As I alluded in my last post, I have long wanted to place the grid of a peace document over the Old Testament and at times I can almost do it, but not quite. I can explain away much of the Old Testament violence--or fit it into my peace frame--but not all of it. For example, I can understand the Samson stories. In one initially horrifying tale, Samson kills 30 non-Israelites because he needs their 30 suits of clothes to pay off a bet he lost. He murders them without blinking an eye--and in fact, the story seems to approve his resourcefulness in getting himself out of a jam. The mind reels, but then realization strikes: this is a folk narrative, a classic trickster tale, a Paul Bunyan tall tale. It's meant to be read in a nonliteral context. In another case, there's the psalm often used to clinch the case that Christian are psycopaths (even though it's a Jewish text. (These same critics would never, ever use this text to attack Jews.)). In this psalm, the writer prays for the dashing out of the brains of his enemies' babies. Not pleasant stuff, but we can see it as a cry of anguish and anger against oppressors. And as many have pointed out, stating emotions and acting on them are two different things.
Other acts of violence are harder to explain away. Why would God tell Saul to kill all the Amalekites, a case of ethnic cleansing if there ever was one? I'm tempted to think the Bible writers got the feed wrong, that they misinterpreted God's words. This may be, but isn't it self serving to decide that episodes I don't like are mistakes? What if God really did mean for Saul to wipe out the Amalekites? (The whole tenor of the Bible works against this interpretation but still ....) I've also heard the Amalekite story interpreted as a metaphor: in this reading, the Amalekites become the stand-in for evil. In that case, the story illustrates that we can't compromise and wink at evil when it is comfortable to do so, but need to get rid of it enitrely. Saying we're doing the self-serving thing for God, as Saul does (and haven't there been evangelists flying around in private planes "for God?"), doesn't wash. I can agree with that reading, but a residue lingers: why is the story then put into this confusingly literalistic guise? Have I missed a bunch of cues? Why not make it explicitly metaphoric, ala Aesops' Fables? Why does Elijah kill (or to use the term in the New English Bible, "slaughter") the 450 prophets of Baal? Why do we Quakers gloss over that "detail" when we talk about Elijah hearing "the small, still voice of God?" And what about the verse that exorts the Israelites to prepare for war and beat their ploughshares into swords? I've heard this explained as more derivative and less authoritative than the evocation to beat swords into ploughshares. But the point is: it's there.
Like many people, I'd like the Old Testament to be something other than it is. I would like it to be gentle book full of stories of lovingkindness and wise sayings about attaining peace and serenity, a sort of Zen prelude to usher in Christ. I would like it to be a beautiful book. What I'm really saying, however, is that I'd like the human race to be different than it is. I wish those Isrealites had been more civilized. Yet when I look around, I see that violence is still here. Beyond the private realm of violence, there are the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, violence in Pakistan, the periodic outbreaks of horrific violence in Africa, the series of genocides attempted in the supposedly rational and enlightened 20th century that ran from Germany to Cambodia to Bosnia to Rwanda, etc. etc., stories-we've-all-heard-why-repeat-them. So I have to conclude that the Old Testament reflects how the world still lives. And for that reason, the stories still have relevance. I admire the honesty of the writers. They didn't, apparently, whitewash their story. They let it all hang out. And their story is our story.
To be continued.