This entry is part [part not set] of 8 in the series Christians and Violence

In this post, we’ll dig into the issue that’s been lingering in the back of many of your minds, I’m sure, and one which has come up here and there in the comments thus far: What about the Old Testament? Surely the Old Testament’s clear allowance, and in many cases command, of violence would suggest that Christians are also allowed to use violence. After all, we don’t want to say that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New, right?

Of course not. But the issue of the Old Testament is much more complex than that. Here’s a few things to consider.

First, the nation of Israel was a theocracy, and this relates to their command to wage wars, act violently, etc. In other words, Israel was a nation of God’s people under God’s law with God as their president, so to speak. If you wanted to “get saved” and join God’s covenant, you had to pack your bags and move to Israel (in most cases). Church and state were one. Since wars and violence are part of the fabric of a broken society, Israel as a nation would be partakers in this societal structure, but it was never the ideal (as we’ll show in our third point).

But today, God’s people are not a theocracy; we are a global community scattered among the nations. The myth that America is, or ever was, a Christian nation has been so thoroughly disproved that I won’t even get into it. Needless to say, we as the church give our allegiance to Jesus and our citizenship is in heaven—whether you’re reading this blog in Andorra, Angola, or even in America. In short, while the nation of Israel fought wars and acted with violence in the Old Testament, this does not in itself carry over as part of the mission of the church. The church is never commanded or even allowed (explicitly) to act violently, but to “love our enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “never repay evil for evil,” “overcome evil with good,” and to “never avenge yourself” (Matt 5 and Rom 12). So the difference between Israel as a theocracy and the church as a dispersed group among many nations necessitates that we view national warfare differently.

Second, most of the wars in the Old Testament were explicitly connected to the land promise. The conquest of Canaan (Josh 6-12), wars against the Philistines (1 Sam 4), and the slaughter of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:1-3) were all tethered to the ongoing struggle to settle in, and maintain control over, the land of Israel. The point being: the land promise was unique to Israel’s relationship to God under the Old Covenant and is not carried over into the Church’s mission; hence, one of the many reason why violence and warfare has no place in the mission of the church. Our covenant relationship with Israel’s God is not wedded to a strip of real estate in the middle east.

Third, and most importantly, the Old Testament (the entire Bible, really) is a dynamic unfolding story that progresses, and the progression culminates in Jesus—the goal of the Law and the Prophets (Luke 24:44; Rom 10:4; cf. Matt 5:17-19). Now, throughout Israel’s history, there were times when God commanded violence. The conquest of the Canaanites and the command to annihilate the Amalekites (1 Sam 15) immediately come to mind. So war and violence is part and parcel with Israel’s existence. However, war and violence are never really viewed as the ultimate goal. Peace is. The whole direction of the Old Testament, especially seen in the prophets (Isaiah 2:4; 11:1-6; Mic 4:2), is that there will come a time when God would bring healing, restoration, and the cessation of violence by means of his suffering Servant. As Isaiah and Micah both creatively proclaim: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Mic 4:3; cf. Isa 2:4). Instruments of war will be turned into tools for agriculturally productivity; as God’s redemptive purposes unfold, we move from war to peace. This is such a consistent theme in the prophets that I hardly feel the need to belabor the point: God’s promised messianic kingdom will inaugurate a time of peace, healing, restoration, and the cessation of war. As Myron Augsburger writes:

“While the Bible is one unit, and one great covenant of grace, it is also an unfolding revelation in which God is continually saying more and more about himself. All through the Old Testament, God had something more to say about himself until he said it better in Jesus Christ. This means that the incarnation is final, the full disclosure of God” (Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 61-62).

Violence was allowed and even commanded in the Old Testament, as was polygamy, divorce, slavery, stoning of children, and killing people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. But this was not the goal of redemptive history; rather, it was part of God’s dynamic (not static) story of salvation, which climaxes in Jesus who bore a plowshare and not a sword. Jesus inaugurated that promised period of peace and healing, and therefore violence is allowed in the Old Testament but not in the New.

One more passage needs to be dealt with and that’s Genesis 9:5-6:

“5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Here we have a pre-Old Covenant command where a death-penalty-like law is instituted. If you kill, then you shall be killed. The punishment, in other words, should fit the crime, and the Old Covenant Law is replete with similar “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” commands (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:19-22). In its own context, I would say that Gen 9:6 supports capital punishment: if somebody kills another person, he too should be killed. The question, however, is: Is this ideal? (It certainly moves away from the Edenic way of life.) Does this still apply for Christians today? Should we seek to retaliate life for life?

I say yes and no, but mostly no. Jesus clearly overturned the law of retaliation in Matt 5:38, when he said: “you have heard that it was said, ‘and eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you do not resist the one who is evil.” Don’t retaliate, Jesus says, and Paul says the same thing in Romans 12. So I think that we must read Gen 9 through the lens of the cross and in light of Jesus’ (and Paul’s) own ethical teaching, which prohibits retaliation.

So where does my “yes” come in? As most of you know, Rom 13:4 does say that God uses the government to “bear the sword” to punish evildoers, and (as Colby pointed out yesterday) this is one of God’s ways of avenging evil. (Interestingly, however, as my good friend Andrew Rillera has pointed out, the cross and not the dagger-like “sword” referred to in Rom 13 was Rome’s means of capital punishment.) But God’s vengeance of evil through the government is instead of the church’s own vengeance of evil (note the connection between Rom 12:17-19 and 13:4). Vengeance by Christians is everywhere prohibited and nowhere allowed in the New Testament. That’s God’s business, not ours.

Okay, I know that was a brief treatment of a very difficult issue. There’s going to be a lot of “what abouts” and “ya buts” that I couldn’t cover, and I’ll do my best to wrestle with your comments and concerns. But I’m really eager to get to the issue that most people race to whenever pacifism is discussed: what about the person breaking into your home to kill your family? Do pacifists believe that there’s never a place to use violence on an individual level? Stay tuned…

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  1. My good friend and fellow pacifist Andrew Rillera just emailed me a very helpful addendum to the issue of warfare in the OT. I thought it may be helpful to post in in full here:

    From Rillera,

    For those interested, some good resources for this topic are Millard Lind’s Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (a technical and thorough scholarly book) and The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) by Lois Barrett (very short popular level book). These books support Preston’s argument that, “this [OT war] was not the goal of redemptive history; rather, it was part of God’s dynamic (not static) story of salvation, which climaxes in Jesus who bore a plowshare and not a sword.”

    It’s important to understand that Israel’s “war policy” was a dramatic critique and challenge to the Canaanite “war policy.” Israel’s vision of life was a life based on the covenantal protection of YHWH. YHWH was their king and YHWH was their warrior. Therefore, Israel was to be free to enjoy the (private ownership of-this should make Capitalist happy) land because they didn’t have to support a king and a standing army (Deuteronomy prohibits a standing army and acquiring of “modern” weapons–arms defense is forbidden). This was radically different than the feudal city-state structure of Canaanite life that was based on military protection of the city-king. Therefore, Canaanite citizens weren’t free to enjoy their land, because they didn’t own any (the king did). They had to work the kings land in exchange for “protection” by supporting the kings standing army and acquirement of arms. So yes, Israel was permitted to “fight,” but in a way that truly points away from the frantic and enslaving “Canaanite” attempts to secure one’s existence and way of Life through military defense and arms acquirement. At the very least, if anyone wants to say that participation in modern warfare is permitted on the basis of the OT, then they must vehemently challenge all defense spending, relinquish all modern weapons (especially get rid of the nukes!), and abolish the standing army. Once one takes seriously the relationship between Deuteronomy’s politics and Canaanite politics, it becomes clear that every nation on earth is “Canaanite” and the church must give testimony to the embodied fulfillment and climax of the “Israelite” vision that came in Jesus (total non-violence because God can raise the dead). Jesus brings the Deuteronomic political challenge to “Canaanite” politics to it’s intended goal and fulfillment; therefore, participation in the US military (or any other government’s), which is essentially “Canaanite,” is not faithful to the politics of Jesus or Deuteronomy.

    Again, even if one ignores Jesus and grants that not all forms of violence are prohibited on the basis of the Torah, one still can’t participate in the military since it is a “Canaanite” military. For all practical purposes, even if one is a theologically okay with violence on the basis on OT, they must remain non-participants in the military given that modern militaries are precisely the kind of militaries that Deuteronomy forbids and Israel’s society was supposed to be an challenging alternative to. It’s a bad thing to want to become “like the nations.”

    • Thank you Preston! It’s appropriate to remind EBC blog readers of what Mark Beuving posted recently regarding the US being “Rome” (i.e. “Canaanite”–violent and anti-kingdom of God). ( The church should be at least as discerning as Suzanne Collins is of the kind of society the US military stands, fights, and sacrifices US and foreign, and civilian and military lives for. Using the language of Scripture, Christians can rightly label the US as “Roman” or “Canaanite” or “Babylonian.” And as Mark said, “that’s not a good thing.”

      More positively, this makes it all the more clear what the mission and witness of the multi-ethnic international (Catholic!) church is. The church doesn’t have a separate ethic/alternative to war that is distinct from it’s own identity and mission. The universal and local church *is* the alternative to coercive politics; it *is* a social ethic. The church’s very existence makes known the wisdom and peace of God (Ephesians 2-3) capable of making reconciliation between peoples that is based on the Cross rather than war. Rather than only being known for what we are against (war, abortion, etc.), we need to be proactive in *being* the corporate witness to what we are for (the kingdom of Israel’s Messiah). The witness of the church to the world should focus on building, sustaining, and maturing communities that embody the peaceable kingdom of the Crucified Messiah which *is* the alternative to “Canaanite” governments centered on war (this is after all what the epistles’ [and the whole Bible’s] purpose is–they are community building, community forming, and community sustaining documents). The blood of war is unable to unite and bring flourishing (shalom) to and across cultures, nations, and peoples, but the blood of the Cross of Christ is able and has actually accomplished it (Ephesians 2). Christ’s blood is the end of all sacrifices for the establishment of peace and justice either (horizontally) between humans or (vertically) between humans and God (Ephesians and Hebrews; the two kinds of peace [horizontal and vertical] can’t truly be separated anyways according to Matt 5:21-26 and Eph 2:11-22.). Any more offerings are sacrifices made on the alters of idol-gods such as the American gods of “freedom” “liberty” and “justice” that challenge the genuine freedom, liberty, and justice secured by the precious blood of the Lamb and no one else’s. Thank God His blood covers our attempts made in ignorance to participate in this kind of idolatry! The depths of His Grace and unsearchable!

  2. Again, great stuff, dude! Just a couple of thoughts.

    I think your third point in particular is extremely important to note: Scripture is an unfolding of revelation. God is the author of a dynamic story. Within that story, He has, in a sense, made “concessions” and/or “compromises” along the way (e.g., polygamy, divorce, slavery, etc.), and these things were not His ideal. Keeping this in mind, when we get to the person of Jesus, we are told “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). This means Jesus is the true and living God (of the Old Testament) that is revealed without any concession and compromise! WOW! Do you want to know who God is and what God is like? Look at Jesus! If this is the case, we can’t refer back to the violence of the Old Testament to see God’s last word on the issue, just as we can’t look back to the Old Testament to see God’s last word concerning His Self/character. Doing so would be superfluous, not least absurd. Jesus is the exact image of God! Period.

    Second – a point you made clear by quoting the prophets- we need to see that war/violence is not an answer to the problem of evil; rather, war/violence is paradoxically a manifestation of the very evil it wishes to eradicate (or, at least mitigate). That war/violence is an evil that needs to be eradicated, rather than an answer to the problem of evil, is proven by the words of the prophets, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Mic 4:3; cf. Isa 2:4). It is clear that war and violence are not good things; rather, they are a problem. God desires peace, not war.

    • Colby, great thoughts, and I agree. You articulate things very well.

      My only push back to myself is: “Why did the Trinitarian God command violence as a means of pushing his promises forward?” Conquest, Amalekites, etc. It’s one thing to allow it; it’s another to command it and punish people who didn’t carry out his commend. If you were a pacifist in the OT, you’d suffer God’s judgement :-

      While my overarching framework answers this question in part (I think), it’s still an inherent ethical delimma for OT ethics, I think. Thought Andrews comment above sort of addresses this.

      • Re “If you were a pacifist in the OT, you’d suffer God’s judgement” This is too strong Preston :). Participation in the militia was voluntary, not required in Deuteronomy–if you a pacifist, you’d be okay. Further, the politics of Isaiah (his advice to Hezekiah) and Hosea are pacifist. However, I agree with this fully: “Why did the Trinitarian God command violence as a means of pushing his promises forward?” Conquest, Amalekites, etc. It’s one thing to allow it; it’s another to command it and punish people who didn’t carry out his commend.” But this question needs to be located in another discussion (i.e. this question doesn’t help us know what think about modern participation in the military or what to do in an a private threatening encounter). It is a troubling question nonetheless. Perhaps a way forward is interpreting them in the way Ezra and Nehemiah did (i.e. not as commands to literally kill the foreigners, but to not assimilate with them)?

      • I should clarify… I’m not saying God didn’t command *Joshua* to kill; I’m merely observing that Ezra and Nehemiah didn’t see those as literally binding on them for their time. They “spiritualized” the commands. Thus, if even Ezra (note his pacifism based on the covenantal protection of God in Ezra 8:21-23)and Nehemiah didn’t use these texts as excuse for violence (granted Nehemiah did station armed guards around the wall but this wasn’t justified on the basis of Torah texts and nor does Scripture praise him for doing so), then how can Christians use these as justification for modern warfare? Obviously, this doesn’t deal with the theological problem of why God commanded Joshua and his militia. More things to think through. It never stops :).

        • Great thoughts, bro. Aren’t you supposed to be in class? (Don’t worry, I won’t tell Ashish.)

          Ezra/Neh is a good book to through into the mix. The only problem is that for Joshua, they were told to annihilate and explicitly not assimilate. When they did (e.g. Josh 9), they were rebuked (cf. Judges 1-2). Those outside the land, they could make peace with (Deut 20), but those inside the land, they kill. God’s grace to Rahab, however, further complicates the issue, bringing it back to a Crusader-like mentality: convert or die. However you slice it, the conquest is ethically challenging, but clearly not prescriptive or formative for Christians.

      • That is a great question. I’m perplexed as to what the answer would be.

        Why does God concessionally command/will something that is contrary to His character revealed in Jesus?

        Does this ethical dilemma force one to take the discussion elsewhere? For example, can God be immutable in His character and telos/goal while being mutable in His means of execution? Why does God will a means (violence) that is counterintuitive to the end (non-violence)?

        Or- to get really crazy – does Israel’s violence (as well as God’s commanding Israel to use violence) paradoxically serve as God’s non-coercive (non-violent) compromise to accomplish His ultimate goal? That is, by conceding to Israel’s sinful state (and using war/violence as a means to fulfill His promises), God non-violently chooses to not impose or coerce Israel into a quality of life they are incapable of living out (i.e. a non-violent and peaceable life). The type of life Jesus expects of His followers is only made possible by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and His Spirit! This is why, in Acts, Jesus tell His disciples to wait for the Spirit, because it is literally impossible to bear witness to a crucified King without being filled and empowered by His Spirit. These are just some thoughts. I don’t know how well I articulated them; it’s kind of a complicated matter.

  3. Hey brother Preston,

    Thanks for another great post.

    “Jesus clearly overturned the law of retaliation (eye for an eye) in Matt 5:38”.

    This is what many, including Gandhi, have proposed. I have to respectfully disagree. The “eye for an eye” is actually a good thing. It won’t “make the whole world blind” as Gandhi taught if one interprets the SPIRIT of the law correctly. Judaism always taught this verse means one should pay for what they damage. In the Torah, there were laws for the courts to maintain justice, and there were also moral teachings for how people should live. I believe Jesus was saying that one should not take it upon themselves to take justice into their own hands (by proving it with the “eye for an eye” verse). No, the spirit of the Law says not to take revenge (Lev 19).

    • “Paul says the same thing in Romans 12”

      Yes, he does say not to seek revenge. But what would Paul use to support his argument? The new teaching Jesus gave that “replaced” that “Old Testament”? No, he quotes his Bible –

      “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written:
      ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. (Deut. 32:35)

      On the contrary:

      ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
      if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
      In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ (Prov. 25:21,22)

      Clearly, Paul believed his Bible, or our “Old Testament” backed this view. This wasn’t some new revelation of pacifism as revealed in Christ (though it would be in agreement with his teaching).

      • These are great thoughts, Adam! As always…

        So, you’re saying that the Torah commands Israel not to take vengeance for personal matters but leave such vengeance for the courts (and Exod 21, Lev 19 and other passages do say this), and yet the law of retaliation was taken to include personal matters by Jesus’ day, and this is what Jesus is correcting? So he’s basically clarifying the original meaning of the Torah?

        I think I would agree here. Lev 19 seems to say this clearly. This would still seem to support a pacifistic reading of Jesus, right? He’s basically drawing out a passage in the Torah to say that we shouldn’t return violence with violence. And then he goes beyond Torah (??) by saying that we not only shouldn’t seek person vengeance, but we should go further and respond with love.

        • Preston, perhaps in your original post you meant to say “Jesus clearly *fulfilled* the law of retaliation (eye for an eye) in Matt 5:38.” The language of “fulfillment” seems to be what you like to use elsewhere (and I would agree). Again, as you say, the Law is the shadow of the cross and Jesus intends to bring the Law to it’s intended concrete reality (it’s goal and climax). Therefore, I would agree with Adam that “‘eye for an eye’ is actually a good thing. It won’t ‘make the whole world blind’ as Gandhi taught if one interprets the SPIRIT of the law correctly.” Eye for an eye a good thing *for it’s time!* It mitigated *excessive* violence. The story of Cain, however, demonstrates that when God gets His way with a violent person, He doesn’t operate with an eye for an eye mentality; instead, He puts a wrench in the potentially unending cycle of violence-violent revenge-violent revenge in response the revenge-etc. So Jesus doesn’t “overturn” eye for an eye; He *fulfills* its intention to put an end to the cycle of violence and excessive violent retaliation by prohibiting all retaliation.

          • Yes, Andrew, I like “fulfillment” much better, especially in light of Matthew’s frequent use of the phrase and Matt 5:17-19’s relationship to vv. 21-48. Great point.

            All and all, I need to think through Adam’s reading of Matthew 5, in particular, with its continuity with the Torah. Again, I think fulfillment is still continuity, but it is striking how the Torah itself promotes much of the same “spirit” that Jesus was preaching about. I still don’t think Jesus gave a static repetition of Moses, but perhaps there’s more continuity that my language has allowed.

        • Yeah, I see that Jesus clarifies the original meaning of the Torah. Yes, I would agree that it support a pacifistic reading of Jesus in neighborly matters, which is something we don’t really take too seriously as Christians. I wouldn’t even say he goes “beyond Torah” here with loving your enemies. The Torah does say not to have hatred, not to retaliate, and even to love your enemy – if you see your neighbor’s ox stuck in a ditch, you are commanded to stop what you are doing and return it to them! Now I’ve never taken the time to pull an ox out of a ditch, but I can’t imagine it being a painless, easy, and clean experience! Perhaps this would be equivalent to seeing your neighbor’s car with a flat tire on the side of the road – and you are commanded to stop and help him! Yikes, how awkward would that be. Now what if a man saw a neighbor’s servant stuck in a ditch? One would have to think about the spirit of the Torah – “Does God only care about oxen? Perhaps God is trying to teach me something … there is a principle here!”. In the same way, the writer of Proverbs sees this principle and teaches others to give an enemy food if they are hungry. This would parallel Jesus’ teaching about giving to ALL who ask – in other words, not only to those you call friends!

  4. “..which climaxes in Jesus who bore a plowshare and not a sword.”

    Except Jesus came to bring the sword. 😛

    Im almost in complete agreement on your point of non violence as a believer Preston. There separate thoughts and theologies that seem to pop up in your wording that I would be curious to discuss, but it isnt relevant to the discussion at all. Well, I dont think I need to lend my voice to the argument as you have biblically presented the case. Now may the Lord Jesus empower us by the Holy Spirit to do the Fathers will. ^_^

    • In Matt 10:34, Jesus says:

      34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

      But the sword here does not refer to violence, but relational division, as the parallel in Luke 12:51 makes clear:

      “51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

  5. I don’t think you can wipe away the so-called Noahic Covenant and the establishment of government in Genesis 9 by saying it is old. Adam’s sin is old, too. Clearly, in our individual actions, Christ has told us to do whatever we can to avoid violence. As I have said before, I think you have to separate the actions of Christian individuals with that of governments and groups. Christ has not ended earthly governments – yet. He will. I suggest that what all this means is that we should err on the side of mercy and compassion every chance we get. Your argument in Part 5 supports this. In Part 5, you agree, because you say you have no option but to shoot the thug, who is posing an eminent danger to your family. You have no choice. The military and the police force are there to do the same thing, hence, mottos like “Protect and Serve.” To argue that they are not perfect and don’t apply, just doesn’t make it in an imperfect world. I have to tell you, I wish that God would speak to us and say, “Go out and watch your enemies be defeated.” He said that, clearly, to a people once. But, I don’t think we are in that category today and don’t seem likely to get into that ‘chosen’ category. But, I agree with you [Part 5] as a group, churches should stay out of the war business. In contrast I think the clergy during WW II were right to chime in. Hitler had to be stopped. Obviously, we were not able to capture him and show any mercy in this life or for the hereafter, because Hitler himself took that option away. But, I think Genesis 9 stays in the Bible. I think it is there because of the wickedness of the world before the Noahic flood and man has not changed [in the aggregate].