Copyright 2011 © Nathan L. Bostian | firstname.lastname@example.org
1. The Puzzle of Developmental Revelation:
I have long puzzled over the problem of so-called "progressive revelation" in Scripture. This is the fact that clearly, certain concepts about God, and God's relation to the world (especially in judgement), seems to change radically over the course of Scripture. In particular, we glimpse an often messy trajectory that goes from the divine sanction of violence in the early Hebrew Scriptures, to divine rejection of violence in Christ.
For many reasons, I prefer to refer to this fact as "developmental revelation", because it is not a clear and clean "progress" over time. There is, for instance, clearly divine mercy present in the very beginnings of Scripture all the way through, such as when we find God clothing Adam and Eve in animal skins and providing a new place for their life after "the Fall". Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures- even during their most bloodthirsty sections- God is repeatedly referred to as "slow to anger" and abundant in loving-kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. It is this God whom non-violent Jesus calls "Father".
And likewise, divine violence is present even in the most "peaceful" parts of the New Testament. Jesus talks more about hell and judgment than any other single Biblical figure. St. Paul can turn from discussing radical self-sacrificial neighbor-love (cf. Rom 12) to speaking of how the government has divine sanction to "bear the sword… to punish evil doers" (cf. Rom 13). The very last book of the Bible, Revelation, speaks of bloody wars and crushing victories wrought by Jesus Himself. And although these visions can (and should!) be interpreted as Jesus crushing spiritual forces of sin and wickedness, and not flesh and blood people, it is still clear that images of divine violence are abundant in the New Testament.
So, we do not have a clear "progress" from divine sanction of violence to divine rejection of violence. But, we do have a trend, a development, a trajectory that heads in that direction. This development is rather like the concept of child development, as a child grows in certain capacities, while other capacities are stunted or even retarded temporarily, only to grow and "catch up" later. One quick example is that older children right before puberty are often able to follow directions better, and make rational decisions easier, than teens in the midst of the hormonal onslaught of puberty, even though the teens are physically and cognitively better developed in a number of ways. It is this kind of halting, stuttering development of God's relation to the world we see in Scripture.
And while there are dozens of other developmental themes that could be named from Scripture (such as the development of monotheism or the development of the concept of Messiah), I want to hone in on this issue of "divine violence" as the paradigmatic problem in developmental revelation. It is clear that in the earliest Hebrew Scriptures God is pictured as sanctioning, and in some cases ordering, and in some causes causing, violence against individuals and communities. But, by the end of the Christian Scriptures, it is clear that violence is to be avoided at all costs, even to the point of self sacrifice on behalf of one's own enemies, as Jesus both teaches (cf. Mat 5) and embodies on the cross (cf. Rom 5).
And we must also note that the developmental revelation in Scripture has substantial overlap with the concept of "development of doctrine", in which the Church progressively develops the trajectory of Scripture as it travels through the concerns of contemporary culture. But, I want to clearly differentiate developmental revelation from developmental doctrine.
Developmental revelation involves the action of God in the event(s) of revelation, and it's subsequent recording in Scripture. Developmental doctrine involves the reflection of the community of God on these records of revelation. Developmental revelation would trace the trajectory of an issue through Scripture, such as the development of the concept of Messiah. Developmental doctrine would trace the implications of the totality of Scripture and Tradition on a specific issue throughout the history of the Church. An instance of this would be to trace the elaboration of the meaning of the Incarnation through the seven ecumenical councils, and it's implications on worship, evangelism, and social engagement for the Church. In general, developmental revelation deals with the question of what God has done, while developmental doctrine deals with the question of what the Church does with what God has done.
2. The Non-Solution of a "Growing God":
So, it is easier to understand why developmental doctrine would change over time, because it deals with the human activity of reflecting and elaborating on the event of divine revelation. What is harder to understand is why God, who is perfect, would seem to change in his relation to humanity over time in God's own self-revelation. Surely a perfect unchanging God would be basically the same in appearance across time.
A frequent solution is to say that God Himself changes, develops and grows over time. Perhaps revelation develops in a halting, stuttering way because God Himself is developing in a halting, stuttering way. Some even go so far as to say that we, as humans, help God in God's own moral development over time. In short, God needs creation to fully become God. Without us, God would be locked into a lower developmental level.
But this is problematic for a number of reasons. Is God really worthy of being called God if God needs us to be God? And if so, doesn't that raise us up to a godlike level? This both diminishes who and what God is, while exaggerating (sinfully) our own sense of self-importance. Because it implies imperfection and instability in God, it seems to make God less than God. Certainly such a "developmental" God could not be trusted to be a moral ground for us, or a clear hope for the future. What if God fundamentally changes God's mind about the nature of good and evil (for instance, making hate good and love bad?). Or what if God is not ultimately able to carry out God's promises of healing and restoration?
Clearly, this "solution" of positing a "growing God" behind developmental revelation causes more problems than it solves. Although this point can (and has been) argued, let us bracket out this possibility for the time and see if we can come to an understanding of developmental revelation which does not posit instability in Godself.
3. The Non-Solution of "Shrinking Scripture":
Another frequently explored solution is to simply deny that God has inspired, or is revealed, in certain portions of Scripture (especially those that sanction divine violence). There are many grounds this is done on, whether through literary criticism, ideological criticism, or historical criticism (or just ignoring certain passages in the life of the church by never reading them!). But, the problem is that if we arbitrarily excise the parts of Scripture we find problematic on "anti-violence" grounds, we have no real grounds to object when someone excises scriptural teaching about love, charity, and forgiveness on "pro-violence" grounds.
Let us take to heart the historical example of pro-Nazi Biblical scholarship during the Third Reich: It is possible to use the tools of Biblical criticism to create a pro-violence canon of Scripture which validates our ideology, and destroys those we label as ideological enemies. Or, we could look at the ancient example of the heretic Marcion, who dealt with this issue by positing a good God of Love in the New Testament, and an evil Jewish Demiurge of hate in the Old Testament. Then he simply removed from his canon of Scripture all the writings he though tainted by the evil Demiurge, leaving only portions of the Gospels and some of Paul's letters.
And there is another major problem with simply "shrinking Scripture" to fit our ideology, other than the fact that the same arbitrary logic can be employed to create a pro-violence canon of Scripture. This problem is that we miss an essential dimension of our relationship with God: The dimension of struggle and of "wrestling" with God through the messiness of historical process (cf. Gen 32 and the identity of "Israel"). It is precisely this struggle and wrestling through issues that enables us to become fully formed disciples of Jesus Christ. Without doing the "heavy lifting" of struggling through Scripture with God, we will simply be too weak to "take up our cross" and follow Jesus.
To take back up the idea of child development here, it would be a bit like a parent wanting to "fast forward" their child from a cute kid to a fully grown adult without having to go through all the messiness of teenage development. It simply doesn't work that way. The messiness of teenage life, with all its drama and mistakes and heartaches, is a necessary step to becoming a mature adult. So also, the messiness of developmental revelation seems to be entirely necessary to the full development of individual spirituality, the community of the Church, and even a fully flourishing humanity.
So, just as it is not wise to try and solve the developmental revelation problem through recourse to a "growing God", so also we cannot shrink Scripture to get rid of the embarrassing parts. Instead, we must find a constructive use- a Spirit taught lesson to learn- from every verse of Scripture. After all, the classic Christian tradition us that "all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable". We have been given the deposit- the ENTIRE deposit- of canonical Scripture as a gift from God to form us in Christ's image as we wrestle through it. Thus, we need to use all of it.
4. The Most Problematic "Solution":
Perhaps the both the easiest, and the most problematic solution is to simply say that there are two sides to God: Love for God's elect, and Hate for the damned. There are certainly a number of theological systems that take this "easy path" out of the problem of divine violence. For them, there is a category of people that God simply despises and does not love, nor does God want to heal or save them. The theological reasons for this divine hatred is different depending on which theological system is used: Perhaps they are a member of the wrong sect, denomination, or religion; Perhaps they have committed an "unforgivable sin"; Or perhaps they were pre-destined to be damned before time.
No matter the rationale for divine hatred, this provides the easy solution to divine violence: God kills people, and orders them killed, because they are among the damned. Hatred justifies violence. And since God is the standard of justice, God's violence and hatred are automatically justified.
Now, it should be patently obvious that this is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is not the God who dies for God's enemies, nor the God who forgives undeserving sinners. This God is more like the devil (if not identical), and deserves to be called by the lowercase "god".
Such a "god" is self-contradictory with both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. This "god" is a hypocrite for calling us to "love our enemies" and "be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect" (cf. Mat 5), when in fact this "god" hates, damns and even kills his own enemies. Such a "god" of exclusion and hate completely undermines any motive we would have to love our enemies (Mat 5) or love our neighbor (Luke 10) or love "the other" (Romans 13). Such a "god" cannot be reconciled with the God who is Love announced by John (1John 4), and lived out by Jesus Christ in self-sacrifice on behalf of his enemies (Rom 5).
And, if this were not bad enough, such a God dissolves the entire basis for our own hope in Christ's salvation. For, if God hates some and loves others, and if God's will is hidden from humanity, how can we tell if we are "in" or "out" of God's Love? Theologies that emphasize divine exclusion of some at the expense of others tend to be obsessed with these questions of "how do we know if we are saved?"
This solution is far from a solution, for it creates far more problems than it solves. It undercuts our faith in God, our love for others, and our hope in salvation. Thus, it seems that a God of hate and exclusion is demonic, and both a "growing God" and "shrinking Scripture" are dead ends. Yet, there are four very successful clues which get us a very long way down the road of dealing with the problem of developmental revelation: Narrative, Accommodation, Deconstruction, and Apokatastasis.
5. The Clue of Narrative:
It is often said that we should read Scripture as a Drama of unfolding plot, in which events progressively intertwine leading to the climax and consummation of the Story in Christ. I believe this narrative approach is perhaps the most fruitful way to understand Scripture. And as such, it is conceivable that the Divine Author could and should leave certain things "dark" so they come to light later on. This is surely a hallmark of good story telling.
Yet, as helpful as this is in many regards, it still seems to put God in an inauthentic light as regards violence in particular. In Genesis 6 God destroys the world in a flood. In Leviticus 19 God seems to demand "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life". From Joshua to 2Chronicles God orders executions, warfare, jihad, and even Canaanite genocide. Attempts to link these facts in a "plot progression" to the absolute non-violence we find in Jesus seem to fall flat in my opinion. The gaps are simply to wide to bridge from a strictly narrative standpoint. We have to do more than show a simple plot progression from this concept of divine violence in the Hebrew Scriptures to the God of healing shown in Jesus.
6. The Clue of Accommodation:
So, we come to the next (very helpful) clue: Divine accommodation to human limitations in understanding and comprehending God's plans. This is the idea that God has to limit His revelation to fit into the concepts and abilities of people in their time. I think this gets us a but further with the issue of divine violence. In raising children I know that there is a time when children are young that it is appropriate to discipline them in a very "hands on" way (for instance, grabbing them before they cross a street, taking the stolen cookie from their hand, or even a well controlled swat on the rear end). But as they get older and more developed, it is totally inappropriate to use such means. Instead, you discuss and debate as adults.
Perhaps something similar is going on in Scripture. More ancient peoples could only understand and respond to harshness, whereas later peoples could conceptually understand more about God without "the carrot and stick". This is certainly another part of the answer, but it has significant weaknesses as well, both from the human side and the divine side.
From the human side, in terms of the level of violence in society it is difficult to say the Roman Empire of Jesus' day was significantly more advanced than previous cultures. There were certainly intellectual-conceptual advances available in the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers for people of apostolic times, as compared to ancient Israelites living prior to 500 BC.
Yet, we could not say that these advances left their cultures less violent, or able to understand the need for non-violence better. The Jewish-Roman wars of 66 AD and 135 AD were as blood thirsty as any ancient war, and the Roman Empire was built upon violence and coercive military control. So, from the human side the people of 100 AD were no more equipped for the revelation of non-violence any more than the people of 1000 BC. So why did God go ahead and reveal it in Christ at that time?
From the divine side there is also a problem, especially if we equate divine violence with developmental childhood discipline. The genocide commanded and enacted by God in the early Hebrew Bible is not the divine equivalent of "spanking" a young humanity. It is more like infanticide. So, while the clue of divine accommodation is helpful in some ways, we still need to seek more appropriate clues.
7. The Clue of Deconstruction:
Perhaps what is going on is that God is using violence to deconstruct violence in the Hebrew Scriptures, in order to show that violent solutions do not work in the long term. If so, this would be a case of God teaching us through error. After all, what is one of the most effective ways of learning why God and violence do not mesh, and that violence ultimately destroys God's purposes?
The most effective way is a case study: What actually happens when a group of people claim that violence is sanctioned by God to bring about a "better world"? What happens when we claim that violent natural disasters are created by God? What happens when we claim that God is on our side, and has ordered war or genocide against our enemies? What kind of society do these claims create?
Perhaps stories like Noah's flood and Joshua's genocide are errors that God wants in the canon of Scripture, in order to teach us what it looks like when we get it wrong. After all, the tragedy of the flood did not bring about the righteousness God desires. Rather, it brought about Noah's drunk curses and a repeated cycle of destruction within a few generations. And what did Joshua's genocide bring about? A pure Israel? No. It created a system of violent tribal feuds, increasing idolatry, and a spiral of violence during the period of "the Judges". What did the "Wars of Yahweh", which were waged by the Davidic kings of Israel and Judah, accomplish in the long term? Idolatry and injustice, leading to destruction and exile (in 722 and 587 BC respectively).
Perhaps God wanted these in Scripture as a life lesson why claims of divine violence are (a) ultimately false, and (b) don't work. When God comes to us in human form, He tells us that we are to judge a tree by it's fruit (cf. Mat 7). If a tree produces good fruit, it is of God. If it produces death and destruction, it is not of God.
Using Jesus' simple diagnostic test, and applying it to practically every instance of divinely sanctioned violence in the Hebrew Bible, we would have to say that the long term fruit in Jewish society indicates that these actions were never from God. Thus, the true nature of God as Love is revealed in an inverse, deconstructive way in these stories of divine violence. In this sense they are "inspired" and deserve to stay in Scripture.
Yet, such a reading is only possible in a "big picture" sense of looking at Jewish history across time. In the more narrow, immediate read inside these stories, it seems clear that God does sanction or cause these violent acts. Even if, in a big picture sense, it is justified to use such a deconstructive hermeneutic, it still feels wrong and implausible in a narrow "line by line" reading of Scripture.
I am convinced that part of the narrative function of these passages is to show us, long term, that violence cannot accomplish God's purposes (especially in the light of Christ's self-sacrifice on the cross by which he overcomes violence by enduring violence without retaliation). Yet, even though I am convinced of this, I feel that this type of reading of the text comes dangerously close to editing out the parts of the Bible we don't like on ideological grounds, leading to a "shrinking Scripture" approach. This, as I have said before, is not a feasible solution to developmental revelation.
8. The Clue of Apokatastasis:
Yet another clue is to relativize the violence by putting forth the idea of a final eschatological healing. Just as the "tragedy" of an amputation is relativized if it results in saving the life of the amputee, so also perhaps the "tragedy" of divine violence and genocide will be relativized by ultimate salvation and healing of all at the end of time. This is implicit in the Eastern Orthodox claim of "apokatastasis" taught by people as diverse as the 4th century Trinitarian theologian Gregory of Nyssa, and the 21st century physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne, and other Christian thinkers throughout the centuries. Drawing on a panoply of Biblical texts such as Hosea 5:14-6:2, Wisdom 11.21-12.2, John 12.32, Romans 5, 8.31-39, Colossians 1:15-20, and Philippians 2.3-11, they postulate that all things will ultimately be healed and reconciled to God through Christ at the end of History.
While I hope strongly that Christ will accomplish the saving of all that can be saved, this solution is still deficient on two grounds: First, apokatastasis can only be a hope, not a dogmatic certainty. To demand that all people choose salvation is a denial of human freedom, and thus a denial of God's image in humanity. We cannot demand that all are saved while destroying their selves in the process. Humans must remain free to deny Love and choose evil, for without that radical freedom they cease to be human and become robotic automata.
So, as sad as it sounds, there must remain the chance that people who have died at the hands of divine violence may not ultimately be healed. But, this is not the only problem with apokatastasis as a solution to divine violence. The second problem is that such an idea seems to rob dignity and meaning from such deaths.
Can we imagine God saying: "Aw, you and your baby died during Joshua's genocide of the Canaanites? No problem! There's resurrection!" If apokatastasis is the only solution to divine violence, it seems a bit flippant and trite. Don't get me wrong. A death died in the hope of ultimate healing is better than a death died without hope. Yet, it seems that there has to be something else that gives such death and suffering at the hands of divine violence an inherent meaning and purpose in space and time, and not just beyond history.
9. The Clue of Transposition:
So, I was pondering this problem, and I was trying to find yet another clue to help me make sense of developmental revelation, especially as concerns the sanction and later rejection of divine violence we find in Scripture. I wanted something that would both unify and go beyond these insights of narrative, accommodation, deconstruction, and apokatastasis.
And then, remembering a concept from CS Lewis' sermon "transposition", I hit upon something that seems to unify the issue better. The concept of transposition, as used by CS Lewis, is an extended analogy using a musical metaphor. He compares how a musician might "transpose" a piece of music intended for an orchestra to be used by one instrument (say a piano or a guitar). In the process of transposition, something is "lost" in the translation, for it is not as rich as the full experience of an orchestra. Yet, there is also something that remains true to the basic "shape" or "form" of the musical piece, so that we hear it and recognize it as a transposed piece of music.
CS Lewis, if my memory serves me right, goes on to posit that divine revelation, and in particular the Incarnation of God in Christ, is like a process of divine transposition. The same form or essence of God is seen and heard, but in a simpler way that corresponds to the limitations of the medium of human language (in Scripture) and human life (in Jesus).
This concept of transposition has a lot in common with accommodation, except instead of framing the issue in terms of "what conceptual resources did individual humans have to understand God's will?", we frame it slightly different as "what total resources were available to God in human society to heal and restore humans?". At the basis of this idea of transposition is the supposition that God limits Godself to work with the resources inherent in a society- worldview, social structures, technology, economic goods, culture- and uses the potentiality native to them to lead them into greater and greater healing. God does not create new resources out of thin air, but works from within the resources they have to expand what is already there.
So, I propose a medical "thought experiment" to help us understand how this idea of transposition helps us deal with the problem of divine violence in developmental revelation.
Let us imagine there is a physician from the year 3000 AD, whose sole mission in life is to heal others. This physician has knowledge of the human condition and medical techniques beyond anything we can imagine. Furthermore, she has access to medical technology to carry out his knowledge. Her technology is beyond anything we can understand or create, and includes a state of the art hospital, targeted gene therapies, cellular nanobots, disease scanners, and healing force-fields, all of which allow her to cure almost any disease without having to do the invasive violence of actually cutting into the patent.
Now, let us suppose that our doctor gets trapped in a time machine and taken back to 1000 BC without any of her technology. She suddenly has to "transpose" all her healing knowledge and create a hospital and medical instruments using pottery and bronze age technology. How would her healing practice differ from 3000 AD? I would estimate that even with her knowledge, her cures would look barbaric by 3000 AD standards. Furthermore, I bet her care would necessarily include much more "invasive violence" in the sense of cutting her patients with imprecise bronze instruments. And even furthermore, she would find herself condoning and using "medical violence" she would never use or condone if she had 3000 AD technology. And finally, despite her skill, I bet her mortality rate would be very high by 3000 AD standards.
Let us suppose she was able to gradually get her time machine to go forward in time at 500 year increments. Each time she has a multi-year sojourn before she can jump forward. Each time she transposes her medical knowledge and sets up a "hospital" using the technology and resources of the time. As she goes from 1000 BC to 500 BC to 0 AD to 500 AD (and so on) she will find incremental advances in metal working, worldview, sanitation, and technology that allows her medical practice to become more effective, and less violent and invasive, with better mortality rates.
By the time 4000 years has passed, her need for surgical violence will be done away with completely, as most of the healing is done by using her technology to stimulate the body's own healing resources to restore health to the patients. Furthermore, her 4000 year long history of "medical violence" will show that barbaric medical violence can never bring about the full healing of 3000 AD standards. Yet, given the resources available in earlier ages, such violence was better than doing nothing.
I think ultimately, the developmental revelation in Scripture, especially in regards to divine violence, may be very akin to this thought experiment. It is God's desire to heal and restore all of Creation to union with Godself. Furthermore, God has perfect unchanging knowledge of how to bring about this healing. However, in allowing creation genuine freedom, growth, and development over time, God has limited Himself to working through the resources available in any given time.
The result is that all revelation- even divine violence- is done for healing, redemptive purposes in accordance with the best resources of the time. It may seem barbaric to us now, but it was the best option at the time with the least mortality. It may seem cruel by our standards, but at the time it was better than nothing. Yet, as we move through history, we find that God relies less and less on external "divine violence" to heal and change society, and instead relies more and more on the inner transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit to give people a "new heart" (cf. Eze 36).
I think this type of "medical" developmental understanding, combined with a sense if the outworking Plot of God's Story, as well as the hope of the full final healing of Creation through Christ in the apokatastasis, leads us to a healthy understanding of developmental revelation, without falling into the trap of a "growing God" or a "shrinking Scripture".
10. The Clues Applied to the Case of the Death Penalty
The last thing I want to do is apply this understanding of developmental revelation to a specific problematic issue: Namely the issue of the death penalty. In the Hebrew Torah, the death penalty is specified for a number of offenses, some of which seem absurd to us now. But, in the same Torah, the 6th commandment of the Ten Commandments also specified "Do not murder". By the time of Jesus, we find a deliberate rejection of the death penalty of the Torah, specifically the command to stone to death a person caught in adultery (cf. John 8). But not only this, Jesus rejects the Levitical concept of retribution ("eye for eye, tooth for tooth") taught in Leviticus 19 (cf. Mat 5.38-48).
Over time, many Christian Churches as diverse as Anabaptists and Roman Catholics have come to the position that the death penalty, like slavery, is not a genuine option for Christian societies. While this is debated by Christian advocates for the death penalty, it is an historical fact that, from the most ancient Church Fathers, to the largest contemporary Christian bodies, the death penalty has been flatly rejected on Scriptural grounds, even though there are Scriptures that allow it, and even command it, in the Torah.
Is this a contradiction within Scripture? I think if we look at it from the developmental "clues" I have named above, the answer is no.
Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the God revealed in Jesus Christ ultimately is about saving and healing life, and not about destroying it. Whatever God does developmentally, God is doing it to save, heal, and restore as much of humanity as possible at any given time, without taking away their freedom and making them "un-human".
If we look at the possibility of a redemptive judicial and penal system, in light of the social resources available in 1500 BC, versus the resources available in 2000 AD, I think it makes sense how God has "transposed" his desire to save life based on these different sets of resources.
A penal system that is able to incarcerate and redeem criminals is only possible in a society which has a vast amount of technological, social, and economic resources. I would like to offer a brief spontaneous list of resources necessary to run an effective penitentiary system that is able to both keep criminals safe and keep society safe from criminals:
- A stable food, energy, water, and sewage supply.
- A working system of laws, applied impartially.
- A judicial system free of corruption.
- Jails with ample space, sanitation, and security, so that criminals cannot escape.
- An economic system that can fund security guards, cafeteria workers, janitors, wardens, therapists, chaplains, etc. without making the rest of society go broke.
- A means of making sure that the worst criminals are not able to operate crime syndicates from within prisons and thus continue to harm society and those who guard them.
Without any one of these resources (and I could name more that are needed), prisons would become so dangerous to the inmates, the guards, and society that they could not function without getting rid of the most dangerous criminals.
In our society, it is possible to have all of these things, and thus remove the need to put to death the worst criminals. But what about a 1500 BC semi-nomadic society that lived on the brink of starvation during any given year?
They had literally NONE of the resources I mentioned above. They had no way of keeping prisoners for life, or even for extended periods of time, without extreme danger to both the inmates within and society without.
For them, what type of legal system would save the most life possible? If you were God, working through human spokespersons, what principals and laws would you command to save and heal the most people possible? How would you transpose the divine desire to save and restore all of humanity into a specific, limited culture like that?
I think, if we were going to be completely honest, we would have to say that the legal system of the Torah is an admirable attempt at such a "transposition". Granted that much of it looks downright barbaric given our current social resources and level of "developmental revelation". But most of the Torah can be seen as an attempt to transpose divine redemptive justice into the mode of a limited, barbaric, bronze age society.
Even a law as blatantly barbaric as "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life" is lightyears ahead of a concept of unlimited retribution for a limited crime. For instance, it shows that Jacob's destruction of an ENTIRE city because of the rape of his daughter Dinah was ultimately an unjustified act of asymmetric retribution (cf. Gen 34). This principle of symmetric, limited retribution begins the process of helping people realize that the "punishment should fit the crime", which eventually leads to a concept that "the punishment should heal the criminal" in centuries to come.
Likewise, we can look at direct acts of divine violence, such as the flood of Noah (Gen 6-9, which I assume flooded the "world" of the ancient East, and not the "world" in a global sense) or look at divinely commanded the Canaanite genocide (cf. Joshua). In wrestling through these difficult texts, I think we may discover that these may have been a last ditch, stop-gap method to stop cyclical violence in societies that had no means of stopping or punishing violent acts. Perhaps the society of Canaan or the area that Noah lived in had become so lawless and chaotic that there simply were no resources left for God to use to stem the tide of violence. The description of both societies in Scripture would seem to indicate that they were locked in such systemic, chaotic, unredeemable violence. In Canaan in particular, the land was said to be full of "abominations" such as child sacrifice.
Perhaps then these may be seen as divine "mercy killings", or social "amputations" done to stop gangrene from killing the entire organism of society. This does NOT mean that such acts of divine violence ultimately brought about a righteous, lasting society. They did not. In fact, they bred more violence. But, perhaps, the violence they bred was substantially less than what would have happened otherwise.
This type of understanding could lead us to understand how these events were sad, last-ditch "transpositions" of divine mercy into the worst social situations imaginable. But, at the same time they clearly point us BEYOND these solutions, because they are shown to not work in the long run. Rather, they shock us, disgust us, and lead us to yearn for a solution of ultimate healing beyond all the killing.
Furthermore, given our 21st century resources, and our position in "developmental revelation", it makes it clear that such violent solutions are emphatically NOT AVAILABLE to us anymore. We can no longer kill anyone in God's Name as if we were justified in using divine violence. Perhaps the central message in all the Hebrew stories of divine violence is precisely that divine violence can never be justified as a lasting solution to any social problem. Without mercy beyond the violence to redeem the violence we are forever lost in destruction.
Even though our resources are vastly superior to 1500 BC or 0 AD, they are still limited. As a society and as individuals, we still find ourselves in positions where police or soldiers may still be forced to use violence to defend the defenseless, as a last ditch solution. Such an action is a "lesser evil" approach, in which protection of the innocent at the expense of criminals is a lesser evil than allowing criminals to keep victimizing the innocent.
Yet, this approach is no longer God's solution, but a lesser evil that falls far short of God's will for us. It is necessary as a transposition of divine mercy into our limited resources, but ultimately will destroy us if not met with a greater mercy. It is this greater mercy that we should strive for. In fact, we can hope for, and work for, a society where violence is no longer necessary at all, even in the "last ditch" sense. May we work for, and pray for, such a society where all the "swords are beaten into plowshares" (cf. Isa 2), because this is the clear trajectory of the developmental revelation of God in Christ.