Many thanks (again) to the folks at Eisenbrauns for sending me a review copy of War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century edited by Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 2). You can read the first part of my review of this book here. Although I had thought I would prefer to post on each essay/chapter separately, I have decided that some of the chapters are better considered together. I would also like to remind you that this is a collection of essays, not one person’s book. There is not one sole opinion being defended. The unifying thread is the desire to seriously consider how to approach war and terrorism in light of the Bible. The two chapters we will look at in this post deal most directly with violence in the text of scripture.
War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview by Richard S. Hess
Richard Hess provides an overview of how war and violence are presented in the Hebrew Bible. He states that in seeking an understanding of war and its ethical issues we should begin with the Hebrew Bible because, in part, it “preserves a tradition that continues in an unbroken connection from a time removed from the present day by millenia.” This allows us to view the issue of war set in another time and culture and also permits us to see the consider how attitudes and understanding about war have changed since ancient times.
Hess says that war in the Hebrew Bible is a topic “vast in scope” and that there is “no unanimity among biblical authors regarding war” (19). Although he does point out a few passages that deal with a future time of universal peace, the general expectation of the scriptures is that “war is assumed from the outset as a necessary part of the world in which the ancients found themselves” (19). In order to bring the focus a little closer to the task of the seminar, Hess surveys and evaluates a few contributions related to the ethics of war (as described in the HB).
First, he deals with the theme of “Yahweh as Warrior,” which considers the nature of God as a warrior who leads his people in battle. Then he examines three different types of war as portrayed in the HB: 1) holy war (which includes ḥerem warfare); 2) a bardic tradition (which narrates a war by a set of expected rules and characters); and 3) an “ideology of expediency” which uses whatever force is necessary to eradicate the enemy. Finally, Hess asks, “Why did the authors record the battle stories?” and considers the issue of accounts of war as propaganda (particularly comparing similar accounts of war from other Ancient Near East cultures).
He concludes his essay saying, “In the end, the Bible reflects a variety of reasons for war, but it does so with a moral tenor that ultimately recognizes battle as a necessary evil in the context of a greater, cosmic struggle between good and evil” (32).
Toward Shalom: Absorbing the Violence by Elmer A. Martens
In this essay, Martens argues that “the cross along with the resurrection is the centerpiece of the Christian gospel, that its message is fundamentally reconciliation and peace, and that the method for achieving reconciliation and peace is absorbing the violence” (33). Christians, according to Martens, do this by both advocating and practicing nonviolence.
The first half of the essay describes what Martens calls “God’s heartbeat for humanity”: shalom, reconciliation, peace. He views the cross of Christ as the message and method by which peace is made (defending this from the writings of Paul and Isaiah).
After laying this foundation, Martens acknowledges that the Bible also “depicts humans as agents of violence [and] … reports that God commands acts of violence” but that this is not the dominant chord of the overall composition (40). Thankfully, he doesn’t leave the reader hanging, but does attempt to address the issue of violence in the Bible by looking at violence in society generally (attributed to sin), violence in human affairs perpetrated at God’s command (as an act of justice against corruption, and to prevent a worse evil from propagating within the nation of Israel), and violence directly associated with God as the agent. Martens briefly surveys many proposed (and according to him, inadequate) solutions for the issue of understanding the commands of God to the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites and then proposes a theological point of entry focused on prioritizing holiness, righteousness, and justice in scripture. I was not able to see how he connected the validity of God commanding the Israelites to perform acts of violence (for the sake of holiness and justice) with his advocacy for Christian nonviolence.
Also a bit disconcerting to me were some of the analogies that Martens chose. In the section about violence as the hard edge of justice, Martens discusses the issue of the mass destruction of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perrizites, etc., as a combination of judgment for their perversity, which we have evidence of from their “morally gross in the extreme” literature (e.g., evidence found in the archaeological work at Ugarit) and as a preemptive strike to prevent a worse evil (47). As an illustration justifying the necessity this type of violence, he discusses the way healthy cattle were killed along with infected cattle in order to combat mad cow disease. I wonder, though, if we really want to compare slaughtering cows to prevent the spread of disease to the slaughtering of Canaanite men, women, and children to prevent the spread of sin?
In the subsequent section on violence and the soft edge of justice, Martens says that where possible, God also eschews violence if it can be avoided (e.g. the city of Nineveh). He also discusses Yahweh’s engagement in the historical process as a pre-cursor to the incarnation and argues that “through war, Yahweh educates his people in the meaning of trust, faith and his sovereignty” (49). He uses the example of the Egyptians at the Red Sea as an indication that God is the one who fights and highlights that the participation of the Israelites is absent. Similarly, in the story of Gideon, clearly the 300 Israelites “armed with weapons of less-than-mass destruction such as pitchers, torches and trumpets” had little likelihood of success against soldiers armed with swords and spears (49). These examples are Martens argument for a pedagogical lesson from war: let God do the fighting.
In the final section on God as the agent of violence, he explores two images of God; God as king (sovereign) and warrior (over evil; ultimately completing its trajectory in Jesus). Martens says there are several (unnamed in the essay) ethical conclusions that can be drawn from this, but focuses on one: “Christians need not — should not — engage in violence. The fact that Yahweh our God is a powerful warrior, whose passion for holiness and justice is intense and who will deal decisively with evil, means that his followers can afford to leave the righting of wrongs in God’s hand” (55). Therefore, for Christians, the priority should be shalom which is achieved in a non-coercive manner. Human-to-human violence is to be dealt with by a transformation of the heart and Christians should follow the divine warrior, who becomes the incarnate Jesus and suffers martyrdom to break the violence cycle. Martens says believers should follow this example which demonstrates the principle that “bringing shalom demands the absorption of violence” (57).
This chapter caused me to re-visit the disturbing issue of attempting to make sense of the God-directed violence portrayed in the HB and whether or not we can extract an ethic for our day. I also found myself wanting to hear Martens “connect the dots” a little more with how we get to the non-coercive, violence-absorbing stance that he advocates Christians should take, and what that would look like in our current world of much violence. Perhaps some of the other essays from the conference will address this. Stay tuned for Part 3!