Rethinking God's Assumed Violent Streak

Rethinking God's Assumed Violent Streak

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This article runs in conjunction with the author's look at God, violence, and the Old Testament in the January/February 2013 issue of Holiness Today. Many find it difficult to reconcile what they perceive as a God of 'violence' with a God of love. Marty Alan Michelson helps bridge between these two polar concepts.

We need to re-examine how the Bible portrays the role of God and humans in enacting violence. True, the Bible narrates stories that include violence. But in many Bible stories, God restrained violence because violence is not God's hope for human action. Even when nation attacks nation, God does not singularly legitimize a retaliatory response.

Let's examine a major story, the story of the Exodus. A quick summary of the story might be:

  • Pharaoh inflicted the Israelites with slavery and refused to acknowledge God?s activity in several plagues.
  • God intervened by violently destroying Pharaoh in order to save the Israelites.

This summary notes that God 'plagued' the people and highlights that God's salvation for one group entailed destruction and pain for another. While this is not untrue, it is false to say that God hoped for the violence or plagues. Further, God restricted any and all human violence in this story.

In Exodus chapter 1, we meet the unnamed Pharaoh, a king who 'mastered' over the slaves in order to oppress them with forced labor. The oppressed slaves 'multiplied' and were worked more 'ruthlessly' with 'bitter and hard labor' and 'all kinds of work.' (Exodus 1:11-14) These quotes highlight the oppression of Pharaoh. This is not casual labor, but Pharaoh's structural social violence. Pharaoh commanded the midwives, 'Kill!'

We never hear God speak in this story (chapter 1). We only hear about God. We learn that God gave life in response to Pharaoh's killing. Specifically, God gave life to those who refused violence. Shiphrah and Puah were the midwives who saved lives and received life in the form of families.

Pharaoh called for more violence (Exodus 1), ordering all people that they 'must' throw all boys into the Nile. As the story moves forward into chapter 2, we witness the collaboration of four more women acting to save lives despite Pharaoh's decree. The boy Moses was saved by the calculated plan of Miriam, Jochebed, Pharaoh's daughter, and Pharaoh's daughter's servant. Even Pharaoh's daughter did not follow Pharaoh's command to 'throw' the boys into the Nile. She saved him from the waters of the Nile, in order to nurse with milk.

Only Pharaoh was violent in this story. In fact, in the story of Moses being saved, God is not even named as an agent or actor. Only Pharaoh acted to take life. Various women acted to save lives.

Nothing more is narrated of Moses' childhood (despite what Hollywood films might make you believe). We do know Moses was raised in Egypt and, it seems, he embraced Egyptian patterns of violence. Without invitation or command of God (Exodus 2), Moses took a life. Moses murdered.

Moses, it appears, learned too well the patterns of Egypt, violence begetting violence. The action of Moses was never authorized or sanctioned by God. In fact, God did not protect Moses. The Bible does not argue for any legitimacy to Moses' murderous actions, and because God did not protect or bless him, as with the midwives, Moses had to flee.

After a generation passed, God appeared to Moses (Exodus 3 and following). Much could be said about the passage of God's revelation at Mount Horeb (Mount Sinai), but with our attention to issues of violence, we should observe that before any 'plague' appeared, God stated that he would act against Egypt - the land, but not the people. 'So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that he will let you go' (Exodus 3:20).

God acted. That is certain. And God's action had consequences for the Egyptians. As God was revealed to Moses, God did not state that the intent was to harm human persons, but rather to work wonders for freedom and life of those who were victims, the Israelites.

Nowhere in God's announcements toward deliverance (Exodus 3 and following) did God request or permit the Israelites to act against Egypt. This is important. It is God who acted to reframe Pharaoh's choices - not Moses, Aaron, or any other person. While Moses had earlier acted to kill an Egyptian, now he had to learn not to act, retaliate, or kill.

We will not here narrate each of the continued actions of God in detail but only note a few items. First, the signs and wonders that God brought are not characteristically called 'plagues' in the text of the Bible itself. It is a misreading to call them all 'plagues.' Only frogs, death of livestock, and locusts are attributed as 'plagues' and this only in Exodus 8-10.

More characteristically, the activity of God is called 'signs' or 'wonders' or 'signs and wonders', in chapters 3, 4, 7, 10, 11, and 15. Chapters 3 and 4 are rich with the language of signs and wonders, but have no mention of 'plague(s).'

We cannot discount the violence of the tenth action of God, called a plague, and narrated across three chapters (Exodus 11-13). God brought the death of the firstborn. God's activity to bring violence requires several observations, though.

1. First, there is a kind of distributive equality to the death that comes from God. Exodus 12:29-30 records that from the throne to dungeon 'There was not a house without someone dead.' Gruesome as this must have been, the violence God brought here at the end of nine previous events of signs, wonders, and plagues, this 10th plague was in a curious way, equally distributed.

2. Second, we must note that the predicted death of the firstborn was never narrated. We read that every firstborn son will die (11:4-5) and 'At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt' (12:29) but what chapters 11 and 12 prepare for is never described in narrative.

We read verse after verse instructing the Israelites how to prepare for this night, but no single verse narrates the death. No blood. No sword. No violence was described, so it cannot be celebrated.

3. Third, and most importantly, when the violence finally came, God set about an elaborate plan both to spare the Israelites and to save them from violence. 'Not one of you shall go out the door of his house until morning' the Lord commands in 12:22. And in 12:28, 'The Israelites did just what the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron.' God guarantees and God requires that members of his called-out community are removed from the use of violence.

Pharaoh had intended to kill not only the firstborn sons, but all sons. More than 80 years later, when the Lord acted to turn back Pharaoh's violence, God ensured that no Israelite was present. This non-bloody, equally-meted out death wrought by the Lord used no members of God's people to enact it. The Israelites were restricted even from proximity to the violence.

The Exodus story is perhaps the most important story of salvation in the first portion of Scripture. And with Moses and the Israelites in this story, as with Jesus, God did not permit, allow, request, or hope for humans to act in violence.

We have only briefly nuanced several chapters in the Bible and our review is not intended to work through every detail, though what is presented should be clear and coherent.

I lived in Oklahoma City before, during, and after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The world watched the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City. In Mumbai, in London, in Bangladesh, in Norway, and across the globe, violence emerges from violent people.

Violence in our world is all too common and much too frequent. When we are tempted to believe that the major texts of the Bible validate and confirm a violent response to violent persons, we should remember the story of the Exodus.

In the Exodus confrontation with Pharaoh, God did not authorize human violence. Rather, God restricted it. Members of the Israelite community, and all members of believing communities, should carefully read biblical texts. In the Exodus, God's called-out community was restricted from even being near violence. These same persons are blessed when they save lives. This should serve as a model for believing communities today.

Marty Alan Michelson is professor of theology and ministry at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma.

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