I had not planned on reading a book on violence in the Bible this year. Then came the crisis in the Ukraine.
Those who know Russian history and Vladimir Putin will tell you that Putin’s reasoning behind the “special military operation” in Ukraine is an effort to revive that ancient vision of a Holy Orthodox Russia, Ukrainians and Russians together as one people, with Moscow at its ecclessial and political center. Many devout Eastern Orthodox Christians are divided on this perspective, some being on one side and some on the other. But apparently Vladimir Putin accepts this narrative wholeheartedly, and he is willing to commit military boots on the ground to fulfill this vision.
Within a few weeks after the start of the war in the Ukraine, which began in February, 2022, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill gave a sermon that a number of analysts have interpreted as sanctioning Putin’s efforts to take over Ukraine. Kirill cited what he understood to be “a test of loyalty to [a] new world order… the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom’.” In particularly, Kirill singled out the Gay Pride parade, which has become a large annual event in the Ukraine, as that litmus test of loyalty. The annual June event was relocated from Kyiv to Poland this year, due to the war. In Patriarch Kirill’s words, “If humanity starts believing that sin is not a violation of God’s law, if humanity agrees that sin is one of the options for human behavior, then human civilization will end there.”
Reconciling conflicted branches of Christianity, as between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches, is something that every Christian should pray and strive for. Furthermore, many Christians like myself, including many Eastern Orthodox ones, will agree with the Russian Patriarch that same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s purposes, as set forward in the Bible. Division with the Christian church and the secularizing trend of the West is continuing to marginalize historically Christian views of morality, and Ukraine has been no exception. Christians will differ as to how we as believers should respond to the changing moral compass in the world of Western democracies, and how to respond politically. But does any of this serve as a justification for the violence we have been witnessing in the Ukraine for these many months?
Obviously, there are many other reasons why the Ukraine and Russia are at war with one another, that have nothing directly to do with the overtly theological justifications that I am addressing here. There are concerns about NATO expansion, corruption on both sides, etc. that complicate matters. I do not pretend to be a political analyst. But I am most concerned with how the Bible is used, or more properly speaking, misused as a pretense for justifying this war.
In an attempt to justify the war against the Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted from Jesus in John 15:13 for support: “…this is where the words from the Scriptures come to my mind: ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’ ” To make an appeal to Jesus, as an excuse for an ever expanding list of documented potential war crimes, particularly when many victims of Putin’s war are God-fearing Ukrainian Christians, is a perversion of the worst kind. Furthermore, the threat of a nuclear disaster looms large when Ukrainian power plants have been under the control of Russian forces, where Ukranian workers are under incredible stress and safety concerns are paramount.
When the “culture war” is transformed into a war with tanks and missiles, I can not think of a more dreadful misuse of the Bible than this. Instead of drawing nonbelievers to the Gospel, this type of thinking only repels people from Christianity. Thankfully, there are many, many Christians who are not convinced by President Putin’s application of Jesus’ teachings, and instead insist that the justification for war against Ukraine is a denial of the very Gospel itself.
Most American Protestant Evangelicals probably completely missed the schism in Eastern Orthodoxy back in 2018, when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from Russian Orthodoxy after being together for more than 300 years. But I never would have imagined that this theological crisis within Christianity would have precipitated Putin’s decision to wage war in Ukraine just four years later. It just goes to remind me that ideas really matter, especially theological ones.
Is The God of the Bible a God of Violence?
The daily headlines coming from Eastern Europe bring the age-old question of violence in the Bible to the threshold of our thoughts. Critics of the Bible will cite the conquest of Canaan and the Noahic flood as divinely sanctioned acts of genocide, against a particular people group, and humanity, in general, respectively. Non-believers more generally will cite these “texts of terror” to condemn biblical faith altogether just as Western media outlets in early 2022 quoted Putin’s misuse of John 15:13, thus heaping scourn upon the Russian President around the whole world.
Nevertheless, the same Jesus that President Putin quotes is also drawing from the same body of sacred Scripture that insists that we are to love one another as we are to love ourselves. There is certainly a great tension in Old Testament thought, ranging from God’s command to wipe out the Canaanites, to the commandment in Leviticus 19:18 to love one another, that Jesus cites in the Gospels. How does one sort all of this out?
Some evangelical Christians might be tempted to go the route that even popular Atlanta preacher, Andy Stanley, has taken when he has suggested that Christians today need to “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament. While Andy’s comments have triggered a lot of speculation as to what he really meant by that, it at least demonstrates that many Christians today have a sense of embarrassment when it comes to the Old Testament. No topic better illustrates this embarrassment than the question of divinely sanctioned violence.
Claude Mariottini Tackles the Topic of Divine Violence in the Bible
Old Testament scholar Claude Mariottini confronts the subject head on, in his Divine Violence and the Character of God. I have been an avid follower of Dr. Mariottini’s blog for years now, and I have been slowly working through one of his previous books, Rereading the Biblical Text: Searching for Meaning and Understanding, a set of essays discussing some of the difficulties scholars run into when trying to translate the Old Testament. As an Old Testament scholar for many years at Northern Baptist Seminary, and now a professor emeritus, Dr. Mariottini is well qualified to address the immensely difficult topic of divine violence in the Bible.
Professor Marriotini is primarily engaging previous works on the same topic, written by authors such as Minneapolis pastor Greg Boyd, Messiah College scholar Eric Seifert, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the late Nazarene Bible scholar C.S. Cowles. I am not closely familiar with Seifert’s or Cowles’ work, but I have read material from Greg Boyd for several years, and I have Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God on my reading list. Greg Boyd’s writings in earlier years have been helpful in dealing with difficult passages of the Bible, and particularly in working through issues of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. However, based on some reviews of Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I have become wary of a tendency in Boyd’s more recent work to overstep his apologetic method by giving away too much of what is essential to a positive evangelical view of biblical inspiration, in order to try to defend Christian truth claims. My understanding, which could be quite wrong, is that Seifert’s and Cowles’ work fits also within this same category.
While professor Marriotini’s Divine Violence and the Character of God makes arguments that can indeed stand on their own, the flavor of the book assumes that the reader is somewhat familiar with Seifert, Boyd, and/or Cowles, or other scholars in this particular area. With the partial exception of Gregory Boyd, I am not currently well versed with those other scholars. Therefore, I can only offer general impressions with what Claude Marriotini is trying to do when engaging his interlocutors.
In evaluating Divine Violence and the Character of God, it might help to elaborate on what to me is an appropriate, faithful way of approaching the Old Testament as inspired Scripture. There is an ongoing dialogue throughout the pages of the Old Testament that illustrates the various tensions regarding Israel’s understanding of the purposes and character of God, including the aspect of divine violence. Psalm 37:13 reads:
“The Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming.”
Ezekiel 18:23, however, seems to suggest the opposite:
“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?“
So, which is it? Does God delight in the destruction of the wicked, or does God grieve over their impending doom? In a sense, both are true, but a tension still remains. It is as though there is a running dialogue, among different conversation partners, through the pages of the Old Testament that wrestles with what God is seeking to communicate through the redemptive history of the Israelites. Yet we do not come close to understanding how these contrasting ideas can be reconciled until we get to the pages of the New Testament.
In other words, rather than viewing various difficult statements in support of divine violence as “errors” in the Bible, we can instead appreciate such statements as examples of intentional ambiguity placed there in the Old Testament, that point towards a resolution in the New Testament. Even then, the question of divine violence is not so neatly tied up in a bow, answering every question that may cross our minds. Debates will continue as to whether the New Testament teaches a non-violent ethic of pacifism, or some version of Saint Augustine’s just war theory.
Appealing to the “Red Letters” Jesus Will Not Suffice
It will not do to emphatically say that Jesus was a pacifist, by citing the “red letters” spoken by Jesus in the Gospels. The gentle Jesus who suffered (Matthew 19:14 KJV) all of the little children to come to him also could be quite harsh with his language, reminiscent of what is encountered in the Old Testament. After all, certain critics of the Bible find Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:12-25) and Jesus’ calling the Canaanite woman a dog (Matthew 15:21–28) as actions that have been perceived by some Bible readers as inciting violence. Your typical “Internet atheist” brings up objections like these all of the time on social media.
Jesus spoke about hell, and the destruction of those who experience it, more than anyone else in the New Testament. Furthermore, one can not ignore the violent imagery of Revelation 19:15 ascribed to Jesus, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”
While Anabaptist readings of the Bible, which conclude that the Bible teaches pacifism or non-violence can be quite attractive, there just seems to be too much in not only the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well, that rules out an absolutist ethic of non-violence. The spoken words of Jesus read in isolation do not immediately comfort the reader who wants to find a fully non-violent Jesus. Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent resistance against British colonialism surely worked in the history of India, but such an ethic would not have worked in World War II, as the Nazis continued to incinerate Jews at an alarming pace, with each delay the Allied troops experienced in their march across Europe to try to stop Hitler. Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who contemplated pacifism, ultimately conceded that participating in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, surely a violent act, was the only way to try to stop the Fuhrer in his ideological madness.
Non-violent acts of resistance in theory are well intentioned, and occassionally, they have worked well. But would a peaceful protest around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant accomplish what it takes to halt the madness in today’s Ukraine? I am skeptical.
Claude Mariottini Explores the “Intergenerational Punishment Statement” in the Old Testament
A good place to begin is in examining how the Bible addresses the question of personal, individually responsible sin versus the sin where guilt is passed on towards others.
Professor Mariottini in Divine Violence has an excellent survey regarding views of what he calls the “intergenerational punishment statement” (p. 11), particularly related to Exodus 34:7, where God visits “the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (see pages 89ff). Is God saying that the children of sinful parents bear the guilt of the sin of their parents, grandparents, or even further back in family history?
One could easily argue that the sin of Achan, involving the plunder of idol goods at Jericho, resulted in the punishment of the entire family in Joshua 7, including his children. Were Achan’s children guilty of his father’s sin? Is that why they were punished, too? Or were Achan’s children complicit with their father’s actions, and thus guilty for their own sin? The text is ambiguous.
To add voice to the tension, Ezekiel 18:20 appears to argue the opposite of the “intergeneration punishment statement.”
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
So which is right? Does the guilt of the sins of the father get passed on to the children and grandchildren, etc., or are we guilty only for our own sins? This is where I wish professor Mariottini might have more clearly brought the New Testament in to bear on this discussion. Jesus was once asked if the case of the blind man’s blindness was a result of his own sins or his parents’ sins (John 9:1ff). This would suggest that Jesus’ hearers were contemplating this question about individual responsibility for sins. But Jesus’ answer indicates, at least in this man’s case, that he was not guilty for the sins of his parents.
Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching which affirms personal responsibility for one’s sins and not someone else’s in 2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV): “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” Effectively, Paul is seeking to resolve the tension posed by the debate over the “intergeneration punishment statement” Dr. Mariottini describes.
This does not mean that there is no intergenerational impact of sin that extends beyond the current generation. For example, it is well known that the use of harmful drugs by pregnant women can have a devastating impact on their children, that will harm those children well into their adult life.
There are probably better examples from Holy Scripture, but this one comes to mind for me. The apostle Paul goes on at length in Romans 9-11 to show that the Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as their Messiah, at least among many of the Jews who rejected Paul’s message, will have an intergenerational impact on the Jewish people. Paul sees this condition as further reason as to why he is called to preach to the Gentiles with the message of the Gospel. A good twenty years had passed since Jesus’ resurrection, and by the time the letter to the Romans was written, Paul only had modest success in reaching Jews with the Gospel message. But this created an opportunity for the Gentiles to receive the Good News.
Paul believed that this resistance to the Gospel message among so many Jews will eventually end, and “all Israel” will be saved, which might indicate a mass conversion of Jews to the Gospel prior to the Second Coming of Jesus. So while Paul affirmed personal responsibility for one’s own sins, and not the passing on of sin’s guilt to future generations, Paul did believe that the sins of one generation can still have a negative impact on future generations. This may partly explain why so many Jews even today have an instilled prejudice against recognizing Jesus as their true Messiah. Nevertheless, God can break through the cycle of those consequences of sins, extending into future generations. One only needs to observe the growth of the Messianic Jewish movement, that does recognize Jesus as the true Jewish Messiah, even in our own day.
In this way, we can see how a troublesome dialogue within the Old Testament, eventually comes to a more clearer resolution in the New Testament. Thankfully, we have the New Testament, the definitive commentary on the Old Testament, which clarifies how we are to think doctrinally through the narrative of ancient Israel. It is in this sense that the concept of progressive revelation, whereby God gradually, over a long period of time, in the whole of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, reveals God’s truth to us.
Is the Sending of “Hornets” Upon the Canaanites an Act of Justified/Unjustified Divine Violence?
Divine Violence and the Character of God helpfully addresses the major relevant passages within the Old Testament, and Dr. Mariottini offers excellent summaries of contested historical narratives for those unfamiliar with these Old Testament passages. Dr. Mariottini surveys various scholarly opinions on such passages, viewpoints that often conflict with one another. Yet our author does not always give his own answers in adjudicating these conflicting views, and associated questions. This reticence to always step in and give answers might frustrate some readers, particularly in the first half of the book.
However, there are times when Dr. Mariottini does jump in and challenge certain viewpoints with helpful insight. For example, starting on page 228, our author summarizes Gregory Boyd’s view about the conquest of the Promised Land as described in the Book of Joshua:
“Yahweh’s intent was that Israel would conquer the land of Canaan without violence. The nonviolent conquest of Canaan would be accomplished by the use of insects. Yahweh would send hornets against the indigenous population and make the land unpleasant to live in and thus force the Canaanites to relocate to a place outside of Canaan.”
Boyd appeals to passages like Exodus 23:28, Deut 7:20, and Josh 24:12, and argues that the Israelites were either unwilling to trust God or incapable of hearing God’s command, which explains why human violence was used against the Canaanites. Greg Boyd concludes that God never originally intended for human war to be waged against the Canaanites. For if God were to call for human war, this would be genocidal. But the use of hornets would be different. For example, here is Exodus 23:28 (ESV):
“And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you.”
However, Dr. Mariottini challenges Boyd’s view by citing other translations that understand “hornets” in a more metaphorical sense:
‘Some believe that the word “hornet” refers to a real hornet while others believe that the word “hornet” is used metaphorically. For instance, the NRSV translates the word ṣirʿah as “pestilence” (Exod 23:28), the TNK as “plague” (Josh 24:12), the GWN as “panic” (Exod 23:28), and the NLT as “terror” (Exod 23:28).’ (p. 229).
While Boyd’s reading is a commendable effort, it does not really absolve God completely from the “divine violence” problem. Does it really matter if God sends in actual hornets and other insects to terrorize the Canaanites, instead of humans like the Israelites? Does that really get God “off the hook,” so to speak? I am not convinced. Biological warfare is still warfare.
This seems to be a persistent problem among some evangelicals, who lean towards a more progressive view of the Bible, without being too progressive, like Gregory Boyd, to try to make the Bible say what they want it to say, going to great lengths to avoid more natural readings of the text. I am sympathetic to Boyd’s attempts to try to rid the Old Testament of divine violence, as I would much prefer the Anabaptist vision of a non-violent Jesus. But Dr. Mariottini is correct in showing how uncompelling Gregory Boyd’s reading of particular texts like these actually is. Despite the good intentions offered by Gregory Boyd, his solution comes across as a type of “cheating,” in an effort to get around certain direct statements in Scripture.
Is the Conquest of Canaan an Act of Divine Judgment Against Canaanite Wickedness…. or an Act of Genocide?
Most historically orthodox believers contend that Joshua’s conquest of Canaan was an act of divine judgment against the wickedness of the Canaanites, and not due to any “righteous” status claimed by the Israelites:
“Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 9:5 ESV).
Nevertheless, some scholars, even evangelical ones, use the label of “genocide” instead to describe the conquest of Canaan.
Alternatively, Professor Mariottini shows the reader that there are better ways to consider the “divine violence” problem, such as that proposed by scholars like Wheaton College’s John Walton. For example, Walton and others suggest that there was not as much killing in the Book of Joshua as is commonly assumed. The Israelites did not actually wipe out every last man, woman and child among the Canaanites. In other words, the Canaanite conquest does not qualify as “genocide” for the main reason that the Canaanites as a whole people group were actually not completely wiped out. Canaanites continued to live among the Israelites long after Joshua, despite God’s command to wipe out all Canaanites, which many scholars today acknowledge as being more hyperbolic anyway.
Professor Mariottini cites the work of Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen to say that “the correct reading of [Joshua 10:40–43; 11:16–23; 21:43–45] and of the entire book of Joshua, together with the book of Judges, reveals that the term genocide cannot be applied to the conquest of Canaan” (p. 259). Kitchen argues that the Bible uses hyperbolic war rhetoric, consistent with how other Ancient Near Eastern cultures used such rhetoric.
It might be best to think of God’s command to drive out the Canaanites as an act of judgment against Canaanite wickedness, and therefore interpret the rhetorical language for it in the Old Testament as more akin to contemporary “trash talk” among competitors in an intense sporting event. This does not completely solve the “divine violence” problem but it at least acknowledges that we should be reticent to apply the label of “genocide” to the Canaanite conquest.
We see this tendency to overuse the language of “genocide” even in contemporary ethical discourse. Certain news reports coming out of Ukraine are quick to label the activities of the Russian military as “genocide,” and yet the same claims have been made by Russians living in the eastern region of Urkaine, the Donbas, claiming that “genocide” is being perpetrated against them by the Ukrainians. This discussion should not be used to excuse acts of violence, but it does tell us that hyperbolic language about war today, through propaganda, was just as prevalent in the Old Testament period. “Genocide” is an important ethical term, but we should be wary that its overuse might trivialize it, even when reading the Bible.
The Other Side of the “Divine Violence” Dialogue in the Bible: Divine Mercy in the Book of Jonah… and the Cross of Jesus
Dr. Mariottini walks the reader through these difficult texts in the Old Testament, but he also reminds the reader of God’s message of extending mercy and forgiveness even to Israel’s most bitter enemies. The Book of Jonah, which exposes the xenophobic hatred of the prophet towards the Ninevites, is a case in point. The conundrum of the Old Testament portrays both a God who hates, judges, and punishes human sin through divinely-sanctioned violence, but who also rebukes a prophet like Jonah for not having a universalistic love for humanity, indicating that God desires to withhold his hand of imposing divine judgment through violence when the enemies of God repent of their sin. Navigating the span of Old Testament literature which at several points announces God’s wrath against human wickedness while extending mercy towards those who are the very enemies of God’s people drives us to look towards the New Testament to find resolution.
Ultimately, Dr. Mariottini makes his final appeal, as do several of the other scholars with whom he interacts, with the message of the cross in the New Testament. Professor Mariottini’s last chapter is entitled “The Warrior God and His Death on the Cross.” At Calvary, the God of the Old Testament is humiliated for the sake of reconciling a rebellious people with their Creator. Ultimately, the crucifixion of Jesus signals the end of the Old Covenant and the inauguration of a New Covenant at Jesus’ Resurrection, which now extends beyond the borders of Israel to included Paul’s ministry to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles, the process of evangelization which continues to transform our world today, calling for an alternative to senseless violence. We need to hear and heed this message now more than ever.
In thinking through the theological challenges presented by Divine Violence and the Character of God, the answer seems to run along the following lines: The Old Testament displays for us the most awkward tension of a God who sanctions violence but who also opposes it on other occasions. However, the revelation through the Old Testament on its own is incomplete. The principle of reading the Scriptures as progressive revelation points us towards a resolution in the New Testament to settle these matters, through the message of the cross of Christ. Through the work of Jesus, we have the sure truth that violence does not have the final word, and we are called as Christians to announce that message to the world. However, even in the New Testament the thought of a non-violent existence remains a future hope, and not a fully present reality. We live in the tension of an age between the now and the not-yet. Jesus has inaugurated a Kingdom whereby violence will indeed come to an end, but we will not experience that reality until Christ’s grand and glorious Second Coming, when God will make all things new.
Some are concerned that the language of conquest in the Old Testament might be used to justify genocide in our own day. While violence in this world is impossible to completely avoid, before Christ’s Second Coming, genocide is certainly not a Christian option for us today. The conclusion that Dr. Mariottini provides in Divine Violence and the Character of God should make this point quite clear. The universalistic orientation of Jesus suggests that whereas the Canaanites were once called to be annihilated, due to their wickedness, they are now called to be healed, in the age of the New Testament, as historian Philip Jenkins has recently argued. In other words, the narrative of the Old Testament seems to put the story of Joshua and the story of Jonah in tension with one another.
However, in the New Testament the inspired apostolic writers come down on the side of the message found in the Book of Jonah. For it is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to preach the love of Jesus to a people whom you have threatened with unjustified violence.
Some Further Critical Reflections
Divine Violence and the Character of God will help those to think more deeply about one of the toughest issues when studying the Bible. That being said, there is room for improvement. At times Dr. Mariottini unnecessarily repeats ideas that have already been covered, which makes the pace of the book somewhat uneven. The book is already pretty long, coming in at just under 600 pages, which might be intimidating to some readers.
But if you want thoroughness (which was what I was looking for), Dr. Mariottini excels at covering the topics in depth. Nearly every topic related to divine violence found in the Old Testament that I could think of gets addressed in the book.
The only glaring omission I discovered is that Dr. Mariottini never really explores typological or allegorical readings of the Old Testament, employed by some early church fathers, like the 2nd century Origen of Alexandria, that can assist in dealing with these difficult topics.
I also wish Dr. Mariottini had interacted with Dr. Michael Heiser’s view of the reason for supposed “genocide” in the Old Testament, as articulated in Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. In brief summary, Dr. Heiser concludes that at least some of the Canaanites that Joshua was sent to destroy were descendants of the Nephilim, the offspring of the sons of God who had sexual relations with the daughters of men in Genesis 6, which precipitated the judgment of the Flood. From Heiser’s perspective, these “giants” that terrified the Israelites while in the wilderness were actually bent on destroying Israel themselves, and that God had called on the Israelites to destroy these “giants” before those “giants” could destroy Israel. For those unfamiliar, the Goliath who threatened David was one of those “giants.” If Heiser is correct, then this undercuts the idea that Joshua’s conquest of Canaan was an act of genocide.
Admittedly, Divine Violence and the Character of God touches on the following at some points, but it would have been more helpful if Dr. Mariottini emphasized that with the Old Testament we are only getting a partial view of the conversation when it comes to addressing such difficult topics. For example, the Old Testament never gives us the Canaanite viewpoint, in defense of their actions, for example. Furthermore, we have a tendency in our postmodern era to think of ourselves as being morally superior and advanced than the ancients. Despite advances in technology, economies, etc. human nature has not changed that much over the last few thousand years. We must resist the temptation to think that we are somehow more morally advanced than Ancient Near Eastern cultures.
We might be past the days of massive empires sending thousands of troops against other peoples, disemboweling non-combatant pregnant women and the like, as in the days of Assyrian and Babylonian empires, as Dr. Mariottini describes. But the type of violence we experience today flashes out in ways that are often more insidious, but just as lethal. In writing this as a rough draft a few weeks ago I heard of reports of hundreds, if not thousands, of mines being planted in grain fields in the Ukraine, murdering farmers innocently plowing their fields.
Perhaps the late summer offensive by the Ukrainians to push Russia troops out of the eastern side of the country will bring about the end of the war, but stories of disturbing violence will remain. We may be hearing of such senseless acts of violence for decades to come out of Ukraine (and hopefully more stories of actions by brave people to remove the mines from these fields). In America, we too often experience the tragedy of gun violence, which makes far too many headlines in our news feeds. Today’s violence may look different from Old Testament violence, but it is still violence, which cries out for the message of the cross in the New Testament to find resolution.
Christians should never be the instigators of violence, and should follow the principles of non-violence wherever possible. But sometimes violence must be met with violence, as acts of self-defense and to keep evil from spreading. I certainly do not like this solution. But there are times when non-violent resistance does not achieve what it was set out to do, and only allows evil to continue without a forceful boundary set against it. In his postscript, Dr. Mariottini writes, “Violence begets violence and in certain situations divine judgment requires violence” (p. 375). That last reference to “violence” should be understood as the use of deadly force in order to curb the corruptive influence of sin.
Nevertheless, “the cross changed the way God works in the world” (p. 377). Divine Violence and the Character of God stands within this tension of the reality of responding to human wickedness, using force when necessary, while looking forward to the day when violence will be no more.
What was lacking is that the book’s focus on the Old Testament never fully addresses the problem of violence in the New Testament. I wish some evangelical scholar would write a similar book that addresses the problem of divine violence that extends even into the Book of Revelation.
Lastly, I must also point out a pet peeve of mine, I suppose, a habit among some authors that I find potentially distracting or misleading. For example, early on Dr. Mariottini writes about the “contradictory images of Yahweh” (p.16-17) as found in the Bible. It is true that many Christians tend to ignore certain tensions and discrepancies that we find in the Bible. This is particularly true when it comes to reading the Old Testament, where you have a variety of authors, literary genres, etc. collected over a vast period of multiple centuries, where the revelatory truth of Scripture is progressively disclosed over that time period. Thankfully, the New Testament helps us to resolve many if not most of those tensions.
However, to speak of “contradictions” in the Bible, without sufficient qualification, seems to be a rather impious way of going about this. I am sure Dr. Mariottini did not intend to do this, but I would much rather prefer to speak of “alleged contradictions” instead, and withhold any final judgment about the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture. Otherwise, we risk giving the impression that the Bible is “filled with errors,” such that the Bible can be easily dismissed as untrustworthy. Instead it is much better to speak of “alleged contradictions” in the Bible that were deliberately put there by God to encourage us to think more deeply about where the story of God is going.
Aside from these criticisms, Claude Mariottini’s Divine Violence and the Character of God serves as an excellent resource for working through one of the most difficult topics faced when reading the Bible in our world today. I was not able to listen to this book on audio, as there is no audio version available, nor did I have a Kindle version handy to use the text-to-audio feature. Dr. Mariottini kindly asked me to review the book, and the publisher sent me a PDF version to read, which I was able to load on my Kindle. It made for slower reading, but I was amazed at how much progress I finally made after being stuck in an airport for several hours this summer due to a delayed flight. which enabled me to make significant headway. In view of the Ukrainian-Russian crisis which dominates the news cycle today, Divine Violence and the Character of God turned out to be a very helpful book to read.