Things I Wish Weren’t in the Bible: Violence in the Old Testament
Sermon Delivered at Vineyard Church, Langwarrin
Twenty-fife, June, 2017
Friends, today at Vineyard, it is my joy to learn with you on the subject, ‘Things I Wish Weren’t in the Bible: Violence in the Old Testament’.
As I speak, the battle for Mosul rages on. The world was originally shocked when Daesh, a religiously charged rebel group controversially known as the Islamic State or ISIS, drove out the Iraqi security forces and took charge of Iraq’s second largest city after Bagdad, Mosul. Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then went downtown to the central moske, an ancient mosque, climbed its podium, and declared an Islamic ‘Caliphate’, that is, he declared himself as a successor of Mohammad and leader of the entire Muslim community. Now, some two years later, our so-called allies, the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Sunni Arab tribesmen and Shia militiamen, assisted by US-led coalition warplanes and military advisers, which includes our Aussie soldiers, have driven al-Baghdadi into hiding and perhaps death and have taken back over half of the city. As of four days ago, they took control of the territory upon which the Moske stood. Sadly, it was blown up in the fighting. This is just the latest
This gets me thinking, for Mosul is roughly where the Ancient City of Ninevah stood. Nineveh, historians commonly note, was the hub of the ancient worlds most brutally violent nation, Assyria. The crucifixions of Rome kneel before Assyria’s spikes in this regard. Now, on the same dirt some three thousand years later, we’re calling for war again! And it’s not just a tribal squabble. The ABC has called this battle for Mosul ‘the biggest battle anywhere on the planet’. We love to puff our chests with talk of the progression of our civilization. But, here at least, in regards to a most basic peace needed for life, I can’t help but wonder, ‘have we not learnt anything?’!
This begs a further meaningful question for us as Christians. Our own ancient tradition, especially as recorded in the Old Testament, is rife with violence towards Nineveh and elsewhere. What do we do with this now? Shall we, with bible in hand, gun in the other, continue the holy war? Or, with the bible open to Jesus in one hand, and coffee in the other, shall we cease and desist? Or shall we strike some sort of compromise? And what does all this mean for me personally?
One of the most famous church heretics, Marcion, suggested that we get rid of the Old Testament. He upheld that the Old Testament is about a wrathful God and people who are concerned with Law, and therefore Justice, and therefore violence and war. The New Testament God, in contrast, reveals a God and people of Love, and therefore Grace, and therefore peace. To be truly Christian, he said, our churches should rid ourselves of the Old and go with the New. More precisely, he did away with all of what he considered as irrational works, which happened to also be the more Jewish works, which was for him all of the Old Testament and the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John, and stuck with what he considered as the more rational works, which happened to be the more Greek works, such as the Gospel of Luke and, of course, anything by Paul.
Now Marcion has some new sympathizers in our new atheist ‘brothers in Christ’. Richard Dawkins, who, depending on who you talk to, was either the Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science or the Oxford Professor for the Public Misunderstanding of Science, and wrote a book, The God Delusion, or was it about the Dawkins Delusion, compiles his own unholy name list to rival the many holy names in scripture for the Old Testament God. Dawkins says, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” He has his own list of proof texts: God’s command to massacre the Middianites in Numbers (31:17-18), Joshua putting to the sword all the inhabitants of Jericho in Joshua (6:21), and God’s rules for waging war in Deuteronomy (20:10 to 18). What is the Promised Land about? Dawkins has his answer: ‘The ethnic cleansing’ that had ‘begun in time of Moses is brought to a bloody fruition in the book of Joshua’, a book that is ‘remarkable for the bloodthirsty mascacures it records and the zenaphobic relish with which it does so’. 247. Likewise, Christopher Hitchers concludes in his book, God is not Great: how religion poisons everything, or was it on how Hitchens is not Great, how Hitchen’s poisons everything, such as his unsaintly account of St. Theresa or his unreligious book on religion, ‘“The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.”. 137. Moreover, Sam Harris suggests that if the bible’s true, we should be stoning to death our lovedones for heresy, adultury, homosexuality, worshiping graven images, and ‘other imaginary crimes’, which supposedly ‘reflects God’s timeless wisdom’. Still more, Daniel Dennet, in his spellbinding book Breaking the Spell, says, ‘Part of what makes Jehovah such a fascinating participant in stories of the Old Testament is His kinglike jealousy and pride, and His great appetite for praise and sacrifices. But we have moved beyond this God (haven’t we?).’ The new atheists do one up on old Marcion. In regards to civilized morality, they suggest we get rid of not only the old, but while were at it, also the new, which they see as a morality still grounded in superstition.
Should we, who are honest with our own tradition, follow such a trajectory: throw out the Old, seemingly expired Milk and Honey, for the New batch, and perhaps even the so called new batch for new of today? Let’s first understand violence in this story of stories is about, why don’t we?
The bible begins, well, in the beginning, with its own creation story in Genesis 1. One of the most striking things about this creation narrative compared with others of around it is its absence of violence. In 1983, Herman Gunkel, a German scholar, published Creation and Chaos in the Primeaval Era and the Eschaton, in which he noted a common motif of Near Eastern creation accounts that he called the ‘chaos battle’. Most of the accounts of the time depict a god doing battle with another god to establish the order of creation. A familiar example is the Babylonian epic, Enuma Elish, in which Marduk or Baal fought and killed Tiamot, a chaos monster, which was the first step of creation. Gunkle did see hints of the ‘chaos battle’ down some other isles of the biblical library, such as in some of the creation poetry around the Laviathon and seas in Job and the Psalms and later around the armies of God in the Apocalyptic literature of Daniel and Revelation.
Despite chaos battle being captured in some of the other parts of the bible, Gen. 1:1–2:4 is a creation account that tellingly describes everything being made without violence or combat. Here, God is God, and has no rival Gods, the elements are simply given, creation is branded as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, and the whole thing as ‘holy’ and complete. Moreover, the elements (the earth, plants), are invite to participate in the ordering: ‘let the dry ground appear…let the earth put forth vegetation’. Let it be clear that bibles first step forward is in a world not of God’s righteous violence, but in a world of God’s holy peace. Daniel Levinson, another Old Testament scholar, says that it is this creation account in particular that ‘now serves as the overture to the entire Bible, dramatically revitalizing the other cosmologies.’
So, when it comes to matters of politics and military, Genesis 1:12:4 sets the Israelites on another page than their old foes, the Babylonians. The Babylonians Creator God was Marduk, sometimes referred to simply by his honorific title as Baal or Lord. In keeping with their creation epic, their chaos battle, Marduk was known as the Creator God and the warrior God. And their kings bore this ‘image of God’. This justified Babylon’s military conquests and legitimized a ‘theology of power’. But Genesis 1 urges cooperation, not combat. And the implication is that the cosmic pen is mightier than the sword.
Next, in the larger narrative of the bible, comes the flood. Human’s disregard the creative order. Then Cain kills Abel. Shortly thereafter, we read, ‘now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight’. Why? We are given one reason: ‘the earth was filled with violence’. Naturally, in the flood, God therefore confronts the violence forces of the world in order to preserve creation. Afterward, God leads a rainbow march, declaring peace.
This mythic framework endures. Abraham and Sarah are intended to be a blessing to the whole world. This is a direct link to the first creation story: ‘God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Now in Exodus, we read that the blessings is taking effect: “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them’. But Pharaoh seeks to cut them down to size by killing their babies. This is seen as not just an affront against yet another poor Middle Eastern family, but, in who that Middle Easter family is trying to be, namely a fruitful, a growing, a lively blessing to the world, its seen as affront against the whole creative order. In other words, Pharaoh is acting against the stability of the cosmos. So what does God do? God sends forth plagues, which depict God working to stabilize the cosmos. This is apparent, for instance, in Aaron’s staff turned serpent swallowing the serpents of Pharoh’s magicians. The word for serpent in the Hebrew, tannin, represents the forces of disorder and chaos. As in Psalm 74, ‘You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the serpant in the waters.’ The Exodus story is one which depicts Pharaoh as commander of the forces of disorder, forces that destroy and diminish life and God as the commander of the forces of Order, governing a lively creation that rising up to fight against Pharaoh. The text is clear that God, through his creation, is the one who fights against Pharaoh’s de-creation.
What does this all mean when we come to a city like Mosul, like Nineveh?
Nineveh saw the world through blood red eyes. If you look at the Assyrian war reliefs, which are carvings in large stone slabs that were made to last and which we still have today, you’ll find an unbroken line of the then worlds most powerful kings for some 2,000 years (that’s longer than the Romans on the stage) and the punishments at which they gave to those who resisted them. If that weren’t bad enough, they’re accompanied by a narration of the kings, which boast of not only their wars but the grotesque manner in which they waged them. Take this one by one of the most brutal Assyrian king, Asher Nasher Paul, about how he dealt with a little rebellion in his kingdom:
‘I built a pillar over the city gate, and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skin. Some of them I walled up in the pillar. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes. Others I bound to stakes around the pillar and I cut the limbs of their officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled. Many capitives from among them, I burned with fire and many of them I took as living captives. From some, I cut off from them their noses, their ears, and their fingers. Of many, I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and the other of heads and I bound their heads to tree trunks around the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire. Twenty men I captured alive, and I put them and walled them in the wall of my palace. The rest of them I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates (that’s a poetic way of saying I left about 20,000 people in the desert to die of thirst).
Likewise, this is from Ashuer Bani Paul, hundreds of years later. After he defeated the Elomites in war, he had the Elomites king’s severed head brought back to him and hung in one of the trees in his garden while he feasted with his wives. He then talks about what he did to the country:
‘the tombs of their earlier and later kings did not fear Asher and Ishtar, my Lords, and who had plagued my fathers, I destroyed, I devastated, I exposed to the sun. Their bones I carried off to Assyria. I laid restlessness upon their shades. I deprived them of food offerings and of water. For a distance of a month and twenty days journey, I devastated the provinces of Elom. Salt and prickely plants I scattered over them. The dust of their cities I gathered together and took to Assyria. The noise of the people, the tread of cattle and sheep, the glad shouts of rejoicing, I banished from its fields.’
Such is the flavor of the tale of these kings. You never stumble upon a nice king, a benefactor. One after the other, they’re all seem to be the type that enjoy making and watching horror movies. And keep in mind, many of these reliefs were put up in their palaces. So in the downtime as your in the waiting room to see the president, you pick up some reading on the wall, and this terrorism, this barbarism is what you find.
There was a positive side to their propaganda, as they saw it. They were the first empire. They lasted for some 2,000 years. It worked for a while to keep their subjects in check.
But there was downside as well. It ended up sowing such vehement hate towards Assyria, and its capital Ninevah, amongst its surrounding nations that it bumbled up to eventually destroy them. In 615, Nineveh falls. It’s hard to overestimate the shock that this brought to the ancient world. Here’s Asher Bani Paul,
‘I did well under God and man, to dead and to the living, why then has sicken befallen me with the strife of my country and the decendants in my family. Disturbing scandals oppress me always. Illness of mind and flesh bow me down. With cries of woe I bring my days to an end. On the day of the city God, the day of the festival, I am wretched. Death is ceasing hold upon me and bows me down. With lamentation and morning, I wail day and night.
Asher Bani Paul is, as recorded on the great reliefs, is the Last great king of Assyria.
A Coalition of surrounding peoples, the Medes, Babylonians, and Sythians, then descend upon Nineveh. Legend has it that the last king, gathered all his important stuff, and burned it in a fire with himself in the middle
Where are the Israelites in all this?
The people of the Creator God had two creative reactions: one, Nahum and, two, Jonah
Nahum wrote Nineveh’s epitaph,
Woe to the city of blood,
full of lies,
full of plunder,
never without victims!
The crack of whips,
the clatter of wheels,
and jolting chariots!
and glittering spears!
piles of dead,
bodies without number,
people stumbling over the corpses—
all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute,
alluring, the mistress of sorceries,
who enslaved nations by her prostitution
and peoples by her witchcraft.
“I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty….
6 I will pelt you with filth,
I will treat you with contempt
and make you a spectacle.
7 All who see you will flee from you and say,
‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’
Nahum leans into justice, whereby the lord of Creation overthrows the de-creators.
Jonah is, rather, charged to preach the good news to the people of Nineveh. At first, he refuses to offer God’s graces to Nineveh. The liars, the stealers, the murders, the degraders of life, enemies of the Creator, they don’t deserve it, was his assumption. So he makes his way down the port and catching a ship in the opposite direction. But God’s not done with him. God sends a chaotic storm, Jonah is thrown overboard, is eaten by a wale, and is spat up on shore. Fine then, he seems to think, have it your way! So he preaches the good news. Lo and behold, they repent. Even the animals, we are told, put on sackcloth, symbolizing their morning for the past and the moving on to a new future.
With Nahum, God uses the Chaos monster to consume the de-creators directly. His shout is justice. With Jonah, God uses the chaos monster to consume Jonah, which makes him repent and with him Nineveh. His cry is grace. I’ll let you decide which one to use today. In the bible, both traditions are honored. I’d be reading with my eyes have closed if I said otherwise. The only thing that is not honored, the only thing that seems not permitted, is to stand back and let the de-creators continue in their culture of death.
Can I get a witness?