Wrestling with Violent Depictions of God: A Response to Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior
Eric Seibert deserves our thanks for his direct attention to a pressing and difficult issue many of us have struggled with—violence in the Bible. 1 Since he provides an overview of his book, I will not attempt a comprehensive review, but rather will briefly outline and respond to one particularly prominent aspect of this work: Seibert’s call to distinguish the “textual God” from the “actual God.” 2 Since any proposed strategy for dealing with violence in the Bible proves deeply contextual, my contribution will consider the implications of Seibert’s approach for biblical interpretation in light of the setting in which I work and teach.
An approach that requires one to distinguish what is “historical” from what is not . . . leaves people in the pew waiting for a decision from the “experts.”
THE “TEXTUAL GOD” AND THE “ACTUAL GOD”
Seibert seeks to address the issue of problematic, and particularly violent, portrayals of God in the Old Testament in light of our commitment to the authority of Scripture (17–32). 3 To do so he calls into question the common assumption that the Bible always describes “what actually happened” and outlines various “functions of Old Testament narrative” and the “theological worldview” on which these are based (131–68).
Given the tension between divergent depictions of God, Seibert argues that responsible readers must distinguish between the “textual God” and the “actual God” because: at times “God did not actually say or do what the biblical text claims”; the Bible’s “descriptions of God are, to a greater or lesser degree, culturally conditioned”; and finally, “there are times when one image stands in such contrast to another that the two seem mutually exclusive” (171–72). As he concludes:
Choices must be made between competing and contrasting images in order to speak consistently and coherently about the character of God. If we hope to use the Bible to think rightly about God, we need to differentiate between literary representations and the living reality, between the characterization of God in the Bible and God’s true character (173).
Having discussed these difficulties, Seibert introduces “the God that Jesus reveals” as his hermeneutical key for dealing with divine violence in the Old Testament. On the basis of this Christocentric approach, Seibert concludes that the “actual God” is nonviolent and thus implies that a “textual God” incompatible with such a view may be historically inaccurate, contextually derived, or simply mistaken regarding God’s character.
While I too am deeply concerned about the issue of violence in (and of) the Bible, I do not think that historicity on one hand or a “nonviolent God” on the other are the best places to start. Indeed, such an approach seems to fall into the very historicism Seibert seeks to correct. In my view, it is this historical bias itself that presents a problem. Rather, Scripture provides a reliable yet thoroughly human theological witness to revelation, where the scriptural context of material takes precedence over historical accuracy. Thus, even those depictions of God which attribute violence to God may continue to function as important hermeneutical irritants that provide the means for emerging with a Word of God for our time and place—even and perhaps especially when it challenges contemporary understandings or makes us very uncomfortable.
JONAH AMONG THE TWELVE: A BRIEF CASE STUDY
To illustrate the implications of such approaches I will reflect on Jonah and its role among the “Minor Prophets” or “Scroll of the Twelve” (Hosea – Malachi), since this material reflects Seibert’s central concern with discerning God’s character.
As with prophetic literature generally, this scroll deals with exile. Over and over the prophets warn that judgment is coming in which God will devastate the land and drive the people from it. They assume that God can and will bring judgment, but will also gather and restore once the calamity is over.
But God is an equal opportunity disciplinarian. While most of these books concentrate on Judah/Israel, Nahum aims a message of judgment squarely at Nineveh, opening with the words:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies.
the Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
(Nah. 1:2–3 NRSV, passim)
The vitriol piles up in Nahum, condemning the capital of the Assyria empire—the power that had wiped the Northern Kingdom off the map—and gloating over its demise. Nahum goes so far as to use the metaphor of rape (Nah. 3:5); the imagery could hardly be more stark or unsettling.
While we might like to be rid of this little book and its depiction of divine violence, the portrayal of God here passes Seibert’s first test of credibility, since both exile at the hands of Assyria and this super-power’s eventual demise actually happened. Nonetheless, we may find the theological explanation of these events “problematic.”
In contrast, in the middle of this scroll we find a strange prophet in an even stranger book. Jonah is sent to Assyria, not Israel; the brief book bearing his name has far more narrative than prophetic oracles; and yet his one line “Forty more days . . . !” elicits a flurry of repentance that would make any prophet proud—and which even prompts God to “change his mind concerning the calamity (evil)” he was going to unleash upon Nineveh (Jon. 3:10).
At first blush we might see the portrayal of God as merciful in Jonah and ruthlessly violent in Nahum as mutually exclusive; as Seibert says, “God either is or is not merciful” (173). However, beginning here obscures that Jonah and Nahum engage in a debate precisely over the nature and character of God, centered on the Lord’s self-description in Exod. 34:
The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
While both Nahum and Jonah explicitly draw upon and re-interpret this description, neither presents an abstract choice between a merciful and a vindictive God. In fact, for divine “mercy” to exist some form of judgment seems necessary, since removing an element of decision jeopardizes its very possibility.
Nahum emphasizes the conclusion of this passage, and so “comforts” Israel by delivering a diatribe against Nineveh. 4 In effect, although God is merciful and slow to anger he insists that the latter aspect does not disappear, since the Lord will “by no means clear the guilty” (and who could be more guilty than Assyria). The character of Jonah himself seems to resonate with this perspective, since he is furious that God relents from punishing this foreign power. After all, it is precisely because he knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger” that Jonah ran away in the first place! He did not want to deliver this message because he had the sneaking suspicion that God might be so merciful, so slow to anger as to even let the hated Assyrians off the hook (Jon. 4:1–2).
What’s more, the Ninevites’ words from ch. 3 also appear in Joel: “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his anger” (Joel 2:14). And once again in Joel, this phrase is directly linked to God’s character, since this verse immediately follows yet another quotation of Exod. 34’s depiction of God (Joel 2:13). While the Ninevites repent on their own initiative with no explicit call to do so, there is no indication that Israel heeded Joel’s call to repent. In so doing the hated Assyrians provide the primary example of repentance within the Minor Prophets, an element which remains a hermeneutical irritant within the Jewish tradition to this day, since Jonah is traditionally read on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
Although in our day the “great fish” elicits much attention, for an ancient Israelite the idea that the Ninevites would repent—and that God would relent from punishing them—would have been much more difficult to stomach.
This brief discussion raises several significant issues. First, are historicity and God’s nonviolence the best criteria for identifying the “actual God”? While the surrounding prophets announce chapter after chapter of divine judgment, in Jonah God changes his mind and relents. Within its current context this little book demands a reinterpretation of the entire scroll in light of a God who could even relent from punishing Assyria—and yet Jonah is the most historically doubtful. If we make historicity central, the characterization of God in Jonah proves suspect; if God is nonviolent, Nahum’s depiction is unthinkable. But might not the “literary construct” of Jonah reinterpret or even take precedence over the “historical facts” underlying Nahum? 5 And how might Nahum’s depiction of God be theologically significant, even revelatory, in his (and our) context?
Second, while we might see a “merciful” and a “punitive” portrayal of God as mutually exclusive, is choosing between them the best approach? Doing so seems to miss the significance of this biblical debate regarding the relative balance between God’s dominant mercy and perpetual concern with justice, both of which are grounded in the central depiction of God in Exod. 34. As Seibert demonstrates, viewing God as essentially nonviolent implies that the prophets’ portrayal of exile as divine punishment was a culturally conditioned perspective inconsistent with the “actual God.” However, if the prophets prove so consistently mistaken in their view of the character and sovereignty of God, can we trust their parallel concern with aligning right worship and social justice? And what would stop others from beginning with a God of judgment, or sidelining the call for social justice as socially conditioned?
Third, while I agree that the Bible provides “contextual” understandings of God, I am less convinced that we can move behind interpretation to know “God as God really is.” Functionally, this may lead us to simply replace biblical interpretations with our own. Recognizing biblical depictions of the divine as contextual does not provide the basis for rejecting them as inaccurate, 6 but rather the invitation to empathetically understand how, within that context, they reveal something of who God is. 7 This also challenges us to empathetically understand other interpretive moments and settings where such views have had revelatory significance, such as the image of God as a “warrior” within African-American spirituals (“Go down Moses”) or as a “judge” among our sixteenth-century Anabaptist forbears.
Finally, this also reminds us that our own interpretations arise within and in response to specific settings, so that Seibert’s sharp distinction between the “textual God” and the “actual God” itself represents a contextual interpretation. For instance, his extended, careful discussions regarding the historical accuracy of the Bible and appendix on inspiration clearly reflect the concerns of his primary audience. I wonder whether his context may also explain why biblical depictions of God as one who intervenes through enemy militaries or other violent means seems so incompatible with the “real God.”
CONTEXTUAL INTERPRETATION IN OUR DAY
While I passionately share Seibert’s concern regarding careful discernment with respect to violence in the Bible, in reading the book I was also consistently struck by how different our contexts appear to be. Where he teaches in a “confessional” department, I teach undergraduates in a Religious Studies department of a major secular university; where he assumes the basic authority of Scripture, in my context this is often under dispute; where his students insist on the historical accuracy of biblical documents, many of mine treat it as a fairy tale or cultural artifact; and where he challenges previous convictions, many of my students have had little exposure to the Old Testament in particular, and even to the Bible in general. In what follows I will raise general and then more pedagogical and pragmatic questions raised by Seibert’s book, many of which emerge from my own context.
First, do apparently incompatible depictions of God necessarily mean that one must be inaccurate? From the beginning, the Bible is remarkably unharmonized, a feature which is often editorially heightened rather than diminished. For instance, while Seibert notes that Genesis presents a “nonviolent creator” (199), Gen. 1 describes God as all-powerful and detached while Gen. 2 provides a more personal, intimate portrayal of the divine. Choosing between these would render much of the rest of the Bible unintelligible—with only the first depiction God could hardly talk and have a picnic with leaders on Mt. Sinai, while with only the second, the God of the prophets who orchestrates world events according to a divine plan would be largely incomprehensible.
Our challenge when confronted with such contrasts—even that of a “loving” and “angry” or even “violent” God—lies in recognizing the Bible’s nature as a witness and then holding these depictions in creative tension, expecting that both reveal something about God. If we do not allow for a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” view of God then I fear we will construct an image of the divine that chooses between and even functionally eliminates substantial portions of the biblical witness.
Second, if we adopt historical accuracy as a significant criterion for distinguishing the “textual God” from the “actual God,” how should we evaluate the depiction of God’s character within a psalm, proverb, prophecy, epistle, or other non-narrative material?
Third, is a “nonviolent God” necessary for insisting that followers of Jesus should be? Although Seibert and I fundamentally agree that as Christians we are called to a life of nonviolent discipleship, I am less convinced than he that Jesus believed God to be essentially nonviolent: in part because he celebrates Passover, 8 warns of impending judgment, 9 and quotes from Isaiah and other prophets for whom exile was a divine punishment and return a sign of divine mercy.
I do not suggest that the portrayal of a “violent God” either provides the final word or a legitimation of our own use of violence (in my view it can actually have the opposite effect; see Rom. 12:19–21). However, given the prominence of divine violence in the biblical witness (Old and New Testaments), I would strongly caution against eliminating such a perspective as inaccurate and thereby removing it from the canonical conversation. Rather than a criterion for sidelining violent portrayals of God, the Jesus of the Gospels provides a model for how to engage, re-interpret, and live out such passages in contemporary settings. For instance, it is worth reminding ourselves that Jesus’ way of nonviolence was forged and supported through an interpretation of the Old, not the New Testament. Nonetheless, I too am concerned that many Christians appear more willing to follow the model of the first Yeshua (Joshua) than the second (Jesus). 10
Fourth, to what extent do we treat our own contemporary contexts and understandings as static or even normative? Seibert often appeals to the views of “most Christians” while critiquing certain biblical understandings of God, which is striking since his depiction of God as nonviolent itself represents a minority position. This also makes me ponder what in our own context prompts us to insist on a nonviolent God—and why sixteenth-century Anabaptists had little difficulty reconciling a God of judgment with their own commitment to nonviolence and following Jesus in life.
Speaking personally, God’s judgment as announced in the prophets or called for in lament seems particularly important since, within the social, economic, political, and military configuration of a globalized world, I suspect that I am more on the side of Egypt (or Assyria) than with a rag tag group of runaway slaves. I wonder if the idea of judgment is uncomfortable in part because this might very well mean a judgment of us rather than them. If this is the case, it may be an important reason for maintaining this concept.
I am also cautious to adopt Seibert’s approach for more pragmatic and pedagogical reasons. First, I hesitate to subordinate the Bible to historical reconstruction. I encounter increasing numbers of people who are either profoundly disillusioned with the Bible or have no prior connection or exposure to it. In either case, if I introduce history as an important criterion for the reliability of the Bible’s depiction of God and then start identifying which passages are not “accurate,” I would quickly lose my audience.
Second, an approach that requires one to distinguish what is “historical” from what is not tends to place biblical interpretation among professionals or in the “academy,” and leaves people in the pew waiting for a decision from the “experts.” I routinely encounter intelligent, well-educated people who feel disqualified from studying their Bibles because they do not “know enough.” While both Seibert and I seek to engage and challenge people to move beyond a simplistic view of the Bible, in my context I fear that adopting his approach may further distance people from the Bible.
Third, extended discussions about historical accuracy tend to harden existing divisions, locking people into a struggle between theological “liberals” and “conservatives.” In my view we should recognize that both of these impulses are profoundly important for biblical interpretation. Where “conservatives” often insist on “taking the Bible seriously,” “liberals” commonly insist that there is more than one way to interpret it. Bible study benefits when both of these perspectives are present. However, too often people self-select into studying among those with whom they largely agree, rather than with a more diverse group. With little cross-pollination, “conservatives” may assume that their reading is True while others are “interpreting,” while “liberals” may consider the Bible to be outdated, contradictory, or even irrelevant. Put succinctly, often a challenge for “conservatives” lies in allowing for multiple perspectives within, and interpretations of, the Bible, while for “liberals” it can be simply committing to engage the Bible.
Finally, I am concerned that by identifying certain depictions of God as inaccurate we may functionally abdicate the interpretation of difficult passages to persons with whom we profoundly disagree. Along with Seibert, I seek to read Joshua for its theological witness and am confident that, as part of Scripture, it will have something to contribute. In doing so I also attempt to say what it is not, and challenge interpretations that use such material to nefarious ends. However, in doing so I hesitate to jump too quickly to the New Testament to resolve the dilemmas we face, but rather want to demonstrate why using Exodus or Joshua to justify militarization, war, or contemporary occupations proves problematic from within this material itself. For instance, I do not challenge the idea that God is on Israel’s side in Joshua because the book is historically inaccurate, but because I see this as a fundamental misreading of the book itself within its scriptural context(s). 11
FROM HISTORICAL REFERENCE TO SCRIPTURAL WITNESS
Seibert reflects both a consistent yearning for immediacy and an emphasis on historical reference, where “knowing God as God really is” intermingles with an emphasis on “what God actually did in time and space.” In practice, either view can provide the basis for questioning certain depictions of God. For instance, on historical grounds: “if God never actually flooded the earth as described, then we are free to raise questions about the accuracy of this particular portrayal of God” (165). Or, while the destruction of Jerusalem undoubtedly happened, “Israel’s theological interpretation of that event remains open to question” (165). In doing so, Seibert’s historical perspective becomes a safety valve for dealing with the problem of violence, since: “Acknowledging that there are some things in the Bible that did not happen, or did not happen as described, effectively exonerates God from certain kinds of morally questionable behavior” (112, emphasis added).
Although Seibert articulates an alternative to defending the historical accuracy of the Bible as key to its significance, his rebuttal remains rooted in a historical paradigm; thus, like those he critiques, Seibert allows historical concerns to dominate interpretation. In my view, the difficulty here lies not in whether x or y “actually happened,” but rather in treating this as the central question. While in many cases our historical verdict would be largely the same, I am hesitant to make this the central category.
Given his interest in historicity and belief that “some portrayals of the Jesus of the Gospels do not reflect what Jesus actually said or did” (187), Seibert’s decision to employ the biblical portrayal(s) of Jesus rather than reconstructing a “historical” one proves striking. As he states: “I believe the general portrait of Jesus that emerges is reliable enough to serve as a standard by which to evaluate portrayals of God in the Old Testament and elsewhere” (188, emphasis added). While this reflects an apparent shift, I see Seibert’s comment as significant because it signals the sufficiency rather than exhaustiveness or referential correspondence of Scripture. Where he sees a much greater gap between the “textual God” and the “actual God” in the Old Testament than the “textual Jesus” and the “actual (i.e., historical?) Jesus” in the New, I would insist on the theological sufficiency of both.
Returning to the example of Jonah, Seibert evaluates the “historicity” of Jonah and helpfully outlines various reasons “for believing it did not actually happen” (93–97). However, when confronted with the question, “Was Jonah really in the belly of the fish?”, starting with the issue of historicity quickly becomes a no-win situation. Answering “yes” appeases some while leaving others to question your sanity; answering “no” pleases others and leads some to wonder about your status as a Bible-believing Christian. In either case, the effect is to lose half of your audience by introducing a “wedge issue” that hardens people’s initial positions and increases their suspicion of those on the other “side,” all before stepping into the book. When I inevitably encounter this question I respond by saying we will return to it later, and then work through the book for three or four sessions. After exploring it together I ask participants to summarize the message of Jonah in one sentence, after which we return to the question of historicity. Whereas for many the “whale” was the only thing they knew about the book coming into the study, afterwards the significance of repentance, God’s love for the “foreigner,” and the temptation to avoid God’s call feature much more prominently. In the end participants often see the “great fish” as a relatively minor aspect of the book, and so far it has never made it into a summary.
This example illustrates an attempt to subordinate our dominant historical bias to the theological witness of Scripture. I know that people are trained to ask historical questions, to separate fact from fiction, and to associate something that is “true” with what “really happened.” However, I do not find this orienting perspective to be particularly helpful for interpreting the Bible, where concerns with what things mean figure more prominently than attending to historical detail.
If we move from historical reference to scriptural witness as our central paradigm for interpretation, even “fictional” accounts such as Jonah or Jesus’ parables provide crucial witnesses to God’s revelation and character. In this sense, the bias of Scripture is not a problem to be overcome but rather the means through which it functions as a reliable witness to revelation. But witnessing to revelation does not mean historical accuracy. 12 While historical questions helpfully inform our interpretation of Scripture, our primary hermeneutical task lies in seeking divine revelation through interpreting biblical documents rather than the critique of biblical characters or events through historical reconstruction. In short, our challenge lies in forming and resourcing diverse interpreting communities, committed to wrestling together with the aid of the Spirit to discern God’s will through the theological witness of Scripture.
As this response indicates, I have found Seibert’s book challenging, engaging, and thought-provoking. I commend it to others as a sustained, constructive attempt to deal with violence in the Old Testament, and one that deserves careful consideration. It is significant in part because it prompts us to return to some basic, crucial questions such as, What is the Bible and how should it be read? I also hope that my response contributes to our on-going discernment as believers who have renounced violence and committed to following in the steps of Christ.
Scripture—all of Scripture—witnesses to God’s revelation, which may be easier to recognize in some passages than in others. As Seibert says, “If we approach the Bible as Scripture . . . then we need to do more than just reject texts containing problematic portrayals of God. We need to look carefully at other aspects of these very texts as we attempt to discern how they might function as a word from God to us” (214). Contextually discerning this revelation was and remains a task to which the church has been called, and one that requires every generation to engage the material again. The task of interpretation is never complete, and no statement can encapsulate God’s essence so perfectly that it displaces Scripture. Finally, we need to realize that even the idea of a nonviolent God does not define or encompass “God as God really is,” so that rather than submitting God to our peace theology we seek to be an extension of his.
- I am grateful that Eric Seibert was willing to have his book, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009) provide the basis for the “Mennonites and Friends” forum at the Society of Biblical Literature meetings in November 2010, where an earlier version of this response was presented.
- Seibert adopts this distinction from Terence Fretheim, though he posits a wider gap between the “textual” and “actual” God than his predecessor, as discussed below (note 6).
- Several of these concerns could be raised with respect to NT material as well: the death of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts seems to portray God as an “instant executioner”; Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin has been described as “abuse”; God continues to be described as a “divine warrior” as punctuated through the moniker “Lord of hosts (i.e., armies)”; and so on. Thus, the difficulty Seibert names goes beyond “Troubling Old Testament Images of God,” as his sub-title states. For his extended discussion of scriptural authority, see Appendix B: “Inspiration and the Authority of Scripture” (263–80).
- Nahum (nahum) means “comforted one” and is closely related to nehum, a term used for those who returned from exile.
- On Seibert’s discussion of Jonah, see pp. 95–97.
- While Seibert explicitly employs Fretheim’s distinction between the “textual God” and the “actual God,” the latter uses these to point to the necessarily provisional way of talking about God. For him the biblical text is not mistaken or inaccurate about God, but rather limited: “while God transcends the text, the text does convey knowledge of the actual God.” (Terence E. Fretheim and Karlfried Froehlich, The Bible as Word of God in a Postmodern Age [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998], 118; emphasis added.)
- Years ago John Howard Yoder also insisted on a “historical view,” but in a different sense. Despite his thoroughly Christocentric view, Yoder proves very critical of evaluating earlier documents by later ethical standards: “It is therefore more proper, in reading the OT story, to ask not how it is different from what came later, but rather how it differs from what went before or what prevailed at the time” (Yoder, “If Abraham is Our Father,” in The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism [Scottdale, PA; Waterloo ON: Herald, 1971], 94.) Thus, concerning divine warfare, he insists that Old Testament narratives be understood in “historically relevant terms” so that “The issue to which [God] spoke was not one of ethical generalizations and the limits of their validity. To place the question there is the source of our trouble” (Yoder, 100–101). Yoder’s primary interest in ethics also provides an intriguing contrast to Seibert’s consistent concern with “thinking rightly about God.”
- Jesus’ Last Supper and our celebration of communion build directly upon the Passover celebration, so that Jesus’ death and resurrection marks a conclusive victory over death and oppression that was already signaled in the Exodus. Since Jesus celebrates the Passover, in which the LORD “as a warrior” was the dominant paradigm, I disagree that “Jesus never endorses or promotes a view of God as a divine warrior who fights physical battles on behalf of a ‘chosen people’ ” (Seibert, 195).
- Seibert argues that Jesus’ judgment parables do not happen in “time and space,” and so “the God Jesus reveals acts nonviolently in historical time and is, therefore, fundamentally nonviolent even in the face of Jesus’ teachings about eschatological judgment” (254). Given his emphasis on historicity this move requires more justification, particularly since the parables of Jesus prove vital for scholarly research on the “historical Jesus.” This tack also seems to place Jesus’ other parables into question, many of which explicitly purport to describe what God is like.
- “Jesus” is the Aramaic equivalent of “Joshua” in Hebrew, so Jesus could be considered a second Joshua or Joshua, a first Jesus.
- Since Bibles differ widely between Judaism and Christianity, not to mention among Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and other Christian groups, “scriptural context” is itself a varied concept. Arguing for the importance of scriptural context does not resolve this problem, but it does shift the primary questions we ask.
- For a brief discussion of the nature of Scripture as a theological witness as well as its “present-tense,” see W. Derek Suderman, “Who’ll be a Witness? Testimony in the Old Testament,” Vision (Fall 2009), 5–12.