Ethicist examines Old Testament violence

Baptist Press
Posted: Jul 23, 2013 5:22 PM

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Gaining an understanding of violence in the Old Testament helps make clear the church's mission, enemies and priorities, a Southern Baptist ethicist said at a Washington lecture.

Speaking at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Phillip Bethancourt said Old Testament violence "is the most difficult ethical issue to navigate" in Scripture. Comprehending how that violence relates to God's design in establishing His Kingdom, however, provides evangelical Christians with a comprehensive ethic for addressing challenging questions, he noted.

In the violence committed by Israel against other nations, God is "setting the stage for the future rulership of His King," said Bethancourt, director of strategic initiatives for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The violence serves to preserve the line of the Messiah and to provide a pattern for how God will work in Jesus' death, Bethancourt told public policy specialists, reporters and other evangelicals July 18.

Understanding Old Testament violence correctly, Bethancourt said, helps clarify three elements of ethical engagement by evangelicals:

-- The church's mission, which is one of "kingdom warfare" against the devil, sin and death. In so doing, he said it helps connect ethics to the teaching part of the Great Commission to make disciples and helps demonstrate that the local church is the "hub of ethics" for Christians.

-- The church's enemies, who are no longer physical. "Instead, we are not battling against flesh and blood," Bethancourt said, referring to a well-known passage in Ephesians 6. "We are battling for flesh and blood through our discipleship, through our evangelism."

That understanding, by implication, "helps us to avoid a wrongly appropriated culture war mentality," he said. "So our enemies when we differ on different viewpoints are not the people on the other side of the aisle; they're not the people that are taking a different stance from us. ... That shapes our tone. That shapes our trajectory. That shapes the way we engage in our ethical practices, not by demonizing our opponents but exposing ."

Recognizing the current time in redemptive history helps Christians to avoid a repeat of events like the Crusades, when Christians embraced an Old Testament ethic of military violence to justify what they considered kingdom purposes, Bethancourt said. It also helps to avoid pacifism and its "over-realized eschatology," he said, because "if the Crusades swung the pendulum too far in one direction," pacifism swings it too far in the other direction.

-- The nature of the church's priorities, preventing a divide between ethics and evangelism while connecting ethics with holiness and demonstrating that "Gospel-centered ethics fuels a Gospel-centered world view."

"It is the power of the Gospel that reminds our spiritual enemies that they have been defeated," he told the audience. "It is the power of Gospel that enables us to walk in holiness and to live out a Christian ethic."

Four aspects of God's character -- holiness, justice, love and faithfulness -- particularly produce Old Testament violence, Bethancourt said.

One purpose of the violence is "to protect the holiness of God and the holiness of His people," Bethancourt said, adding it takes place to prevent Israel "from being corrupted by the nations around them."

God's justice against the nations "is a sign and signal" to them and, through the Bible, for all others in the future "that those who turn away from the ways of God and look to themselves or to other gods are worthy of judgment."

Old Testament violence "is actually, at its root, in a sense, a loving thing to do," Bethancourt said.

"If the nation of Israel isn't preserved, if this messianic blood line is not sustained, if the genealogy from Adam to Abraham to David is not continued, you and I are going to hell right now, because there is no means by which God could preserve the Messiah He promised to bring apart from protection from the nations that surrounded Him," he said. That is not to say attacks by Israel are demonstrations of love, he said, "but at the end of the day, is there anything more loving than the God of the universe preserving the one means by which He could bring to Himself in salvation and to find the right relationship with Him?"

God's faithfulness is shown in the violence by establishing patterns that reflect His work in redemption, Bethancourt said.

In Christ's crucifixion, there exists "the convergence of this holy war pattern," he said. "There's a sense in which at the same time Jesus is both unfaithful Israel who God is warring against and faithful Israel who God is warring for."

Jesus takes the place of the unfaithful in bearing their sins and the punishment of God, but He also "stands right before God as the faithful one who He fights for, the one ... whom God sees worthy to conquer death, to defeat sin, to overthrow the rule of Satan," Bethancourt said. "And these holy war patterns we see in the Old Testament are setting that trajectory, demonstrating the way that God will prove Himself faithful to the Messiah."

Regarding Old Testament violence, Bethancourt pointed to five complicating factors that Christians should not dismiss, ignore or gloss over.

God commands, coordinates, completes and commends violence by His people in the Old Testament, he said, and "complicates" it by hardening the hearts of the nations.

The warfare between "the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness" started in the Garden of Eden, Bethancourt said.

From that beginning, a pattern developed in the Old Testament, he said. On the one hand, God "fights for His covenant people in their faithful obedience. And on the other hand, God fights against His covenant people in their sinful rebellion," he said, of a pattern that culminated in God's covenant people being taken into exile.

Bethancourt served as assistant professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before joining the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission staff and conducted much of the research for his doctoral dissertation on Old Testament violence.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy is a multi-denominational alliance that seeks reformation among mainline Protestant churches.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook ( and in your email (

Copyright (c) 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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