Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Cheating on God: A Brief Note On Violence In The Bible

I'm teaching the 4th class in my Old Testament class tonight. My goal is to cover all of Joshua and Judges and as much of 1 Samuel as I can.

Joshua and Judges are arguably the two most violent books of the whole Bible and usually come up when arguing the place that the Bible has as a central text in informing moral values within western civilization. I remember reading a very graphic comic that Nail Gaiman produced on the most despicable episode from Judges, implying that anyone who uses the Bible to teach morality is out of their minds.

The point of both Joshua and Judges is to show how bad things can get when God is forgotten. The people make up "gods" for themselves. In this context, "gods" refers not only to little sculptures made of clay or metals. The word "gods" means something that you have created for yourself to fulfill your own desires. These "gods" would say what the people wanted to hear because their voices were actually the expressions of the people who made them. These "gods" would encourage people to do what they want already wanted to do because they were thinly veiled projections of the desires of the people.

The result of this way of living was a slow but inevitable collapse of their society. People became more selfish and therefore more violent. Eventually, the people would sense the problem but not its cause. In Judges 10, the people express their frustrations to the God that they abandoned: "We have sinned against you, because we have abandoned our God and have worshiped the Baals [i.e. gods of their own making]" (Judges 10:10). This was a matter of fact, a confession of guilt. But in His response, God does not help them. God's response is classic "Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of distress" (Judges 10:14). If this was put in terms of a relationship, they were admitting to "cheating on" God, but not willing to give up the adulterous relationship. Finally, the people wise up and "put away the foreign gods from among them and worshiped the LORD; and he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer" (Judges 10:16).

Of course, Judges has another 11 chapters that follow and the situation will grow more dire following this brief moment of respite. By the beginning of 1 Samuel, the righteous are a precious few. Judges wants to answer a few key questions: Why do we need a king? How and why did things get so bad for us? What is the purpose of the Law? And perhaps most importantly: Did God do this to us...or did we do this to ourselves? The answer to that last question is complicated. There are three possibilities within the Old Testament: 1) God outright calls for violence 2) God permits violent actions and 3) God outright prohibits violence.

The reality is that all three positions are found within the Old Testament. There are times when God calls for violence. Pacifism was not a national policy for ancient Israel. More importantly, it was definitely not the policy of the nations that surrounded them. The Psalms will sometimes talk about being delivered from "the violent". Violence was only condoned for two reasons: as a penalty for breaking the law (ex: "eye for an eye", Ex 21:24) or for warfare (Deut 20). In the New Testament, Jesus will "finish" these teachings. Matthew 5, Jesus will say: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile (Mat 5:38-41). Jesus shows us that the principal of the law wasn't penalty or violence, but justice. Jesus extols mercy as the highest expression of love for your neighbor. If that is true, than mercy doesn't abolish justice but fulfills it. In the old covenant, God makes provisions for people to use violence to survive among violent nations. Jesus, on the other hand, makes it possible for His followers to survive in a violent world without turning to violence.

This helps answer why God will permit violent actions that He Himself did not initiate with no obvious penalty. For example, in chapter 2 of First Kings King David commands his son and successor Solomon to pay back all of the men who betrayed him and tried to cause him harm. Kind David is a king of a nation amongst other kings of other nations. He is not outright condemned for acting as other kings act. But it can be argued that David's actions come in the wake of a tailspin to his rule that began when he seduced the wife of his loyal soldier Uriah (2 Samuel 11). Moreover, this episode in First Kings begins a cycle of violence and disobedience that will culminate in two successive exiles of the people of Israel and the collapse of their monarchies. When violence goes unchecked and isn't condemned, then the lives of the violent will inevitably end in violence. The people of Israel remember this principal in their Proverbs when it says: "Do not envy the violent and do not choose any of their ways; for the perverse are an abomination to the LORD, but the upright are in his confidence" (Pro 3:31-32).

Lastly, there are certainly ways that God clearly condemns violence in the Old Testament. Innocent life is protected by the Torah: "You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry" (Ex 22:21-23). The resident alien, the widow, and the orphan stand for all the most vulnerable and unprotected in their own society. These laws protected the vulnerable people among the Israelites from violence and were to a degree extended to all non-threatening nations. When a town was set to be conquered, the people of Israel would first offer terms of peace (Deut 20:10). If they accepted, the people of that town was placed in forced labor. The major exception to this policy were the nations already living in the promised land: the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deut 20:17). They were to be totally annihilated, including women and children.

Those passages of the Torah are more than a little chilling. As a reader living in the 21st century, I would be remiss to read them with a look of self-righteous indignation on my face. The more I reflect on those commands to violence, the more I realize that I am reading them as a product of over 20 centuries of exposure to the Gospels. Even a cursory understanding of the Gospels tells us that Jesus condemned violence and vengeance. If he described violence at all it was either in descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) terms (cf. Matt 10:21f), in a cautionary context (cf. Matt 26:52), as an outright prohibition (Matt 5:38f), or within the narrative of a parable (Luke 10:25ff, 20:9ff). In Matthew 10:34-39, Jesus ambiguously speaks of of his mission not as one of bringing peace, but of bringing a sword, "to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;and one's foes will be members of one's own household" (Matt 10:35-36). It seems clear that the reference is not to actual violence, but the situation of strife that the Christian message can cause within a family if not everyone accepts it. This seems far more realistic than people give it credit for being. If you can think of a family where siblings or parents do not share the same convictions, then it's not hard to imagine conflict arising out of that.

In his 2010 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Verbum Domini", Pope Benedict XVI discussed the "'dark' passages of Scripture". I think it's the most useful tool to approaching stories of violence in Scripture.He noted that such stories need to be read within their historical context. Above, I mentioned that that laws regarding warfare or the conduct of a king make sense when you place them within their cultural milieu. The corrective to violence in the Bible is the message of prophets. Pope Benedict XVI notes that "in the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel."

But above all of that is our need to acknowledge the uneasiness that violent stories in the Bible cause in us. One extreme is to say that stories of violence nullify the worth of the Bible for modern society. For one, so many of those stories are cautionary tales and yield great value if you finish the story. But also, acknowledging the place of the Bible in Western Civilization is simply a matter of fact. Western Civilization is built on not only the Greco-Roman culture but Jewish culture as well. To excise the place of the Biblical tradition from our collective patrimony is an exercise of extreme postmodern narcissism, where all established narratives are nothing more than acts of cultural imperialism. The origins of our laws, our art, our modes of expression, and our ways of thinking are simply unthinkable without this tradition, whether they were formed because of this tradition or in opposition to this tradition. It is among our culture's first great ideas and projects.

Lastly, these stories make us uncomfortable because we have inherited the fruit of this tradition, namely the laws of love, sacrifice, and compassion that are established in the life and teachings of Jesus. Pope Benedict makes this point when he writes that "we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key 'the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery'”. The Gospel established the reprehensibility of violence. We feel uneasy precisely because of the revolution in Jesus' teachings.

If you accept even the broad sketches that make up this story, then this last point is a wondrous thing. God works with His people as a father works with his child. The father speaks to his child in ways that they can understand. A father tolerates certain expressions of immaturity as the children are in the process of growing and learning. A father will speak with language that the children can understand even if there is more to say on a subject. A father acknowledges that a child grows and matures slowly and isn't afraid to challenge them along the way. It would be foolish to expect a father to speak to his adult son or daughter in the same way that he did when they were small children. A father will expect more from a relationship with a grown son or daughter than he did when they were small children. The constant is the relationship.

In Christ, God says something definitive to His children. He acknowledges their often violent past but also instills in them a healthy regret for perpetuating it. When we acknowledge that past, we can learn from it: the pain, the sorrow, the regret. In Christ, our neighbors become our brothers and sisters. To spill their blood is ultimately to spill our own. We cannot go there again.

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