Biblical Violence

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In honor of the heroes who have fought and died to defend our homes, a short study on violence is in order – especially at a time when our culture is becoming less and less supportive of those who fight to defend our freedom.

INTRODUCTION

The question of a Christian’s involvement in war is a hotly debated topic in the evangelical world today. The main reason Christians have a problem with war in general, is that it is violent—that it takes lives—and many believe that Christians are called by Scripture to a passive non-violence. This paper will argue that the Bible does not in fact require a stance of non-violence, but, on the contrary, has clear examples of acts of violence which are biblically justified.

It is impossible to escape the reality that the Bible deals with tremendously violent material on a regular basis.[1] The tendency of some Christians is to point to these explicit passages in Scripture as justification for glorifying violence.[2] Others hold that any justification of violence based on the text stems purely from a misinterpretation of the Scripture.[3] Still others believe that the Scriptures do portray God as endorsing violence, but that since the Bible is not an entirely reliable source for ethics and morality anyway, it is thus up to the Christian to reject this kind of barbaric violence the Bible sanctions![4]

So what does the Bible actually say about humans killing other human beings? In Exodus 20:13, Yahweh commands the Israelites, “Do not murder” (hcsb). It is also seen from Proverbs 6:16-17 that “The Lord hates… hands that shed innocent blood.” The reason for this prohibition, as well as the abhorrence God shows for murder, is expressly given in Genesis 9:6, the first place in Scripture a direct prohibition against killing is given. The reason given is that mankind is made in God’s image. This seems to be a very strong reason for forbidding the killing of another human (and thus, a stance of pacifism), but is it ever justifiable to take the life of a fellow image bearer of God? Does the Bible truly approve of the use of violence in certain contexts?

KEY OLD TESTAMENT PASSAGES

Abraham to Moses

The Old Testament has a number of passages that seem to portray acts of violence in a positive light. In Genesis 14, Abraham leads a group of his men, 318 trained fighters, in a mission to rescue Lot. After defeating four kings and rescuing Lot, Abraham is met and blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem. In Exodus 22:2 of the Mosaic Law, we see a law differentiating between murder, and a justified killing in self-defense. The law explains that if a thief is caught breaking into one’s home at night, and he is beaten to death, there is no guilt of bloodshed. But if the owner of the house goes to find and kill the intruder the next day, that would be considered murder. At this point, if what he stole is found in his possession, he must repay four-fold.

In Numbers 25:6-15, the account is recorded of Phinehas the priest, the grandson of Aaron. An Israelite man took a Midianite woman into his tent, in defiance of Yahweh’s explicit prohibition against intermarrying with the pagan’s who worshipped Baal-Peor. Phinehas followed the Israelite and the woman into the tent, and slew them both with a spear. As a result, God says that Phinehas turned the Lord’s wrath away from Israel because his zeal for God’s honor was as strong as God’s own zeal! He then makes a covenant with Phinehas, called (though often forgotten) the “priestly covenant,” because of Phinehas’ passion for the pure worship of Yahweh.

God says that he will drive the Canaanites out of the land, and destroy them (Exodus 23:28; 33:2; 34:11), and He commands the Israelites to do the same on a number of occasions (Numbers 33:52-55; Deuteronomy 7:1-6; 9:3; 1 Samuel 15:3). Time does not allow for a discussion here of the ethics of the particular commands of God—whether He meant for the Israelites to totally annihilate the Canaanites or to simply defeat them militarily. However, these passages serve here as clear examples of God endorsing, commanding rather, violent military aggression on the part of His covenant nation, Israel.[5]

Wisdom Books

Solomon seems to have genuinely believed there is “a time to kill,” and “a time to make war (Ecclesiastes 3:3,8). In Proverbs 24:10-11, he urges his sons not to be passive in any way toward evil when he says, “If you do nothing in a time of trouble, how small is your strength! Rescue those being taken off to death, and save those stumbling toward slaughter.” Later, in Proverbs 25:26, Solomon makes a rather anti-pacifistic statement when he says, “A righteous person who yields to the wicked is like a muddied spring or a polluted well.” The book of Proverbs contains more general wisdom as well, such as Proverbs 20:18, which gives the instruction to “wage war with sound guidance,” and Proverbs 24:6, which says that victory is only won with sound guidance and many counselors.[6] Solomon’s father David even praise God for helping him in battle when he says, “May Yahweh, my rock, be praised, who trains my hands for battle, and my fingers for warfare” (Ps. 144:1). In Psalm 82:3-4, God gives the command to defend the weak and the fatherless, to uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed, to rescue the weak and needy, and to deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

God’s Preservation of His People

The book of Esther shows how God provides His protection for His people by the king’s decree in Esther 8:11-12, by which the Jews in every city could gather together and protect their lives. They were given permission to kill and destroy any people that would assault them. In this way, God preserved His people against annihilation. When Nehemiah led the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, the enemies of Israel surrounded them to intimidate them with the threat of attack. Nehemiah stood before the people and told them, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the great and awesome Lord, and fight for your countrymen, your sons and daughters, your wives and homes” (Nehemiah 4:14, emphasis added). From then on, the Israelites—and these were civilians, not soldiers—took shifts working and guarding, and even the ones who worked did so with their weapon in one hand (4:17).

An Important Balance

Much of the Old Testament records the history of the Israelites under the Theocracy. That is to say, God was acting as king over the physical nation of Israel. Because of this dynamic, it is not legitimate to transfer everything about the way Yahweh dealt with the nation of Israel to modern Christians in the same way.[7] However, what these passages do show is that participation by God’s people in warfare is not morally irreconcilable.

Of course, there are passages in the Old Testament that guard against a glorification of bloodshed, and a love of war. In Habakkuk 2:12, God condemns aggression for the sake of aggression. God condemns those who find delight in warfare in Psalm 68:30.[8] The coming Messiah is called the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). However, the Old Testament passages discussed briefly here suffice to show that there are at times justified acts of violence, both by individuals, and by military forces.

KEY NEW TESTAMENT PASSAGES

Positive Reference to War and Military

The New Testament contains several passages that speak positively about the military, as well as individual soldiers. There are passages that commend the faith or piety of soldiers (Matthew 8:5-13; 27:54; Acts 10-11; 23:16-22)[9]. Soldiers also approached John the Baptist, in Luke 3:14, about how they should live their lives now having been saved. John the Baptist does not command them to get out of the military, or to remain in the military as long as they never kill anyone in war, but rather merely instructs them to be satisfied with their wages, not to extort money, and not to accuse people falsely, implicitly approving of their status as soldiers.[10]

In Acts 13:19, Paul clearly supports the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, noting that this was the manner in which God gave the land to the Israelites which He promised them.[11] In the book of Hebrews, those who “conquered kingdoms,” became mighty in battle,” and “put foreign armies to flight” are praised as those of great faith.[12] Romans 13 explains that human government is instituted by God to “bear the sword” in punishing evildoers and protecting the good, and that the citizens of that country should obey their rulers, by implication, even if that means to go to war when commanded by their government.[13]

Pastor John MacArthur makes an interesting argument for the justification specifically of serving in the military. He points out the times that the New Testament employs soldering as a metaphor or illustration. For example, Jesus uses an illustration of a king wisely considering his chances of victory in battle in Luke 14:31. Similarly, Paul uses military imagery all over his writings (2 Corinthians 6:7; 2 Corinthians 10:3-51; Thessalonians 5:8; Philippians 2:25; Philemon 2; Rom 16:7; Eph 6:10-17). As pastor MacArthur says, it is difficult to imagine the Bible describing Christians using metaphors of sinful activities. Rather, it seems that if the Bible uses a metaphor, such as athletes, or farmers, or sheep, or soldiers, then such things are probably not an abomination to the Lord.[14]

The pacifist though will argue that violence of any kind, especially the taking of life, is in total opposition to the character, especially the love, of God.[15] However, as Dr. Wayne Grudem points out, it is important to remember that violence and love are not always in conflict. It is in fact often, even ideally, one’s love for his family and fellow man that compels men to go to war on behalf of their family or country.[16] Christ commanded Christians to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), and to love our Christian brother as Christ has loved us (John 13:34), and Paul, in First Timothy 5:8, states that if anyone does not provide for his family, he is worse than an unbeliever. If the Christian is truly following these exhortations, will he not desire to protect and defend the physical well-being of his family and his neighbor? Would this not include defending them against a violent attack, or going out to war for them? In fact, this fits perfectly with Christ’s statement that “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.”

Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild

Christian pacifists point primarily to the earthly life of Jesus as justification for their stance of non-violence, especially His comments such as His kingdom being “not of this world” (John 18:36).[17] However, in doing so, they fail to acknowledge that Christ did not only live in those three and one-half years on earth. It was the same Christ who met Joshua as “commander of Yahweh’s armies” (Joshua 5:14), and it is the same Christ who will return one day soon as a conquering king to destroy all His enemies, and establish His everlasting earthly kingdom (e.g. Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 1:33; 19:12; Revelation 22:20).

It is important to remember that while Christ is our ultimate example, it is not only His earthly ministry we must look to. It is also important to remember that while on earth, Christ had a very particular mission, namely, to die for the sins of the world, and thus, “not every activity of his becomes a mandate for his followers.”[18] Christ also made a whip and then forcefully and violently drove the money-changers out of the temple because of the manner in which they were using His Father’s house (John 2:14-15)? Will these same Christian pacifists argue that Christians should do the same in any church being misused?[19] Still, there are some commands of Christ’s that must be examined.

The go-to passage for pacifist Christians is Matthew 5:38-39, where Christ gives the instruction to “turn the other cheek.” However, this is not a command to passively allow evil people to do violent harm to us. The slap on the right cheek was an insulting backhand slap, not an assault.[20] Christ is commanding His followers here, as He does in other places, not to return insult for insult. The words “don’t resist an evildoer” do not indicate that justice should not be sought for the evildoer, or that Christians should not defend themselves when threatened with serious bodily harm. Remember that Christ was a Jew, so He upheld the Mosaic Law unless he explicitly stated a change. Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). So, Christ was not doing away with a law, He was explaining it, in order to correct tradition’s misapplication of it (notice, He does not say “it is written,” but “you have heard it said”). That is, the Rabbis had taken the civic law, meant as a standard for governmental jurisprudence, and had applied those standards to personal relationships, which was not a legitimate use of the law. It must also be remembered that Christ Himself did not turn His other cheek to—but rather challenged—the one who literally slapped Him in the face during His trial (Luke 18:23).[21]

Christ explained that “an eye for an eye” was given, not as a mandate for personal vengeance, but as a principle to guide courts in determining appropriate punishments. It was meant as a check on extreme vengeance. If you lost an eye, the most that could be done to the other person was fair retribution. Christ, however, took this and pointed out that although that law was in place, it was not an obligation; Christians have the choice to not retaliate, and Christ states that this is the best course of action in the case of personal insults, because as far as it concerns us, we are to be at peace with all men, as Paul puts it (Romans 12:18).[22]

In Luke 22:36-38, Christ commands his disciples to buy swords for themselves. Many Christians spout that this command was either entirely figurative, or it was for the purpose of later teaching a lesson of peace and non-violence. However, if one reads the passage honestly and in a practical reading, Christ appears to command the purchase of swords for physical protection due to the fact that they would be considered outlaws, just as the prophecy stated in Isaiah 53.[23]

What then about John 18, when Christ rebukes Peter for drawing his sword and defending Christ in the garden when He was about to be arrested? Most people do not even pay attention to the reason Christ Himself gave for this rebuke. In John 18:11 is seen Christ’s reason for rebuking Peter, “Sheathe your sword! Am I not to drink the cup which the Father has given Me?” Christ chastised Peter for interfering with His arrest and thus, theoretically, jeopardizing the salvation of the entire human race. Again, this interchange is particular to Christ’s personal mission on earth, and not a hortatory universal principle for Christians to observe today.[24] Christ was not going to allow Peter to interfere with God’s divine purpose for His life. Yet, this does not negate the earlier instruction Christ gave His disciples to have swords for their own personal protection.

Jesus was certainly a peaceful man. That is at least, He ultimately desires peace (Ephesians 2:11-22). However, even Christ Himself said at His First Coming that He did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew10:34). Christian pacifists tend to think that looking to the life of Christ will definitively support their position. However, a closer look at the life and teachings of Christ shows otherwise.

CONCLUSION

            The issue of a Christian’s involvement in any other kind of violent encounter, whether war, or personal self-defense, is a tremendously sensitive issue. Fundamentally, it comes down to whether one will accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. As was briefly examined in this paper, there are clear examples in both the Old Testament and New Testament of acts of violence that are condoned by Scripture. In the Old Testament, the account of Abraham rescuing Lot, Phinehas killing the Israelite man and Midianite woman, the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, the wisdom writing of David and Solomon, the preservation of God’s people in the book of Esther, as well as the readiness of the Hebrews under Nehemiah to defend themselves, are all clear examples of violent action and intention of which God approved.

In the New Testament, soldiers are portrayed positively numerous times. Christ and Paul also both used militaristic illustrations and metaphors. It was noted as well that even Christ’s life cannot be construed to support a position of pacifism, but rather supports the argument that there are in fact times when violent action is justified. It will always be a sensitive area to speak with others about, as well as a difficult area in which to discern the correct action in certain cases. However, instead of merely deciding that all violence is wrong—though this may be the simpler route—it is best to truly follow the example of Christ, seeking to be at peace with all men, yet recognizing that there is indeed a time for justified violence. As Solomon put it, “there is a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8).


Endnotes:

[1] Seibert, Eric A. The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. Pg. 25.

[2] Ibid, 15.

[3] Ibid, 25.

[4] Ibid 26.

[5] Lamb, David T. God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist, and Racist? Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2011. Pg. 101.

[6] McQuilkin, J. Robertson. An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. Rev. and Updated ed. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995. Pg. 413.

[7] Ibid, 413.

[8] MacArthur, John. Terrorism, Jihad, and the Bible: A Response to the Terrorist Attacks. Nashville: W Pub. Group, 2001. Pg. 99.

[9] McQuilkin, 408.

[10] MacArthur, 92.

[11] McQuilkin, 408.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Thieme, Robert Bunger. Freedom Through Military Victory. 4th Ed. Houston: R.B. Thieme Jr. Bible Ministries, 2003. Pg. 13.

[14] MacArthur, 94.

[15] Seibert, 24.

[16] Grudem, Wayne A. Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. Pg. 220.

[17] McQuilkin, 410.

[18] Ibid, 417.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, 418.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Grudem, 202.

[24] Ibid, 417.

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2 Responses to Biblical Violence

  1. 3boxesofbs says:

    People also tend to overlook or minimize the violence that Jesus did while driving out the money changers from the Temple. Surely wasn’t very pacifistic was it?

    And the 3 examples from the Sermon on the Mound (Turn the the other cheek, If someone make you go a mile, and if someone takes your cloak) are all non-traditional response to legal actions.

    And in the Old Testament; let’s not forget that God commanded death for some sins, differentiated between homicide, manslaughter and justifiable homicide, and in fact Him or His Angels killed people (1st born of Egypt).

    Bob S.

    Like

  2. Pingback: The First Great Commission | Cross-Current

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