Matthew Curtis Fleischer. The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence. Oklahoma City: Epic Octavius the Triumphant, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Matthew Curtis Fleischer is an attorney. In The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, Fleischer tackles the issue of divinely-commanded violence in the Old Testament, from his Christian perspective. He focuses on the Israelite Conquest of Canaan, but he also explores other issues, such as Abraham’s binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 and the death penalties in the Torah.
Here are some thoughts:
A. Chapter 11, “Incremental Character Revelation,” tied the book together very effectively. I will extol that chapter later in this review, but I first want to explain why I was surprised that the chapter tied the book together. Throughout the book, Fleischer was unclear about where exactly he wanted to go. Did God actually command violence in the Old Testament, as a way to accommodate Godself to and to glorify Godself to a culture that valued military might? Was the Conquest a righteous act of divine justice against the sinful Canaanites? Was the Conquest (and other morally-challenging aspects of the Torah, such as slavery) at least a step up from the violence of the time, a way to humanize barbaric institutions? Were the depictions of God as violent a result of ancient Hebrew misunderstandings of God? Then there are prominent voices in archeology, who cast doubt on the extent of the Conquest, or even question or challenge its historicity. Fleischer is open to all of these options, perhaps because his argument is that God looks good, whichever of these scenarios one accepts.
B. There were times when I thought to myself “Now wait a minute” when I was reading the book. On page 20, Fleischer says that the Old Testament “never displayed those who registered the most kills as the nation’s greatest heroes.” Really? The number of Philistines whom David killed gets mentioned, and the references to the exploits of David’s mighty men comes across as rather laudatory in II Samuel 23. Fleischer refers to an argument that Jericho was a military city that lacked civilians. What about Rahab and her family? Fleischer argues at one point that the Conquest was a one-time event and that God did not sanction later Israelite violence, specifically imperialistic acts of warfare. Really? II Samuel 8:6, after referring to David placing garrisons in Syria, affirms that God preserved David wherever he went. Perhaps a case can be made that several of those Israelite wars were defensive on Israel’s part, and Fleischer does seem to be open to such an idea at one point in the book. He also states, however, that Israelite kings may have seen their acts of war as divinely-sanctioned, even if they were not. Again, Fleischer seems open to a variety of options that make God look good. On the one hand, that can come across as artificial: God will look good, whatever route one wants to go. On the other hand, the book does depict God as righteous, so some Christians may see reading the book as a worshipful experience, as they read Fleischer’s picture of God reaching down to where people are and attempting to lead them towards some level of righteousness.
C. Fleischer argues that the Torah was morally a step up from other ancient Near Eastern nations. On some level, he presents a rather convincing case, as he refers to scholarship that suggests that ancient Israel was comparatively more egalitarian. He also makes a decent point that the Torah is more egalitarian than the Code of Hammurapi, which often values the higher classes over the lower classes. At the same time, Fleischer depicts the ancient Near Eastern cultures as if they are almost devoid of morality. He argues that the Torah regards the humanity of slaves, in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern cultures. But the Middle Assyrian Palace Decrees punish a woman whose slave dies from her beating, and the Code of Hammurapi affirms that a runaway slave cannot be returned to an abusive master (see pages 97, 203-204 of Martha Roth’s Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor). Meanwhile, there are passages in the Torah that devalue the slave. Exodus 21:20-21 states that, if a master beats his slave and the slave dies immediately, the master will be punished, but the master will not be punished if the slave survives a day or two, for the slave is the master’s property. In Exodus 21:28-32, an owner of an ox is executed if his ox gores to death a man or a woman (and the ox had a reputation for goring), but the owner merely pays a fine to the slave’s master if the ox gores a slave. Regarding gender, the Ancient Near East was rather progressive on women inheriting property, whereas Number 27 only permits daughters to inherit if the father has no sons (see Jacob Milgrom’s Excursus 63, “The Inheritance Rights of Daughters” in his JPS Commentary on Numbers).
Fleischer can take these issues into consideration, while still making a similar point to what he does make in the book. That would have made for a more rounded discussion. There are Torah passages that clearly humanize slaves, particularly Deuteronomic passages: Fleischer could say that we see within the Torah an evolution over the issue of slavery, or a dialogue, much like what Fleischer observes in the Bible on the issue of divinely-sanctioned violence. On women’s inheritance, Fleischer could argue that Israel’s inheritance laws were suitable for her tribal system, which sought to keep land in the family and the tribe (which is why Milgrom says Israel’s inheritance laws were different from other ancient Near Eastern cultures). God is accommodating Godself to people’s cultural context.
D. An issue on which Fleischer is consistent (well, mostly) is that he believes that Jesus, the full revelation of God, demonstrates that God supports non-violence. Fleischer effectively demonstrates that Jesus taught non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount, promoted love for enemies (which is the opposite of killing them), and himself refused to retaliate against his enemies, even when he could. For Fleischer, that outweighs the few alleged counter-examples that people like to cite. Fleischer does not address certain apparent counter-examples, such as Jesus’ belief that God punished people with a Flood in Matthew 24:37-38 and Luke 17:26-27. Then there is the Book of Revelation, but Fleischer refers readers to another book that addresses that topic.
I say that Fleischer is mostly consistent, not entirely consistent, in his discussion of non-violence in the New Testament because he wants to portray God as non-violent, yet at one point he says that God is qualified to execute violence, whereas human beings are not. In addition, Fleischer seems to embrace a pacifist approach: nations do not matter because Christ established a transnational church, and nations should not wage war against other nations; Fleischer dismisses the concept of a just war. Yet, on page 42, Fleischer appears to embrace Luther’s two-kingdoms approach when he states: “…we are to focus on loving, forgiving, returning good for evil, and living at peace with everyone and leave vengeance, justice, and judgement to God, for he will use government for such things, just like he did throughout the OT.” Would that include the use of war or the death penalty, which Fleischer criticizes? Fleischer’s stance could have been clarified more. Personally, I do not think that the Old Testament’s support for war or the death penalty means that Christians have to accept (many, or most) U.S. wars as right, or embrace the death penalty with its unjust application. Fleischer does well when he argues that even certain Old Testament passages that sanction war approach war differently than many have done.
E. Now let me extol Chapter 11, “Incremental Character Revelation.” Had I not read this chapter, I would have given the book four stars—-short of five stars. The book is not “meh” enough to get a three. Fleischer quotes different thinkers on the issue of violence in the Bible, such as Brian McLaren, Greg Boyd, John Howard Yoder, and Paul Copan. It is well-written, in terms of prose. Chapter 11 is what compels me to give the book five stars.
There were a variety of things that I liked about Chapter 11. First, there was its tone of humility. Fleischer acknowledged that we may agree with him, disagree with him, or fall somewhere in between these extremes. He is presenting his thoughts, acknowledges that he is a work in progress, and allows people the space to draw their own conclusions. Second, this chapter raised interesting arguments about developments within the Old Testament and between the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament attributes disease to God, for example, whereas the New Testament attributes it to Satan. Fleischer believes that there is a purpose to this: God did not want the Old Testament Israelites to believe in dualism, as they were surrounded by polytheism, so he moved them towards (or let them believe in) a monotheism that believed that God was the cause of all things. That is an intriguing proposal. Third, Fleischer addressed diversity within the Old Testament: II Kings 9-10 seems to support Jehu’s acts of violence against Ahab’s house and Baalism, for instance, whereas Hosea 1:4 appears rather critical of it.
Chapter 11 was not entirely neat, and it did not answer every question, but it was a thoughtful, honest discussion on how to approach Scripture, with its different pictures of God. I guess it resonated with me because I am one who would like to see God as loving and righteous, as that feeds my soul more than criticizing God. I believe that there are many places in the Bible in which God is depicted as such. Yet, there are passages in the Bible that disturb me, and some Christian apologetic answers strike me as too neat. Fleischer presents some of those answers, yet he also gives readers the space to wrestle and to accept alternative paradigms.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.