Published by InterVarsity Press on February 28, 2023
Buy on Amazon
What do we do with a God who sanctions violence?
Old Testament violence proves one of the most troubling topics in the Bible. Too often, the explanations for the brutality in Scripture fail to adequately illustrate why God would sanction such horrors on humanity. These unanswered questions leave readers frustrated and confused, leading some to even walk away from their faith.
In Flood and Fury, Old Testament scholar Matthew Lynch approaches two of the most violent passages in the Old Testament – the Flood and the Canaanite conquest – and offers a way forward that doesn't require softening or ignoring the most troubling aspects of these stories. While acknowledging the persistent challenge of violence in Scripture, Flood and Fury contends that reading with the grain of the text yields surprising insights into the goodness and the mercy of God. Through his exploration of themes related to violence including misogyny, racism, and nationalism, Lynch shows that these violent stories illuminate significant theological insights that we might miss with a surface reading.
Flood and Fury challenges us to let go of the need to rescue the Old Testament from itself and listen afresh to its own critiques on violence.
A few days before I wrote this review, the Prime Minister of Israel referenced the Old Testament in an attempt to justify his nation’s violent destruction of Gaza—an alleged attempt to root out the terrorist group Hamas that has come with significant civilian casualties. He referred to Hamas and Gaza as “Amalek,” an ancient Israelite foe that Israel was commanded to destroy. 1 Samuel 15:3: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
What are we to do with verses like that? Do we accept them? Do we glorify them? How do we deal with the problem of Old Testament violence? Is it even a problem? Matthew Lynch’s Flood and Fury admits that the problem cannot be solved, but also asks that we listen to the critique of violence that emerges from the text. The problem remains difficult—but the bigger problem is superficial reading with a desire for simplistic answers. Lynch opens up the context of the Old Testament world to show a more complex reality than what Christianity has often offered.
I appreciate that Flood and Fury begins with a reminder that we can question Scripture without discounting it. One can deconstruct toxic versions of faith without demolishing the faith as a whole. Lynch outlines our options: 1) We can reject the idea of God’s violence and get rid of the Old Testament—but that undermines Jesus. 2) We can spiritualize it, but this ignores the real history of the OT. 3) We can justify it, but that requires condoning violence and even genocide. 4) We can say that time changed, but that requires a God who changes as well. 5) We can say the texts are hyperbolic exaggerations, but that still means that war existed and condones violent speech. 6) We can claim cultural projection—that what is recorded in Scripture is people doing things in God’s name, but this runs us afoul of cultural imperialism. 7) We can just claim that God is mysterious, but that doesn’t solve any concerns about God’s characters. And 8) We can say that the cross trumps earlier, violent revelations of God—but this risks relativizing and flattening the rest of the biblical witness about God.
So where do we go? For Lynch, it’s 4, 5, 7, and a touch of 8—but don’t let yourself get too locked into the legalism of paradigmatic interpretations. Instead, we need to read the Bible in context, asking difficult questions, and allowing ourselves to be shocked. It’s from that sort of honest reading that we place ourselves in a position to seek out answers, even if those answers are messier than we’d hoped.
The majority of Flood and Fury is a section entitled “Reading Joshua with Yeshua,” which is clever wordplay. It focuses on the Conquest of Canaan and the resultant violence—violent acts and violent speeches—that result. Through these chapters, Lynch separates rhetoric from reality and shows that the commands for “complete destruction” were not as literal as one might think. Rather, the primary emphasis in these texts is the complete destruction of idolatrous thinking. While the people engage in warfare, the book of Joshua begins and ends with the admonition that the battle is the Lord’s and that victory is not due to any physical warfare. Lynch does not downplay the violence, but rather picks up on the minor key that critiques such violence that runs alongside the majority narrative.
Flood and Fury also has a section on Genesis 1-11, which covers a whole host of expected and unexpected topics. Expected: The flood. That’s the big one. The one where God kills pretty much everyone, right? But there’s also the unexpected. Lynch talks about violence against women and how interpretations of “male headship” have been used justify such violence. Lynch contends that in these early chapters, we see the beginnings of three violent beginnings we must continue to contend with: domestic violence, first seen in Lamech’s polygamy; military violence, seen in the rise of warrior kings; and political/civil violence, seen in the rise of empires. These earlier stories contrast with the earlier ideal of equality in Genesis 1-2 and call readers to push back against such violence and pursue the peace (shalom) of God.
Flood and Fury is a book I’m going to return to time and time again. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I am reading this as bombs fly into Gaza and Israel is invoking the language of the Old Testament to justify their violence. Lynch makes it clear that this sort of justification is the language of empire, not the language of the Kingdom. Even though this is classified as an academic work—published by IVP Academic—Lynch’s writing is casual, accessible, and pastoral. This would be a great book to use in a Bible study and it will be a necessary reference any time I preach on the Old Testament in the future. Enlightening, engaging, challenging, and thoughtful, Flood and Fury offers a third way between rejecting God and accepting God as violent and instead calls readers to find God’s shalom within a violent world.