Letter from the Editor
Michael D. Coogan, Editor in Chief
From the desk of Michael Coogan
Like others, I have been saddened by the destruction of ancient ruins and artifacts in the ongoing and increasingly complex turmoil in the Middle East. On a trip to Syria many years, ago I was able to visit Palmyra—ancient Tadmor (see 2 Chronicles 8:4)—where stunningly well–preserved temples of the early Common Era have been blown up by the militant group known as ISIS. A recent issue of Near Eastern Archaeology is devoted to the "cultural heritage crisis in the Middle East," with articles detailing widespread damage to sites in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Looted artifacts smuggled out of the Middle East now regularly end up for sale at tony auction houses and shops in London and New York and on eBay.
Neither looting nor iconoclasm is a modern phenomenon. Tomb robbing has been a profitable enterprise for thousands of years, and desecration of artifacts for avowedly religious and political reasons is ancient as well. Not surprisingly, it also occurs in the Bible. According to the book of Deuteronomy, God commanded the Israelites:
You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the images of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places. (12:2–3; see also 7:5; Exodus 34:13).
Two kings of Judah, influenced by Deuteronomy (or perhaps Deuteronomy was influenced by their actions), are reported to have done exactly that. In the late eighth century BCE King Hezekiah "removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it" (2 Kings 18:4). A century later his successor Josiah did likewise: he destroyed "the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun" and "burned the chariots of the sun with fire." Josiah went on to defile "the high places that were east of Jerusalem. . . . He broke the pillars in pieces, cut down the sacred poles, and covered the sites with human bones" (2 Kings 23:11, 13–14).
The recent destruction of spectacular ruins and looting of museums and of both excavated and unexcavated sites is sad, but relatively inconsequential in the context of the rapes, loss of life, and displacement of populations engulfing the Middle East today. Nor are such tragedies new: they too have startling parallels in the biblical record, especially, although not exclusively, in laws and narratives dealing with the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. According to Deuteronomy, God commanded them: "As for the towns of those peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them" (20:16–17). And according to the book of Joshua, that is exactly what happened: "So Joshua defeated the whole land . . .; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded" (10:40; see also 6:21; 8:24; 11:11).
As often in the Bible, both law and narrative present variant commands and scenarios. In some situations, men, women, and children, as well as animals, could be captured alive, and made slaves or otherwise put to use. Women were especially vulnerable: "When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, you shall bring her into your house" (Deuteronomy 21:12; see also Judges 21:10–12, 19–23).
We could argue that the accounts of ethnic cleansing and wholesale destruction in the book of Joshua and elsewhere in the Bible are historical fictions—that they never in fact occurred, or at least not to the extent described. The Bible itself supports such a view. Despite the reports of the razing of Canaanite cities in Joshua, the opening chapter of Judges gives a different picture: "Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, but the Canaanites lived among them in Gezer" (1:29; contrast Joshua 10:33); the same is reported for the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Manasseh, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan. Historically this seems probable, but that does not soften the divine commands. Violence against others—rape, murder, deportation-—is divinely commanded, and sometimes divinely carried out.
Some Christians might argue that the New Testament moves beyond such horrible violence. This smacks of supersessionism, conveniently ignoring that the Old Testament is part of the Christian Bible. It also ignores the violence in the New Testament itself, especially in the book of Revelation, where, to give just one example, God is not just violent but sadistic, more than he was in the plagues in Egypt:
Locusts on the earth . . . were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death but will not find it (9:3–6; compare Exodus 10:12–15).
Like the stories of conquest in the Old Testament, the apocalypse described in Revelation may be merely symbolic, although both have been and continue to be interpreted literally. Still, the message of divine retribution is clear. My reason for recalling these biblical examples of violence is to remind us that the atrocities now taking place in the Middle East are not unprecedented, and some are enshrined in the Bible itself. Religious fanatics in both the past and the present have chosen to justify vandalism and violence toward others by claiming that it was commanded by a violent deity. But that is not the only understanding of the deity in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures: in all three God is merciful and loving as well. For human survival, if not salvation, nonviolence in imitation of divine compassion is the only valid course of action.
Michael D. Coogan
Editor in Chief, Oxford Biblical Studies Online