Sunday, June 04, 2006


 Usually, the allegations that the Bible teaches violence feed upon the passages in the OT relating to the ‘violent’ liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt (NRSV. Ex. 7: 14-12:36; 14:19-30) or the ‘outrageous’ occupation of the promised land (Deut.2: 26-6:12; Josh.6: 12) or the practice of military ban (herem) that accompany Israel’s conquests (Duet. 20:13-18; Josh. 6:17,21,24; 8:24-29) or the oracles of doom that wish terrible things upon the enemies (Ps. 137:9) or in the NT to certain actions and the words of Jesus which appear to be advocating the use of violence in certain situations (Jn.2: 15; Lk 22: 36).

 Violence in the Old Testament

“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Ps. 1137:9). No one, however have-hearted, can avoid shuddering on reading these lines for the first time. Does Bible teach us to which such terrible things upon our enemies? Whoever knows the background of this exilic psalm and is familiar with the Hebrew idioms, custom and manners would say “No”. For it is not so much a curse against those who wantonly destroyed and desecrated the city of Jerusalem and their only temple which was their life-line, but an application of lex lalionis. Lex talionis is a Hebrew way of measuring the crime and meting out a proportionate punishment, so that the desire for revenge does not replace the desire for justice. So, we have “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” Therefore, these words should be understood as a cause of measuring the gravity of the sin committed by the Babylonians. Beneath this imaging of the extent of their crime, the psalmist actually expresses his grief, bitterness and longing for Jerusalem, the sacred sanctuary of Yahweh. And so with the other oracles of doom.
The next group of violent text concerns the practice of herem. What is herem? Herem is the terrible military ban on the captured city in the primitive world. It means a total annihilation of whatever is left over of the enemy by sword or by fire after the conquest in war. In order to appreciate this, one has to have some understanding of the customs of the primitive tribal people. Culturally, the primitive tribes, especially the ones small in number, practiced strict endogamy in order to maintain the purity of race. Therefore any contact with the aliens was avoided and any possible mingling with them was scrupulously nipped in the bud, even if it meant genocide. From a religious point of view, during the tribal age each tribe owed allegiance to its own tribal god. The entire life and activity of the tribe was centered around their tribal god who gave the tribe concerned its typical identity, so much so, that fight between tribes was considered fight between their respective gods. In that sense every war was considered a holy (jihad) by those involved in it. And, since the victory is given by God, spoils of the war belonged to God and not to the tribe. So if not all, at least a good portion of the spoils were offered as a burnt offering to the tribal god. This was valued as military renunciation.
But with the advent of the monarchy and the expansion of the tribes into kingdoms, the distribution of the booty (salal) became the prerogative of the king, who naturally enjoyed a major share in every plunder. The king gradually assumed the place of God and soon the economic considerations, the religious ones. For a modern believer such customs seem out of place in the life of the people of covenant through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed! Any ethical approach to the understanding of herem must take into consideration the evolution of morality achieved on a global plane at the period of the history.

There is a future important implication to all this: that one can find security only in Yahweh and not in armament; that fighting, avenging, punishing, etc., are the sole prerogatives of Yahweh, for He says, “vengeance is mine” (Deut. 32:35); and that man is not supposed to resort to violence in any situation, but only trust in God. This is, in fact, what the Bible teaches us through the historical books. Surely, its rhetoric is military violence, but its meaning is spiritual courage and total abandonment into the hands of God in times of tribulations and catastrophes.

Violence in the New Testament

Jesus represents a radical shift in the understanding of violence in the salvation history. Jesus’ teaching and life made earlier patterns of the OT obsolete and outdated. The progressive process is from the understanding of God as violent to God as non-violent. Jesus is the final climatic moment of evolution of salvation history, which may be identified as the evolution from the violence to non-violence. How Jesus taught and lived perfect and all-embracing non-violence? Jesus’ teaching and example shows that old patterns are to be abandoned and this new pattern is to be followed.


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