In this post I want to take a look at Genesis 5-9. I realise we are not proceeding at a rapid pace through the Scriptures, but don't worry, things will pick up a little. It's important to spend this time in Genesis to get a grasp of some foundational passages. For my own part, I'd really like to skip ahead and talk about how the New Testament interacts with all this, but we'll get there.
Genesis 6 commences the account of the Flood. In Gen 6:5 we are told that God looks upon the wickedness of humanity, and in Gen 6:6 (the difficult verse) expresses regret at his having created humanity. Gen 6:9-10 then seems to recommence the account, with Gen 6:9 and Noah's line. Gen 6:11, 13 explicitly links the corruption of the earth with violence. Against the emerging narrative threads of Genesis 1-6, Cain's lineage through Enoch and to Lamech has become a self-exaltant violent race of men. Noah alone is marked out against the wickedness and violence of the rest of humanity.
The Flood then, comes as an act of definitive judgement upon humanity and their violence. God's violence (in bringing death) is here very much a response to human violence, which is being condemned.
Come forward then to Gen 9:4-7. Post-Flood, God deals with Noah and establishes a covenant agreement that will shape human life in the new world. Dogmatically speaking, God has delivered Noah and his family, but nothing has changed in their nature or their circumstance, to prevent the world continuing as it had been. The permission of carnivorous diet is conditioned by the remembrance that life is God's gift (Gen 9:4), which leads into a consideration of the value of human life. The principle is this: a human life is worth a human life. The application means that violence is restrained by judicial execution. Whether Gen 9:6 is read as a legislative enactment, or a divine regulative principle, God is going to answer the taking of human life with the taking of another human life. This both emphasises the extreme value of human life (Gen 9:6, “for God made man in his own image”), and limits the cycle of violent retribution (it is a life for a life, not Lamech's seventy-seven (Gen 4:24); it is not life, for life, for life. The death of one ends the chain of retribution.
I certainly take Gen 9:6 as granting a principal of capital punishment to duly constituted authorities. The rest of the Pentateuch will work that out in Israelite practice. Interesting things happen in the NT. Let me suggest three points on this by way of aside:
1.Christians do well to recognise legitimate state authority (Rom 13), and submit to capital punishment.
2.The mercy of the cross should move Christians to political action to remove capital punishments. That means that capital punishment is permitted to civil authorities, but not required of them.
3.Insofar as the people of God are the new covenant community, the ultimate penalty for Christian communities is excommunication, the symbolic act of 'spiritual death', which is all the power permitted us, and yet far more dire than the killing of the body.
It should be becoming apparent how judgement is my primary category for understanding violence so far. Of God, it is thus a righteous judgement. Of humanity, it is a derivative judgement which, throughout the Old Testament, is measured against God's character and precepts; where it deviates from the same, human violence is liable to be judged itself, as the outworking of humanity's sinful inclination to arrogate the determination of right and wrong to ourselves.