Terence E. Fretheim on God and Violence in the Old Testament

HERE is a link to a helpful article by Terence E. Fretheim in Word and World (Vo1. 24.1, 2004) on “God and Violence in the Old Testament.”  I will try to summarize Fretheim’s points the best that I can:

  1. Violence is both an Old Testament and New Testament phenomenon.  I recommend checking out the footnotes for writings on violence in the New Testament.
  2. Our definitions of violence should be expanded beyond just causing physical harm.  For example, Fretheim proposes adding things like discrimination on the basis of gender, age, etc. to our concept of violence.
  3. There is a significant amount of material in the Old Testament condemning human violence.  Psalm 11.5 serves as a good example: “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence (emphasis added).
  4. Divine violence is a reaction to human violence.  Fretheim goes so far as to say “if there were no human violence, there would be no divine violence.”
  5. Divine violence is used for either judgment or salvation.  On this point, Fretheim appears to be saying that all divine violence is meant to serve good purposes.
  6. All this said, there are still some depictions of violence in the Old Testament that can and should be called into question.  To explain why these problematic depictions are there he offers three suggestions.  1) “God is working in and through human beings.”  2) “Human beings will never have perfect perception of how they are to serve as God’s instruments in the world.”  This is about as close as Fretheim comes to coming out and saying that the Biblical writers were simply wrong in their depiction of God.  Though I do not know if he would go that far. 3) “That God would stoop to become involved in such human cruelties as violence is, finally, not a matter for despair, but of hope.”

I agree with much of what Fretheim says in the article.  Especially, I think points 1 and 3 deserve special attention in our modern context.  People use the phrase “go Old Testament on someone,” but fail to recognize the presence of violence in the New Testament or the condemnations of violence in the Old Testament.  In addition, he makes a good analogy for points 4 and 5.  Many people are disturbed by the depictions of God’s anger in the Old Testament; however, Fretheim points out that many of the things that God gets angry over are things that make us angry as well.

I do have to say that I wish Fretheim would have fleshed out his conclusions in more detail.  I agree with him that certain depictions of divine violence in the Old Testament can and should be critiqued.  But, sometimes the boundaries for that critique are not clear cut.  As one example, Fretheim includes the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in the category of divine violence being used for the purpose of salvation.  Even still, it seems like the means for achieving that salvation are worthy of being called into question.  God achieves the salvation of Israel by killing Egyptian babies and children?  It is not the divine violence that is being called into question, but the target of that violence.  A good end may have been achieved (i.e. freedom), but at what cost (i.e. infanticide)?

These are just my initial reactions to the article and certainly I know that Fretheim’s article was not meant to be a treatise on the subject.  At the very least it is a good primer, and it has a good number of footnotes, which the reader should follow.  He interacts with a number of the major authors who have dealt with this subject in detail, such as Collins and Niditch.  I would also suggest that the work of Gottwald could be helpful here as well, when one recognizes that in many of the more difficult texts portraying violence we are likely not be dealing with literal historical facts (i.e. the conquest probably happened quite differently than depicted in the Book of Joshua).  At any rate, I would encourage my readers to check out the article if this issue has plagued you at all.

Related Posts:

Popular Culture on the Relationship between the New and Old Testaments

7 Verses on the Love of God in the Old Testament

Recommended Reading: