Blogging Old Testament Style – History and Memory, War and Violence

The topic for this blog post is history and memory, war and violence. The Israelites are a forgetful bunch. God has been faithful to his people. He has taken them out of slavery and provided for their needs. He has led them to victory in battle. Yet, the Israelites forget what God has done and continually live in disobedience. Throughout the Old Testament there is a pattern where God leads Israel into victory in battle when they are obedient and God leaves their presence and Israel gets routed in battle when they are disobedient to God. During the time that Israel was led by judges, there were periods of war and peace dependent on whether the judge was obedient to God in his/her leadership. However, as time would go on, the judges would become more disobedient and times of peace would become shorter. God was being faithful to his part of the covenant while Israel was not and this would be the recurring theme throughout the Old Testament.

Israel had a certain way of fighting holy wars called “herem”. This would lead to the wiping out of whole people groups. In Deuteronomy 20, God commands the Israelites to completely destroy the seven nations that were occupying the Promised Land. Through “herem”, they were to completely annihilate these nations leaving no one alive. For many people, God’s call for total destruction of the enemies of Israel becomes very problematic. Why would God do this? Is God perpetrating genocide? This seems to be against what we think is good. I wrestle with the violence in the Old Testament. Maybe those nations were already evil and they are all being punished for their collective sin. Maybe God doesn’t want any of the evil of those nations to contaminate the purity and holiness of God’s chose people. I’m not totally sure. I don’t have a good answer for this. Yet, I must still believe in the goodness of God even when my sense of what is good and just are disturbed.

One place of random and disturbing violence takes place in Genesis 34. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, is raped by Shechem. Shechem’s father wants Dinah to marry his son. Dinah’s brother deceive Shechem and his family by accepting them into Jacob’s family if they would be circumcised. While the men of Shechem’s family are in pain from circumcision, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, killed every man in Shechem’s village. This passage is disturbing in many ways. First, a woman is raped and then her rapist wants to marry her. The woman is treated like property. She has no rights. Yet, her rapist has no remorse and has the audacity to ask her hand in marriage. Second, the violence perpetrated by Simeon and Levi seems extreme. Even though we can all sympathize with their anger because of the rape of their sister, their act of revenge seems so extreme. They use circumcision as a trap to slay every man in Shechem’s city. However, in this case, both Jacob and God disapprove of their actions. In Deuteronomy 49 when Jacob is dying, he curses Simeon and Levi while blessing his other sons. Even with God’s disapproval, the situation speaks to the brutal violence in the Old Testament.

So does this mean that there are just causes for war and violence? I’m not sure. The Old Testament’s violence is something I can’t always understand and fathom. God give me the understanding and grace to know you are good even when I don’t comprehend the reasons for violence in the Old Testament.