My article in Sojourners on wrestling with violence in the Bible

Monday, December 12, 2011

My feature article just came out in the latest edition (Jan, 2012) of Sojourners Magazine. It is called:

"The Way of Peace and Grace: How Paul wrestled with violent passages in the Hebrew Bible"

You can read it online at the SoJo website for free (you just need to register).
EDIT: For those who don't want to register, here's a direct link to a
PDF of the article

As the title suggests, it deals with how we can faithfully wrestle with really disturbing passages in the Bible that seem to advocate and even command committing violence in God's name. As I've mentioned before, most commentaries tend to either justify or downplay these passages. What I propose is a very different approach: if we learn to read the Bible the way that Jesus and Paul did, we can deal with them like they did.

In the Sojourners article I deal in particular with how Paul wrestles with violent passages from the Old Testament, disarming them and putting them under Christ. You'll need to read the article for the details, but Paul's approach is pretty awesome. If Paul read the Old Testament like this, then I think its fair to say we would be on pretty solid ground if we read it that way too.

I'm really excited about this article, and am thrilled to finally be able to share it. As far as I know, it represents a unique contribution to biblical scholarship. I've found scholars making similar conclusions about Paul, buried in the middle of some obscure footnote in a dense technical commentary, but I have not seen anyone connect all the dots like this. In fact, books like the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament miss (or intentionally omit?) this pattern in Paul's reading entirely, even though Paul does this constantly. In doing so, they completely miss how Paul reads his Bible and arrives at a gospel of grace that is so different from how he previously read his Bible before his conversion to Christ.

What's more important than scholarship though is how we, as followers of Christ, read the Bible as Scripture. Adopting Paul's way of wrestling with these violent passages opens up a way for all of us to read the Bible that does not force us to check our conscience at the door. Jesus and Paul didn't, and neither should we!

So if you've ever wondered how Jesus or Paul could have read the Old Testament and arrived at a loving, radically grace-focused understanding of God, then check out the article.

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At 5:29 AM, Anonymous Tahlib said...

Thank you for this post, and the link to Sojourner. I found the examination of Paul's approach to reading the Bible to further peace versue destruction helpful. It doesn't however explain the narrative of the anry God of the Old Testament. Can you say more?

At 7:24 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Tahlib,

Paul had previously read the "narrative of the angry God" in the OT and concluded that faithfulness to Scripture meant that he should violently persecute the followers of Jesus. After his conversion, he obviously read the Bible differently, focusing on a message of grace towards foreigner gentiles instead of violence towards them.

In the Old Testament there are many competing and even conflicting narratives. The OT is not one voice, but many voices all arguing with each other. For Paul, Christ was the lens through which he read all of those conflicting narratives, allowing him to see which reflected Christ, and which did not.

In other words, the OT shows us a dim Christ, one we that we need to read between the lines to see (as we can see Paul does in his reading and editing of certain passages). In the NT God's true nature in Christ is fully revealed. So we need to read the OT in the light of Christ to read it correctly. Christ is the key to proper interpretation.

So through that lens of Christ we might recognize that where the "narrative of an angry God" shows us that God cares passionately about the oppressed, this reflects Christ. But where it was interpreted to mean that people should kill in God's name (as it is at times in the OT, and as Paul thought he should before his conversion) that does not reflect Christ. Thus Paul rejects that, and so can we.

In other words, there are parts that are good in the OT, and parts that are bad, parts that reflect God in Christ, and parts that do not. Reading the Bible through the lens of Christ (asking is this Christ-like?) allows us to sift through these to find the gold among the dirt.

At 1:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of this was new to me and very helpful -- thank you !

It reminds me a little of the development we see in the Book of Revelation's use of the OT.

There are two examples that really inspire me because of the way Revelation makes an OT quote even more universal.

Is 43:19
Behold I am doing a new thing (LXX Greek: idou ego poio kaina)
becomes in Rev 21:5
Behold I am making all things new (NT Greek: idou kaina poio panta)
where the addition of "all things" (panta) really universalizes it.

The other example is Ezek 47:12
... their leaves will be for healing.
becomes in Rev 22:2
the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

The surprise, here, being that the nations (and the kings of the earth) who have been enemies of Christ all through the Book of Revelation, have now come in through the ever-open gates of the New Jerusalem (21:24) -- and the leaves are for the healing of the nations !

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Rev Drew Tweedy said...

Great article Derek. I hadn't noticed until you pointed it out the way Paul "corrects" the Old Testament. We are, as you say, surely on safe ground if we take our hermeneutical lead from Paul. Do you agree that Jesus himself does the same thing, for example in his Luke 4 reference to Isaiah 61 he leaves out the bit about "the day of God's vengeance"?

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I do agree that Jesus does the same thing when he quotes Scripture (like in the example you give), but the real place we see how Jesus interprets Scripture is in his practice. That's because Paul is writing a letter, and the gospels are reporting what Jesus did, so they are different genres. As a result you don't see Jesus quoting a lot, you see him doing stuff which reflects his way of reading in contrast to the Pharisees.

So while I think Jesus and Paul interpret Scripture in the same way, for Jesus we need to examine different things to really see this. I plan on writing an article on that specifically and posting it here in the future based on the research I've done to compliment the stuff on Paul.

In the meantime, a good book to read on this is "Jesus and the Fundamentalism of his Day." by William Loader.

At 8:01 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Cool observations Anon, thanks for sharing them!

At 1:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Derek.

I should have stated that while your examples (deliberately ?) leave bits out of OT quotations, my examples (deliberately ?) put bits in !

And how do we theologize about this ? !

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Well, I suppose that both show how the writer is reading (or probably we should say 'applying' or 'appropriating') these passages. Paul is rejecting certain parts, and the writer of Revelations is clarifying certain parts. In general what they show is a way of dialoging with Scripture, and in Paul's case I would say a way of wrestling with it. This 'dialog' or 'wrestling' is seen all through the OT, and of course you can see Jesus doing it too -- for example on the Sermon on the Mount with his "but I say unto you..." statements.

Here's another example that I find fascinating: In the Hebrew OT there are many passages that say "God as a warrior" (Exod. 15:3; Isa. 42:13; Jdt. 9:7; 16:3). In the LXX (which is the Greek version of the OT that scholars believe was likely the Bible the authors of the NT read) all of these passages instead say that Yahweh is “the one who destroys war” which of course would imply the complete opposite.

From the Hebrew, you could translate it either way. The reason modern biblical scholars translate it as "God is a warrior" is because of context. The reason the LXX translators go the other route is because of ethics. We have all but lost that art of reading ethically like that. Perhaps we need to regain that practice.

At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Derek, for such a full reply.

The LXX example you give is absolutely fascinating. "Dialoging and wrestling are good ways to describe it. It's all part of our spiritual journey, I'm sure. Again thanks.

Nicolas T (as at Sojourners as well).

At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek,

I have just finished reading your article in Sojourners and thank you for it. You have written several posts on the violent passages in the bible and how Jesus and Paul challenge the assumptions of the reading of these passages and reinterpret them in line with their view that God is a God of mercy and grace.

I was wondering whether you might one day write a detailed book on this topic similar to the one you are in the process of writing on the Christus Victor view of the atonement and are able to get it published?

Thanks again for your treatment of this very difficult topic.

John Arthur

At 9:14 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi John,
Yes, that is all in the works. I have the book on Christus Victor pretty much done, and am in the process of finding a publisher. After that, my next book will be about dealing with violence in the Bible. I'm still putting all the puzzle pieces together for that, the Sojourners article being a big part.

I had actually been sitting on the article for a while because I wanted to find the right platform to share it. It's a pretty important discovery of how Paul read (and wrestled with) the Bible, and so I wanted it to have a wide audience. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of response the article will get as its ripples spread across the theological pond.

At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I registered, but it said I was denied access to the article?

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, it is temporarily down, but should be back up shortly. I'll post here as soon as it is. In the meantime, go bake some gingerbread cookies (that's my plan anyway).

At 5:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

YES! I read your article last week! It was such an affirmation of my struggle to read between Scripture's lines, especially in my recently published Mulled Psalms: Moving from I to We (WordClay)

At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

The article is back up on Sojourners!

At 10:11 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Marjorie (Mullstream),
Thanks for sharing this! I love how you approach the psalms as an artist rather than as a scientist. We need more artist readings because artists know how to get to the heart, and move us in a way that clinicians cannot. Your Psalms remind me of how musicians do covers of older songs (after all the Psalms are songs), adapting them, renewing them, reviving them for a new audience.

At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got done reading your writings on Christus Victor model of the atonement and have been researching the Eastern Orthodox views on this and I have to say, I'm convinced. I'm no longer a Calvinist. I am changing over to Eastern Orthodox. Your writings on the atonement was THE major factor in my change. Thanks!

At 2:45 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Mchoux,

Above any particular religious system (whether Calvinist or Eastern Orthodox or some other) what I hope most of all is that you find grace.

I pray that you would know the depths of God's love for you, and that being loved like that by God would continue to shape your life and relationships so that you can in turn live as an ambassador of that grace and self-sacrificing love.

If being in an EO church is the place where you can best encounter that grace, then that's great. For myself, I've been led more in the emergent charismatic Anabaptist direction. But there is no perfect system or institution. So I just pray that you find life abundantly as the Spirit of Christ leads you, and if my writing has helped you towards that in some small way, I am grateful.

At 7:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a song/video about wrestling with God:

At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just read your article and I love it!

Resonates with my reading of Michael Hardin, Anthony Bartlett, Rene Girard, Walter Wink, Brian McLaren... Looking at my list I need to find some female authors.


At 6:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Derek,

I also wanted to say something about love. There are no arguments for objective morals. Despite this and all the differences among us there is still a way to discover some goods. One of these goods is love. This seems to be found in our experience. So, with this good we can develope this moral principle: Persons should always do good and avoid and prevent what is bad. Ripping your innocent Son's flesh to shreds and bruising him and hanging Him on a cross isn't good. We may say that our sins were imputed to Christ in such a way that the punishment was just. But if our sins become His and His righteousness becomes ours then we are no longer sinful and He is no longer righteous. But if this is not what is meant then God was punishing an innocent person. This isn't justice. For justice is giving somebody what they deserve.

At 12:29 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Good points Cole. I hear ya.

You know I don't believe in penal substitution right? I'd say instead that the cross is about God in Christ bearing human injustice for the sake of love.

At 1:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, and I thank God for this blog because I've recently almost abandoned Christ. There is one correction I need to make. I did find an argument for at least some absolute moral truths. I pieced this together:

Some moral truths exist and are absolute. That is to say, they are true reguardless of what anybody thinks. They are always true and unchanging. Therefore, they are eternal. According to Wikipedia:


"In physics, motion is a change in position of an object with respect to time. Motion is typically described in terms of velocity, acceleration, displacement and time. Motion is observed by attaching a frame of reference to a body and measuring its change in position relative to another reference frame.

A body which does not move is said to be at rest, motionless, immobile, stationary, or to have constant (time-invariant) position. An object's motion cannot change unless it is acted upon by a force, as described by Newton's first law. An object's momentum is directly related to the object's mass and velocity, and the total momentum of all objects in a closed system (one not affected by external forces) does not change with time, as described by the law of conservation of momentum.

As there is no absolute frame of reference, absolute motion cannot be determined. Thus, everything in the universe can be considered to be moving."

Since everything within the universe is moving it is undergoing change. Indeed, the whole universe is expanding and therefore changing. But absolute moral truths don't change. They are therefore outside our universe. They are always true and are not subject to the laws of decay. They are therfore eternal. Things such as abuse and torturing infants for fun would fall into this category. It is wrong to do such things reguardless of our personal preferences. We can state the argument this way:

1. If torturing infants just for fun and abusing someone would be morally wrong regardless of what people believed about it being morally wrong, then there are at least some absolute moral truths.

2. Torturing infants just for fun and abusing someone would be morally wrong regardless of what people believed about it being morally wrong.

3. Therefore, there are at least some absolute moral truths.

Because some absolute, unchanging, moral truths exist and are not created by man they were around at the Big Bang. But it makes no sense that they could exist all by themselves without a Person. Why? Before anything existed, it's not like the moral truths were sitting around going: "It is wrong to torture babies for fun". Without a Person the laws become meaningless. Some moral truths are eternal and absolute in that they reflect who God is and God IS an eternal Personal Being. The laws are what they are because they reflect who God is. They are part of His being.

1. Some absolute moral truths exist

2. Since they are absolute (always true) our finite human minds do not make the truths up, rather we discover them.

3. Since everything within our universe and the universe itself is changing then the absolute moral truths are outside our universe and not subject to the laws of decay. For they do not change and are therefore eternal.

3. God provides the perfect Source for the moral truths. The truths are absolute and objective because they come from One Personal Moral Being who does not change in His moral character.

At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Cole, it sounds like you are trying to find an anchor to hold on to. So you are looking for a moral absolute. I think there are absolutes, the problem is that we humans can't agree on what they are because we all see things through our own subjective lenses. We all have our biases and blind spots.

So I think your answer is in your 3rd point: we humans don't need to have moral absolutes in the form of an abstract philosophical theory (because that would be our own subjective creation), rather we need to have it in the form of a living relationship with God where the Spirit speaks into our lives and guides us to think and act like Christ. In other words, we cannot know absolute truth, but we can be known (relationally) by the one who is absolute truth. We can't have a monopoly on truth, but we can let Truth (Jesus said "I am the truth") have a monopoly on us.

At 10:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, you're right. I've spotted a flaw with the argument anyway.

At 8:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've corrected it here:

At 1:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek,
You might find the following article of interest, 'cause it combines the theme of violence with your big interest in Atonement:

The author mentions two important voices:
a) Paul Tournier. And here especially his book which is called in German "Aggression" and
b) Rene Girard
I have read Girard only recently. There are some interesting resources out there:
a) google books: Rene Girard: Things hidden since the foundation of the world
b) in, at the end Girard points out a very important truth (in my eyes), when he talks about the difference of the meaning of "logos" in the Hellenistic versus the Hebraic view…

I think, Tournier concludes better. And I wasn’t really astonished to find at the end of his book his recommendation how to shape the church around this theme:
Perhaps there is some use for you in all these pointers.

I personally think, that's very key to the future of the church. And is tightly linked to the understanding of atonement.


At 12:52 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks for the reading tips Peter, very interesting stuff. I'm very familiar with Girard. Some folks who have a 'Girardian' focus that I have found quite helpful are Raymund Schwager (for his work on violence and the Bible) and the late Walter Wink (for his work on nonviolence) and Mark Heim (for his read of the atonement in the gospels).

I have not read Paul Tournier, so I'll need to check him out.


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