Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading the Bible in 20 months:violence

One thing that struck me while reading the Bible straight through during a 20 month (supposedly one year) period was how saturated it is in violence. The levels of violence are truly mind-boggling, from Jael hammering a tent peg through an enemy's head to mass slaughter, genocide, murder, mass murder, rape, child sacrifice (this is after Solomon, when the Israelites have lost their moorings), mutilation ... the head reels after a time.

Most, if not all, of the revered figures in the Old or First Testament, are violent: Moses murders a man, Saul slaughters the Amalekites, David kills people for insbordination at the slightest provocation, slaughters his enemies, has his friend killed so he can marry his wife ... Elijah kills the 450 priests of Baal .... To be a player, a leader, as opposed to a prophet or observer like Isaiah, almost inevitably seems to involve hair-raisingly barbarous behavior.

And then, in the New Testament, it stops. Jesus is clearly a player, not a prophet, and is explicitly embedded in a Moses-David-Elijah narrative. He's seen as the second David, the new Messiah. Yet he is nothing like anyone who came before. I don't think I "got" this fully until I read the Bible straight through. People often point to Jesus' throwing the moneylenders out of the Temple with a whip of knotted cords as proof that he was willing to engage in violence, but this action is nothing, nothing!!, in comparison to do his predecessors. Not one person is killed and nobody, apparently, is serioulsy injured. In fact, it's possible nobody was injured at all. Jesus scares people and knocks over tables, scattering a crowd. After the bloodbath of the Old Testament, this is like tapping someone on the shoulder and asking them politely to leave to room.

So in the New Testament, we get a new thing. Jesus' story, at the end of his life, is saturated in ultra-violence, but none of it is his doing. He is the willing sacrificial victim, modeling a new way of confronting violence and oppression. After his death and resurrection, his followers are also dogged by violence. We especially remember Stephen's stoning. Paul is pursued in violent ways. But as we proceed through the New Testament, we see the newness. Rather than being preoccupied with violence and how to protect and defend against violent aggressors (which is what most of the Old Testament is about, with the Jehovah God central to that protection), the New Testament shifts to focus on building a nonviolent community based on love, equality, integrity, compassion and imitation of Christ. The violence is out there, but it becomes increasingly peripheral to the concerns of this new community living a new covenant. It's not through the New Testament, but through other historical accounts that we learn that Paul is beheaded, Peter and Andrew apparently crucified, many ordinary Christ followers killed by the state in gruesome ways. These are not the central concerns of the New Testament writers. They are concerned with how to live out Jesus' gospel of love. It is stunning.

How did this happen? If you have read the Bible straight through, have you had illuminations?


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Diane,

The last couple of times I started reading the Bible through I only got as far as Judges or Samuel. I was appalled by the genocide and the horrible stories such as the "good" man who shoves his concubine outside to be gang-raped all night while he sleeps! Even David seemed much worse than I remembered him. He kills a bunch of men in order to give their foreskins as a price in order to marry his first wife! Such stuff sounds more like modern terrorists than biblical heroes.

So for the past several years I've stayed with the NT--which for the most part breathes with love, mercy, and truth, and Good News.

Right now I have started reading the Bible through again to try and understand the dissonance between the two covenants. I am going slow though as I am using Robert Altier's literal translation The First 5 Books of Moses. The literary study is fascinating, but again I struggle with the blatant evil of Bible heroes and terrible stories.

And what troubles me even more is how Christians use these stories right now to justify violent actions (as they have all matter of horrible action in the last two thousand years) from the burning of Michael Servetus to the 30 Years War--all "for Jesus" as Cromwell and Calvin and so many other Christians have said.

Sometimes people of faith seem less compassionate than the secular crowd, and tragically they base their violent actions on the OT.

I am seeking God's truth and light on this, but have no answers yet.

Thanks for bringing the subject up. I've been trying to avoid it;-)

In the Light,


Diane said...

Hi Daniel and thanks for the comment. I agree that it's too bad when the OT is used to justify present-day violence.


Ted M. Gossard said...

I do see Jesus and his coming as ushering in a new way to be Israel, and the beginning of God's kingdom come to earth, one not partaking of violence.

I have recently over time wavered some in my Christian pacifist stance, since I'm around no Christian pacifist at all, in this area.

Your thoughts here are so true. I am still taken back, and I've gone over the Bible time and time again, through hearing it (now through "The Bible Experience."). It is utterly gruesome and shaking in regard to the violence done, and the New Testament is indeed quite a contrast to the Old, on that score.

Interesting thoughts here, Diane. I need to keep working on this, myself. Always more reading I want to do. Actually Os Guinness, in a certain kind of way, in his "The Case for Civility," (2008) touches on this in his critique of the Religious Right and Secular Left. A quite interesting read, and paradigm impact book for me. He is hard on the Religious Right not following Jesus on the call to love our enemies.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Diane, you are right that the historical books of the Old Testament are full of violence. But the religious shift to a firm commitment against violence came not with Jesus, but eight-to-seven hundred years before Jesus, with the literary prophets Hosea, Micah and First Isaiah.

Here is Hosea 1:7, written in the middle-to-late eighth century before Christ: “...I will have mercy on the house of Judah, will save them by their God YHWH, and will not save them by bow, sword or battle, horses or horsemen.” This is the first clear anti-war testimony in our tradition, and nothing could be more plainly stated.

Here is Micah 4:3, written in the late eighth century B.C.: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This verse is now the motto of the United Nations.

First Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom vision (Isaiah 11), which Quaker painter Edward Hicks painted again and again, was composed seven hundred years before Christ’s birth. It was in a spirit identical to Hosea’s that First Isaiah wrote (30:1-2): “‘Woe to the rebellious children,’ says YHWH, ‘who take counsel, but not of Me, and devise plans, but not of My Spirit...; who go down to Egypt, without My advice, to strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh...! ...Trust in the shadow of Egypt shall be [your] humiliation.’

First Isaiah’s central message was that his country, Israel, could not save itself by political alliances with neighbor states or by any sort of military resistance, but only by faithfulness to YHWH. This was the very same message that the early Friends preached to their country, England, and that inspired our Quaker peace testimony. It was in support of this message that first Isaiah, and later some early Friends, “went naked for a sign” (Isaiah 20).

A century after First Isaiah, Jeremiah was beaten, put in the stocks and left there for the night, and on a later occasion imprisoned, all for bearing that same message that the path of military strength, violence and resistance are not the path that God blesses (Jeremiah 19:14-20:3, 37:11-38:28). Jeremiah endured these sufferings without resisting his oppressors, in the manner Christ later taught (Matthew 5:39).

Christ was therefore not a break with the past but a continuation of the religion and covenant that the prophets had upheld. As he himself said, he came not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).

Unknown said...

Hi Marshall,

Yes, I agree with you and planned to write a blog on the peace theme in the O.T. I would also point to 1 Samuel and Samuel's message from God to the Israelistes about appointing a conventional (warrior) king. However, I would also say that the peace theme in the Bible is primarily ( though not entirely) voiced by prophets, not players, a distinction I was making in my earlier post. In the OT, players were generally blood-covered. while prophets were generally "voices crying into the wilderness" or people pointing to a future age. Jesus was a player and he brought the prophecy to a fruition of sorts by actually establishing a new form of kingdom.

Unknown said...

The above comment is from Diane! Not William!

Marshall Massey said...

Diane, your distinction baffles me. In what way was Jesus a “player”, that the Old Testament prophets were not?

Jesus was no more a king or general than the prophets were. He healed and worked miracles, but so did Elijah and Elisha. He taught, but so did all the prophets. He protested, but so did Amos, Micah, Hosea, First Isaiah and Jeremiah. He had a following among the people, but so did they. They actually spent time in royal courts turning the minds of kings and royal advisers around; the closest he ever came to managing that was with Pilate, just before his crucifixion, and in that interview he did not change Pilate’s mind.

Jesus died a virtual nonentity. There is no historical record of his life and death outside his own following, a fact that has caused some scoffers to doubt his very existence.

Herod the Great, who renovated and expanded the Second Temple to make it the monumental structure where Jesus went to worship and teach, and who also built the fortress at Masada and expanded the water supply for Jerusalem and founded whole new cities and co-owned the Dead Sea asphalt monopoly with Cleopatra of Egypt and mined copper in Cyprus, was far more a “player” than Jesus — although as a collaborator with the Romans, Herod had bloody hands as well as being a bigamist and a committer of incest. If you are going to say that a religion is defined by its “players”, then why not define the religion to which Jesus gave his express public allegiance by Herod?