Book Review – War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, by Susan Niditch

Within the *War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence*, Susan Niditch, a scholar in Hebrew Biblical Studies, turns her attention to analysing the ethics of war which appear to be on display within the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament).

What I have loved most from Niditch’s study is the way in which she highlights the multi-vocal dialogue of the Hebrew Canon. There isn’t just “a” view of war, but an overlapping of ideologies in some places and a conflict (pardon the pun) in others. Examples of which are the Deuteronomist editing of the “Ban” (Hebrew “hrm”), which attempted to recast killing in war as enacting the justice of God and away from being seen as a means of human sacrifice to God; as well as the pro-Davidic writers of Chronicles who, unlike the writers of Samuel, clearly display a discomfort with the blood-stained hands of Israel’s famous monarch, positing this as the reason why David wasn’t allowed to construct God a scared space on earth (the Temple).

Niditch extracts seven Israelite ideologies altogether within the main chapters of the book;

  • The Ban as God’s Portion
  • The Ban as God’s Justice
  • The Priestly Ideology of War
  • The Bardic Tradition of War
  • The Ideology of Tricksterism
  • The Ideology of Expediency and Biblical Critique
  • The Ideology of Nonparticipation

Each chapter meticulously unearths the thinking behind such ideologies and shows were they occur within the corpus of scripture. And the conclusion of the book neatly summarizes these differing views.

The scope of the work is magnificent. Mainly keeping within the Torah and History books of the Hebrew Canon (Genesis, Exodus, Number, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Esther, Chronicles et al.), Niditch explores how these ideologies are revealed in stories such as the infamous “Canaanite Extermination” and the tale of Jael’s famous “Tent Peg”. Looking through the lens of each ideology, Niditch also helps us to grasp the authors’ perceptions of the enemy; whether they are cast in an “us and them” relationship, or seen as a scapegoat, an equal, or even as a sacred vessel to be offered.

Although I would have liked to have heard more from the Prophetic writers, Wisdom texts and Psalms, doing so would have only made this volume much bigger. And in this case, I don’t believe bigger would have been better. For a slim volume (only 155 pages) I don’t think you could do much better than this. The dissection of ideas on display in Niditch’s writing is exceptional and illuminating, and a demonstration of her masterful knowledge of the construct of the Hebrew Canon.

For those looking to study Biblical Ethics, or War ideologies in particular, (or even those who are studying the Old Testament in general) I would say that this book is a must read!

If, like me, you are someone who believes in Non-violence, and also believes that this is God’s way–God’s ideal for humanity–but wonder what all the blood-shed is about in the scriptures, then this is also a great resource.

That doesn’t mean that this study is full of easy answers or comforters to make the war scenes of scripture more palatable. These questions are complex and broad, and we should never hope to get “comfortable” with some of these barbaric episodes. However, to understand an ethic of Non-violence we must also grapple with the ethics of war and the reasons people use to justify killing each other. As Niditch says, within her introduction:

“…most scholars of war agree that it is extremely difficult psychologically for a human to kill another and that killing and placing oneself in the position of being killed require considerable self-justification, rationalization, psychological and social sanction. And even so, rituals in primitive cultures marking the exit from war frequently emphasize not the jubilance of victory but guilt and ambivalence over those one has killed. It is even more difficult to kill those “of the group” than those outside the group (p.20-21)… Extremely relevant, however, to an understanding of some of the war ideologies of the Hebrew Bible are their emphases on the subconscious guilt that killing can induce and on the human need to sacralise or otherwise rationalize the killing (p.25)”

For those, like myself, who believe the redemptive trajectory of scripture is leading us towards an ethic of Non-violence, along with the corresponding theology of a God who condemns war, this work will prove extremely helpful. Niditch’s work doesn’t lead to an ideology of Non-violence–as it seeks to understand the ancient Israelite’s reasoning behind war–it does however, I feel, help to emphasize the evolution of ideas about acts of war and God’s opinion of it.

Again, *War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence* is a highly recommended study.

–Tristan Sherwin, author of Love: Expressed


From the Back cover of War in the Hebrew Bible:

“War texts pervade the Hebrew Bible, raising difficult questions about religious and political ethics. Niditch considers the spectrum of war ideologies in the Hebrew Bible, to answer why and how these ideologies made sense to biblical writers. Informed by anthropology, comparative literature, and feminist studies, Niditch re-examines the normative assumptions that shape our understanding of ancient Israel. More widely, while she concentrates on the tones, textures, meanings, and messages of the Hebrew Scriptures, Niditch explore how human being attempt to justify killing and violence.”

Product link: Amazon UK, Amazon US


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