Rehabilitating the Old Testament (2)
Why is there so much violence?
Throughout the Old Testament violence is prevalent. Cain murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy and sibling rivalry (Gen 4:8). This was caused by God’s favouritism – accepting the sacrifice of Abel’s sheep rather than the grain offerings of Cain’s fields. But God warned Cain that if he was a good person he would be accepted equally with Abel. This was insufficient for Cain and he acted on his worst impulse. He did not accept responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Wealth and status came with flocks rather than fields. Animals have always been more precious than wheat and corn. God does not approve the murder, it must be fairly noted. God is separated from the violence, right at the start of the Old Testament.
The story of Noah is a story of genocide and of the saving of a very, very few. Archaeologists tell us that there is geological evidence of an enormous flood in the ancient Middle East. Genesis 6: 6f says “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on earth had become. The Lord said “I will wipe mankind whom I have created, from the face of the earth”. Note that this was a response to human conduct. However, in this case it is God who decides to destroy the human race with a few exceptions. Noah was righteous, we are told and for that reason, he and his family were saved.
Abraham was a good and peace loving man. To him was given the promise that he would father the people of Israel. Abraham had an effective private army of 318 men to defend himself and his family, animals and possessions against the constant attacks of other tribes, brigands and thieves. And here we see one reason why violence was endemic in the times of the Old Testament. You could not survive without bearing arms. There was no culture of peace or of pacificism.
God does not demand human sacrifice, as Abraham is given to realise. Violence is not the norm and it is not the first resort of God. The patriarchs were not men of violence. They were men of faith and circumstance. They were pastoralists, nomadic keepers of animals requiring pastures and their unique calling to know the living God as the ruling agent in their lives. They were imbued from the outset with a distinct sense of right and wrong and of morality in different from the paganism of the area with sexual corruption, child sacrifice and violence central to its ethos. The People of God were marked out as living in a different way from others just as Christians today are.
Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of their peculiar wickedness. If God is unchanging, what does that say about our society today? But God was willing to spare Sodom if he could find 50 good people in it. Abraham negotiated this down to only 10. God is minded to destroy Sodom but God is not without compassion, reasonableness or unwillingness to give ample opportunity for change and repentance. It did not come. Coincidently a nearby volcano erupted and destroyed the two cities for ever associated with human moral corruption and false worship, But what about Las Vegas in America – is it not worse? London? Edinburgh? You will have already picked up the pattern. Violence is God’s reaction to human misconduct.
When the Children of Israel left Egypt and embarked on their long journey to the promised land, they encountered hostile tribes determined to annihilate them. Thus in Genesis 17:8f we read that Moses ordered Joshua to fight in self-defence. If they had not done so, the People of God would have been annihilated there and then and there would have been no Old Testament story. God intervened by ongoing supernatural means to protect and save His people at Jericho for example. But they had to fight to stay alive and fulfil their purpose as the chosen race. Nevertheless, Joshua carved out land and territory for the People of God by military conquest and without that element, no settlement of what we call the Holy Land would have been possible.
The heroes of the Old Testament were certainly men of war. Even if they began by rushing to the defence of their people against hostile neighbours and tribes, they ended up as rulers. David and Solomon became virtual Emperors ruling large swathes of the ancient near east. Zionists today pray for the return of all the lands that David ruled. Pragmatic politicians in Israel however will gladly settle for a smaller portion in return for the guarantee of peace with their neighbours – a peace which has so far eluded them.
There is a lot of personal violence in the Old Testament. However, this form of violence is never justified as military operations to defend the nation are. In David’s time there was much court intrigue, rivalry and bloodshed. David’s army commander Joab murdered someone called Abner of the house of Saul without the King’s knowledge. Another of Saul’s son’s was killed. David himself was guilty of arranging the death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband so that he could have her as his wife. For this he was publicly condemned by the prophet Nathan. It is said that the greatest penitential Psalm 51 was written by David as a result.
Have mercy on me, O God
According to your unfailing love
According to your great compassion
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin…
Create in me a pure heart, O God
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence
Or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
And grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
David was not permitted to build the Temple because his hands were covered in blood. That was God’s judgement on him. To build a spiritual sanctuary, it had to be Solomon who inherited his father’s empire without military enterprises. Solomon’s problem was that he took foreign princesses as wives for political purposes. But this meant that the clear purpose of the People of God was lost. On his death the Empire fragmented and for generations and centuries it was torn apart by violence, coups, fighting for survival and a succession of military defeats that resulted in Jerusalem being destroyed and the people themselves being taken to Babylon as prisoners and exiles.
The prophets explained military defeats as God’s judgement on their collective sins, especially the sin of false worship of other gods. Central to this was their purpose and calling. They existed to witness to and live especially for the living God. If and when they assimilated themselves into other religious practices and customs, they lost their identity and purpose. There was nothing to hold them together and they were defeated in battle. Today this same issue goes on in Christian terms. If Christianity becomes the same as the culture in which it is set, it has nothing to offer. It is like salt without flavour, yeast that is dead and cannot make flour rise into bread. The challenge to be distinctly Christian today in Scotland is a great one and we are not taking it seriously enough. Too many are diving for cover and it is no wonder that Protestant Christianity is not expressing itself clearly, taking a national lead and influencing public policy as much as it should.
The great prophet Isaiah looked forward to a time without violence. In this, he was expressing God’s will.
They will neither harm or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
Jeremiah the prophet made a significant breakthrough in understanding about violence. He realised that it was futile. He was condemned as a traitor and imprisoned. He was however proved right. He goes down in history as a kind of depressive negatively thinking person – a Jeremiah – but in fact – he was looking forward to Christianity and the strategic rejections of violence as a way of life. Once personal faith is elevated above mere survival, it embraces peace.
After the Exile, the People of God eventually returned and started to rebuild the Temple and the City of Jerusalem – the City of Peace. However, there was no peace and there never has been. Alexander the Great came and conquered and various other colonialists and empires also. Eventually the Romans came and they were in charge in the time of Jesus as we know. Various Jewish insurgents rose up from time to time to try to set the People of God free. Judas Maccabeus is the most famous. In 168 BC he won victories over the Syrian oppressors while under the overall rule of the Seleucid despot Antiochus who desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. Judas Maccabeus reached Jerusalem with his insurgent army and freed it and cleansed the Temple. Jews celebrate this today in their annual Feast of Hannukah (Dedication). Judas was eventually killed in 161 BC after a glorious campaign to free his native land and people.
In the time of Jesus, people remembered Judas Maccabeus and his brothers and their violent struggle to liberate the people of God. They hoped that everyone who began some kind of guerrilla enterprise would end up being as successful and more so. Whenever there was trouble both the Jewish and Roman authorities naturally thought in terms of previous insurrections. And so it was possible for Jewish leaders to misrepresent Jesus as being an insurrectionist to Pilate. Even though Pilate could not connect Jesus with any violent revolution and declared him innocent of such false charges, he did not have the political will to set Him free. And so, Jesus was crucified. Jesus was also a great disappointment to the people of the time and to his own followers who expected him to lead a Maccabean style revolt and set his land free.
Christianity took the place of Judaism as the means God used to make Himself known throughout the world. Today 2.3 billion and growing identify with Jesus Christ. In the Middle East the People of the Old Testament are surrounded by enemies whom they must fight continually for survival. This might be described as defensive war. Violence is central to Islam in the pages of the Koran. Annihilation of Jews is an article of faith for Jihadis.
The revealed truth of the will of God in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, our living Lord is still the gold standard for all humanity to aspire to and to actually follow. For his life and example we must be thankful. For the knowledge of the Lord in Jesus Christ each of us must rejoice. For his salvation we must praise him and worship him always.