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Thursday, February 6, 2014

"Violence in Scripture - Interpretation" (Jerome F. D. Creach)

TITLE: Violence in Scripture: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church
AUTHOR: Jerome F. D. Creach
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, (286 pages)

We have all heard about the common accusation. "There is so much violence in the Bible. How can a loving God permits such gross violence, vengeance, and the vices of murder and evil deeds?" What does the Bible then say about violence? Is there justification for its use? In what manner does God condone or condemn violence? How can modern readers understand the contexts then and the implications now especially in a post 9/11 era? These challenging questions and more are tackled by Dr Jerome Creach, Robert C. Mulholland Professor of Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. As terrorism and violence grows unabated in various parts of the world, more and more attention are being paid toward the biblical segments on violence, especially in the Old Testament. It raises questions like:

  • Why does the Old Testament depict a loving God as one who is also vengeful and violent?
  • Do servants of God then have a license to kill?
  • How do we make sense of God when Jesus preaches love while the Old Testament seems to veer in the opposite direction?
  • Who is God?
  • How do we read the Bible?

Even believers are often stuck with the predicament of violence in the Scriptures. On the one hand, they can try to justify God. On the other hand, plain reading does show that there is violence advocated explicitly by God. The key is to learn how to read and interpret Scriptures as a whole. This interpretation needs to be consistent with two guiding principles. First, there is no one way to read Scripture, except to read it each part of Scripture with a constant eye on the bigger picture. The author suggests Christ as the key window to interpretation. Second, God's use of violence is always against forces aligned to evil. The author suggests that violence is not an end in itself but always a motivation against some ills of the world.

Creach provides some assumptions on how to understand violence in scripture. First, learn to see the part in context of the whole. We see how God often has to destroy something so that something better can be constructed. It is important to understand that God's motivation is one that is "corrective and redemptive in nature." Violence is not about violence for its own sake. It is always for the sake of ensuring the redemption is maintained. Second, learning to see the particular in the light of the whole does not mean there is nothing redemptive in the act in the first place. For example, in passages that say all in the land are to be killed, we read about Rahab being spared. Perhaps, the story has less to do with the killing but why God is particularly concerned about the sparing of one life. While this may not answer the question of violence entirely, it does provide an interpretive angle to consider farther. Third, each reading has to be historically informed. The problem with modern readers is that they too readily read 21st Century sensitivities into ancient texts. Creach suggests that the context of killing the enemies needs to be understood in the light of an utterly helpless and non-military trained Israel tribes. What Israel did in obeying God is nothing compared to what their enemies did. That is one reason why God forbade Israel constantly to copy the practices of the Canaanites and the godless people. Fourth, Creach is very open to a "spiritual interpretation" of the biblical texts, in particular the ones that seem to condone violence. This also called "allegorical interpretation" which has largely fallen out of favour with modern readers. Fifth, we need to let God be God, that He is Judge, and He has every right to do what He wants. In other words, there is a limit to what man can question God. More importantly, we read of what God would do to protect and redeem His people.

More importantly, the book offers hope in the reading and understanding of the Old Testament. Understanding that there is no one definite way to understand the violence motif in the Old Testament, Creach sets the stage from the book of Genesis that God created man to be the caretaker of a garden. With the Fall, man plunges into a vicious cycle of tyranny and violence. What is most interesting is that God has the end in mind. One of peace and of Sabbath, and God has invited man to be participants of this.We read from the Exodus passages of how God fights for his people, especially when his people are utterly helpless. At the same time, God is portrayed as a Divine Warrior in which evil and injustice are swiftly dealt with. Both retributive and restorative justice are described. Then there is the violence inflicted upon the enemies of God and Israel. Sodom, Pharaoh, and the Amalekites are denoted as three symbols of evil, in which non-violence is absolutely inadequate and the best way to bring about justice and righteousness is eradicating evil completely. Chapter 4 is one of the most important as it deals with the problematic questions of genocide and the problem of violence in Judges and Joshua. Creach argues that the "utterly destroy" passages does not actually call for the killing of others but for the holiness of Israel, a metaphor for complete obedience and holiness to God. In doing so, Creach is advocating an allegorical interpretation, aligning himself with Origen.

The violence in Judges is so bizarre that it merits one whole chapter. Creach argues that the purpose for the existence of Judges is not to describe the violence but to show the depravity and evil of the sins of man. When a people loses her way, in particular walking away from God, everything else collapses.  Yet, the amazing thing is that God uses violence for liberation purposes too, (eg Samson). Of interest is the Levite's concubine who were horribly raped (Judges 19:1-30), that the mistreatment of women coincides with the deterioration of the spiritual state of the nation. The cutting up of the woman shows the consequences of the cowardice of the Levite as well as the need for judgment to come quickly.

When thinking about violence, the Bible also paints a picture of who the violence is against. For the prophetic books, violence is described against the enemies of God who are arrogant, godless, wicked, oppressive, and all types of evil. See how Elijah fights the prophets of Baal. Many parts of the Bible also calls on God's people to participate by prayer. They are to pray to God for vengeance to come down from above. This runs contrary to most of our pious saints' understanding of prayer. Creach justifies it by saying that such prayers are essentially meant to bring to an end quickly the evil. Nothing is to be prolonged.  Justice be swift and complete. Not only that, the suffering and the victimization are too real to be ignored that the only way to bring about restoration is for a quick vengeance from God. It is important that in violence or vengeance, the focus is not on the person but on the eradication of evil per se. We need to distinguish between killing a person and ridding evil. The New Testament does contrasts in a remarkable way when we see Jesus' preaching a gospel of nonviolence. Does this mean that the NT is contradicting the OT? Absolutely not. Creach suggests that the problem "becomes harder to resolve if Jesus’ instructions concerning violence are read as absolute statements." This is controversial, but what Creach is trying to say is that the gulf between the OT and NT will not be significantly large if we see Jesus' teachings in the spirit of counter-culture rather than the letter.

This is a hard topic to discuss. It is even more challenging for any theologian to put forth a particular view or interpretation. Creach is bold. He pushes interpretation far and wide, considering not just the literal but the literary dimensions. He is willing to consider an allegorical reading where he sees fits. Most controversial of all is chapter 8 where he suggests not taking Jesus's words as "absolute statements." His assertion of sacrifice and service before any violence is moot. The cross is a symbol of Christian identity. It tells us that in any act of violence, it is not about good or evil people being inflicted. It is about the Son of God who willingly subjected himself to violence for the sake of all people. At the cross, violence or non-violence is no longer the issue of concern. It is an utter rejection of worldly forces totally, that power and might is not going to save the day. Only God's complete Judgment will end all violence once and for all.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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