Book Reflection: Divine Presence Amid Violence by Walter Brueggemann

The Old Testament is replete with violent scenes. For many, this has caused emotional and cognitive strife. How is this God in whose name atrocious acts of genocide were committed the same as the God of Jesus who teaches us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us? Yet our faith proclaims that Jesus fulfills the expectations of the Old Testament; that the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. Walter Brueggemann attempts to address this problem with a detailed study of Joshua 11. His goal is to offer a contextualized reading of this passage to help shed some light on this issue of God’s presence and self-revelation in the midst of biblical violence.

brueggemann_divinepresenceRealizing that Old Testament narrative is driven by dialog, Brueggemann analyzes the only words that come directly from YHWH (God), for this is God’s revelation.

“Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will hand over all of them, slain, to Israel; you shall hamstring their horses, and burn their chariots with fire” (Joshua 11:6).

He points out that the only violence that is actually permitted in the speech by YHWH is the stringing up of the horses and the burning of the chariots, and this in response to the aggressive actions of the King of Hazor. Horses and chariots, he contends, were the  weapons of suppression utilized by the powerful kings.They were tools of domination, oppression, and the violence is permitted only towards the weapons of mass destruction utilized by the empires to keep the ragtag bunch of former Egyptian slaves at hand.

In this way he reminds us that all texts come from certain sociological contexts, from certain points of view. The text of Joshua comes from the margins, a nomadic group being attacked by the powerful kings with their advanced weaponry in an effort to suppress the counter-cultural way of life being emulated by the people of God, the Hebrews. Therefore the story is one of God’s deliverance, of God’s protection, and the violence permitted is only against the weapons of oppression. Brueggemann says:

Does God mandate violence? Properly contextualized, this narrative answers yes, but of a specific kind: tightly circumscribed, in the interest of a serious social experiment, in the interest of ending domination.

This is a helpful reminder of the fact that all texts come from contexts. Those of us in empire cannot read these texts as justifying our use of “horses and chariots” against people who do not have them. If anything this text stands in judgment of such use, and reminds us that, often, God is found on the margins of such conflict, criticizing and declaring verdict on those in power. In this way, this is a very needed corrective on a text that for too long has been used to justify oppressive violence.

The largest shortfall of this small work was it’s failure to deal with other texts that  do permit more wide-spread, exterminating violence.  He claims that the actions of the Hebrews in this passage went outside of the realm of the permission given by YHWH. They practiced extermination while God permitted strictly circumscribed violence against the tools of war, not the people. He does acknowledge that texts mandating extermination exist (Deut 20:16-18), and possibly these form the justification for their extreme violence in the text.  He does not, however, address such passages in detail.

In the end, such passages are outside of the purview of this small book, and should not be taken as a strike against his work. Such a treatment would be much more extensive.  Brueggemann sets out to do a contextualized reading of Joshua 11, and in so doing he successfully reminds us of the true revelation in this text: God liberates from the oppressive powers of empire in the interest of preserving God’s alternative community.

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