Ted Grimsrud—November 1, 2017
[This is the 16th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 15th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
Chapter fourteen, “The Heavenly Missionary: Yahweh’s Accommodation of the Law, Nationalism, and Violence” (pages 701-64), is the second part of Boyd’s account of the first of the four principles that make up his “Cruciform Thesis”: the principle of “cruciform accommodation” continuing the discussion from chapter thirteen. He looks at how God’s accommodation to human sinfulness may be seen in how God allows the writings of the Bible to present God as complicit in the people of Israel’s violent understandings of the meaning of the law and of their nationhood.
What about “sin”?
A key part of Boyd’s account is what he calls God’s “sin-bearing” efforts: “To the degree that canonical portraits of God reflect [the fallen and culturally conditioned hearts and minds of God’s people of the time,] our cross-informed faith must discern the heavenly missionary stooping to bear the sin of his people, just as he did in a definitive way on Calvary” (703, emphasis added). It’s not quite clear to me what is involved in “sin-bearing.” This term seems a bit jargonish without a clear explanation of what it means. Is it the idea that there is some kind of legal “transaction” where the sin is “paid for”? What’s the actual outcome of this “sin bearing”?
Boyd seems Augustinian in writing that we are all living in a state of sin—as if being in a state of sin is what matters most in the human relationship with God. If it is the case that this general sense of our sinfulness matters the most in relation to God, then we would likely say that what killed Jesus was our sinfulness in general; we are all guilty. The significance of Jesus’s death then is to somehow address this universal problem of human beings being fundamentally sinful as a state of being. Precisely how Jesus’s death resolves the problem of universal human sinfulness is yet to be determined.
It strikes me, though, that to understand Jesus’s death as being about universal human sinfulness lets the specific sinners (Pilate, et al) off the hook. Even more, this understanding lets the structures on whose behalf the killers of Jesus acted off the hook. It also means we have nothing to learn from the actual events of the crucifixion that could shape how we relate to the Powers. The focus on Jesus’s death as needed to resolve the problem of universal human sinfulness underwrites a death- and sin-oriented faith rather than a life-oriented faith. Such a focus in turn may influence people to be more passive about overcoming their sin since the solution is something that we have nothing to do with, other than believing in it. Ironically, then, this universal sinfulness theology may render us less able to be “freed from our sins” since the story is not aimed at guiding us to understand and learn from the actual historical events of Jesus’s execution and his model of resistance to the Powers.
Linking Jesus’s death as “sin-bearing” with the OT’s violent portraits of God seems to be part of a general orientation toward the biblical story that sees the main content being about sin and brokenness. What seems most important for Boyd about the story of ancient Israel is simply the sinfulness and failures of the people. That strikes me as getting the story backwards. I’d say a better orientation toward the biblical story is to focus on the merciful creativity of God from the beginning and the difficult but not futile or fruitless struggle for faithfulness on the part of many people.
Boyd writes at great length about how the element of OT commands and practices that reflect cultural dynamics that make them morally problematic are examples of God’s accommodation to Israel’s limitations (see, for example, 715-6). One problem with that interpretation, it seems to me, is that it posits a big gulf between God and the lives of the people. It’s as if we have to do with a perfect, unchanging God who lurks in the background and directs events and writings but is not part of what actually happens.
I find it much more sensible (and theologically attractive) to think instead that these are human texts that simply reflect the awareness that the people who told and wrote down the stories had. The Bible is best seen as a record of cultural dynamics more than of God’s “accommodation.” They spoke of God as best they could but did not transcend their historical settings. God met them in those settings, but they never had access to a perfect revelation. And it is only when we read the story as a whole that we are able to discern which of the various accounts of God’s works and commands are most likely to be truthful.
More on “masks”
Boyd returns to the theme of God wearing “masks” that he discussed in the previous chapter. He writes: “Yahweh stoops to wear the mask of a king-approving deity…. Not only did Yahweh accommodate this practice, but once he did so, he took on the appearance of a deity who approves of it” (718).
This is a clear, concise statement of Boyd’s reading strategy. As I read it, he says here that God is above the fray and does not approve the Hebrews appointing a human king. However, because the people had stubbornly insisted on going ahead with kingship, God accommodates to those sinful wishes by wearing a “mask” that causes the people to see God as a God who does approve their having a king. In fact, this “masked” God actually approves of human kingship.
With this approach, Boyd claims two seemingly contradictory truths: (1) God as God actually is, the God we see in Jesus’s crucifixion, is not a God of oppressive human kings. God is and has always been nonviolent and gracious. (2) The Bible is truthful when it reports that God approved of kingship because that is the picture of God that the people actually saw, not realizing that what they actually saw was a “masked” God who was accommodating their sinfulness.
I’ll mention only a couple of the problems I see with Boyd’s argument. For one thing, it seems like a strange way to save the “infallibility” of the Bible since Boyd is reading a meaning into the text that is nowhere present—that God is wearing a “mask” when the text tells us that God approved kingship. As well, such an approach prevents Boyd from discerning the strong peaceable message that is actually present in the story. The story of human kingship is the story of a failure that rightly understood becomes a powerful basis for rejecting entrusting the promise of God to bless all the families of the earth through God’s people to human kings and nation-states.
Boyd would be saved from this unconvincing and convoluted argumentation if he were more willing to accept that the Bible is human through and through, and to see how reading the Bible as a human document makes it easier to take a Big Story view. With a Big Story view, what matters the most is the overall story. Since the story culminates in Jesus’s revelation of God as indeed nonviolent and gracious, we may expect to find throughout the story the pieces that build Jesus’s comprehensive theology of God’s love and peaceableness—and the guidance for our call to embody this love and peaceableness.
What is the “first covenant” like?
Boyd portrays the “first covenant” as a whole as an expression of God’s “accommodation”: “The law, sacred nationalism, and the use of violence … are foundational aspects of the first covenant” and as such reflect “God’s willingness to accommodate the non-ideal state of his people” (722). This is kind of a programmatic statement for the pages that follow. It is deeply problematic.
Certainly, elements of the OT story reflect that the life lived by the Hebrew community was “non-ideal” (as was the life lived by the New Testament communities and by Christian communities ever since). And part of this non-ideal living was the presence of “sacred nationalism” and “the use of violence.” However, neither of these two elements were “foundational aspects of the first covenant.” The law would have been a foundational aspect. However, it is of a qualitatively different character than “sacred nationalism” and “the use of violence.”
The law codes themselves give us mixed signals, but their overall emphasis was critical the sacred nationalism and the use of violence. Certainly, that was how the prophets represented the heart of Torah. The law is the key resource that grounds the prophetic critique of sacred nationalism and the use of violence. The recovery of Torah in the time of Josiah is presented as what allowed the community to survive the consequences of Israel’s sacred nationalism. The law is the lifeline for Israel from the start, not an “accommodation to the non-ideal state of God’s people”—and it was treated as such by Jesus and Paul.
The entire story of Israel down to the present is the ability to draw from Torah guidance and strength to sustain their peoplehood and to embody enough shalom to keep going. Jesus is part of this dynamic, not its alternative. Christianity’s separation from Israel was a tragedy that did not have to happen (see Daniel Boyarin’s book Border Lines). Violence and nationalism are actually antitheses to Torah. They are not part of it, they arise later, and when they fail, Torah still stands. Torah is what sustains the peoplehood.
I wonder if part of the problem with Boyd’s argument might be an assumption that Christianity is better than Judaism. In reality, though, as a rule the track record of Christianity is worse—the violence and nationalism of the OT come back powerfully in the history of Christianity. Doctrinal theology replaces Torah and thereby takes away one of the main elements of the biblical tradition that can counter the nationalism and violence.
Did the law “fail”?
Boyd argues that in retrospect in light of Christ we should understand that “it was a foregone conclusion when the law was given that it would fail … to rightly relate people to God” (724). A big flaw in this line of thought is that Boyd seems to assume that the core purpose of Torah from the start was “to relate people to God” rather than to guide life as people already related to God.
It is crucial to keep in mind the order of events as given in Exodus. First, God frees the people from slavery. And God does this in a way that emphasizes how much that liberation was a gift from God, unearned. Then, God gives the commands. The first statement is “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2). Only after that do the commands begin. The Hebrews have always seen Torah as a gift that God provides to people who are already in relationship with God. Torah guided that relationship; it never was intended to establish it.
Plus, given the history of Judaism, how can we say the law failed at all? The law is what kept the promise going both after Babylon in the 6th century BCE and after Rome in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Now, understandings and applications of Torah have varied over all this time, and the communities of God’s people have always only partially embodied God’s mercy. However, the success of Torah is sustaining the identity and many acts of faithfulness in these faith communities is one of the most remarkable realities in human history.
It makes no more sense to say “the law failed” than to say Jesus’s message of the presence of the kingdom of God failed. I think it is clear that Christians have historically done worse at embodying Jesus’s teaching than Jews have at Torah’s. In both cases, the truthfulness of the message does not “fail” when people fail to follow it. The embodiment of Torah or of Jesus’s teaching should not be seen an either/or of success or failure. Salvation, as presented in the biblical tradition, was never about full embodiment, but about receiving the gift of God’s mercy and then seeking as best possible to show the fruit of that mercy to the families of the earth.
Violence and nationhood
Boyd raises a challenging point when he discusses the connection between what he calls “sacred nationalism” and the use of violence. His statement contains a lot of truth: “Violence is inherent in the very concept of a distinct nation, for no nation, past or present, can come in to being and hope to remain an independent nation” without using violence vs. internal criminals and external threats (727).
However, I think Boyd misses one of the key elements of how the Bible presents the politics of God’s kingdom—an element if taken seriously helps provide an entirely different approach to the “violent portraits”—and the political relevance of Jesus. Though Boyd says that “violence was intrinsic to the entire first covenant,” I would argue that the originating story of the Hebrew nation is nonviolent in important respects. The creation story itself presents the true king (Yahweh) as inherently nonviolent, working to create through the breath of the Spirit. After the calling of Abraham and Sarah, we see key moments of nonviolent action: Abraham’s prayer on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation, and Joseph’s non-retaliatory response to being reunited with his brothers.
The core identity of Abraham’s family is about peoplehood not territoriality. With the exodus, again the emphasis is on the peoplehood without territoriality. The animating power in their liberation was, we could say, theo-politics not power politics. Then, Torah is given to a non-territorial people without a kingdom to run, without a king, and without a standing army. And Torah included important elements that challenged the tendency to become a territorial kingdom like the nations.
The territorial sense of nationhood for the Hebrews came after Torah. It was not at all required by Torah; rather, Torah voiced skeptical attitudes about the dangers of territoriality. That the territorial Hebrew kingdom failed became an object lesson. When you seek to be nationlike instead of being people of Torah, you will decisively fail. The OT story calls, ultimately, for a different kind of peoplehood that would clarify and validate Torah. It is true, as Boyd writes, that violence can be seen as inherent in national identity. But the Bible’s point, I would say, is that this is the way of the nations that God’s people are continually warned against. However, with the warnings are also the call to embody a different kind of peoplehood that could still be called a kind of “nation-hood”—the kingdom of God.
As it turns out, when the territorial kingdom fell, it was Torah itself that allowed for the sustenance of the peoplehood (thanks to Josiah). Out of the Babylonian catastrophe with the destruction of the nation and the temple, clarity about the validity of diasporic existence emerges for God’s people. We could even say that out of the rubble a kind of an “anarchistic” sense of peoplehood (a nation without territoriality) came into being.
When read with this dynamic in mind, we can see that Jesus actually does embrace this kind of politics—peoplehood, a sense of being a nation, even a kingdom identity, but without territoriality. Hence, Jesus’s politics, as Boyd of course realizes, is a nonviolent politices, an upside-down kingdom.
With the schism between Christianity and Judaism that became irrevocable by the 4th century, marked in part by Christianity’s accommodation with the Roman Empire, Christianity began to follow a path of returning to sacred nationalism where the faith community links with territoriality. Hence, the Christian tradition echoes the dynamics in ancient Judah and likewise over and over failed to remain faithful to Torah. This process brings a reiteration of the message concerning the ancient Hebrew kingdom about the need to embrace non-territoriality.
Following this line of thought concerning politics, nationhood, and territoriality also provides a context for discerning the meaning of the “violent portraits” of God. Much of the violence is in service of the quest for territoriality—a quest that ultimately failed. In that failure we find a message. No violence in service of sacred nationalism linked with territoriality.
Boyd’s idea is that the territorial nationhood after the Conquest of the promised land is God’s “accommodation.” God knew better the entire time (727). Boyd’s God seems to be outside of history, knowing ahead of time exactly what will happen, and is biding “his” time until Christ. I would rather say that the territorial experiment was all part of a trial-and-error leaning process for the God of the story, too. It could be that God tried the territorial nationhood in hopes it would work in providing a context for the embodiment of Torah by the community in a way that would lead to blessing all the families of the earth.
The Hebrew territorial nation was somewhat anarchistic (with judges, not dynastic kings) and was at least somewhat successful for a time. The story gives us intimations to how territoriality could have possibly continued to work, but in practice (and likely increasingly in theory) it didn’t (couldn’t?) work. The process was extraordinarily instructive and provided experiences that clarified future direction for the Hebrew people. The plot of the Big Story is about a process of gaining clarity about the core truths that were present from the beginning: Torah’s anarchistic sensibility drawn in part from the story of Abraham.
What are Judaism’s “core symbols”?
Boyd asserts that with Jesus “the core symbols of Jewish particularism (i.e., the holy land and the temple) have been thoroughly transformed to reflect the reality of the universal, Christ-centered kingdom” (736). However, the way the OT tells the story, neither the land nor the temple is presented as a “core symbol.” Neither was part of the original formation of Israel, which is understood to be, first, the calling of Abraham and Sarah and, second, the liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt followed by the gift of Torah. No land and no temple at this point.
When the land is given over to the Hebrews, their presence there was clearly stated to be conditional on faithfulness to the way of Torah. When the temple was built, it was also said to be conditional on faithfulness to the way of Torah. The meaning of this conditionality becomes clear when the people, according to the prophets, indeed did not remain faithful. The destruction of the temple and the ending of the possession of the land, however, did not end the peoplehood. That true “core symbol of Jewish particularism” was proven to be Torah—a symbol that remained central for Jesus.
This discussion underscores again that a key part of Boyd’s agenda in his argument in CWG is making a sharp distinction between the OT and the NT, which—of course—is a sharp distinction between Judaism and Christianity. I believe that if we want the best possible perspective on how the OT violent portraits can be understood as compatible with the revelation of God in Jesus we need to do the opposite. We do better to look for continuity between the OT and NT, to see how Torah and the prophets anticipate Jesus, and to see how the Big Story of the entire Bible gives us the best framework for God as thoroughly nonviolent.
Boyd’s Big Picture
Interestingly, Boyd uses the language of the Big Picture in his long discussion of what he calls “The Big-Picture Application” (722-63). In this section, he makes many good points, with extensive documentation, both of ways that the OT does highlight God’s nonviolent inclinations and ways the violent portraits are mainly echoes of Ancient Near Eastern understandings.
I actually would be inclined to make even more of these points than Boyd does. He mainly uses the discussion of God’s nonviolent inclinations and the ANE sources for the violent portraits to buttress his “mask” theory. He does not present these two themes on their own terms. I tend to think not that these elements reflect some deeper level of Yahweh “accommodating” Godself. Rather, I think that they are fragments of various kinds of understandings that Israel over time brought together in a loose coherence to tell the big story of God’s mercy, politically anarchistic revolution, and partial embodiment of Torah.
I am content to see all of the fragments as human perspectives. The sense of which fragments give us the best sense of what God actually wants and is like comes only as we read the entire story (including the NT) and let the overall plot, what I call the Big Story, clarify the truthfulness of the parts.
Boyd does make a good point when he writes: “Why should denying that God actually engaged in the violence attributed to him be any different from denying that God actually descended from a mountain top or actually blew smoke out of his nostrils and fire out of his mouth?” (760). I agree that thinking of these various statements in symbolic terms seems appropriate, and that literalism should never be seen as our default approach.
On the other hand, I am not so pleased with Boyd’s statement about God’s “accommodation” when he writes, God had “to humbly accommodate his revelation to the fallen and culturally conditioned hearts and minds of his ancient people, which means that, to this degree, God had to continue to allow people to view him in fallen and culturally conditioned ways” (763). It is difficult for me to see the difference between the “dismissal solution” Boyd rejects and this idea that the text is wrong in how it portrays God but in some sense is still “inspired” and “infallible.”
Once you allow for Boyd’s kind of “accommodation,” where do you draw the line? Especially since the text itself presents everything it says as true? It seems much easier simply to recognize that it’s all “culturally conditioned” and that what’s “inspired” is the Big Story and that it is at most what we could call a “weak” sense of inspiration.