The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people." So Moses spoke to the people, saying, "Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the LORD's vengeance on Midian. (Numbers 31:1-3)
Texts about vengeance cause problems for Christians, and provide material for people like Richard Dawkins to show how bloodthirsty the Old Testament was. So how did these texts get there, and what can they tell us?
What is not often realised is that the Old Testament is composed of different sources. With careful analysis of the Hebrew text these can be separated, using various clues - different names for God, different groupings of vocabulary, different and sometimes contradictory stories told twice (doublets), different groupings of geographical locations, and not least, different styles of Hebrew. In translation, the latter is lost, but imagine a book which had extracts from Shakespeare to the present day; the archaisms of the older language would stand out.
This combination nearly happened with the New Testament. The Diatessaron (c 160 - 175) is a Gospel harmony created by Tatian, an early Christian apologist; it means "out of four", and it keeps around 72% of the text, losing some because it resolves (or tries to resolve) contradictory accounts in the Synopic gospels. Matthew and Luke, for example, both have temptation narratives, but in different orders; Tatian favours Matthews. The Diatessaron was popular and used by Syriac churches up until the 5th century. If this book had replaced the seperate gospels, we would have a very similar situation to the Old Testament - different sources combined into one whole.
Most of the Pentateuch was indented to be read as a narrative, but within the sources, some of the joins are clearly visible where the text is disjointed because different sources have been stitched together. Earlier, Numbers 25:1-36 is a combination of J and P, so it is talking about Moabites then suddenly the narrative is all about Midianites, without noticing the change.
However, the Old Testament was combined over a longer period, and at different stages, so that the sources stand out more clearly. Different sources come from different factions, and these can be roughly grouped together as follows:
the Yahwist source ( J ) : written c. 950 BCE in the southern Kingdom of Judah.
the Elohist source ( E ) : written c. 850 BCE in the northern Kingdom of Israel.
the Deuteronomist ( D ) : written c. 600 BCE in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform.
the Priestly source ( P ) : written c. 500 BCE by Kohens (Jewish priests) in exile in Babylon.
The Redactors: first JE, then JED, and finally JEDP, producing the final form of the Torah c. 450 BCE.
The Priestly source had its stronghold in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they were purists and centrists, determine to gain control over the other priestly traditions that existed in Israel. For the priest in the Temple, regulating - and controlling - every aspect of ordinary people's lives was the way to ensure orthodoxy. English readers will remember how Augustine of Canterbury staked this kind of claim for the dominance and correctness of the Church of Rome, against the Celtic Church of Scotland and Ireland.
In 603, he held a conference with the leaders of the already existing Christian congregations in Britain, but failed to reach an accommodation with them, largely due to his own tactlessness, and his insistence (contrary, it may be noted, to Gregory's explicit advice) on imposing Roman customs on a church long accustomed to its own traditions of worship. It is said that the English bishops, before going to meet Augustine, consulted a hermit with a reputation for wisdom and holiness, asking him, "Shall we accept this man as our leader, or not?" The hermit replied, "If, at your meeting, he rises to greet you, then accept him, but if he remains seated, then he is arrogant and unfit to lead, and you ought to reject him." Augustine, alas, remained seated. It took another sixty years before the breach was healed.
Now Numbers 31:2 is from the Priestly source, and Moses wife's people were Midianites. Of the competing priesthoods, two main strands at the time were the Mushite priesthood (from Moses) and the Aaronic one (commonly referred to as "P" in source criticism).
So the Numbers text is a version of history which seeks to denigrate the Mushite priesthood - guilt by association. The competing narratives which have been bound into one book often give rise to contradictions between texts which are telling us that God is not a god of vengeance, and texts that tell us the complete opposite. But here the Priestly source speaks clearly with the voice of the Jerusalem priesthood, centralised in Jerusalem, fiercely jealous of its privileges, intolerant of any of the other priestly traditions (such as those of Shiloh), and out to destroy any other places where the Israelites worshiped and sacrified to Yahweh ("the high places").
As one might expect, the Priestly tradition is more akin to the Pope sending forth the Crusaders for the sake of God to butcher the infidels. It is more about purity than justice, and dominance than co-existence.
We record the history of the Crusades, and look back on them with horror, but we still keep them in our own history books; not to do so would be to make a mockery of history, and to whitewash out some of the blacker periods of Christianity, part of whose creed involves the confession of sins and repentance. Only by acknowledging what has happened can any contrition be made, otherwise there are no lessons for the past, and no apology to be made.
The Old Testament is a book very like that. It has all the flaws of the Kings portrayed - Saul's viscious temper, David's adultery, Solomon's desire for control and favouritism for the South of Israel. Because of the competing traditions, all these kinds of failings are kept, unlike the triumphant arrogance of what passed for history in the surrounding Kingdoms, where no king was flawed, no priesthood wrong. So we can still read these texts, like those of the Papal proclamation for the Crusades, and learn the lesson that when religions are pressed into the service of war, then they take often justification from their God.
But against this kind of triumphalism came the prophetic tradition, and while the priests were telling the people of Israel that God was on their side, and they would always triumph, the prophets looked at the corruption in Jewish society, and gave stern warnings that they would learn the lesson that they could not control and manipulate God for their own ends, and that God would use the other nations to teach them a lesson. The prophets were reading the signs of the times, and they could see the bullish attitude of the monarchy and priesthood against other nations would bring only destruction.
The LORD is angry with his people and has stretched out his hand to punish them. The mountains will shake, and the bodies of those who die will be left in the streets like rubbish. Yet even then the LORD's anger will not be ended, but his hand will still be stretched out to punish. The LORD gives a signal to call for a distant nation. He whistles for them to come from the ends of the earth. And here they come, swiftly, quickly! None of them grow tired; none of them stumble. They never doze or sleep. Not a belt is loose; not a sandal strap is broken. Their arrows are sharp, and their bows are ready to shoot. Their horses' hoofs are as hard as flint, and their chariot wheels turn like a whirlwind. The soldiers roar like lions that have killed an animal and are carrying it off where no one can take it away from them. When that day comes, they will roar over Israel as loudly as the sea. Look at this country! Darkness and distress! The light is swallowed by darkness. (Isaiah 5:25-30)
In the year 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar captured and burnt Jerusalem. Judah was defeated. The city was destroyed, along with the Temple, and the Ark of the Covenant was lost. The people were exiled as captives in Babylon. The prophetic warnings were right, and the time of triumphalism was over. But we can still see what it was like, and we can see the Priestly traditions own attempt to write the official history, and it is a lesson to us not to make the same mistakes, a lesson that sadly we still seem to learn. Wars are still given a veneer of religious justification, and histories are still written to deprecate those who do not agree with the ruling bodies.
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