Killing Peace?

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?

Genesis 9:5-6

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:

  1. Does this text authorize (divinely) the death penalty?

-Or-

  1. 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.”

Genesis 14:14-15

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!

In Christ,

Scott

Screaming Bloody Murder

Cain kills Abel

After the shalom of God is finalized, life carries on nicely – for a while.  Then, disobedience and making ourselves our own God, enters in.  Sin and his brother death enter God’s paradise at our invitation screaming bloody murder.  To illustrate what just happened – the gravity of the situation – God shows Adam and Even what they just wrought upon the world.  Genesis 3:21 reads:

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them

Don’t skim over that.  It isn’t only God demonstrating that He still loves and cares for Adam and Eve. That’s part of it.  The real point here is to bring the couple so close to the consequences of their actions – making sure they get it.  God brings them so close to their choice that they have to wear it. The very creature Adam named (Gen. 2:20), one he probably loved, was slaughtered before his very eyes, and then he wore the hide to cover his now-ashamed body.  He and his wife are now thrust into a very different world. A world that would soon be screaming bloody murder.

Time passes and we meet the kids.  Cain and Abel. The text doesn’t give us much background other than this: Cain raised a garden and Abel raised livestock. It’s clear the family still worships God because the two offer sacrifices.  Cain, however, is jealous.  He thinks God likes his brothers’ stuff more.  God has a pep-talk with Cain, addresses his “heart” as the problem, not the content of the offering – even telling Cain sin is waiting outside your door to master you – don’t let it! Cain chooses to disregard God’s warning and goes his own way. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Cain says, “Hey brother, let’s take a walk out into the field.  I want to show you something.” Abel obliges as the two walk alone. It is here that we read:

While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (Gen. 4:8, NIV)

The first murder.  A son of Adam murders his own brother out of jealousy and envy.  Not much has changed, has it?

God comes back to Cain, trying to get some honesty.  He says, “Hey Cain…where’s Abel?” To which the famous line comes as Cain’s response:

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9, NIV)

The text shows us God isn’t keen on Cain’s sarcasm.  He knows what happened.  He was hoping Cain wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes as his dad had. You remember, right? The time  Adam tried to play a game of cosmic hide-and-seek, stashing himself behind a shrub in the garden. That got dad olly olly oxenbanished. So God lays it out:

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. (Gen. 4:10-11, NIV) 

That phrase “cries out,” is the Hebrew word tsa’aq. It means “to shriek, cry out, call for help.” In other words, Cain’s life was screaming bloody murder. The ground cried out as the first homicide is carried out in the field east of Eden. As the lifeblood of innocent Abel hits earth, the very Creation tastes blood for the first time.

Cain, like mom and dad, understands the implications of his actions. He is wrecked.  God doles out the sentence. God consigns Cain to be a wanderer – always on the move – sowing but never harvesting.  The earth won’t respond to the farmer, no matter what (Gen. 4:12).  We get a glimpse of Cain’s despair.

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Gen. 4:13-15, NIV) 

At this point, we’d expect God (in our vengeance-laden minds) to say, “So what?”  However, as God is usually in the habit of doing, we are treated to the debut performance of something that glues the rest of Scripture together.  Genesis continues:

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod,east of Eden. (Gen. 4:15-16, NIV) 

God responds to the first murderer not with capital punishment or consignment to hell. God responds to the first murderer with grace. Grace is the visible preservation of shalom.  God places a mark on Cain so that no one will hurt him or his family. God doesn’t smite Cain, he gives him grace and mercy.  Yet, as the ground screamed bloody murder, Cain foisted murder and violence upon the earth.

Sin continues to show itself in violent ways. Right after the first murder we meet a guy named Lamech. Where Cain was remorseful of his violence, Lamech was proud of his. Lamech strolls onto the scene with bloody hands boasting about murdering a teenager (see Gen. 4:23-24). Sounds like a nice fellow, doesn’t he?  Lamech’s song sets the tone for humanity as violence engulfs the world.  Instead of only the ground screaming out, the whole world is screaming bloody murder. It gets so bad that God decides to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. (Gen. 6:11, NIV)

Don’t miss what the text is pointing out.  God isn’t just punishing arbitrary evil – not even close.  Look at the last word.  God is specifically punishing violence. Violent actions flooded the globe, and so God floods the earth.

Here’s the takeaway:  The early chapters of Scripture celebrate peace, not violence.  God continually shows derision for violence among mankind. God shows grace to a murder, despite the grounds for “just” punishment of a murderer. Even as the world was screaming bloody murder, God begins to point humans back to peace.