Have you ever been confronted by a skeptic or an atheist about the violence of God in the Old Testament? Or perhaps it’s this: you’re a Christian and God’s violence in the Old Testament troubles you because it doesn’t seem to line up with the Jesus of the New Testament. Jesus who said, “love your enemies,” and God who said, “you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction,” don’t seem to be the same God as Christians contend.
I’ve found myself facing those questions on occasion, and frankly, very unsatisfied even with my own answers. I’ve never felt like the answers I’ve been given for this seeming contradiction have been good enough. That’s not to say anything against the people who have taught me, because in their defense, I’m not sure that even they have received a satisfactory understanding.
Back in November I received an email from a gentleman named Matthew Fleischer. I’ve never met Matthew. Matthew and his family live in Oklahoma City where he is an attorney and an author. He had read my review of The Skeletons In God’s Closet and was wondering if I would review his forthcoming book, The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, as well. Now, I get spam mail all the time, some of it is spambots telling me how awesome my article was, and how they want me to sign up for something to get it a broader media exposure.
But Matthew’s email was different. I social media stalked him a little, found out he’s a real guy and that he was writing a real book. I was honored by the request, so I agreed. I wasn’t sure what I was in for. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d ever receive it. But it came the week before Christmas, probably the most horrible time of the season for me to commit to any kind of reading.
Let me say this up front. I enjoyed the book. Matthew’s experience as an attorney really shows through his style. He’s methodical. He presents his case. He brings the evidence. And he backs things up with Scripture. Now, let me tell you how the book impacted me.
First of all, I’ve not given too much thought to the ethic of nonviolence. I’m not an aggressive type to begin with. Unlike many, in my journey I’ve had to learn assertiveness, grow in confidence, and train myself to fight when the time is appropriate. I’m fairly nonviolent by nature. Some men are born with their fist balled ready to engage. That wasn’t me. The most of the fights I got into as a child were defensive. I was just trying to avoid pain, not inflict pain. It’s really why I feel like I would’ve been terrible at football. I just didn’t have it in me to hurt people. Nonviolence isn’t a difficult concept for me because my nature is to make peace.
However, theologically I had not necessarily embraced the thought that God was a God of nonviolence, especially in light of the Old Testament. Matthew has written something here that not only gives a wonderfully thought out thesis, but also challenges me to take the ethic of nonviolence more seriously as a Christian virtue. Let me demonstrate one of his major points without giving away too much.
The idea that Matthew introduces is called incremental ethical revelation. Matthew devotes an entire chapter to defining what that is and subsequent chapters identifying it in Scripture and defending it’s validity as a framework for interpretation. Allow me to nutshell what this means.
In the Garden of Eden, there was no violence. Every living thing was vegetarian, no animals were killing other animals for food, and neither were Adam and Eve killing for food. All of creation was nonviolent and God’s fellowship with creation was uninhibited. Sin entered creation through Adam and Eve, and violence increased steadily. Even after the flood, when God cleansed the earth of it’s sin, wickedness, and violence, Noah’s descendants quickly returned to violence. Incremental ethical revelation teaches that rather than immediately revealing his full nonviolent ethic, God slowly reintroduced nonviolence to his people, one revelation at a time, first through the Law, then through the Prophets, and ultimately through Jesus Christ who teaches, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven,” (Matthew 5:44-45a). The Prophets prophesied about a day when nonviolence would again be the norm for all of creation: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them,” (Isaiah 11:6). So we began with nonviolence, God incrementally reintroduces nonviolence to his creation, and in the end all of creation returns to nonviolence. So there’s a nutshell, quickie explanation. The book clearly contains a fuller, more nuanced look.
I feel like the greatest strength of this book is that Matthew hasn’t embarked on multiple missions at once. The book’s primary mission is found in the title, and he sticks to it. He doesn’t spend lengthy time trying to tear down other points of view. I’ve seen other authors do this. I’ve even done it. Lately in my writing, I’ve come to feel like the mission to disprove another’s point of view is a sign that your point of view lacks strength. Some weaken their opponent to make up for your their weaknesses rather than relying on the strength of their argument to expose an opposing point of view as weak. Matthew stuck to building the strengths of his position and I feel like it paid off. I didn’t walk away feeling devalued because on this point or that point I disagreed. Rather, I now feel as if I have another strong position to consider as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling.
I have only one reservation. The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence has a total of twelve chapters. As I read chapters one through nine I kept up, and in many ways was in agreement. When I got to the end of chapter nine, personally I felt like he had made his case and no more actually needed to be said. But he continued into chapters ten and eleven where I feel like things went off the rails. I’m a fairly conservative interpreter of Scripture, so I struggled through those chapters. Matthew and I have emailed back and forth about the book, and even he admits that people who take a literal approach to the Scripture will wrestle with chapters ten and eleven. This being said, I didn’t think those chapters in any way reversed my feelings about what was presented in the previous chapters. The argument for nonviolence made in chapters one through nine is done no harm by chapters ten and eleven.
Who should read this book? If you’re looking for a daily devotional, this won’t be your book. It’s written in a 12th grade/college level vocabulary (as far as I can tell), and it is clearly targeting people who wrestle with the apologetics of OT God vs. NT God. Pastors, apologists, and students of the Christian faith should all find this book a helpful resource. But even if you’re none of the above, and all you’re wanting to do is dig deeper into figuring out what you believe, this book can give you some great insights into the nature and character of God.
So the real question is this: did Matthew’s book change my mind? Am I now a full-on pacifist? I don’t know if I’m prepared to declare anything like that. But I will say this. Matthew’s book has come into my life during a time where I am seriously reexamining Jesus’ teachings and seeing if what I’ve always been taught holds up under the scrutiny of what Jesus actually said. Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) have rocked my world a little. They’ve made me rethink my reasons for owning and/or carrying a firearm. They’ve given me great cause for considering how I’ve responded to the atheist and the skeptic when they’re hateful toward what I believe. So, The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence has given me more things to consider. Matthew has put nonviolence into the arena of viable choices when it comes to understanding God’s actions in the Old Testament. You can purchase The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence at Amazon.com.