My friend Karyn has written a very thorough review of the book War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. It is in three parts here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Violence in scripture is a topic that preoccupies my mind a great deal as I am sure that it does for others as well. Not only the violence that is depicted in the Bible is of significance, but also the violence that throughout the centuries has sought its sanction there. After reading Karyn’s review, this text looks like a worthy read on the topic.
Okay, I’m being a little facetious with the title to this post. But, it’s so hard to write good title lines without doing that from time to time. At any rate, Matt over at MandM has recently written on the “commands to commit genocide” in the Book of Joshua. One matter he brings up is the potential use of hyperbole in those passages, which is something I have thought a lot about in the past. So, I’ve been dialoging with him a bit in the comments bringing into the fray 1 Samuel 15. I think this is a helpful post on an important topic and hope that some of you will participate in the discussion as well.
This morning I finished reading John Collins’ Does the Bible Justify Violence? It is a very short monograph that (obviously) seeks to answer the question contained in the title.
Pros of Does the Bible Justify Violence?
First off, I think this little book has some important points to make, though I am sure they are made elsewhere. It is simply that this text is trying to make these points on a more popular level. Some people tend to give a privileged status to the Bible that makes them uncritical of it. Some of what Collins does may break that down a bit, which I think is good thing. As one example, he discusses the September 11th attacks and how many people were appalled at the idea that someone could find legitimation for such acts in a sacred book. Many people who think this way, however, are Christians who do not realize that their own sacred text has been used to legitimate violence without stretching the text much. Among others, Collins takes examples from the history of European settlers of America and their statements about the Native Americans being “Canaanites.” The settlers are taken to be “Israel,” and the language, quite clearly taken from the Book of Joshua, was intended to legitimate violence against the Native Americans.
Two further advantages of the book are its brevity and its bibliography. The book is a quick read. I’m not even sure if it took me more than about an hour and a half to read. Of course, this means that some things are going to be oversimplified, yet the book has a pretty thorough bibliography for those who want to do further study.
Cons of Does the Bible Justify Violence?
As far as problems in the text, I feel at some points Collins does not give due diligence toward some of Niditch’s work in War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. He is quite clearly conversant with her work; however, I think that anyone who reads Collins would also do well to read Niditch (which I also found to be a pretty quick read). Part of the problem is that Collins is using the term violence very broadly, whereas Niditch goes into more detail on classifying the types of violence that one finds in the Old Testament.
Second, in some places the text puts on a little too much of an air of certainty. Of course, certainty, or at least some level of it, is not necessarily a bad thing; however, Collins attacks the concept of certainty toward the end of the book. Yet I sometimes felt as though Collins was stating some ideas as unarguable conclusions. Perhaps this has a great deal to do with the length constraints of the book. Rather, than certainty perhaps it was just oversimplification in places.
Overall, I would recommend the book.
It is not easy for humans to kill others. To participate in mass killing in war is destructive of individual psyches and of the larger community’s mental health. The ban in either trajectory is a means of making killing in war acceptable. How does the ban as sacrifice and the ban as God’s justice differ in this regard? The ban as sacrifice is a part of war against those who are not of one’s group, a means of securing aid in victory. The ban sometimes has to be imposed to win. God demands his portion and cannot be refused. The reasoning goes “If we offer them, we may be saved.” Group solidarity is thus increased–better we should live than they–and guilt is reduced–God demands his offerings–but the enemy is recognized as human, worthy of God’s sacrifice. Inanimate booty can almost always be kept, because God has received the best portion. In contrast, the ban-as-God’s-justice ideology actually motivates and encourages war, implying that wars of extermination are desirable in order to purify the body politic of one’s own group, to eradicate evil in the world beyond one’s group, and to actualize divine judgment. In the ban as God’s justice a sharp line is drawn between us and them, between clean and unclean, between those worthy of salvation and those deserving elimination. The enemy is thus not a mere human, an offering, necessary to win God’s assistance of God, but a monster, unclean, and diseased. The ban as God’s justice thus allows people to accept the notion of killing other humans by dehumanizing them and the process of dehumanization can take place even within the group during times of stress, distrust, and anomie.
Susan Niditch in War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, “Chapter 2” (Conclusion). This text represent, in my opinion, a very important scholarly effort not to treat war in the Hebrew Bible as monolithic. There is not simply one approach to war to be found there. It is very important reading for those for whom the wars in the Old Testament present a significant problem. Too many works attempt to deal with inherent ethical problems before adequately describing what the ethical problems might be. To the best of her abilities, Niditch attempts not to do this.
What Bainton calls the crusading idea in the Hebrew Scriptures is, in fact, not unique to Israelite culture. And within the Hebrew Bible the sort of war of extirpation waged against the Canaanites in Joshua is one among many war ideas as Bainton himself implies (46), a war ideology with which the authors of Chronicles and Jonah, some Deuteronomic threads, and post-biblical authors such as Josephus are uncomfortable.
Susan Niditch in War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, “Introduction”
Don’t know how I allowed myself to get scooped on this because I was very interested in this conference when I first heard about it and wished I could have attended. At any rate, here is a link to a conference held at Notre Dame University entitled “My Ways are Not Your Ways.” The conference dealt with some of the difficult aspects of the portrayal of God in the Hebrew Bible and has a fantastic litany of speakers. Be sure to check out the videos.
This entire POST by Justin Taylor is problematic in a considerable number of ways. For example, there is no consideration of literary genre. Joshua is a narrative concerning ancient warfare. Descriptions of ancient warfare are not the most historically accurate literary texts in the corpus of ancient literature. Rulers often described their battles as far more successful and complete than they actually were. For example, they might describe their subjugation of a nation as complete only to have to write a year or two later that they had to go back and subjugate the people again. How complete could the original subjugation have been?
Yet let’s throw all of those considerations out the window to defend “acts of God” that may be overblown in the first place (see the beginning of the book of Judges for evidence that the description in Joshua is overblown). But I’ll leave that alone now to deal with Taylor’s specific misuse of one text, namely Genesis 18.25. In the same section in which Taylor cites Genesis 18.25, he says:
While it is ultimately illegitimate to ask if God’s ways are just in securing the Promised Land, it is perfectly appropriate and edifying to seek understanding on how God’s ways are just—whether in commissioning the destruction of the Canaanites or in any other action.
The fact of the matter is that questioning if God’s actions are just is exactly what Abraham is doing in Genesis 18. The verse in question reads: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” In fact, let me rephrase what I said at the beginning of this paragraph. Abraham is not just questioning whether or not God is just, he is actually insinuating that what God is about to do is not just. Notice 18.23, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” If Abraham knew the answer to that question was “no,” he wouldn’t have had to go into trying to sell God on not destroying the whole city. And, it is only at Abraham’s behest that God goes about his business in a just manner. *
To limit the types of questions that people should ask represents to me a weak kind of faith. People cannot ask these kinds of questions because they are afraid of what the answers might be. Beyond this, critiquing the depiction of God and beliefs about God in the Bible is a long standing tradition that begins in the Biblical text itself. If you can reconcile Ezra 9-10 with the Book of Ruth without allowing one to critique the other, I’d like to see those mental back flips. It would be entertaining.
* Genesis 18.25 is even more pertinent to Taylor’s post than he may think since in point 3 he says no one deserves God’s mercy. Yet this is exactly the point on which Abraham’s argument hinges. In other words, there are possibly righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah who have done nothing wrong and who do not deserve to be killed (perhaps like the Canaanite infants). But, if I get into all of that, this could go on for hours.
Today’s lectionary reading is definitely part of one of my least favorite Old Testament passages. If you heard the passage from the lectionary you probably would wonder why. The reading is Ezra 9.5-9, which reads as follows:
At the time of the evening sacrifice, I, Ezra, rose in my wretchedness, and with cloak and mantle torn I fell on my knees, stretching out my hands to the LORD, my God.I said: “My God, I am too ashamed and confounded to raise my face to you, O my God, for our wicked deeds are heaped up above our heads and our guilt reaches up to heaven. From the time of our fathers even to this day great has been our guilt, and for our wicked deeds we have been delivered up, we and our kings and our priests, to the will of the kings of foreign lands, to the sword, to captivity, to pillage, and to disgrace, as is the case today.
And now, but a short time ago, mercy came to us from the LORD, our God, who left us a remnant and gave us a stake in his holy place; thus our God has brightened our eyes and given us relief in our servitude. For slaves we are, but in our servitude our God has not abandoned us; rather, he has turned the good will of the kings of Persia toward us. Thus he has given us new life to raise again the house of our God and restore its ruins, and has granted us a fence in Judah and Jerusalem (NAB).
Sounds like a humble cry of repentance doesn’t it? Yes, until you realize what the problem is and perhaps more importantly what the men decide to do afterward. Ezra is repenting for the Israelites marrying foreign women (9.14; 10.2, 11). Ezra believes that this is absolutely wrong, though this is certainly not the only view during the later stages of Israelite history (think Ruth). So, what is the solution? The men who have married foreign women must send away their wives and children. The Book of Ezra ends with these words: “All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children.”
Really? That’s the answer? Divorce? Abandonment? I think this text definitely fits into the broader definition of what Fretheim terms violence and is definitely one of those texts in which the depiction of God or at least the depiction of what people believe God wants of them must be questioned. I am certainly not one who agrees with the whole Old Testament – New Testament dichotomy as you will find if you read the post linked to above. And, I think that a lot of times people make problems out of passages there are not genuinely there. But, this is one of those passages, which I somewhat fear for those who immediately jump into an apologetic. I think it reflects a callousness toward the plight of women and children in the service defending a text. Some critiques are unmerited, but this is a passage to me that is certainly worthy of one.
HERE is a link to a helpful article by Terence E. Fretheim in Word and World (Vo1. 24.1, 2004) on “God and Violence in the Old Testament.” I will try to summarize Fretheim’s points the best that I can:
- Violence is both an Old Testament and New Testament phenomenon. I recommend checking out the footnotes for writings on violence in the New Testament.
- Our definitions of violence should be expanded beyond just causing physical harm. For example, Fretheim proposes adding things like discrimination on the basis of gender, age, etc. to our concept of violence.
- There is a significant amount of material in the Old Testament condemning human violence. Psalm 11.5 serves as a good example: “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence (emphasis added).
- Divine violence is a reaction to human violence. Fretheim goes so far as to say “if there were no human violence, there would be no divine violence.”
- Divine violence is used for either judgment or salvation. On this point, Fretheim appears to be saying that all divine violence is meant to serve good purposes.
- All this said, there are still some depictions of violence in the Old Testament that can and should be called into question. To explain why these problematic depictions are there he offers three suggestions. 1) “God is working in and through human beings.” 2) “Human beings will never have perfect perception of how they are to serve as God’s instruments in the world.” This is about as close as Fretheim comes to coming out and saying that the Biblical writers were simply wrong in their depiction of God. Though I do not know if he would go that far. 3) “That God would stoop to become involved in such human cruelties as violence is, finally, not a matter for despair, but of hope.”
I agree with much of what Fretheim says in the article. Especially, I think points 1 and 3 deserve special attention in our modern context. People use the phrase “go Old Testament on someone,” but fail to recognize the presence of violence in the New Testament or the condemnations of violence in the Old Testament. In addition, he makes a good analogy for points 4 and 5. Many people are disturbed by the depictions of God’s anger in the Old Testament; however, Fretheim points out that many of the things that God gets angry over are things that make us angry as well.
I do have to say that I wish Fretheim would have fleshed out his conclusions in more detail. I agree with him that certain depictions of divine violence in the Old Testament can and should be critiqued. But, sometimes the boundaries for that critique are not clear cut. As one example, Fretheim includes the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in the category of divine violence being used for the purpose of salvation. Even still, it seems like the means for achieving that salvation are worthy of being called into question. God achieves the salvation of Israel by killing Egyptian babies and children? It is not the divine violence that is being called into question, but the target of that violence. A good end may have been achieved (i.e. freedom), but at what cost (i.e. infanticide)?
These are just my initial reactions to the article and certainly I know that Fretheim’s article was not meant to be a treatise on the subject. At the very least it is a good primer, and it has a good number of footnotes, which the reader should follow. He interacts with a number of the major authors who have dealt with this subject in detail, such as Collins and Niditch. I would also suggest that the work of Gottwald could be helpful here as well, when one recognizes that in many of the more difficult texts portraying violence we are likely not be dealing with literal historical facts (i.e. the conquest probably happened quite differently than depicted in the Book of Joshua). At any rate, I would encourage my readers to check out the article if this issue has plagued you at all.