Review: Ploughshares into Swords? Reflections on Religion and Violence (Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation, 2014)

by: Prof. Gerald McDermott – Beeson Divinity School, Samford University

We all hear about the supposed “God of Wrath” in the Hebrew Bible, and the supposed “God of Love” of the New Testament.

Those who draw that distinction don’t know their Bibles very well.

For the Hebrew Bible celebrates human sexual love, underwritten by the Hebrew Bible’s God, in its Song of Solomon.  This God also tells his people that he will shepherd them so that they will not lack any good thing, and will bring them goodness and mercy all the days of their lives (Psalm 23).

Do they know that the Jesus of the New Testament holds a two-edged sword in his mouth in the book of Revelation, and “treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God” (chap. 19)?

So it is a myth that the God of Israel is a god of wrath (alone) but that the Christian God is a God of love (without wrath).  The fact is that the God of the Bible, who is the God of Israel in both Testaments, is wrathful toward evil and loving toward all who want him—and that this is in both parts of the Bible.

The toughest part of the Bible for me has always been God’s war against the Amalekites and other Canaanites in Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, and Joshua.  Why would God tell his people to exterminate all of these people, including their children and elderly?

In his essay on religious violence in a new book of essays, Ploughshares into Swords? Reflections on Religion and Violence, Eugene Korn (Institute for Theological Inquiry) tackles this question head-on.

These biblical texts, with their depictions of Amalek and the Canaanites as subhuman, were not lost to religious authorities and zealots throughout history: During the Crusades, Pope Urban II considered Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem to be Amalek. In medieval times Jews considered Christians to be Amalekites, and in modern times anti-Zionist Jews considered Zionists to be Amalekites, while radical Jewish nationalists have designated as Amalek the Palestinians, Jewish leftists, and Israeli officials advocating ceding biblical land to Palestinians.

Even Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers, ruled that “it is a commandment to destroy the seven (Canaanite) nations….If one of them comes into your hands and you do not kill him, you have violated a negative commandment.”

But Korn also points out that the rabbinic traditions dealt with this moral problem in two ways.  First, it determined that since the Assyrians forced the intermarriage of their conquered peoples, and the Canaanites were among them, it was impossible after Sennacherib to trace any people who were still purely Canaanite.  Hence this biblical command was no longer applicable.

Second, the Talmud contains a story that Moses saw the moral problem, and argued with God about the justice of killing the innocent.  According to the story, God allowed Moses to provide for Canaanites an escape route if they were willing to make peace.

Maimonides picked up on these cues and proclaimed that the commandment to make war on the Canaanites should be observed only if there were Canaanites who refused to make peace.

Korn’s larger lesson is that every religious text that seems morally problematic must be evaluated by the way it has been interpreted in the religious community that uses that text.  In this case, the Jewish rabbinic tradition constructed a categorical and non-falsifiable religious law that these texts about the Canaanites could be used only in just wars or in self-defense.

In a day when religious violence makes the news almost every day, this book is an important read.  William Cavanaugh (DePaul University) argues that the idea that religious violence is caused primarily by religion is a myth.  Shlomo Fischer (Hebrew University) uses Rene Gerard’s theory about sacrifice and communal violence to explore relations between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.  Don Seeman (Emory University) unpacks Jewish understandings of the honor/shame dynamic, including considerations of God’s honor.  Christopher Leighton (Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies) studies the ways in which Christians have used the Cain-Abel story against Jews.  Eric Gregory (Princeton University) employs the Good Samaritan parable and Christian just war theory to argue for humanitarian intervention in international conflict.

You can order this intriguing book for less than $10 here.

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