Friday, July 18, 2014

Is God the Ultimate Warrior?

From the May 2011 E-Block.
This essay is composed as an accessory to our series analyzing Thom Stark’s critique of Paul Copan’s is God a Moral Monster? A point which has obsessed Stark for some time, even prior to his critique, is an alleged misuse by Copan of material by Susan Niditch in her War in the Hebrew Bible (WHB). I am not particularly interested to resolve Stark’s claim of abuse, as even if he is correct, there is little reason to enable or credit his obsession by doing so, given his own patent unreliability. However, we will look at some critical aspects of Niditch’s commentary on the so-called “ban” in the Old Testament – the total destruction of an enemy as an act of devotion to Yahweh. 

Niditch and other critics have connected the ban to concepts of human sacrifice. I have always found this connection to be tendentious, and to be a likely case of illegitimate conceptual transfer. “Human sacrifice,” after all, has been used tendentiously to describe the deaths of Christian martyrs and even that of Jesus. It is manifestly little more than an effort to apply a term overbroadly in an effort to invoke images of hapless Aztec victims having their hearts carved out for the sake of pleasing a bloodthirsty and evil deity, and thereby identify Yahweh as one such as well. 

I supposed that Niditch was unlikely to have approached the issue in terms of a correct social anthropology, taking account of honor, and the agonistic tenor of the Biblical world, as a defining factor in the ban, for after all, few scholars – even among the most competent in their specialties – have done so themselves. In this, I was correct. In the first chapter of WHB alone, “The Ban as God’s Portion,” Niditch makes two substantial blunders in this regard. The first is one in which she takes far too literalistically the boast of King Mesha of Moab that Israel “utterly perished forever.” We have learned that the dramatic orientation of this society was such that we are not meant to take such statements any more literally than we would take professions made at a typical sports event of prowess by team leaders. Niditch, however, blithely judges Mesha’s profession as “wishful thinking” (31) as though he truly wished to assert that Israel had literally “utterly perished forever.” 

The second blunder is far more substantial. Attempting to explain why humans conceived of the idea of the ban, Niditch proposes that it was a way to assuage the “guilt” soldiers felt at killing others. If God ordered it, so the reasoning goes, they would not have to feel guilty about it, so the ban was contrived. As we have noted from relevant scholars, reading guilt into any Biblical passage is a “serious mistake,” for guilt did not exist as yet in the pre-introspective world of the ANE. Shame would be at the fore, but here, would be of little relevance, inasmuch as other societies surrounding Israel also had their own version of the ban, and so no one would be shaming the Israelites over it. 

Rather than view the ban as related to concepts of human sacrifice, it seems far better to propose the following, much of which is contrary to Niditch: 

First: The ban has not to do with sacrifice to appease God, or to buy victory from Him. Rather, it has to do with God acquiring honor by the performance of the ban.

A critical point is that Israel’s opponents were persons who believed that their own gods – the “landlords” and suzerains who owned their land, and were supposed to protect them from invasions and the acts of foreign gods – would protect them, and especially preserve their lineage. The ban served as a clear and indisputable demonstration that these pagan deities were helpless and useless in protecting these people and their land, for they permitted total destruction to occur. The leaving behind of even one survivor would be taken (desperately, to be sure!) as a sign that Baal, or Chemosh, or whomever, had in some way acted to protect the future of the defeated people, who had decided to stay in their cities and nation (rather than flee, as some did – thereby admitting that their gods would not be able to help them).

To that extent, the ban was the most clear message that could be sent to a much larger population that they would do well to flee rather than fight. Arguably, with a population committed to fight to the end using the “last man” to do so – as was the case in WW2 Japan – a message like the ban worked to save lives in the long term, much as the atomic bomb is well argued to have saved lives by compelling Japan to surrender earlier than they would have otherwise.

Comparative use of the word in question, the Hebrew cherem, we should point out, is equivocal in this regard. The word is also used of fishing nets (eg, Ezekiel 26:5, 14; 47:10; Hab. 1:15-17), which suggests that cherem indicates a setting aside or apart of something from some other larger collective. However, this also means that it has no innate sacral meaning; that is acquired by context.

Second: Sacrifice to Yahweh is better understood not as an offering to “feed” Yahweh but as a way to keep humans from having them for their own use. Skeptics routinely ask what God needed with sacrifices, and argue that sacrifices to Yahweh imply some more primitive notion of Him as being hungry and in need of food. (See second link below for more.) In this no one seems to ask the question of why a deity should prefer meat that has been burnt into ashes, which is hardly likely to be any more appetizing to a hungry deity than it is to a hungry human.

The idea of sacrifice, and of devoting certain things to Yahweh, then, ought to be understood in terms of making it so that humans cannot use the sacrifice for themselves; in turn, the sacrifice is placing themselves under the patronage of the deity, trusting in the deity’s resources rather than their own. It is not that Yahweh needed food, or gold, or even humans for that matter; it is that humans obliterated the sacrifice to demonstrate that it was the property of the god rather than their own. It is also important that no one will be able to accrue the honor of having the captured goods; all of that honor will be reserved for Yahweh alone.

Niditch herself quotes passages that indicate this. In most cases, the ban involves only total destruction of humans, while livestock and booty is kept by the people. If God “needs” food and booty, then surely as a deity His energy needs are vastly greater than those of a human, and He would need far, far more humans, livestock, and booty to keep Himself alive. Niditch struggles, however, to explain the disparity between different ban orders, supposing that humans are always devoted to God because they are the “best booty”. Really? Then why are they killed? What good, to put it bluntly, is dead booty?
Further forced reading by Niditch may be found in her effort to read Ezekiel 38-9 in terms of God making a “sacrificial feast” of slain enemies: Ezekiel plainly says that the slain are eaten by birds of prey, and apart from the assumption of a hidden code in such language, there is little reason to impose some “mythological framework” on the text and see some hidden suggestion of “divine satiation” behind the text. Clearly, Niditch’s explanations are yet again a tendentious effort to illegitimately transfer stereotyped concepts of “human sacrifice” into the Biblical text.

Third: Failure to enact the ban requires recompense not because God requires recompense, but because of the inviolability of one’s oath in an honor-based culture. Niditch tendentiously regards such matters as the punishment of Achan and his family (Josh. 7), or the oath of Saul that anyone who eats before evening will die (1 Sam. 14), as required substitution because “God has been denied his due.” But this is an interpretation that smacks far more of one bearing the “white man’s burden” of bringing civilized mentalities to barbaric savages. An unbigoted assessment sees in such instances rather an enactment of, “your word is your bond”. To go back on one’s word is dishonoring – even if that word involved a grievous mistake.

Further on, Niditch explores the theme of the ban as an enactment of God’s justice. She believes that this theme evokes a contradiction, between the concepts of the ban as a sacrifice, and the victims (like Achan) as unclean sinners. But this tension is the result of her assumption that the ban is a sacral offering; if it is seen, rather, as a matter of honor, then the tension vanishes. Under such circumstances, the ban as God’s justice is complimentary, not contradictory.

The remainder of WHB is beyond our interest, though we may note that Niditch also comments on the Numbers 31 story extensively, for which we refer, as usual, the reader to Miller’s treatment linked below.

In the end, Niditch’s arguments are performed in service of a misguided pacifism, laced with emotional rhetoric and tainted by a “white man’s burden” attitude which looks down upon ancient Israelite culture with the same regard as a fundamentalist atheist who rants endlessly about “primitive Bronze Age goatherders.” Though Niditch’s commentary has the backing of a credentialed scholar, there is little conceptually different from what can be found in any tome written by a New Atheist. 

Numbers 31
God and food

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