John Collins, professor at Yale Divinity School, is right. “When it became clear that the terrorists of September 11, 2001, saw or imagined their grievances in religious terms, any reader of the Bible should have had a flash of recognition.” This comes from John J. Collins’s short book, Does the Bible Justify Violence? , which itself is rooted in his SBL Presidential address in 2002. What he means is that there are instances of sacred violence in our Scriptures as well. To be sure, as he puts it so well, “terrorist hermeneutics can be seen as a case of the devil citing Scripture for his purpose” but we all are to concede that the devil need not work hard to find his scriptures.
Is our ignoring of violence texts in the Bible a tacit confession that we don’t want to deal with them, that we don’t have categories that make sense, that we disagree with them, or that we would like to talk about them but are afraid? How do you explain herem warfare in Israel and in the New Testament? Is the non violent approach a tacit denial of the theme of violence in the Bible?
At the heart of our problem is what is called “herem” warfare, which refers to Israel’s (and other cultures in the Ancient Near East) belief that the enemy was to be devoted to total destruction or, in other words, total annihilation. There are historical factors are work, including belief in sacrifice, the wrath of God, the need for that God to be propitiated by sacrifice, and a commitment so deep that annihilation of the enemy was required. Collins contends this is not just about monotheism, but a nation’s (Israel’s) sense of election by that one God, YHWH. Here are some principal texts:
1Sam. 15:3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ”
Num. 21:1 When the Canaanite king of Ara,a who lived in the Negev,b heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. 2 Then Israel made this vow to the LORD: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy b their cities.” 3 The LORD listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.
One of Collins’ conclusions: “Ethnic cleansing is the way to ensure cultic purity” (9). The major impulse for ethnic cleansing, annihilation of the enemy or of herem warfare appears to be the “precautionary measure against false worship” (9). Again, the Bible teaches this in Deut 7:1-6:
Deut. 7:1 When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
God is one; God has elected Israel; Israel has been given the land. Therefore , annihilate the enemy. This emerges in perhaps the most social-justice-conscious text in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy. The compassion on the enemy taught in this text is not extended to the Canaanites and Philistines.
How to resolve this ethically? Collins’ intent is not just to explore this question but he does in passing:
1. Most critical scholars do not think this stuff is historically descriptive or accurate about ancient Israel; instead it is later fiction. But Collins stands up for the Bible in this regard: even if it isn’t historical (and he doesn’t think it is), it is still in the Bible and becomes a “dangerous encouragement” for terrorism. In the sacred text one can find justification for violence as divine commandment and action. That’s the problem.
2. The problem is not just ancient; from cultures around Israel and Israel and later Judaism and the folks at Qumran and even the book of Revelation. One can’t dismiss this stuff as barbaric and primitive and ancient; it is not just early texts in the Bible but beginning to end. And many have applied the ideas to later times: Puritans and the Boers of South Africa and the liberated tribes of South Africa against the Boers, and David Koresh and the USA’s violence against terrorists and al Qaida and Islamic terrorists… it goes on and on.
3. To be sure, some of the violence in ancient texts is moved to the future in apocalyptic literature. That merely postpones the violence, but it still justifies it.
4. The patristics allegorized the texts to sins in the life of the church and in Christians. Luke Timothy Johnson appeals to this procedure in Origen. Collins: “hardly viable” because we’ve still got texts in our sacred text where there is divine commendation and even commandment to slaughter humans.
5. Some appeal to diversity in the Bible, and by this he means divergent ethical standpoints on war and violence. Some appeal to the higher levels of thought in Moses or in the prophets, or see the gospel story finding completion in a Jesus who conquers as the lamb and through the cross and through non-violence — but Collins stops this one short by saying the canon ends in Revelation, one of the bloodiest and most violent books in the whole Bible. Violence is there; it is not incidental; it is connected to God. His is an approach to face the fact of sacred violence.
6. Surely the Bible depicts human nature, in all its glories and tragedies and sicknesses. What Collins is getting at is that the Bible’s descriptions are not prescriptions; their presence does not justify that the true God was at work in commanding such things; he does not explore accommodation that appeals to many of us when it comes to dealing with violence (and other topics). His conclusion: The Bible “is no infallible guide on ethical matters” (32). This is quite the statement because it comes with no explanatory apparatus of how he himself is sitting in moral judgment on matters like violence. In this essay he assumes a moral posture that violence like this is either totally wrong or the last resort (just war theory of some sort), but he does not offer his reasons for any position he is taking.
7. And Collins appeals to the problem of certitude. Certitude itself leads to violence and perhaps what good biblical study proves is that certitude is not the right approach.