Some more interesting content - from St. Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century Saint, concerning how to interpret difficult passages:
By all these diff erent modes of speech and names for intellectual discernment, the apostle is pointing us to a single form of instruction: one ought
not in every instance to remain with the letter (since the obvious sense of the
words oft en does us harm when it comes to the virtuous life), but one ought
to shift to an understanding that concerns the immaterial and intelligible, so
that corporeal ideas may be transposed into intellect and thought when the
fl eshly sense of the | words has been shaken off like dust (cf. Matt 10:14)
Th is moreover is why he says, “Th e letter kills, but the spirit gives life”
(2 Cor 3:6), for frequently the narrative, if we stop short at the mere events,
does not furnish us with models of the good life. How does it profi t the cause
of a virtuous life to hear that the prophet Hosea got himself a child by sexual
malfeasance (Hos 1:2) and that Isaiah went in to the prophetess (Isa 8:3),if one stops short at the literal sense? Or what do the stories about David,
in which adultery and murder have agreed together in a single crime (cf.
2 Kgdms 11), contribute to the virtuous life? But if an account is found that
gives an incontestable indication of how these events fi t into the history of salvation, then the word of the apostle will be shown to be true: “Th e letter kills”
(for it contains examples of evildoing), “but the Spirit gives life” (for it transposes a meaning that is incongruous and discordant into a more divine sense).
We know too that when, in the likeness and form of a human being
(Phil 2:7), the Word who is worshiped by the whole creation transmitted
the divine mysteries through the medium of fl esh, it was in the following
manner | that he unveiled for us the thoughts contained in the law. He says
that he and his Father are the two witnesses whose testimony is true (John
8:18; cf. Deut 19:15), and the brazen serpent that was lift ed up high and was
the people’s remedy against deadly stings he refers to the dispensation that
took place for our sake on the cross (John 3:14). Also he exercises the wits of
his own holy disciples by the veiled and hidden things he speaks in parables,
in similitudes, in dark sayings, in aphorisms—things set forth in the form of
In private, he would give interpretations of these and
explain to them what was obscure, but on occasion, when they did not grasp
the meaning of his words, he would blame them for being slow to understand and slack in intelligence. For when he commanded them to beware of
the leaven of the Pharisees, and they in their small-minded way looked to
their food pouches, in which they had failed to bring a supply of bread, he
reprimanded them for failing to grasp that | the word “leaven” is a reference
to teaching (Matt 16:5–12). Again, when the disciples were setting a meal
before him, he responded, “I have food to eat of which you do not know”
(John 4:32), and since they supposed that he was speaking of corporeal food
that had been brought him from elsewhere, he explained his statement by
saying that the food that is proper and appropriate for him is to fulfi ll the
salutary [divine] will
PDF available at the link.
Terrific reddit post from an amateur explaining some of the early Church father's positions on some of the elements in the Old Testament:
The conquest passages are the passages that speak about the Israelites conquering the land. Many of these war narratives cause ethical and moral controversy for obvious reasons. In the Christian spiritual tradition these narratives are read symbolically. Similar to the Muslim traditions view that the concept of Jihad is an internal struggle, the conquest passages are read symbolically as a struggle to conquer sin and wickedness. These are examples.
(i)The destruction of the 7 nations
In Deuteronomy 7 and 20 it states there are 7 nations in the land. You are to go and put "the ban" on those 7 nations. Meaning you are to "destroy" or "annihilate" them.
St John Cassian one of the Church Fathers in his work called the "Conferences"(Conference 5) he views the 7 nations as symbolising the deadly sins. The goal of the of the spiritual life is to conquer these vices and temptation. Murder is a deadly sin. We have to conquer the vice and temptation to murder. Greed and covetousness is a deadly sin. We have to conquer those vices as well.
(ii)The Midianite War(Numbers 31)
In Numbers 31 it speaks of how Moses went to war against Midian and in the aftermath the Israelites took many spoils and captives after their military campaign. Origen of Alexandria in his commentaries on the Old Testament read the taking of spoils and captives in a symbolic light
In his Homilies on the Book of Numbers Origen reads the Midianite war as symbolising the spiritual struggle. In Church doctrine Christians are part of what's called the "church militant"(soldiers of Christ). Our job to to engage in spiritual warfare for the sake of righteousness. How do we do that? Origen states "But they fight by means of prayers and fasts, justice and piety, gentleness, chastity and all the virtues of self-control, as if they were armed with the weapons of war."(Homily 25).
When people see us struggling for righteousness through the weapons of justice and piety they become "captives" and "prisoners" to the Gospel and the Word of God because they are "captivated" by the example of Christians who live a life dedicated to justice and righteousness. These people that are "captivated" by these virtues are the "spoils" of those who struggle for virtue and justice in this life.
Just like other passages Origen of Alexandria read the conquest accounts in Joshua symbolically, and you see this particularly in his homilies on the Battle of Jericho. The walls of Jericho for Origen symbolised the walls of hatred in the human heart, and the city itself symbolised malice. So the destruction of Jericho symbolises the destruction of malice and hatred in the human heart.
Taking this one step further, Christ stated in the New Testament Jesus says the "kingdom of God is inside of you"(Luke 17:21). For Origen, Israel's conquest of Jericho symbolise the sovereignty of sin being replaced with the sovereignty of the Kingdom of God in the human heart.
(iv)The destruction of the "child and the infant".
In the conquest accounts this language is often times used and it generates a lot of controversy. St Gregory of Nyssa in work "The Life of Moses" when commenting on the Ten plagues states "The infant lifts his eyes only to see his mother, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father's wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness?_Life of Moses(Book II, par. 91).
Gregory answering this question he posses reads this symbolically stating "The teaching is this: When through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginning of evil. For when he slays the beginning, he destroys at the same time what follows after it. The Lord teaches the same thing in the Gospel, all but explictly calling on us to kill the firstborn of the Egyptian evils when he commands us to abolish lust and anger and to have no more fear of the stain of adultery or the guilt of murder. Neither of these things would develop itself, but anger produces murder and lust produces adultery. Since the producer of evil gives birth to lust before adultery and anger before murder, in destroying the firstborn he certainly kills along with it the offspring which follows"_Life of Moses(Book II, par. 92-94)
What Gregory is saying here is that is that a sin like anger(in it's malicious form) is essentially murder in it's infancy, so we have to destroy the temptation towards murderous intent while it's still in its infancy before it grows or gives birth to something else. And this applies to all sins and wickedness on both a personal and social level. So Nazism was one of the worst forms wickedness in the world, but when Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in 1923 it was still in it's infancy. If the world had destroyed the ideology of Nazism in it's infancy there would be no WWII and Holocaust.
These are all examples of how the passages speaking about the Biblical conquest are read symbolically. Now why does the symbolic and allegorical reading of the text have any validity in a Christian context? The reasons are the following:
1)Reading the Bible allegorically is a Biblical tradition.
The allegorical interpretation of the text isn't a modern development. It isn't something newly developed by the whims of people in 2020 reading the Bible however they want. This is something a part of the tradition of the Church that goes back to the Bible itself.
St Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Galatians uses the stories of Hagar and Sarah. In Galatians 4 he reads the narrative allegorically as a distinction between the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem as well as symbolising the two covenants
Jesus in his dispute with the religious authorities over the Resurrection reads the verse from the Hebrew Bible that says "God of the living not the dead" symbolically as an argument for the Resurrection(Mark 12:27)
St Paul the Apostle in 2 Corinthians speaks about the difference between the "spirit" and "letter" of the text(2 Corinthians 3:6). Origen read that as an injunction that the spirit of the text is much more important than the letter of the text.
2)The Church tradition authorises an allegorical reading.
As I presented in my arguments the Church Fathers read these conquest accounts symbolically. You see it in the writings of Origen of Alexandria(Homilies on Numbers and Joshua). You see it with St Gregory of Nyssa in his commentary on the Life of Moses. St John Cassian as well. St Isidore of Seville also presents this interpretation as well as Pope St Gregory the Great in his commentary on the Book of Job.
The authority of the Church to interpret the text and Christian doctrine goes back to the Bible itself. St Paul states that the Church is the "pillar and foundation of the truth"(1 Timothy 3:15). He also states we are to "hold fast to the traditions that you were taught whether by word of mouth or by letter"(2 Thessalonians 2:15). Jesus himself recognises this authority stating "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven"(Matthew 18:18) and we see the Church excercising it's authority on scriptural interpretation when it came to the question of circumcision(Acts 15).
The Church Fathers and Church leaders are the ones who canonised the text in the first place, so the interpretation of those who canonised the text has massive weight. Add to that the fact that for those that come out of a High Church tradition(Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican) the sacred text and sacred tradition have the same weight of authority when it comes to revelation.
3)It is consistent with Christian spirituality
This reading of understanding the conquest as representing the struggle against sin and temptation is consistent with the Biblical understanding of doing battle against sin. The Apostle Paul speaks about how we are to "put to death" passions like fornication, evil desire, greed, etc(Colossians 3:5)
St Paul also uses military rhetoric in a symbolic manner when speaking of the struggle against wickedness. He speaks of how our sword is the word and our helmet is salvation(Ephesians 6:11-18) and how "faith and love" are our weapons(1 Thessalonians 5:8). This symbolic use of military metaphors would be expand by thinkers like Origen when it comes to the allegorical reading of the conquest
So for all of the reasons above I believe that the conquest passages are meant to be read symbolically and that the symbolic interpretation makes sense.
Anglicanpolitics123's post can be found at the link below.
I discovered this while searching for more resources on St. Gregory of Nyssa's rejection of the story of the Midianite genocide.
From St. Neilos the Ascetic
The story of Ish-bosheth also teaches us not to be over-anxious about bodily things, and not to rely on the senses to protect us. He was a king who went to rest in his chamber, leaving a woman as door-keeper. When the men of Rechab came, they found her dozing off as she was winnowing wheat; so, escaping her notice, they slipped in and slew Ish-bosheth while he was asleep (cf 2 Sam. 4:5-8). Now when bodily concerns predominate, everything in man is asleep: the intellect, the soul and the senses. For the woman at the door winnowing wheat indicates the state of one whose reason is closely absorbed in physical things and trying with persistent efforts to purify them. It is clear that this story in Scripture should not be taken literally. For how could a king have a woman as doorkeeper, when he ought properly to be guarded by a troop of soldiers, and to have round him a large body of attendants? Or how could he be so poor as to use her to winnow the wheat? But improbable details are often included in a story because of the deeper truth they signify. Thus the intellect in each of us resides within like a king, while the reason acts as door-keeper of the senses. When the reason occupies itself with bodily things - and to winnow wheat is something bodily - the enemy without difficulty slips past unnoticed and slays the intellect. This is why Abraham did not entrust the guarding of the door to a woman, knowing that the senses are easily deceived; for they take pleasure in the sight of sensory things, and so divide the intellect and persuade it to share in sensual delights, although this is clearly dangerous. But Abraham himself sat by the door (cf. Gen. 18:1), allowing free entry to divine thoughts, while barring the way to worldly cares.
Important find for Biblical archaeology - Mazar's work is often disputed but this is wild:
A 3,000-year-old defensive wall possibly built by King Solomon has been unearthed in Jerusalem, according to the Israeli archaeologist who led the excavation. The discovery appears to validate a Bible passage, she says.
The tenth-century B.C. wall is 230 feet (70 meters) long and about 6 meters (20 feet) tall. It stands along what was then the edge of Jerusalem—between the Temple Mount, still Jerusalem's paramount landmark, and the ancient City of David, today a modern-day Arab neighborhood called Silwan.
The stone barrier is part of a defensive complex that includes a gatehouse, an adjacent building, and a guard tower, which has been only partially excavated, according to Eilat Mazar, who led the dig for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Over the years, the structures have been partially demolished—their building materials scavenged for later structures—and what remained was buried under rubble, Mazar said.
Elsewhere I was challenged on the topic of how to defend the canonicity of the Bible - my response was this:
The Gospels & Epistles were orally preserved initially, and they are subsequently backed up by fragments that can date as far back as the 1st century AD. Probably at the churches of Jerusalem and other major centers of Christianity like Antioch, they already had the full Gospels and many epistles.
Because Christianity began spreading immediately from the time of Christ's death, with all of the Apostles dispersing throughout the region and far beyond, and St. Paul shortly thereafter doing his great trips through Asia minor, Greece, and Rome, we also run into the great defense against the heretics: heresies are localized distortions of Christian concepts with the exception of gnostics which were widespread since their context was often more from a theological big picture than some specific text disputing the Gospels.
So it was easy to recognize which texts were too localized; also the texts which have strange content that doesn't jive with the message at all are dismissable...
As far as the canonized Old Testament goes, there are rich disputes about how they should be structured, how they should be approached and interpreted, and I do not even think it is 100% essential to view these things as inerrant, but rather to believe them as God breathed and then recorded by man...
I read Israel Finklestein's Bile Unearthed, which was the big, scary text which proposed a radical new interpretation where the Old City of David couldn't have existed that early based on archaeological evidence..
Finklestein does a great job outlining how much of the Old Testament narrative is demonstratably true, so much so that it is quite anomalous as far as ancient texts go which are often full of lies and embellishment. He suggested the only embellishment is really the timeline, and talked about how there is no evidence for Jerusalem having been a major city as far back as we have to put King David. Yet, in 2010, Eilat Mazar famously found what has been identified as a thousand year old, large wall that completely changes the concept that Jeruaslem was some unremarkable hill town and not an important place as the Bible says it is....
Some good text to preserve and parse out:
Then you have that wonderful statement in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, 14:14, where the Lord through Moses says to the people, “Listen, have faith, stand firm, be quiet, be still, I will fight for you. I will fight for you, and this very day, you will see the Egyptians perish before your very eyes. I will save you. I will rescue you. I will deliver you.” And in the Old Testament, that meant a violent act of salvation in, literally, killing the enemies. And God is killing the enemies all the time in the Old Testament. That’s what he’s doing day and night, so to speak, and some people are scandalized by it, but the Bible reader, in the light of Jesus Christ, would say, “What was God to do? How else was he going to proceed? He’s dealing with a violent world where people are killing each other all the time, and in the names of their gods they’re killing each other,” and so on.
Now, in the Passover exodus story, eight times you have that expression with these plagues that God says, “I am doing this that you may know that I am God, that you may know that I am your God, that the nations and the Egyptians may know that I reign over all creation, and that you may know that I am the only God that there is.” So the violence in the Old Testament and the violence of God himself against his enemies—because those people who are enemies of Israel, they are enemies of him—here we should see that the warfare in the Old Testament is not so much, so to speak, a warfare between peoples. It’s a warfare, actually, between gods. It’s the one true and living God fighting against all the false gods and all those who are evilly inspired into idolatry by those false gods, by the powers of evil, by the demons.
It is interesting to think of it in those terms, but it still has potentially the issue of using humans as pawns.
And by the way, I mentioned in a podcast before, I made a mistake; I misspoke definitely, for sure, when I claimed that however sinful people might be, the righteous of the Old Testament are considered righteous because of their faith, because they believed in God. So many of them did many immoral things. They did murder, they did adultery like David, but they never, ever apostatized against the true God. And the mistake that I made is that I included Solomon in that number. Well, Solomon is never included in that number because at the end of Solomon’s life he did apostatize. Besides having 300 wives and 700 concubines, he was also worshiping the Baalim and the Asterith, and he was worshiping the gods of all those women who led him into sexual impurity and lewdness and unchastity and just carnality. So Solomon is not among the marvels of the Old Testament, because he did not keep faith to the end. And sometimes I think we should never put a fresco of Solomon in any of our churches.
By the way, in the letter to the Hebrews, when they list those who were faithful to God in the Old Covenant, and they may have been sinful in their moral behavior, but they never apostatized against God, Solomon is never included in that number. Pay attention in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the letter to the Hebrews; read about who are listed as righteous there. They are the ones who never apostatized.
I had no idea about this, to be honest.
So God finds people who can believe in him, and believe in him as the one, true, and only God, and he does all these violent acts that they may know, that you may know that I am God. And that is a theme that persists through the entire Hebrew Scripture. And then it even comes into the New Testament that this God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses raises his Son, Jesus, from the dead, who is the fulfillment of that entire history, that we might know that he is God. The ultimate—how can you say?—proof of God’s action, that we may know that he is God, is when he vindicates his own Son who has been rejected, killed and murdered, and has become the victim of murder, violence of all his enemies, in order to destroy his enemies by dying himself and not by killing them but by dying for them and with them.
It ultimately has to come back to this, right: God dying for all the people of all the lands, including those who had died in previous wars, going into Hades and liberating them.
He died on the cross for the very people that also had put him there.
There’s a great Protestant thinker, a theologian named Karl Bart, who said, “Until God can establish his power over the false gods, until he can show that he can kill and make alive, that the can cast down, that he can raise up, and that he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, then that God cannot really show mercy.” Because if he would show mercy without showing his power, people would think that he didn’t have the power, and that’s certainly a teaching of the Old Testament. God has to establish his power, and the way you establish your power is by killing your enemies. Sadly, that’s the truth.
This is a very interesting observation: God in the Old Testament is proving himself to the people who are scared and fragile, just like how people are now.
Now, if that were the last word, then we would really have a scandal on our hands, but for Christianity that is not the last word, as we will see in a second and as we already know, I hope. In Jesus Christ, you do not have that any more. You have a radical reversal of God’s activity, because once he has established his power, then he can send his Son to show mercy and to show what the power of God really is, which is the power of truth, the power of righteousness, the power of love, which is absolutely, fully, completely, and totally revealed in the Cross of Christ and in the crucified Messiah.
But in the Old Testament, you have God doing these acts so that they would know that he is God. Here I would recommend to you as an exercise: read the Prophet Ezekiel. If you read the Prophet Ezekiel and all that is going on there, you will see that it says in Ezekiel over 65 times—I counted them—where God says, “I am against you and I will do these mighty acts and I will destroy not only your enemies: I will destroy you, and I will destroy Jerusalem”—how about that?—“so that you may know that I am God.”
Now here we’ve got to see something very important: that the violence of God in the Old Covenant is not just against the enemies of Israel and the enemies of God. It’s not simply against those people whose names are listed: the Canaanites, the Perusites, the Moabites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Hagorites. There’s all these names of all these people in Canaan that God has to actually destroy so that he could keep his soteriological, his saving activities in the world alive and keep his own name holy and his own name glorified over and against all the demonic powers that are being worshiped as gods, all those idols.
So this is what you have there, but in Ezekiel and in Jeremiah, in Isaiah, you have a new thing there, God doing a new thing. What’s he doing? Well, he is saying to his own people now, “You are unrighteous. You are unfaithful. You are sinful. You are idolaters. And I’ll show you what you’re going to get, too.” And then he razes Jerusalem to the ground, and he actually calls Nebuchadnezzar… he calls him, “My christ, my anointed.” He calls Nebuchadnezzar, the most wicked king of all the earth, who comes in the year—what is it? the sixth century before Christ—586 BCE, before the Common Era, before Christ—you have the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.
And then the Persians defeat the Babylonians, Cyrus comes in, and he’s now called God’s anointed and God’s christ, to rebuilt the temple. But by the time you get to Darius, the temple’s still not rebuilt; then in the time of Haggai and Ezra and Nehemiah and Zachariah, you have the second temple being rebuilt. But then that temple itself is going to get destroyed after Jesus is crucified in the year 70, never to be rebuilt again. But the most amazing thing is that God says to his own people in the Old Testament Scripture, “I am against you. I am against you, because you are trusting in horses. You think you can manipulate me. You think that because I told you you are my people that you can do whatever you want and you can be unrighteous and sinful and break that Law and not keep the commandments and not keep the Sabbath or anything else.”
So God has to show his righteousness, and sometimes in the Bible it’s pretty awesome how he does it. There’s that terrible story of that guy, Uzzah, who—they’re carrying the Ark of the Covenant when they’re going into Cana, and he stumbles and trips and he falls against the ark and touches it, and he drops dead. Well, maybe he had a heart attack because he was so scared that he touched the holy ark, but of course in the Hebrew mind, it said: “God killed him.” Then you have that terrible story of the guy collecting sticks on the Sabbath day, and God says, “Stone him to death.” Well, God has to show that power, and that’s the kind of world he was dealing with; those are the kind of people he was dealing with, the kind of men he was dealing with, and this is not a joke.
The problem with this is that it cannot actually be very persuasive in the eyes of nonbelievers.
This is real business, and we can’t flash back our post-Christian, post-Enlightenment, humanistic, secularly humanistic ethics back into the old days. And of course, the one thing, as I mentioned already on the radio about the humanistic ethics is that they say it doesn’t really matter who God is, and there’s no worship at all. There’s no one to give thanks and glory and honor and worship to at all. You’re just supposed to be a nice person and get what you want and share the greed, and, as I said, our modern time is almost a radical opposite of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was for God to establish his divinity and to be worshiped and to receive glory and honor, because that’s where human beings find life and salvation and that’s where they are not becoming overcome by the powers of passion and sin and death and destruction itself. And of course, in the Scripture the last enemy that God has to destroy is death itself, and he does that on the Cross through the death of his Son, Jesus the Messiah.
It is absolutely the case that we take these value systems for granted.
I also like where he's going with this --
So in Isaiah, that 26th chapter where you find the canticle, you have those words there that—terrifying words—where it says: If God would show favor and kindness to wicked people, they don’t repent; they just become worse. He says if favor is shown to the wicked he does not learn righteousness. In the land of uprightness, he deals perversely. He does not recognize the majesty of the Lord. Here one of the accusations of God against his people is: they think that they can do with him whatever they want, and they think that they’re invincible, and they think that it is by their horses and their powers that they’re going to keep themselves alive, and they make deals with Egyptians and Assyrians and Persians and God-knows-what. Well, God is working with all of that, but at the same time, he keeps telling them: “I am your God. I will fight for you. Don’t put your trust in princes and sons of men. Don’t think horses are going to save you.” And then when they think it too much, he says, “Okay, I’ll show you,” and then he allows the enemies to just raze Jerusalem itself and the holy temple right to the ground, and that happens a couple of times in history. It gets razed, it gets rebuilt, and it gets razed to the ground again, never to be rebuilt again, because the raised temple of God now is the body of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.
But it also says in that canticle in the Septuagint version—this is not in the Hebrew version—you have that line that we sing in church during Lent: [prosthes kaka] render evil unto them, O God, render evils unto them, even to the proud ones of the earth. And the Holy Fathers teach us that God’s only tool against unrighteousness are evils. God has to show punishment, God has to chastise, God has to show his anger, otherwise people don’t repent, and if they’re blessed, they think the blessings are due to them, that they have the right to them, that they’re not gifts and graces of God, which is the ultimate blasphemy against God. Who are you, creature?
This reminds me of a conversation that I had with another person concerning issues of man at his basic level... Man, at his root, is not a pure, good, undefiled being that is free from corruption. We read that into it after the fact, based on what we have in modernity, and the atheist certainly is eager to interpret man as this whenever possible because it makes God's wrath in the Old Testament unjustifiable.
But that is not how man really is - and it takes fallen times for people to learn the real identity of God.
Now, there is one other thing that should be mentioned, and that is: in the Old Testament, you also have violence and killing done as a kind of vindication by human beings against evils done to them. Like, for example here, one of the great examples I think would be, again if you just have it right in the first book of the Bible, in Genesis 34, when Simon and Levi kill Shechem and they kill all the males in the land and they plunder the whole city and they take all the women and the children and everything because Shechem has violated their sister Dinah. So when Dinah is raped and taken by Shechem and [seduced] and plundered, [her] brothers vindicate this action of Shechem by killing him, including all his people and killing all his place and plundering his city, so you have the evils that are done as vindication: evil given for evil. You return the evils by evils in order to vindicate your righteousness against the unrighteousness of those who harmed you. So you find all of this in the Scriptures, all this kind of evil and murder and going-on, and it’s there all the time.
Now, in the psalms, which are, of course, absolutely necessary to be read also… I once tried to count how many times it speaks about enemies, adversaries, and putting them to shame and overcoming them and destroying them that you find in the psalter. I had to give up, because it is so darn filled with that that you can’t even add how many times it’s there. Read the psalter. It’s all about the victory of God over his enemies. It’s always the victory of God on behalf of the poor and the needy and the lowly and the rejected. It’s all about God defending the widows and orphans by punishing and destroying and ultimately showing his power against the unrighteous, the sinful, the enemy, the idolater, the apostate.
Here in the psalms, we believers, we identify the Lord in all of the psalms with Jesus Christ himself, but we also identify all the victims in the psalms, all the poor, the needy, the righteous who are vindicated, who are the victims of violence, we also identify them with Jesus. And then we try to identify ourselves with the righteous, and we pray to be made righteous. We ask God to let us be upright, to keep the commandments. We say we want to keep those commandments, but at the same time, we know in the psalter that we are sinners ourselves, that we deserve the wrath and the anger of God upon us because of our sins.
It would be interesting to think of these calls for us to be humble and broken in spirit as also very literal calls for us to be as the widow, as the orphan, as the dejected from the earth, because these are the ones who God will fight for. Of course, it is foolish to literally throw away yourself into such a state, abandoning the comforts that you have to invite such conflict is to tempt God, so at no point are we to "assume the position" of victim. Such opportunities will present themselves naturally, with time...
But the point is to become that in spirit.
More importantly, this is absolutely an important part - the resolution of all of this is found in the Old Testament:
But now let’s end up today with the New Testament, because what does the New Testament say? What does the final covenant of God say? What does God speak through his final Word incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth? What is the word of the Cross? What is the Gospel of God in Christ Jesus? And very simply put, to sum it up simply, it is this: that we are all sinners, but God shows mercy on all. God triumphs over all his enemies, and all his enemies are sin and evil and demons and demonic people. Those are God’s enemies, and those enemies will be destroyed. In the same way that the Ark of the Covenant, when it was brought into battle, in the book of Numbers, for example, the people would sing, “Let God arise. Let his enemies be scattered. Let those who hate him flee from before his face.” That’s Numbers 11, and that’s Psalm 68. That will become, for Orthodox Christians, the Paschal Psalm. That’ll be the psalm of the Resurrection of Christ, when God finally destroys all his enemies.
Another tremendous excerpt:
But one thing is for certain: Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for Sodom and Gomorrah. Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for everyone that Yahweh killed in the Old Testament. Everyone that was killed in the Old Testament in any way, whether it was Jephthah’s daughter who had to be sacrificed because he made a vow, whether it’s that concubine who was chopped up into twelve parts and sent through Israel, whether it’s the ravishing of the young maidens outside Sodom and Gomorrah and in other places in the Bible, whether it’s Cain killing Abel, whatever it is—all those murders, all [that] violence—that is all subsumed in the flesh of Christ on the Cross, and he endures it all. And it is God Almighty that is in human flesh that’s enduring it in order to have mercy on all.
Now here I would say this very clearly: if God did not so love the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that those who believe in him would not perish, and if he did not give the opportunity for everyone to repent, and if the final judgment, when the Lord appears in glory, is not the moment of truth when anyone can finally repent of all their ignorances and their evils, their passions and their crimes, and if God did not die for everyone and shed his blood for everyone without exception, then we would have real problems with the murders of the Old Testament. All that violence would be nothing but scandalous violence. But the scandal for Christians, the scandal of the Cross replaces, so to speak, heals all the violence of men, even the violence of God himself that he had to perpetrate in the Old Testament in order for his plan to be completed for the Messiah to come.
Another very vital piece is covered here - I actually had only previously been familiar with St. Maximus the Confessor's take on this:
And that’s how the ancient Christians read the Old Testament, and that’s why they read it often allegorically, symbolically. They saw that fighting in the Old Testament as the warfare between God’s graciousness and goodness against idolatry and fornication and [un]chastity and blasphemy and sin and evil and murder and all the violations of the commandments of God.
And here it’s very important: Christians read the psalms that way. Take, for example, the psalm that says about the Babylonians, “Blessed are they who take your little ones and smash them on the rocks.” St. Nilus of Sinai, St. Benedict of Nursia, all the holy Fathers say that we have to interpret that spiritually, allegorically. Yeah, God did say you have to bash those babies on the rocks, you have to kill the women and the children, because if they grow up and become powerful, they’re going to kill you and then it’s going to be the end of the story and evil is going to triumph, and God cannot let evil triumph, so he has to kill the evil-doers—but that’s not the final word. The final word is that he gets killed for the sake of the forgiveness of the evil-doers. That’s the Christian faith.
And the Christian transforms into something else:
So when, in the final covenant of God with his people in Christ, Christians are no longer killers, they are those who get killed—the martyr and the confessor and the meek and gentle and the non-violent and the peaceful—those are the quintessential victors in Christ. As the Apocalypse puts it, Christians fight the Lamb’s war, and the Lamb’s war is against sin, including the sin that’s in your own heart, in your own mind, in your own flesh, in your own body. That’s what Christ has to destroy ultimately, but you’ve got to get Christ into the world. You’ve got to get Mary into the world so there’s a woman capable of giving birth to God in the flesh.
This next part really brings it home as to the source of destruction:
And the only way God can do it is the way he did it, and the way he did it is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament. The way God did it is recorded in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, and he did it in a violent way. As Jesus said, “From the beginning until John the Baptist, the kingdom of God is taken by violence, and the violent take it by force.” But there’s some sense in which the violence of God is now the violence of the Lamb. It’s the violence of non-violence. It’s the violence of martyria, of witness. It’s the violence of suffering. We know Jesus said that. For example, when the apostles wanted to call fire down on Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum, whatever, all those cities that did not accept Jesus, Jesus says, “No.” He says, “This is over now. The final new covenant is here. I’m here in order to die, not to kill.”
Now, will God kill and destroy his enemies, ultimately, in the coming kingdom? Well, the ancient Christian scriptural answer is no. He will have mercy on everybody. But still, people may not accept that mercy, and then God’s love and his truth and his righteousness and his blood will torment them, and they will be tormented forever and ever if they blaspheme the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Some people think that nobody can do that; other people—and it seems to be the scriptural teaching—no. The demons and the evil people who love the demons and hate God, they will suffer from the mercy of God forever, and that’s the fire of hell. But God is no longer destroying. God is no longer destroying. People are destroying themselves by opposing the righteousness of God.
The violence of non-violence seems like a great reference to the pacifism conundrum: [i]when we stay our hands from violence, it occasionally allows an orgy of violence, which produces its own sense of injustice.
But this is ultimately what man brings onto himself.
Let's leave the conclusion to Fr. Thomas Hopko himself:
The Christian Gospel is that God is victorious over his enemies, ultimately, finally, perfectly, totally, and once and for all, but the weapon of God is the Cross, and God is victorious by dying. He is victorious by being killed, and that’s the scandal and that’s the radical newness of Christianity. As it was said in the book of Acts, the Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus were saying about the preaching of the apostles, “These men are turning the world upside down.” And in Christ everything is turned upside down.
So we read about the violence and the murder and the killing and the violence of God and the violence of people and the sinful violence and the unrighteous violence, but then the necessary violence that is necessary for God’s plan to be completed, we read about all this in the Old Testament. We see it fulfilled in the non-violent Christ, who as a Lamb is led to the slaughter and opens not his mouth, who is denied justice, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and who dies for all those for all those who have died in any way, and he dies even for those whom God himself has killed in the Old Testament, because the final word does not belong to death. The final word does not belong to destruction. The final word belongs to mercy and forgiveness. The final word belongs to resurrection and life. The final word belongs to the peace of God, not the violence of God.
But that peace itself is very violent for people who do not want it, it produces violence, because as Isaiah said, peace and gifts and favor and grace shown to the wicked does not always produce repentance; it could make people even worse and more violent and more hating and more crazy and more mad. Yeah, that’s possible.
And the delusions can come, as Christ said, “And the day will come when people will even be murdering each other and think they’re doing it in the name of Christ crucified.” Can you imagine that they’re doing it in the name of God? Or the time can go on as if Christ has not come, and then, of course, there can be delusion. People can kill in the name of God, but it’s not God at all that they’re killing in the name of. And in the Old Testament, those who had to kill in the name of God, it had better have been in the name of God, for the sake of God’s plan, with great sorrow and repentance on their own part, or else they were in tremendous trouble.
So this is how we understand the violence in the Bible. The Old Testament is prefigurative, preparatory, and pedagogic to Christ. It does involve violence and murder and warfare, but that warfare is a prefiguration of the ultimate warfare of God on the Cross in Christ. He is the Iēsus Christos Nika; he is the Victor. And here is the radical newness of the New Testament.
And that was so new that some people thought that the New Testament God was not even the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses; they thought it was a different God, but we Christians say, “Oh, no, no, no. It’s not; it’s the same God. It’s the same God.” It is. Moses spoke about Christ. Isaiah spoke about Christ. All the events of the Old Testament prefigure Christ. All the warfare and the victories of Yahweh over his enemies in the Old Testament prefigure the victory of Christ on the Cross. That’s how Christians read and understand the violence, the killing, the murder that we find in the Scriptures, particularly those of the Old Testament.
Now one last little thought: This goes on even in the Christian era, and the shame will be for Christians that they will kill in the name of Christ. The shame of Christians is that they will become as if they had the power to invoke God and use God for the destruction of their enemies. Even the Theotokos will be praised as a victorious leader who smashes barbarians or something. This is an apostasy in its own way, and it’s a million times worse than what we find in the Old Testament.
So let’s think about these things, but let’s know for sure that all that violence of old was necessary to produce the Christ, and then the Christ comes and takes the violence upon himself and forgives everyone everything. And that’s the teaching of the Gospel. And the victory of God ultimately is one when his Son dies the most violent, degrading, horrible death on the Cross. So for Christians, we preach Christ crucified, scandal to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but the wisdom and the power, the ultimate wisdom and the ultimate power, of God Almighty himself.
The Holy Orthodox Church is the repository of the divinely revealed Truth in all its fullness and fidelity to apostolic Tradition. Hence, he who leaves the Church, who intentionally and consciously falls away from it, joins the ranks of its opponents and becomes a renegade as regards apostolic Tradition. The Church dreadfully anathematized such renegades, in accordance with the words of the Saviour Himself (Matt. 18:17) and of the Apostle Paul (Gal. 1:8-9), threatening them with e ternal damnation and calling them to return to the Orthodox fold. It is self evident, however, that sincere Christians who are Roman Catholics, or Lutherans, or members, of other non-Orthodox confessions, cannot be termed renegades or heretics—i.e. those who knowingly pervert the truth...* They have been born and raised and are living according to the creed which they have inherited, just as do the majority of you who are Orthodox; in their lives there has not been a moment of personal and conscious renunciation of Orthodoxy. The Lord, "Who will have all men to be saved" (I Tim. 2:4) and "Who enlightens every man born into the world" (Jn. 1.43), undoubtedly is leading them also towards salvation In His own way.
With reference to the above question, it is particularly instructive to recall the answer once given to an inquirer by the Blessed Theophan the Recluse. The blessed one replied more or less thus: "You ask, will the heterodox be saved... Why do you worry about them? They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins... I will tell you one thing, however: should you, being Orthodox and possessing the Truth in its fullness, betray Orthodoxy, and enter a different faith, you will lose your soul forever."
We believe the foregoing answer by the saintly ascetic to be the best that can be given in this matter.
St. Maximos the Confessor interpreted the Psalm 137:9 lines as being about uprooting forbidden desires.
Every assent in thought to some forbidden desire, that is, every submission to self-indulgence, is a sin for a monk. For first the thought begins to darken the intellect through the passable aspect of the soul, and then the soul submits to the pleasure, not holding out in the fight. This is what is called assent, which - as has been said - is a sin. When assent persists it stimulates the passion in question. Then little by little it leads to the actual committing of the sin. This is why the prophet calls blessed those who dash the children of Babylon against the stones (cf Ps. 137: 9). People with understanding and discretion will know what is meant.
Bishop of Diokleia Kallistos; St. Makarios of Corinth. The Philokalia . Kindle Edition.
"We do not encounter only a violent God in the Book of Psalms, but also a
violent psalmist. In Psalm 137 the psalmist calls out “Blessed is the person who
will take and dash your infants against the rocks”. Chrysostom is clearly not
comfortable with curses and requests for revenge in the Book of Psalms. He
argues that these words did not come from the psalmist himself.15 He says that
the psalmist merely describes the feelings of the captives in exile! Chrysostom
then reminds his congregation that the New Testament teaches us differently:
namely that we should give food and drink to our enemies and that we should
even pray for those who abuse us (cf. Luke 6:28). By putting the pleas for
revenge in the mouths of the captives, rather than in the mouth of the psalmist,
Chrysostom argues that there is no conflict between the message of the Old and
the New Testament. It was customary for the ancient exegetes to always attempt
to harmonize the message of the Scriptures, since they believed that Scripture
Interesting concerning St. John Chrysostom and Psalm 137.