VIOLENCE WEEK, Q & R: God and Violence and the Old Testament

Here’s the Q (referring to my Sojourner’s article, “Is God Violent?”:

Aspiration: Read more Brian McLaren books. I heard you speak in Edinburgh 2008. I am still inspired by that talk
Anyway, I am telling you that to try and give you an idea of where I am at in order that you might respond knowing my thinking inclination (middle-aged son of a protestant evangelical Billy Graham convert who was called Moses… Attending a pretty chilled, Scottish, mildly pentecostal gathering. Married to a saint, with children). In your article I was struck by your statement about reading the OT as a library. This is very helpful. Since my mid 30’s I have never been comfortable with violence of any kind and struggle with the OT. Of your 4 categories I am a natural 4, however comfortable in 3. and I believe Jesus was non violent and a manifestation of God’s non violent character. I am reading the bible in a year for the first time in 20 years and loving it however struggling with all the violence in the OT
Finally to the question: If God isn’t violent, how do we interpret 2 Samuel 21 vs’s 1 to 6. David gave 7 of Saul’s descendants to the Gibeonites as a sacrifice to stop a famine. Result: After the hangings, God let it rain and we assume the famine stopped. Why is this story part of an “inspired and authoritative library”?

Here’s the R:

This strange and seldom-spoken-of passage – worth reading for people not familiar with it – presents exactly the kinds of issues that the traditional constitutional reading can’t, in my opinion, cope with in any ethically satisfactory way. According to a constitutional reading, God causes a three-year famine that causes everyone to suffer in punishment for one man’s (Saul’s) misdeeds. Then, as you noted, 7 descendants of Saul are executed for a crime they didn’t commit. The whole episode is concerning for several reasons. First there is group punishment, and punishment of descendants for crimes of their fathers, which would be considered as crimes against humanity today. Not only this, but we have – to put it bluntly – human sacrifice, and a God who is appeased through a revenge killing.
If you look at this text as providing the kind of legal evidence a constitutional lawyer might use to make a case – based on this text, God honors human sacrifice, God honors revenge, God sends famines that harm or kill many to punish one person’s error, etc. – you have some serious issues to deal with, especially in tension with other texts that tell us God rejects human sacrifice, God doesn’t punish children for their parents’ sins, God forbids revenge, etc.
In A New Kind of Christianity, I recommend an alternate approach that sees the Bible as a collection of essential and instructive arguments. In this case, notice the tensions inherent in the texts – arguments that beg for our engagement:

Saul’s original crime was breaking a treaty of protection with the Gibeonites.
He had created “a blood-stained house.”
The Gibeonites were what we might call “aliens” or “a minority group.”
Saul was intent on genocide … the extermination of a minority group.
Saul’s reason for genocide was – this is important! – patriotism! (“in his zeal for Israel and Judah”)
David acts in deference to the survivors/victims of Saul’s “patriotic crime.” He believes God is as concerned about injustice against “the other” as he is about injustice against “us.”
The victims have refused vigilante violence; they work “through the system” by appealing to David.
Saul is identified as “the LORD’s chosen one” – by the victims! – which may be a way of indicting the Lord in the crime.
David holds the royal family accountable … and executes his own citizens for a crime against “aliens.”

Please note: I am not “excusing” the text or seeking to apply it as “law” – not at all. I’m just paying attention to what is there. As I read it and feel its internal tensions, I realize that we in our various “blood-stained houses” are dealing with all the same issues here today … from Abu Ghraib to Arizona to presidential pardons to the Manhattan mosque to Israel-Palestine, and so on.
So yes, the text is disturbing – and a constitutional interpretation is even more disturbing – but if we let the text disturb us in its internal tensions, we as members of blood-stained houses are forced to think about some things we desperately need to think about.
When we find ourselves arrested and suspended in this kind of internal tension – feeling the inherent arguments in the text – we render ourselves vulnerable to three essential things:
1. Our own contemporary predicaments and our need for guidance.
2. The stories and teachings of Jesus in the gospels … which provide an amazing counterpoint to nearly every detail of this story.*
3. The present guidance of the Holy Spirit …
This more literal and rhetorical approach, I think, helps us read the Bible more wisely than a literalist and constitutional approach. Thanks so much for your excellent question.
*This passage invites us to question, among other things, the whole idea of scapegoating and sacred violence … which in turn has powerful implications for how we interpret the cross and resurrection later this month.