Book Review: The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence

oldtestOne of the primary obstacles facing the Christian faith today is the apparent advocation and promotion of indiscriminate violence by the God of the Old Testament. A cursory reading of the Old Testament could lead one to believe that God is in fact, as atheist Richard Dawkins asserts, “the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” As a result, many find it impossible to place their faith and trust in an unseen God who appears to have no rhyme or reason for His acts of violence against His own creation. The view of God as a lover and promoter of violence stands in opposition to His loving, merciful, and just nature that is chronicled throughout the Old Testament. Many are left struggling with questions such as, “If God is truly merciful and loving, why did He give the command to not leave alive anything that breathes?” “Why did He command entire cities be destroyed?” Because of the violence, many are unwilling to even consider the possibility that a loving God who cares for His creation and desires a personal relationship with them can exist.

In his new book, The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, attorney Matthew Curtis Fleischer takes the position that the violence associated with God throughout the Old Testament was neither random or indiscriminate. From the very beginning, Fleischer acknowledges the problem that many have with the God of the Old Testament. He writes, “At first glance, the situation isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s downright ugly.” He offers a laundry list of instances where God commanded violent acts against people, animals, cities, and entire nations- acknowledging His appearance as that of a moral monster. Fleischer sets out to answer three primary questions relating to the reconciliation of the Old and New Testament positions of violence and nonviolence, who we should imitate today as believers, and God’s true nature. At the beginning of chapter two, Fleischer provides the key to resolving the apparent moral contradiction between the testaments. The remainder of the book unpacks his main idea. He wrote that:

 God revealed His ethical idea to humankind. He unveiled it within a developing story, not in standalone rules meted out of one verse, paragraph, or incident at a time. That’s why the Bible is a narrative, not an encyclopedia or constitution. Its ethical storyline goes like this: (1) God chose a specific group of people, (2) set them apart from the rest of the world, (3) gave them a list of rules that improved their ethics beyond anything the world had ever known, (4) gradually continue revealing ethical improvements to them, and (5) then completed His ethical revelation in Jesus. God didn’t just fly by earth one day and drop off a list of finalized rules. He first established a relationship with His chosen people and then progressively taught ethics to all of humanity through them.

Fleischer states the importance of interpreting God’s actions in the Old Testament not from the “modern post-Jesus” perspective, but within the historical and cultural contexts of humans who lived during the time of the Old Testament.  He introduces the reader to many codified laws of other Near East countries. Put into its proper historical context, Fleischer demonstrates how the often-violent commands and strict laws were in fact was an improvement over the laws of that day. Fleischer refers to this improvement as incremental ethical revelation. This revelation made improvements to areas such as slavery, criminal penalties, protection for the disadvantaged, women’s rights, and warfare policies. What appeared to be violence for no reason should be considered as mode of deterrence. There are many instances of what could be considered case law – directions that allowed for punishment in the worst-case scenario. It was not intended to be a license to commit such an act. He goes on further to state that God never intended for His Old Testament commands to be, “universally or eternally applicable. They weren’t directed at all humankind. They weren’t even directed at future believers.” Fleischer details the responsibility the nation of Israel had as God’s people and how those rules refined their worship of God and pointed toward the Savior. To answer his question on who believers should follow today, Fleischer wrote, “God gave Jesus the final word of Christian ethics. His life and teachings represent the culmination of incremental ethical revelation. He fulfilled the law by revealing God’s perfect, eternal, and universally applicable moral code.”

Fleischer has written a powerful and necessary book. It is a fine balance between being over-scholarly and shallow. With skill, he lays out the argument against God from those who would seek to define Him only as impartially violent. He then counters their argument with reasons why God acted in the way He did, demonstrating His loving care for His people in increments they could handle and understand. Fleischer cuts through the noise and offers a biblical defense for a loving, generous, and just God. This is an important apologetic work. For the one who would mistrust God and questions His love, Fleischer’s book challenges their doubt in a non-judgmental manner. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who desires to be sharper in their apologetic of God or knows someone who cannot move past the belief that God is a violent, blood-thirsty tyrant. You need this book on your shelf.

I received a complimentary copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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