It’s hard to imagine anyone today who is familiar with the Bible not being concerned about the violence in the Old Testament. It’s a fashionable bomb tossed by the so-called new atheists, and the easiest way for critics of Christianity to dismiss the Bible. To hear them talk, on every page of the Old Testament cities are burned to the ground, whole populations annihilated. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is in turn portrayed as a wrathful tribal deity constantly calling his people to commit atrocities in his name.
The problem of violence in the Old Testament centers mainly around the stories of Israel’s struggle to settle the land of Canaan. These stories center on the books of Joshua and Judges. So establish some starting points by looking in a general way at the question of violence and war in the Old Testament. Then in the installments to follow, we’ll turn specifically to Joshua and Judges.
All these presentations will share one important conviction: central to getting the Bible right is hearing it in its own cultural and historical setting. This is not just good scholarship; it’s good listening. That’s why I’m excited to be sharing with you from a place called Bedhat es-Sha’ab, a little-known and infrequently visited site just west of the Jordan river that is possibly one of the earliest places where Israelites assembled and worshiped as they settled in the land of Canaan. Being an outsider in this barren, desolate place reminds me that the biblical characters didn’t live in a world of civilian police, ambulance and 9-1-1 service. Nor did they have 2000 years of reflection on the whole Bible. The Old Testament characters need to be seen and heard in their own time, not dismissed from the perspective of our time.
With that in mind, here are seven facts to to help focus the question of violence in the Old Testament:
Jesus and the NT writers never complain about the violence in the Old Testament. That should flash at least a yellow, caution-light on our hasty dismissal of the Old Testament. Are WE more morally sensitive than Jesus and the New Testament writers? Did they see something in the Old Testament that we miss?
Secular historians and the Bible itself tell us that the land of Canaan at the time of the Israelite settlement was not inhabited by a uniform, indigenous population. Canaan was a crossroads and a diverse culture of many different groups: You know, all the “-ites”-Canaanites, Amorites, Perizites, stalactites, stalagmites… If you’d asked a random inhabitant of Canaan “Whose land is this?” You’d have gotten different answers. It was a no-mans-land.
Genesis 12-50 tells us the Israelites’ ancestors had actually lived in Canaan for centuries before their sojourn in Egypt. They were not outsiders trying to take a land from its original owners. In fact, the Pharaohs of Egypt would have seen no real difference between Canaanites and Israelites. They came from the same place, spoke the same language, had the same physical anthropology, i.e. they looked alike. So there is no parallel between the book of Joshua and, say, the European settlers in North America displacing the earlier inhabitants.
This a biggee. By Joshua’s day, Canaan had long suffered under a harsh political system. Canaan in the time of Moses and Joshua had been ruled for centuries by Egypt. Egypt had been ruled by foreign kings known as the Hyksos, who possibly came from Syria-Palestine. A native Egyptian dynasty expelled these foreign kings, pursuing them into Canaan. To insure they never came back, Egypt annexed Canaan and ruled it with two aims: first, never-ever would Canaan be a corridor for anyone attacking Egypt!
Second, Pharaoh exploited Canaan economically. He administered Canaan by appointing rulers in the top 30 or so towns. They managed the country like a giant agricultural plantation, a kind of “factory farm.” They focused on producing a small number of crops valued by the Egyptian upper classes, mainly olives and a type of grape that thrived only in Canaan.
This reality had serious consequences.
The focus on massive production of a few crops not only risked depleting the land, it also destroyed the locally integrated, self-sustaining economies of small villages and towns throughout the hill country. These communities needed mix of farming and herding just to survive. The Egyptians also yanked the best of the work force out of these towns and villages to toil as forced labor, emptying the rural hill country of Canaan. Many people from Canaan, not just future Israelites, wound up slaves in Egypt. Settlement patterns in Canaan about 1300 B.C., just before the exodus and conquest, show the central hill country of Canaan was largely emptied out.
Under this kind of regime, Canaan was unstable and violent. The city rulers fought each other, hired mercenaries, sometimes cruelly treated the local populace. Bandits terrorized the highways. Men stripped of their land and living gathered around warlords, some of whom were good men, others just thugs or gangsters.
So, by the time Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, the place was dark and bloody ground. It’s just possible that, far from being seen as invaders, Joshua and the Israelites represented the arrival of order, justice, and even peace.
The Old Testament shows us that, even in the conquest stories, the Israelites were not a militarized nation. While other nations boasted of their weapons and crack troops, the Israelites were not a professional army. Likewise, the Israelites were not a huge group. The idea found in some textbooks that there were at least 2.5 million Israelites comes from a misunderstanding of the Hebrew terminology for numbers. Archaeologists tell us that likely weren’t 2.5 million people living in all of Canaan and Syria combined!
The books of Deuteronomy, Joshua & Judges stress that, from a military perspective, the Israelites were out-numbered, out-maneuvered and out-gunned. After Joshua, they had no central authority. They were only a coalition of tribes, often divided, often untrue to their own religion. The Bible says they needed miraculous divine intervention just to survive. Hardly the profile of a nation of bloodthirsty, imperialists!
Warlike nations, and all of Israel’s ancient neighbors, gloried in their superior weapons and firepower. Images of Pharaoh portray him holding his hapless enemies by the hair and smiting them with a mace or battle axe. Or, we see Pharaoh thundering along in his war chariot, horses’ reins tied around his waist, unleashing arrows at cringing, fleeing foes. The Old Testament, in contrast, stresses that the Israelites were poorly armed, confronting fortified cities or huge chariot forces on foot. The Old Testament also emphasizes Israel’s lack of metal workers. Again, not exactly a warrior nation.
Finally, the world of Moses, Joshua, Gideon and David was a world of unspeakable violence perpetrated by massive, well-armed professional armies. The kings of Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia gloried in their brutality and savagery. In countless inscriptions throughout the history of the ancient Near East, the great kings boasted of boring through their enemies’ bodies, ripping their entrails out, galloping their horses and chariots through the gore of enemy bodies, splashing through enemy blood as if crossing a river, impaling thousands of “rebels” on stakes around conquered cities, flaying the skin off of their defeated enemies in full view of their families, and hideously mutilating the dead. And you know, almost nobody in the ancient Near East found this shocking. Rather, most thought it glorious proof that the gods had favored the king. Compared to the graphic detail, intensity, and sheer mass of these ancient descriptions, the Old Testament looks rather tame, even modest.
Whatever problems we might have with the violence in the Old Testament, it was One who claimed to be the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament, Jesus, whose Hebrew name was Joshua, who appealed constantly to the OT witness. Schooled in the Old Testament, Jesus called his people to love their enemies and to be peacemakers, not in spite of his Old Testament heritage, but because of it.
That’s something to think about.