The Old Testament as a peace book

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the first of two lectures in the Carol Grizzard-Browning Lecture Series at the University of Pikeville (Pikeville, Kentucky). It was presented November 11, 2013. The second lecture was “The New Testament as a peace book” and is posted here.]

What I will do in this lecture on the Old Testament and my second lecture on the New Testament is share about some things I have been passionately engaged with now for about 40 years.

A journey to pacifism

When I went to college in the mid-1970s, the Vietnam War was coming to an end. I registered for the draft, and was ready to fight if called. The draft ended, though, before I was called. That marked a turning point in my life, nonetheless.

I had just become a Christian. I was taught a Christian should be patriotic and be willing to fight for one’s country. However, I was also urged to read the Bible, especially to read the story of Jesus my savior in the gospels. The gospel story presented Jesus as a peacemaker. This challenged me as I struggled with the possibility of going to war. I also learned to know a number of veterans returning from Vietnam. They told horrific stories—and themselves quite often were traumatized. War didn’t seem so attractive.

About the time I finished college, I came to a clear conviction that I could not fight in war, that I was a pacifist. This conviction came shortly after I had deepened my commitment to live as a Christian—the two went together, as I resolved to be a serious Christian I committed myself to be a pacifist. What I meant by “pacifist” first was “the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to fight in or support war.” My current definition is more like this: “The conviction that no causes or values can override the commitment to treat each life as precious.” In either case, to be a Christian pacifist is to affirm these convictions due to one’s understanding of Jesus’s message.

My task then became—and remains—one of faith seeking understanding. What does it mean to be a Christian pacifist? How should I read the Bible in relation to these convictions? What about all the questions and problems—and the stubborn fact that just about all Christians for hundreds and hundreds of years have not accepted pacifism?

It helped that I had some experience being a minority. I was the only boy with four sisters. I was the only University of Oregon fan in a community filled with Oregon State fans. I was used to being a bit different, so being part of the tiny pacifist minority in a religion filled with warriors was not itself enough to make me think I was wrong….

Not long after my moment of clarity, I discovered a Christian tradition with a long history of pacifist belief and practice—and in time my wife Kathleen Temple and I joined with these Christians and became Mennonites. It has been crucial to not feel totally alone—to have a little bit of critical mass—in these strange beliefs.

Is the Old Testament about peace?

I want to present a positive vision—these are some things the Bible tells us about peace and why they are important for us. I don’t mean to ignore texts and themes that go against pacifism (I recognize that there are quite a few of those). I welcome conversation about them. But in the limited time I have to speak, it seems best to focus mainly on the positive, the biblical message of peace.

Most Christians seem to assume that the Old Testament has little to help our overcoming war and violence. The comment of my friend years ago is representative. We were in a Bible study group together and when someone suggested we study something from the Old Testament, my friend snorted and stated flatly, “I don’t want anything to do with that bloody book!” And many Christians who have wanted something to do with the Old Testament, going back to Augustine in the 4th century, have mainly used it as a justification to accept war.

So it’s no surprise when peace theologian Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer wrote a book critiquing Christian acceptance of violence, he portrayed the Old Testament mainly as a problem: “An overwhelming body of biblical material says that God is willing and capable of murderous, wrathful, hateful deeds, including genocide or near destruction of God’s people, all nations, and the earth itself. People of faith have little choice but to make a choice: either God is a pathological killer because the [Old Testament] says so or the [Old Testament] is some times very wrong about God” (Jesus Against Christianity, page 63).

One way to respond to this problem is directly to address the difficult, seemingly pro-violence texts (this is what pacifist Old Testament scholar Eric Siebert does in his recent and very helpful book, The Violence of Scripture). A complementary strategy, which is what I will do, is to focus on the pro-peace message. Such a strategy does not eliminate the problems, but presents the case that peace is the default position taken by the Bible’s story when taken as a whole. So, it’s not like we start with pro-warfare assumptions in the Bible and try nonetheless to figure out a way to make it pro-peace. Rather, it is that ultimately the Bible does give a pro-peace, anti-war message when taken as a whole.

I believe we find in the Bible a coherent story, with plot development, that provides a powerful basis for our peace theology. This story is what we could call “God’s healing strategy.” The Old Testament plays a crucial role—not as a preliminary to the essential part, but as providing the core enduring message of peace and salvation that Jesus and the New Testament confirm and vindicate.

I don’t want to deny that the Old Testament contains numerous challenging elements for peacemakers. And we legitimately devote much creative energy to understanding and responding to those problems. However, it is a misreading of the Old Testament and an impoverishing of Christian peace theology to let the problems overshadow the positive message of peace that the Old Testament gives us. To make my case, I will discuss three points: the Old Testament peace vision, the Old Testament justice vision, and the Old Testament critique of state-centered power politics.

Genesis and biblical peace

From the very start, the Old Testament gives a vision for peace. The creation story tells of God bringing order and harmony out of chaos. This harmony is a gift, though, not order imposed by coercive force. The consequence of the harmony is the empowerment of humanity to share in God’s work of cultivation in this new world God brought into being (not the subservience of impotent human persons to an all-powerful king-like God). The creation story presents harmony between humanity and God and among human beings as our default human circumstance. We start as peaceable creatures in harmony with (even in the image of) a peaceable God.

Disharmony enters the story, and we read of the punitive response by God with the Flood that ends with God’s decision to continue with humanity and a commitment not to respond with such violence in the future. Then we come in Genesis 12 and begin the main plot line of God’s chosen people with the call to bless all the families of the earth. In a nutshell, we find here the basic message of the rest of the Bible. God will bring healing to broken creation by calling a people who will know God’s peace, live in light of that peace, and be a conduit of peace to all the families of the earth.

In light of the call he receives to bless all the families of the earth, we read how Abraham embodies that call. He models the practice of hospitality when he welcomes visitors from God. His hospitality contrasts with Sodom’s inhospitality toward those same visitors. Abraham as a model continues, and he pleads with God on behalf of the sinful Sodomites, that God would spare them. Abraham is scarcely a perfect human being, but he does put into practice his call to be a peacemaker.

The rest of Genesis is dominated by stories of Abraham’s direct descendents. Two of the core stories emphasize the call to brotherly reconciliation—Esau and Jacob reconciled, Joseph’s mercy toward his unjust brothers. Both stories provide a peaceable message in response to the “original sin” of Cain murdering his brother in Genesis 4.

Exodus, Torah, and peacemaking

The central act of salvation that defines Old Testament faith has at its core God’s peacemaking commitments. After Joseph saves his family from starvation, they settle in Egypt. Many generations later, the Egyptians enslave Joseph’s descendents, the Hebrews. They cry out in their trauma. God hears and acts to liberate them from slavery so that they might bless all the families of the earth. God’s liberating work (the “exodus”) has troubled many because of its violent elements. However, a more careful look shows crucial elements that point away from militarized, state-centered violence.

The God of the exodus is a God who responds to the sufferings of slaves, not a God of the rich and powerful. The exodus events are triggered by a human prophet, Moses, who very clearly does not have the status of king nor of military leader. The Hebrews do not win their freedom through wielding the sword. The only stereotypical weapons of war in the story (the Egyptians’ “horses and chariots”) are destroyed. Clearly, the violence in the story stems from the systemic violence of Egypt’s slave culture and the refusal of Pharaoh to relent in his insistence to continue to oppress. The exodus breaks from that violence.

The liberated Hebrews moved through the wilderness toward the promised land and experienced many painful educative encounters with God. God gives them a written framework for their future society, Torah. We cannot call Torah pacifist in our modern sense, but the heart of the commandments may be characterized as a concern for shalom, for wide-ranging social wholeness. Torah called for a society centered around the well-being of all people in the community, a powerful vision for peace.

Linking justice with peace and mercy

Turning to justice in the Old Testament, we note that “justice” does not stand alone. It links with peace and mercy. Peace and justice shall embrace (Psalm 85). What does the Lord require, that we do justice and love mercy (Micah 6).

Justice provides the standard for the quality of life in the community of God’s people. God delivered them from the injustice of enslaved life in Egypt. God did so with the purpose that they know the wholeness of genuinely just relationships within their own community. And God did so with the purpose that they witness to the nations of this justice in ways that will lead to blessing all the families of the earth.

At its heart, Old Testament justice is a life-giving force more than an impersonal principle of impartial fairness. The book of Amos provides detailed reflection on the meaning of justice. Amos’s most vivid metaphor in relation to justice is that of water, an ever-flowing stream. Justice brings life for the community—and sustains that life. In a desert environment, a stream that does not dry up brings life like nothing else.

Amos argues that to follow the ways of justice leads to wholeness; the lack of justice leads to brokenness. Amos speaks of judgment. Israel has left the justice-enhancing elements of Torah. The inheritance system, meant to sustain full participation in the community over generations, lay in shambles. An alarming number of Israelites were now landless and destitute. Torah’s concern for widows and other vulnerable people has been forgotten and the vulnerable now are people to exploit, not empower.

And, maybe worse of all, these injustices happened amid an active religious life in Israel. The well-off flocked to worship services where their sins went unconfronted. They then returned to the same oppressive practices. So, Amos speaks of inevitable judgment. However, the judgment is not characterized as an expression of justice. Judgment is what happens when justice is missing. Justice is the alternative to judgment. Do justice and the judgment will not come.

Amos shows Israel’s departure from the main elements of Torah’s vision for a just society. The consequences of the departure are spelled out as a means to call Israel back. Again, the meaning of justice here (as embodied in the message of Torah) is that justice is about life (not judgment or condemnation). The vision of healing at the end of the book of Amos is both a reminder that it is never too late to repent, to turn back, to return to the way of life—and a promise that Israel’s unfaithfulness will not in the end be more powerful than God’s faithfulness. Many may miss out; the consequences for turning from Torah are genuine. But healing will come. Justice will be served.

So, the justice vision of the Old Testament brings together reconciliation, mercy, and social wholeness. The portrayal of life lived according to Torah involves freedom from the oppression of Egypt’s slavery, it involves prosperity and a sense of security across the generations and it includes especially the vulnerable members of the community. There will be consequences should the people turn toward injustice. But finally Amos promises restoration and healing for those who turn back to God.

Justice and the hope for healing

The driving force in the justice vision is hope for healing. Justice leads to reconciliation and making whole that which had been broken. Amos’s final vision of restoration following judgment echoes other major prophetic books. Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah each are structured in similar ways. They tell of brokenness and trauma due to unfaithfulness (injustice) and of the powerful threat of judgment due to the community’s departure from Torah (retributive justice). But each one concludes with a vision of healing.

The prophetic message portrays justice ultimately as restorative justice. Justice restores wholeness—it restores relationships between humans and God, and between humans and other humans. What drives the threats of judgment is justice-as-restoring-life, not justice-as-punishment. Recognize the costly fruits of your turn away from Torah and turn back so that you may live.

So, the meaning of justice in the Old Testament is fully in harmony with the other key elements of the biblical political economy—peace and mercy. The prophets’ justice-oriented political economy sought for a social transformation that would, when implemented, overcome the problems of injustice and warfare—and result in genuine peace grounded in mercy.

Of the three elements of the Old Testament message that provide bases for peace theology, the two I have just summarized are positive: the Old Testament peace vision and the Old Testament justice vision, two themes that are fully complementary.

Israel as a counter to empire

The third element is more negative—how the story critiques state-centered power politics. The empires that threatened Israel and the Promise provided models that Torah presented itself as an alternative to. However, sadly, these empires also were attractive to many within Israel. As Israel patterned itself more and more after “the nations,” Israel itself becomes a counter-example for the visions of peace and justice. In the end, the failure of the Israelite kingdom to embody Torah’s shalom leads to a new kind of political vision. This new vision understands biblical shalom to be channeled not through nation-states so much as through decentralized trans-national faith communities.

The beginning vision that established the identity of the people of God in the Old Testament came when God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would become the forebears of a great nation that, ultimately, would bless all the families of the earth. This initial call defines the meaning and purpose of the chosenness of Abraham’s descendents: their vocation would be to reverse human brokenness.

Then, the descendents of Abraham end up enslaved in Egypt, at risk of losing their identity altogether. In their suffering they simply cry out. God hears their cries, “remembers the promise to Abraham and Sarah,” and intervenes to sustain the life and vocation of these people. God reveals God’s identity as a God who takes the side of slaves over against their oppressors. God creates and liberates this people so they might provide an alternative to the way of empire that defined Egypt’s political economy.

A human leader, Moses, shapes the community. But the story presents Moses as a prophet who does not gather to himself horses and chariots or wealth or other kingly elements of human domination. Rather, Moses puts this liberating God, Yahweh, at the center of the community’s political consciousness. Having God, not the human king, at the center is the starting point for ancient Israel’s political philosophy. Yahweh stands over against human kings and empires. The Hebrew community emphasize decentralized human power dynamics and trust in God rather than weapons of war.

After the escape from Egypt, God takes the people into the wilderness for a time of preparation before giving them a geographical home where they might ground their community. The key element of the preparation came in the form of Torah, the blueprint for this community’s common life. Torah throughout presents itself as based on values that oppose empire. A second key part of Israel’s political philosophy has to do with who matters especially in determining the health of the society. In contrast to Egypt, most obviously, Torah requires the community to show care and support for the most vulnerable people in their midst—the widows, orphans, and resident aliens.

Yahweh’s direct intervention, independent from any centralized human power blocks (no human king, no permanent military, no large collection of horses and chariots) gains the Hebrews their new home. The Hebrews establish a new kind of political organization, centered on trust in God rather than on the power of the sword.

Israel’s turn toward power politics

However, the story tells of many and profound struggles in this community. One particularly painful moment is recounted in the book of Judges, where irresponsibility by a priestly leader and violent inhospitality by one the Israelite communities pushes the entire community into a terrible civil war. The people pull back before complete self-destruction, partly due to a rising threat from outside the community in the form of the Philistines, the enemies of the Hebrews in their early generations in the land.

However, after a short period of wise and effective leadership from the judge Samuel, the leaders of the Hebrews see themselves still at risk. They make a fateful move and demand that God allow them to choose a human king, “like the nations.” Samuel himself strongly opposed this request and outlines the consequences of such a move. Essentially, the people will return to “Egypt” should they take this path, with a human king who (like Pharaoh) will take and take. God relents though, and Israel embarks on a path that ultimately does lead to the destruction of their kingdom.

The book of Deuteronomy contained a brief vision of what a Torah-respecting human king would be like. This vision serves as the basis for evaluating the actual kings of Israel, beginning with their third king, Solomon. As portrayed in Deuteronomy 17, the faithful king would be different from the kings of the nations. He would refuse to gather great wealth or to marry many foreign wives or to collect many horses and chariots. As well, the king would model awareness of and adherence to the core elements of Torah. In fact, Solomon directly violates each of these commands. Perhaps most egregiously, Solomon worships the gods his foreign wives. His moves away from Torah and sets the stage for Israel’s long descent into unfaithfulness and the ultimate destruction of the kingdom.

A couple of key markers along the way illustrate the disregard of Torah. Solomon’s son and successor as king, Rehoboam, continued Solomon’s practices of oppressive forced labor. This led to a rebellion that split the people into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Both kingdoms conformed to the ways of the nations, not the ways of Torah, in ordering their social life. I Kings 21 tells how King Ahab rejected the core command concerning inheritance, a command intended to keep people on the land by requiring their holdings to stay in the family. Ahab murders a faithful follower of Torah who refused to give up his land due to his commitment to the inheritance laws.

A number of generations later, by the time of the prophet Amos, the kingdom of Israel evolved into exactly the kind of society the inheritance legislation meant to prevent. The largest part of the community had become disinherited, landless, with few resources and little power—and vulnerable to the exploitation of the wealthy and powerful minority. The legal system, intended to protect the welfare of the vulnerable, had been corrupted and the religious practices, rather than remind the people of Yahweh’s will for justice embodied in Torah, had become exercises in reinforcing the present unjust status quo.

Not long after Amos’s prophetic ministry, the Assyrian empire destroyed the northern kingdom. In a rare moment of listening to the genuine prophets, the southern kingdom’s King Hezekiah paid heed to Isaiah’s directives and God saved the Judean kingdom from Assyrian conquest. The reprieve turned out to be temporary, however. Hezekiah’s descendents proved to be just as corrupt as the northern kingdom’s leaders. King Manasseh, Hezekiah’s grandson proved to be the worst, actually implementing the practice of child sacrifice.

Manasseh’s son was assassinated, leading to young Josiah becoming king. Josiah, with Hezekiah, was one of only two kings affirmed by the biblical historian as faithful to Torah. In his reign, the scrolls of Torah are rediscovered in the bowels of the Temple and important reforms instituted. In the end, though, Josiah’s reforms came too late to save the Hebrew nation-state. Manasseh’s sins were simply too big to be overcome. Josiah rode forth the join the battle between Egypt and Babylon and was killed by Pharaoh Neco. His successors returned to the ways of the failed kings, and Babylon destroyed the temple and king’s palace and exiled Judah’s ruling class.

However, Josiah’s most important accomplishment was to recover Torah. This kept the promise alive. The prophet Jeremiah, who emerged in Josiah’s time, provided an analysis of the theological meaning of Judah’s fall that allowed people of faith to see in that fall not the defeat of God but actually a vindication of Torah. From the start in Joshua’s time, Israel’s place in the land was contingent on the people’s faithfulness. When they departed from Torah, their destruction actually proves to be evidence of God’s presence not God’s absence.

Countering state-centered politics

The people are exiled for a time—“scattered” away from Judea, beginning the existence of God’s people in disapora, away from their homeland. Jeremiah provides them a template for the sustenance of the promise apart from the nation-state: “Thus says the Lord to all the exiles I have sent into exile from Jerusalem into Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” From now on, the promise to bless all the families of the earth will be carried out through faith communities who rely on their own lived witness and word of testimony, not horses and chariots and geographical boundaries.

The concluding lesson from the Old Testament story of the chosen people in the land was the failure of the conventional power politics-oriented nation state. However, the original promise of blessing given to Abraham and Sarah remained alive. It has found expression ever since through Jewish communities and Christian communities that have remained free from state domination.

The original promise in Genesis 12 was not linked to horses and chariots and to any particular nation state. As it turned out, the move to tie the people of the promise with a particular geographical locale was a failure. Being like the nations reinforced the problematic dynamics of power politics and clarified once and for all that the way of the promise was as an alternative to power politics. This clarification then stood at the center of the message of Jesus, a message that flowed directly from the story of Israel.

The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus’ life and teaching are grounded in Old Testament faith and practice. Jesus intended to fulfill Torah, not abolish it. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” he said. “I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” His summary of the path to eternal life—love God and neighbor—is presented as the core message of the Bible: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus emphasized the elements of the story that I have just highlighted—the call to bless all the families of the earth, the critique of power politics both among the outside empires and within the community of faith, the special concern for including vulnerable people, the highlighting of mercy over sacrifice. Jesus either ignores or implicitly rejects many elements of the Old Testament. The parts that seem exclusivist and chauvinistic. The parts that glorify wealth and power. The parts the portray God primarily as judgmental and coercive.

An element of Jesus’ practice that has not been highlighted as often by interpreters as much as some others is how he furthers Jeremiah’s insight about diasporic politics vis-à-vis nation-state politics. Jesus himself lived and ministered within the geography of the ancient Israelite nation state. However, his message of the kingdom of God in his time and vision for its future followed Jeremiah’s vision, not the vision of the old geographically focused nation state.

Jesus critiqued nation-state politics explicitly: “You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” The community Jesus created was meant to exist throughout the world as leavening within whichever nation state they might find themselves—leavening that would be a form of seeking the peace of these various cities.

Luke continues the story following Jesus’ resurrection early in the book of Acts. Jesus makes a direct command to pursue a Jeremaic strategy: take the gospel to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth—not as an imperialistic nation-state spreading its “good news” in imitation of Rome’s way of spreading “good news” through the sword. Take the “good news” as a message of peace, meant to embody its transforming power through defenseless communities of witness and service. This is how all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Jesus’s relation to the Old Testament was not so much “promise and fulfillment” where the partial revelation of God through Israel finally gained its full expression in something new and (in key ways) different from what has come before. Rather, Jesus’ meaning may better be seen as “revelation and embodiment.” The original revelations in the creation story, the calling of Abraham and Sarah, and the liberating acts of God in the Exodus and giving of Torah revealed what humanity needs to know about God and God’s will for peace. The further revelation in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus embodies the original revelation. The Old Testament reveals, fully, God’s ways of peace in the world—Jesus embodies that way, not something different.

The key New Testament symbol for God’s work in the world is Jesus’ resurrection. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God vindicated the Old Testament message. Jesus embodied that message and as a consequence, in continuity with Old Testament prophets, met with resistance from the powers that be. God vindicates just this embodiment of God’s will. In doing so, God underscores the Old Testament visions of peace and justice and the Old Testament critique of power politics that Jesus made present and concrete in first century Palestine—and witnesses to today through his Spirit.

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