Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Violent God of the Old Testament

One of the ways that Christians today must “earnestly contend for the faith” is by defending the goodness and justice of the God of the Old Testament. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has described the God of the OT as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” The God of the OT commands the extermination of the Canaanites, puts Uzzah to death for touching the ark of the covenant, and responds to Elisha’s curse by having a bear maul 42 young boys who have dared to insult the follically-challenged prophet. Because of passages in the prophets where Yahweh punishes his unfaithful wife Israel with public exposure and degradation, feminist critics have depicted God as an abusive husband or a violent predator, the Divine Rapist.

Jeremiah 13:25-27: This is your lot, the portion I have measured out to you, declares the LORD, because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies. 26 I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen. 27 I have seen your abominations, your adulteries and neighings, your lewd whorings, on the hills in the field. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will it be before you are made clean?"

Ezekiel 16:35-40: "Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the LORD: 36 Thus says the Lord GOD, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. 38 And I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy. 39 And I will give you into their hands, and they shall throw down your vaulted chamber and break down your lofty places. They shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful jewels and leave you naked and bare. 40 They shall bring up a crowd against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords.

Hosea 2:10: Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.

The Lord threatens the same type of judgment for the Assyrian inhabitants of Nineveh:

Nahum 3:5-7: Behold, I am against you, declares the LORD of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will make nations look at your nakedness and kingdoms at your shame. 6 I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. 7 And all who look at you will shrink from you and say, Wasted is Nineveh; who will grieve for her? Where shall I seek comforters for you?

Even taking Israel’s gross idolatry or Assyria’s violent brutality into consideration, the imagery in these passages is shocking and disturbing. How can we love and trust a God who inflicts this type of violence? Should we reject these passages as depicting a God inconsistent with the loving God of the New Testament?

As strange as it may sound, these violent images are an expression of divine mercy. The prophets generally announced to Israel and Judah what would happen if they did not change their ways. Unless God said otherwise, the die was not cast, and the fate of the people was not set in stone. The shocking imagery of the degraded woman was designed to motivate repentance so that the people might avoid the reality of what the metaphor depicted. If the people of Judah (especially the male leaders), in light of their understanding of these realities, can see themselves as the vulnerable woman about to suffer siege, rape, public exposure, and the loss of husband and children, then perhaps they will be motivated to change. While the prophet Nahum appears to speak of the unavoidable degradation of Daughter Nineveh, God had even sent the reluctant Jonah to warn the Assyrians that judgment was coming. The horrible destruction that befell Nineveh stands as a perpetual warning to all peoples who follow in her violent ways.

In her article, “Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Concerns,” Robin Parry provides the helpful reminder that any biblical text only speaks authoritatively to the church when read in light of the larger canon of Scripture: “Classical Christian views of the Bible have seen divine authority mediated through the canon as a whole rather than its individual parts in isolation.” She adds that biblical texts “when incorporated within the canon, the way in which they are normative is modified by interactions with fellow texts. Thus any part of the Bible can only function normatively for the Church when seen within the context of the whole. Clearly, as the canon has grown and the plot line has moved on, the way in which different text function normatively changes.”

Canonical perspectives from both the OT and NT must inform a proper Christian reading of passages like Jeremiah 13:25-27. This terrible punishment is mandated by God, but executed by a foreign army (13:20-22). The prophets in general view Yahweh as the instigator and leader of the armies who attack Israel and Judah (cf. Isa 10:5-6; Jer 4:5-6; 21:3-7), but at the same time, hold these armies accountable for the manner in which they go beyond Yahweh’s intent to punish through their excessive violence and cruelty (Isa 10:7; Jer 50:11-13; Hab 2:15-17; Obad 15-16). The OT writers are generally not concerned to distinguish between God’s direct and indirect causation of events but are clear in affirming that Yahweh is not morally responsible or liable for the actions of sinful, wicked humans.

The prophets employ the metaphor of the ravaged woman for rhetorical impact, not as a prescript for the treatment of women. The OT reveals Yahweh as a God who has a special concern for oppressed and needy women (cf. Gen 21:14-19; Deut 10:18; Ps 146:9). Deuteronomic law limited Israel in its normal practice of warfare from acts of violence against non-combatants (Deut 20:13-15). A captive woman taken in battle was to be treated with dignity (Deut 21:10-14). In his judgment oracles against the nations surrounding Israel, the prophet Amos condemns the nations for their atrocities against each other (not just Israel) in war, particularly their abuse of women (cf. Amos 1:3, 6, 9-10, 13; 2:1). Nations who practice brutality will receive just recompense for their actions, the message behind the portrayal of Nineveh as a ravaged woman in Nahum 3:5-7 (cf. Nah 2:7-13; Hab 2:6-20). The lament and protest language of the OT and Yahweh’s own grief over the destruction of His people are testimony to the injustices of warfare and reflect the fact that the brutality of warfare is evidence of a world broken by sin (cf. Pss 44; 83; Lam 2:1-22; Jer 8:5; 9:7). The OT anticipates the future day of eschatological salvation on this earth when warfare and brutality will no longer exist (cf. Isa 2:1-4).

The female imagery in the prophets is ultimately restorative and testimony to Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness. The God who punishes His wayward wife is also the God who will forgive and restore her (Isa 50:1; 54:1-8; Ezek 16:60-63; Hos 2:14-15). Yahweh loves Israel with an “everlasting love” (Jer 31:2) and cannot bear to give up his wife (Hos 11:8), even when subjecting her to the worst forms of judgment. Jeremiah’s opening messages of judgment condemn Judah as a prostitute able to give lessons to the worst of women (Jer 2:20, 27; 3:6-11), but his message of hope is that Yahweh will restore “virgin Israel” to a place of glory and honor (31:4). Jeremiah envisions the future restoration as a time when “a woman will surround a man” (Jer 31:22; the JPS translates: “a woman will court a man”). Leslie Allen understands this verse to mean that the woman Isarel “would be empowered to show initiative as covenant partner.” She will be able to freely love and embrace Yahweh her husband.

The NT revelation of the person of God provides further canonical perspective on these OT texts portraying divine violence against female victims. As the incarnate Son, Jesus demonstrates the fullness of the Father’s love and his intense desire “to seek and to save the lost.” The extension of grace and forgiveness toward sinful women in the ministry of Jesus (cf. Luke 7:37-50; John 4:7-30; 8:3-11) complements the OT picture of Yahweh’s restoration of Daughter Zion and trumps the metaphor of the woman ravaged by divine judgment. In the incarnation, Jesus assumes the role of Divine Warrior, but wages war against spiritual (Satanic) rather than human enemies and emerges victorious in this conflict through his own suffering and death (cf. Col 2:13-15). Rather than the guilty woman being exposed and pelted with filth, Jesus endures the violence, abuse, and shame of the cross as he suffers for sinners. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have inaugurated the new creation and transformed the gender relations reflected in the fallen order of ancient Israel’s patriarchy and androcentrism (Gal 3:28). The death of Jesus has propitiated divine wrath in a way (1 Jn 2:2) that has transformed God’s disposition toward humanity and delayed judgment so that sinners might repent and be spared from the final judgment.

Ultimately, the OT images of God’s judgment as the violent treatment of women are a reminder of the incarnational nature of Scripture. Incarnated in human form, God’s word did not fall out of the sky but met specific peoples and cultures where they lived. The portrayal of divine judgment as the corporal punishment of an adulterous wife or the violence inflicted upon women in war is a cultural and time-conditioned image, but yet even this fading image of the old order reflects the abiding truth of Yahweh’s righteous anger toward human sinfulness. The OT prophets remind us of the inconvenient truth that our God is a “consuming fire,” and we ignore this truth at our own peril.


  1. So glad you started blogging Dr. Yates!!! You should start a podcast next! Good post!

    -----Bradley (I had you for Isaiah class years and years ago ... sat up front and asked lots of questions)

  2. Someone is defending Yahweh, the volcano god.