Thursday, May 14, 2009

Violence in the Hebrew Bible: hubris

Children love dinosaurs. As paleontologist Robert Bakker pointed out, "dinosaurs are big, scary, and dead." When you live in a world that's full of big and scary things, in other words, it's nice to know that one of them is no longer a threat.

Likewise, the Bible is full of stories -- incredibly violent stories -- about things that are big, scary, and dead. Whatever threat was posed by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, or Greece is gone; these empires are now as dead as the dinosaurs.

But the Bible also speaks of a continuing threat to God's people: the threat that God's people themselves might try to be big and scary. When Gideon gathered 32,000 men to battle the Midianites, for instance, God warned him that:
"You have too many many for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, 'Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back' " (Judges 7:2f).
You remember the result: 22,000 left . . . and then God whittled down the remainder to just 300 or so. No danger of hubris there!

Unfortunately, the Bible provides many examples of Israelites who did try to boast in their own strength: the attack on Ai, Rehoboam's coronation, Hezekiah's display of riches to Babylon's ambassadors.

And then there's David -- the king who rejoiced that God "had trained his hands for war, and his fingers for battle." But even this "godly" violence left its mark on David.
David said to Solomon: "My son, I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the LORD my God. But this word of the LORD came to me: 'You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight' " (I Chronicles 22:7f).
If you'll forgive the pun, it would seem that violence in the Hebrew Bible is a two-edged sword.
  • It is allowed -- even commanded! -- to gain or defend a home.
  • But the "imperial values" of pride, power, and glory are all condemned.
  • And while the violent may do God's work, they do violence to themselves in the process.
In short, it may be tempting to be big and scary.

But only if we forget what happened to the dinosaurs.

No comments: