Every reader of the Old Testament wrestles with the violence they find there. God in the Old Testament, sanctions wars, even calls for the destruction of women and children and seems merciless and genocidal in his dealing with the Canaanites. In contrast, in the New Testament, Jesus’s response to human violence is to die on a cross. Is there any way to reconcile the violent God of the Old Testament with the God of love revealed in Jesus?
The angst over the violence of God in scripture is where Matthew Curtis Fleischer begins The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence. He notes the violence in its pages and the real stumbling block to belief which OT violence is to non-Christians. Fleischer is a reader, a writer, and an attorney. Here he weighs evidence, and builds a case, asserting that not only are we able to reconcile the OT’s violence with the New Testament’s non-violence “but also how it supports the NT’s case for nonviolence and how the OT itself advocates for nonviolence” (7).
Fleischer builds his case in twelve chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the topic—the problem of violence in the Old Testament. In chapter 2, he introduces his key to reconciling the two testaments, namely, ‘incremental ethical revelation.’ That is, the Old Testament represented an advancement of the ethics in ANE culture (e.g. legal protection for the disadvantaged, criminal penalties more humane, the roots of egalitarianism and women’s rights, rules of warfare, etc). Fleischer writes, “Although God’s OT laws and actions were imperfect, incomplete, fell short of the created ideals, and left much to be desired by current standards, they constituted a significant ethical improvement at the time” (21). And yet there were moral concessions to where people were at (e.g. Mosaic divorce law).
In chapter 3, Fleischer fleshes out how Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets, examining Jesus’ six antitheses and the ways Jesus’ moral law didn’t ‘transgress OT laws’ but ‘transcended it (30-31). He develops this further in chapter 4, highlighting the ethical movement toward non-violence as fulfillment in the Bible (e.g. God’s condemnation of violence, the anti-violence of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus’ non-violent commands and the non-violence of the cross). Chapter 5 discusses the nature and purpose of incremental revelation, God establishing his existence and authority and teaching the basics of obedience to his people before moving on to higher moral standards.
Chapters 6 through 9 re-examine what the Old Testament says about Israel as a ‘set apart people,’ the Canaanite conquest, and God’s character as revealed in the Old Testament. The establishment of Israel as a ‘holy nation,’ and the punishment of the Canaanites were indeed violent; nevertheless, Fleischer traces the movement toward non-violence in the Bible, and how violence not being an essential aspect of God’s revealed character. Chapter 10 notes that a lot of the violence in the Old Testament is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, not commanded by God but carried out by human hands. Chapter 11 describes the incremental revelation of God’s character in scripture (again, culminating in Jesus). Chapter 12 concludes the book, a closing argument for biblical non-violence.
Fleischer training as a lawyer serves him well as he weighs the evidence of scripture and builds his case. I think he makes a strong case for incremental ethical revelation, and as a Christian reader of the Old Testament, I’m inclined to agree with the concept. He calls as his expert witnesses like Bible scholars (e.g. Richard Hays, Christopher Wright, David Lamb, N.T. Wright, etc ), theologians (William Cavanaugh, Jacque Ellul, Jurgen Moltmann), Anabaptist thinkers (John Howard Yoder, Donald Kraybill, Greg Boyd), apologists (especially Paul Copan), as well as popular authors (Preston Sprinkle, Derek Flood, Brian Zahnd). Fleischer synthesizes their insights into a Christocentric ethic, claiming that Jesus was where the story was moving, and He is the moral of the story.
Certainly, Fleischer notes the movement toward non-violence is already in the Old Testament. However, his Christological focus makes this is really the Biblical Case for Nonviolence. The New Testament ethic has pride of place, and the ethical development in the Old Testament is seen as steps along the way until we get to Jesus. I’m am inclined to agree with Fleischer’s reading and focus, though I wish he spent more time exploring the antiviolence of the prophets (particularly their understanding of shalom and the eschaton). The case for nonviolence is really there in the Old Testament.
I also wish his chapter on the Canaanite conquest was more detailed. He says some great stuff here. He mentions some things in passing that mitigate against understanding the conquest as a genocide (e.g. ANE hyperbole, the nature of the settlement at Jericho, God’s judgment in relation to Genesis 15:16, the limited nature of the military campaign, Israel’s stalling tactics, and the counter-narrative of Judges showing a more peaceful conquest of the land). I think these are important things to wrestle with when you look at the book of Joshua, but they do not wholly alleviate our modern discomfort with what we find in its pages. As the Canaanite conquest is a central complaint of New Atheists (e.g. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins), and this is the central chapter of this book, I wish he took a more detailed look at it, and the concept of Herem in the Deuteronomistic history.
But then I’m kind of an Old Testament guy, so wanting more engagement with the text, may be my own proclivity. I like a lot that Fleischer is committed to reading the Old Testament as scripture—acknowledging the influence its human writers but also understanding it as a revelation of God. This is a pretty solid look at the issues which I happily recommend. I give this four stars. – ★★★★
Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest review