Review: The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith by L. Daniel Hawk

[1] In a “Letters” response to an appraisal of this book, author Daniel Hawk writes: “The review reveals that I missed the bar, and missed it considerably in some instances…I therefore find the critique painfully illuminating and appreciate [Shai Held’s] pressing it with all due force” (Christian Century, September 11, 2019, p. 6).  The reviewer’s concern addressed displacement/replacement theologies regarding the Jewish people by new covenant Christians.  My interest, however, was in Professor Hawk’s modesty, care, gracious reply to criticism and the openness to correction exhibited by his letter.  His magnanimous spirit drew me to purchase and read The Violence of the Biblical God.  I was not disappointed.

[2] Dr. Hawk, United Methodist Pastor and Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio’s Ashland Theological Seminary is exceptionally well-qualified.  Writes Fuller Seminary’s Emeritus Old Testament Professor John Goldingay, “…other biblical scholars…worry about a particular topic or book for most of their academic lives…Dan Hawk is that kind of scholar.  He has been badgering the topic of war and violence for forty years” (Foreword, p. ix).

[3] There’s a tenderness in Professor Hawk’s approach and writing.  He takes great care with the biblical accounts, encourages us to “think biblically” rather than have “biblical answers,” and focuses on dialogue within the greater Christian community.  Especially valuable are probing questions raised within most chapters, often paragraph-in-length, to engage readers; the clear summation principles that conclude each major section; and, an expansive “communal interpretation” approach stemming in part from Ashland’s Brethren Church community-in-grace culture which fosters enriching dialogue rather than contentious debate.

[4] The text offers necessary correctives.  Militant “warrior zealot” Christian interpretative imaginations, patterned after the Civil War’s fighting Episcopal Bishop and General Leonidas Polk, Presbyterian Elder Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, or “sharp-toothed, Old Testament, Canaanite-slaying, emotion-driven, martial religiosity…” may discover nuanced, more balanced approaches to the divine’s entry into human conflict (see God’s Hiddenness in Combat, by Preston Jones, p. 18).  Embracing YHWH as a “…loving and devoted God–even a passionate God–but…not an angry God” (p. 107), where justice is less punishment and vengeance but rather a restoration of equilibrium and balance, helps dispel notions of a wrath-filled, unpredictable, volatile, and fickle biblical deity.

[5] Additionally, out-and-out pacifist perspectives are subject to an interpretive openness, wherein “Jesus’s teachings on enemy love and nonretaliation possess an interpretive slipperiness that renders them an unstable foundation upon which to base absolutizing pronouncements” (p. 192).  Holy war, the “prosecution of any war with a sense of transcendence…to legitimate national means and ends” drawn from the biblical accounts of the conquest of Canaan, “cannot properly be taken as a model to be imitated.” (p. 168).  Inferences possibly reinvigorating “Just War Tradition” imperatives are also uncovered, as the author describes “Divine violence in Judges [as] controlled, focused, and managed…[while] the violence generated by human beings is excessive, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable” (p. 114).

[6] The exegesis and analysis found within The Violence of the Biblical God will not settle easy with some of the faithful.  Those drawn to an “all-encompassing explanation for the disparate and violent portraits of God in the Bible” with a “clear-cut, definitive template on the question of divine violence” receive little affirmation from Professor Hawk (pp. 1, xiv).  Theologians from rich and deep confessional traditions may have difficulty with perspectives that require God “to work within the limitations and brokenness of the system.” Similarly they may resist images of a God who works at the center of society in the Old Testament and primarily on the margins (“from outside”) in the New (pp. 54, 199).

[7] Some, desiring a quick-and-easy read, will be taken aback by the long and hard, patient wrestling required by this well-written text.  Those wishing to refine/reform/correct difficult notions about God and violence by means of simple, cut-and-dried, systematized theologies may discover informative insights but little to bolster their cause.  And, the book’s title may confuse the uninitiated, as it could be interpreted as a tract advocating a violent religious extremist scheme, rather than the sensitive, nuanced scholarship found within.  Perhaps the title “The Biblical God and Violence” would more accurately frame the overall content of this important work.

[8] An expansive audience would benefit from studying The Violence of the Biblical God—United States Armed Forces Chaplains and Allied partners; Department of Defense Civilians, military and aerospace workforce members; the broad Veterans Affairs, police, law enforcement, legal and judicial communities; citizens and friends at large who apply their faith to pressing issues; Church leaders and Sunday School teachers interested in being advocates for peace and justice.

[9] Specific practical uses of this work include its being a resource for teachers and pastors in expositions of problematic and “moral example” texts. Asides within sermons, where Old or New Testament war heroes are held up for emulation, could mention the precision and care, mercy and sorrow in biblical depictions of God in the context of war. Dr. Hawk’s book offers a lectionary of texts (including Canaanites Rahab and the Gibeonites) that could become standards by which Armed Forces Chaplains lead and pastor their flocks.  Youth group and Sunday School leaders seeking Christian formation resources that address themes of human conflict and peace will welcome this important book (see The Problem of War in the Old Testament by Peter Craigie, pp. 16, 17).

[10] The Violence of the Biblical God would strengthen essential reading programs and professional training for military chaplains.  The issues Dr. Hawk engages are foundational for Chaplaincy ministry and he treats them with breadth and sensitivity. His approach fosters collegiality and community.  Seminary Doctor of Ministry and Chaplaincy tracks, graduate and undergraduate theology courses and Chaplain Candidate programs will be richly rewarded by this volume. Indeed, to ignore this book would be a disservice to our profession.

[11] Entry points for discussion, fellowship and shared growth are numerous. For example, ecumenical and interfaith partnerships focusing on Just War/Peace may “discern together how God is at work within the mess to make all things new” (p. 201).  Conversations marked by sincere listening and respect “may model practices of unity and peacemaking that themselves bear the light of Christ to an increasingly polarized world” (p. 208).

[12] In 2004, I served as Joint Task Force 180 Chaplain, overseeing Allied religious support within Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.  Our Aviation Brigade Commander invited me to write a “Commander’s Prayer” for Operation Enduring Freedom, the title of our overall mission.  While the prayer continues to be a source of inspiration, I remain conflicted over one line: “When Apache gun ships patrol…allow these state-of-the-art machines to do Your bidding.”  My “ordination vow” edge seemed to have slipped.  Had I possessed Daniel Hawk’s book to mull over, a reinforcing pastoral corrective would have been ready-at-hand.  In the same restorative spirit, I recommend this illuminating and judicious book today.

 

Kenneth L. Sampson

The Rev. Kenneth L. Sampson is a Chaplain (Col) US Army(RET.)