Should the Israelites Have Celebrated the Destruction of Pharoah’s Army?

The title for this post is occasioned by a question raised in new book called The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy by Eric Seibert. Seibert quite bluntly asks, “Is mass murder ever cause for celebration.” (33) He views the violence of the Old Testament as unacceptable and immoral. He “regards all forms of violence as inappropriate for Christians, and [he] cannot condone the use of violence in any situation.” (6) Not only is the violence perpetuated by people in the Old Testament wrong, the violence allegedly perpetuated by God is also wrong. He writes,

“In some circles, God’s violent behavior is explicitly praised. For example, after God drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, the Israelites–who are safe on the other side–see the bodies of dead Egyptian soldiers washing up on shore (Exod. 14:30). They respond by singing a song of praise to God for this unprecedented act of divine violence. . . . The writer displays no uneasiness with this overwhelming act of divine violence and regards God’s behavior as completely praiseworthy. It constitutes an example of ‘virtuous’ violence that is hard to miss. But is it really appropriate to rejoice over the death of one’s enemies? Is mass murder ever cause for celebration?

“Of course, God’s violence in the Old Testament is not limited to mass killing and large-scale slaughter. Sometimes God is portrayed as being directly responsible for the death of a particular ‘sinner.’ Such acts of divine violence include the execution of Er and Onan (Gen. 38:7-10), the incineration of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-2), the smiting of Nabal (1 Sam. 25:38), and the elimination of Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Regardless of whether God’s behavior is explicitly justified in the text, most readers regard such divine violence as ‘virtuous’ simply because God is the one doing it.” (32-34)

Seibert says we often forget to view these acts of violence from the vantage point of the victim.

“We need to see the faces of those being killed in these stories. We need to look deeply into their eyes as we listen to their stories and experience their pain and suffering. Until we have done that, our job is incomplete, and we have not really read the text, or at least not very well. Paying attention to the victim in these texts, and straining to hear their voices, raises serious questions about the ‘virtue’ or ‘virtuous’ violence. It encourages us to critique, rather than condone, acts of violence against others. But here I am getting ahead of myself. The present point is simply this: these stories are often read, retold, and reused in ways that mask their violence and make them seem less violent and less problematic than they really are.” (43)

I have a number of questions regarding this approach. It seems that Seibert is starting with his nonviolent presupposition and then proceeds to “overcome” Old Testament violence by dismissing them as wrong. To charge God with “mass murder” is to presuppose that God does not have the right to take a life (or lives) where and when he chooses to do so. What if we did look into the eyes of some of these ‘victims?’ What would the soldiers of Pharoah’s army say? Some may have said, “I simply wanted to chase down the Israelites and kill them.” Others may have been more accommodating, “I wanted to return them to a life of slavery.” If someone had come upon some Nazi soldiers who were about to kill some Jews but they were in turn killed by our bystander, would we want to appeal to their killer that he should look deeply into the eyes of these Nazis so that he could feel their pain and suffering? What of the pain and suffering of those he was about to murder?

I see more and more of this type of thinking which views the Old Testament as primitive, tribal and immoral. The behavior displayed by many, including the God of the Old Testament, is not worthy of a Christian ethic. Jesus showed us a better way. A way of peace and nonviolence. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is to some degree Marcion revisited. I’m thinking of making this the topic of our annual forum next year. The issues are very important and warrant discussing.

The Violence of Scripture is from Fortress Press. It is a paperback with 232 pages and sells for $23.00. You can read chapter 1 here.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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2 Responses to Should the Israelites Have Celebrated the Destruction of Pharoah’s Army?

  1. Philip E Miller says:

    Seibert either ignores or does not know the well-known statement in the Midrash that while the Israelites were singing at the Read Sea, God challenged them, “How can you rejoice while My creatures are drowning?” This is further in emphasized in Proverbs: 24:17: Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles:. As for another examples of violence, there is an exhortation to slay all the Amalekites, including women and children. Yet I Chronicles 4:42-43 relates that not all were killed; Midrash relates that Haman (of the Book of Esther) was descended from the Amalekites. When it comes to discussing violence” in the Bible, “generically”, one size does NOT fit all.

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    • Brian Blanchard says:

      It is a dangerous place when the creature would presume to judge the creator. God is sovereign. He has said of Himself that “behold I kill and I make alive”. The angel of the Lord was the one who killed 70,000 men of Israel when God allowed Satan to incite David to number the men of war. Personally, I have chosen to avoid being told by God to “gird up your loins like a man and I will question you…” I would propose that some scholars want a new religion with a new Bible, and a God made in their own image.

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