Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Violence in the Hebrew Bible: underdogs

Good children's stories are always subversive.

Think of Aladdin. Pippi Longstocking. Or Mr. Popper's Penguins. In each of these stories, the little guy wins. And the powers-that-be end up looking foolish.

You know -- like David and Goliath.

Most of the violence in the Bible, as a matter of fact, fits into this pattern. When Gideon fights the Midianites, for instance, he's clearly the underdog. The same is true of Deborah against Sisera. Jonathan against the Philistines. And Hezekiah versus Sennacherib. In each of these stories, notice, a small group of Israelites takes on an overwhelming larger force . . . and with God's help, they win.

And yes, it's easy to see why children like these stories -- but it's worth remembering that most of the Bible's original audience was similarly powerless. If Moses wrote the Pentateuch, for instance, then he wrote it while God's people were slaves in Egypt, or nomads on the fringes of empire. Likewise, the stories of Saul, David, and all subsequent kings were written for people in exile.

Many of the Bible's violent stories, in other words, are subversive -- both in terms of their content and their context. They are not stories of power for the powerful. Instead, they tell the powerless how God:
. . . has scattered those who are proud in their innermost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).
When you're up against a Goliath, in other words, it's nice to know that a David can win.

And one of the problems we have with violence in the Bible . . .

Well, it may be that we identify with the wrong side.

Tomorrow: warnings to the powerful

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