner the stories we know, there may have been a small group of Semitic people that came from Egypt for example, possibly part of the Hyskos group which had earlier conquered Lower Egypt, but the group would have been smaller and unlikely to have been slaves, particularly not in the manner depicted (especially if from the Hyksos group, they might also have had ties to Akhenaten, considering stylistic similarities to Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten and Psalm 104, but this of writing was widespread in Near Eastern hymnology both during and after this period so not to much should be made of it). While certain names and geographic details likely have embedded memories in them as part of the oral stories of the developing Israelite people, Exodus, Judges, even likely the stories of David, Saul (who might likely if they existed been rival kings, with us getting the Judean legend as it were) and Solomon can no more been taken as a historical narrative that we could still see some genuine narrative of the historical events then say the Iliad could tell us details of the conflicts Mycenaean Greece had with any real ‘Troy’. Despite some details giving glimpses of their heroic age society (which also reflects as much Homer’s age as the Mycenaean age) it gives us not ability to know the details and history of any actual conflict, events or politics, or for that matter to read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s the History of Britain whether on Arthur or earlier events, or other Arthurian legends for actual details of Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

    Much of the narrative in the Old Testament is like this, they are stories of the Jewish people that drew creatively on oral memory (of various peoples who came to form Israel, and then Judah more specifically), traditions, centuries of interactions and revelations, that gave stories to give sense to who they were, supporting a shared worldview and meaning, and through this people, through their formation, ongoing experiences, the emergence of Judah and the Temple worship, exile in Babylon, return, the Maccabean revolt and their kings, came this sense of themselves as a people, with stories, poetry, songs, and prophesy, together with practices (Sabbath, Passover, circumcision, Temple, dietary practices) defining themselves and their worldview, as with all people, However, though God worked through all people, through these stories without effecting their transmission a grouping revelation towards God and from Him is there, and it is the matrix in which the Lord came and provided the ground in which He was heard and understood. But equally He was brought a revolution of perspective to it, as He brought all those stories, traditions and practices to be understood as being about and through Him, through Him the veil was lifted and the true image and picture that was only distorted before could be seen, only through Him what was deeper could be seen and understood.

    Broadly, I’m largely in agreement with Thomas above, and I won’t expand on my views on interpreting the Old Testament (as I have expressed this before, including the last post 🙂 ) but I do think that I would far rather risk an ‘idealized’ pacifism then the disturbing view of God endorsing that God indeed did terrible acts of violence, suffering and death to people in the past, with the suggestion that it’s kind of okay because it all happened in some faraway ‘Old Testament’ to people you often don’t see as real people anymore, and it was somehow okay because it all lead to Christ. I cannot reconcile that to the God revealed in Christ, their are pictures in clear contradiction to me.

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  8. markbasil says:

    Hello;

    “We may not, argues Jenson, wash God’s hands of his involvement in violence and death.”
    I think we whitewash the real problem when, with Jensen, we try to justify OT violence as a general, abstract category. This is a euphemistic avoidance of the gritty breadth of the problem.
    Not just “violence and death” but specifically scorched earth, genocide, and the rape of virgins as spoil are all condoned and commanded by God. I hope we do not “refuse to blink” as we try see all of this as “necessary.” Jensen’s argument fails to grasp the radical freedom of God, introducing yet another philosophical “Necessity” that God is “constrained by” if he wants to create us.

    I think I can offer some readings that provide helpful alternatives to Jensen’s conclusions.

    First, Understanding biblical violence, an oikonomic approach:
    https://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2014/06/understanding-biblical-violence-an-oikonomic-approach-by-andrew-klager.html

    Second, Violence as anti-sacrament:
    https://www.irpj.org/single-post/2017/06/21/Violence-as-Anti-Sacrament

    Third, Nonviolence as becoming ourselves:
    https://www.irpj.org/single-post/2017/07/05/Nonviolence-as-Becoming-Ourselves

    Fourth, an Orthodox perspective on union and knowing:
    https://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2014/02/beyond-arguing-about-divine-inconsistency-in-the-old-and-new-testaments-an-orthodox-perspective-on-u.html#more

    I hope this is helpful.
    (I tried posting this yesterday and it didn’t show up; if this is a re-post, please delete).
    -Mark Basil

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I remember speaking at length many years ago with Orthodox rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on the difficult and troubling matter of the herem. Unfortunately, I have fogotten most of that conversation, but I do remember that the rabbis too have struggled it. I remember that he said that some rabbis sought to mitigate the command by positing when Joshua beseiged a city, he always left a way for the inhabitants to escape. All rabbis, he said, understood that the ancient commands were restricted to the conquest of Canaan and could not be invoked today to justify genocide. Anyway, I went online to see if I could find any further Jewish discussion. Here’s two pieces I found:

    Obliterating Cherem

    Judaism and the Ethics of War

    The Ethics of Jewish War

    The Wikipedia article on herem provides a lot of sources to check out.

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    • markbasil says:

      Thanks Father.
      I really enjoy reading Jewish voices on OT scripture. I find them so refreshing in contrast to some of the modes (modern Christian) I had learned earlier in my life.

      What do you think of the articles I posted? Both the philosophical and theological arguments for nonviolence (vis. theosis and sacramentality of the world), and the problem of Jensen claiming some “Necessity” that logically constrains God to do violence (which he otherwise wouldn’t want to do) in order to preserve the Messianic line. And the helpful exegetical tools for interpreting violence in the OT, offered by Dr. Andrew Klager in the Clarion posts?
      -M

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