It’s become one of the most-quoted passages to emerge from the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins’s tirade against the God of Israel: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser. . . .”
Less well-known is Dawkins’s approval of Jesus, who is “from a moral point of view . . . a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament.” Jesus’ ethical teaching was, indeed, “admirable,” or appears to be “by comparison with the ethical disaster area that is the Old Testament.” Unfortunately, the rest of the New Testament does not live up to Jesus’ high standards: “No good person should support” all the teachings of the New Testament.
Dawkins is right. Readers uncomfortable with the Old Testament will not be reassured by the New. In fact, they will not be reassured even by what the New Testament says about Jesus. And atheists are not alone in their discomfort with the Bible. Some years ago, the biblical scholar David J. A. Clines confessed that he found Psalm 2 disquieting. The Psalm describes a king facing a political crisis stirred by what Clines, to give a face to the raging nations, labeled the MLF, the “Moabite Liberation Front.” Claiming divine right and with the support of Yahweh who laughs derisively at the rebels, the king crushes the opposition with an iron rod and dashes them like pottery.
Clines was well aware that Psalm 2 is the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament, and also aware that from the first century until the modern period, Christian interpreters universally read it Christologically. When the Jewish priests first clamped down on the preaching of Peter and John, the disciples gathered to pray Psalm 2 (see Acts 4:25-26). They identified God’s “holy servant Jesus” with the Christ of the Psalm, already clear enough (v. 27), and enumerated the nations who rage against Him—Pontius Pilate, other Gentiles, even the people of Israel. Acts does not quote the final verses of the Psalm, but Jesus’ message to the angel of Thyatira does: Jesus claims authority to “rule with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces” (Revelation 2:26-27; see 12:5). Near the end of the Apocalypse, Jesus marches out with the saints to rule with a sword and a rod (19:15).
For Clines, these New Testament uses of Psalm 2 did nothing to legitimate the “ethics of the Psalm” but instead “problematizes the New Testament.” Clines, like Dawkins, knew that the heretic Marcion, who separated the Old and New Testaments, offered no solution. The New Testament itself was the problem. Clines called for an RLM—a “Readers’ Liberation Movement”—in which each reader will be “free to decide for oneself whether one will accept that these are appropriate terms in which to speak of the divine.”
You have to admire Clines’s honesty. Faced with a choice between his own scruples and the Bible, he openly clung to his scruples. Most Christians, though, would rather stick with the text, but that only tightens the quandary: How can the God of Israel be revealed in gentle Jesus? How can we reconcile the gospels’ portrait of crucified Jesus with the militant Messiah of Psalm 2? Is the Jesus of Revelation the same as the Jesus of Isaiah 53? Can the same Savior carry a cross and a club?
Another Psalm, Psalm 72, points toward a solution. It depicts a kinder, gentler king who judges with righteousness, delivers the afflicted, shows compassion to the needy. Like gentle rain on the mown grass, the king waters the land so that it bursts with an abundance of grain, fruit trees mighty like cedars of Lebanon, cities fruitful as orchards. Nomads and distant kings bring him tribute, but his reign is marked by compassion for the weak (vv. 12-14). Though never quoted in the New Testament, it is just as Messianic as the much-quoted Psalm 2. Here is a Psalm, and a Davidic Christ, that David Clines could like. Almost. Psalm 72 does not diverge completely from Psalm 2. The ideal king of compassion and justice saves the oppressed by “crushing the oppressor” (v. 4). Crushing oppressors is not, by the Psalmist’s lights, another act of oppression, nor even an act of violence. Violence is what the king delivers from.
This same distinction, and the tensions it creates, runs through the Scriptures. “Yahweh tests the righteous and the wicked,” says another Psalm, “And the one who loves violence His soul hates” (11:5). No biblical passage endorses “violence,” and there are frequent condemnations of violence (Psalm 7:16; 18:48; 55:9; 58:2; 73:6; 140:1, 4, 11; etc.). Yet, the same God who hates violence threw down fire on Sodom, brought devastating plagues on Egypt, sent Joshua across the river to conquer Canaan, and finally rules with a rod. The biblical writers see no contradiction between a God who laments “the earth is filled with violence” and then decides to stop the violence, “I will destroy them” (Genesis 6:11). Even the church’s first martyr acknowledged the difference. As his murderers fingered their sharp stones and limbered their arms, Stephen preached a sermon that described Moses’s killing of the Egyptian not as an act of violence, but as “defense” and “vengeance for the oppressed” (Acts 7:24).
Put into a more philosophical idiom, the biblical writers imply that intentions, aims, contexts, and results are not extraneous additives to our actions, but constitutive of actions. Our actions are more than their physical components, just as we are more than the matter that makes us. Change the intention, and you change the act. In many cases, if you change the actor, you change the act. A sniper on a battlefield is not a murderer; a sniper in Brooklyn is. Enslavement and exodus are not two forms of violence, one perpetrated by Pharaoh the other by Yahweh, any more than marital sex and adultery are simply variations on the generic physical act of “having sex.”
Dawkins to the contrary, the “ogre” of Israel never acts violently, nor does Jesus. The Judge of the earth does right, and if Jesus carries a rod, it is as the Good Shepherd who strikes the earth to deliver the afflicted and bring justice to the wretched.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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