In the Patriarchs of Israel, we see God’s plan to bring Shalom taking shape. They pursue peace. However, humans continue in their campaign of killing peace in the Old Testament. Two texts peppered in the stories of the Patriarchs that give us problems. Genesis chapters nine and fourteen. I, and others, have used these two texts as a blank check of violence. Let’s dig a bit, shall we?
Proponents use Genesis 9:5-6 in an attempt at killing peace. It says:
“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God
has God made mankind.” – Genesis 5:5-6, NIV
Is this a proverb or a command?
Reading through the text seems to give God’s people carte blanche the use of violence. This text is cited by many as God’s institution of capital punishment. It certainly seems that way. However, let’s take a different angle here. This verse isn’t focused on the death penalty. Instead, the text elevates the value of life and condemns murder with death.
There are some textual problems. Is God making this a general principle or an absolute command? If it is an absolute command, then we’re forced to say that God is inconsistent. He doesn’t punish Cain, Moses, or David when they commit murder – at least not with the death penalty. Let’s ask two questions:
- Does this text authorize (divinely) the death penalty?
- Does the text say God punishes instead of man?
Does this text institute the death penalty?
The Hebrew isn’t as clear as many will imply. Luther wrote, “This was the first command having reference to the temporal sword. By these words temporal government was established, and the sword placed in its hand by God.” Luther connects the text to Romans 13, as many others do. We’ll discuss that text in another post.
While I certainly understand the conclusion Luther comes to, there is a giant hole. God warns his people to not set themselves under an earthly kingship/government (c.f. 1 Sam. 8). That is Luther’s “temporal powers.” At this point, at least, we see that God is the power, and no temporal power is exercised over the Hebrews. Luther’s conclusion is an attempt of killing peace.
Don’t skip over Genesis 9:6:
“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” – Genesis 9:6, NIV
The point of God’s statement is His overwhelming condemnation for murder. Why? Because Humans are the only beings in Creation made in God’s image and likeness. He forbids image-bearer murdering image-bearer.
I would allow these questions to caution us against using Genesis 9:5-6 as a proof-text to show that God wants every society and government for all time to institute the death penalty.
Preston Sprinkle rightly concludes, “In any case, know that God will later institute the death penalty in the Law of Moses, so Genesis 9:6 probably anticipates the law. But let us not ignore the plain meaning in this verse: God fiercely condemns murder, because all people are made in His image.”
Perhaps you see my case as busted, but let’s look at another text in Genesis 14. My exceedingly summary is this: some kings kidnap Lot. Abraham goes to get him back.
The text says:
“When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit…” – Genesis 14:14, NIV
Verse 15 tells us “During the night” Abraham attacks. I’d imagine that violence was used, but the text doesn’t necessarily say that. However, what I don’t want you to miss is that Genesis 14 doesn’t say God commanded, nor sanctioned Abraham to do this. The text simply informs us what happened and doesn’t comment on whether Abraham was right or wrong in his action.
Ancient literature often tells what happens in a person’s life but doesn’t voice whether it was morally acceptable or not. The Old Testament isn’t exempt from this narrative-style history. Scripture comments on many individuals and their behavior, but it doesn’t urge us to copy their actions.
Returning to whether Genesis 9:5-6 and 14:14-15 are prescribed commands or described events, or what I’ll call in later posts the “ideal” and the “real.” Abraham attacked the kings to spring Lot out of captivity (the real) but that doesn’t infer we should do the same (the ideal).
I would conclude that these two texts do not clearly ratify violence, nor do they celebrate it. Just because a narrative element in Scripture reports on it, doesn’t mean it’s binding it as a command on every human for all time. Humanity is not applauded for killing peace. In fact, we are strongly condemned to kill another image-bearer.
Next time we’ll look to more than just a couple verses. We’re going to look at several facets of the Law of Moses. We’re going to wrestle with some often-cited texts to see what God has to say about it all. Will God sanction divine violence? Will we see him killing peace? See you next time!