The Ethics of War (or the Problem With the Prophets)

After a semester off, I’m leaping back into the Old Testament for a week, as I take a Maymester course called Amos and Ethics.

One of the great things I’ve discovered over the course of doing this seminary thing has been accepting and respecting the multivocality of the Bible. It does not speak with one voice, nor was it intended to. It’s the collected understandings of dozens of people over thousands of years as they’ve figured out and written down and passed along their own beliefs in who God is and what he’s doing in the world. And sometimes, certain texts speak more to certain cultures than others.

For example, Revelation speaks more to those undergoing persecution and suffering than to those of us Christians in 21st-century America. Rather, in our comfortable, easy lives, where the church more often than not finds itself supporting politicians who advocate tax cuts for the wealthy and service cuts for the needy, we need an Amos.

Amos doesn’t bar holds. He’s no better than middle class himself, a manager of land and flocks from Judah, and he travels up to Bethel, one of Israel’s two holy sites and begins popping off about their tendency to sell the poor into debt slavery over trifles such as a pair of sandals, about their general oppression of the needy and their use of the courts to stifle complaint from those without the means to grease the wheels of the system. Then he slams the women of Israel, calling them cows, condemning them for living lives of luxury, getting drunk while they cheat and oppress the lower classes.

Yet these same people say they cannot wait for the Lord to come back. “Why do you want the day of the Lord?” Amos asks. “Isn’t the day of the Lord darkness, not light” to those whom Amos addresses? God hates and rejects the worship they bring – their prayers and their offerings. He won’t even look at them or listen to their music. “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

There is much to like about Amos, especially if you feel the system needs reform, and that Christians should play a role in advocating for and implementing such reform to lift up the poor and increase the justice and righteousness our society shows to its most vulnerable.

But here’s the rub: Amos is also a violent book. And we can’t just pick and choose what we like and don’t like from a text. So while liberals love Amos because it focuses on social, legal and economic justice for the poor, it makes us a little squeamish because the God it portrays is “not a warm, comfortable God, but a dangerous and fearsome God who demands accountability.”

That quote comes from Bruce C. Birch, whose commentary on Amos is one of the texts for our class. Birch does a good job spelling out just how radical a change Amos calls us to. Consider his comment on Amos’ oracle against the nations, which opens the book:

We have failed to hear the message of Amos that God’s justice observes no national or ethnic boundaries. The divine regard for those who might be victimized or oppressed is not limited to those who know and call on the divine name in the manner of our religious practice.

Good stuff, especially in light of yesterday’s unfortunate vote in North Carolina.

Birch also has an excellent interpretation of the crimes for which God condemns the six nations surrounding Israel:

Many of the crimes detail the atrocities of war. Terrible deeds have been committed by these nations in pursuit of their self-serving interests, such as enlarging their territorial borders. Some of this violence has been directed against Israelite territories and some against each other. The first six nations named by Amos are all accused of acts of gross inhumanity. … It is unfortunate that we still live in a world where examples of similar atrocity and violence are not difficult to come by.

Again, this is good stuff. But now comes something of a problem. Because God doesn’t just condemn these acts, he promises punishment for them, and the language of this punishment doesn’t sound much different. It speaks of fire and bloodshed. Against Israel, God through Amos promises death, deprivation, disease and abandonment. Which leads to the question: If it’s wrong for these other nations to do it, why is it OK for God? Do two wrongs make a right?

Ultimately, all of the nations surrounding Israel, including Israel itself, would be subjugated by the Assyrians or the Babylonians. Israel, the northern kingdom, would become extinct as a recognizable culture, deported and scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire and replaced there by the people of other subjugated lands.

But if those six nations were guilty of war crimes of varying degrees, so too were the Assyrians, who employed brutal means of crushing rebellion as a psychological tactic to discourage further attempts at independence. You might skip this block quote if you’re squeamish:

Ashurnasirpal II paints a descriptive picture when he later describes how he dealt with the rebels; they were flayed, impaled, beheaded (first if they were lucky), burnt alive, eyes ripped out, fingers, noses and ears cut off. … Other acts of brutality include: rape, mutilating men until death, placing heads, arms, hands and even lower lips on the conquered city’s walls, skulls and noses atop stakes. Alternatively these could also be piled up or even their corpses cut up and fed to the dogs. On some occasions, people were blinded so that as they wandered throughout the land they would speak of Assyrian terrors and demoralize the local population.

For me, this is the great conundrum of Amos: The acts he condemns are acts of inhumanity and injustice. Yet the response for those acts, apparently ordered by God himself, is terrorism and brutality in the form of the hellacious Assyrian army. How does that work?

It seems to me we have a few choices:

  1. God raised up and supported the brutality of the Assyrians specifically to punish Israel and her neighbors, which does not seem tenable.
  2. God could have stopped the Assyrians from ravaging these nations but chose not to because of the sins of Israel and her neighbors, which is more tenable but still places God in the position of essentially correcting injustice with terror and brutality. Put another way, the injustice the poor suffered in Israel was likely not eased when Assyria swept through their land.
  3. God didn’t actually say any of this. Plenty of prophets claimed to speak for God in those days, and those whose oracles were preserved happened to get it right. Or, alternately, the prophecies that were preserved were made after the fact as an explanation for what happened. That’s convenient, but a little too convenient for my tastes.
  4. Assyria was coming regardless, and God sent the prophets as a warning, knowing the nations weren’t about to repent anyway. That’s sufficiently complicated – and brings in all the craziness of foreknowledge and predestination – that perhaps it’s closest to the truth, but I can’t say I’ve really hashed that all the way through to a coherent framework for all of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic works.

Perhaps Birch will say more about it; thus far his reconciliation of those divergent values shows promise but isn’t quite satisfactory: “Amos tells us in his oracle against the nations that God’s justice is at work in such historic processes, In God’s time, violence and oppression will not go forever unchallenged.” That almost sounds right, but at the moment it just seems like a marriage of karma and eschatology, and it doesn’t adequately account for God’s first-person judgment, when he explicitly ties their actions to the coming punishment (2:13 – “So now I will oppress you.”).

Perhaps there is simply no good answer. But I’ll be trying to get one in the coming weeks.

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