Going Old Testament on Nonviolence: a book review

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?

fc-fullsizeThe 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


Jehovah Jihad (or not): a book review

Alone With A JihadistL A Biblical Response to Holy War by Aaron D. Taylor

Aaron D. Taylor is a missionary and founder of the Great Commission Society. He has traveled the world sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He had heard through a film crew of an outspoken Irish convert to Islam who lived in London named Khalid. After delivering a sermon at a Pentecostal church in Brazil several months later, a man approached him saying that if he would go to London in the next year God would give him a great victory. Taylor took it as confirmation that he should go talk to Khalid and see if he could win him over to the Christian faith.

A documentary film maker put Taylor in a room with Khalid for seven hours (you can watch the film Holy Wars here) but things didn’t exactly go the way Taylor planned. Khalid was a man firmly convinced that Islam had a more comprehensive view of the world than Christianity. Khalid had a more holistic approach to his faith than your typical Western Christian and he challenged Taylor to think about how he would implement the Bible in his life or if he was in control of the government. Taylor doesn’t capitulate to Khalid’s worldview, but his challenge haunts him and causes him to think about what the implications for politics are for a follower of Jesus.

All this happens in chapter one of Alone With A Jihadist. Taylor’s debate with Khalid causes him to ask hard questions of his faith.  Khalid critiqued western society as corrupt and evil and it forces Taylor to take a long hard look at his politics, what he believes and how he should live.  Taylor concludes that following Jesus and working for the Kingdom of God necessarily implies a critique on the ways of the world, on nationalism, the promise of democracy, American military action, and the unquestioning support of the modern Israeli state from the religious far-right. He claims that following Jesus calls into questions all these things and calls us to embody the Spirit of Christ (who went to Calvary) for love of the world and not create war and strife.

Taylor shares a pacifist position similar to what you would find in the historic peace churches (such as the Mennonites). However he grew up in the Pentecostal tradition and has seen the ways that its leaders (evangelists and high-profile pastors) have sometimes been co-opted by the state and have supported means, initiatives and projects which seem to contradict the words and actions of Jesus. And so this book challenges those on the Right to think through the implications of their beliefs and politics in light of the gospel but also shows his conservative evangelical friends that he hasn’t just swung to the left, but is trying to follow Jesus.

Which is more Christ-like? The TV evangelist who cheered in 2006 as Israeli warplanes were dropping bombs on buses and bridges in Lebanon, calling the action a ‘miracle from God”–or the liberal Jew picking olives with a Palestinian farmer? Even more nagging is this question. What does it say about the state of the church in America when an American Christian has to write an entire book to defend his orthodox credentials for picking option two? (156)

Taylor manages to remain respectful  and evenhanded in his presentation of his position. For example, many evangelicals and Pentecostals are Zionists  applying the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 to the modern Israeli state. Taylor is able to show some of the problems with this position as he discusses the injustice that has befallen the Palestinian people from the Israeli military and Jewish settlers; however he doesn’t say that the Israelis are all bad or that the Palestinians are all good. He simply shines a light on the side of the tension hat is not often explored by Pentecostal evangelicals and asks us to admit that the truth is much more complicated than we often allow. He also explores the way Jesus went out of his way to love and affirm the Canaanite woman ( a Palestinian) and was critical of the Jewish nationalism of his day (the Pharisees and Sadducees were the Jewish nationalists of their day).

Ethically there are two basic ways that Christians have sought to navigate political issues. Idealists commit to biblical principles and the values that reflect the coming Kingdom of God. If Christians are to partner with God in ushering in the Kingdom of God, than we should start acting like Jesus reigns and respond to issues as though the Kingdom was already here. On the other side, Christian Realists acknowledge that the Kingdom is coming, but we are not there yet. So we sometimes need to compromise and accommodate to have greatest impact on a world that is mired in sin.  Taylor stands with the idealists in his desire to live a life committed to the way of Jesus and accept the implications for his political life. The realists may ask the pragmatic question, ” does it work?   I really appreciate the perspective that Taylor brings and find I agree with many of his critiques (I have my own pacifist, idealist leaning); however I am not sure that he adequately answers  the second part of Khalid’s question, “How would you implement the Bible as a way of life or in government? (9)” Taylor gives you good reasons for deep personal convictions (many of which I share) but does not show how the Bible can implemented in government (along with the historic peace-churches, he questions if you can).

I liked this book and am amazed at how a conservative Christian was transformed by his encounter with a radical Islamist.  God uses Khalid to make Taylor more firm in his pacifist convictions. If you haven’t really thought through the ways in which your Christian faith should inform your foreign policy as a Christian, then this book may be a good place to start.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.