Matthew Lynch – Flood and Fury

Matt and Kenny discussed passages in the Old Testament like the flood and the conquest of Canaan, that on the surface contain moments of troubling violence. But Matt contends that a closer and slower reading of passages like these can actually reveal a critique of violence and show us more of the goodness and mercy of God. We hope this episode will help bring some clarity to some of the difficult questions raised when we read the Old Testament, particularly in light of the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ.

crucifixion of the warrior god

Crucifixion of the Warrior God, by Gregory A. Boyd – Review Part 4 (on Joshua)

[This is pt 4 of a 4 part review. See here for part 1, part 2, and part 3]

Crucifixion of the warrior God - CoverMy review of Crucifixion of the Warrior God focused thus far on Boyd’s overarching approach to the problem of violence in the Old Testament. The review has been selective, but identified what I consider several large-scale opportunities and problems with his approach.

In this final review post, I focus on Boyd’s approach to the book of Joshua. Often considered the crux interpretum for anyone attempting to wrestle with the problem of violence, I felt it important to see how he actually reads this portion of Scripture, and whether his ‘cruciform thesis’ provides a way forward.

Reading Joshua

After reviewing and critiquing Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? and finding it unsatisfactory (rightly, in my view, pp. 917-960), Boyd turns to his alternative cruciform approach to Joshua. To restate the problem Boyd sees: The story of divinely mandated merciless slaughter of men, women, children, and animals is incommensurate with the portrait of Jesus’ non-violent response to his enemies and his command that his followers treat enemies the same.

Boyd’s primary thesis regarding Joshua is that God originally gave a non-violent promise to Israel that he would gradually displace the Canaanites. We’ll call that ‘Plan A.’ This promise was subsequently mis-interpreted (perhaps willingly) as a command to violently exterminate the Cnaanites. We’ll call that ‘Plan B.’

Plan A: Non-Violent Displacement

There is ample biblical support for Plan A. Note the following example:

‘I will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you … little by little’ (Exod 23:20-33).

Other texts in the Pentateuch, and even Joshua, repeat the idea that Yahweh would gradually displace the Canaanite population before the Israelites (Exod 33:2; 34:11; Lev 22:23; Num 32:21-22; Deut 4:38; Josh 24:11-12). And no text suggests that the gradual displacement would be an alternative if a Blitzkrieg slaughter failed. Instead, the Pentateuch repeatedly suggests that the conquest would involve forced resettlement. Moreover, Yahweh alone would drive the Canaanites out by making the land inhospitable to them such that it ‘vomits’ them out (Lev 18:24-25).

Boyd suggests that this earlier plan was both non-violent and Yahweh’s ideal (p. 971). He considers this part of the story a ‘direct’ revelation because it coheres with the image of Jesus’ non-violent response to enemies on the cross.

Plan B: ‘Giving the Canaanites Over’ to Israelite Violence

However, as often occurs, the people didn’t hear or heed what Yahweh commanded. Instead, they adopted a ‘culturally conditioned assumption’ that Yahweh wanted them to acquire the land through violence (p. 973). Thus the claim that God told them to ‘eliminate’ the Canaanites ‘all at once’ (Deut 7:22), which appears to flatly contradict the idea of God displacing the Canaanites ‘little by little’ (Exod 20:33). This extermination plan is an indirect revelation, since it is both culturally conditioned and not what God said.

The cross, for Boyd, not only guides our choice of what constitutes a direct revelation (Plan A) vs. an indirect revelation (Plan B); it also gives us a specific indication of ‘what else is going on.’

Here we return to Boyd’s idea that when faced with a text that does not cohere with the non-violence of the cross, we must nevertheless treat such texts as revelations of ‘something else’ that the text only hints at. In other words, the interpreter is to reconstruct from Plan B-type texts a scenario that looks like the cross.

Thus with confidence Boyd hypothesizes that the Israelites distorted Yahweh’s initial word—his Plan A. Like Jesus’ disciples, Moses and the Israelites listened selectively to Yahweh’s commands, opting for violence. They then ‘conceive[d] of God along the lines of a typical ANE warrior deity’ (p. 980). Whereas God had originally planned to displace the Canaanites non-violently, now via Plan B God gives them over to Israelite violence by withdrawing his protective presence. The story of Joshua preserves traces of both plans.


In Boyd’s ‘what’s really going on’ scenario, he attempts to stick as close as possible to the biblical text. I appreciated this dimension of his work, as well as his close reading of Brueggemann on Joshua 11 (see pp. 986-1002). Several aspects of his thesis deserve attention here.

For Boyd, Plan A reflects ‘what we would expect’ a cruciform hermeneutic to yield. A non-violent displacement of Canaanites squares with Jesus’ non-violent treatment of his enemies. In this story of displacement, we discern the Spirit ‘breaking through’ and bearing witness to the way of the cross.

Displacement is Not Non-Violent

However, it is difficult to see how his displacement scenario paves a road to Calvary—especially as Boyd understands Calvary. He states that God’s plan was ‘to make this region so unpleasant with hornets that the indigenous population will voluntarily relocate themselves’ (p. 966). Rendering the land inhospitable due to insects would have inflicted widespread damage and death to the indigenous populations. Moreover, it would have thrust the Canaanites into the hands of their inhospitable neighbours, precipitating significant conflict. In short, displacement is not as non-violent as it sounds.

Embracing Enemies & Plan A

Moreover, I don’t see how displacing enemies (Plan A) fits at all with Jesus’ act of embracing his enemies on the cross. If God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), even Plan A would need to be re-interpreted to bear witness to the cross. The inhospitable land thesis seems to fly in the face of the ‘hospitality of the cross,’ to use Hans Boersma’s phrase.[1] To this end, Boyd’s approach shows signs of stress. His hermeneutical principle of ‘conservation’ requires him to salvage as much of the text as possible, yet even the texts he salvages rarely meet the standards he sets.

I don’t think this is a problem with the biblical story, per se, but rather a problem with Boyd’s approach of squeezing each text until it submits and confesses to things that match exactly his reconstructed picture of the cross. This approach flattens the biblical text into a series of direct and indirect ‘literary crucifixes,’ such that each OT text only ever confirms what we already know from the cross. It flashes pictures of God from one moment in time.

Other Potential in Joshua

Boyd covers a wide range of material in his 1,400-page book. For a 1,400-page book on OT violence to spend only about 50 pages on Joshua is a missed opportunity. Granted, he’s dealing with quite a few texts. Indeed, the book is full of biblical references and specific examples. However, it seems to me that Joshua is the case for any theory of violence in the Old Testament, and for there to be almost no discussion of the Rahab-Achan story, very little discussion of the ways that Joshua was actually re-applied non-literally within the Old Testament itself (e.g., during Josiah’s reign), hardly any investigation of ways that the herem (ban) instructions resist easy literalization,[2] no attention to the possible post-exilic setting of Joshua in its final form, and much more. In all these ways, Joshua and the ongoing OT traditions engage in re-framing and critiquing the book’s surface violence in ways that Boyd misses. While Boyd engages in a close reading of Joshua 11, and to good effect, I expected to see a more nuanced treatment of the whole book.


In sum, Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God will likely engage interpreters for years to come, and will have significant impact via his popularized Cross Vision. I highly recommend that students of the Bible engage Boyd’s book, if for no other reason than to look the problem of violence squarely in the face. However, I doubt Boyd’s book will win the day, even for Christians willing to engage in ethical critique of the Old Testament. Boyd’s book ultimately drives readers into the same untenable position as the interpreter who says, ‘There’s no problem here.’ Both propose a total solution to an intractable problem. Both leave readers vulnerable to that one small crack in the glass that splinters a thousand ways and eventually shatters the whole.

[1] Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Baker Academic, 2004).

[2] See Moberly’s chapter ‘A Chosen People,’ in Old Testament Theology (Baker Academic, 2014), 60-62.

Share on Social:
Follow WTC Theology's TheoMisc Blog:
Follow TheoMisc on

The Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice

Critique of Sacrifice…

There’s a story I’ve often heard told about Old Testament prophets. I don’t think it’s true, but here’s how it goes.

God apparently gave Israel a sacrificial system. He asked for obedience. He asked for victims. And he asked for bloodshed. But in time, and as Israel’s knowledge of God matured, certain groups came to realize that God didn’t actually want this. A religious system that depends on scapegoats, victims, and bloodshed stands in opposition to the divine way of justice and love.

Who made this discovery? It was the radicals … the prophets. It took prophetic insight to imagine a religious world beyond sacrifice. The religious establishment was bent on its own preservation, and lacked the imagination to see otherwise. Here are a few examples of what the prophets came to realise:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings (Hos. 6:6).

‘The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats’ (Isa 1:11).

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them (Amos 5:22).

With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? [Implied NO!] He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Mic 6:6, 8).

Even the psalmist piles on:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require (Ps 40:6).

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  (Ps 51:16)

The prophets and poets make a forceful case. God apparently wanted one thing before, and then later said that he didn’t. To resolve this apparent tension, interpreters propose that their theology matured. It is somewhat akin to a parent helping their kids bzzzzaaaap! the bogeyman under their bed before they sleep. Later, kids realise that all the bzzzzaaaaping wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t doing anything but speaking their language.

Likewise with sacrifice. God spoke the language of the day (ritual sacrifice), and then later led the people to a more mature and even corrected religious practice.

Angels stained glassBeyond Sacrifice?

Some also contend that the prophets and poets presaged the abolition of sacrifice in the New Testament. God set his sights on substitutionary sacrifice, or specifically, the scapegoating and violence of victims in the sacrificial system, marking them for elimination. The prophets caught wind of this, and argued that worship would eventually move beyond its primitive state.

Greg Boyd reflects this evolutionary view of Israelite religion and ethics in his recent Crucifixion of the Warrior God, though from a slightly different perspective. He writes:

While an earlier tradition depicted Yahweh as enjoying animal sacrifices (e.g., Exod 29:25, 41; Lev 1:9, 13, 17), later authors make it clear that Yahweh placed no value on them.[1]

He states later the ‘canonical authors begin to realize that Yahweh completely disapproves of animal sacrifices.’[2]

In a provocative post on ‘God and Genocide,’ Brian Zahnd writes:

The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. But it’s a process. God doesn’t mutate, but Israel’s revelation and understanding of God obviously does. Along the way assumptions are made. One of these assumptions was that Yahweh shares certain violent attributes with the pagan deities of the ancient Near East. These assumptions were inevitable, but wrong. For example, the Hebrew prophets will eventually begin to question the assumption that Yahweh desires blood sacrifice. Jesus was fond of quoting Hosea’s bold assertion that Yahweh doesn’t want sacrifice, he wants mercy.[3]

I agree with much that Zahnd says here. Israel’s understanding of God certainly mutates and changes. The OT can provide us with countless cases of change and development.

Problems with the Prophetic Critique

There are serious problems with this story of advancing religion beyond sacrifice. Here are a few:

  1. In the same breath that the prophets excoriate the people for animal sacrifice, they also say that God also rejects songs and prayer. For example:

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. (Amos 5:23).

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. (Isa. 1:15)

We would also have to eliminate fasting as an effective spiritual practice. Jeremiah pronounces: ‘Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings’ (Jer 14:12a; cf. Isa 58:3-6).

To argue that the prophets were urging Israel to move from one (primitive) worship system to another (enlightened) doesn’t work when we consider all the religious practices they attack, unless we also want to displace prayer, music, and fasting as legitimate spiritual practices.

  1. The prophet’s critique doesn’t reflect God’s inherent displeasure with the sacrificial system as such. Instead, the prophets insisted that God hates injustice. When a worshipper robs from the poor, and then uses that lamb, goat, or ox to worship God, God is disgusted. When a worshipper beats their slave to a pulp, and then lifts their hands in prayer, Yahweh says, ‘[Away!] Your hands are covered in blood!’ (Isa 1:15). The primary issue is that injustice + worship = foul play. God will shut the show down.

It’s important to remember that the prophets were rhetoricians. They used shocking language to arrest listeners’ attention. When the prophets said that God rejected sacrifice (and music/prayer), they weren’t making timeless assertions. Nor were they making claims about the evolution of religion in Israel! Instead, they wanted people to treat their neighbours with dignity. Isaiah thus urges the people to cleanse themselves for worship by looking after the oppressed:

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isa 1:16-17)

  1. The same prophets that railed against sacrifice envision a day when God’s people would sacrifice rightly.

So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them. (Isa 19:21)

These [foreigners] I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. (Isa 56:7)

These passages show us that the prophets weren’t moving beyond sacrifice. Instead, they were moving toward wholesome sacrifice.

Even one of the most forceful prophetic critiques eventually gives way to restored worship. In Jeremiah 7:22 the prophet exclaims that Yahweh ‘did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt.’[4] Taken on its own, one could imply that upon further reflection, God decided he didn’t want the whole worship system he set up after all. However, Jeremiah 7 is a textbook case of prophetic provocation, in the context of the most damning denunciation of the temple in the whole prophetic corpus (cf. 7:12). So again, the prophet is not issuing a press release about God’s changed religious expectations. Jeremiah does circle back to say that ‘in that day’ sacrifices would be restored (Jer 33:18, 21-22).

The psalmist also comes around. After saying that God does ‘not delight in sacrifice’ (Ps 51:16), the psalmist declares that God would ‘delight in the sacrifices of the righteous’ just a few verses later (51:19). The psalmist wasn’t of two minds. Instead, he recognised that sacrifice was not delightful to God when accompanied by adultery and murder (cf. Ps 51:1). Only after confronting those issues would God again delight in sacrifice.

  1. The prophets (or NT writers) never critique sacrifice on the grounds that it was violent, bloody, or anything of the sort. That’s modern squeamishness (and alienation from our food processing) speaking, not the Bible.
 Jesus’ Critique

In Mark 12, a young scribe came to Jesus and asked him which was the greatest command. Jesus, unwilling to give one law, says that the first is to love God, and the second to love your neighbour (vv. 29-31). The scribe who asked Jesus likely observed Jesus’ quotation from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:11. Jesus had woven together the heart of the Torah. The scribe sees that Jesus answered rightly. But notice how the scribe, who was likely pro-temple, continues: ‘And [you answered rightly that] to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices’ (Mark 12:33).

But Jesus hadn’t said this!

Well, Jesus didn’t directly quote Hosea 6:6 (or 1 Sam 15:22), but the scribe teases out he hermeneutical implications of Jesus’ one-upmanship. He plays along with the hermeneutical game. The scribe asked for one. Jesus gave two. The scribe answered that Jesus was right, and gives three.

But notice the scribe’s answer. He says that loving God and neighbour is more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices. The OT says that God doesn’t delight in or want burnt offerings or sacrifices (1 Sam 15:22; Hos 6:6). The scribe isn’t misquoting; he’s interpreting what the prophets imply. He (and Jesus) recognise the prophets’ rhetorical point.  Love for God and neighbour take priority over the sacrificial system, and where the two clash, sacrifice must give.

Abolishment of Sacrifice & Other Means of Atonement

The early Christians did contend that that the sacrificial system would eventually be abolished. It wasn’t apparent to early followers of Jesus how this was so, and what it would mean. Even after the resurrection Peter and later Paul still worship and even sacrifice at the temple (Acts 3 & 21). Their actions complicate any attempts at an easy Supersessionism, and show the temple’s ongoing value to Jews, at least while the temple still stood.

The destruction of the temple accelerated Jewish and Christian thinking about a world without sacrifice. Note these words from Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who responded to another Rabbi who lamented the loss of the temple and thus atoning sacrifices:

My son, do not be grieved. We have another atonement as effective as this (temple sacrifices). And what is it? Acts of loving-kindness (mercy), as it is said, ‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Hos. 6:6) (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, A, 4).[5]

The book of Hebrews argued that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought an end to sacrifices at the temple. Though the temple and its sacrificial system was good, it was also provisional. From a Christian point of view, Jesus ushered in a more complete and permanent atonement.

Interestingly, Hebrews never quotes from the prophetic critiques of sacrifice. The reason, I imagine, is that the author recognised the prophetic critique of injustice (and not ritual). Moreover, Hebrews builds its argument on a ‘good-to-better’ logic, and not a ‘bad-vs-good’ logic:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, … sanctifies those who have been defiled … how much more will the blood of Christ … purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb 9:13-14)

The fact that Jesus brings an end to sacrifice doesn’t negate its value in the story of God and his people, or even for some of Jesus’ early followers.

Perhaps most importantly, we see that Jesus does leave his followers with a sacrifice to ritually perform—the Lord’s Supper. This meal gathers up themes, symbols, and rituals from the atonement sacrifices, grain offerings, libation offerings, and Passover meal.[6] So, ‘Let us celebrate the feast!’ (1 Cor 5:8; Deut 16:3).

[1] Gregory A. Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 11-12.

[2] Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God, 754.

[3] Brian Zahnd, ‘God and Genocide,’ accessed 31/07/2017. Emphasis mine.

[4] Thanks to Brad Jersak for this example.

[5] Qtd in Mark Turnage, Windows into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights from the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield: Logion Press, 2016), loc 5548.

[6] Thanks to Dru Johnson for this insight. Cf. Christian A. Eberhart’s What a Difference a Meal Makes: The Last Supper in the Bible and in the Christian Church (tr. Michael Putman; Houston, TX: Lucid Books, 2016).

Share on Social:
Follow WTC Theology's TheoMisc Blog:
Follow TheoMisc on
By Turbulent Force

A Time for Minor Chords (Part II): Protest at the Divine Court

Time to Protest?

In my previous post I discussed the continued lack of lament in contemporary worship (of the ‘worship band’ variety). My point was that there’s been very little appreciable movement toward lament in the past decades among the major producers of the songs listed on the CCLI lists and the like. Because of that, the average small seeker-type church—which tends to draw heavily from the CCLI top 100—plays 99% praise, with the occasional (awkward) cry for help. I find this astonishing, especially given the tendency for said churches to read books like The Emotionally Healthy Church/Leader/Woman/Etc (

I don’t have enough perspective to evaluate the current level of discontent with the persistent optimism and cheerfulness of contemporary worship music. But if I were to sit down with the chief strategists for Contemporary Worship, Inc., I’d suggest that something in the order of Nirvana’s 1990 flannel and grunge revolution needs to take place in worship music, a clearing of air for the raw and abrasive songs of lament (and protest).[1]

I don’t like to idealise lament. Some studies I’ve seen urge lament on the grounds that it’s psychologically and emotionally healthy. This may be true, and it’s probably healthier than repression. But it must be admitted that time also heals wounds, if not all of them. So, not lamenting might leave lamenters and non-lamenters in an emotionally similar place, at least 10-20 years on. I don’t think selling lament (exclusively) on its personal benefits is what the church needs. The point is not self-expression or psychological benefit, as good as those might be.

Lament as Persuasion

The greatest benefit to our worshipping communities is a reclaiming of genuine relationship with God. For all our emphasis on ‘relationship’—and perhaps that word is past its sell-by date—worship often reflects a belief that ‘the chief end of man [sic]’ (glorifying God) is the ‘only end of man.’[2] Our worship often portrays a God who only permits praise, and will not allow objections. Brueggemann writes,

A community of faith which negates laments soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise.[3]

Treating the throne room as a place for praise alone ignores the fact that the divine palace is also a (supreme) court, a place where citizens of the kingdom press their case with confidence that the divine judge hears, listens, and responds.

 A Rich Biblical Tradition of Protest

The biblical tradition is rife with examples of God’s people pressing their case, either against God or against societal injustice. God seems to invite his people into the courtroom for that very reason, from Genesis onward.

After choosing Abraham ‘to accomplish righteousness and justice,’ God unveils his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This provokes Abraham’s protest:

Far be it from you to do such a thing — to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike! Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen. 18:25)

This bold approach to the throne seems to be just what God expects—and wants. Through dialogue and debate, Abraham challenges God to ensure justice for the few potential victims of God’s judgement. Put another way, Abraham urges God to limit his severity, and he does so by protesting his actions. Though God does rain down sulphur on Sodom (and some suggest Abraham could have pushed God even further), God rescues Lot and his family and preserves another small town (19:20-21) that was otherwise due for destruction. God is still God, but Abraham’s protest effected some mercy.

Protest within the divine-human relationship is not unusual in the Old Testament. In fact, one of the purposes of prayer and yes, even worship, is to ask God to limit his severity. For reasons unavailable to us, God constructed the divine-human relationship so that our pleadings persuade God to set limits on his justified use of wrath. Put another way, God invites humans into the process of fostering and exercising divine mercy. Covenant partners are not only passive recipients of mercy, but active agents in its implementation.

The next major occasion where God’s servant protests God’s actions takes place right after the golden calf (Ex 33-34), when Israel breaks the first and second commandments and nullifies the covenant that God had just made with them. God was so angered that he proposed wiping out the nation to start anew with Moses.

But Moses intervened by appealing to God’s reputation:

Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains …’ Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people! (Exod 32:12)

God did not reprimand Moses. Instead,

The LORD changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people (32:14).

And he did so on multiple occasions where Moses protests divine action and calls God to be just, or to turn from his wrath (e.g., Exod 33:12-16; Num 11:10-15; 12:13ff; 14:13; 16:46ff; 21:7ff).

The tradition of protest continues in the words and actions of prophets like Habakkuk (1:3-4) and Jeremiah (11:18-20; 12:1-6), the psalmist (e.g., Ps 10), and the non-Israelite Job.

In sum, in failing to lament, we fail to exercise our covenant responsibility to bring matters of justice and righteousness before the divine judge. We fail in our civic duty.

Opening the Torah Ark

Jewish novelist Chaim Potak discusses a tradition of lament during the Shabbat service:

There used to be a tradition, which may still be in existence in some Jewish communities, where if you had a complaint against God you stopped the service on Saturday. You went up to the ark, you opened the [Torah] ark, and you stood there shouting at God until the rabbi finally led you away.

Potak goes on,

You shout out of faith, not because you don’t have any faith. If you don’t have faith, you don’t have anyone to shout at.[4]

What if we saw our worship music as a means of leading people to the ark? Or the courtroom? There’s something enormously dignifying and freeing in telling people that their disputes and complaints will be heard in this court. They may feel themselves without power in the halls of human political power,[5] but not in the divine court.

Let us find the chords to bring them there, and let us enter His court with protests.

See here for Part 3.

[1] Perhaps this risks an unnecessary pendulum swing, but I’d be thrilled to have the conversation.

[2] Brueggemann, ‘The Costly Loss of Lament,’

[3] Brueggemann, ‘The Costly Loss of Lament,’ 64.

[4] ‘Giving Shape to Turmoil: A Conversation with Chaim Potok,’ Mars Hill Review (Winter/Spring 1997),, accessed 30/03/2017.

[5] Bruegggemann sees the two inextricably linked (‘The Costly Loss of Lament,’ 62ff).

Share on Social:
Follow WTC Theology's TheoMisc Blog:
Follow TheoMisc on

How to Burn Down Your House

How to Burn Down Your House

(on fixing the problems of violence and wrath in the Bible)

When preparing to teach on violence in the Old Testament recently I was reminded of a book review I once read. The reviewer recounted his neighbour’s efforts to remove a grease stain from his garage floor. The neighbour dumped a few gallons of gasoline on the floor and scrubbed. It worked beautifully. The stain disappeared completely. Job done!

However, there was a slight problem. The gasoline fumes filled the garage and were eventually ignited by his boiler’s pilot light. The great conflagration that ensued ended up burning his entire house to its foundations.

This story offered a warning that stuck with me: Turn off your mobile phone at the pump, you ask? Yes, but also, beware of solutions that too easily resolve. They might be highly combustible!

This is a basic, but often missed, principle that applies to thinking through all sorts of knotty problems in theology. Answers that resolve problems too neatly and easily usually have hidden costs or trade-offs that don’t surface at first glance. Only by prodding and testing do they begin to emerge.

Two of the most common problems on which interpreters reach for the gas can are divinely sanctioned violence and divine wrath (I can see you reaching for it already!).


Easy resolutions to the problem of violence often look like one of the following two approaches:

The first looks at an issue like the Canaanite genocide and says, ‘Sin is sin, so of course God is justified in his command to destroy every man, woman, child, and infant in Canaan without mercy!’ The assumption here is that the one asking the question might not take seriously enough the problem of sin, or they do not have a sufficiently high view of God’s holiness and sovereignty. If they did, the problem would disappear. I’ve even heard one person ‘resolve’ the issue using eschatology, suggesting that Joshua is a case of ‘intrusion ethics.’ God’s eschatological judgment had broken into history and wiped out a few thousand as a foretaste of the billions he would destroy at the end of time. This displaced and augmented the problem.

The second easy resolution says, ‘Well of course the Canaanite genocide never happened,’ or, ‘The conquest story is the projected fantasy of a primitive tribalistic people.’

fireball-422746_1280Both approaches pour gasoline on the problem … often with unintended consequences. The first approach ignores (or destroys) the rich tradition of protest against divine judgment that we see demonstrated in individuals like Abraham (Gen 18) and Moses (Exod 34; Num 12, 14, 16, 21). It also misses out on the rich complexity of Joshua’s message, which seems to question the fundamental division between ‘us/good’ and ‘them/bad’ that a surface reading of the book suggests (e.g., Josh 5:13-14). The second, which states the non-historicity of the Canaanite genocide, pretends to remove the problem but only shifts it. Now we’re saying that this is how God wants to be portrayed, even if it didn’t happen. And calling the ancient Israelites ‘primitive’ is just arrogant, and like the first approach, leads readers to miss much of Joshua’s theological depth.

Rather than rushing toward either resolution, perhaps we should explore the cost of doing business with them, avoid representing the biblical writers as our intellectual and moral inferiors, and adopt a posture of empathetic listening and faithful questioning. Perhaps we should read Joshua slowly. Let it disturb, surprise, and unsettle. As someone who has done this, I can only say that it repays such efforts abundantly.


Divine wrath is also a problem on which many want to pour gasoline … and they have for a long time, going back at least as far as the early 2nd century heretic Marcion (not a fan of Yahweh). Marcion wanted to do away with divine wrath, and with it, the Old Testament. He found it unbecoming of God’s goodness. In his critique of Marcion, Tertullian writes: ‘A better god has been discovered, who never takes offense, is never angry, never inflicts punishment, who has prepared no fire in hell, no gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness! He is purely and simply good’ (1.27).

But here’s Tertullian’s insight—there are always hidden costs to pictures of God that eliminate challenging tensions. In this instance, Tertullian claims that Marcion eliminates God’s ability to act as judge: ‘You allow indeed that God is a judge, but at the same time destroy those operations and dispositions by which He discharges His judicial functions’ (Adv. Mar. 2.16). For Tertullian (and many biblical texts), wrath is the emotion that animates God’s active concern for justice. Criticizing his wrath was like criticizing the instruments of a doctor. Wrath, in Tertullian’s formulation—and arguably in the Bible itself—is tied intimately to God’s exercise of justice.

Tertullian is highlighting the inseparability—or at least the complex interaction—of wrath and justice in God. In Exodus 22:21-24 for instance, God warns Israel that if his people cause the orphan or widow to cry out, ‘my anger will blaze.’ He would come in judgment upon those who cause such an outcry just as he came against Egypt. The point of these verses is not to be precise about the exact penalty for oppressing the weak, but to express the pathos of God in the face of injustice. For Israel, Mark Smith points out, God’s wrath was bound up in the idea that he was the protective father of the vulnerable—whether they be individuals or his people Israel. Wrath—like jealousy—was seen as a sign of concern for the weak against any who would put them at risk or threaten his legitimate claim to parentage. In this sense, God’s wrath toward the nations (e.g., for their mistreatment of Israel) was a deep expression of his love over and for his people.[1]

For many of us, associating wrath with love is strange. But love in the Old Testament is grounded in the idea of Israel as God’s covenant people (Deut 6:4-5). Love was the relational glue between covenant partners. And if we think of covenant in terms of ‘family substitute,’[2] love was the trusting loyalty required for healthy family cohesion, while God’s wrath was his protective rage aimed at threats to that family (internal or external).

But we can’t swing the pendulum away from mercy toward wrath, as if wrath could never become a problem. Abraham and Moses certainly recognized this on many occasions—and even challenged God to exercise mercy! Tertullian, who defended God’s wrath against Marcion, urges us to weigh God’s ‘severity’ against his gentleness and observe the imbalance (Adv. Mar. 2.17). As I tell my students at WTC, God’s character is wildly imbalanced. The coexistence of wrath and mercy is not that of equals. If we take the language of mercy vs. wrath in Exod. 34:6-7 in strictly mathematical terms (love to ‘thousands of generations’ : ‘3-4 generations’ of judgment) God’s mercy outweighs by at least 500:1!

But for important reasons, these verses—which are central to an Old Testament portrait of God—keep God’s mercy and judgment sit together, even if they are imbalanced. Perhaps we lose something when we lose judgment and wrath, and perhaps we lose something when we toss aside violent texts as purely human projections. Maybe there is an understanding of God’s character that only comes by exploring the revelatory value of the most troublesome texts and by teasing out the complex characterization of Israel’s God that Scripture offers.

The subjects of wrath and violence are uncomfortable. But I suggest that how we handle them, and not just the topics themselves, is what poses the greatest danger. We will not all land in the same place on these topics, but what if we at least stop and explore the cost of doing business with easy resolutions? Let’s keep the roof over our heads.

[1] Smith, How Human is God? Seven Questions About God and Humanity in the Bible (Liturgical Press, 2014), 46.

[2] Smith, How Human is God? 48.