Jesus taught that the Law and the Prophets are about him. That is how the early Church Fathers understood the Old Testament, rejecting interpretations that were inconsistent with the revelation of God in Christ, as presented in the New Testament and the sacraments. This often entailed setting aside literal interpretations as unworthy of Christ.
An important and often disturbing issue that regularly comes up concerns the violent passages in the Old Testament. Though there have been several strategies to mitigate the magnitude of physical violence indicated by a literal reading of these passages, there remains much that does not square with the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Church Fathers, therefore, found Christ in the Old Testament Scriptures through non-literal interpretations, as did the New Testament writers. In this post, we will see how they understood two of the most prominent scenarios: the violence texts found in the book of Joshua, and the instruction given to Saul to slay all of the Amalekites.
There are several scenes in the book of Joshua that indicate divinely-sanctioned violence. By a literal reading, it sounds like genocide, the total destruction of a people. Origen addresses these in his Homilies on Joshua. He does not take them literally but as Christ defeating our spiritual enemies. Concerning the violence done to the cities of Lachish, Libnah, and Hebron (Joshua 10), Origen says:
But one who is “a Jew secretly,” that is, a Christian, who follows Jesus, not as the son of Nun but as the Son of God, understands all these things are mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. He affirms that even now my Lord Jesus Christ wars against opposing powers and casts out of their cities, that is, out of our souls, those who used to occupy them. And he destroys the kings who were rulers in our souls “that sin may no longer reign in us,” so that, after he abolishes the king of sin from the city of our soul, our soul may become the city of God and God may reign in it, and it may be proclaimed to us, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Homilies on Joshua, by Origen. Translated by Barbara J. Bruce. Homily 13, p. 125)Concerning the things that followed after Jabin, in Joshua 11, Origen says:
Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ, who came to teach peace, so that they could be read in the churches. For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, “My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you,” and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, “Not avenging your own selves,” and, “Rather, you receive injury,” and, “You suffer offense”? In short, knowing that we do not have to wage physical wars, but that the struggles of the should have to be exerted against spiritual adversaries, the Apostle, just as a military leader, gives an order to the soldiers of Christ, says, “Put on the armor of God, so that you may be able to stand firm against the cunning devices of the Devil.” And in order for us to have examples of these spiritual wars from deeds of old, he wanted those narratives of exploits to be recited to us in the church, so that, if we are spiritual — hearing that “the Law is spiritual” — “we may compare spiritual things with spiritual” in the things we hear. (Homily 15, p. 138)1 Samuel 15
Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 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.’” (1 Samuel 15:1-3)This was the word Samuel brought to King Saul. By a literal reading, Saul was to completely destroy the Amalekites. There was to be no mercy. Every man, woman, all the children, including infants, were to be slaughtered along with all the cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys. Saul carried out this command. Mostly. But he left alive King Agag. And he took some of the choice sheep and cattle and offered them in sacrifice before the Lord, though it was not his place to do so.
When Samuel came and discovered Saul’s failure to obey completely, he was very displeased and said to him, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams ... You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!” (1 Samuel 15:22, 26). Then Samuel had Agag brought before him, “and Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal” (v. 33).
How very different this sounds from the image of God that is perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ. But how did the Church Fathers understand this passage through Christ? Most of them did not address the question of violence but focused on the spiritual issue of obedience to the Lord. There is, however, this from Maximus the Confessor, in his second hundred of his Two Hundred Texts on Theology:
53. Saul is the natural law originally established by the Lord to rule over nature. But Saul was disobedient: he spared Agag, king of Amalek [cf. 1 Sam 15.8-16, 13], that is, the body, and slipped downward into the sphere of the passions. He was therefore deposed so that David might take over Israel. David is the law of the Spirit — the law engendering that peace which so excellently builds for God the temple of contemplation.Notice that Maximus does not take this as a literal slaughter of Agag but as controlling the passions between of body and soul. Agag is a symbol of “the earthly will” as opposed to obedience to the will of God.
54. Samuel signifies obedience to God. So long as the principle of obedience exercises its priestlike office within us, even though Saul spares Agag — that is, the earthly will — yet that principle in its zeal will put him to death [cf. 1 Sam 15. 33]: it strikes the sin-incited intellect and puts it to shame for having transgressed the divine ordinances. (from The Philokalia, translated by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Vol 2, p. 150)
The Church Fathers repeatedly took the meaning of these kinds of passages to be spiritual in nature, not about physical slaughters but about Christ and the conflicts of the soul.
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