Thursday, October 12, 2017

Circumscribing violence

One of the popular moralistic objections to the Bible concerns the holy war commands and holy war accounts. That's a popular trope among village atheists and "progressive Christians," as well as many OT scholars. My main point is that I think this objection has the issue backwards, but before addressing the main point, a few subsidiary observations:

i) War is brutal. I don't think the reader is expected to find this material uplifting. The ugliness is part and parcel of life in a fallen world.

ii) The hand-wringing and moralizing is a luxury of people who feel safe and secure. People writing in peacetime. 

Not surprisingly, people who find themselves in a war for natural survival are far more hard-nosed. A lot of disapproval heaped on the OT is a reflection of decadent culture elites in gated communities.

Mind you, it can be useful to live at a time and place where we are able to practice critical detachment. I'm not saying that automatically disqualifies the critic. But it also fosters self-deception, as people say things they don't really believe, if they found themselves in a life-and-death struggle. They can talk that way because it's a safe abstraction. They can afford to make disingenuous, unrealistic statements because it doesn't cost them anything. 

iii) Now to my main point: the holy war commands are countercultural. They reflect a dramatic restriction on what is permissible in warfare. 

Historically, many or most cultures, if they had the wherewithal, had no compunction about invading other countries or raiding other tribes for land, women, war captives, loot. They didn't think there was anything wrong with wars of aggression and conquest. Might made right. 

And they invented war gods to rubber-stamped their military campaigns. They just assumed they had divine sanction for military expeditions and raiding parties. 

Likewise, take the glorification of war in the Iliad. For centuries, that was a paradigmatic honor code. An ideal that young men aspired to. 

In the OT, by contrast, God does not endorse war in general. There's defensive war, with rules of warfare. And the only war of conquest was the occupation of Israel. 

So there was a drastic reduction in the kinds of wars deemed to be permissible. Moreover, the enemy was allowed to survive if he submitted to the God of Israel (e.g. Rahab, Gibeonites). So the OT massively curtails the scope of licit violence. 


  1. On this topic, what do you think of passages like 1 Chronicles 22:8 where God disqualifies David from building his temple on the basis of having shed much blood? Is that a critique of Davids imperialism? or was the mere fact of David having been a warrior enough? I'm not sure these days

    1. Good point. As one commentator notes, "Temple and place building was often undertaken in the ancient Near East only after a king had demonstrated his prowess in military conquest. This is seen also in the epic literature celebrating the enthronement of the gods," E. Merrill, A Commentary on 1-2 Chronicles (Kregel 2015), 267n8.

      So 1 Chron 22:8 is countercultural in that respect.