An Avenging God

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;

the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.

The Lord takes vengeance on his foes

and vents his wrath against his enemies. (Nahum 1:2)

Having written my posts on justice and mercy, I got thinking about revenge. Revenge is not compatible with mercy. It’s the antithesis of mercy. You can avenge your enemy or you can have mercy on him, but you cannot do both.

The Bible frequently portrays God as vengeful. The above quote from Nahum is one of the most obvious, but there are plenty of others (see the list at the bottom of this post, and please excuse the gruesome scenes depicted in some of them).

A few things stand out from the Bible’s portrayal of revenge. First, it’s not generally considered acceptable for God’s people to take revenge on their own kind (“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”, Leviticus 19:18).

This scripture does not seem to pertain to all people, but just “your” people – to fellow Israelites. Indeed, this much is clear elsewhere in the Bible, where God and his servants often take revenge on other tribes (see Judges 31 and Deuteronomy 32, for example).

At the very least, then, we have some examples of God engaging in vengeance, meaning that he has not always been merciful. The idea of God’s perfect mercy therefore fades even further into impossibility.

Sadly, this does not seem to be a wholly Old Testament theme, either. Do not forget the famous line from Romans, which itself quotes the passage on revenge from Deuteronomy 32:

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

Paul is not discouraging revenge because it is immoral. He is discouraging it because God wants it all to himself.

Paul’s questionable motives are shown again in the next verse, where he quotes Proverbs 25:21-22:

On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20)

Why are we being encouraged to do something that is akin to heaping burning coals on someone’s head?

But I digress.

It is rather astonishing that, on the whole, the Bible does not speak of revenge as something inherently immoral, but as something better left to God. God is vengeful, and believers are expected to see this as morally virtuous.

Ultimately, this is all quite understandable given the context of the culture in which the Bible was written. Echoes of this culture are seen today in Middle Eastern societies that practice honor killings and other acts of revenge.

The Bible should really give us reason to be optimistic – optimistic because we have learned, at least to some extent, to control our urge for revenge, whether it is directed at our “own” people or not.

The urge is still there, though. You see it on the anguished faces of parents whose children have been kidnapped or abused or murdered. They will not rest until they see the person who harmed  their children brought to justice. And who can blame them? It is a natural human instinct.

But as natural and compelling as the urge for revenge is, its benefits are questionable. Perhaps it makes the revenge-seeker feel better (and this is not an advantage to be put aside lightly) but it also causes further suffering and destruction.

We should be seeking more productive ways in which people can cope with the anger that drives the desire for revenge. This is a big challenge,  perhaps one of the toughest to stand in the way of lasting peace today.

—–

It is mine to avenge; I will repay.

In due time their foot will slip;

their day of disaster is near

and their doom rushes upon them (Deuteronomy 32:35)

 

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” (Genesis 4:15)

When Saul’s servants told him what David had said, 25 Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.

When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law. So before the allotted time elapsed, 27 David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage. (1 Samuel 18:24-27)

 

Samson said to [the Philistines], “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. [Samson is then handed over to the Philistines, who intend to kill him, but God saves him.] (Judges 15:7-8)

 

Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. (Judges 16:28-30)

 

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Because Edom took revenge on Judah and became very guilty by doing so, therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will stretch out my hand against Edom and kill both man and beast. I will lay it waste, and from Teman to Dedan they will fall by the sword. I will take vengeance on Edom by the hand of my people Israel, and they will deal with Edom in accordance with my anger and my wrath; they will know my vengeance, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 25:12-14)

May the praise of God be in their mouths

and a double-edged sword in their hands,

to inflict vengeance on the nations

and punishment on the peoples (Psalms 149:6-7)

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5 Responses to An Avenging God

  1. L.Long says:

    Well I can do both have revenge and do mercy.
    A guy rapes my daughter, I find him, tie him down and slowly cut off his balls & cock with a dual saw, then seal the wound with a hot poker. I have my revenge and he is totally incapable of doing rape again.
    And I showed him mercy by allowing him to live the rest of his life.
    See revenge and mercy.

  2. rudyardh says:

    I continue to be concerned about the treatment of the Scriptures. To attempt to understand these diverse writings in a literal manner, does them a grave disservice. Like all old historic manuscripts, they have to be thoroughly interrogated within their historical, cultural, social, political and religious context. The ancient languages in which they were written are long since dead and therefore have to be subjected to textual criticism, source critcism, form criticism, tradition criticism, redaction criticism, etc. In addition, there are several different ways of reading the Scriptures; literal, historical-literal, historical-critical, as revelation, thematic and metaphorical. The different books of the Bible are not meant to be treated as historical or factual (in a scientific sense), rather they attempt to tell a story about the journey of faith of a Middle Eastern people. These ancient manuscripts were all totally separate and were only lumped together in one cover for convenience. A study of Biblical archaeology reveals a relatively primitive civilization, with no benefit of scientific thought, a people who naturally understood the Universe as completely under the control of an authoritarian God. They ordered their world in this manner. Yet, in the Scriptures themselves, it is possible to detect a slow progression of thought and understanding. N.T writers may quote O.T. writers (those were the only religious manuscripts they had) but they clearly held a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of God. In the end, debates about the authenticity of the Scriptures will rage on in every generation. Some accept, some reject and some are agnostic. Two things are important; first, over the centuries, learned men & women have spent their lives trying to intepret the original manuscripts for us and their scholarly works are available to the serious enquirer. Second, obviously other religions and philosophies also contain valuable world views and codes of conduct but that does not invalidate the way of life presented in the Christian Scriptures. As one theology professor put it; “we all draw water from the same well”.

    • Keith says:

      Nicely said.

      I am certainly guilty of failing to consider the detailed cultural context of the Bible in my own criticisms. I tend to take the Bible at face value, on the premise that this is how most Christians read it (although I don’t try to shoehorn the various statements of the Bible into a single theology, as an apologist would).

      The bar you set for the Bible reader is high. And it should be high, for the reasons you give. The problem is that the average Joe sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning is either unaware of these requirements or does not have the time to investigate and apply them. And chances are that the minister or priest he is listening to is not going to discuss the proper analysis from the pulpit, mostly because he or she is pressured to provide a cohesive, uncomplicated theology palatable to modern tastes.

      Christianity faces a bit of a conundrum, then. Only a handful of people have done the research necessary to place the Bible in its proper context, meaning that everyone else is liable to interpret it incorrectly. Furthermore, its my impression that a deep investigation of biblical origins often causes people to have serious doubts about their faith. I have heard a number of stories of innocent young folk who enter seminary with great zeal and vigor, only to be thoroughly checked in their faith upon discovery of the messy historical reality of the Bible’s origins.

      One possible solution is to encourage parishioners to read key works of biblical archaeologists and historians before they set about interpreting their Bibles. But I wonder if many Christians would balk at the academic distance this puts between them and the Bible. Many Christians see their interactions with the Scriptures as deeply personal and direct, as if God were speaking directly to them. They may not want to filter this experience through the added and complex lens of cultural interpretation.

      This is, frankly, why I find alternative philosophical treatises on ethics so appealing. The writings of someone like Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century B.C., are not bound up in culturally-dependent narratives, events, and metaphors, but involve direct, self-contained ideas with supporting arguments that can be evaluated on their own merit by people living in (almost) any culture. There is also no pretense that, for example, all ancient Greek philosophers’ views must by syncretized into a single message. The diversity of ideas is not only recognized, but celebrated.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comment!

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