Did God command Israel to commit atrocities when conquering the Promised Land? Does He approve when people go to war in His name? Is the God of the Old Testament truly a homicidal maniac, as some have said?
In The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, Matthew Curtis Fleischer tackles these questions—and much more—with a thorough and contextual reading of the Old and New Testaments. Fleischer marshals evidence that says no to these queries, at least in a nuanced sense. His chief argument in defense of God’s character is the concept of incremental revelation: that in order to best reveal Himself (in the person of Jesus for the work of the Church), God incrementally revealed His ethical expectations and character throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Key to Fleischer’s approach are contextual reading and narrative theology. We distort the message of scripture, he contends, if we fail to read those scriptures in the socio-historical and literary contexts of the Ancient Near East and in the narrative arc of God’s revelation throughout the whole of scripture. Just reading the Old Testament (or, as often happens, the conquest of Canaan and monarchy portions of the Old Testament) without considering the creation account, messages of the prophets, and transformative teachings of Jesus provides a severely limited picture of who God is and how He expects humans to act.
The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence is wide-ranging in its consideration of source material. Biblical references and quotes are plentiful throughout, making this a gold mine for those who are seriously interested in what the biblical text says about God and violence. Fleischer also does a fine job of integrating the insights of top scholars on the topic of biblical nonviolence. Along with a cacophony of respected theologians and scholars, luminaries such as John Howard Yoder, Paul Copan, and Gregory Boyd are appropriately and regularly consulted. This is not a book devoted to the ramblings of man with limited understanding and a minority viewpoint—Fleisher has done his homework and makes a compelling case for God’s incremental revelation of His true nonviolence.
Throughout this volume, Fleischer weaves biblical, historical, theological, and political insight. He minces no words when it comes to misreadings of what he believes are God’s nonviolent tendencies and messages. The tone of this work is balanced and fair, and Fleischer does not dodge hard questions or nuanced answers. There are numerous theological and ethical gems throughout this book, and I know I’ll be using it in the future when I teach on the Old Testament and ethics.
No book is perfect and The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence is no exception. Although an admittedly difficult subject that requires careful parsing, a functional Marcionism rears its head through some odd uses of language. Most curious in this respect are the statements that Jesus “revoked” the Old Testament but did not “abolish” it. Where Fleisher is the clearest on this subject, he positions himself in the orthodox camp of believing that God is the God of both the Old and New Testament’s and that Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. The slippage in language, however, is worth keeping an eye on.
This book clearly engages the New Atheist perspective on the violence of God, as well as contemporary theo-political questions on warfare and a nonviolent Christian ethic. Despite its depth in certain areas, however, there are a few other subjects of inquiry I expected to see mentioned. The theologian in me wishes that Fleischer took the Jesus of the Apocalypse of John—the end of the scriptural narrative he champions—a little more seriously when talking about Jesus’ “clear” nonviolence. Likewise, it would have been nice to see some engagement with Augustine and Just War theory when talking about the political ramifications of the nonviolent view. These quibbles aside, however, Fleischer does a commendable job in collecting and outlining his evidence in an engaging and informative way.
I highly recommend The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence for those who are interested in studying the question of biblical nonviolence and the ethics of YHWH in the Old Testament. There is also much of value for general biblical scholars and students. I certainly will be returning to this book in the future.
I received this book from the author in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.