War and Violence in the Old Testament
Fr. Thomas Hopko · December 22, 2010
In his continuing series on the Bible, Fr. Tom addresses the problem of God's violence against people and the war and violence that is prevalent in general in the Old Testament.
We have been reflecting on Ancient Faith Radio and these podcasts about the Bible and about reading the Bible and about understanding the Bible. And of course we like to quote St. Hilary of Poitiers, a wonderful rhyming sentence in Latin: “Non in legendo, sed in intelligendo,” he said: approaching the Scripture, it’s not in the reading; it’s in the understanding. It is in the interpretation of the Scripture, particularly as the Scripture has to do with God’s saving activities of his creation that he made in the beginning, particularly the salvation and glorification of human beings, and also how the Old Testament Scriptures are a pedagogy to Christ.
And we have mentioned again and again—we can’t repeat it too much—that the understanding of the Old Testament—the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets; what the Jews called the Tanakh: the Torah and the Nevi’im and then the Writings: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings—how all these can only be understood, according to ancient Christianity, through the prism of Christ and Christ crucified. It is the risen Christ who opens our minds to understand the Scripture, to see what it’s really all about.
And we have been talking about various texts, and we said, again, I know many people did not agree with this, do not agree with it, but nevertheless I personally have to say—I cannot lie; I believe it’s true—and that is that we do not have a one true text of the Bible, and that’s all right. It doesn’t matter. We have many texts. We have variations. We have translations. We have different traditions.
Even the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures themselves differ among themselves, and then when they’re translated into Greek you have various Greek translations, not just the Septuagint. And then, of course, you have all the issues with translations into modern languages, into English, first of all for us Americans, but also in French and German and whatever languages the Bible appears in, you have these translations. So you have all kinds of difficulties with the texts.
But I like the quote saying Ignatius of Antioch, who at the end of the very first century, said, “Our archives is Jesus,” and of course his teacher, St. John the Theologian, and the writings attributed to John in the New Testament say that the Word of God is Jesus Christ; it’s the second Person of the Trinity. The Word of God [is] not a book. But we do believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God for the sake of our salvation and for the sake of our understanding of the Gospel, but that we like to say that the Scriptures are not a Quran. The Bible’s not a book that fell from heaven intact.
It is a library of books, a collection of books, with different variations and different traditions about those books, but all those books have to be read and studied and contemplated, and it’s very, very important for us to do that, but to realize always that the interpretation is given to us by the risen Christ, in the risen Christ. It is given to us in the context of liturgical worship and ascetical striving. The Lord teaches the humble his way. The Lord teaches us from heaven, the risen Lord, as it says in the letter to the Hebrews: he speaks from heaven and he illumines our mind. He gives us the Holy Spirit to understand things. And that’s the Christian faith.
But we do say, and we do have this huge challenge… I like to joke also, nowadays we don’t have “problems” any more: we have “challenges.” Well, a great challenge is what we find in the Bible, and very particularly now, specifically, what we find in the Old Testament. And we already reflected on the fact—and it is a fact—that the Old Testament is recording God’s relationship to creatures and that God’s relationship is with sinful creatures, and God deals with those who are willing to deal with him, and he struggles with everyone.
In fact, the very word “Israel” means “the one who struggles with God.” We’re struggling with God; God is struggling with us. As one of the Desert Fathers said: “Sometimes we fight with God; sometimes we delight in God.” We never lose sight of God. We live in communion with God, struggling to understand and to know the truth. And the Scriptures are a huge part of that, and you cannot know, you cannot really know the Gospel and the truth of Christ without contemplating the Scriptures. St. John Chrysostom says the cause of all of our difficulty, misery, heresies, and schisms is the ignorance of the holy Scriptures.
Well, people could say, “Which Scriptures?” Well, the Scriptures that we have, and you’ve got to study them, you’ve got to learn from them, you’ve got to compare them, you’ve got to compare texts, but you do all of this in the context of worship and the context of faith, in the context of the Gospel of Christ and the risen Lord as given to us in the writings of the New Testament, which have many, many, many fewer difficulties than the Old Testament, that’s for sure. Of course, there are fewer books and they’re much shorter and they’re much more focused on: who is Christ and how has Christ been prefigured and prepared in the Old Testament Scriptures?
So we love those Scriptures. We eat and drink the very word of God in those Scriptures. We say the Scriptures are the incarnation of the word of God in human words, but none of these words can contain God ultimately, that’s for sure. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Even if you take all the truth of the holy Scriptures, it’s like a drop of water in the ocean; it’s like a grain of sand on a sandy beach.” But we can come to know the truth. We can come to know the living God, and we do it by meditating the Scriptures, struggling with our passions, keeping the commandments, believing in the risen Christ, entreating the Holy Spirit, receiving the Holy Spirit, following the saints and the teachers of the Church as they interpret Scriptures, but never, never, ever, ever relating to any Church Father or to any saint or to any scholar as being completely and totally infallibly true.
All of our Church Fathers made mistakes. Only God is without mistake. Only God is without sin, even. In fact, all of our saints and Fathers in some sense sinned. They repented and so on, but we are human beings, so we keep insisting that it’s about synergia. It’s about the good and faithful and true God revealing himself to his people, revealing himself to anyone who’s willing to come to know him. But God is dealing with us as limited, fallible, sinful creatures, and that’s what you find even recorded very clearly in the holy Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments. Just read them, and you will see that this is true.
Now, we reflected specifically already on the issue of sexuality in the Old Testament, which is scandalous to many people: the prostitutions, the deceits, the fact that men had many wives—there are no wives with many husbands, but there sure are husbands with many wives—and then there are concubines and there’s rape and then there’s homosexual rape and then even the stories of homosexuality that are classically considered to be about homosexual rape and violence, like Sodom and Gomorrah, and then later on also in the Chronicles you have similar stories, but it’s awful how even the virgins are given to be ravaged, and the sexuality is a terribly difficult part to understand in the Old Testament.
But it’s prefigurative to Christ, the Bridegroom, and the one Bride, and the radical monogamy and the radical heterosexuality and monogamy that is taught in the New Testament Scriptures, interpreting the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets. But you have the pedagogy. You have what the New Testament Scriptures call the shadow, the typos, the types, the prefigurations, the enigmas of the Old Testament, which are then brought to completion and perfection in the crucified, raised, and glorified Christ. That’s our faith.
But we have to deal with those sexual issues in the Old Testament, and we tried to do that a little bit. And then we dealt with already with the issue of deceiving, lying, cheating, machinations and manipulations of all kinds for people to get what they want, and how God is even using that, how God is involved with that. We spoke about Abraham and others, lying about their wives and getting their wives into harems of Egyptians and Abimelech and those people. We spoke about the giving of the virgins over to violent action. We spoke about the rapes that you find there. We spoke about the deceiving, how, well, for example, Tamar deceived Judah in order to give birth to Perez, and how Ruth went in and slept with Boaz.
We spoke about these things, and how the grace of God is involved in it as God is co-working with us, or he’s asking us, rather, to be his co-workers. God is always working. He’s working on the Sabbath. He’s working to do everything he can. He’s working with what he’s got, and what he’s got is us: limited people, creatures, and sinners. That’s what God is doing, and that’s what the biblical story is about. It’s about the righteousness of God and the unrighteousness of creatures, the fidelity of God and the infidelity of creatures, the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of creatures.
So this is what we read in the Scripture. This is what we contemplate there, in order to see how it all comes to its fulfillment in Christ. And then we see that it is soteriological; it’s ultimately for our salvation. Probably two words, fancy words, that could help us [are] synergia and sōtēria: co-working and salvation, ultimate salvation, the victory of God over all his enemies, as we’ll see today.
We spoke about the sexual stuff, we spoke about the deceiving, the lying, and how God is involved in all of that for the sake of fulfilling his plan, the plan, the oikonomia of God, the household plan hidden from the angels, revealed in Christ and the Church, but today we want to reflect specifically a little bit and muse, as we say, do some stream-of-consciousness musings, about the issue of violence—murder, killing, warfare, enemies—with which the holy Scripture, particularly the Old Testament Scriptures, are absolutely chock-full. I mean, it’s on every page. There’s blood, there’s murder, there’s violence, there’s enemies, there’s warfare. And then how all of that is completed and fulfilled and revealed for what it really means and for its ultimate significance again only in Christ crucified, Christ raised, Christ glorified, Christ coming again in glory to establish God’s kingdom through his second coming throughout the entire universe and to show the victory that belongs to God in this entire story which victory is won by Jesus whose very name means “victor.” It means savior, it means healer, it means rescuer, the one who rescues, who delivers. This is the saga of the Bible.
Getting to the issue of violence, we can actually—how can you say?—in a little bit of a systematic way, we can speak of the kinds of violence that we find in the Bible. First of all, there’s the violence and the murdering that comes simply from sin, just plain from sin. Human beings are sinful, and they kill each other. And the very beginning of the Bible is that. Cain kills Abel. That’s how humanity starts. You have Adam and Eve apostatizing, rebelling against God, refusing to love God by keeping his commandments, listening to the devil, being cast out of paradise, and then all the enmity and the strife and the hostility enters [the] human race, the human beings are given over unto death in enslavement to the earth, and then the first boys, the sons of Adam and Eve, kill each other. I shouldn’t say “kill each other”; forgive me: Cain kills Abel, one kills the other.
So fratricide is the beginning of the scriptural story. So you just simply have the violence that comes just from sin. If you take Genesis, again, and just take Genesis, by the time you get to the sixth chapter that begins the story about Noah and the ark and that soteriological act of God’s saving what he could save in order to keep the human race going and promising that he will not destroy everything again, but he destroys it first. And in the sixth chapter of Genesis, we read that the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually, and it says the Lord was sorry that he had made the human beings on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them.”
And then it continues later on: The earth was corrupt in God’s sight. The earth was filled with violence. “Violence.” And God saw the earth and, behold, it was corrupt for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy the earth.” And then he tells him to make this ark, which is a prefiguration of the holy Church. That’s what the New Testament Scriptures say clearly, in the letter [of] Peter, that the Noah’s ark prefigures baptism and the ark of salvation is the Church.
I can’t resist saying here on the radio how once I met a fellow… professor actually, a university professor who converted to the Orthodox Church; he joined the Orthodox Church. He had been raised a Christian of some sort, became an atheist, whatever, but then he believed in God and he believed in Christ, and then he believed in the Orthodox faith, and he entered the Orthodox Church. I was kidding with him, and I said to him, “Oh, it must be quite an act to join the Orthodox Church. It’s such a Church, filled with all kinds of troubles and difficulties and schisms, divisions, God knows what.” And this man said to me—I’ll never forget it—he said, “Well, Fr. Tom, you know, the Orthodox Church is like Noah’s ark. It’s filled with animals, and it stinks to high heaven, but it saves you. It saves you in the seas of life, surging with the storms of temptation. The ark saves you.”
Of course, even when the Christians began building church buildings in the earliest centuries of Christianity, they shaped their building as an ark. The central part of a church building is always still to this day called in English a “nave,” and a nave comes from the word for a boat, the ship.
The point we want to see here is that you have violence, and then what happens is God acts pretty violently. So that’s another thing that you have in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Bible. When people sin against God and do evil, God renders evils to the people. He destroys them. So in the time of Noah, he just drowned everybody.
So you have the other issue, another issue in the Old Testament Scriptures to deal with, and we’ll see how the New Testament resolves all this, but God does himself acts of violence. In the time of Noah, he drowns the people in the flood who are carnal and are turned to evil continually and are violent. So you have the violence of God against the violence of man. There’s that clash again that you have in the Scripture all the time.
Now that violence on God’s part in countering the violence of humans, you find this again and again and again and again in the holy Scripture. If you just stay in Genesis, of course, you have the Sodom and Gomorrah story, the Sodom and Gomorrah story where, again, God rains the fire and the brimstone—here’s where you get that “fire and brimstone” language—on Sodom and Gomorrah because of the evils of those cities and how they were evil in every way possible. And then you even see the violence there, where they want to go into the men, “Send them out,” and then they send out virgins to be ravaged and raped… I mean, it’s just horrid, just horrible.
But then God is also pouring down his violence on them, the raining of the fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s almost like a symbol of the anger of God against the evils of men and how God renders evils in return for the evils of men. But in the Bible, all of this is done, we Orthodox Christians would believe and Bible readers who read the whole Bible would believe, this was done so that God’s fidelity could remain, so that his soteriological plan could be completed, which means his plan for saving the world, for sending Christ, for redeeming, for forgiving, for forgiving even the Sodomites and the Gomorrites, as we’ll see.
So God’s plan is to save everybody, forgive everybody, have mercy on everybody: the Jews, the Gentiles, the nations, and everyone. Of course, before Abraham you don’t have Hebrews. Noah was a righteous heathen; he was a Gentile in a sense. He was not a Jew. Of course, “Jews,” that’s a later term. The Hebrew were the twelve tribes, the sons of Israel and so on. But God’s fidelity to them involves violence on God’s part, so we see how this is acting.
And here, in the Old Testament, you see in the Old Testament you have a very, very central theme all the way through the Old Testament: God destroying those who do violence. God destroying the idolaters, God destroying the sinners, God destroying the unrighteous, for the sake of his plan to save the whole creation and to forgive the sinners in Christ. That’s the whole biblical story.
So probably the most quintessential story of destruction in the Old Testament besides Noah’s ark and Sodom and Gomorrah is of course the Passover exodus from Egypt. The Hebrews are in Egypt because Joseph saved them in the time of famine, and they increased and multiplied and became powerful in Egypt, but then a pharaoh grew up “who knew not Joseph,” as the Scripture says, and put the people into bonded slavery, and the people of Israel, children of Jacob, became bonded slaves in Egypt. But then you have the story of God leading them out, and he leads them out very violently.
I mean, remember—I’m sure you all know, but reread the Passover exodus story—how he sends the plagues on the Egyptians, how he tries to get Pharaoh to let them go, and every time he shows a little mercy, Pharoah’s heart gets hardened again by it, and then finally the story is, of course, that the people flee, they escape, they put the blood on the doorstep, God kills the firstborns of the Egyptians in all the houses, and death is raining and then the people are fleeing and then the Egyptians chase after them and then they’re going to try to kill them and the people get out there. Finally they say, “Why did we even come out? We would have been better to be slaves.” And then they murmur and grumble against Moses and against God himself at the shore of the Red Sea, and they’re sure that the Egyptians are going to kill them.
Then you have that wonderful statement in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, 14:14, where the Lord through Moses says to the people, “Listen, have faith, stand firm, be quiet, be still, I will fight for you. I will fight for you, and this very day, you will see the Egyptians perish before your very eyes. I will save you. I will rescue you. I will deliver you.” And in the Old Testament, that meant a violent act of salvation in, literally, killing the enemies. And God is killing the enemies all the time in the Old Testament. That’s what he’s doing day and night, so to speak, and some people are scandalized by it, but the Bible reader, in the light of Jesus Christ, would say, “What was God to do? How else was he going to proceed? He’s dealing with a violent world where people are killing each other all the time, and in the names of their gods they’re killing each other,” and so on.
Now, in the Passover exodus story, eight times you have that expression with these plagues that God says, “I am doing this that you may know that I am God, that you may know that I am your God, that the nations and the Egyptians may know that I reign over all creation, and that you may know that I am the only God that there is.” So the violence in the Old Testament and the violence of God himself against his enemies—because those people who are enemies of Israel, they are enemies of him—here we should see that the warfare in the Old Testament is not so much, so to speak, a warfare between peoples. It’s a warfare, actually, between gods. It’s the one true and living God fighting against all the false gods and all those who are evilly inspired into idolatry by those false gods, by the powers of evil, by the demons.
So you have a struggle there between God and evil powers, evil spirits. You have a struggle between true faith in the true God and false faith in false gods called the idols. Here you can say that the real problem of Scripture is idolatry. All the way through, from beginning to end, the problem is idolatry. It’s what sometimes the scholars call the Mosaic distinction. The Mosaic distinction was a radical new thing in the history of at least the peoples that are recorded in the Scripture, and that is that all gods are not the same and you can’t just propitiate this god or that god or this god at this location or that location for that purpose, but there is a God of gods and there is a Lord of lords and there’s the one who created heaven and earth, and that’s the God who brought the people out of bondage in Egypt, that is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob whose name is changed to Israel, and the twelve tribes of Israel, the sons of Jacob. And that is the God of Moses, and then that is the God of Joshua and Caleb, that’s the God of David.
And by the way, I mentioned in a podcast before, I made a mistake; I misspoke definitely, for sure, when I claimed that however sinful people might be, the righteous of the Old Testament are considered righteous because of their faith, because they believed in God. So many of them did many immoral things. They did murder, they did adultery like David, but they never, ever apostatized against the true God. And the mistake that I made is that I included Solomon in that number. Well, Solomon is never included in that number because at the end of Solomon’s life he did apostatize. Besides having 300 wives and 700 concubines, he was also worshiping the Baalim and the Asterith, and he was worshiping the gods of all those women who led him into sexual impurity and lewdness and unchastity and just carnality. So Solomon is not among the marvels of the Old Testament, because he did not keep faith to the end. And sometimes I think we should never put a fresco of Solomon in any of our churches.
By the way, in the letter to the Hebrews, when they list those who were faithful to God in the Old Covenant, and they may have been sinful in their moral behavior, but they never apostatized against God, Solomon is never included in that number. Pay attention in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the letter to the Hebrews; read about who are listed as righteous there. They are the ones who never apostatized.
So God finds people who can believe in him, and believe in him as the one, true, and only God, and he does all these violent acts that they may know, that you may know that I am God. And that is a theme that persists through the entire Hebrew Scripture. And then it even comes into the New Testament that this God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses raises his Son, Jesus, from the dead, who is the fulfillment of that entire history, that we might know that he is God. The ultimate—how can you say?—proof of God’s action, that we may know that he is God, is when he vindicates his own Son who has been rejected, killed and murdered, and has become the victim of murder, violence of all his enemies, in order to destroy his enemies by dying himself and not by killing them but by dying for them and with them.
We’ll get to that in a minute, but what we want to see now is that you have this violence of God struggling with the idolaters, and to try to keep his people faithful to him. In a sense, that’s the whole Old Testament story: to keep the unfaithful people faithful to him, and to do it by demonstrating his power.
There’s a great Protestant thinker, a theologian named Karl Bart, who said, “Until God can establish his power over the false gods, until he can show that he can kill and make alive, that the can cast down, that he can raise up, and that he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, then that God cannot really show mercy.” Because if he would show mercy without showing his power, people would think that he didn’t have the power, and that’s certainly a teaching of the Old Testament. God has to establish his power, and the way you establish your power is by killing your enemies. Sadly, that’s the truth.
Now, if that were the last word, then we would really have a scandal on our hands, but for Christianity that is not the last word, as we will see in a second and as we already know, I hope. In Jesus Christ, you do not have that any more. You have a radical reversal of God’s activity, because once he has established his power, then he can send his Son to show mercy and to show what the power of God really is, which is the power of truth, the power of righteousness, the power of love, which is absolutely, fully, completely, and totally revealed in the Cross of Christ and in the crucified Messiah.
But in the Old Testament, you have God doing these acts so that they would know that he is God. Here I would recommend to you as an exercise: read the Prophet Ezekiel. If you read the Prophet Ezekiel and all that is going on there, you will see that it says in Ezekiel over 65 times—I counted them—where God says, “I am against you and I will do these mighty acts and I will destroy not only your enemies: I will destroy you, and I will destroy Jerusalem”—how about that?—“so that you may know that I am God.”
Now here we’ve got to see something very important: that the violence of God in the Old Covenant is not just against the enemies of Israel and the enemies of God. It’s not simply against those people whose names are listed: the Canaanites, the Perusites, the Moabites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Hagorites. There’s all these names of all these people in Canaan that God has to actually destroy so that he could keep his soteriological, his saving activities in the world alive and keep his own name holy and his own name glorified over and against all the demonic powers that are being worshiped as gods, all those idols.
So this is what you have there, but in Ezekiel and in Jeremiah, in Isaiah, you have a new thing there, God doing a new thing. What’s he doing? Well, he is saying to his own people now, “You are unrighteous. You are unfaithful. You are sinful. You are idolaters. And I’ll show you what you’re going to get, too.” And then he razes Jerusalem to the ground, and he actually calls Nebuchadnezzar… he calls him, “My christ, my anointed.” He calls Nebuchadnezzar, the most wicked king of all the earth, who comes in the year—what is it? the sixth century before Christ—586 BCE, before the Common Era, before Christ—you have the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.
And then the Persians defeat the Babylonians, Cyrus comes in, and he’s now called God’s anointed and God’s christ, to rebuilt the temple. But by the time you get to Darius, the temple’s still not rebuilt; then in the time of Haggai and Ezra and Nehemiah and Zachariah, you have the second temple being rebuilt. But then that temple itself is going to get destroyed after Jesus is crucified in the year 70, never to be rebuilt again. But the most amazing thing is that God says to his own people in the Old Testament Scripture, “I am against you. I am against you, because you are trusting in horses. You think you can manipulate me. You think that because I told you you are my people that you can do whatever you want and you can be unrighteous and sinful and break that Law and not keep the commandments and not keep the Sabbath or anything else.”
So God has to show his righteousness, and sometimes in the Bible it’s pretty awesome how he does it. There’s that terrible story of that guy, Uzzah, who—they’re carrying the Ark of the Covenant when they’re going into Cana, and he stumbles and trips and he falls against the ark and touches it, and he drops dead. Well, maybe he had a heart attack because he was so scared that he touched the holy ark, but of course in the Hebrew mind, it said: “God killed him.” Then you have that terrible story of the guy collecting sticks on the Sabbath day, and God says, “Stone him to death.” Well, God has to show that power, and that’s the kind of world he was dealing with; those are the kind of people he was dealing with, the kind of men he was dealing with, and this is not a joke.
This is real business, and we can’t flash back our post-Christian, post-Enlightenment, humanistic, secularly humanistic ethics back into the old days. And of course, the one thing, as I mentioned already on the radio about the humanistic ethics is that they say it doesn’t really matter who God is, and there’s no worship at all. There’s no one to give thanks and glory and honor and worship to at all. You’re just supposed to be a nice person and get what you want and share the greed, and, as I said, our modern time is almost a radical opposite of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was for God to establish his divinity and to be worshiped and to receive glory and honor, because that’s where human beings find life and salvation and that’s where they are not becoming overcome by the powers of passion and sin and death and destruction itself. And of course, in the Scripture the last enemy that God has to destroy is death itself, and he does that on the Cross through the death of his Son, Jesus the Messiah.
So here you have the violence of God, which is needed, first of all, to preserve his people from their mortal enemies on earth and then at the same time to preserve the righteousness of his people by even showing his wrath and anger against them. Here in Isaiah, for example, the 26th chapter of Isaiah, where you have the canticle of Isaiah, which actually is sung in the Orthodox Christian Church during the Great Lenten season of repentance and it’s one of the biblical canticles that is in the canons of all the Orthodox services… We have the canticles of the Old Testament. The first one is Moses in the victory from Egypt, Mariam’s canticle of repentance you have in there. Then you have the song of Hannah, the song of Habbakuk, the song of Isaiah, the song of Jonah in the belly of the whale.
Well, there’s that song in Isaiah where God is saying that he will raise the dead, that he will vindicate his people. Of course, that’s important; we’re going to see that the final word of God is always mercy and forgiveness and rescue and deliverance and raising up of all the dead and forgiveness of all the sins committed from Adam and Eve right down to the last person ever to live on the planet earth. It’s all forgiven in the blood of Christ, but you’ve got to get to Christ.
So in Isaiah, that 26th chapter where you find the canticle, you have those words there that—terrifying words—where it says: If God would show favor and kindness to wicked people, they don’t repent; they just become worse. He says if favor is shown to the wicked he does not learn righteousness. In the land of uprightness, he deals perversely. He does not recognize the majesty of the Lord. Here one of the accusations of God against his people is: they think that they can do with him whatever they want, and they think that they’re invincible, and they think that it is by their horses and their powers that they’re going to keep themselves alive, and they make deals with Egyptians and Assyrians and Persians and God-knows-what. Well, God is working with all of that, but at the same time, he keeps telling them: “I am your God. I will fight for you. Don’t put your trust in princes and sons of men. Don’t think horses are going to save you.” And then when they think it too much, he says, “Okay, I’ll show you,” and then he allows the enemies to just raze Jerusalem itself and the holy temple right to the ground, and that happens a couple of times in history. It gets razed, it gets rebuilt, and it gets razed to the ground again, never to be rebuilt again, because the raised temple of God now is the body of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.
But it also says in that canticle in the Septuagint version—this is not in the Hebrew version—you have that line that we sing in church during Lent: [prosthes kaka] render evil unto them, O God, render evils unto them, even to the proud ones of the earth. And the Holy Fathers teach us that God’s only tool against unrighteousness are evils. God has to show punishment, God has to chastise, God has to show his anger, otherwise people don’t repent, and if they’re blessed, they think the blessings are due to them, that they have the right to them, that they’re not gifts and graces of God, which is the ultimate blasphemy against God. Who are you, creature?
So what happens is God’s own people become his enemy, and he has to fight against the unrighteousness and the idolatries and the apostasies and the rebellions of his own people. So this is a kind of violence that you find in the Old Testament, too: God’s violence and warfare against the enemies of himself because they are enemies of his chosen people for the sake of Christ, but then he is violent towards his own people and he shows them his power and his anger, so that they would know that he is God.
I would beg you: read Ezekiel. Just read Ezekiel. You’ll see everything there of how all this is understood in the Old Testament.
Now, there is one other thing that should be mentioned, and that is: in the Old Testament, you also have violence and killing done as a kind of vindication by human beings against evils done to them. Like, for example here, one of the great examples I think would be, again if you just have it right in the first book of the Bible, in Genesis 34, when Simon and Levi kill Shechem and they kill all the males in the land and they plunder the whole city and they take all the women and the children and everything because Shechem has violated their sister Dinah. So when Dinah is raped and taken by Shechem and [seduced] and plundered, [her] brothers vindicate this action of Shechem by killing him, including all his people and killing all his place and plundering his city, so you have the evils that are done as vindication: evil given for evil. You return the evils by evils in order to vindicate your righteousness against the unrighteousness of those who harmed you. So you find all of this in the Scriptures, all this kind of evil and murder and going-on, and it’s there all the time.
Now, in the psalms, which are, of course, absolutely necessary to be read also… I once tried to count how many times it speaks about enemies, adversaries, and putting them to shame and overcoming them and destroying them that you find in the psalter. I had to give up, because it is so darn filled with that that you can’t even add how many times it’s there. Read the psalter. It’s all about the victory of God over his enemies. It’s always the victory of God on behalf of the poor and the needy and the lowly and the rejected. It’s all about God defending the widows and orphans by punishing and destroying and ultimately showing his power against the unrighteous, the sinful, the enemy, the idolater, the apostate.
Here in the psalms, we believers, we identify the Lord in all of the psalms with Jesus Christ himself, but we also identify all the victims in the psalms, all the poor, the needy, the righteous who are vindicated, who are the victims of violence, we also identify them with Jesus. And then we try to identify ourselves with the righteous, and we pray to be made righteous. We ask God to let us be upright, to keep the commandments. We say we want to keep those commandments, but at the same time, we know in the psalter that we are sinners ourselves, that we deserve the wrath and the anger of God upon us because of our sins.
It’s like the canticle of the three youths in the fiery furnace say, one of the final biblical canticles: “All this has happened to us because of our sins.” Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego—those are the Persian names for Ananias, Azarias, and Misael—and Daniel, they find themselves in Babylon, and the three youths are thrown into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar, the most wicked king of all earth that God called “my servant”—“my christ,” God called Nebuchadnezzar—but then, of course, God wants his people to stand over against Nebuchadnezzar, and ultimately Nebuchadnezzar himself is put to shame, and Daniel and the faithful people are vindicated and God restores the forces of his people and brings them back into their land.
But what the New Testament is going to tell us is that Jerusalem is from above; it’s not a geographic place. The temple is the temple of the Apocalypse, where God himself is the temple; the risen Christ is the temple; that the land of the living is not some geographic place, but it’s the kingdom of God to come at the end of the ages where all the righteous will dwell.
So here what we see is that the psalms are also read about the righteousness of God and the fidelity to God against the idols, against the enemies, against the unrighteous, and even the unrighteous who are members of Israel itself. For example, you have psalms that say, “We took sweet counsel together, we walked together into the temple as brothers, but then your words were smoother than oil, but they were like drawn swords.” And then it speaks about the enemy being the very brother that you go to pray with when you go to church. So the language and the symbolism of the warfare and the enemies, it’s full of that in the psalms.
But the psalm also says that the unrighteous who do not repent will suffer because of that; they will suffer from the righteousness of God that will come like a burning fire upon their head. And the Prophet Isaiah will even say that the torment of the evil will be the very face and presence of God upon them.
But now let’s end up today with the New Testament, because what does the New Testament say? What does the final covenant of God say? What does God speak through his final Word incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth? What is the word of the Cross? What is the Gospel of God in Christ Jesus? And very simply put, to sum it up simply, it is this: that we are all sinners, but God shows mercy on all. God triumphs over all his enemies, and all his enemies are sin and evil and demons and demonic people. Those are God’s enemies, and those enemies will be destroyed. In the same way that the Ark of the Covenant, when it was brought into battle, in the book of Numbers, for example, the people would sing, “Let God arise. Let his enemies be scattered. Let those who hate him flee from before his face.” That’s Numbers 11, and that’s Psalm 68. That will become, for Orthodox Christians, the Paschal Psalm. That’ll be the psalm of the Resurrection of Christ, when God finally destroys all his enemies.
But what people have to realize is we are all his enemies in some way. Jews and Gentiles, whoever we are, we are those who are in need of the mercy of God, and the Gospel of God in Jesus is he shows mercy on all. He shows mercy even on the Sodomites and the Gomorrahites. Jesus says to Chorazin and Bethsaida in Capernaum: if Sodom and Gomorrah had seen what they’d seen, they would have repented in dust and ashes long ago. And he says it’ll be worse for Christians; it’ll be worse for those who know Jesus on the day of judgment, stricter than it will be even for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But one thing is for certain: Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for Sodom and Gomorrah. Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for everyone that Yahweh killed in the Old Testament. Everyone that was killed in the Old Testament in any way, whether it was Jephthah’s daughter who had to be sacrificed because he made a vow, whether it’s that concubine who was chopped up into twelve parts and sent through Israel, whether it’s the ravishing of the young maidens outside Sodom and Gomorrah and in other places in the Bible, whether it’s Cain killing Abel, whatever it is—all those murders, all [that] violence—that is all subsumed in the flesh of Christ on the Cross, and he endures it all. And it is God Almighty that is in human flesh that’s enduring it in order to have mercy on all.
Now here I would say this very clearly: if God did not so love the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that those who believe in him would not perish, and if he did not give the opportunity for everyone to repent, and if the final judgment, when the Lord appears in glory, is not the moment of truth when anyone can finally repent of all their ignorances and their evils, their passions and their crimes, and if God did not die for everyone and shed his blood for everyone without exception, then we would have real problems with the murders of the Old Testament. All that violence would be nothing but scandalous violence. But the scandal for Christians, the scandal of the Cross replaces, so to speak, heals all the violence of men, even the violence of God himself that he had to perpetrate in the Old Testament in order for his plan to be completed for the Messiah to come.
And that’s how the ancient Christians read the Old Testament, and that’s why they read it often allegorically, symbolically. They saw that fighting in the Old Testament as the warfare between God’s graciousness and goodness against idolatry and fornication and [un]chastity and blasphemy and sin and evil and murder and all the violations of the commandments of God.
And here it’s very important: Christians read the psalms that way. Take, for example, the psalm that says about the Babylonians, “Blessed are they who take your little ones and smash them on the rocks.” St. Nilus of Sinai, St. Benedict of Nursia, all the holy Fathers say that we have to interpret that spiritually, allegorically. Yeah, God did say you have to bash those babies on the rocks, you have to kill the women and the children, because if they grow up and become powerful, they’re going to kill you and then it’s going to be the end of the story and evil is going to triumph, and God cannot let evil triumph, so he has to kill the evil-doers—but that’s not the final word. The final word is that he gets killed for the sake of the forgiveness of the evil-doers. That’s the Christian faith.
So when, in the final covenant of God with his people in Christ, Christians are no longer killers, they are those who get killed—the martyr and the confessor and the meek and gentle and the non-violent and the peaceful—those are the quintessential victors in Christ. As the Apocalypse puts it, Christians fight the Lamb’s war, and the Lamb’s war is against sin, including the sin that’s in your own heart, in your own mind, in your own flesh, in your own body. That’s what Christ has to destroy ultimately, but you’ve got to get Christ into the world. You’ve got to get Mary into the world so there’s a woman capable of giving birth to God in the flesh.
And the only way God can do it is the way he did it, and the way he did it is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament. The way God did it is recorded in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, and he did it in a violent way. As Jesus said, “From the beginning until John the Baptist, the kingdom of God is taken by violence, and the violent take it by force.” But there’s some sense in which the violence of God is now the violence of the Lamb. It’s the violence of non-violence. It’s the violence of martyria, of witness. It’s the violence of suffering. We know Jesus said that. For example, when the apostles wanted to call fire down on Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum, whatever, all those cities that did not accept Jesus, Jesus says, “No.” He says, “This is over now. The final new covenant is here. I’m here in order to die, not to kill.”
Now, will God kill and destroy his enemies, ultimately, in the coming kingdom? Well, the ancient Christian scriptural answer is no. He will have mercy on everybody. But still, people may not accept that mercy, and then God’s love and his truth and his righteousness and his blood will torment them, and they will be tormented forever and ever if they blaspheme the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Some people think that nobody can do that; other people—and it seems to be the scriptural teaching—no. The demons and the evil people who love the demons and hate God, they will suffer from the mercy of God forever, and that’s the fire of hell. But God is no longer destroying. God is no longer destroying. People are destroying themselves by opposing the righteousness of God.
The Christian Gospel is that God is victorious over his enemies, ultimately, finally, perfectly, totally, and once and for all, but the weapon of God is the Cross, and God is victorious by dying. He is victorious by being killed, and that’s the scandal and that’s the radical newness of Christianity. As it was said in the book of Acts, the Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus were saying about the preaching of the apostles, “These men are turning the world upside down.” And in Christ everything is turned upside down.
So we read about the violence and the murder and the killing and the violence of God and the violence of people and the sinful violence and the unrighteous violence, but then the necessary violence that is necessary for God’s plan to be completed, we read about all this in the Old Testament. We see it fulfilled in the non-violent Christ, who as a Lamb is led to the slaughter and opens not his mouth, who is denied justice, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and who dies for all those for all those who have died in any way, and he dies even for those whom God himself has killed in the Old Testament, because the final word does not belong to death. The final word does not belong to destruction. The final word belongs to mercy and forgiveness. The final word belongs to resurrection and life. The final word belongs to the peace of God, not the violence of God.
But that peace itself is very violent for people who do not want it, it produces violence, because as Isaiah said, peace and gifts and favor and grace shown to the wicked does not always produce repentance; it could make people even worse and more violent and more hating and more crazy and more mad. Yeah, that’s possible.
And the delusions can come, as Christ said, “And the day will come when people will even be murdering each other and think they’re doing it in the name of Christ crucified.” Can you imagine that they’re doing it in the name of God? Or the time can go on as if Christ has not come, and then, of course, there can be delusion. People can kill in the name of God, but it’s not God at all that they’re killing in the name of. And in the Old Testament, those who had to kill in the name of God, it had better have been in the name of God, for the sake of God’s plan, with great sorrow and repentance on their own part, or else they were in tremendous trouble.
So this is how we understand the violence in the Bible. The Old Testament is prefigurative, preparatory, and pedagogic to Christ. It does involve violence and murder and warfare, but that warfare is a prefiguration of the ultimate warfare of God on the Cross in Christ. He is the Iēsus Christos Nika; he is the Victor. And here is the radical newness of the New Testament.
And that was so new that some people thought that the New Testament God was not even the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses; they thought it was a different God, but we Christians say, “Oh, no, no, no. It’s not; it’s the same God. It’s the same God.” It is. Moses spoke about Christ. Isaiah spoke about Christ. All the events of the Old Testament prefigure Christ. All the warfare and the victories of Yahweh over his enemies in the Old Testament prefigure the victory of Christ on the Cross. That’s how Christians read and understand the violence, the killing, the murder that we find in the Scriptures, particularly those of the Old Testament.
Now one last little thought: This goes on even in the Christian era, and the shame will be for Christians that they will kill in the name of Christ. The shame of Christians is that they will become as if they had the power to invoke God and use God for the destruction of their enemies. Even the Theotokos will be praised as a victorious leader who smashes barbarians or something. This is an apostasy in its own way, and it’s a million times worse than what we find in the Old Testament.
So let’s think about these things, but let’s know for sure that all that violence of old was necessary to produce the Christ, and then the Christ comes and takes the violence upon himself and forgives everyone everything. And that’s the teaching of the Gospel. And the victory of God ultimately is one when his Son dies the most violent, degrading, horrible death on the Cross. So for Christians, we preach Christ crucified, scandal to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but the wisdom and the power, the ultimate wisdom and the ultimate power, of God Almighty himself.