Creation Theology Approach to Violence

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
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Theologically, the Old Testament asserts that human persons should develop effective alternatives to society’s patterns of violence.  Demilitarization and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, without being naïve about the intent of other governments, are crucial.  The Old Testament moves in the direction of promoting non-violent methods to oppose practices and policies out of line with Torah, guiding toward lasting personal, community and global peace.

Creation and Shalom

Stigmas of violence plague the Old Testament.  This has, in fact, been a subject of great strife in explaining.  Conclusions about Yahweh’s character, as well as, proper positions toward violence have abounded.  To best understand God’s character and the purpose of the faith community, we must have a firm grasp on Creation Theology and Shalom.

Shalom is usually translated to mean “peace,”  “Peace,” however, has modern connotations that do not fully capture the entire essence of shalom as seen in the Old Testament.  Shalom means right relationship with God, with other people, and with created order (Unger 840-41).  Discerning what shalom should look like will guide us in how we interact with our world and God.  Shalom is part of Yahweh’s creational and/or re-creational activity in the world.  Our actions affect our relationship with God and the entire created order.  Sin is not simply a personal issue but a communal problem.  Understanding creation theology’s role in shaping the Old Testament will help us to better comprehend war and violence in the Old Testament and how we are to respond as agents of God’s creative purposes.

Creation Theology

In connection with shalom, Creation Theology pervades the entirety of the Old Testament.  Creation Theology plays a substantial role in Genesis and Exodus, which likewise shapes the whole of the Old Testament.  Creation Theology, according to renowned Old Testament theologian, Terrence Fretheim, is God’s redemptive action in the world through re-creation.  This purpose, according to Fretheim, is: “life-giving, life-preserving, and life-blessing” (13).  In addition, Fretheim asserts that re-creation is a means of “…returning creation to a point where God’s mission can once again be taken up” (13).  Anything opposing those purposes will be judged and brought under God’s sovereignty over creation (i.e. Pharaoh).

The Old Testament, however, provides anything but a peaceful view of God’s movement among the nations.  Often times, God’s movement on behalf of the Israelites is fraught with violence and death!  How can this be seen as being harmonious with shalom?  Creation theology shapes our view of God’s sometimes violent interaction with the nations as something more than whimsical favoritism forIsrael.  God desires to re-create a space (i.e. Promised Land, Tabernacle) in which to relate and dwell among His creation.  God’s purposes forIsrael, stated in Exodus 19:5-6 and Genesis 12:2-3, show God concerned for all creation, not justIsrael.  Israel’s seemingly constant redemption from exile is viewed to be re-creational processes that allow God to bless the world by His presence, thus glorifying His Name (Fretheim 12-14; Birch 154-64; 189-205).  Erwin McManus, lead pastor of Mosaic inLos Angeles and founder of Awaken, concludes that God’s purpose for us is “not simply to do good, but to generate good” (126).  We are an integral part of God’s redemptive plan.

Genesis: Creation/ Re-Creation

Genesis gives us a vivid account of violence.  After banishment fromEden, Eve gives birth to two boys, Cain and Abel (v. 1).  Chapter 4 skips the boys’ childhood, recording their interaction as adults (v. 2).  Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to God.  God favors Abel’s offering which angers Cain (vv. 3-4).  God warns Cain of sin’s desire to overcome him.  Sin can be fought and must be mastered (v 7).  However, Cain does not heed God’s warning.  Cain leads Abel into a field and murders him.  God confronts Cain, saying that Abel’s blood cries from the ground (v. 10)!  Even the ground is cursed due to this violence between brothers (v. 11).

This is a far cry from the creational purposes God had set forth in the Garden (Genesis 1-2).  This is deviation from God’s “life-giving, life-preserving, and life-blessing” (Fretheim 13).  God banishes Cain but marks him so that nobody will take revenge upon Cain.  Despite this horrendous act, God extends mercy and grace to this man of violence!  This is counter-intuitive to our own sense of justice.  However, God does not always repay violence with violence.  God extends mercy to those who seek mercy.

Genesis 4:19-24 records Cain’s descendents.  Lamech kills a young man for “injuring” him (v. 23b).  Lamech then reflects on God’s judgment of Cain by stating, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (v. 24).  We get this sense that from the time of Cain until Lamech, sin and violence have increased exponentially.  Genesis 6:5-7, records God’s repentance for making man, due to humanity’s unyielding wickedness that pervades every facet of life.  God determines to destroy the earth with an epic flood (v. 7).  Yet, even in the midst of this seemingly violent reaction by God, God extends mercy to Noah and his family due to Noah’s righteousness (vv. 8-9).  After the flood, God limits His power through a covenant promise with Noah.  God will never destroy the earth by flooding it again.  This promise is made even with the understanding that little has changed between the pre-flood and post-flood world in regard to humanity’s inclination toward evil (Gen. 8:21-9:17).

In Genesis 9:5-7, we see God’s emphasis on life.  Bloodshed will require a reckoning and account from the perpetrators of violence.  This is because man is made in God’s image and violence violates God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (vv. 6-7).  Verse 6 also speaks about the tendency for violence to birth violence.  The culprits of bloodshed will also be visited by violence from others.  Walter Brueggemann, noted author and Old Testament theologian, states, “Creation is not unified as willed by God.  It is increasingly scattered, alienated, and hostile” (66).  God is seeking to shift humanity’s viewpoint of violence.  It is far from acceptable; it is antithetical to God’s purposes for this world.

Exodus: Drawn Out

Within the first few chapters of the Exodus account, mid-wives (possibly Egyptian women) thwart the plans of Pharaoh’s decree for the mass slaughter of Hebrew males.  These women act in non-violent fashion in opposition to Pharaoh’s anti-creational intentions (Genesis 1:28; 9:7).  These women are named; Pharaoh remains anonymous (Fretheim 31-36).  These women’s actions of cunning and non-violent opposition are exonerated in the text.  This suggests that violence is unnecessary in opposing powers of oppression.  This being the case, non-violence, compared to Pharaoh’s violence, is applauded!

Of course, we would be remiss to state that all of Exodus is a non-violent protest againstEgypt’s oppression.  For one, Moses kills an Egyptian beating an Israelite (Exodus 2:11-15).  We also have the death of the firstborn ofEgyptduring the Passover (Exodus 11-12).  The signs and wonders performed before Pharaoh are filled with violent repercussions on both the people and the land.  Such violence, again, is to be viewed through a creation lens.  Pharaoh is the anti-thesis of God and His creative purposes.  Through the ten signs and wonders, God proves to be sovereign over creation.  In some very real sense, the “plagues” are the result of Pharaoh’s hardened heart.  God gives Pharaoh numerous opportunities to change his mind.  However, Pharaoh has locked himself into a cosmic battle with God due to his stubborn attitude.  The consequence is God’s action against Pharaoh andEgypt(Exodus 7-12).  God’s Name is thus made known among the nations (Exodus 15:14-16).

God’s destruction of Pharaoh and his army at theSeaofReadsis important theologically.  There are several creation parallels to be seen. Israelcrosses on dry land, signifying re-creation from the chaos of the waters.  The waters crash down upon Pharaoh, the perpetrator of chaos, violence, and oppression.  Violence and the violent end in a natural conclusion: destruction (Fretheim 96-103).

Israelis then led toMount Sinai.  There they receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).  This code of conduct functions to promote life within the community.  Prohibition of violence is one such law included in this framework (v. 13; Deut. 5:17).  In order to inherit and inhabit the Canaan,Israelmust obey the Torah. Israelis called to be a holy community set apart for God’s purposes, which will bless all nations (Exodus 19:5-6).  God molds his people to be a community of peace, as opposed to the Egyptian’s model of tyranny and violence.

Joshua: Promise Land Conquest

During the re-creation process found in the book of Joshua, God violently opposes nations removing them from the land. Israelmay thus indwell the land.  Chaos will not prevail against God.  This is evidenced byIsraelcrossing theJordan Riveron dry land, a parallel to the creation scene of Genesis 1.  Despite the evident violence in the book of Joshua, there is also an extension of grace to outsiders and judgment on unfaithful Israelites.  God will be sovereign and oppose those who oppose Him.

Joshua 2 details the story of Rahab and her interaction with the Israelite spies.  Rahab hides the spies and reports on the fear of the city to the spies.  As a result, Rahab and her family are not only spared but are brought into the community as members.  Likewise, in Joshua 9,Israelmakes a pact of peace with the Gibeonites.  Despite the Gibeonites’ deception, they are also brought in as members of the community, albeit as “woodcutters and water carriers.”  Even in the midst of the seeming violent conquest, God andIsraelextend the hand of reconciliation and inclusion (Birch 189-205).

Joshua 7-8 details the story of Achan and the battle at Ai.  Before the battle ofJericho, the Israelites are warned not to take any bounty for themselves.  However, a man named Achan takes some of the loot and hides it in his tent.  The result at the next battle is a severe, lop-sided loss for the Israelites.  Casting lots, they determine that Achan had disobeyed God’s command.  The result is the death of Achan and his family.  To modern readers this may seem overly harsh.  However,Israeland God viewed this action as a cancer that had to be removed from the community lest it spread and destroy the whole.  The violent conquest in the narrative of Joshua is designed to preserve the life of a community.  It is also God’s judgment upon the inhabitants and gods ofCanaan.  However, God is not so set on judgment thatIsraelcannot adopt outsiders into this covenant community.

It can be said that God is ready to extend mercy to those who seek it.  As members of this community of faith, we are called to be like-minded.  C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, aptly stated, “There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal” (15).  Simply put, each person is of infinite and eternal value to God.  As such, we must see the value in the life of each person.  Visiting violence upon a person is a violation of relationship.  It is vital that we seek to extend mercy to the “outsiders.”

Judges: Unpleasant Peasants

            The book of Judges records the vicious cycles of disobedience to Torah, defeat by enemies, oppression from enemies, communal cry to God for salvation, and God redeeming His people.  Inhabiting theLand ofPromise is contingent uponIsrael’s obedience to the Torah.  WhenIsrael fails in faithfulness, inevitably, God removes His hand of protection and allows for enemy invasion. Israel loses the gift of the land and is cast into oppression and enslavement.  In this book, war and violence are seen as judgment upon those disobedient to the Torah.

The story of Gideon, found in Judges 6, details the toll of warfare upon the people and the land. Israelis starving and reduced to hiding.  The land is “ravaged” leaving nothing to sustainIsrael.  The animals are also stolen or destroyed along with the crops.  War and violence affect creation as well.  Shalom is disrupted on all levels due to violence and warfare.

The book of Judges can also be seen as a narrative detailing various episodes of “peasant revolt.”  In this scenario, Israelis under the oppressive thumb of their overlords.  Unable to bear the grief any longer, they cry out to God for deliverance.  God then sends a “Judge” to deliver Israelfrom their oppressors.  This deliverance often has violent methods of extraction.  This violence can be seen as a desperate measure for desperate people.  To them, violence was a last hope of escaping this hardship.  In A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, we read, “What may seem… as… unacceptable violence may not seem so objectionable to the oppressed, marginated, and economically abused who know… that such oppression cannot be ‘right,’ and cannot be willed by the Creator of heaven and earth” (194).  Dean and Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, Bruce C. Birch, concludes that violence may not be as “objectionable” to the oppressed, as opposed to the privileged, to employ such means to overthrow their masters.

Ezekiel: New Life in Dead Bones

A vivid picture painting God’s desire to give, sustain, and bless life is found in Ezekiel 37.  In this story, God gives Ezekiel a vision, whereby he is transported to a valley filled with rotting bones.  It is, as Psalm 23 would say, the “valley of the shadow of death.”  The carrion have long picked over the scattered bones.  God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live again.  Our own sense tells us it is impossible.  Ezekiel has no clue.  God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones.  Ezekiel obliges God’s request.  At that moment, the bones begin connect, sinew and muscle form, and flesh covers these bodies.  Yet, the bodies remain breathless.  God then commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath.  Again, Ezekiel obeys.  God then breathes life into these once dead bodies.

God informs Ezekiel that Israelis just like these bodies.  They are hopelessly and helplessly unable to give themselves life.  God will bring them back to life.  This passage definitely has spiritual connotations of “life.”  However, we cannot separate the physical from the spiritual.  God created us as composite creatures.  We are flesh and spirit (Genesis 2).  God not only gives spiritual life but bestows physical life as well.  There is great concern for life on God’s part.  God wants to give life to those who have been stripped of life due to the wear, tear, and violence of society.  Throughout its contents, Ezekiel portrays God in opposition to those shedding blood.  Again, God desires to bring life to His creation. 

Jonah: Whale of a Tale

            Many of us are familiar with the story of Jonah.  God calls Jonah, a prophet, to go to the city ofNineveh.  While atNineveh, Jonah is to proclaim God’s message of judgment to the inhabitants (1:1-2).  Jonah, however, decides not to go toNineveh to declare God’s message.  He instead books a one way ticket in the opposite direction upon a boat (1:3).  God then causes a great storm to come upon the sea so that the ship was in dire straights.  The men cast lots to discover with whom the gods were upset.  The lot fell to Jonah, who was sleeping (1:4-7).  Jonah tells the sailors that he has disobeyed God, which explains the storm.  Jonah tells them to cast him overboard to calm the storm.  They finally listen to Jonah’s instructions, tossing him into the sea (1:8-15).  A giant fish then swallowed Jonah, where he stayed for three days and nights until being spewed onto dry land (2:1-11).  Jonah then obeys God’s command to preach inNineveh about the coming destruction due to their wickedness.  The inhabitants ofNineveh then repent and turn from their evil ways hoping that the Lord will not destroy them.  God sees their turning from evil and decides not to destroyNineveh (3:1-10).  Jonah is decidedly upset at the turn of events.  In fact, he says that is the very reason he ran from God’s call to preach inNineveh (4:2).  Jonah 4:2 describes God as: “compassionate and gracious… slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.”

God definitely threatened violence upon this group of people.  This violence was to come upon them due to their abundant wickedness.  They were a people of injustice, by their own admittance.  Apparently, Jonah feels that Ninevehis so horrible that they deserve destruction.  Thus, wishing for their upheaval, Jonah takes off so that he cannot preach in Nineveh.  God, however, seems to have a different agenda besides demolition and death.  God sends Jonah so that the people might have a chance to repent and turn form their actions.  It is a hopeful reaching out.  Ninevehresponds to God’s love, which saves them from obliteration.  God is not merely concerned with His “chosen” people of Israel.  God has a concern for all creation (4:11).  Violence is not God’s ultimate desire for His creation.  Rather, God wants a restoration of shalom within creation.  He gives us a choice to accept or reject God’s invitation for relationship.  Acceptance brings life.  Rejection breeds violence, and ultimately death, as a consequence.

Proverbs: The Way of Wisdom

            The book of Proverbs is concerned about a life of wisdom that leads to shalom, right-relatedness to God, humanity, and created order.  Wisdom is “life-giving, life-preserving, and life-blessing” (Fretheim 13).  Proverbs 24:1-2, for example, speaks of evil men‘s hearts being “violent.”  In verse 15, the wicked man is warned to “do no violence” to the house of a righteous man.  Furthermore, the downfall of your enemies is not to be desired (vv. 17-18).  And, we are cautioned not to let the evildoers incite us to do evil in return (vv. 19-20).  Revenge is better left to God.

The “fear of the Lord” is a common theme throughout the book of Proverbs.  The righteous live in this fear.  Those who live in fear of God, walk in His ways, trusting His leading.  Wisdom literature is a philosophy of life that leads to this shalom.  The Wisdom literature encourages us to live in obedience to Torah, which is harmonious with God’s re-creational provisions for humanity.  In doing so, we become agents generating good, re-creating shalom in our world.  Thus, living in wisdom is seen to be a fulfillment of the divine purpose for creation: walking in the “fear of the Lord.”  Thus, we acknowledge God as Sovereign Creator.

The Proverbs shows that the way of folly quite often entails personal and communal destruction of peace.  This disruption is many times evidenced through violence.  In contrast, the wise man is someone that creates peace, even with his enemies.  His words are life.  He becomes a blessing to those around him.  Life is precious to the man of wisdom.  War and violence are seen as evil disruptions to God’s redemptive plan for creation.  Violence tends to multiply, but wisdom diffuses it.  The man of wisdom, through discernment, is seen as a non-violent opponent to such forces of evil.  Wisdom brings life rather than destruction.

Esther: Hangman Coming

The story of Esther is a tale of heroic proportions. Israelhas once again been exiled to a foreign land.  Esther, a Hebrew woman, becomes queen due to her beauty.  Haman, the king’s counselor, seeks a way to exterminate the Jews.  Wielding no weapon except her beauty and intelligence, Esther, with the help of her relative, Mordecai, thwarts Haman’s plans for genocide.  Esther risks her life, for the sake ofIsrael, by approaching the king when not called.  This is risky considering the king had executed his previous wife for such disregard.  However, Esther, through Mordecai’s assistance, devises a plan to reveal Haman’s heinous plot.  Esther wins the favor of the king by providing a private banquet for the king and Haman on several occasions.  The king finally asks what Esther desires of him, up to half of his kingdom.  Esther then pleads for her life to be saved from the seditious plan Haman is about to propose.  The king, enraged, orders Haman hanged on the very gallows Haman had constructed for the mass disposal of the Jews.

Esther is seen in vivid contrast to Haman and the king.  She does not fight fire with fire, violence with violence.  Rather, her non-violent approach disarms a king and his royal vizier.  God, although a seemingly silent actor, provides for the salvation ofIsraelthrough the gentle means of a woman.  God does not use a mighty warrior to sustain life for this community.  Instead, God employs non-violent means to combat violent, oppressive systems.  Violence, however, does befall Haman.  Violence often comes back upon instigators of such wickedness.

Conclusion    

The Old Testament, although filled with war and violence, seeks to provide alternatives to society’s patterns of violence. Israelis to be a life-giving community, an agent in God’s creational purposes.  War is a human institution, not God-ordained.  The Old Testament purposefully moves the community toward eliminating systems of war and weapons of mass destruction without being ignorant of surrounding nations’ intentions.  The Old Testament intentionally moves toward non-violent methods opposing practices and policies that are disobedient to the Torah.  As such, we see God’s movement in creation bent toward lasting personal, community and global peace.

Works Cited

Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, and Terence E. Fretheim. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament.New York: Abingdon P, 2005.

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis.New York:Geneva P, 1986.

Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus.New York:Geneva P, 2003.

Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.New York: HarperSan Francisco, 2001.

McManus, Erwin Raphael. Chasing Daylight: Dare to Live a Life of Adventure.Danbury: Thomas Nelson Incorporated, 2006.

Unger, Merrill F. Unger’s Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed.Chicago,IL: Moody P, 1980.

 

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