The Violence of the Biblical God, L. Daniel Hawk, foreword by John Goldingay. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2019.
Summary: A study of the narratives of violence in scripture and the multiple perspectives one finds in the text regarding God’s involvement in that violence.
The incidents of violence in scripture, and particularly those where God commands, or actively participates in that violence, pose a great challenge for any thoughtful believer both in his or her own reading of scripture, and in discussions with skeptics who point to these passages, and especially the book of Joshua. Does not this deeply conflict with the New Testament witness to the love of God in Christ?
L. Daniel Hawk takes a different approach than others who I’ve seen address this question who either rationalize the violence of God against the Canaanites, or in various ways argue that it actually wasn’t nearly as bad as it appeared. Hawk’s approach argues that “it may be more important to think biblically than to seek biblical answers” (p. xiv). He proposes that one of the reasons there are so many different responses to this question is that the canon itself speaks with multiple voices that do not all agree. He seeks to take an approach that sees all of the canon as authoritative scripture without muting portions that are in conflict with others.
His work begins with a survey of the approaches taken to this question through church history, and then outlines his own narrative approach, eschewing the “quest for a Theory of Biblical Everything” (p. 18) to listen to the biblical narrative in its complexity as it tells in multiple voices the story of God’s work to redeem a fallen world that is violent by “coming down” and entering into that world. He traces this through the fall, the slaying of Abel, and the flood as an accelerating death spiral that God sorrowfully brings to conclusion with the flood, while saving both creatures and one human family to begin anew.
With Babel, Hawk sees a new approach of a God who “comes down,” first confusing the languages of those who would make a name for themselves, and then coming down to make great the name of Abram (Abraham) through whom he begins a redemptive work. He consults with Abraham in his plan to violently destroy the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, and honors his plea for the righteous. To stand with Abraham means to stand against others, as in the case of Abimelech, who Abraham had deceived. As evident in the deliberation between Abraham and God regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, violence is not a paroxysm of anger but what it means to do what is needed within the context of fallen creation to set things to rights.
He then studies the narratives of God’s descent into Egypt to break the power of Pharoah that held Israel in slavery. Only through violence will Pharoah recognize a power greater than his, and to create a new people through the overturning of the power of Egypt. Hawk notes that no emotion or expression of caprice or anger is evident in these episodes, but rather God doing what was needed to deliver and establish this people of the promise, to show God supreme over all other powers. The narrative then continues with this new people as he establishes this covenant, deals with the disobedience of his people (an incident that evidences God’s anger), and the violence that both responds to sin, and yet restores his relationship with the people to whom he has committed himself.
Before turning to the text of Joshua, and Israel’s conquest of Canaan, he jumps forward to God’s assent to give Israel a king like other nations. God first commits himself to Saul, and then to David and his family. His work in the nation becomes taken up with the power dynamics and violence of these kings while acting as a check against their ungodliness and injustices. With the fall of Israel comes an end to this way of working in the world through the instrumentality of the nation as a political entity. His approach will still work through human agents but in another way.
Finally, Hawk comes to Joshua. He contends that exodus and conquest are inextricably connected to God’s decision to renew the world by forming a people. He states, “No exodus, no conquest. No violence, no Israel” (p. 165). He demonstrates the focused character of the invasion against the kings of Canaan that arises neither from caprice or judgement to establish a space in which Yahweh alone, and not the gods of the kings is worshiped. In this book there are narratives both attributing violence to God and counternarratives in the latter part of Joshua that indicate this is not God’s “preferred mode of working in the world.” Hawk notes that while God’s coming down and entering into the making of Israel as a nation involves God in violence, this is not a warrant for other wars.
With the fall of Jerusalem and the exile, Hawk sees a move of God “to the outside.” Instead of working in and through human systems, God refuses to meet violence with violence, or engage the earthly powers, but takes the violence of the world upon himself in Christ, and in the resurrection, establishes a rule outside the world’s systems.
The conclusion Hawk reaches from this narrative survey is a call to move from debates over who is reading scripture rightly to a dialogue that listens to the full complexity and the biblical text. He doesn’t argue for “anything goes” but sets interpretive parameters that include an understanding of divine violence that doesn’t arise from petty caprice, that often God does not use violence in judgment but to accelerate already evident deterioration (as in Sodom), that biblical accounts are testimonies, not templates, and cannot be use to justify wars advancing national or group agendas. Yet Hawk also seems to recognize that the diverse voices of God’s work inside, and from the outside, create the basis for respectful dialogue between Christians who base a peace stance on the narrative of God’s work from the outside, and Christians working “within the system” who face the choice of engaging in state-sanctioned violence in the resistance of evil.
For me, Hawk’s work challenged a long held assumption of how we read scripture. Do we believe that the Spirit of God speaks with one voice. Or does our understanding of scripture allow for a complexity of voices that reflect the complexity of being both in and not of a fallen world? Where one comes down on this may well affect one’s response to Hawk’s reading. What commends that reading to me is that it does not gloss over or mute the hard passages or seemingly conflicting testimony (for example, the commands to utterly devote to destruction the Canaanites and a strategy of gradually supplanting the people).
More profoundly, we see a God who neither remains aloof in the face of human evil and violence nor acts with petty flashes of anger, but rather a settled purpose to redeem through a covenant people, one that involves God in that violence, yet ultimately ends with the taking of that violence on God’s self in Christ. We also find in Hawk a model of an interpreter of scripture taking the text as it stands, listening humbly, and promoting dialogue between different perspectives rather than ruling everything not one’s own out of court in a “Theory of Biblical Everything.” Such models are all too rare and greatly needed in a time where people seem to polarize around everything.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.