NUMBERS 21: CAN WE LOOK VIOLENCE IN THE FACE?
Can we look violence in the face in the Bible? Some people have become atheists because of the violence in Scripture. Others use the violence as a blithe excuse not to engage the "Old" Testament. Many blame all the violence on God, thinking the Bible is a flat document that somehow by describing violence in humanity condones that violence, which it doesn't. So it's time to look in the face of violence in Scripture and talk about this.
Numbers 21 brackets a story of healing with a story of utterly destroying cities of the Canaanites. It's time for some of us to deal more directly with violence in the Bible, and there are several theories that we will examine as we continue through Numbers, and with the help of some resources such as Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, we will look at what will be for many of us a new and different way to read the Bible.
Let me simplify the bracketing I'm talking about. If you outlined Numbers 21 as a to-do list of the Israelites, it would look like this.
- Utterly destroy Canaanite King Arad's people.
- Stuff Moses' suggestion box about the cruddy food and inadequate water.
- Ask Moses to pray for us because we're getting too many snake bites these days, and it seems it's related to our incessant complaining.
- Utterly destroy the Amorites and Moabites.
Why did Israel want to utterly destroy Arad and his people? Israel said, "We made a vow to utterly destroy because Arad attacked and captured some Israelites." Why did Israel want to utterly destroy the Amorites, who had previously conquered the Moabites? Because they said, "We asked to pass peacefully through Sihon's kingdom and not even drink any water from the wells, yet Sihon not only refused but came out to attack us!"
Ancient kings of Canaan, Amorites, and Moabites generally did not attack because they wanted to see people utterly destroyed and cities burned to the ground. In Joshua and Deuteronomy it seems Israel is following a script to possess lands with "vineyards you did not plant and wells you did not dig" but in Numbers it's a scorched earth policy. Why?
If you click the little three dot chat symbol in your YouVersion Bible, a footnote for the NIV will pop up and say about Numbers 21:2-3, "The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them."
This little footnote points out something we miss in this text. We miss what "totally destroy" meant in the ancient world. This is not going to sound right to our ears, but look at the context of what God is working with, where there are no war-crime tribunals, no rules of engagement, no outrage at rape, capturing and enslaving, "utterly destroying" was Israel's way of vowing everything to the Lord, and keeping nothing and enslaving anyone.
What? Is God asking for Israel to kill people, utterly destroy them, as a vow to Him? What kind of God is this? A God who had decided back in the story, remember in Genesis when God was grieved about how violent people had become, and He decides to wipe out the world, then later again decides to never again destroy the earth with a flood (some people who think God will destroy the earth someday, which I don't, emphasize "with a FLOOD," implying he'll burn everything up later just to show he really never liked this creation he called "good" anyway??). Yes, this God decided to work with, live with, walk with murderers, starting with Cain. He didn't imprison Cain. He made him wander and put a mark on him that protected him from people torturing or killing him. Did he imprison Moses for killing an Egyptian? Nope. Over and over people are violent, and very rarely can we find God condoning and pumping His fist with glee over watching his creation kill each other. He's grieved over it. We need to get this from back in Genesis before we go forward with anything about violence in Numbers.
OK, so in the world where ancient kings raped, pillaged, captured slaves, and enslaved men, women, and children for their own pleasure and lifestyles, here in Numbers 21:2-3, Israel by contrast vows to "utterly destroy" this Canaanite people.
I do not advocate any of this! In fact when we read texts like this we ought to advocate just the opposite of any of this rape, capture, torture, imprisonment, enslaving. I am not advocating totally destroying people and cities, but the point is that Israel saw itself as different by not raping and pillaging, by utterly destroying humans, animals, burning cities to the ground. If this theory is right, Israel as a developing former enslaved nation, was avoiding quickly becoming like the nation it had just left, an enslaver.
Are we violent people? The fact that we in the United States debate about whether or not we should torture, the fact the majority of Christians believed revenge was the answer to 9-11, myself included, the fact that we still to this day remain in positions all over the world as occupiers and "protectors of our interests," and the fact that we war with other nations then import immigrant labor, then hate those same immigrants, and the fact that we imprison more than two million people in the United States, and a disproportionate number of people of color is just a few pieces of evidence to demonstrate that our hearts, minds, actions, and by implication our guilt and complicity with all this should lead us not to be so incredulous and surprised at the violence of the "Old" Testament.
None of this is to say we should be violent, but the point is that we should realize how violent we really are and how the American lifestyle is built upon war, imprisonment, and violence toward others more than we may want to admit. We automatically assume we and nations we also give a pass for everything, modern Israel, only innocently attack when attacked, and this is simply not true in either case. We are complicit in violence, so what do we do with that?
We can begin to do something with it by changing the way we read Bible texts and stop clucking our tongue and blaming "those ancient people" and look at ourselves, and certainly we can stop blaming God and saying God is violent and realize people are violent and God was working in a corrupt and fallen world to redeem people. God's direction, purpose, and drive is directly opposite to the violence of the world, but he was and is and will be working precisely inside a world then and now that is violent, and we're called to be people of redemption and shalom, not violence.
Like Israel, complaining is not our biggest problem. Violence is easily one of our biggest problems. What if we could be healed from violence? What if we could stop being violent and wish violence and condemnation on others? What if we could stop thinking we need to either convert or destroy people? Those aren't the only two options. What if we could radically love people and make that our primary aim, rather than making vows to utterly destroy people who we do not like. Anne Lamott says, "You know you've made God in your image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do." For those who don't understand satire and irony, she's not saying God hates the same people you do! She's saying we've made God in our image when we convince ourselves God is a violent God and therefore excuse our own violence and hatred toward others.
THREE BOOKS ABOUT THE BIBLE'S VIOLENCE
What if we could look upon a suffering symbol and be healed from our ill-tempered, complaining, hateful, violent ways, like Israel looked upon the bronze snake? What does the cross have to say about violence? I want to recommend three books that propose three different theories for the violence we see in scripture, and they are two very good major proposals to interact with, because there is going to be lots of contradictions and different views, and this is precisely how Rabbis approach things. There are different views, but we are still in community.
Here are those three book recommendations on violence in scripture, appearing below as Amazon links.
LORD, many have lost their faith over the violence in Scripture. Many are atheist today because they look upon the violence and think it's because of you. Would you show us how to read the Bible differently, to see the violence in ourselves, in humanity, and admit and confess our violence, our passive aggression and our aggressive aggression both personally, in families, in churches, in governments? And show us the way everlasting, the redemptive, peaceful way to Oneness with you, with other human beings.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.