Last Sunday we tackled the thorny issue of violence in the Old Testament. We had previously discussed the idea that we cannot simply reject the bits of the Bible we don’t like, and so we threw ourselves into grappling with three of the most troubling episodes in the canon of scripture.
We began by simply reading the passages and owning what it was about them that we found difficult and disturbing, then introduced some contextual details that had the potential to change how we saw these stories. As always, a blogpost cannot capture the fullness of our discussions, but here are some highlights.
Joshua 6:1-25 – Fall of Jericho
This is the Sunday school favourite in which the Israelites march around the city of Jericho in silence for six days, then sound their trumpets on the seventh day, at which point the walls of the city fall down and all that is within it (with the honourable exceptions of Rahab and her family) is destroyed. It may be a good excuse to make some instruments out of rolled up newspaper, but it’s not exactly child friendly.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that Deuteronomic history (the designation sometimes applied to the books of Joshua/Judges/Samuel/Kings because they appear to share key themes with the book of Deuteronomy) reads like a national epic with a theological bent. For example, the Israelites circumcised themselves and celebrated Passover in the run up to the battle, suggesting that this may be an idealised picture of a holy war, and the conquests of Joshua are a crucial part of the founding myth of Israel, standing alongside the covenant with Abraham and the exodus under Moses and the kingdom established by David.
We can add to that the fact that while the archaeological picture is mixed, current evidence errs against the biblical account. Carbon dating indicates that the walls were destroyed centuries earlier, and it is unclear if the city was even inhabited at the time of Joshua. Israel clearly had a presence in the land at the time, but on the basis of archaeology and other historical sources, less dramatic methods of conquest have been suggested. For example, the first Israelites may have been escaped slaves and native Canaanites starting new settlements or taking over abandoned ones.
It can be deeply unsettling to think that what he have called the histories may not be terribly historical, but ancient and modern minds understand history very differently. Thucydides appears to have been the first person to attempt to write a ‘scientific history’, and that was not until the fifth century BC. Before him, the approach to historical writing was the one exemplified by his contemporary Herodotus, who said he simply recorded what we was told. If the Old Testament was written according to the principles of Herodotus, it was recording the stories everybody believed to have happened, stories that may well have been confused or elaborated or politicised in the telling.
That doesn’t make the Bible completely false or deny that the inspiration of the Spirit had any part in its writing, but it does remind us that it in a very practical sense it is the product of human hands as much as divine will. If we accept this position, we seem to be left with one big unanswerable question. What is true and what isn’t? But perhaps that is the wrong question, or at least the wrong understanding of truth. Perhaps it leaves us with other questions. What does this story tell me about what it is to be human? What does the way it is told tell me about how the author saw God? What does the way I respond tell me about how I see God? What stories would I tell or have told? Those questions may ultimately be more fruitful.
1 Samuel 15:1-23 – Destruction of Amalekites
In this passage, God commands Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites, and then rebukes him for sparing “everything that was good” and only destroying “everything that was weak and despised”. As with the passage from Joshua, it is the fact that this violence is commanded by God that is perhaps most troubling.
One possible response is to say that Joshua or Saul or the people who wrote all this down simply got it wrong. Whether they were wilfully using God to justify their own actions, or were genuinely mistaken in what they believed God wanted from them, God did not call them to carry out such atrocities. This may well be part of the answer (authorial bias in favour of this argument must be confessed here as it will colour everything else) but it doesn’t tell us why they thought it was appropriate to attribute violence to God and so we must continue to push these passages a little harder.
The introduction to the episode reminds us that the Amalekites had opposed the Israelites for centuries, beginning with an attempt to prevent their escape from Egypt, so perhaps it had reached a point where one or the other of them had to go. That may sound brutal, and we should resist any tendency to accept violence as inevitable, but at the same time we have to recognise that the ancient world was incredibly violent, and this is not an unusual story. Neither is it unusual to see violence attributed to the will or action of a deity. Our worship songs can still veer into a “my god is bigger than your god” mentality, and it is perhaps not surprising that a violent culture would interpret that as “my god is more violent than your god”.
It is also worth noting that another source from the Ancient Near East claims that the ban (the official term for the complete destruction of an enemy) was used against Israel, but we know that cannot have been the case because at least a remnant of the people of Israel has always survived. That suggests that this may have been a literary trope, not meant to be taken literally but to indicate a resounding victory, and to tie up a story without leaving any loose ends. We still like to tell tales like that. It’s why so many episodes of Doctor Who end with the apparent destruction of every Dalek, even though we know they’ll be back next series.
If this appears to be a common story told in a common way, we may perhaps ask what is distinctive about it, what made it worth telling. The climax of the story is not in fact the defeat of an ancient foe, but the rejection of Saul as king. It appears that God is angry because Saul did not kill every living thing with the Amalekites, which gives us a deeply disturbing picture of a bloodthirsty tyrant, but there may be something else going on. The attack on the Amalekites was meant to be about justice, but by sparing livestock because he thought it was good, Saul has judged the lives of cattle more valuable than the lives of babies, and attempted to turn violence to profit. So perhaps this story in some way functions as an attempt to regulate violence, in a context in which it seemed unavoidable, by keeping it focused on justice.
Esther 9:1-19 – Defeat of Haman
Haman has tricked Xerxes into writing an edict allowing him to destroy the Jews, and Esther has used her position in court to give Mordecai the chance to write a counter edict to allow the Jews to fight to defend themselves. In this passage, they slaughter their opponents and murder Haman’s ten sons, Haman already having been killed. It solves the problem, but it does seem a little like overkill.
In one sense, we have an easy get out clause with this one, as God is not mentioned at all in the book of Esther. Divine providence seems to be at work, as it is said that Esther has been placed at court “for such a time as this”, but it is Mordecai who instructs and is honoured by the violence of the narrative, and there is no clear indication that God desires or approves it.
If God is not responsible for the violence, we may ask why this story found its way into the canon. Perhaps is inclusion was deemed necessary as it is given as the background for the festival of Purim, although interestingly the festival seems to be marked primarily by the giving of gifts not a retelling of the story as is the case with Passover, and the verses that link the events of Esther to Purim say that it was the king who ordered the deaths of Haman and his sons, when in fact he ordered the death of Haman but only consented to the deaths of his sons. It is as though there has been attempt to move away from some of the violence, perhaps because the murder of Haman’s sons goes against Deuteronomic law, which in turn suggests this is an account of what happened not a model for what should happen.
It is also worth noting that Haman was not just a rival, but an anti-Semite who hated the very existence of the Jews. They were not a threat to him, as they lived peacefully in the land, but still he hated them to the point of seeking their destruction. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, Haman was a Nazi. The reaction of the Jews may have been extreme, but their survival was on the line just as it was in the middle of last century, and desperate people do desperate things.
At any rate, it’s all too easy for us to say that Mordecai should have found a more creative and peaceful way of resisting Haman, but our own recent history shows that we still struggle to resist violence (at least on the scale we are talking about here) without resorting to further violence. We spoke two weeks ago about confronting the violence in the text in order to confront the violence in the world, and that seem particularly pertinent here. If we wish to condemn the violence of the Jews, then we must also condemn our own violence, recognising that it is not right even when we do not know how to avoid it, and we must continue to seek creative and peaceful resolutions.
There are no clear answers to the violence in the Old Testament here, but there are some challenges to the way it has traditionally been understood, and some lessons to take away and mull over. That’s important, because as we said a fortnight ago, we cannot change the violence of the stories we have inherited, but we can decide how we respond to them. It is a sad truth that some still use these stories to justify violence, but we can choose a better path, learning from them in order to foster peace.
We ended Sunday night with a hopeful look towards some of the counter narratives in the Old Testament, the stories which help us find that better path. They deserve more than an epilogue, so watch out for more on them…