Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hérem: God’s Holy War

As I walked into the Bible study classroom on a recent Sunday one of the members had a question for me.  He opened his Bible to Joshua 6:15-21 and stabbed his finger at the text and said "this bothers me greatly." I could see the pain in his face.  "I was hoping you would have an answer," he added.  The story that bothered him was the destruction of Jericho by the Israelites in which Joshua tells them "The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord" (6:17), meaning that every person and thing in the city shall be destroyed. The only exceptions were "all silver and gold and vessels of bronze and iron" were to go into the treasury of the Lord (6:19) and Rahab and her house were to be preserved (6:17). When the Israelites took the city, they followed Joshua's orders and "utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword" (6:21).
            Such cruelty and utter disregard for life characterizes the nature of Hérem, the Holy War.  The bloody inhuman rules of engagement are laid down in Deut 20:10-20.  The Conquest of the "Promised Land" by the Israelites was Holy War.  A particular egregious Holy War story is the annihilation of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) in which God (so said Samuel, his prophet, 1 Sam 15:1-3) took revenge on the Amalekites for their opposition to Israel during the Exodus from Egypt (Deut 25:17-19; Exod 17:8-13; Judges 6:3-5).  God told the Israelites to destroy everything down to the last nursing baby (1 Sam 15:3).
            My friend struggled with what these stories implied to him about the character of God; they implied something foreign to everything he had been taught about God, which was that God is a God of Love.  Two principal ideas that Baptists affirm (the Bible constitutes the revelation of God, and the Bible is true—i.e., revealed truth) are largely responsible for his dilemma:  If God is a God of love and compassion, then it could not be true that God is responsible for the unconscionable actions of Israel at Jericho and later against the Amalekites, but if the Bible is revealed truth, then what it says about God must be true—a kind of "catch 22," as it were!  This is a difficult position for a Baptist to be in since both ideas are prime "truths" in Baptist faith, and he had inadvertently stumbled into, and what is more recognized, the clash producing his dilemma.  It is a terrible thing to discover that God has a mean streak.   
For a rational person the dilemma is an existential turning point; for both postulates cannot be correct!  Hence, one must change one's view of God to match these biblical stories, or one must change how one views the Bible—although deeply held religious beliefs, which support a religious view of reality, generally find illogical ways to prevail over logic and reason.  Changing your understanding of God is not something like changing your socks, however, and would be more difficult to do, in my opinion, than changing how one understands the Bible.  In spite of what we are told, no one has ever had first-hand experience with God, since there is nothing substantive there to get your hands on (so to speak)—God being invisible spirit (John 4:24; but cf. Exod 33:20-23), and not speaking audibly as he once did, make it rather difficult to "examine" God.  Most of us don't hear God's audible voice, or see God's back as Moses did (Exod 33:23), although we might claim experiences with burning bushes (Exod 3:1-6).  What we believe about God is due to what we have learned from others, had taught to us from the Bible, and worked out in our heads—probably from our youngest years.  Truth be told, one's "personal experience with God" is all in the mind (the still small voice as it were, 1 Kings 19:11-13), if anything.
It would seem far easier to change one's view of the Bible, since it is tangible, has a history, and can be examined directly more easily than one can examine God.  A large body of helpful literature exists evaluating the Bible as literature and history.  The way out of the dilemma is by examining the story about the Bible.  The Bible is historical literature recording an ancient quest for understanding God from the flawed human perspectives represented in its individual texts.  If the Bible is revelation, it is revelation mediated through the imperfections, flawed perspectives, and social conditioning of its human authors.  Its theologies and its ethical images of God are determined by the cultures and social environments in which they were written.  The Bible has not one view of God, but many views of God are represented among its various authors.  There is not one system of ethical values, but many conflicting systems of ethical values are reflected in its pages.  In short, the (Protestant) Bible reflects what people thought and believed at various times over the some 750 years of its inscription (beginning around 600 B.C., ending about 150 A.D.).
Christians tend to demand too much from the Bible.  Whatever more the Bible may be to true believers, it is first an ancient record of humanity's search for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Let the Bible be what it is.  Truth is not helped by denying the obvious.
Charles W. Hedrick     
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. I find it amazing that so many people in the modern era continue to hold onto the threads of adoration of the Bible, acting, if not really believing, that it was somehow written by God and not written and collected by an ancient faith community. While there is insight in the Bible there is also reflections of how the human race awakened from the darkness of violence, racial discrimination, gender oppression, sectarianism, and magical thinking.

    There is a great deal of the Bible that should not, as Dorothy Parker said, "be set lightly aside..... it should be thrown with great force."

    1. We should not reject these unethical passages. They are part of the historical record that brought the church to where it is today. We should study and affirm them for what they are--"man's inhumanity to man" in God's name. Such egoism (to speak for God) is made possible by a too narrow view of the biblical text. Many modern Christian communities affirm the Bible as "God's Word," when in reality it is a flawed human book about God. A self-reflective person (as opposed to true believer)in quiet moments can admit human limitations in understanding God and thereby recognize that such horrible passages (like Holy War) are way off base. We should not throw such flawed concepts of God out "with great force," but affirm them as a part of the record as a reminder to the church of its often misguided past. One problem with the church is that church leaders tend to ignore such passages, and the non-bible reading membership never is confronted with them. When did you last preach on "God's Holy War." Seems to me it is a timely subject in today's world.
      Charles Hedrick

  2. Charlie, I shared this on my Facebook timeline with this intro: "DR. HEDRICK very interesting take. Maybe I'm like everyone else -- I define (in my mind) the importance of God and the relevant portions of the various Christian Bibles. The words of Jesus are the only ones worth any attention (in my mind)."

  3. It seems to me that the story "sets up" Samuel's poem (15:22-23). When not even the anointed king is obedient, he has rejected God, so God rejects him. "Displeasing" versus "pleasing." One could juxtaposition that, too, with the binding of Isaac. God demands, first and foremost, obedience, in the Tanakh, regardless of how inhuman it is. Since the Bible is a product of humans, and, more than that, the politics of when the books were written (as opposed to the "history" they claim to represent), this can have major negative ramifications!
    Dennis Carpenter