Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Violence in the Hebrew Bible: limits

Children love to play house. Much of their play, after all, mimics the work we do to provide a home: cooking, cleaning, shopping, and tending small children. And given some sheets and a few chairs, they will spend hours creating elaborate shelters for themselves and their toys.

In doing this, they show they were made in God's image -- the same God who created this world as a home for all His creatures, with a place for everything and everything in its place. From that first garden in Eden to the garden-city of New Jerusalem, in other words, God promise remains the same: "I will prepare a place for you" (John 14:2).

Unfortunately, that promise led to much of the Bible's violence. God's people fought to claim their Promise Land; then they fought to defend it. And given the stakes for which they fought, it should come as no surprise that the violence of these fights was horrific.

But if God gave the land of Canaan to Israel, He also made it clear that the surrounding lands were off limits. Moab was reserved for the Moabites, in other words, just as Ammon was for the Ammonites and Edom for the Edomites. Even the Philistines had been given their land by God (Amos 9:7); when Israel went to war against them, it was only to make sure the Philistines stayed where they'd been put.

In short, the Bible's ideal remained one of "a place for everyone -- and everyone in their place." And while its people did fight "holy wars," these were not wars for empire; they were not "jihads" or "crusades" as we commonly use these terms.

No, Israel's battle-cry was, "there's no place like home."

Which is all the more remarkable when we remember one fact:

Most of the people who read these stories were homeless.

Tomorrow: an audience for violence

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