Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Violence in the OT

I'm going to post an email exchange I had with a friend. His comments are indented. 

It seems that I need to understand a bit more about notions of corporate responsibility in the ANE; there seem to be multiple places in the OT where God hold's groups accountable for the actions of one/a few.

There's some truth to that, although that can be overstated. Oftentimes I think it has less to do with corporate responsibility than the fact that we are social creatures. As such, collective judgment is, to some degree, inevitable. Collective judgment doesn't ipso facto mean everyone is guilty, or equally guilty. Take a paradigm-case like the Babylonian exile. You have godly Jews like Ezekiel and Daniel who suffer as a result of what their ungodly countrymen did.

Even when judgment targets individuals, that will impact the innocent. Everyone is related to someone else. If you punish a husband and father, that will impact the wife and kids.

But there's also the fact that, as social creatures, we often think and act alike. We influence each other. We are, to some degree, products of our social conditioning. And it's a circular dynamic. We both condition, and are conditioned by, our communities. Consider the social dynamic in a high school. The stereotypical subgroups and rivalries.

Now, I think I have grown very sensitive over time to some of the violence and judgment in the OT.

Brutality is the norm in human history. I've been blessed to live in a time and place where that's rarer. But that's a very narrow window. My experience has been quite abnormal.

I don't think we're supposed to like the violent OT passages. It's not meant to be edifying or inspirational.

Judges is a classic case. That's riddled with atrocities, and the reader is supposed to find that appalling.

Or take Lamentations. The writer is appalled by what he sees. The reader is supposed to share the writer's horror.

Maybe you guys will address some of these alleged OT atrocities on Triablogue (or already have). I feel I can often really relate to your perspective. I read some of Holding's stuff, but sometimes I disagree with what he's arguing. I recently was reading 2 Samuel - that instance where David gives Saul's descendents over to the Gibeonites to be killed - to stop the drought. Holding seems to think it was retrieving Saul's bones for burial that stopped the drought. But it seems from the text, it was appeasing the Gibeonites that did this. This whole incident confuses me; I don't understand why God would accept this.

The commentators aren't very helpful on that issue. I think there are two ways of broaching the issue.

1) Let's assume for the sake of argument that this is an issue of justice. Saul's sons didn't commit their father's crime. On the other hand, we're all familiar with stories about relatives of tyrannical kings or military dictators. The relatives may not commit any of the crimes the despot commits or commands. But they live under his roof and thoroughly enjoy the perks that go along with being the first family. They wallow in the lavish, pampered, lifestyle, and they don't lose an hour of sleep over the victims of the regime. Indeed, they are happily insulated from all that.

Sometimes the despot is toppled in palace coup or popular insurrection. Suddenly the tables are turned. It isn't just the despot who finds himself on the receiving end of what he used to dish out to others. His relatives suffer the same gruesome fate.

And it seems to me that there's poetic justice in that. No, they didn't kill or torture anyone. No, they didn't starve anyone to death. But they just didn't care. They were happy to reap the benefits of being the first family, having the crème of everything, while others suffered horrible deprivation.

I seriously doubt that Saul's sons were any different.

2) However, that may be the wrong angle. Maybe this has nothing to do with just deserts. Maybe it's about an honor code. Saul isn't posthumously indicted for committing murder, but for violating an ancient treaty. Even though he murdered Gibeonites, that's not the indictment. It's not killing, per se, but killing those who were supposed to be shielded by treaty. Who are legally sacrosanct.

Israel, in the person her king, failed to honor her public agreements. It's not so much a moral issue, but a failure of reciprocity. In a treaty the parties have mutual obligations to each other.

Saul dishonored the Gibeonites. Disrespected the treaty.

And according to the operative honor code, the penalty is tit for tat. You killed some of ours so we get to kill some of yours.

It was an honor code that everyone understood and tacitly accepted. If the situation were reversed, the Israelites would demand the same in return.

Think of a duel, or single combat (e.g. David & Goliath). That's not about injustice, but dishonor. We may find it silly, and that's often the case, but in warrior cultures, it's a big deal. And the ANE was a world of warrior cultures.

3) This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that Saul's sons are singled out. His daughters aren't included. That's because it's a male-oriented honor-code. Women are exempt.

The males are the representative figures in this transaction. There were certain perks to being a Jewish man, but that, in turn, carried certain liabilities.

4) This is also why the Bible has a doctrine of eschatological justice. Scripture recognizes the fact that many things happen in this life which cannot be adequately recompensed in this life.

A big one for me also is when it is said that women will eat their offspring during the captivities/famines in the OT and it seems like this is God's punishment. That to me is a horror I can't fathom.

i) Well, you're supposed to find that horrific. It isn't meant to be edifying or inspirational. Bible writers cite that as an example of extreme depravity. You and I ought to find that unspeakably appalling.

ii) We're naturally attracted to the attractive sins. It's only when sin turns ugly that we begin to see the real character of sin. Sometimes punishment has to be ugly for us to finally get the point.

iii) This is less about Scripture than the world. It's not unique to Scripture. For cannibalism during siege also happens outside the Bible. So that goes to the general "problem of evil."

It's not so much whether the Bible is believable, but whether God is believable. For that's a part of God's world. Not just the world of the Bible, but the world outside the Bible.

iv) So it's ultimately a question of why God "allows" it. I've discussed theodicy at various times.

v) Of course, some folks take this as a reason to chuck the Christian faith. But there's a catch. If we live in a godless world, then it's not evil for mothers to kill and consume their children. A godless world is a world beyond good or evil. We're just animals. Animals driven by the survival instinct. Like wild animals that eat their young. Lions that kill the cubs of a rival lion. Hyena siblings that kill the runt. 


  1. Steve,

    Can you recommend some good books on this issue? The topic comes up frequently with non-believers, and even believers have trouble with it.

    I appreciate Triablogue. I've gained a lot from you and the others posting here.

    Steve Lamm

  2. Actually, I don't think there's anything terribly satisfactory out there on these particular questions.

  3. Maybe D.A. Carson's "How Long, O Lord"?

  4. The answer depends on the scope of Lamm's question.

  5. One book I found edited by Gundry is part of the "Counterpoint" series titled: "Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide."

    I think I'll give that book a read and see what other resources they list.

    Steve Lamm