Violence, justice and Peace in the Old Testament
1. We can be disturbed by the violence of God in the Bible. So we would rather set aside that image. But we cannot deny that there are many pages in the Old Testament that show a violent God. Let us face this fact—that the Old Testament, in many parts, presents a violent God. To work with this image of God we will have to accept that the books of the Bible were written by human authors who lived in their cultures and histories. Their concrete human lives influenced the writing of the books.
2. Let us try to see the Old Testament first as books of human authors and how the human authors wove their ideas of God and violence. Later, in an other essay, we will try to unravel the underlying theology of the books. Even if human authors projected their cultural ways unto God, and thus making God appear violent, they had a profound insight—a theological insight that can be revealing about God himself.
3. We are indebted to three Bible experts: Andre Wenin, Thomas Romer and Albert de Pury. We render here a “simplification” of their ideas.
When violence was regulated by small groups of people
4. Conflicts, rivalry, quarrels have always been present. They are everyday reality. Now when it comes to war there is the existence of States and governments capable of organizing groups of warriors if not big armies. Peace here will mean that war is a reality and States exist.
5. It is interesting to note that in the Bible the social world before the existence of States is described. Conflicts occurred in a more or less small scale. People lived together in a small scale too.
6. The cultural mentality of the region, including the Hebrew nations, believed in many gods. For example, in the Jacob and Laban story, it was possible to have the God of Abraham alongside another god, the god of Nahor (see Gn 31/53). May the two gods maintain justice between Jacob and Laban. Experts in the history of religions will say that in the very early times possibly there was the notion of a more general god “El” (and experts tend to say that this “El” may have been originally Ugarithic), the Most High from which emanated other gods. To Jacob/Israel was assigned his “god-in-charge” who was the Lord God. (See Dt 32/8-9).
7. If the cultural mentality allowed for different gods, it also allowed for conflicts of gods. Gods resolved their conflicts by giving up some of their influences on some people. A god giving up influence would then share that influence to another god. This was reflected in the sharing of properties and territories among people themselves. Groups of people fighting over a territory resolved the conflict by one group giving it up. So as the gods gave up portions of their influence, families/clans gave up portions of their territories and share them with others. So the portion would then belong now to other people; meanwhile the influence of a god will also shift accordingly.
8. If this looks abstract, check out Judges 11/24. Here we read that the Lord God had given a portion of land to the people of Israel while another portion of land was given to the other people by another god named Chemosh. So each god had its influence as each people had its territory.
9. One important aspect can be noted here. People arranged their conflicts by regulating their influences and possessions while their gods did the same. It was quite simple then.
Centralized society with State
10. Historically the Hebrew people began to become a State with centralized governance. The people started to have their kings. Now the organization became more ambitious. Peace was an affair of the State, it had to be defended by the State and its King. This was the situation not only among the Hebrews but also among the other nations in that region. All the States—nations—had “royal ideologies”. They had “ideas” that justified the status of the States.
11. In Égypte, for example, the Pharaoh was seen to be son of the high god and even the incarnation of another god. The Pharaoh had the role of guaranteeing peace, like a god guaranteeing cosmic order. According to the ideology, the Pharaoh administered peace and order inside the State. The Pharaoh had to help organize the economic life of society. But he also had to make sure that the society was secured from outside threats. In the history of Egypt there were the regular entrance of Asian Bedouins, Libyan and Nubian invaders. Of course there were also the wild animals like lions. All that had to be kept away from the frontiers of Egypt.
12. Other Mesopotamian nations had their ideologies too. It is worth noting that peace also meant justice. Justice implied a cosmic order created by a god and guaranteed by the King or Pharaoh. Peace and justice were considered cosmic orders.
13. A cosmic order was surrounded by chaos. The habitable zone had, around it, the inhabitable. So outside there may be the sea, the hot desert, the regions inhabited by wild animals, regions inhabited by unknown people, etc. So inside society was “home”—it was “cosmic order”, it was “the created world”. Outside was chaos.
14. So how was peace understood? Peace was understood as having fortresses and defenses against the chaotic world outside. Ok, this “peace” can be extended by taking over other territories. But still the idea stayed: concrete power had to define its limits.
15. In the Old Testament we read about empires. Each empire had to make sure of its own strength and refuge. Each empire knew that outside its influence was the presence still of chaotic powers. So each empire had to build its “umbrella of power”, so to speak. Inside that “umbrella” was security…outside was chaos. Any war outside was without pity. (Remember too that wars were not done with distances, there wer no guns and helicopters. War was always a face-to-face combat so one really saw who he was fighting against. It must have been horrible, we cannot imagine enough. Again it was without pity.)
16. The Hebrew people were not exempted from this cultural mentality. They too had their royal ideologies. They too had their notions of peace and security inside with the threat of chaos from the outside. They too had the notion of cosmic order within and chaos from without. Peace was for the benefit of the center inside. (Let us keep in mind that the threats from the outside did not just come from other nations, there were also the wild animals. The beasts also were part of the chaotic powers. The ecological destruction of the animal kingdom was not yet happening then. So it was necessary to protect the inside against the threats of the wild. This can explain Hosea 2/20.)
17. Now to assure cosmic order against the chaotic forces, the nations needed their gods. They needed their gods for protection.
18. The big empires like Egypt, Assyria and Babylon were able to sustain the ideology of creation and chaos and the extension of powers. Now, even the small nation of Judah, for example, held such an ideology.
19. This cultural mentality found its way into the written texts of the Old Testament. In Ex 34/ 11-13, we read that the Lord God tells Moses about throwing away all the inhabitants of the land, and then the Lord God prohibiting any covenant with those people. The holy places of those people will be destroyed. At that time when states went to war they were led by their gods. If they won it was thanks to their gods. So the gods had to be rewarded by taking everything from the conquered people and even annihilating the conquered people. It was all for the gods.
20. In Dt 20/10-14, Moses tells his people how to treat cities. There are the far away cities, the cities that do not belong to the land that the Hebrews will occupy. The people of the far away cities that will accept the Hebrews will be taken as slaves. If a far away city rejects the Hebrews, then the city will be besieged, men will be killed while women and children will be taken. Now look at verses Dt.20/15-20. Here we read about the cities inside the land that will be occupied. The population of these inner cities will be exterminated, killed , destroyed…all annihilated!
21. We can go on to read the conquest of the land in Jos 11/16-20. Look at verse 20. The Lord God YHWH participates in the attack and annihilation. The Lord God YHWH has a role in the extermination of the people.
22. Note then that there is a main point of view. There is the “inside” and the “outside”. There is the created order inside and the chaos outside. Inside (the society) there must be unity and people are together and fraternal with each other. People are linked with God, they communicate with God. Outside—in the exterior—there is rejection, the death and extermination of all who do not belong to the inside.
23. Now it may surprise us, but the events of attacking and exterminating people never happened. There was no such thing as an “ethnic cleansing”. The Ammorites, for example, were never exterminated! There was no such thing as annihilation of cities. Archaeology has disproved the story! What we read as texts are theological texts, they are not accurate histories. In fact contemporary archaeology would even say that a big part of the Hebrew people never conquered the land. They were already locals of the land! They inhabited the highlands from the beginning so they never really conquered it. What we read in the Scriptures is theological-ideological and not historical!
24. So why did the Biblical authors of the State period write that way? What was the point in writing it? What was the theology-ideology underneath it?
25. Well, first of all keep in mind that the story of conquest of Canaan was not written during the time of Joshua. They were written during the height of the Assyrian empire! The Assyrian empire kept irritating the small nations like Israel and Judah. Assyria was in conflict with the Egyptian empire and the small nations were caught in between. The small nations had to face the threats of Assyria.
26. The Assyrians felt that their King was a vicar of the divine god named Assur. The Assyrians wanted to subjugate people and make them subjects of the god Assur. The whole region had to submit to the reign of Assur.
27. Now the Biblical authors had to write down their theology-ideology. What did they do? They put in Assyrian mentality into their own ideology. It was a literary strategy. The Biblical authors started to think like the Assyrians. To oppose the aggression of the Assyrians, Biblical authors transformed their tradition with the same aggression. (It is a little bit like what we see in our own history now. Nations oppose the arrogance of China taking over island territories. To oppose that the nations start thinking of themselves as aggressive and arrogant and militarily equipped too.)
28. This literary style extended even to the times of the prophets. The anti-Assyrian form of writing and thinking became so prevalent. If the Assyrians imposed the vassal status to Israel and Judah it meant that these small nations had to be in covenant with the Assyrian god Assur. Biblical authors opposed this and emphasized that the covenant of the people was with the Lord YHWH and not Assur. So they had to elaborate the covenant between people and YHWH and make it look as big as the covenant with Assur. To reject the Assyrian imposition the people of Israel and Judah had to enlarge the power of the covenant between YHWH and people. If people were to put their lives in the hands of YHWH then the authors had to make that link powerful enough to resist the Assyrians.
29. The Biblical authors evaluated the power of Assyria and they started writing about the origins of Israel—including the liberation from Egypt, the exodus, the Sinai covenant, the conquest of Canaan, etc. A credible “big” picture of the Hebrew nation had to be made. It had to be credible enough to face the threat of the big Assyrian empire. The authors wrote about the conquest of the land of Canaan; it was a conquest in the style of the Assyrians. If the Assyrians can conquer so brutally, so too can the people of Israel—at least in literature.
30. The Biblical authors applied to the Hebrews what they saw coming from the Assyrians. In other words, as literature would allow, the Hebrews were equally powerful as the Assyrians. So we read about violence and we think it was historical. Was it really historical? It was more of literature. It was theology and ideology. Joshua, for example, was leading the massacre of people but Joshua was really a literary figure representing the King of Judah. Power was given to the King and he looked like Joshua—but it was power through literature.
31. Now how do we explain the parts in the Old Testament where even the people of Israel and Judah were crushed and conquered? Biblical authors interpreted their historical experiences. They looked at the Assyrian invasion—and later the Babylonian invasion. In both instances the Hebrew people were destroyed and annihilated, exiled and thrown away. No, it was not that they were weak. It was not because their God, YHWH, was weak. Rather it was because both Israel and Judah were unfaithful to YHWH. They were crushed and underwent extreme violence because they were not faithful to their covenant with the Lord God; they lived with injustice and slavery. They allowed chaos inside their society. So it was but normal that they be crushed. It was what the Biblical authors wrote. Their literature showed that the Lord God YHWH had to use the empires to punish his own people. Note that this was theological-ideological. Biblical authors projected unto God the violence that they knew and experienced.
32. Ok, so we get a picture of a violent God. But note the conditions that led authors to say that. Somewhere along the way this mentality itself evolved. Insights about God changed.
Peace and the realistic God
33. The Assyrian and Babylonian periods were horrible and painful. But then came the Persians. The Persians did not conquer. They inherited the lands taken by the Babylonians. So the experience about them was less violent and less aggressive. Also the Persians more or less respected the Hebrews. The Persians were more tolerant of other religions. Unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Persians did not impose a religion. They allowed people of other religions to practice their own faiths. The Jewish people cold then again follow their Torah and they could see how their own religious practices can match the religions of the other empires.
34. A new vision of God emerged. Now God ceased to appear warlike. God became more peaceful—a pacifist. Biblical authors were the “P” or “priestly” authors (if you recall your introduction to the Old Testament class). They wrote at that time of the post-Babylonian exile. Their written texts did not have the tone of violence. The death of Moses, in Dt 34, is considered a post-Babylon exile text. It was written without any trace of war in it. We do not read about how the people of Israel entered the land. In fact we are given the impression that the land was empty upon the arrival of the Hebrews. Their entry also did not have any mark of war. The “P” tradition was marked by peaceful texts.
35. Some sections of Genesis were written also at around this time of after-the-Babylon-exile. The emphasis was on the ancestry of humanity in Noah (Gen 9-10) and the ancestry of the Jews (Gen 17). With these two God concluded a covenant. Israel shared with all descendants of Abraham the land of Canaan. The Jews were pictured then as “priests” for all humanity. There is not picture of war in these passages. The world is “good”, and even “very good” (Gn 1/31). All inhabitants, the human and the animals, shared the earth and they were not involved in war and violence. Humans were to eat grains and fruits while the animals were to eat the other greens. Humans and animals did not have to fight over food. Notice too that both the humans and the animals were vegetarians!
36. Peace and not violence was in the order of creation. The human in Genesis 1, a “P” document, did not “fall”. The “P” tradition did not mention any “first sin”. It simply stated, “in the eyes of God the earth was corrupted and full of lawlessness” (Gn 6/11). In other words there was violence. Why was there lawlessness? Well, the “P” tradition tells us that “all mortals led depraved lives on earth” (Gen.6/12). All mortals meant all humans and even animals (for animals are mortal too).
37. The “P” authors did not have an idea of a specific person or group doing something wrong and thus “falling”. Fault was never applied to any particular person or group. The “P” authors saw the problem as “structural”. There was something in the structure of society and in the structure of the way people lived that created lawlessness and violence. For the “P” it was not a matter of finding faults. It was just a realistic evaluation of human existence: that violence is really present. How can that be resolved?
38. Maybe a big flood can resolve it. Maybe a big catastrophe can resolve it so that everything can start all over again. This is what we read in the Noah story. But the “P” authors saw that even a big catastrophe like a flood cannot be a solution! The flood did not fix the problem. God realized it so God declared that he will never send flood again. Why did the flood solve nothing? “The desires of man’s heart are evil from the start” (Gen8/21). God, at the start, send the flood because the desire of man’s heart was evil (6/5) and until now, after the flood, the desires continued to be evil. The flood was quite useless. God realized that the human heart bent on evil was the same before and after the flood. The “pedagogy” contained in the flood proved useless. So in the story who learned a lesson? It was God who learned a lesson. He saw what did not work in the treatment of the human. A catastrophe like a flood was useless. The human heart just wanted to go for evil.
39. So eventually God concluded a covenant with Noah. (See Gn 9/1-17). Notice that now God allows the eating of meat. “Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat” (9/3). God now recognizes that, indeed, there is violence. So the human can start killing the animal. Still God gave a limit. God had to pronounce a limit to the violence. Do not eat the flesh “with its lifeblood still in it” (9/4). Now when it comes to violence between humans an accounting has to be made too. God knows there is violence. God knows that the human heart is bent on violence. That is the reality. But God will demand an accounting. (See 9/6).
40. So here we see a realistic God—a God who knows that violence cannot be ignored nor can it be deleted. It is there to stay. Thus God has to set limits to the violence to avoid the absolute annihilation of one another.
41. This very realistic God now has presented the limits to violence and now talks about fertility and multiplication. Limits have been set on violence and those limits will allow for fertility and multiplication (see 9/7). The original command was given in 9/1 and repeated in 9/7. So the limits to violence is “sandwiched”. A “chiasm” or “inclusion” is set by the “P” authors. (Recall your course in the introduction to the Old Testament).
42. Let us think. What might the “P” authors be saying here? Injustice is a social reality. Empires crushing nations is an international reality. Will flooding Israel and Judah help? No. People will remain unjust. Will flooding the empires help? No. Empires rise and crush their neighbors. A major catastrophe will never be a solution. The human heart is bent on violence. God knows this, he admits its reality. God then tells Noah that he is shelving this strategy of extermination and annihilation. God will no longer participate in violence.
43. The rainbow is shaped like a bow—an arm for war. God calls it a bow (see 9/16). God is now shelving the bow. Each time the rainbow appears God and people will be reminded that they are linked by a Covenant.
44. The human is always threatened by violence. A “doing-nothing” is not a solution, nor is automatic violent reflex. Violence must be recognized and be dealt with responsibly. “Tame” that violence. Do something so that violence does not dominate and makes the least destruction and harm possible. Be realistic, violence is a reality. Manage it well.
45. Let us summarize what we have just discussed. The ancient model showed the situation of many gods co-existing and sharing their areas of influences. As people negotiate their terms with each other, the gods do the same. Surviving violence is a matter of being cunning and resourceful, knowing how to negotiate terms.
46. The second model is violence on the level of States. Societies are big and are governed with a centralized government—king or Pharaoh. This centralized system is like a cosmic order. Outside it is chaos, and hence violence. The State must maintain the order—the cosmic order—and thus bring peace. The State must protect this social group from the threat of external chaos. Outside the cosmic order there is no “salvation”. Stay within. Empires might extend their cosmic orders. Nations like Judah and Israel duplicate the same attitude of the empires. The Lord God, therefore, plays his violent role.
47. The third model is peace loving, it shows no sign of opting for violence. But it is realistic. It knows that violence is a reality. God ceases to be participant in violence. Instead he gives “guidelines” to hold back the powers of violence.