As You Read Joshua and Judges. Violence in Scripture

In our Living in The Story project, when we come to the reading of Old Testament books like Joshua and Judges, we read horrific stories of war and violence. Walter Brueggemann says:

There is no question more troubling for theological interpretation of the Old Testament than the undercurrent of violence that runs through a good bit of the text.

There is, moreover, no part of the textual tradition that is more permeated with violence than the conquest traditions of Joshua and Judges.

And so (we may well ask) why on earth are we reading these ancient stories that so offend our modern, civilized sensibilities?

What do these stories of Joshua and the defeat of the city of Jericho, of Deborah and the taking of the land of Canaan have to do with us?

Well, for one thing – like making ourselves sit down and watch a movie like Lincoln – these stories cause us to remember that this is OUR human story. Violence is a part of who we are. Atrocity is what we all are capable of.

We must remember that. We must not forget how tempting it is for every one of us humans to sin against shalom.

But when we read these stories in the Church’s Scriptures, there is another aspect that is even more troubling than the persistent reality of human violence. Very often this narrated violence is represented in the Bible to be sanctioned by – even commanded by – God.

When Joshua and the armies of Israel marched around the city of Jericho, when the priests blew the trumpets, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, the text says Joshua said:

Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. … Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword everything in the city – men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys …

Joshua 6

I don’t know about you, but I have trouble saying: “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God” whenever I read something like this. It’s hard for me to stomach that this proactive violence is part of our Holy Scripture

Here are some helpful insights I’ve gained as I’ve pondered some of these difficult passages in the Bible; maybe they will help you as well.

One – the stories are retrospective.

The stories written down and preserved (especially in writings like Joshua and Judges) look back on Israel’s story from the distance of several centuries; these stories reflect on their past from the perspective of their experience in Babylonian Exile.

God’s people nearly lost themselves in Exile six centuries before Christ and their soul searching was intense.

As they pondered what had happened to them and reflected on why they had lost their promised land, some interpreted their reality within a deuteronomistic frame:

  • actions have consequences
  • what goes around comes around
  • you get what you give

As they retold the stories of their past, they told them in such a way that taught their children this fundamental lesson: when we obeyed God, we were wildly successful. When we disobeyed God, we were soundly defeated. It is their way to give God credit for their successes and to hold themselves accountable for the failures.

So when they told the stories saying: “God said this” and “God did that,” it was one way of acknowledging God’s power and sovereignty. It was a way to frame the story within the big picture of God’s overarching will.

Two – we humans keep doing this.

There is a tragic thread of human history that arises because of our misguided misapplication of these ancient stories to our current day.

  • The Israelites truly believed God gave them license for genocide against the nations of the Promised Land.
  • Some in the state of Israel to this day hold onto the promise of the land as a justification for oppression of the Palestinian people.
  • Some adherents of Islam justify violence against Israel based on their interpretation of their Holy Scriptures.
  • The Crusaders slashed and hacked their way through the Holy Land, truly believing God had called them to exterminate the Moslems from the land.
  • Some early Americans were so convinced God had given them this new continent as a kind of promised land that they claimed it was God’s will that they should decimate the Native Americans.
  • Slave owners sometimes quoted scriptures about submission as they whipped, beat and humiliated their slaves.
  • Both men and women across the globe continue to justify mistreatment of women and girls because they think their religion allows and even demands it.

These stories in The Story are still our story too. This is why faithful, appropriate biblical interpretation matters. It matters desperately.

Across the ages, too many people have used and misused Scripture in order to justify all kinds of perpetual sins against shalom. This is why our read-through-the-Bible effort to Live in The Story challenges some of our previous understandings of what this story means and how to apply truth to our current day. This challenge to re-read, re-consider and re-reinterpret meaning and application is a very good thing.

I know full well this is not a completely adequate way of explaining the biblical stories of violence. I want to count on the scholars’ help here but most of them seem to be as puzzled as I am.

Some time ago, I went to a preacher’s workshop led by author/churchman/theologian, William Willimon. He cautioned us preachers to resist the temptation of justifying, defending and explaining away the text in these hard stories.

Willimon challenges us to admit that The Story is what it is: messy, confusing, contradictory – just as we humans are messy, confusing and contradictory.

Brian McLaren has been thinking and writing about the biblical stories of violence and in his most recent book, he reflects on the tales of conquest in Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges:

Many religious scholars have assumed that because the Bible makes these claims [that God commands violence], we must defend them as true and good.

That approach, however, is morally unacceptable for growing numbers of us, and fortunately, we have another option.

McLaren goes on to name some of those other options. He explains that we can:

  • acknowledge that the originators of the stories truly believed God directed their actions;
  • acknowledge that in the worldview of this people, divine involvement in the wars of humans was typical and expected;
  • allow that people very often find comfort in a God who will take their side and avenge their oppressors;
  • admit that if we had walked in their sandals, we very likely would have held similar attitudes and done similar things.

Again, none of this “explains away” the reality of the ugliness of some of these biblical texts, but it does allow us to re-consider how we will choose to make meaning and find appropriate truth for our own day and age.

Three – Jesus the Christ has transformed The Story

Jesus the Christ embodied God’s peace that passes understanding and has shown humanity the way through and out of violence. By entering into violence and death, Jesus defeated its power.

Although Christians have too often not followed in the way of the Christ, every day offers new opportunities to change inadequate attitudes and actions and to submit ourselves to the way of Christ and the things that make for peace.

In Phyllis Trible’s classic book: Texts of Terror, she says:

To take to heart these ancient stories is to confess its present reality.

But beyond confession, we must take counsel to say: “Never again!”

Yet this counsel will not be effective unless we direct our hearts to that most uncompromising of all biblical commands, speaking the word not to others, but to ourselves: “Repent! Repent!”

Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress Press: 1984).
  • So let us repent of our lack of compassion for the brokenness of those who have borne the battle in our place.
  • Let us repent for our failure to care for their widows and orphans.
  • Let us repent of our warring madness and admit that we too have been complicit in sinning against shalom.

And let us take counsel together to say: Never again!

Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: the Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).

Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. (FaithWords: 2014).

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

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