What about the violence in the Old Testament?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Wednesday 24, July 2013 | Category:  
From the fact of violence in Hebrew scripture we can’t conclude that violence is OK with God. As theologian Gerhard Lohfink says, the Bible is always and without exception “the word of God in human words.” It wasn’t written to be edifying literature for Sunday schools, scholar Father Leslie Hoppe, O.F.M. notes. Rather it’s a call to faith. One way biblical violence calls us to faith is it uncovers the violence of the world which often remains hidden. In this disclosure the injustice wielded by the strong over the weak is revealed.

Canaan
MOSES CONTEMPLATES the Promised Land of Canaan,
from the1890 Holman Bible. The conquest
of that land would not be so peaceful.
Violence manifests itself after sin enters the world in form of the murder of Abel. Cain kills in a moment of indignation, and he immediately fears for his own life. The cyclical nature of violence is uncovered here: It solves nothing. It only perpetuates the disorder it seeks to resolve.

This violent story sheds light on all the violence to follow. Tribal battles of the patriarchs, the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the constant sword-wielding and sexual violence in Joshua and Judges, the hostilities of nations advancing on Israel and Judah in the time of kings—all of this mirrors the original wanting of what another has and fearing what the other may do. Want and fear are the driving forces of violence throughout history. It’s fair to say they shape most international policy today.

If biblical violence raises the question, does it propose an answer? After all God is no innocent bystander in this history but often seems to organize the violence. Disasters like the flood in Noah’s time, the ten plagues on Egypt, and the occasional outbreak of leprosy, seraph serpents, or locusts indicate God is not above violence as a means of moral correction. The ancient world was a brutal place where “the violent bear away” the victory and often the future. It would have been difficult for Near Eastern cultures to characterize God as a pacifist when the terms of survival were so harsh.

Even without a New Testament counterpoint of turning the other cheek, however, the religious dialogue with violence was already engaged. Prophets from Isaiah on continually urged the nation’s leaders not to resist powerful empires but to submit to them, using the “Joseph defense” from the Book of Genesis: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” For every Maccabee hankering for a fight there was a Daniel trusting that to God alone belongs the contest. Human beings started the violence, and yet there remains a peace the world cannot give.

Scripture
Genesis 4:1-16; 50:20; Deuteronomy 20:1-4; 1 Maccabees 2:15-48; Daniel 3:26-45

Books
Dealing with Violence and War in the Old Testament, 5 CD-set, by Father Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P.,  (St. Paul Media, 2007)
The Word of God—The Word of Peace by Sister Patricia McCarthy, C.N.D. (Liturgical Press, 2001)
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