Blogging Old Testament Style – Justice

This blog post will focus on the topic of justice. Justice is a large topic. However, it is sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. I look at the injustice set against the Hebrews by Egypt. Pharoah commits genocide against the Hebrews by ordering the killing of their male babies. However, there’s a story in Exodus 1:15-21 about midwives who covertly disobey the pharaoh’s orders. Shiphrah and Puah lie to the pharaoh and are later rewarded by God for their courage. These midwives disobey the orders of the most powerful person in their corner of the world. I love how these women take matters into their own hands and use their agency to save the lives of so many babies.

Contrast this with Moses, who responds to injustice in a different way. Moses sees the injustice of one of a fellow Hebrew slave being whipped mercilessly by an Egypt overseer. His first response is to use violence and kill the overseer. Even though we can all understand how Moses feels, his form of vigilante violence only begot more violence and fear. Moses ended up running away and actually made things worse for the Hebrew slaves. In an earlier blog post, I discussed the revenge killing of Simeon and Levi. They took justice into their own hands. God nor their father affirmed their actions. Justice belongs to God and not to humans. Violence is never the proper response to injustice. This is complicated because some would say God uses violence to respond to injustice. I think in theory this all makes sense. How does this work in the real world? I can’t speak for deeply oppressed people around the world who have no hope for any transformative recourse. I have privileges that they don’t have. God is the true purveyor of justice and I must discern the ways I can be the hands and feet of God in the work for justice in this world.

Earlier I also mentioned the laws of Israel that mandated justice for the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners. God through his laws has thoroughly made it clear that he has a strong sense of looking after the oppressed and marginalized. However, Israel starts to be disobedient to God’s call for justice. They oppress the poor and the downtrodden. As they do this, prophets come and rebuke them for their life of injustice which is contrary to God’s will. Jeremiah calls for Israel to come back to God and that destruction is coming their way. Amos emphatically calls out the people of Israel for the ways they have oppressed the marginalized and have become perpetrators of injustice. This theme of living out justice is important for God. He is calling his chosen people to live out in such a way that is an example to other nations. However, this did not materialize. Eventually, these oracles and prophecies against Israel came true and they would lose their land to their enemies.

We read an article in class by Jewish scholar Jon Levenson. He critiques George Pixley and other liberation theologists who see the story of the exodus as a story of human freedom. Levenson critiques our modern notions of freedom and asserts that when the Israelites are freed from Egypt, they are not free in the sense that we think about it. The Israelites are free to be slaves of God. Their freedom is living in the will and plans of Yahweh. That is a very different concept of liberation. We may look at some of these Old Testament stories as stories of justice. However, we may need to examine our modern eyes to see if we are missing the true cultural context of the people of Israel. God’s justice in the Old Testament may look different from our Englightenment influenced definitions of justice and freedom.

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.