With chapter 5, Lamb addresses the perennial vexing question for those who struggle with the Old Testament: how does one deal with divine violence. Lamb opens with an insightful caution against the easy assumption that simply because the Bible reports something it is therefore commending that activity. He advocates a thorough examination of the context of the story to ascertain whether the behavior is lauded or condemned in the biblical text. Unfortunately, as my own forthcoming book argues (see HERE), I am not convinced such narrative evaluations are always so clear cut and decisive in the biblical text. But this requires a case by case basis. And so I turn to Lamb’s examples . . .
Genesis 22, the near sacrifice of Isaac, opens the discussion. Lamb suggests the “main point of the story is that [YHWH] does not require child sacrifice” (94). It is extremely unfortunate that Lamb does not undertake precisely what he had advocated only a page earlier: a deep excavation of the text’s context. A contextual reading (however one defines it, but perhaps in line with the methods in the Genesis: Texts @ Contexts volume–see my RBL review of the book HERE–I contend it is extremely difficult to avoid other attendant issues that are quite troubling in such an investigation) will not and cannot eliminate the danger and difficulty of this text. For example, relying upon the biblical text itself and its immediate surrounding context (and these are points the rabbis picked up on as well), one should note that while it is quite transparent to readers of the story that this is a “test,” Abraham and Isaac are entirely in the dark. The emotional experience thus becomes less the focus in comparison with Abraham’s exemplary display of faith at this horrific request. Similarly, after the event Abraham and Isaac never again are seen together in the narrative, nor do they ever . . . . ever . . . . speak a word to one another. Compounding the problematic element in this text, Isaac seems later in life to be an almost entirely passive figure, a quite ineffectual patriarch, who is the object of deception by his son and wife, and who sits on his deathbed for upwards of 20 years. He is portrayed in the text as object, not subject (save for Gen 26). And so, to my eye, despite whether one accepts that the “main point” of Gen 22 is that God does not require human sacrifice, this recognition does not mitigate in any way the terror and horror this text should evoke, at least at some level, for readers. Such readings, which relegate the problematic to a secondary status, only succeed in raising the decibel of this unheard aspect of the text to a deafening tone.
Lamb next treats the Elisha and the bears story in 2 Kgs 2:23-25 (a favorite of students), arguing that the common reading the boys are youths is without textual merit; they are, instead, a pack of rogue teens who intend to do serious bodily harm–perhaps even to the point of death–to the prophet. He also argues there is no indication that the bear attack was “fatal” but only “violent” (98), as though a bear mauling anyone–irrespective of age–as a result of a divine command becomes condonable behavior so long as the person does not die. Such a defense would hardly hold up in a modern day court of law! The “main point” of this story, argues Lamb, “is not that [YHWH] picks on children but rather that [YHWH] protected the life of Elisha” (98). I remain unclear how Lamb so confidently arrives at the “main point” of these stories . . . the main point from whose perspective? the author’s? Lamb’s? The arithmetic by which he gets there is not entirely clear. And again I would say that even if this is the “main point” of the text (and I disagree that it is the main point), it does not eliminate other potential points or perspectives that warrant honest theological engagement and struggle. Lamb has ignored them by the common practice of assuming that these problems magically disappear when the text is read properly; they are subsumed and consumed by the “main point” of the text. I cannot accept this. Why the severity? What are the limits? Or, as my students sometimes put it, if God is all powerful (another thorny issue–see Fretheim, for example) then why could God not remedy the situation in a more peaceful way? I do resonate some with Lamb’s conclusion to this section of the chapter: “a pattern emerges that [YHWH] is willing to punish individuals and even nations severely to protect the weak and preserve life” (99), but this recognition, again, does not eliminate the difficulties or the need to deal with them.
Next Lamb turns to the Canaanite genocide, arguing five mitigating points: 1) God was punishing the Canaanites for their wicked behavior in regards to ancient Israel; 2) Israel was not trying to expand borders violently but simply gain a homeland [interestingly, Lamb does not address other texts where ancient Israel is engaged in border expansion through violent means]; 3) YHWH demonstrated patience [slow to anger] in dealing with the Canaanites, giving them opportunity to repent; 4) the Canaanite conquest was not unique within the ancient Near East; 5) the killing in this instance was “probably” [Lamb’s word–not the most solid of footing] “limited and localized” given that Judges, for instance, talks of Canaanites remaining in the land.
Another text involving mass death, the Assyrian slaughter by an angel of YHWH in 2 Kgs 19:35, receives treatment next. The body count totals 185,000. Lamb makes sense of this event in three ways: 1) death is a necessary reality of war; 2) Assyria was an extremely violent and rapacious nation; 3) Assyrians had mocked YHWH, insisting he was unable to deliver Israel from Sennacherib. Again, attempts to “explain” the difficulty away does not eliminate the necessity of still needing to “explain” the difficulty. It is not erased. And so what do we do? Lamb’s personal assessment offers a good springboard for discussion. He writes, “personally, I’m glad that the God of the Old Testament took extreme measures to care for the poor and the powerless and to prevent bloodshed and war” (106). My concern is with the latter, italicized part of this statement. Lamb has just discussed many places where bloodshed and war have been carried out in the name of . . . and by . . . God! Is Lamb, then, also glad for the bloodshed and war YHWH has caused in order to protect the poor and powerless? The insinuation in Lamb’s comment hints at what I think Lamb believes he has accomplished in the prior discussions: arguing that YHWH in fact does take an active stance against bloodshed and war. But, as Lamb has shown, in certain circumstances God is indeed the instigator of bloodshed and war. And so the problem remains, unsettled, and unaddressed. These texts reject facile attempts to smooth them out.
As Lamb does in each chapter, he concludes in two ways. First, by turning to Jesus. Lamb attempts to reconcile Jesus’ peaceful message in the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus statement that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Mt 10:34; Lk 12:51) by saying “Jesus was rarely in sword-wielding mode and was often in peacemaking mode” (110), as though the frequency with which one acts problematically was the true barometer for assessing one’s capacity for violence and evil. And so by Lamb’s arithmetic, if I kill someone, but only once, and then devote all the rest of my efforts to helping detectives solve all unsolved murder cases, then I am certainly much more in “peaceful mode” than I am in “killing mode.” This type of logic is senseless in my view. Historical Jesus debates aside, the textual Jesus says both. Attempts to quantify items such as these are especially weak and appalling. Moreover, I wonder how Lamb would reconcile his “peaceful” Jesus of the gospels with the Jesus of Revelation? Or even Jesus portrayed elsewhere in the gospels. I reject the idea that is commonly held, I feel, that Jesus was this sort of 60s hippie with a guitar almost smiling and singing kum-bah-yah (as I’ve talked about elsewhere). I’m fairly certain he raised his voice. And the Temple tantrum? And calling the Canaanite/Syro-Phoenician woman a dog? Jesus was not a tame guy, and his message was not a tame message. Second, Lamb closes the chapter with the worthwhile suggestion that we “promote peace by healing, feeding, loving and praying for enemies” (112). A worthwhile activity indeed. But what remains in the background, and thus unresolved in my view, are those texts in which God–and Jesus!–do not act in like manner.
And so, if asked, is God “Violent or Peaceful,” I respond simply . . . YES.