The Nonviolent God of the Exodus

Derek Rishmawy has been one of the Calvinists leading the charge against Jesus’s authority to reinterpret the Old Testament and its portrayal of God as violent. Of course, he wouldn’t say that’s what he’s doing, but the end results are the same. This week he argued that “Losing the Exodus means losing the God of the Exodus.”

By this, he means that if we reject the exodus as history we must of necessity lose the liberating God of the exodus who opposes oppression and rescues his people.

This is actually a clever rhetorical argument to make, because those of us who advocate for a nonviolent God tend to see God’s opposition to oppression as vital to His character.

But Rishmawy’s argument is completely bogus, for several reasons.

The first reason is pretty simple. There’s no historical or archaeological evidence there ever was an exodus in the first place, or a conquest of Canaan for that matter. Conservative Christians have tried to find alternative explanations or suggestions that it could have happened, but in the end all those arguments fail and we’re left with the fact that, historically speaking, it didn’t happen that way. So right off the bat, if Derek is right, then everybody loses the God of the exodus, including him. We just have to deal with this fact and move on.

Which leads us to the second problem. Which is that what happened historically doesn’t matter, frankly, because what actually matters is what the text says about God. The exodus doesn’t have to be historically accurate in order for us to get the point that God is all about liberation and his faithful determination to rescue his people. We don’t need to know whether the parable of the unforgiving servant was historical in order to understand that showing mercy on the undeserving is central to God’s character. That point is clear regardless of what might have been the case historically.

In the end, Rishmawy makes the mistake all conservatives do when he assumes the goal of a nonviolent hermeneutic is to “screen out” or “set aside” violent passages or parts of the Old Testament. This is completely untrue. No one is getting rid of bits of the Old Testament. The OT is part of our sacred scriptures. To say that it didn’t happen the way it is recorded is not the same as saying they are worthless or ought to be tossed out. Most of us are completely comfortable saying they represent what oppressors like Egypt deserve to have happen to them, regardless of whether it did.

If the concern is over whether the texts are still relevant for Christians to wrestle with, there is no disagreement. Of course they are.

But ultimately, the real question is this: “Is Jesus the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, or isn’t he?”

If he is, then the Old Testament is not the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, and we must work to reinterpret it in the light of Jesus.

If Jesus is not the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, then we have problems that are a whole lot bigger than a few violent passages in the OT.

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10 thoughts on “The Nonviolent God of the Exodus

  1. Hey, really quickly, thanks for the engagement. I do want to point out though, that I don’t think the form of my argument entirely hangs on the historicity of the Exodus.

    You say:

    “Which is that what happened historically doesn’t matter, frankly, because what actually matters is what the text says about God. The exodus doesn’t have to be historically accurate in order for us to get the point that God is all about liberation and his faithful determination to rescue his people. We don’t need to know whether the parable of the unforgiving servant was historical in order to understand that showing mercy on the undeserving is central to God’s character. That point is clear regardless of what might have been the case historically.”

    Ultimately I believe in the Exodus and that it does matter, but even if all we’re dealing with is the narrative as a parable revealing spiritual truths, the argument holds. Dealing strictly at a narrative level, God acts in X,Y, and Z fashion. He judges the Egyptians, uses plagues, the destroying angel, etc. Those are clearly at the heart of the action in the plotline presented in the text. This is true not only Exodus, but in most of the texts throughout the prophets and Psalms the refer to the narrative of the Exodus. So, you’re still left with the question of whether or not you’re affirming the portrait of God given in the structure of the narrative, or rejecting it in favor of some other picture that in many ways is antithetical to it.

    Finally, I don’t reject Jesus’ authority over the text. I think reject the idea that God is self-contradictory, presenting himself one way at one moment and then saying “Well, nevermind”, or “Well, not quite” at another. I think there is a difference in covenants, in the ways God calls Christians to act v. his OT people, but that’s a narrative development, not a “correction” of the OT text.

    Best,

    D

    1. Derek,

      Thanks for the quick reply and the clarification. But I still disagree. Yes, in the narrative God does X, Y, and Z. But the author of Hebrews and the gospels, and Paul all say that Jesus is God, Jesus is the fullest and final revelation of God. I mean, Hebrews 1:1-3 is pretty plain here, as well as telling us that the Old Testament is shadows and pictures. The entire contrast set up in Hebrews 1:1-3 is that “long ago and far away there were diverse pictures of God by many different human authors, but now the fullness and clearness of God’s character has been revealed in Jesus.” I seriously do not know of a way to get around this. So we’re left with a couple of options. 1) the author of Exodus was wrong, 2) the author of Hebrews was wrong, or 3) they’re both wrong. But they cannot both be right. I would much rather have an Old Testament text that is wrong about God’s character than a New Testament text that is wrong about Jesus’s character.

      Your assumption resides in the notion that the OT is fully revelatory, rather than partially so, and that is what (forgive me) you’re tripping over. The NT would bring with it new things the OT could not anticipate (Isa. 48:6). The Torah was a “shadow of what is yet to come, because the substance belongs to Christ,” (Col. 2:17). The “Torah possesses a mere shadow of the good things to come, instead of possessing the true form of these realities,” (Heb. 10:1).

      1. I’ll just add here that taking the exodus parabolically does change the issue. Instead of God actually killing people, God is saying that oppressors deserve to be killed regardless of whether they are or not. I can’t speak for others, but I would enthusiastically affirm both that oppressors deserve to be killed for their actions and that God has the right to do so – without necessitating the corollary that killing them is something that God would actually do.

  2. Adam,

    I’ve actually written on the shadows and types thing here. http://derekzrishmawy.com/2015/01/17/peter-pans-shadow-and-the-promises-of-god/
    Hebrews does not say that earlier pictures were false, even if they were incomplete. They are not distorting images or types, but proper shadows–not mirror, fun-house images. That’s just a poor reading of Hebrews.

    To quote this post:

    “Yet Jesus’ story neither begins nor makes sense apart from the broader canvas of God’s prior speech and activity in the history of Israel. Who God reveals himself to be is the one who in Jesus keeps his word to Israel. God’s speech in Jesus Christ may be definitive, but it presupposes prior divine communicative action. The God whose nature is displayed in the history of Jesus Christ is the same as the God who declares his nature by his name in Exodus 3:14 and 34:6–7: merciful, gracious, steadfast love. -Remythologizing Theology, pg. 215

    On this other view, though, we come to see Jesus’ story as the last step in a valiant attempt by God to get his message across, that finally (mostly) broke through, correcting all of his earlier communicative misfires. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets”, but apparently he was stuttering up until the time he said “Jesus Christ.” Not only does this rob us of the comfort of understanding God’s promise and fulfillment, it leaves us in the precarious position of having to make sense of which bits of the OT are revelatory or not, which we should discard as false or still hold as true, according to our own lights. We can’t see which promises God intends to keep, and which were simply the flights of fancy of an ancient tribal people.”

    You mention Paul, Jesus, and Hebrews, but Paul Jesus and Hebrews still quote the OT as revelatory in precisely those moments when they talk about God’s judgment, wrath, and violence. Consult 1 Corinthians 10-11. Or again, Hebrews talks about the judgment of the Israelites who didn’t enter the rest of God because of their sin (and God’s judgment on it). Jesus himself, in parable after parable, and explicit teaching after teaching, quotes and references those stories as revelatory of God’s character and God’s consistent action.

    For a bit more on the apostles’ and Jesus’ use of the Old Testament and it’s current usefulness for doing theology, Turretin has some helpful stuff here. http://derekzrishmawy.com/2015/01/11/whatever-was-written-in-former-days-was-written-for-our-instruction-is-the-old-testament-still-a-source-for-theology-and-spirituality-for-christians/

    Best,

    D

    1. Derek,

      God is still recognizable in the OT. Just not all the time and in every place. It is an ongoing debate revolving around the sort of God Israel worshiped, with God in the form of Jesus coming out from the shadows to finish the discussion. There has been a substantial amount of work done on the subversion of violence in the NT, and I do not believe there is a single place to be found where Paul, Jesus, or the author of Hebrews uses “judgment, wrath, and violence” non-subversively. That is, their usage of violence is intended to undercut the violence of the passages they employ, or use violence parabolically (i.e., the parables of Jesus, visions, or the symbolism of Revelation). My book Nonviolence and the New Testament is substantially devoted to the argument that the New Testament’s usage of violent passages radically undercuts their violence.

      Again, the characterization of the “Jesus hermeneutic” position as a misfire, a stutter, or one that severs our anchor to leave us adrift to pick and choose what is “really” God and what is not is embarrassingly misleading. Our anchor is quite firm, in fact. Jesus is our anchor. If it does not look like Jesus, it is not God. Jesus pictures the Father perfectly, after all (John 1, 14, 16, etc.). What possible sense would the NT’s constant emphasis of this make if the other writings did not imperfectly picture God? Our hermeneutic is simple: “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love,” (1 John 4:8). The attributes of God, therefore, are the fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5) and the attributes of love (1 Cor. 13). Whatever does not match these things are not pictures of God, because God is love. This is a well-defined and consistent control on our hermeneutical method. I would also add, re: your last link, that simply because we do not read the OT in the same way that you do, it does not follow that we deny the usefulness of the OT for theology or spirituality.

      Here’s Marcus Borg: “How do we know when the Bible is wrong? How do we responsibly discern this? How do we avoid treating the Bible like a buffet, a smorgasbord, a cafeteria from which we choose what we like and leave the rest off our plate? … the primary criterion for Christians to discern when the Bible is wrong is Jesus. … Importantly, to use colloquial language that I used earlier in this chapter, it’s not just that Jesus “trumps” the Old Testament. Many Christians are comfortable with this notion, given the common but mistaken Christian stereotype of the Old Testament as an inferior revelation compared with the New Testament. … To affirm that Jesus is the norm of the Bible does not mean that the rest of the Bible is irrelevant. Without the Old Testament–the Jewish bible–it is impossible to understand what he was about. He was deeply shaped by it and its passion for a transformation of this world. Moreover, the gospels and the New Testament are full of allusions to the Old Testament. Without the rest of the New Testament we would lack much of his followers’ testimony to the significance he had for them. All of the Bible matters, even as Jesus is the norm.” – Borg, Convictions, p. 99, 100.

  3. Jesus got violent himself when violence was called for. (Cleansing the temple) I’m not seeing the conflict here between Jesus being the fullest revelation of God and believing the Exodus to be a literal happening. But, hey, I”m just laymen. And this was tough to write, because I don’t make habit of agreeing with Calvinists. 🙂

    1. Well, Jesus actually didn’t get violent. The Greek is quite clear that Jesus drove the animals out and their handlers ran after them. But as a former Calvinist, I understand your reticence to agree with them!

  4. Great post, Adam!

    I couldn’t agree more with you & I couldn’t have said it better;)

    p.s. I noticed your blogroll. I am not sure if you’re familiar with Derek Flood’s work on the suject. He is super and am confident you’ll enjoy and profit from his work. I just started a blog myself (more of a theological journal, actually) over at juanctorres.net

    Blessings,

    1. Juan, thank you! And yes, I’ve just recently encountered Derek’s blog and am in the middle of his book Disarming Scripture. It is fantastic.

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