Both friends and dismissers of the Bible are quick to point out that the Bible does not give us an obvious and detailed blueprint for thoroughgoing pacifism. One cannot simply take up the Bible as the basis for one’s pacifism as if pacifism is the obvious perspective. Especially, one cannot simply take up the Old Testament as the basis for one’s pacifism. In the limited amount of space I have in this chapter, I will not be able to engage in apologetics, arguing against non-pacifist readings. Rather, I will simply present a reading of the Old Testament that I believe does support pacifism.
The core message of the Bible tells of God’s concern to bring healing (salvation) to a broken world. Beginning with God’s initial work of creation in Genesis one and ending with the vision of a transformed creation in Revelation twenty-one and two, we read in the Bible the story of God’s healing strategy.
All the pieces of the Bible are part of a whole, and we may understand the whole in terms of God’s healing strategy. In this approach, we do not let “variant” materials overly obscure the core message. We respect that pro-violence materials are part of the Old Testament picture. However, rather than assuming that we have a total contradiction with the way of Jesus we look for elements in these stories that may actually point ahead to Jesus’ manifestation of God’s healing strategy.
At the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis one, we read of God as Creator. God has made what is, and it is good. Creation is abundant in what matters. The heart of things is God’s goodness and love. That is the foundation of life itself—God’s goodness and love.
Genesis one witnesses to life as peaceable at its heart. Creation is formed without conflict or opposition to God. This differs from other creation stories from the ancient Near East, which usually had conflict right at the heart.
Being created in God’s “image” has to do with human beings exercising creative power—like God does. We are bestowed with the power to be creative, the power to love, the power—in harmony with God—to mold peace out of chaos. Genesis one establishes this world we live in as founded on peace, not violence.
The harmony of Genesis one will not last. Already in 2:17 we see that human beings have boundaries. They are created in God’s image but they are not God. To be whole, they need to live within the framework God has provided.
Adam and Eve give in to the temptation to eat and numerous consequences follow. They are now afraid of God. They feel shame at their nakedness. There is established a hierarchy between the man and the woman. She will now experience pain in childbirth. A new struggle with bringing fruit from the earth ensues—battling with weeds and thistles. Then, Cain murders his brother Abel. In the following chapters there are more—the widespread sinfulness which leads to the Flood, the human arrogance contributing to the construction the of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11, and the barren condition of Sarah, who is unable to have children. However, Adam and Eve and then Cain still receive God’s mercy even after their breaks with God. They are allowed time and space, the possibilities of a future.
The story of Noah and the Flood may be read as supporting peace. More than being a story about Noah or about sinful humanity, this story focuses on God. The place where the real action takes place is with the heart of God. The events themselves are more or less a backdrop, meant to get at the real issue—what happens inside of God? We learn God feels grief and God is concerned with how violence, sin and evil mess up God’s beloved creation. This story also tells us God isn’t bound by attributes and principles that always require predetermined actions. God is free to respond; we could even say, in this story, God is free to learn.
This story about the Flood starts out as a story of judgment, but ends up being a story of mercy. The point of the story is not the judgment with which it begins (“I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created,” 6:7), but the promise with which it ends (“The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh,” 9:15).
We must notice that the change from judgment to promise is not based on a change in human beings. At the beginning, we are told that every inclination of the thoughts of people’s hearts was only evil continually (6:5). Then, after the flood subsides, after human beings are restored to the earth, God repeats, “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21). However, instead of being a call to judgment, this description of human beings as being inclined toward evil becomes a reason for God promising not to destroy “every living creature.” God has decided to persevere, to stay with creation as it is, to seek to heal the human heart.
As a unit, Genesis 1–11 essentially gives an account of the disintegration of the human community. The end of chapter eleven gives us a picture of this movement from wholeness to powerlessness in a nutshell: “The name of Abraham’s wife was Sarah.…Now Sarah was barren; she had no child” (11:29,30). Sarah’s “barrenness” can be seen as a reflection of the general human condition.
With Genesis 12, God speaks to Abraham and Sarah in a way that creates life out of chaos. God speaks a new work with creative power, and makes a future out of barrenness. The dead end now becomes the path to life. We see a pattern that characterizes the core story of the rest of the Bible—God is a God of life, whose response to the destructive consequences of humanity seeking autonomous power is patience and creative love.
God’s strategy for healing is summarized in the words to Abraham in 12:3: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God’s strategy for healing is to call a people, to establish a community of people who will know God. God’s strategy involves another act of creation, the creation of a community. Through people of faith living together, face to face, learning to love and give and take that God will make peace for all the families of the earth.
The book of Genesis ends with the children of Israel in Egypt. When Exodus picks up the story, Egypt has come under the rule of a new king, “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Pharaoh subjects the Israelites to slavery, setting the stage for the main salvation story of the Old Testament.
God’s saving work in the exodus establishes several key attributes of God’s work for salvation in the story. The God of the Exodus, unlike other gods, is not a projection from the king, a way merely to reinforce the king’s power. Rather, the God of the Exodus is a God of slaves. This is a God who hears the cries of those being treated like non-persons, those being treated only as tools to increase the king’s wealth.
The liberation of the Hebrews from slavery and toward freedom was not accomplished through human military might. The Hebrews did not out-muscle Pharaoh. God used miracles in nature (the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea) to bring about liberation. The center of power in this new society lay not with the generals and the warriors, but with the people’s God. That the power rests with God means that what God values most—mercy, compassion, caring for the powerless and outcast, just distribution of resources—matter most in the society.
Following the exodus, Egypt is not simply left behind but is rejected. Egypt and Pharaoh stand for the human will-to-power and trusting in brute strength. Israel and Moses stand for God’s justice, life lived in trust in God’s mercy, and treating the powerless with respect.
Exodus 15 celebrates God’s deliverance of the people of the promise from slavery in Egypt. “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed” (Exodus 15:13). This deliverance kept the promise alive. God initiated this act of mercy simply out of God’s commitment to the promise.
At Mt. Zion, the people are told that they were to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). As a “priestly kingdom,” they will mediate God’s word to others—a “holy nation” meant to a conduit for the blessing God promises for all the families of the earth.
After this affirmation of Israel’s vocation as the mediator of God’s word, the next step is the revelation of the commandments that begins in Exodus 20. The Law (Torah) provided social and political structure for the delivered slaves so that the effects of that deliverance could be sustained and the Hebrews could be a channel for God’s peace to spread to the nations.
Throughout the Law codes in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy we see echoes of the contrast between life under Torah and life under Egypt’s enslavement. The Law self-consciously provides structure for social life in which the wellbeing and wholeness of all the people in the community receive the highest priority. Torah rejects the exploitation of the many for the aggrandizement of the few out of hand—and when in later times the Hebrews evolve toward such exploitation, the prophets invoke the original intention of the Law as a basis for critique.
The story continues with the Hebrews ready to move into a homeland. The land provides the context for living out Torah as part of the gift God gave God’s people to enable them to live as a light to the nations. For this promise to be actualized, the community must exist as a concrete community in a particular location.
In terms of its role in the bigger biblical story, the account from the book of Joshua of the Hebrew people entering the promise land, settling down with the mandate to embody Torah, accountable to their liberating God, tells of a crucial beginning. Reading this account today, we find many elements of the account to be deeply disturbing. We struggle with the violence, the massive, indiscriminate slaughter of the people who happened to be in the way of the Hebrews.
While the book of Joshua itself celebrates the events that established the Hebrews in Palestine, we end up by the time the Old Testament concludes with something quite different. To the extent that the Joshua story reflects the establishing of Israel as a nation-state, a project wherein the promise must be embodied to be sustainable, the conclusion of the Old Testament tells us that the nation-state option failed. The promise will be fulfilled apart from being linked with any particular nation-state.
The promise does not rely on the founding violence of conquest nor on the sustaining violence of standing armies and centralizing economic practices that came to characterize this nation-state. In fact, when read as a whole, the story makes clear that the main effect of gaining the promised land was to make apparent that the families of the earth will ultimately only be blessed by a genuinely alternative politics centered on love not coercive violence. The story that takes us from Joshua to Jesus radically transforms the promised land motif.
The Joshua story in important ways is part of the trajectory that runs from Abraham through Moses and then later prophets on down to Jesus. This trajectory shows that God’s central concern is with right-making and life-sustaining justice for vulnerable people (slaves, widows, orphans, aliens), not with buttressing the power of the dominating human king. The basis for the victory was trust in God, not a large collection of horses, chariots, and warriors. Possession of the land from the start was understood to be contingent on continued faithfulness to God.
The Joshua story also sets the stage for the events to follow—events concluding in the Old Testament with the final failure of the Hebrew nation-state. The destruction of the Temple and the king’s palace led to the recognition in the prophets that these events did not signal God’s desertion (or death) but in fact reflected God holding the people accountable to the covenant. Out of the rubble comes an awareness that the promise continues, that the nation-state route actually is incompatible with Torah and the promise, and that the calling of God’s people is to “seek the peace of the city where they find themselves” (Jer 29:7)—that is, to spread the promise through diasporic existence as counter-cultural communities among the nations.
The integral place the Joshua story plays for Christians may be seen, symbolically, in the fact that our central figure, Jesus, takes his name from the central figure of the older story. Jesus and Joshua must be reckoned with together. But that does not mean that they must be harmonized. We should look for important points of continuity while also recognizing crucial points of contrast.
Jesus was named after Joshua. The name means “help of the Lord.” Both bring down the proud and the mighty. In the story of Joshua, the main people who are mentioned as resisting God’s will are the kings of the various nations. God’s work through Jesus is characterized thus: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51-2).
Both Joshua and Jesus preached trust in God. Do not trust in human wisdom or in empires and their horses and chariots. Trust in God’s care and power. Jesus and Joshua both sought to establish a community characterized by faithfulness to God’s law. The basic message of the book of Joshua as a whole is that Israel will meet with success only if Israel remains faithful to God’s commands. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is at hand. God loves you and wants you to know life and to share life with others. All God asks is that you live faithfully in response to this love.
However, we also see discontinuities. For one thing, in Joshua’s conquest, the enemies were killed. The kings especially are emphasized—but as we read, “all the people they struck down with the edge of their sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed” (Joshua 11:14). In contrast, Jesus insists that even enemies are to be loved.
In the story of Joshua, violence wins the victory. This violence is qualified in some ways. Many of the important victories are won by God’s miraculous involvement, not by superior human firepower. Israel was not to be a militaristic state, with a permanent army, and the generals running things. Nonetheless, Joshua’s victories are won through violence, fighting against the oppressors, the kings of Canaan. In contrast, Jesus’ victory is won through refusing to fight back.
When we accept the Joshua story as part of our bigger story, even as we focus on ways that it helps lead to the clarity of Jesus’ message of peace, we of course must come to terms with the terrible violence that remains. And we also must come to terms with the legacy of that violence for “people of the book.”
I find it helpful to recognize that the Bible simply reflects actual life—for better and worse. In life we do have a great deal of violence, but as pacifists we choose to interpret the violence in light of our convictions of the supremacy of love and compassion, seeking healing over seeking to dominate. The biblical stories are stories of life, they too may be interpreted in light of our convictions about peace.
In being honest, then, we admit that we do not read Joshua as an accurate portrayal of the true character of God—at least the parts that speak of God commanding putting every single person in various communities to the sword. These stories were told in a historical context prior to the kind of clarity about pacifism that came with Jesus. Nonetheless, the overall story points toward Jesus, not toward power politics. The Joshua story helps make clear how ultimately the nation-state option was a failure. It also helps make clear the portrayal of God by Jesus as one who loves enemies and calls believers to do the same.
In the story, the book of Joshua ends with a sense of triumph. However, right away in the book of Judges, the fragility of Joshua’s achievement becomes clear. Judges portrays the disintegration of the covenant community. Judges concludes with a time of particularly intense chaos. Then, Israel is blessed with a powerful and effective leader, Samuel, whose birth itself is portrayed as an intervention of God on behalf of the people. Things get better, but only for a while.
The beginning of 1 Samuel eight points toward a return to chaos: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.…His sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice” (8:1-3). It is not surprising that in the face of a fear of returning again to chaos, the Israelites (or at least their elders) ask Samuel, “appoint for us a king to govern us, like the other nations” (8:5). The response to the fear of chaos is the desire to impose order.
When Israel’s elders came to Samuel asking for a king, he responds with strong words, recounted in 1 Samuel 8:11-18: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots.…He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtiers. He will take…the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. You shall be his slaves. In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Samuel argues that the turn toward human kingship will likely lead to a transformation in Israel away from the central tenets of Torah. Kingship will tend toward a redistribution of power and wealth. Power and wealth will move upward in the social system, shifting from the broader community toward the elite. This social transformation will lead to more and more poverty and disenfranchisement among the people.
Along with the increasing concentration of power and wealth in fewer hands, and linked with this dynamic, under a human king Israel will move toward more and more militarization. With the king will come a standing army, rather than the ad hoc militias that had gained and defended the promise land. With the standing army will come the accumulation of horses and chariots, the tools of war. As well, a new class of person heretofore not known in Israel will gain prominence—career military officers as a major power bloc in the society.
The gain in human-determined security that would accompany kingship and militarization will have an inverse relationship with the people’s sense of closeness to and dependence upon Yahweh. Growth in human strength and power corresponds with a growth in a sense of autonomy over against Yahweh.
Israel’s first king is Saul. However, Saul departs from God’s wishes and loses the kingship. He is succeeded by David. David leads the armies to victory. He establishes a family. He gains favor with the people. He trusts in God and gives God credit for his success. Israel is on the way to prosperity, moving toward peace and wellbeing.
Then, however, Samuel’s fears are realized. Conflicts with Israel’s enemies continue. David remains at home while his soldiers go to fight his battles. He rests in the sun and spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba. No matter that she is married to one of his key officers. No matter that he is also married. He must have her, and he takes her.
Bathsheba informs David that she is pregnant. In order to be with Bathsheba, David has her husband killed. David tells Joab, the person directly responsible for Uriah’s death, “Do not let this thing be evil in your eyes, for the sword devours now one and now another” (2 Samuel 11:25). Don’t let it be evil in your eyes….But, someone else sees things differently: “This thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of God” (2 Samuel 11:27). Evil in the eyes of God.
God sends Nathan the prophet to confront David. Nathan tells David that he broke three main commandments—thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not commit adultery, and thou shalt not kill. David coveted another man’s wife. David committed adultery with her. Then David killed her husband. God passes judgment on David: “Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me.” (2 Samuel 12:7-12)
David, to his great credit, responds to God. He repents. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he cries. God’s judgment relaxes a little. David stays alive. He remains king and his son Solomon succeeds him to the throne. David is never the same, and Israel is never the same. From now on, Israel will be plagued by violence and injustice. The violence begins immediately. David’s own sons fight against each other and rebel against him.
The story of Solomon, David’s son and successor, as presented in the Bible is in many ways flattering. But not so much if we read it closely. By reading closely, we see Solomon as a sophisticated, power-seeking, ruthless leader, who as much as anyone moved the ancient Israelite nation-state toward its tragic ending.
Once in power, Solomon reorganizes the social structures toward much greater centralized control. He institutes a rigorous taxation policy to expand his treasury. He begins to draft soldiers, to expand the collection of horses and chariots into a large, permanent army with career military leaders. And he also institutes a policy of forced labor to construct his palace, first, and then the temple.
These practices go against Deuteronomy 17’s report that Israel’s kings were explicitly commanded not to accumulate wealth for themselves. Samuel warned that the kings would build standing armies, take the best of the produce of the people, and make them slaves. This is precisely what Solomon does.
Solomon also cultivated ties with other countries. He had hundreds of wives—women from many nations. Again, this is precisely what Deuteronomy tells the king not to do. “He must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (17:17). We read later in 2 Kings 11 that indeed Solomon’s heart did turn away. His many wives influenced him to worship other gods.
The key passage from 1 Kings 9 concludes with a promise from God: “If you turn aside from following me…and do not keep my commandments…, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut Israel off from the land…; and the [Temple] I will cast out of my sight.…This [Temple] will become a heap of ruins” (9:6-8).
Solomon did turn aside from following God. “His wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4). And in time Israel is cut off from the land and the Temple does become a heap of ruins.
The books of First and Second Kings are called the books of kings. The central characters in these books actually are the prophets. The kings might have been the people who seemed to have power, but the people who keep alive awareness of who God is and what God’s will is—the people who actually express godly power are the prophets.
The prophets had one basic message, the same message they proclaimed for hundreds of years. The basic message of the prophets was two pronged, with a positive and a negative component. The negative part was to call people of faith to a stance of disbelief toward the powers-that-be in their unjust society. The world is not the way that the kings say that it is. When the kings claimed to act in God’s name, the prophets raised doubts.
The positive part of prophetic faith was to call people of faith to a stance of belief in the ways of the Lord. Their God is the God revealed in the exodus, the God who loves them. Their God gave them the law to order their lives in such a way that all people (including the marginal ones) are cared for and encouraged to meaningful living.
The prophet Amos, the first of the “writing prophets,” entered the scene expressing a harsh indictment, speaking God’s words critiquing the people: “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned” (2:6-7).
What are the dynamics of injustice? One is depersonalization. Powerful people tend to treat other people as things. A second dynamic is exploitation. Exploitation has to do with using someone else to one’s own advantage or to satisfy one’s own desires regardless of the cost to that person. The third aspect of injustice is religiosity.
Shockingly, Amos sees depersonalization and exploitation going hand in hand with active religiosity in Israel. The powerful people not only hurt the weak in the name of increased power and wealth, they believed their power and wealth were a sign of God’s blessing.
In the face of this injustice, Amos offers a corrective. “Seek me and live,” God says, “but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile and Bethel shall come to nothing” (5:4-5). Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-sheba were three of the main religious centers in Israel. Amos says seeking God there will only make things worse unless the peoples’ social practices change.
Amos makes the solution to Israel’s crisis clear: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24). Amos calls for justice, for righteousness. He challenges an unjust society to turn back to God. That is their only hope of finding life.
Judah’s King Hezekiah is one king portrayed as having been responsive to the prophets. The story told in both the book of Isaiah and the book of Kings tells how Hezekiah’s attentiveness to the prophet’s guidance helped Judah to survive the onslaught of the Assyrians. Hezekiah is one of only two kings to receive praise from the author of Kings—“He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:3).
However, the kings that followed moved further and further from God’s will according to 2 Kings—moving further and further from the directives of Torah. Hezekiah’s son Manasseh might have been the worst of all Judah’s kings: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, following the abominable practices of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:3).
Manasseh’s son Amon succeeded him, continuing in his father’s unfaithfulness—but not for long, for assassins ended his life in the second year of his reign. Amon’s son Josiah, the “boy king,” took the throne at the age of eight. Josiah received the same praise from the author of Kings as did Hezekiah. “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 22:2) during his 31 years in power.
Under Josiah’s leadership, the Israelites rediscover God’s law. The Israelites seek to return to God’s ways. Josiah institutes major reforms. Josiah leads a turning of the tide away from injustice and exploitation and idolatry, and toward faithfulness and genuine worship. But this happy story does not have a happy ending. Josiah is killed. He is only 39 years old. His reforms are abandoned. In a few years, the nation is wiped out.
Josiah shows that people in power have potential to perceive the truth of Yahweh’s call for faithfulness to God’s will above political expediency. In what the story portrays as a social context shaped profoundly by generations of corrupt practices, Josiah’s commitment to returning to Torah nonetheless gained significant traction.
Even with the failure of Josiah’s reforms, God’s healing strategy continues. In the long run, the crucial aspect of this story may be seen in the recovery of Torah just as the nation-state phase of ancient Israel’s communal life neared its end. Josiah’s reforms could not cut deep enough to stem momentum toward destruction. However, this effort at reform, based on the recovered law book, gave the community an essential resource for their long-term sustenance.
The story of ancient Israel as a nation-state tells of how close the path of politics-like-the-nations came to ending this community. However, with the providential recovering its founding document, the community found the resources to continue. This story makes clear that it is in spite of horses and chariots, centralized coercive state power, and religious institutionalization that serves the power elite, that the people of the promise continue.
In the end, the ancient Israelite project of seeking to order their lives as a conventional nation-state, reliant upon the sword for security, even survival, ended in failure. Crucially, though, the story then makes clear that this failure of Israel’s existence as a nation-state did not mean the failure of the community as the conduit for the promise to Abraham of healing for all the families of the earth.
The prophet Jeremiah covers the time from the last days of the Judean monarchy and Judah as a nation-state through the Babylonian conquest and the ensuing time of exile. With Jeremiah we come to the end of the history of ancient Israel as a nation state, to the fulfillment of centuries of warnings. If you turn from God’s ways of justice and peace and trust in wealth, horses and chariots, the sword—then you will suffer the consequences. During Jeremiah’s time, the Babylonian empire conquers Judah. Judah lay in ruins.
Beyond expressing anger, Jeremiah gets down to grief: “Thus says the Lord of hosts; Consider and call for the grieving women to come; send for the skilled women to come; let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water. For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion: ‘How we are ruined! We are utterly shamed, because we have left the land, because they have cast down our dwellings.’” (Jeremiah 9:17-19)
In his grief, Jeremiah represents God. Jeremiah’s God is not a distant God. God is not most centrally concerned with purity and having rules followed and just waiting to vent anger and vengeance.
We find hope in God’s grief. God’s grief is crucial because here we see the depth of God’s caring for human beings. The basis of any command or law that comes from God is because God cares for people. The commandments are for the sake of life. When these laws are violated, suffering and brokenness result, as God promised they would. But when God’s ways are rejected, God does not gain pleasure seeing rebels get their just desserts. No, God suffers too.
Jeremiah also hears from God words of hope: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke. I will put my law within them, and I will write it one their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:31-34)
This renewed covenant will find expression not in a reconstituted nation-state, but in communities scattered around the world, living as witnessing communities within the various nation-states. The exilic experience will contain within it the seeds of a renewed healing strategy wherein people of the promise seek genuine peace throughout the world, presenting alternatives to power politics through their counter-cultural alternative communities.
Jeremiah expresses this hope when he speaks to the exiles: “Seek the welfare 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” (29:7). This command points ahead, to spreading the vision of wholeness contained in the promise to Abraham and in Torah to the ends of the earth. This is a vision for wholeness not established through coercion and the sword, but through faithful witness. Such witness requires self-consciousness of the people’s distinct identity as people of the promise. Jeremiah is not envisioning simply conformity to the ways of the nations. This identity needs to be sustained through prayer, worship, study of Torah, and doing justice, not through domination and top-down political control.
In the generations after Jeremiah, the community struggled to maintain its identity without the locus of a Hebrew nation-state. During this time, for understandable reasons, the Israelites focused on their internal life, hoping to establish a clear sense of identity and to sustain their communal existence in this uncertain time following the destruction of their nation-state and Solomon’s great temple.
However, they ran the danger of becoming too insular, too concerned simply with establishing boundary lines that fostered an attitude to hostility toward those outside the community. They too easily reduced God to a tribal God limited simply to the confines of the people Israel. The little book of Jonah addresses these dangers. The message of the book of Jonah focuses on reminding the people that Yahweh is the God of the whole world who has called Israel to be a people in order to be a channel for the blessing of all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
Jonah did not really want God to act consistently with God being “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love” (4:2). He hoped that God was actually an angry God, a God who delights in punishing God’s supposed enemies. But that kind of God would have been a projection of Jonah’s own hatreds and desires. The true God is not after some kind of eye-for-an-eye equilibrium. Rather, the true God desires healing, restoration of relationships, genuine peace.
The true God has compassion on the tens of thousands of Ninevites “who cannot tell their right hand from their left” (4:11), desiring that they be freed from their bondage to sin and death. The book ends with God asking Jonah a question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (4:11). That is, “Should the mercy I’ve given you not extend to your enemies?”
The last Old Testament book is likely the book of Daniel, probably written around 165 BCE. The basic message of the Daniel is a good one for a last word. Daniel teaches: be patient, trust in God’s faithfulness even when you suffer and are afraid, do not be dominated by your anxiety, let God’s will work its way. Trust that God’s will is salvation and that even in hard times, God’s love perseveres.
The interpretive key for reading the Christian Bible as supporting pacifism, of course, may be found in the life and teaching of Jesus. However, Jesus’ message of peaceableness and restorative justice stemmed directly from his Bible (our Christian “Old Testament”). Jesus provided a clarity of focus, but he essentially reiterated what he saw as the central themes of the Bible concerning God’s compassion.
From the start, the Bible presents God as willing peace for human beings—for all human beings. God means for this love for “all the families of the earth” to be channeled through a community formed through God’s election of them as a people of the promise. The story makes it clear that this election is pure mercy—God’s persevering love for God’s elect is itself an expression of God’s love for enemies. Time after time, the story makes clear, the people turn from God. Yet, as the prophet Hosea reports (chapter 11), God ultimately does not respond with violence and wrath, but with healing love.
The original calling of Abraham and Sarah and the gift to them of descendants in spite of their barrenness (and their unfaithfulness), the saving work of God to bring the Hebrew people together and to free them from slavery in Egypt (again, as the story makes clear, saving work in spite of the Hebrews’ unfaithfulness), the gift of Torah to guide their lives as the people of the promise (a priestly kingdom mediating God’s love to the entire world), and many more gifts, including the gift of new life even after the fall of the Hebrew nation state (a fall that Hebrew prophets attributed directly to the people’s unfaithfulness)—all of these gifts clearly portray God’s love as unearned, even undeserved.
The basic guidance that Jesus draws from the story of God with God’s people, the story that he understood himself to stand within, may be summarized in Jesus’ words as reported by Luke: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).
1. I will use “Old Testament” in this chapter (rather than, say, “Hebrew Bible”) with the intent of emphasizing the importance of the entire Bible for Christian belief and practice. “Old Testament” and “New Testament” together make up the Christian Bible.
2. See Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Theme (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000).
3. Christian pacifists have not devoted a great deal of energy to writing about the Old Testament. However, we do have a growing body of useful studies. Some that have shaped this chapter include:
John Howard Yoder, “If Abraham is Our Father,” in The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), 85-104; Millard C. Lind, Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980); Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987); Perry B. Yoder, Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Peace, and Justice Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1988); Millard C. Lind, Monotheism, Power, Justice: Collected Old Testament Essays (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990); Perry B. Yoder and Willard M. Swartley, eds., The Meaning of Peace: Biblical Studies (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992); Waldemar Janzen, Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994); Patricia McDonald, God and Violence: Biblical Resources for Living in a Small World (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004); and David A. Leiter, Neglected Voices: Peace in the Old Testament (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2007).
Although he is not a pacifist, Walter Brueggemann has written many studies that provide profound insights for reading the Old Testament in a way that emphasizes its message of peace. Among Brueggemann’s numerous writings, the following especially inform this essay: The Land: Place and Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977); The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978); Genesis (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982); First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990); “Exodus,” in Leander Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume one (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 675–981; and Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).