Violence and the Old Testament I

The "National Catholic Bible Conference" was held this summer in Chicago. Among the talks it advertised was one entitled "Old Testament Wars and the Spiritual Battle." I did not go to the conference, but I was intrigued by the description of this talk in the brochure I received: "How should we interpret all the wars and violence recorded in the Old Testament? This presentation shows how we can uncover the spiritual meaning of Israel’s battles by reading them in light of the fullness of revelation given in Christ ... Interpreted properly, Israel’s wars contain powerful lessons of the spiritual battle all Christians are engaged in." In light of the fact that the biblical text has been used over the centuries to support all kinds of atrocities, this description raises an important question, "how should we interpret all the wars and violence recorded in the Old Testament." Will the speaker deal with the difficulties posed by the notion of a Warrior God actively involved in violence? Will the speaker address how we as Christians can reconcile the violent God of the Old Testament with the God of unconditional love and forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus? Will the speaker tell us how to reconcile Israel’s battles with Jesus’ command to love our enemies and his refusal to allow his disciples to do violence to save him from the cross? None of these questions will be addressed; rather the presentation will "uncover the spiritual meaning of Israel’s battles" and show how when "interpreted properly" these wars "contain powerful lessons of a spiritual battle all Christians are engaged in." "Spiritual battle" language was not a part of my Catholic upbringing, so I googled the phrase "spiritual battle" and found over 2 million sites informing me in rather terrifying language of this battle. After reviewing several of the sites, I wondered how the nuns who taught me missed the opportunity to "scare the hell out of me" with this "spiritual battle" stuff. Maybe they thought it was just too "Protestant." I find it odd to assume that what the battles of the Old Testament have to teach us when "properly interpreted" is something which is not said. I find it dismissive of the biblical text when we say that an imagined "spiritual meaning" is more important than what the text actually says. My concern is with what the biblical text says and how we can appropriate that message in our lives today, but if what we say it means is not connected with what it meant in its historical, literary and theological context, then why bother reading the biblical text at all? To speak of the battles of the Old Testament as referring to spiritual warfare strikes me as a cop-out. It dances around the real challenge of the biblical text: what do we do with all the violence and battles of the Old Testament? It is a question I will address in my next post. Pauline Viviano
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11 years 3 months ago
Just a couple of things this post brings to the surface in me. One is that, once, when at a recording session with Pamela Warrick-Smith, I expressed my discomfort with the martial imagery in a spiritual she was singing called "(We Are) Soldiers in the Army". She listened patiently and replied that anyone who doesn't think that the military imagery in church songs is inappropriate has never lived in the Bronx. The other is simply our yearly encounter with the "foundational" battle of the Hebrew Scriptures, the story of God's destruction of Pharaoh and the army in the Exodus reading at the Easter Vigil. There are good scripture scholars who will tell us that it didn't happen, at least, not as it's described in Exodus. The problem is, whether it happened or not, the story shows God as a general if not a murderer in the context of biblical revelation, which surfaces all kinds of hermeneutical issues for us. We can make a case that Pharaoh as oppressor visited the consequences of oppression upon himself; this might be a tack that James Allison and others might take vis-a-vis violence and the sacred, but there is such a proliferation of such events in scripture, right up through Revelation, that one really has to become a master juggler to deal with it all. At any rate, I look forward to your next entry. I certainly agree that spiritualizing these scriptures is a cop-out.
11 years 3 months ago
I'm looking forward to future blogs here. I recall belonging to the Sodality, now known as Christian Life Communities, and singing "An army of youth fighting battles for truth.. or something along those lines and the music was certainly military. We felt very proud singing it. Of course at that time I knew nothing of the battles in the Hebrew Bible.


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