God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today? - Book Review
Review from David Ball, Gold Project July 2019
This short book deals with one of the thorniest subjects for Christians who believe that God is love and at the same time believe that the Christian Scriptures in their totality are God’s word to us. Helen Paynter does not shy away from any of the challenges that passages of violence in the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, bring to a theology of God’s love.
Part one introduces us to some key skills for interpreting the Old Testament. God’s goodness and the ultimate revelation of this in Jesus Christ sets the theological foundation by which we are to interpret the Scriptures. From this starting point, we are ably guided through what we do and what we don’t mean when we speak of the Bible as God’s Word to us. Here the indispensable place of the Old Testament for our Christian faith is emphasised. If we need a clear theological foundation to interpret the Bible responsibly, we also need a clear understanding of the issue we are dealing with. For this we are led through a careful discussion of the complexity of violence and how it manifests itself in society. This prepares us to look at the nature of the Old Testament and especially the challenge to understand the worldview of its writers and audience which is so often far removed from our own. Reading each passage of the Old Testament in the context of the big story of Scripture, understanding the type of literature that we are reading and wrestling with the meaning of the text are all key skills to hearing the message better. Another important reminder is to let different and apparently contradictory narratives or themes contribute to the big picture of how Scripture conveys a multi-layered voice on key issues such as human kingship. All of these skills prepare us to address the particular issue of violence and the Bible in more depth.
Part two does precisely this. Here we engage with the texts of violence under five (increasingly problematic) headings: Violence described, Violence implored, Violence against animals, Violence as divine judgment, Violence commanded. In each of these chapters, a clear attempt is made to compare and contrast the biblical context with our own and to draw out the significance of texts for our own day. We are carefully guided through the different types of violence each of which demand a different response. For example, describing violence in both the Old Testament and our own day does not necessarily endorse it. On the contrary, it often gives a voice to victims who would otherwise be denied justice and a hearing. Imploring violence is better than actual violence and is not necessarily endorsed by the text either. As we are led into the more problematic aspects of violence in the Old Testament, we are necessarily introduced to more technical aspects of biblical interpretation. Nevertheless, these are explained clearly. While not everyone will agree with some of the readings of the Old Testament, what becomes clear is that it is possible to grapple with even the most difficult Old Testament texts and not lose our integrity as those who believe in a just and loving God revealed in the totality of our Scriptures.
The final chapter seeks to bring a resolution and explain that the trajectory of the biblical narrative is towards the biblical idea of shalom. Normally translated ‘peace’ the ‘core meaning relates to completeness or intactness and the range of meanings includes prosperity, welfare, good relationships, deliverance and health’ (p.157) It is a vision of this shalom that drives the narrative of the Bible forward from its beginning in Genesis to its conclusion in the New Testament book of Revelation.
The skill of interpreting the Bible responsibly in today’s world is one that anyone can learn. It is not easy and involves a struggle, but, above all, this is the significance of this book. For, while it addresses the particularly thorny issue of violence, it does far more than this. It gives us a practical model of how to wrestle with difficult issues in the Bible and society, seeking to listen to each text within the big framework of Scripture and to understand how this relates to our own context. Through this process, we can learn the skills of hearing God’s voice for today even in the difficult parts of the Bible.