Ted Grimsrud—June 28, 2017
[This is the eighth in a long series of posts that will work through an important new book, Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). The seventh post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
The breadth and depth of OT violence
In chapter seven, “The Dark Side of the Bible: Taking a Hard Look at Scripture’s ‘Texts of Terror’” (pages 279–334), Boyd gives an overview of various OT passages that present God as the direct or indirect author of profoundly violent acts. He tries to be fairly comprehensive. He succeeds in helping us see just how big the problem of affirmation of violence in the OT is.
In order to help us “appreciate the enormous gulf that exists between the violent warrior deity depicted within the ‘dark side’ of the OT and the crucified God who is at the center of the NT” (332), Boyd begins the chapter with a very brief mention of “the OT’s Christ-like portraits of God.” (281) While the contrast between the “bright side” and the “dark side” does make the point that the “dark side” shows us a God who actually is not compatible with the God we see in Jesus, I am troubled by Boyd’s method here.
He writes, “Contrary to the overly generalized and sensationalized description of the God of the OT provided by [a “new atheist” such as] Richard Dawkins …, people who read Scripture sympathetically generally find that the God of the OT is by-and-large a relational God of hesed (i.e., covenant-love) who continually strives to bring all people—first the Israelites and then, through them, all the ‘families of the earth’ (Gen 12:3; cf. Exod 19:5-6)—into relationships of shalom and covenantal righteousness/justice with himself as well as each other” (281). This is well said and I completely agree with it. However, in the course of CWG it’s as if this affirmation of the peaceableness of the God of the OT is irrelevant to Boyd’s argument about the OT’s violent portraits. I would say, on the other hand, that the predominantly positive view of God in the OT should be at the core of our efforts to interpret the violent portraits of God in ways that are compatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
One clue to Boyd’s method might be discerned in his summary comments at the end of this chapter when he writes of the contrast being not between the two visions of God in the OT but between the “violent warrior deity” and the “crucified God” at the center of the NT. (332) It is as if he is so invested in making the cross central to his argument that he will not want to pursue a path that minimizes the contrast between the OT and NT—which would make the “newness” and distinctiveness of Christianity in relation to Judaism less apparent. He’s not so much interested in exploring the internal debate within the OT but more in pursuing a debate between the testaments.
Boyd mainly treats the violent stories in the OT as events that stand on their own. He tends to look at each story as a discrete and seemingly self-contained unit with its meaning to be found within that particular story. This is typical of interpreters, and almost universal among those who think of the OT mainly as a problem. That Boyd would follow that same kind of approach even after his comment (quoted above) that the OT mainly presents God as “a relational God of covenant-love” who wants to bless all the families of the earth is pretty disappointing.
He does not discuss the Big Story and try to fit the “violent portraits” into the story of this loving God that the OT as a whole tells. I argue for precisely that kind of approach where we start with the big picture, asking among other things how this story results in Jesus. The violent portraits are part of that big story, but they do not threaten the peaceable message of the whole. Clearly that message got through to Jesus in spite of the presence of those violent portraits. The Big Story’s message is secure, so we may consider how to relate the hard parts to it without fearing that they would overshadow or negate the peaceable conclusion the story comes to.
The “beautiful” God of the OT
I like Boyd’s use of the term “beautiful’ of God. However, I am not happy with his statement that if we are to affirm the OT God as “beautiful” we have to choose between two options. Either we “abandon the traditional conviction that all scripture is ‘God-breathed’” or we “conclude that those who know the true character of God revealed in the crucified Christ are not supposed to take these violent divine portraits at face value.” (326)
Now, I don’t think those who recognize that God as revealed in the OT is “a relational God of love” (such as many of the OT writers and main characters, not to mention Jesus) ever thought we are “supposed to take these violent divine portraits at face value.” They recognized that the God of the Big Story read as a whole has always been beautiful—which would always have meant that we don’t take the violent divine portraits at face value.
I suspect that it is a modern notion of “God-breathed” as meaning something like inerrancy or infallibility and the verbal plenary inspiration of each word that would imagine that those portraits should be “taken at face value”—or would worry that not taking them at face value requires that one abandon the actually meaning of 2 Timothy 3:16. I could add that I have the impression that Boyd’s view of “God-breathed” is not “traditional” but rather is quite modern —the product of the modernist/fundamentalist debate and the formulation of doctrines of scripture responding to the historical-critical-method that assume a precision in the creation of the Bible that was not present earlier.
At the same time, Boyd seems disingenuous when he proposes that his approach to take these violent divine portraits at something other than face value is consistent with the evangelical notion of the Bible as “infallible.” I think he would be much better off if he were to accept the need to articulate a different understand of “God-breathed” than has been formulated among fundamentalists and evangelicals.
I think a biblical view of “God-breathed” would recognize that we should be honest in analyzing the Bible in light of what it actually is rather than analyzing it through the blinders of evangelical doctrines about the Bible. If we simply go by the evidence, it would seem that the violent stories are, indeed, “relics of barbaric Ancient Near Eastern ways of understanding God” (Boyd’s words). I find it difficult to see that dismissing the evidence of the materials themselves could possibly be respecting the actual truthfulness of the Bible. I’d say the notion of inspiration could be applied to those stories (say, the Flood story or Sodom and Gomorrah) only in the sense of what they add to the Big Story.
I wonder if Boyd’s “crucicentric” reading strategy actually denies the validity of reading those stories on their own terms, instead filtering them through a certain understanding of Jesus’s cross. Such a denial seems to me, in an important sense, to counter the notion of the Bible as authoritative. If we are to affirm biblical authority, I think it has to be the Bible as it is that is authoritative, not the Bible as evangelical theories of inspiration say it must be. Boyd seems to want to save his theory of inspiration by imposing on these violent stories certain principles that don’t allow us to read the stories as they come to us.
My Big Story strategy is committed to reading all the stories straightforwardly, even if some of the stories clearly are not in and of themselves “inspired.” When read as such, in the context of the overall story and especially in light of the message of Jesus and the prophets, we should be able to discern meaning from them that does contribute to the peaceable message of the Bible about a beautiful God. And this meaning should not require the kind of complicated cruciform reading strategy that Boyd outlines in this book. For an example of a Jewish reading of the OT that affirms that it is a message about a beautiful God, see Abrham Heschel’s classic, The Prophets.
I sense that Boyd is not interested in his discussion of the “dark side” of the OT to fit the “bad stories” into the context of an OT peace vision (for one exposition of that vision, see Walter Brueggemann’s book, Peace). Boyd does not try to show that the peace message overrides the violence in the context of the overall biblical story. His approach, it seems, is simply to present the cross as, in effect, overpowering the bad stories rather than helping us see how the bad stories serve the overall dynamic culminating in a peaceable Bible.
Problems with the “God-breathed” doctrine
Finally, I wonder if Boyd’s “God-breathed Scripture” doctrine actually makes the problem of the OT’s violent portraits of God worse than it has to be. If this is so, it would not be Boyd’s fault in that he is only echoing the standard doctrine widespread in evangelical theology—it’s just too bad he couldn’t leave it behind. To think of the Bible as “God-breathed” in the sense that Boyd seems to, where each particular text is inspired, even in some sense coming straight from God, puts the presumption of truthfulness on each particular part rather than locating truthfulness more with the cumulative message of the whole Bible.
When each part is seen as being inspired and hence truthful, each part must be explained in a way that protects that truthfulness (as Boyd will proceed to do at great length in this book)—rather than simply saying that some of the parts are simply residue of ANE sensibilities, period. Of course, those “residues” do tend to be used in ways that might contribute to the Big Story (such as how the story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac culminates by pointing toward the rejection of child sacrifice). But sometimes, surely, the residue simply sits there.
In any case, by seeing each part as inspired, we may be hindered in our ability to recognize how the “bad” content is often secondary to the ways that the use of the stories diverges from ANE sensibilities and points toward a peaceable message (I learned this notion from my OT teacher Millard Lind, see his book Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament). So, for example, we may consider how the Flood story ends with the rainbow, how the Sodom story features Abraham’s intercession with God pleading for mercy, how the exodus and conquest stories feature an alternative notion of a politics without human kings and generals, how the golden calf story features Moses’s successful petition with God to continue with the people, and how the Joshua story ultimately ends with a rejection of the idea that God’s promise requires a territorial kingdom.
I like the idea of reading the OT mainly in terms of its Big Story, and recognizing that in the details there are elements that are not inspired, that present false views of God, that give ethical directives that do not reflect God’s will, and in other ways are not to be taken as truthful. But the presence of these elements, discerned by an honest, straightforward reading of the text, does not threaten the truthfulness, even inspiration, of the Big Story—as Jesus himself seems to have recognized.