Book Review: The Violence of the Biblical God by L. Daniel Hawk

Whenever I told people I was reading a new book about violence in the Bible, I inevitably got the same response: “There sure is a lot!” Understatement of the century! One barely makes it past the first few chapters of Genesis before the body count begins piling high.

This reality often becomes a stumbling block to Christian faith. How could a God of love also sanction so much violence? How do we make sense of a Bible in which God tells the Israelites to annihilate all the Canaanites in one place, and then Jesus tells us to love all our enemies in another? It’s an extremely challenging topic, and a plethora of potential answers have been put forth — some more helpful than others.

In his new book, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith, Old Testament scholar and Methodist minister L. Daniel Hawk offers a constructive approach that seeks to do justice to the myriad ways in which the Bible depicts divine violence. He takes a careful look at the narrative contours of Scripture to determine where we’ve misread it and how it should shape a Christian discussion of violence.

Speaking of misreading the Bible, I’ve already drawn from Hawk’s book in an earlier post about God’s anger in the Old Testament. I mentioned there that we often read a supposed “angry God” into texts that take pains to explain that God often did not act out of anger at all, but rather out of moral obligation. This was one of many helpful points I found in Hawk’s work.

Also helpful was his concise review of other Christian thinkers’ approaches to the topic, from Marcion and Origen in ancient times down through the Reformers and modern historical critics. He also takes a quick look at some representative contemporary writers like Eric Seibert, Jerome Creach, and most popularly, Greg Boyd.

In response to liberal-critical attempts to dismiss the violent conquest accounts in the Old Testament as merely a human invention meant to serve as Israel’s propaganda, Hawk rightly points out that we lack any hard evidence to confirm such a theory; all we have is the text as it stands, and violence is ubiquitous even past the conquest accounts — even on into the New Testament (15-16). Hawk comes to what I believe is the most sensible conclusion:

“To ground theological conclusions on historical reconstructions or proposals about what ancient people were thinking — and then reject what the Bible plainly says on the basis of those reconstructions — situates theological conclusions on an unstable foundation. …The impulse to unify, allegorize, or reject offensive texts flattens the Bible’s complex and contentious theological witness” (ibid.).

And in contrast to popular contemporary approaches that assume a radically-nonviolent Jesus and pit him against the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament, Hawk wants us to explore the whole biblical story (with all of its nuances, progressions, and tensions) to arrive at a fully-orbed picture of God’s relationship to violence — when and why he uses it or rejects it; how he qualifies it; and how working with human political and value systems sometimes necessitates taking a violent approach.

This exploration of the biblical narrative occupies the main bulk of the book, where Hawk focuses on the biblical concept of God “descending” into our broken world in order to work within it and bring about redemption for his creation.

Summary of the Book’s Argument

Hawk draws our attention to five key passages in the biblical story where God is said to “come down” into the world and willingly become entangled in our violent human systems. This divine accommodation prompts God to use violence when it is the only way to further his ends among sinful people who only acknowledge power.

At the Tower of Babel, God comes down and brings division to thwart human pride when it was at its most blasphemous. At Sodom and Gomorrah, God comes down to meet with Abraham to discuss his plans with him and display God’s justice as part of a covenant partnership. In Egypt, God comes down to rescue Israel from slavery and display his power over against Pharaoh, the personification of human power. And at Sinai, God comes down to Israel and covenants with them as a nation so they can be his vehicle for blessing the world. When Israel immediately breaches the covenant by worshiping a golden calf idol, God again condescends to both forgive and correct them.

With each divine descent, God involves his human partners more and more deeply in his plan to save the world. But by working in tandem with human agents under a covenant partnership, God must sometimes undertake violent action to protect his covenant partners as they operate in a violent world.

Where this helps us understand such extremely violent Old Testament episodes like the Exodus plagues and the conquest of Canaan is that, in an idolatrous world that had forgotten its Creator, God had to vividly display his power and reassert his authority over life and death. Additionally, he had to take violent action to preserve and secure a place for Israel, the nation who was to bring about God’s redemptive purposes — culminating in the coming Messiah. In accommodating himself to a national partner, God also accommodated himself to the intrigues (and inherent violence) of national affairs. By choosing to work through relationships, God committed himself to a dramatic — and often violent — give-and-take with the human world he created.

But when we finally reach the Gospels’ depictions of Jesus — the ultimate divine descent — we then see God operating from “outside the system,” as it were. After Israel’s kings failed to uphold their end of the covenant partnership, God moved away from the power structures of Israel, instead establishing an alternate monarchy through his Son, Jesus. God’s kingdom stands over against all human political systems, upends the violent power structures of the world, and absorbs and overcomes violence on the cross.

One crucial element in all this is Jesus’ teachings on violence, which Hawk examines in Chapter 8. He points out — rightly, I think — that many interpreters have been too hasty in reading Jesus as condemning all forms of violence in any context. There is nuance in Jesus’ ethical teachings that must not be bulldozed over. What’s more, one cannot overlook the fact that even after the cross God continues to take violent action in the book of Acts — striking Ananias and Sapphira dead; using Paul to blind the sorcerer Elymas; and killing Herod Agrippa with a grisly illness for his blasphemy.

For Hawk, all of this means that we must consider that violence may in fact be quite appropriate in some contexts, given certain parameters set by Scripture (and explained in detail in the book’s final chapter). What we need is a deeper, more biblically-informed perspective (or perspectives) on violence that wrestles seriously with the text and rejects a hasty, black-and-white approach.

Wrestling Theologically with the Violence in Scripture

Hawk insists that there are no one-size-fits-all explanations for the violence in the Bible — even within the canon itself. Instead, what we find there is a complex panoramic view of how God sometimes uses and sometimes rejects the use of violence based on the context he was working in and the expectations of the humans he was engaging at the time. This should encourage faithful readers to broaden their approach to violence and engage in constructive dialogue with other believers in their own unique contexts.

One of the reasons such an approach is needed is because narratives — stories — like the biblical histories are not meant to be reduced to mere principles, but rather are meant to confront readers with the complexity of God, the world, and their own experience, and shape their character and values accordingly (20-22). Hawk compares many Christians’ desire for absolute answers to a physicist’s futile quest to find a grand, unifying “Theory of Everything,” and argues that really what the Bible seeks to give us instead is guidance for a relationship with a transcendent (and often mysterious) God, and for a life of love and mutual dialogue within a diverse community of faith in the midst of a confusingly broken world.

On a separate theological note, I feel the need to point out that while Hawk never explicitly says he holds to open theism, his perspective is clearly consonant with that view (especially given his frequent reliance on the works of Walter Brueggemann and Terence Fretheim). I’m sure a lot of readers who aren’t comfortable with that perspective might take issue with some of Hawk’s wording throughout the book — for example, his depicting God as “adapting his approach,” or calling things like the Israelite monarchy an “experiment” on God’s part (118).  [1]

Even so, the interpretive conclusions he comes to are still essentially in line with what many classical theists would hold to: namely, that God saw fit to accommodate his divine ideals in order to work in a broken world, alongside of and through broken people, for the purpose of bringing about redemptive ends. Furthermore, Hawk’s whole approach is to reexamine the biblical narrative on its own terms, taking the story as it develops — with all its twists and turns of plot and characterization. Where one goes from there in constructing their theological system around the textual data may be viewed as a separate matter.

I for one gleaned many fresh insights from Hawk’s discussion of the text which have helped nuance my own understanding of God’s ways and the role of violence therein. The notion that God’s decision to work in covenant with a nation entailed participation in nationalistic violence as its suzerain King provides a helpful framework for approaching many difficult OT texts (Chapter 5). Hawk’s comments on God’s hardening of the hearts of Pharaoh and the Canaanite chieftains was both challenging and insightful (80-83). And his chapter on the conquest of Canaan was comprehensive and constructive, laying out the various ways the text itself nuances that particular historical event and invites interpretive openness. Hawk’s conclusions won’t satisfy everyone, but then, part of his point is that there are no easy answers. We must all wrestle with the text (and the God who speaks therein) for ourselves.

One weakness of the book has to do not with Hawk’s argument but with its presentation. Some of the chapter summaries began to feel a bit repetitive after a while. This is a minor complaint, but one that’s exacerbated by the fact that such space could have been devoted to biblical texts that were regrettably left out of the discussion. The book of Revelation’s absence was especially lamentable. Though I understand the decision to focus only on historical narrative text, I would have enjoyed a longer work that looked at all of Scripture — especially since I think it would ultimately strengthen Hawk’s case that God’s use of violence is nuanced and can be seen as continuing past the crucifixion. Revelation, especially, would make a fine case study in how diverse, faithful Christian interpretations can potentially be brought to the table and set beside one another to inform the life of the church and how we should approach the topic of violence. (I would love to see Hawk write an expanded edition or a follow-up work that incorporates the prophetic books!)

The Bottom Line:

Overall, I benefited greatly from reading The Violence of the Biblical God and would recommend it to anyone seriously interested in the topic. Do be sure and read to the end, as Hawk packs a great deal of nuance throughout the discussion before building to some powerful conclusions in the final chapter. I personally think his approach is much more helpful than other recent treatments of the topic that feel shallower and more reactionary, especially compared to Hawk’s sober and sensitive canonical approach. This would make a fantastic textbook on the subject, either for Old Testament studies or Christian apologetics. And if you’re an interested pastor or layperson, this book will give you much food for thought.

Even if Hawk prompts more questions than answers, I believe his work will reward a careful and discerning read. I sincerely hope it finds a wide readership.

 


[1] With the monarchy in particular, it doesn’t make much sense to call that an “experiment” when it appears God knew full well that he would establish a royal dynasty from the tribe of Judah as far back as Genesis 49:10, and decided before the foundation of the world that his own Son would be the king reigning from Zion forever. This doesn’t prove Open Theism wrong, per se; it just means that God apparently already planned on working through an Israelite monarchy far earlier than Hawk supposes.



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1 reply

  1. Sounds like a great book. I think when we say Jesus “worked outside the system [of earthly politics]” we have to also acknowledge that Jesus expected an impending day of violent judgement and vindication that would guarantee security and authority for God’s faithful people. Mary and Zechariah expects Jesus to “lift up the poor,” “dethrone the powerful,” and grant the righteous “rest from their enemies so that they might serve God in peace.” This is earthly political language that I think is too quickly quarantined to the realm of the spiritual and otherworldly.

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