We are all too aware of the ways in which we feel the lure of violence, and in this post Christine Redwood uses Judges 3 as a way in to asking ourselves the question: Is Violence Ever OK ?
Judges 3: Is Violence Ever OK?
This is a big question and one that comes up when we enter the Old Testament and encounter violence. I’m an evangelical preacher working in Sydney, Australia. Evangelical preachers tend to work through a whole book of the Bible in one go. One of the advantages of this is that it can allow you to approach tricky question (like violence) from multiple angles – especially if violence is a recurring motif in a book. I preached through Judges with my church and got to try this out. We spent twelve weeks on this book (this might have been a tad too long)! Early in the preaching series, I wanted to address the question of whether violence was ever ok, so I began in our contemporary context.
Before delving into the strange and ancient world of the Bible, a good place to start is our violent and complex world. There are many examples a preacher can turn towards. I decided to focus on protests because I knew people in my congregation had engaged in political protests. Indeed, I had once engaged in a very peaceful protest and began with that personal story before mentioning a range of current political protests on both the right and left sides of politics. For instance, it wasn’t that long ago that in Hong Kong, we had Christians protesting alongside others over plans allowing China to crack down on acts in Hong Kong it deems a national security risk. Christians came out singing hymns declaring God reigns. It was a moving moment, but the protests weren’t entirely peaceful. There was violence. In the US in 2021, there were Christians protesting in Washington alongside others, calling on God to save the republic, wanting Trump to still be in power. That protest became a violent riot, an insurrection. In the middle of the first wave of the COVID pandemic, tens of thousands of people gathered in Sydney, calling for an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody, it was mostly peaceful though controversial, to hold a protest during a pandemic, and there were a few skirmishes with the police towards the end. There are a lot of examples I could give where people feel like there is some form of injustice happening. They want things to change, and the big question that all these movements have to wrestle with is, what are they prepared to do or not do to see change happen? Is violence ever ok?
By bringing people’s attention to these current events, I could turn to the book of Judges and show how it connects with the questions we might be asking. The book of Judges deals with reality, even the uncomfortable parts of reality, and invites us to confront how fascinated and repulsed we are with violence and how we can easily turn to violence to achieve our aims. Judges 3 is a great example. Israel finds itself living alongside other nations. They are kind of all squashed in together, squabbling over who can live where and who rules over this particular piece of land. Those squabbles often turn violent. This is the Bronze Age. War is part of life, and to survive, it is assumed that the Israelites must know how to fight. You see this when you read Judges 3:1:
These are the nations the LORD left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience).
In the world of Judges using violent means to achieve your aims is considered fairly normal. There will be war. You don’t peacefully protest. If a nation encroaches on your land or is unjust, you fight. Israel has won a few battles and managed to settle in the land of Canaan. They are not the only people trying to settle, though. The Philistines have come from the sea and conquered land in the north. And there are still the Canaanites, Sidonians, Hivites, and many others. This historical background is important. It is a different time and yet I wonder how much has changed. In the ancient world, nations believe using violence was ok to protect what they felt was theirs. What violent means do our countries engage in to protect themselves? Is it ok?
Towards the end of Judges 3 there is this sharp and funny story (you know you shouldn’t laugh but you find yourself cheering) that taps into our fascination and revulsion of violence. After a period of peace, Israel again does evil in God’s sight, and God lets Eglon, the king of Moab, rule Israel. He rules them for eighteen years. Israel cries out to God, and God raises up a deliverer. Ehud a left-handed man from the tribe of Benjamin. He goes to see Eglon with the tribute Israel owes the king. Ehud prepares by strapping his double-edged sword to his right thigh under his clothing then goes to the king’s home. There’s no security check. Ehud is allowed through to see the king. The king is a fat man. This detail reminds us that he has prospered through conquest and demanding more tribute from all his subjects. He has thrived on the backs of others. He is unjust. Ehud approaches the king, promising a secret message. He leans in and instead reaches with his left hand to draw out his hidden sword and plunges it into the king’s belly. This is a dark comedy. The villain is defeated. There is justice.
Is violence ever, ok? No, of course not, we think we should say. That’s why we are outraged that it is in our Bibles. But I think the book of Judges reveals to us how we are both fascinated and repulsed by violence. This story makes me ask uncomfortable questions – would I fight back if my loved ones were attacked? Do I get satisfaction in seeing someone who commits great injustices held to account? What would I do if there was someone dangerous in power? When I preached this sermon, I asked these questions to my church and I gave space for people to stop and discuss with one another.
Christians, when asked: ‘is violence ever ok?’ should be leaning towards saying no. Advocating for another way but let’s not pretend this is easy. In our preaching, we have the opportunity to show how we can all feel the pull to use violence, even if it’s just on the sidelines cheering on others. We need the Spirit to form us in Jesus’ ways. Jesus, as is his habit turns everything upside down, including our views on violence. What Jesus advocates is not simple or easy. If we are to seek to follow Jesus, we need to first examine and acknowledge how we are both fascinated and repulsed by violence.
Rev Dr Christine Redwood is the Lead Pastor at Seaforth Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia. Christine recently completed her PhD in preaching, the Old Testament and feminist hermeneutics. In 2011 she was the preaching intern for Morling Theological College and works there as an adjunct lecturer. Christine loves being creative and is passionate about films, theatre, writing, and most of all, communicating God’s story with others.
As always, guest blogs are invited to stimulate comment and discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.