Ted Grimsrud—January 15, 2018
[This is the 26th 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 25th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
In Chapter 24, “The Dragon-Swallowing Dragon: Examples of Cosmic-Level Aikido Warfare” (pages 1143-92), Boyd continues to make the case both for his understanding of the role of cosmic evil powers being responsible for most of the OT violence that is attributed to God and for centrality of the dynamic of God’s strategic withdrawal as God’s method of judgment.
The violence in Numbers 16
One of the most violent passages in the OT is Numbers 16, where God is said to judge rebellious Israelites by killing nearly 15,000 of them. Boyd uses this text to illustrate his crucicentric reading strategy. “There is no question but that this gruesome narrative presumes that it was Yahweh who performed these supernatural destructive acts” (1145)—but we cannot “theologically interpret this passage” as actually meaning that it truly was God who did the violence. We must “assess this portrait to be a literary crucifix, reflecting the same willingness of God to stoop as low as necessary to bear the limitations and sin of his people that is reflected on Calvary” (1145-6). That is, as I understand Boyd, God was willing to have this passage attribute the violence to God in order to “bear the limitations and sin of his people.” Presumably, then, God did not actually cause all these deaths.
It seems to me that in order to save his “commitment to treat all Scripture as ‘God-breathed’ as well as his commitment to the Conservative Hermeneutical Principle (1144), Boyd is compelled to read Numbers 16 as if the clear meaning the writer gives the story is wrong! I fail to see how his argument actually does save the infallibility of the text. One could say the story is wrong (and not directly inspired) and yet take it seriously as part of the Big Story (which is inspired in its overall message). People who affirm both the inspiration or truthfulness of the Bible and the normativity of the peaceable revelation of God in Jesus need not follow Boyd’s path. We may see the truthfulness as present in the Big Story as a whole, not in each element of that story.
I find it ironic that Boyd presumably affirms the validity of the need for punishment in this story. What he thinks is not true is simply the idea that God “himself” “pulls the trigger” and causes the deaths. I would respect his crucicentric method more if he would recognize that the cross simply is not about divinely needed punishing judgment (beyond the evil actions of Rome and the religious leaders). I wish he would recognize that the cross refutes the validity of punishment and shows it to be evil in relation to Jesus. Then Boyd could use his method to deconstruct the idea itself that God needs to punish.
As with other examples Boyd has discussed earlier in the book, so with Numbers 16 he argues “the events came about as a consequence of God ceasing to hold back ever-threatening forces of destruction…. In doing this, God was allowing one form of evil to punish another, always as a stepping-stone to the ultimate self-implosion of evil brought about by Christ’s crucifixion” (1146). In response to this suggestion, I suggest that: (1) Boyd’s distinction between God doing these things and God “allowing” them seems morally meaningless. As long as God is capable of “protecting” and chooses not to, God is still morally responsible for the violence. The idea that this “strategic withdrawal” is an expression of pacifism is morally repugnant. (2) Boyd’s God remains a punishing God. God as punisher is the big issue with the OT (and NT as well), I believe. If God is a punishing God, the God is not nonviolent. And such a God is not the God of Jesus. (3) I do not see any continuity between God “allowing” the terrible violence of Numbers 16 and Jesus’s crucifixion. I don’t understand how an alleged “self-implosion” of evil in the cross works in any “ultimate” sense, especially since evil continues unabated in human history.
Boyd notes that “Paul’s introduction of a ‘destroying angel’ in his interpretation of Numbers 16” in 1 Corinthians 10:1-10 (1146) gives us an interpretive strategy that “warrants interpreting all portraits of God using nature as an instrument of judgment along these lines” (1167). The actor in many of these violent events then may be seen as a demonic force, not God’s direct hand. However, since Boyd still believes this “destroying angel” furthers God’s will to punish, I don’t see that he has gained anything morally significant. All he has achieved is making a case for God not directly killing. However, “God allows one form of evil to punish another” (1146; emphasis added) in order to further God’s purposes. I’d say the big problem is the idea of God wanting punishment in any form, not God directly being the killer or not.
Demonic forces active in the exodus
I think Boyd’s discussion of the exodus as Yahweh’s battle with Pharaoh as actually a battle with “an anti-creational cosmic monster” (1168-85) is interesting and possibly helpful. I am cautious insofar as that approach could diminish the political significance of Pharaoh as the leader of an unjust empire and the liberation here being God’s intervention on behalf of slaves. As with this entire section of CWG, I worry about Boyd advocating a kind of dualism that makes the “cosmic powers” independent of their embodiment in actual human structures—rather than being the interiority of those structures (as in the writings of Walter Wink). Boyd’s analysis could serve a more radical political critique—but he doesn’t seem interested in that dimension. I think the “monster” in this story and Pharaoh’s Egypt are not separable.
I think Boyd is ingenious to suggest that the Red Sea itself could be seen as a “cosmic monster” who has a will of its own to destroy. God prevents the Sea from destroying the Hebrews but then removes the protection in order to allow the Sea (which is always evil) to destroy the Egyptian enemy (1174ff). This suggestion is perhaps less objectionable than some of Boyd’s other examples of getting God “off the hook” in that the Dead Sea in the story actually does seem to be an independent actor. It is not pure imagination to suggest this. However, I still think Boyd seems a bit disingenuous to argue that God is thus not responsible for killing the soldiers. The killing happens only because of God’s choice to let the Sea bring death. At the same time, certainly, this particular incident is way less morally problematic than many others where “innocent” people are massacred. Here, the soldiers die because they are actively seeking unjustly to kill the Hebrews.
God’s “punishment” of Pharaoh
Boyd essentially presents the exodus story as portraying a historical event. As I see it, a problem with reading the exodus story as historical arises when you look for the meaning of the story. If it is a kind of parable (not factual history), this problem does not exist in the same way. Boyd writes that God punishes Pharaoh with Pharaoh’s “own sins” (1180). However, Pharaoh himself is not actually hurt. The people Pharaoh dominates and has doing his dirty work are the ones whose first-born children are killed and who perish in the Red Sea. Pharaoh and his rule are relatively unscathed when the Hebrews leave. In what sense (read historically) is he actually “defeated”? Quite possibly, after the Hebrews left he recognized he was better of without them and went on to gain even more wealth and power.
Drawing on Psalm 78, Boyd suggests that the “band of destroying angels” (Ps 78:50) that was unleashed on Egypt was actually made up of “malevolent ancient Near Eastern cosmic agents against whom people needed continual protection” (1181). This notion of malevolent cosmic agents makes some sense, but it still does not truly let God off the hook. It is as if Boyd is suggesting that these angels always want to kill children and that they would except for God’s protection. To punish the Egyptians, God withdraws that protection. God didn’t “himself” kill the children, not was it God’s angels. But still, it was due to God’s choice—and punitive will—that the killing happened.
I admit to finding the story of the death of the Egyptian children especially troubling (way more than the deaths of the soldiers in the Red Sea). I don’t have a fully satisfactory way to read this part of the story. However, that lack of an answer for this set of deaths isn’t the kind of problem for my position that is for Boyd’s, since I read this whole thing as a fictional story. I would tend to think part of the lesson of the story is to illustrate how vulnerable people in an oppressive society often suffer as a consequence of the leadership class’s immorality. It is not Pharaoh that is punished; in such an unjust society the people without power are the ones who bear the consequences. This is actually another reason to reject Boyd’s idea of God using the powers of evil as God’s agents for punishment.
Now, I do find it attractive to see the “angel of death” as a malevolent force, but not as an autonomous demon so much as a kind of personification of the structural evils of Pharaoh’s regime. And this “angel” is not one unleashed by God—it is more that God does not have the power that would allow God to control those kinds of angels in order to protect from them or to strategically withdraw that protection. A big question then is how were the Hebrew babies “protected.” I think that to the extent they were, it was the exceptional event—not that the all-powerful God was always protecting everyone and strategically chose to allow death for everyone but the Hebrews.
Is Boyd “picking and choosing”?
Boyd speaks further of how his reading strategy works. He suggests that it could well be that the original authors did believe the “destroying cosmic angels [were] loyal soldiers in Yahweh’s heavenly army.” But when “we interpret these passages with our much clearer cross-centered understanding of God’s true character and our fuller understanding of the cosmic war that engulfs the earth, we can see, even if the original authors could not, that God was utilizing cosmic agents that we now know are opponents of God” (1182). Boyd seems to say here that the story itself tells us what actually happened even if the writers of the story wrote with darkened minds and commit the grievous error of asserting that God’s character would allow God directly to cause such violence.
Besides finding this argument a bit incoherent (why would we think the story is accurate in any way if it gets such a fundamental element wrong—and wrong in deeply hurtful ways given the negative impact the theology of God as violent avenger has had over the years), I also don’t understand how this view fits with Boyd’s claim (which is so important in his “conundrum”) that the Bible is inspired and infallible (“written by God”). If God inspired the writers, would they not have known who these destroying angels were?
It seems to me that if we allow that the authors were so egregiously wrong about the identity of the angels, we actually need to rethink the idea of “inspiration.” By allowing that the authors could be so wrong, Boyd is not really much different from those he labels as “dismissers.” As well, he is not really much different from those who read Exodus as a (fictional) story. He seems to be “picking and choosing” how he applies his “conservative” hermeneutic if it does not require him to accept the truthfulness of the authors’ belief about God and the violence.
I ultimately believe that with this concession to the inaccuracy of the biblical text in its portrayal of God’s role in the violence, Boyd renders unnecessary the convoluted argumentative superstructure he has erected to protect his insistence on the infallibility of the Bible. To build this argument is not only unnecessary, it is also unfortunate because it makes his crucial (and truthful, I believe) assertion of God’s nonviolence much more difficult to understand, accept, and apply.
Who is the “enemy”?
Boyd has a problematic notion of the place of sin in the exodus story when he writes of “the sins of the Egyptians [that] recoil back on their own heads” (1183). He makes a generalization about “the Egyptians” as if the issue was the sinfulness of the population as a whole. It seems clear to me that the sin in the exodus story rests with Pharaoh, not the Egyptians in general. The story exposes the political dynamics of Empire—dynamics that ultimately corrupt Israel itself in its kingship era, and the same dynamics that led to the execution of Jesus. The lesson is not about the general sinfulness of the Egyptians (as it is not the general sinfulness of “the Jews” who rejected and killed Jesus or the general sinfulness of all of us when “we killed Jesus”). The lesson is about the mechanics of Empire and God’s resolute rejection of Empire and pursuit of “God’s healing strategy” as the needed alternative. This approach helps us appreciate the replacement of power politics with theo-politics and the core of Torah as an anti-empire manifesto.
Boyd’s notion of sin seems pretty apolitical. And his simplistic comment about the sins “recoiling back on [the Egyptians] own heads” seems to ignore the details of the story. As I mentioned above, Pharaoh may well have come through the event unscathed. The “recoiling” was death and destruction for the masses—probably themselves oppressed in ways similar to the Hebrews. I don’t think the story actually cares very much about punishment for the sins of the Egyptians. Much more, it is a story of God intervening on behalf of the Hebrew slaves and in doing so making clear an ideological rejection of Empire.
Boyd argues that it is important in relation to Sodom and Gomorrah to make a clear distinction between “the justice of God in judging these cities” and “the violent manner in which God is depicted as judging these cities” (1186). The implication seems to be that God was just to judge and punish all the people in these two cities, but that the notion that God directly destroyed all their lives through direct violence is not true.
Boyd’s insistence on the distinction between God as one who requires punishment of wrongdoers and one who actually does the violent punishment signals to me that he does not truly understand the cross. Among other things, he projects onto the cross a punitive will of God. The message of the cross, I believe, is that in it is revealed the reality that the agents of punitive judgment are rebels against God’s will.
Boyd’s distinction also compromises his pacifism. It is as if God’s “nonviolence” means a God who Godself will not “directly engage in ferocious violence” while at the same time willing and ensuring punishment. In fact, given the extraordinary imprecision of that kind of punishment (seen, e.g., in the Flood and Sodom), it would be much more humane and morally sound for God directly to kill the power elite and spare the children and other collateral damage.
Boyd argues, “It is one thing to judge a people-group by allowing them to suffer the natural consequences of their own decisions and quite another to personally incinerate them” (1186). I disagree. I do not see a big difference. Boyd’s God does have the power to protect (always)—in not doing so, this God is morally violent—and that kind of violence may be worse because, as mentioned above, it is imprecise, indiscriminately causing death and destruction to good people and innocent people along with the unjust.
It is one thing to speak of “judgment” in an after-the-fact educational sense or in a warning sense, as, e.g., Jeremiah and Amos do. And we could say that to the extent they thought of judgment more literally as God’s direct punishment, they were wrong (as even the Big Story would indicate). But Boyd, who, as he repeats often, has the benefit of the cross to help him see the true message of the OT, makes a quite problematic move when he combines his punitive notion of judgment with his sense of God’s power which can stop massive violence and selectively does not.