The Violence of the Old Testament

Judges 11:1-6; 30-39
October 16, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

[Intro to scripture]

I’ve been preaching a series called “Ask the Pastor,” based on questions that people raised last spring and as I’ve said before, some of these questions are really difficult ones and I know that it’s impossible to answer them in one sermon which is going to be the case for today’s question. The best I can hope to do is open some avenues for thinking about them.

Today’s question is one that many Christians have had over the centuries: what do we do with the violence of the Old Testament? Though there is violence in the New Testament, with the exception of the Book of Revelation (which is a sermon unto itself) the heroes of the stories are violence’s victims. Jesus himself is a victim of violence, crucified by Rome, yet he speaks words of forgiveness even as he dies. In the Old Testament, however, the heroes are often the perpetuators of the violence, annihilating their enemies to show devotion to God. The contrast between the violence of the Old Testament and the pacifism of the New led some Christians as early as the second century to reject the Old Testament altogether saying that its God was not the same as the Christian God. 1

To reject the Old Testament, however, is to reject the scriptures that Jesus used himself and it is to reject the heroes who informed his faith and have shaped ours for thousands of years — tiny David who slew the mighty Goliath, Miriam who danced and sang when the Pharaoh’s chariots drowned in the Red Sea, and Samson who though blind and in chains sacrificed his own life to take down the conniving Philistines. When we tell these stories in Sunday School, we polish them and sanitize them so that they sound like our modern day action movies of good versus evil. We cheer Luke Skywalker as he blasts the Death Star into smithereens because he has defeated “the dark side,” but what the scriptwriters don’t talk about is that if there were a real Death Star, its destruction would also kill thousands of innocent cooks and janitors and low level technicians who would be living alongside the Empire’s soldiers.

We sanitize the Old Testament stories to make them simple tales of good versus evil but when you sit down and read the details of these stories of the Bible, you will be struck by the amount of blood and gore that is there. Moreover, the heroes in our Biblical stories often insist that their violence is condoned, even commanded by God. What do we as peace loving Christians do with these passages?

Today this is going to be more of a teaching sermon because I’m going to try to give you a way of reading the Old Testament that might help resolve this conflict. To do this, I’d like us to use as an example one of the more disturbing stories in the Old Testament, the story of Jephthah and his daughter in the book of Judges chapter 11.

First, let’s me set the scene for you. The book of Judges is the seventh book of the Old Testament. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God calls Abraham and Sarah to go to the land of Canaan — geographically where modern day Israel is — to become the parents of a nation that will be dedicated to God. Abraham and Sarah obey and for several generations their descendants live as nomads in Canaan worshipping God. Ethnically, they are known as Hebrews. During a period of famine, the Hebrews are forced to migrate to Egypt looking for food. The Egyptians initially welcome the refugees and they settle in the land and grow numerous. They remain, however, a separate ethnic group distinct from Egyptians because of their language, culture, and religion 2,and eventually this growing migrant population worries the state. A Pharaoh comes to power who deals with the perceived threat by rounding up all of the Hebrews and forcing them into slave labor where they languish for several centuries.

In the next few books of the Bible, we read the story of Moses who God calls to free the Hebrews and lead them back to their original home in Canaan. Moses does this, and they work their way back to Canaan but it takes so long that Moses dies and Joshua takes over just as the people are about to enter what the Bible refers to as “the Promised Land.” Unfortunately, while they were gone, a number of other diverse groups have settled in Canaan and they aren’t very welcoming to the returning Hebrews. Joshua has to fight a number of battles in order to reclaim land where the people can rebuild their lives. And this is where the book of Judges begins. In the book of Judges, the Hebrew people have finally been able to establish settlements in Canaan and are living as a loosely configured tribal confederacy known now as the Israelites. At this point, the Israelites have no central authority or standing army; they live in twelve 3 self-governing tribes each with their own geographical territory. If an external enemy threatens any one of the tribes, a temporary leader arises who raises an army of volunteers from all of the tribes to beat back the enemy. After the enemy is defeated, that leader goes back to whatever he or she was doing before the crisis. These temporary leaders were known as the Judges and their stories are found in the Book of Judges. Most of the disturbing violence of the Old Testament is found in their stories and interestingly, even the Bible is brutally honest in its recognition that the judges are not always models of moral character. And one of the most disreputable is Jephthah.

Here then is his story. [Read Judges 11:1-6, 30-39]

I said that I would try to give you a way of reading the Old Testament that might help us in coping with its often violent nature, and the first thing we need to think about when approaching a particularly violent or difficult biblical story is the passage’s “sitz in leben.” “Sitz in leben” is a German phrase which means literally, “where you sit in life.” When you pay for a seminary education, you get fancy ways of saying very simple things, and “sitz in leben” is a theological phrase that basically asks, “What is the passage’s context?” What do we need to know about the lives of the people hearing this story that will help us make better sense of it?

The first thing we have to know about the Old Testament period is that it was one of unspeakable violence.

My son Mathew goes to the College of Wooster in Ohio and two weeks ago, he called me to tell me that a fellow student had been shot on his way back to school after a weekend in Columbus. The young man had stopped at a rest area on interstate 71, and as he returned to his car from the bathroom, a stranger sitting on a nearby bench pulled out a gun and shot him times. The stranger was mentally ill and committed suicide soon after, but the young man was left in critical condition struggling for his life and the news gave updates on his situation daily. Remarkably, he survived, but his story will be told over and over again by those who heard it because as violent as our society often feels, such events are still news. Most of the time, you can drive the highways of Ohio without fear that someone is going to shoot you if you stop to use the bathroom. In the world of the Old Testament writers, however, such violence was commonplace. Bandits lurked along roads, local warlords raided one another’s towns killing men and raping women, and powerful Kings maintained their rule through violent intimidation.

An Assyrian King from this period described his victory over an enemy saying, “I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me [and] draped their skins over the pile [of corpses]; [and from another inscription] “I felled 50 of their fighting men with the sword, burnt 200 captives from them, and … with their blood I dyed the mountain red like red wool… I cut off the heads of their fighters [and] [with them] built a tower before their city. I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls.”

Lawson Stone, a professor of Old Testament, says, “In countless inscriptions throughout the history of the ancient Near East, the great kings boasted of [horrendous acts of violence] …and…almost nobody in the ancient Near East found this shocking.” 4

The land of Canaan was particularly susceptible to violence because it was inhabited by diverse cultural groups ruled by warlords battling over scarce resources. Canaan was also the crossroads between larger neighboring powers that used it as the highway through which they attacked one another. The Israelites came into Canaan as a homeless people and tried to negotiate with the local Kings for land where they could settle peacefully, but the warlords answered their requests with violence and drove them away from their borders. Where they were finally able to gain entrance and settle down, life was unpredictable: mercenaries constantly raided their fields, stealing their crops and livestock; invaders periodically attacked their villages kidnapping their women and killing their men. When we look at the records kept by other cultures from that time, we see that the violence is not only pervasive but violence is lauded as a testimony to the strength of whatever god that culture worships. The wars of earth were believed to be reflective of the cosmic battles between the gods in heaven, so the more people you killed on behalf of your god, the more your god would be glorified in the heavenly arena.

Professor Stone says, “Compared to the graphic detail, intensity, and sheer mass of [violence from the records of other countries of the time], the Old Testament looks rather tame, even modest.” The Israelites didn’t have a standing army, they cooperated across tribal lines, and were rarely the aggressors in war. The Judges arose only when diplomacy failed, and the battles that they fought were a last resort.

So the first thing we have to remember when reading the stories of the Old Testament is the context. Yes, these stories are violent but in comparison to their times, the violence of the Israelite leaders in the Old Testament had limits, and the biblical audiences hearing these stories probably heard them as stories of unusual restraint given the times in which they lived.

Nevertheless, to say that the violence of the Bible isn’t as bad as it could have been isn’t the most comforting argument for us today. And it certainly wasn’t much comfort to Jephthah’s daughter who had to pay the price for the violence of her father’s leadership. Sure, she didn’t get gang raped or skinned alive, but I doubt that as she was preparing to be sacrificed, any of her friends had the gall to say to her, “Hey, it could have been worse. Just look at what those Assyrians do to people.”

And so we come to the second step in reading the Old Testament. Once you are sure you understand the context of the passage and are judging it by the standards of its own time and not ours, you then engage it in conversation across time. The New Testament says, “The word of God is living and active.” Scripture isn’t a corpse that you dissect but is a living thing that you talk to, argue with, question, challenge, and even expand upon. Scripture is the record of thousands of years of people’s interaction with God and their reflections on what faithful life looks like, and through scripture we can engage those ancient communities in a living conversation about the nature of faith.

When I was in college, I had two types of professors. The first was the type of teacher who expected you to learn the facts as he or she taught them and then regurgitate those facts and ideas back on the test. What you thought about the material didn’t matter; the professor just wanted you to be an echo chamber.

The second sort of professor presented the material and asked us to reflect on it ourselves. “What do you think about this?” the professor would ask. “How would you figure out this problem for yourself? How might you apply what you have learned to a real life situation?” This second type of professor might even disagree with your ideas or conclusions but would give you a good grade if your argument was sound. The second type of professor doesn’t want you to be an echo chamber; they want you to be a partner in your learning.

Most Christians approach the Bible as if it is the first sort of teacher. They believe that we are to read the stories, memorize the teachings, and regurgitate them back without argument. Our only response to the Bible is supposed to be “Go and do likewise.”

This is not, however, how the Jews historically read their scriptures, our Old Testament. They approached the scriptures as a living conversation, and asked questions of the stories, even challenging and expanding on those stories with new teachings or new material. Jesus, who was Jewish, stood squarely in this tradition. When Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” he was quoting scripture but rather than going on to say as a Christian reading the Bible might, “Go and do likewise,” he challenged that teaching and expanded on it: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Jesus led people into conversation with their ancient scriptures, challenging the limitations of those texts and developing new ways of thinking about the issues they raised.

I chose the story of Jephthah’s daughter as the scripture today because it is one of the best examples of how reading scripture as conversation differs from reading it as material to be swallowed without question. Historically, Christians who have read Judges 11 read this story as a tribute to Jephthah’s obedience to his promise to God in spite of the cost to himself.

“Look at Jephthah’s heroic faith,” they say. “He kept his word even though it meant he had to sacrifice his daughter. He is a man of honor. Go and do likewise.”

The Jewish rabbis, however, saw this story very differently. They engaged this passage in conversation, and challenged its assumptions, raising questions about Jephthah’s behavior.

“Look at Jephthah’s weakness,” they said. “He was too proud to admit that his vow was a foolish one. If he had gone to the priest, the priest could have excused him from the vow but he was too arrogant to admit his wrong-doing, and his daughter paid the price. Don’t go and do likewise because this is not the kind of faith God wants from us.”

When Christians read the Bible as an echo chamber, this passage becomes a glorification of the violence of war; it justifies the treatment of women as property; and it makes the God of the Old Testament into a brutal warlord himself, one who dines on the blood of the innocent. When we read the Bible as conversation, however, when we read it as the Jews read it — as Jesus himself read it — this story becomes a warning about the cycle of violence. Jephthah’s downfall began when his own brothers rejected him because he was not “pure” enough for them, and they cast him out of their home. The cycle of violence was perpetuated by the warlords who refused to accept the Hebrew refugees fleeing from Egyptian slavery. And violence had its final say when the Israelites remained silent, refusing to speak out on behalf of an innocent young woman. The rabbis reading this story condemn Jephthah for his pride, and they condemn the community for their silence.  The priest didn’t intervene and say, “Our God is a merciful God who doesn’t condone child sacrifice.”  The townspeople didn’t protest the fate of the innocent girl.  Even Jephthah’s daughter — the girl who never even gets a name in our scripture — doesn’t stand up for herself because she has grown up in a culture where women are the property of men, where their bodies not their own, and where she has never been taught how to speak on her own behalf. Pride, apathy, passivity, stubbornness, and fear acted together to suppress the voices which might have changed the course of events and a woman lost her life.

The Jewish rabbis conclude that this story should be for us not a model of behavior but a model of how not to behave. “[The one who] could have protested and chose not to, he is the one who killed the victim…” the rabbis said.

Sometimes the people of our faith, in both the Old Testament and the New, got things right and were exemplary models of life as faithful people; but sometimes they got it wrong, justifying their own failings to a God who they thought behaved no differently than the vengeful cruel warlords around them. When we engage the Bible in a living conversation, we read these stories and ask, “Where did they get it right and where did they go wrong? How would I have acted in those circumstances? How might the story have turned out differently if they had seen with the eyes of faith as I understand faith?”

Sure, it’s easier to take a course from a professor who just wants you to be an echo chamber but regurgitating scripture mindlessly without struggling with the questions it raises doesn’t really teach us anything. The Bible was given to us so that we could be partners in learning with the generations that have gone before. Here in theses stories and words we can converse with hundreds of people from thousands of years ago to ask them, “Who is this God we worship? What does it mean to be people of faith? How is God’s way different from the ways of the culture in which I live? When is war justified? When is war just the easy way out? When have I contributed to the cycle of violence by my rejection of others, my jump to judgement, my need for vengeance, or my silence?”

When you read the Bible, read it as a living word, a conversation between people across time who talk and even argue with one another about what it means to be faithful to the God of us all.

1. Marcion, for example

2. The origin and exact meaning of the word “Hebrew” in biblical times is debated by scholars. The Encyclopedia Brittanica says, “It could be derived from the word eber, or ever, a Hebrew word meaning the “other side” and conceivably referring again to Abraham, who crossed into the land of Canaan from the “other side” of the Euphrates or Jordan River. The name Hebrew could also be related to the seminomadic Habiru people, who are recorded in Egyptian inscriptions of the 13th and 12th centuries BCE as having settled in Egypt.”

3. Though called the 12 Tribes of Israel, there were actually 13 tribes because the tribe of Joseph was split into two — Manasseh and Ephraim