Ancient Texts & Biblical Genocides
|Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: In the Christian Book Of Revelation 6: 8, we read |
“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard a voice of the fourth living creature say,
‘Come and see!’ I looked and there was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and
Hades was following close beheind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth
to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.”
Credit: Viktor Vasnetsov; painted in 1887.
If there is one lesson that we as humans can learn from reading and interpreting ancient texts is that we ought to not adopt the ways of ancient Man. Then, it was considered both normative and necessary to engage in genocide, often in accordance with the desires of a deity. Today, we ought to know better.
Consider a biblical text from the Torah (or Old Testament) in Deuteronomy 7:1-6; 16
1: "When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir'gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, 2: and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. 3: You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons. 4: For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5: But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe'rim, and burn their graven images with fire. 6: "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.
16: And you shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you, your eye shall not pity them; neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.and similarly in Deuteronomy 20: 16-18
16: But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17: but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per'izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb'usites, as the LORD your God has commanded; 18: that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.Can any modern mind find comfort in such a view? Now, let’s look at a text from the New Testament in Luke 12:49-51, where Jesus of Nazareth, in his messianic vision, says the following:
49 I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what do I desire, if it is already kindled?50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!51 Think ye that I am come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division.Such is hardly a portrayal of a man of peace. But it gets worse, leading to the final conclusion and judgement. In the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, God calls for destruction of one-third of the earth and of its trees, waters and then the sun and moon—indicative of both a scorched earth policy and destruction of our solar system, as Revelation 8:6-12 says:
6 And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound them.7 The first sounded, and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were thrown to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.8 The second angel sounded, and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood,9 and a third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and a third of the ships were destroyed.10 The third angel sounded, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters.11 The name of the star is called Wormwood; and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter.12 The fourth angel sounded, and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were struck, so that a third of them would be darkened and the day would not shine for a third of it, and the night in the same way.And in Revelation 9:13-15, the text says in clear and unapologetic language that one-third of humanity is killed:
13 Then the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God,14 one saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.”15 And the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and day and month and year, were released, so that they would kill a third of mankind.Now, such are important narratives, revealing much, at least for those western nations that have adopted the Judeo-Christian bible as their moral standard and their still-prevailing ideas of establishing a new world order, as was the case of President George H. W. Bush’s speech before Congress in March 1991, after gaining a victory in the First Gulf War. It can generally explain, to some degree, why both European and North American nations have engaged in war. And in modern times why U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in its war on terror; Bush is a self-declared evangelical Christian, many of whom believe that the New Testament is both inerrant and applicable for today. Generally, we look to God, a deity, what we can’t find in humanity. This position is hardly defensible.
Similarly, it can explain why many Islamic nations—many of which are pre-modern in their political and social views and who have their own biblical text, the Qur’an—view modern western nations with some suspicion. Islam has a different god, one of many in existence today in the world.
Pre-modern societies hold pre-modern views. Accordingly, modern societies, chiefly through the ways of science and the Enlightenment, have distanced themselves from the accounts of the biblical narratives, seeing in them a story of how ancient civilizations thought and acted. For the modern mind, the biblical narrative is not, in any way, an instruction manual for today.
Pre-moderns, however, view it as such, and use the rhetoric of these ancient texts today when they make speeches. They actually expect their god to reign down curses and judgements on their enemies, just as the ancient texts suggest. They use the language of genocide, because their god uses it, thus according moral acceptance on the language of incitement and hate. So, for example, when the leader of Iran calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, he is using the language of the ancient texts.
Whether to take it as a serious threat is debatable for the following reason. It’s often both a rhetorical device and a prayer of retribution, in that the statement or threat is also a call to a deity to act in accordance with the wishes of the earthly leader. In other words, using the same example of the Iranian leader, he is merely asking his god to destroy Israel. This might not be the same as acting in the absence of his god’s blessing on that matter. Voicing a desire, in accordance with a religious view, might not be the same thing as building a nuclear bomb and using it.
If there is any lesson learned here, it’s that it's important to understand the language and view it in its proper context, steeped in the language of retribution and genocide. To stop genocides is not that simple; it would require that pre-modern societies, steeped in biblical narratives, move way from viewing these as true and imperative for today. It would take a dramatic change of thinking.
I would like to end with some well-informed thoughts from a slim volume of essays: Errata; An examined life by George Steiner, who writes:
As it has always been, theodicy is the crux. If God is, why does he tolerate the glaring horrors and injustices of the human condition? He might be a malevolent potentate, torturing, humiliating, starving, killing men, women and children as “wanton boys do flies.” He may be a deity of circumscribed or exhausted powers. Though it has been the subject of my fiction, the concept of a lamed or powerless God verges on the absurd. Immemorially attempts to “justify His ways to man” have drawn on the cruel paradox of freedom.
None of these three narratives—the diabolical, the impotent, the compensatory—commends itself to reason, each, in its own manner, offends intelligence and morality. The answer given to the question posed during the torture and hanging of a starving child at Auschwitz (“Where now is God,” “God is that child”) is more or less nauseating bit of anthropomorphic pathos. (158)Such are my sentiments. Nothing more need be said.