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B iBlical T heology B ulleTin Volume 40 Number 3 Pages 123-126 © The Author(s),

BiBlical Theology BulleTin Volume 40 Number 3 Pages 123-126 © The Author(s), 2010. Reprints and Permissions: http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0146107910375541 http://btb.sagepub.com

Does God Thirst for Human Blood?

Michał Czajkowski

Abstract

This biblical-theological reflection on the violent aspect of God in the Bible attempts to contextualize those pas- sages so that they may be better understood and appropriated in diverse contemporary cultural settings.

Key words: Joshua, Esther, Judith, Vatican II, Wirkungsgeschichte

Why read the Old Testament? After all, we already know there are only dry legal regulations in it, which no one cares about, and a lot of “wet work,” but the crime thrillers on TV serve this purpose better. This has been a victory from be- yond the grave, across the ages, for Marcion of Sinope (2 nd century), who was repudiated by the Church (starting with his bishop—his very own father). Today, thank goodness, we Catholics (not without Protestant influence) are reading this Old Testament (sometimes called the First) more and more often, not just in the Liturgy, and we’re discovering its spiritual depth and overwhelming beauty. But at the same time we’re also discovering scenes and views that are blood- curdling.

Blood-Curdling Stories

When shocked readers of the Bible talk to me about the Egyptian plagues, about the killing of first-born sons and the drowning of Pharoah’s entire army, about the rebels Korah, Dathan, and Abiram being swallowed up by the earth, about God’s punishment of Moses and Aaron and their entire generation (they will not enter the Holy Land), I point—with full conviction—to the human dimension. While

I believe the Bible is entirely inspired and entirely God’s

Word, we have to realize that it is at the same time entirely

a human word, with all attendant consequences, including

error; not only original or historical, but also ethical error, although never religious error (salvific truth). This human side of the Bible includes, for example, the epic character of narratives in books such as Exodus, Numbers, or Joshua. The belief which Christians, after all, share with Jews—that God chose Israel and led it out of a land of slavery into the Promised Land—also gave rise to ascribing God’s sanction to all the wars, wrongdoing, and cruelty carried out on that

Michał Czajkowski, S.S.L (Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome), S.T.D. (St. Thomas University, Rome), Eleve Dipl. (École Biblique Française, Jerusalem) is Professor Emeritus at Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University (formerly the Academy of Catholic Theology, Warsaw). He also served as acting chair of exegesis and biblical theology of the Old Testament at Szczecin Univer- sity. E-mail: czajkowski@wiez.com.pl. Active in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, he served as co-President of Poland’s Council of Chris- tians and Jews, and vice chairman of the International Council of Christians and Jews.

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journey from Egypt to Canaan in accordance with the mili- tary code of that time. In any event, each pericope should be examined individu- ally, and this is done in biblical studies. One questions the historical accuracy of many episodes in this national epic. It is openly asserted that the war over the Holy Land as presented in the Book of Joshua (e.g., Josh 6) did not take place, and neither did the curse (herem) sentencing a person, animal, or thing to extermination (by God’s will). Above all, however, these are interpreted theologically. In the Old Testament (and New Testament) portrayal of a God who is vengeful and cruel, in the graphic language of shocking texts, we search for—we must search for—the intention of the given statement. Vatican Council II reminded us:

To see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, [we must] carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers re- ally intended and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words, and [we must] investigate what meaning the sa- cred writer intended to express and actually expressed in par- ticular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture, [and we must] pay due attention to the customary and characteris- tic styles of thinking (or perceiving), speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer and to the pat- terns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another [Dei Verbum, 12].

The Content and Unity of the Entire Bible

Israel shares the style of waging wars and the style of war narratives with its pagan environment. But Israel’s Bible and history consist not only of force, blood, and tears. “To discover the real sense of the holy texts, one must also carefully take into account the content and unity of the entire Bible” (Dei Verbum, 12). In this way, we will find in it the real message: repudiation of war. Prophets such as Isaiah (2:6-21; 30:15–17; 31:1–3) or Hosea (1:3-7; 5:8–6:6) express severe criticism of arms and war. The First Testament proclaims a time when God will no longer allow any more military conflicts or bloodshed (Isaiah 2:1–5; 11:6-9, 10; Micah 4:1–5; Hosea 2:20; Amos 9:11–15; Zachariah 9:9-10; Psalms 46; 85; 87). Prior to all the war stories in the Book of Joshua we read the narrative about “a man with a drawn sword in hand” (5:13–15), which cautions us against interpreting them literally.

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That mysterious man stood before Joshua near Jericho, which Israelite troops were preparing to conquer. Joshua asks point blank: “Are you one of us or one of our enemies?” God’s messenger (the captain of the host of the Lord) re- plies “No!” He doesn’t take sides. God desires to rule out this deadly alternative, which is the basis of all wars (in- cluding those bloodless wars both at the top and bottom of today’s already free Poland): one of us—or an enemy? And Joshua also hears this order: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy.” Renounce your claims. The ground on which you stand is the Lord’s; it is holy. Therefore, you and your people should be holy on it

because I am holy, yhwh, your God! hatred for your brother in your heart but you shall love your neighbor as

resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you like the native-born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you, too, were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am yhwh,

your God!” [Leviticus 19:2, 17–18, 33–34].

You shall not bear Take no revenge When an alien

Neither is Yhwh a God of war, nor does His Israel con- stantly draw out the sword with great eagerness to fight and take revenge. Wars were usually thrust upon Israel. After all, its land—Eretz Israel—lies between two world empires, whose armies marched across it as though it were the court- yard of their barracks. This reminds us of Polish history and geography. By creating its own “theology of war,” Israel

wanted not so much to justify itself and its military actions

as to free God of the suspicion that He is not a God if the

gods of neighboring powers can do whatever they want to His people. Even the Book of Judith, which so greatly extols

war (in literal reading), is in reality a story that rejects war

in God’s name. How much irony there is in the depiction of

Holofernes, whom the biblical author presents as a warlike

character and whom he leads to inevitable self-destruction.

A weak woman cuts off his head with his own sword dur-

ing the night when he was about to violate her—here is the

literary and theological point of this parabolic narrative, which we should not forcibly historicize or, especially, place

in opposition to the gospel. This fascinating Jewish narrative

sends us a message of hope from that world, a world ravaged

by wars, as is ours: “strike up the instruments, a song to my

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY BULLETIN • VOLUME 40

God with timbrels, chant to the Lord with cymbals; sing to Him a new song, exalt and acclaim his name. For the Lord is God; He crushes warfare.” (Jdt 16:1-2) God crushes warfare. Even the Book of Esther (which Luther reluctantly accepted in the Bible although he viewed it as too Jewish and too pagan) is a narrative protest against force, based on the first commandment of God. That which is historical in it contradicts what fundamentalist exegetes and readers ascribe to it: that the Jews carried out pogroms in the Persian empire. Moreover, what is historical—and nothing more—is that the Jews assimilated themselves into their pagan milieu. The Book of Esther opts for the integra- tion of Jews into a world foreign to them, while establishing a clear boundary: no deification of man or rendering him hom- age! It is a narrative expression of faith in the God of Israel, who even in exile rescues Jews, and also rescues pagans. In this book, the Jewish minority expresses its fears from the inmost recesses of the heart, while it attempts at the same time to gain sympathy for itself and its monotheistic faith. But what about those pogroms?

Who Has the Last Word?

Esther 8:11 cites the second decree of Ahasuerus that “the king authorized Jews in each and every city to group together and defend their lives, and to kill, destroy, wipe out, along with their wives and children, every armed group of any na- tion or province which should attack them, and to seize their goods as spoil.” Thus reads the Tyniec Millenium Bible, similarly other Polish translations, also the Warsaw Mille- nium Bible, as well as the majority of foreign translations— all in accordance with the military law of that time. One can imagine, however, how many vicious, sometimes even hateful, disgusting commentaries the Book of Esther has raised (and sometimes still raises) regarding the Jews and their religion. One does not notice that further on, when a reference is made about carrying out the royal decree (Esth 9:5), there is no mention of murdering women and children, and that this Book does not belong to the historical literary genre. How- ever, some biblical scholars and some translators of this Book insist that the point here is not about carrying out pogroms but about defending against them; thus, we already see such translations in agreement with the original Hebrew text— translations of 8:11 (not yet in the Polish language), which tell about the Jews’ active defense against those who attack

them and their (!) children and wives. One must also trans- late the so-called “cursing Psalms” more carefully because God’s vengeance and the brutality of His followers are not always found in the Hebrew text. And when it does agree? When the New Testament also talks about a God of judgment and retribution? Often this

is simply a parenesis through which the reader (listener) is warned against evil. The Old Testament readings carry

a message of hope to victims and a call of repentance to

evildoers. From the viewpoint of the hopeless and suffering there are stories showing that—contrary to appearances— the Pharaoh does not have the last word. It’s not important whether Egyptian troops really drowned, or whether Ko- rah and his companions were swallowed up by the earth

(they were not, and the firstborn also did not die). What is important is that God stands on the side of the weak and remains steadfast with His family. He is bound by the order

of law and justice that He himself has instituted. He is not

concerned with blind, foolish revenge, which destroys, but with restoration of the order that He himself has instituted. Besides, these are not statements about God Himself but about His relationship to the world and history, where there

is a constant tension between evil and good or success, threat

and disaster, justice and injustice. Looking up “from below” with our human eyes, we also see a constant tension in God, for example, between justice and mercy, although in Him

this certainly is not a tension, conflict or dilemma, but a unity

of justice and mercy and all other attributes.

In the Bible and Judaism, however, these attributes are often seen separately. We remember the God of punishment

and revenge, the God who drowns the Egyptian army in the depths of the sea, but we should not forget that the groans

of Jewish slaves in Egypt (Exod 2:23–24) reach His ears

and that He says: “I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt” (3:7). We must not forget, for example, God’s prom- ise following the deluge, “that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood” (Gen 9:

11). This does not mean that an angry God has sent such

a disaster upon sinful humanity. It means this: even if the

Creator according to human thinking ought to send down a deluge upon the earth because of human perversity, He will never do it. We must also not forget God’s explanation to the prophet as to why He showed mercy to the Ninevites and their animals (Jonah 4:11). That is the message about God, who with His mercy embraces all and everything, the mes-

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sage which Jonah-Israel must convey to the pagan world by his teaching and conduct. And he has conveyed it and con- veys it constantly; one need only read the prophetic books, as well as the Wisdom Books, and the Torah itself.

History of the Impact of the Texts

In any case, the Jews talked about two Torahs (Torot):

one written and one oral (which later was also written down). That oral rabbinical tradition is the best interpret- er of the biblical message. and it reveals the impact of the Bible in Judaism (Wirkungsgeschichte). Thus, in rabbinical literature, each time there is mention of the aspect of God as Judge, there immediately appears an appeal to another of His attributes: mercy. Moreover, it was taught that punish- ments extended only to the fourth generation—while mercy, at least two thousand generations. God even prays to Him- self that mercy will prevail over the just anger in Him. For three hours each day, He sits down to judge the whole world. When he sees that the world deserves to be annihilated be- cause evil predominates in it, He gets up from the throne of justice and sits on the throne of mercy. (All quotes from A. Cohen, Talmud [Warsaw, 1995: 46–48.) Even if nine hundred ninety-nine angels testified about man’s guilt, but only one stood in his defense, the Holy One (may He be blessed!) will tip the scales in man’s favor. The rabbis called God-Judge “the Merciful” (Rachman) and taught that “the world is judged by mercy.” I mentioned the Pharoah’s troops who drowned in the Red Sea while pursuing the Israelites. Jubilant angels begin singing a triumphant song in heaven, but God firmly inter- rupts them: The work of my hands has drowned in the sea, and you want to offer me a song?

Conclusion

In conclusion, permit me also to mention one more Wirkungsgeschichte of the biblical message. In today’s Isra- el (recounts Sister Anna Avril, in K. Strzelecka, Berit— Przymierze [Warsaw 1995]: 152–58), “the people are citing God’s word and are judging themselves according to it, just as they did in biblical times.” Following the crime in Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon, in spite of the fact that Israel did

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not have a hand in the bloodshed, but allowed it, a special government committee, after a thorough review of the matter, called the nation to penance, citing Deuteronomy 21, Genesis 1:26–27, Isaiah 2:3–4, and the Talmud. During the Intifada and a new Palestinian revolt, an Israeli newspaper, in the name of the nation, conducted an examination of conscience in light of the word of God. On the holy day of Purim, an article appeared: “How Difficult it is to Live and Remain

Just,” in which, on the basis of holy Scripture, it was stressed that one must not take revenge. In the article there is cited a thought from Jewish tradition: “The one who is merciless toward the cruel will become cruel toward the innocent.” In another article—on the occasion of the Passover, while citing the Book of Exodus—Sister Anna reads: “What are we doing with our freedom? Does not our freedom then sometimes become an oppression for others? Let us remem-

let us consider our

ber that we were freed from slavery;

enormous responsibility, which flows from freedom.” On the holy day of Purim, there is a warning in the newspaper against applying narratives from the Book of Esther to con- temporary relations with the Arabs; and on the occasion of Passover, that “human life must above all be characterized by the search for peace.” On the occasion of Shavuot: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” with a reminder that the neighbor is also a non-Jew. We have many more examples. Let us also just cite the parliamentary oath on the occasion of the opening of the Knesset: “I swear to remain faithful to the Torah, which commands us not to oppress foreigners since we were once foreigners in Egypt.” And yet another statement, which I have found from a different source. Golda Meir, the former Premier of the State of Israel, once said: “In the future we shall forgive the Arabs for spilling the blood of our children. But it will be harder for us to forgive them for making our children spill their blood.”

The original Polish version of this article “Czy Bóg jest złakniony ludzkiej krwi” appeared in Verbo Domini Ser- vire: Opuscula Ioanni Cantio Pytel Septuagenario Dedicata (Poznań: Adam Mickiewicz University, 2000), pp. 37–41. The translation was done by Bożenna and Thomas Tucker.

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