Hanging up our gloves: a Christian response to the violence of the Older Testament
Based on Judges 7:2-22
In the middle of last year, I did something I had never anticipated I would do, and certainly not at fifty-something. I took up kickboxing.
This kind of happened by accident. I had been looking for an alternative form of exercise. It was winter, and it was now too dark to go climbing hills when I got home. I had been going to the pools, but I wanted to try something different. I decided to go to a gym, something I had never done before. But I had the impression – rightly or wrongly – that gyms could be somewhat pretentious places. And I figured that a martial arts or boxing focused gym might be a bit more down to earth. So I wandered into Oliver MMA and arranged to come in for a trial session.
I thought that I would be working out on bags and with weights. I had no idea I would be doing kickboxing training. But that night I discovered a few things. Such as kickboxing was a lot of fun. It gave me the best workout of any exercise I had ever tried. And I had a pretty reasonable left hook.
I kept it up for a couple of months. My twice-weekly training sessions were among the highlights of my week, and I became the fittest I have ever been. But then what I had expected would be a routine hospital check-up for my glaucoma saw me requiring immediate laser surgery. I took a break from my training while I recovered, but when I went back, I found my hand-eye coordination had been compromised. Good coordination is vital for any martial art. Without it, I could end up getting badly hurt. So, after several attempts to get back into it, with some reluctance, I hung my gloves up.
I was sharing my frustration and disappointment with some friends and acquaintances, and one of them commented that there were far worse things that could happen in life than having to give up what she described as a ‘violent sport’. I pointed out that what she called my 'violent sport' was an effective means for me to maintain physical and mental health and fitness, adding that violence and aggression did not come into it.
But after that conversation, I found myself reflecting on my attitudes towards violence. I have always had somewhat pacifist leanings. And I tend to find graphic violence on television and in films disturbing. However I must confess I enjoy watching physical sports like boxing and rugby union and league, which I know must somewhat tarnish my perceived peacenik credentials.
My previous job, which I left about two and a half months ago, was with Oranga Tamariki-Ministry for Children, and during the more than four years I worked there, I read many detailed accounts of horrific violence and other abuse against the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society.
And in more recent years, I have awoken to the reality that many of the privileges I enjoy through being a middle class Pākehā in Aotearoa New Zealand were ultimately gained by violence against Māori during colonisation during the 19th Century.
I revisited the whole issue of my attitudes towards violence while I was reflecting on this afternoon’s Older Testament lesson from the Book of Judges.
As part of the official story of the Israelites, Judges describes the time between the conquest of Canaan led by Joshua, the successor to Moses, which is described in the Book of Joshua, and the emergence of the monarchy with the anointing of Saul, in the First Book of Samuel. This book is called Judges, because the people were led by a series of temporary leaders we know as judges during this time: five men, and one woman, Deborah. The most well-known stories in Judges include those of Samson and Delilah, and Gideon defeating the Midianites, which we heard this afternoon.
Joshua, Judges, and the First and Second Books of Samuel and Kings respectively, are often collectively referred to as the Deuteronomistic History. Up until quite recently, it was widely accepted by scholars that these books were all the product of possibly a single writer or compiler around the time of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, who was trying to make sense of these events, modelling his work on the theology and language of the book of Deuteronomy. The Book of Joshua portrayed a divinely authorised conquest, the Book of Judges, outlined as a cycle of rebellion against God and subsequent restoration, and Books of Samuel and Kings emphasised the catastrophic consequences of disobedience to God, which culminated with the Babylonian conquest.
It sometimes surprises people to discover that there is quite a bit of
graphic violent and sexual content in the Bible. Especially in the Older
Testament. And while the most explicitly violent individual incidents I can
remember reading are found in the Second and Fourth Books of Maccabees (the
latter is not in the Bibles used by most churches), Judges has been named by
various commentators as being the most violent book overall in the Bible.
And if you read the entire book in one sitting, it’s easy to understand why.
While Judges may have been awarded the dubious honour of being the most violent book in the Bible, the text we heard today is one of its tamer offerings. As part the cycle of rebellion and restoration, which I mentioned earlier, the Israelites had been oppressed by the Midianites for seven years, which was attributed to divine punishment for idolatry, until the Midianites were soundly defeated by Gideon, a judge and military leader, whose name has been co-opted by a certain well Bible distributor that bears his name.
Although this story, the Midianites got off relatively lightly in that they were permitted to flee after their defeat. Other retributive texts in Judges can be very disturbing in comparison. Innocent men, women, and children are killed.
So how do we deal with the violent nature of some parts of scripture, especially the Older Testament? Especially when violence appears to be divinely initiated, the implication being that the God of the Older Testament must be some kind of violent despot.
There are several approaches we can take,
One approach is to reject the violent depiction of God in Judges and other parts of the Older Testament as being wholly incompatible with the God revealed in Jesus. But this is problematic. Jews, Christians – and also Muslims – worship the same God, the God of Abraham. So we can’t try to pretend the God of the Older Testament is a different entity altogether.
An alternative is embracing the violence by citing it as all being part of God’s plans. But this has led to all manner of bad theology, including attempts by Christians in some countries to justify violent actions, such as slavery and the use of capital punishment in the USA, on the basis that this is God’s will. Even though advocating violence is completely at odds with the way of Jesus.
Somewhat between these extremes are other options, such as contextualising the violence, or trying to justify it in the context in which it occurred. And reinterpreting it to make it seem less confronting. But these responses achieve little more than camouflaging the harsh reality.
My preferred approach is that we consider the cultural and historical contexts of the original texts before we can determine how they might possible be speaking to us today, and secondly use Jesus and his teachings as the benchmark against which they should be measured.
Books like Judges were written at a time of national crisis when nationhood and identity needed to be restated. Especially the Israelites’ perceived divine right to occupy that land that had just been taken from them by the Babylonians.
So rather than interpreting the text as saying the Israelites had a violent God, it makes more sense to say that those who wrote down and edited the stories hundreds of years later made the depictions of their God violent to justify the more violent aspects of their own national struggle. And the inherent violence makes much more sense when we consider when it was written, and by whom and for whom it was written.
So where does that leave us today?
I believe reading the challenging, violent texts, like those we find in Judges and other parts of the Older Testament reminds of the harsh, cruel, and unforgiving world Jesus was born into and would later transform. It can challenge our views of power structures in the world and help us to examine the role violence has played in our lives, especially the privilege it has created for some of us as we try to find our place in a post-colonial Aotearoa New Zealand. (I particularly think if the invasion of Parihaka, whose anniversary we remembered on Thursday). And it can galvanise us towards working towards fixing these injustices
When we consider the text we heard today from the Gospel according to St John, in which Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us, we get a much better picture of an ideal for living. 
I believe all of us have to some degree benefitted from the systemic violence of unjust power structures or the past. And I say it’s time to hang up our gloves and instead play our part in fighting for the realisation of God’s reign of justice and peace here on earth.
8 November 2020
1 John 15:12
All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version unless stated otherwise.