Violence that happened and didn’t in the Bible

I am still thinking a little about the book I just read by Kenton Sparks. He presented a more positive view of using allegory as a way to interpret Scripture. This generally does not appeal to me. But the book did point out that allegory is the way most deal with the violence and ethnic cleansing in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The annihilation of the Amalekites, Midianites or Canaanites gets turned away from history and into a spiritual truth about the need to annihilate sin from a Christian’s life.

The violence in the Bible is a problem for a lot of people, especially the idea that God approved or commanded the violence. I am possibly not as sensitive to this as I should be. I grew up on a Montana cattle ranch and was instilled with a frontier sense of justice. But I see some hypocrisy in over-sensitivity about violence in the Bible. Some of the same folks, for instance, who are happy about drone strikes against terrorists and the hit on Bin Laden have qualms about violence in the Bible.

Part of my perspective is the historical judgment that the genocide in Numbers 31 and some passages of Joshua never happened in reality. Priestly and Levitical writers hundreds of years later were zealous about the purity of the land. They had an ideal of the land being purified from the false gods of the Canaanites. They spun history to say their ancestors had purified the land by eliminating the Canaanites.

But there is a lot of evidence that some of the most disturbing violence did not happen or did not happen on the scale we think. For one thing, the book of Judges admits that the tribes were not strong enough to do this (Judges 1:21, 27-34). So the Israelites lived among the Canaanites.

Also Israel itself intermittently practiced Canaanite religion right up through the time of Jeremiah. Furthermore, there were people like the Gibeonites and other Hivites that Israel apparently did not conquer but who lived among the Israelites in some kind of covenant relationship (note the stories of how the Gibeonites held the ark of the covenant in trust for Israel until David brought it to Jerusalem). The later writers, however, went out of their way to explain this away or cover it up (Joshua 9). The cities that Joshua lists as Levitical cities actually seem to have been Hivite cities (Joshua 21).

In many cases violence happened but is exaggerated. The record of the wars of David in 2 Samuel 8:2 tell of cruel treatment of the defeated Moabites. However, across the ancient Near East it seems to have been the job of royal scribes to take small events and make them seem larger. Thus David probably did kill and mistreat prisoners, but only perhaps a dozen, not a whole army.

One incident of violence that interests me is the verse that says that the prophet Samuel “hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal” (Samuel 15:33 KJV). I notice this is too graphic for the NIV translators who just say that Samuel put him to death. Now the point of this story about Agag in 1 Samuel is that God wanted the Amalekite sheik dead, but Saul wouldn’t do it, thus contributing to disqualifying Saul and justifying the choice of David as ruler.

This is surely a later perspective to support the Davidic dynasty. The emphasis is on Saul’s disobedience. But maybe we can see an actual historical incident behind this. The Amalikites raided and pillaged in the Negev not far from Beersheba. Earlier in 1 Samuel we learn that Samuel had sons serving as judges or priests at Beersheba (8:2). And the reason Samuel gives for killing Agag is “as your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless” (15:33). In other words, Samuel’s motive was not ethnic or religious. It was personal vengeance. His own wife may be the mother left childless by Agag.

Now, of course, vengeance gets called into question in both Testaments of our Bible. But at least we can see Samuel as someone with a sense of justice, rather than a blind hatred of Amalekites because of their race. Many of us probably had the same feelings about Osama Bin Laden that Samuel had about Agag.

I think this story is a useful first step in understanding what has happened in the Hebrew Scriptures. You cannot sanitize them of violence. But you can see that later writers may have had propaganda reasons for portraying violence as the arbitrary will of God. The actual violence was probably all very human and had to do with war and payback.

The priestly writers thought violence in the world was a reason for God’s judgment (Genesis 6:11). Some of the prophets saw the coming kingdom of God as a realm of peace where humans would not learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4). So when you look at the Bible in its total context, God is a God of peace trying to make the world a less violent place.

Some of the violence attributed to God’s will may have been figurative or allegorical to begin with. I do not much appreciate allegory in the Bible or other literature. But I do see how stories about the conquest and the holy wars of Israel were idealized later to fit ideas of holiness and the specialness of the land of Israel.

One other note about my view that some modern perspectives are not so morally superior to those of the ancients: we are more sensitive to some motives for violence than others. We especially think racist or sexist violence is wrong. But many are not so put off by violence in support of what they see as just causes. This was part of the impetus behind Norman Gottwald’s peasant revolt theory of the origin of Israel (he wrote in the 1970s and dedicated his Tribes of Yahweh to the Viet Cong).

He did not see an invasive conquest with the ethnic cleansing that the Book of Joshua implies. He saw the underclasses rising up against their feudal overlords. He was not entirely wrong historically. One of the Amarna letters shows that there were people agitating for something like that. And the story Ehud in Judges 3:15 ff. is certainly the story of a revolt.

But Gottwald thought a feature of his theory was that revolutionary violence was a superior kind of violence.  Of course, in revolutionary violence there are innocent people killed. But if the main target is the bosses or the “1 percent”, then it is okay to break some eggs in making the omelet. Liberation theologians should consider whether, in the light of Marxist purges and democides in the twentieth century, this is really true.

I think we falsely believe that such modern perspectives are morally superior to the “barbarism” of ancient people.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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