Friday, June 21, 2013

Violence in the Old Testament (7-minute explanation)

This is an excellent 7-minute response video to the popular question: "Why is there so much violence in the Old Testament?" Dr Lawson Stone, Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary gives a very concise summary of the context of the Old Testament during those times.

Here are my brief notes of the seven points.

  1. Perspective: Jesus never complained about the Old Testament violence, the same way we are doing now. This should raise some bells in us. Does that mean we are more morally sensitive or superior in our modern times?
  2. Canaan a No Man's Land: Some people accuse Israel of stealing the land that is not theirs. The fact is, Canaan belongs to nobody. Thus it is not right to say that Israel invaded someone else's territory illegally. For Canaan contains many diverse cultures. It’s no man’s land.
  3. Israel not Outsiders: Adding to the above point, there is no real difference between Israelites or Canaanites. The Israelites lived in Canaan for centuries for thousands of years, before they resided in Egypt. No difference from how early American settlers displace the native Indians from their land. 
  4. Canaan Unstable physically and morally: In Joshua’s day, Canaan had suffered under a harsh political system. Pharaoh managed the land like a giant factory farm, producing small number of crops valued by few. As a result, the massive production exploited the land and ravished small villages and town. Egyptians took the best workers from Canaan into forced labour, and many young men ended up as forced slaves. Canaan having being emptied out, became unstable morally. By the time Joshua come, instead of being seen as a cruel conqueror, he might very well be bringing justice, order, and peace. In other words, the presence of Israel may in fact be putting the Canaanites out of their misery. As a small out of the box comparison, think of the ethical debates surrounding euthanasia, and perhaps we can get a shift in perspective. 
  5. Israel Not a Military Nation: It is one thing to enter another nation's land and conquer like Genghis Khan or Alexandra the Great. It is yet another to clumsily push their way in, at great military disadvantage. Even in the conquest story, Israel is not really prepared for battle at all.  They are not huge either. They simply do not have enough soldiers to wipe out people in Canaan. The Israelites were outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and outgunned. After Joshua, they had no central authority. Israel needed divine intervention just to survive. So it is not right to think that Israel is a giant bullying midgets.
  6. Israel is Poorly Armed: Warlike nations in Canaan gloried in their firepower. They like to show off. Not Israel. On the other hand, Israelites are poorly armed, having a gross lack of metal workers, and is not exactly a warrior nation. Poorly armed Israelites conquering great lands and larger armies simply mean that some divine grace rather than violence is happening. If you have trouble visualizing this, think of how a small group of rebel fighters in Star Wars saga manage to overcome the galactic Imperial empire. These rebels too were outnumbered and outgunned. Yet, who do we cheer for? 
  7. Gory and great violence: Canaan perpetuated in brutality and savagery. OT looks tame compared to modern.  ANE people even consider it normal to castrate dead corpses. If one thinks the Israelites are cruel, the rest of the people are worse. In fact, viewing from the culture of that time, the way the Israelites were asked to destroy the Canaanites looked rather tame compared to the norm at that time.
By the way, considering the violence of our modern times, the cultural revolution in China, the killing fields horror in Cambodia, and the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, I think the Old Testament violence is way too mild. Anyone who questions the Old Testament violence and gore, and at the same time, refuses to grapple with the modern tragedies, wars, and violence in our own century will be in danger of being a hypocrite. 


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