More Old-Testament Violence, and Bluegrass

My Ad Rem on the subject of the “dark passages” of the Bible went a bit long. This piece represents a small coda with further thoughts on the issue, being a collection of “odds and ends” presented in no special order.

  • The “ban” — i.e., the “dedication to destruction” by which men, women, and children were slaughtered (the Hebrew concept of cherem is much more complex than that, but includes it) — was something exclusive to the Holy Land. The Israelites were not given blanket permission to engage in wars of world conquest, to form professional armies in order to subdue other areas beyond the Holy Land, like Syria and Egypt. (They were notably not possessed of a professional army.) God’s people were given a mandate to eradicate those who refused to recognize God’s promise to Abraham in the land promised to him some four hundred and more years before, so that they could dwell in this area (about the size of New Jersey), remaining God’s holy people in God’s holy land, according to God’s holy covenant with them.
  • As my guest on the Reconquest show, Dr. Nathan Schmiedickie, pointed out, the lesson to be learned is that being in a right relationship with God equals life, not being in a right relationship with God equals death. Israel’s idolatrous enemies were slain not because they were foreigners — it had nothing to do with race, otherwise Rahab’s house and the Gibeonites ought to have been massacred — but exclusively because they were idolatrous and represented also what we now call an “existential threat” to Israel. These pagans’ wicked religion begets spiritual death, of which their brutal physical death is only a type.
  • The most obvious question to ask here is “but what about the children?” We’re talking about a divine sanction to slaughter children: how is that acceptable? When confronted with this question recently in my religion class, I offered the explanation that God is the Master of life and death, and that we all have to die some way. God is within His rights to determine that these children — whose souls He will treat justly, in accordance with His own goodness — are to die in this manner. That does not satisfy everyone, to be sure. As one of my own students, a freshmen, very emotionally, yet intelligently asked while challenging me on this point: “Brother, imagine the psychological impact that killing babies and little children would have on the men who were commanded to do it!” A good point! And the counterpoint is this: That is exactly what God wanted: psychological impact. Let me explain by paraphrasing the answer Dr. Schmiedickie gave on the show. The Israelites had been in pagan Egypt for four hundred years. They learned the ways of the pagan Egyptians. We know from the Exodus story that they were constantly falling into infidelity, not only with the incident of the Golden Calf, but in manifold other ways. They griped and moaned and groaned their way throughout the desert, and more than once wanted to go back to Egypt. The penitential forty years in the desert (a type of our forty-day Lent) was to get this out of them, but that task was finished at the time of the conquest of the Holy Land. These yet brutal people who still had many pagan ways had to see the cost of infidelity, to have the basic equations “right relationship with God = LIFE” and “wrong relationship with God (or idolatrous relationship with demons) = DEATH” driven home to them in crimson and scarlet living color. In addition to this, Daniel J. Castellano points out that, historically, the alternatives to the slaughter of women and children would have been crueler still (slavery, being left to starve, etc.).
  • The point was made elsewhere that without divine sanction, the killing of non-combatants would not have been allowed. Clearly, this is something that would violate Catholic just war doctrine. But some in more recent times have found in the Old Testament episodes under discussion a template for their own wars of conquest, especially against a perceived class of “reprobate” enemies. Examples would include the Hussite heretics based in Prague, a sect that developed into an “Old-Testament Christianity” that glorified military conquest. They would actually have priests process with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance into the battle zone, like Jewish priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant. We are also reminded of the Calvinist Anglo-Americans who explicitly looked at America as the new promised land and the natives here as so many Moabites, Madianites, Amalecites, etc., who could be slaughtered or driven off their land. Lastly we are reminded of the Zionist conquerers of Palestine, who, in rejecting Christ, had long lost any title to the promise made to Abraham, yet they imitated (and still imitate) the violence of those who did have a divine sanction to cherem. Toward the end of his lengthy study, Cherem: The Israelite Wars of Destruction, Daniel J. Castellano very expertly contrasts the conditions of the ancient world in general and the Israelites in particular with the Christian ages. The Crusaders in the East, who rightly considered the Holy Land a Christian inheritance, did not attempt to appropriate the ethic of cherem.
  • The pre-conquest incident recorded in Numbers 31 — the first of the four examples of “dark passages” we gave in the Ad Rem — wherein Madianite male children and matrons are killed, has its own peculiar circumstance worth noting. We read in the Douay commentary for Numbers 31: “Women and children, ordinarily speaking, were not to be killed in war, Deut. 20. 14. But the great Lord of life and death was pleased to order it otherwise in the present case, in detestation of the wickedness of this people, who by the counsel of Balaam, had sent their women among the Israelites on purpose to draw them from God.” Balaam (of “Balaam’s Ass” fame) well knew that one way to gain victory over the Israelites was to send in the women, not as warriors obviously, but as séductrices who would morally and religiously corrupt Israelite men, as Jezebel would later corrupt Ahab. The wicked stratagem worked. As that article at summarizes it: “Balaam later led Israel into idolatry by sending women to seduce the men of Israel away from the faith. God punished Israel for this by plague and war — a war in which Balaam got his comeuppance and was slain (Numbers 31).” The matrons represented a threat to Israel, but clemency was shown to the virgins, who were not guilty of luring Israelite men into sin.
  • Saint Augustine famously said Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet. Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet. This little Latin rhyming couplet says that “The New Testament is hidden in the Old. The Old Testament is revealed in the New.” In light of the New Testament, many of these “Dark Passages” become particularly lightsome. Rahab the harlot, already mentioned above as a type of the Gentile Church (according to Saint Ambrose) was used by Saint Paul as a model of faith (Hebrews 11:31), and by Saint James as a model of good works (James 2:25). Both authors also used Abraham to make the same lessons. The Fathers of the Church, Origen, Saints Augustine, Jerome, and Prosper of Aquitaine (cf.), Hilary and Justin Martyr (cf.) all see the scarlet cord of Rahab that was the sign to spare her house as a type of the Precious Blood of Jesus that saves us. Origen and Saint Ambrose further note that those in her house were saved while those outside perished — thus foreshadowing the Church outside of which there is no salvation. And for a little cultural eclecticism, the Rahab cord-Precious Blood patristic typology has made its way into the modern bluegrass-gospel tune “Scarlet Cord,” performed by the family quartet, Southern Raised.
Joshua and the Israelite People, from the Karolingischer Buchmaler (details)

Joshua and the Israelite People, from the Karolingischer Buchmaler (details)