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Violence & The Bible.

John Hemer MHM

MHM - Mill Hill Missionaries

This paper was given as part of a series of post Easter talks by Fr. John Hemer, Biblical Scholar and Theologian of the Mill Hill Missionary Institute at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel & St. George, Enfield, England in April and May 2003.

The Old Testament.

When dealing with the problem of violence in the OT we tend to follow one of two approaches:

1)      Concentrate more on the many passages where God is depicted as loving – much of Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Deuteronomy.

2)      Explain how the idea of God as a violent punishing war monger is all part of the historical and cultural conditioning of the author and that we can ignore it in good faith, especially in the light of the NT.

Neither of these approaches does justice. There are in the OT roughly three hundred passages which talk of people doing violence to each other, either a report or a threat or a command, or a lament. There are roughly a thousand passages which talk of God’s violence or wrath; either a report of his slaying someone, or his threatening people with violence or descriptions of him as a man of war. To ignore the violence in the OT is like making a study of Churchill and completely ignoring the fact that he was English. Violence is not peripheral to the Bible it is central, in many ways it is the issue, because of course it is the human problem. The central icon of our faith depicts an act of mob violence against an innocent victim. The Bible is in fact the story of the slow, painstaking and sometimes faltering escape from the idea of a God who is violent to a God who is love and has absolutely nothing to do with violence.


            The theories of Rene Girard say that most human societies are continually threatened by violence within the group. This violence is the result of two things.

1. The nature of desire.

Girard has shown conclusively that people do not simply desire what others have, they desire what others desire. The proof of this which every parent knows is to watch two toddlers in a nursery full of toys. One picks up a teddy bear and begins carelessly to play with it. The other will soon enough turn from what he is doing and focus his attention on that teddy. He will try to take it off the first one, who in turn will stubbornly cling to it. The result will always be tears. In the space of a few minutes, an object which neither of them was really that keen on becomes an object of intense desire. Affluent parents may solve the problem by buying another identical teddy, but one can be sure that their attention will soon move to another object. The whole of advertising, the fashion industry, art criticism and many other things are based upon this. We could say that Armani clothes are more desired than C & A because their cloth and cut are better. That does explain why frayed and patched jeans were so popular and why it is that the things our grandparents called ‘dungarees’ are highly desirable, even mandatory fashion items. The explanation is that because one person deems these things desirable, I too find them so, regardless of quality or usefulness. Why were we quickly pulling down ‘ugly’ Victorian buildings in the sixties and now putting preservation orders on them and hailing them as architectural masterpieces? So imitation is the very nature of desire. Because this imitation is largely unconscious Girard calls it by the Greek term mimesis (mimicry). Remember:  The model becomes the rival.

2. Rivalry.

Almost all human conflict is the result of people modelling themselves, (albeit unconsciously) on others and then entering into rivalry with others. All human conflict is about wanting what someone else has and desires – money, land, prestige, a spouse, a friend, power etc. every human society is threatened by this desire which becomes rivalry which leads to conflict. (It is no accident that the last two commandments warn against this mimetic desire. Covetousness is the reason why people kill, commit adultery, steal and bear false witness against each other, and if the Decalogue wants to stop those it will have to attack their root cause – desire. The ten Commandments display an anthropological understanding which is remarkably spot on.) Developed societies have quite sophisticated mechanisms for keeping this from getting out of hand. In a society with no police force and no judiciary, the basic mechanism to stop this internal violence is scapegoating and sacrifice. A group achieves  initial unity by falling on a scapegoat (from inside or outside) and uniting against him and killing him. So all against all becomes all against one. Because all the internal tensions disappear when this mechanism kicks in, the experience is one of the scapegoat bringing peace, so the whole thing takes on an air of holiness. It seems that ‘good’ violence is used to drive out ‘bad’ violence. Very likely, because peace seems to be the result of the death of the scapegoat, he is then considered divine. Scapegoating is still the way many groups bring about peace – politicians threatened by unpopularity start a war to unite people against a common enemy. Tensions in the workplace are solved like this, sometimes even in the church. Whenever this happens people are

a) always unconscious of what’s going on.

b) always assume that God is on the side of the mob or the many and bringing about peace by killing or ostracising the victim.

c) always assume that the victim is guilty and that God is therefore against the victim.

The opinion of God and the opinion of the crowd are therefore identical. So When Jesus says Father forgive them for they know not what they do, this is not just piety or Jesus being kind. Some people even seem to think that Jesus is telling a kind of little white lie to excuse them, just as sometimes people excuse the appalling behaviour of children by saying: “They’re only kids." None of them have any idea that they are caught up in a process of scapegoating frenzy. They have no idea that the unity of purpose between the Jewish and Roman authorities is the result of this frenzy. It seems the only sensible thing to do. The Jews explicitly believe that they are doing the work of God. The Romans believe this killing is necessary to keep public order, so it amounts to the same thing.

Girard claims that this process is at the basis of all human culture. The Bible comes to birth in a society where this scapegoating mechanism is fully operational, but it is the genius of Biblical revelation that it slowly unmasks this process and shows it up for what it is and offers an alternative. Societies use one sort of violence to expel another sort. The violence expelled is deemed ‘bad’, the violence used to expel it is deemed ‘good’. This is basically what we mean by myth. Not fiction, nor the product of a primitive imagination. Myth tells of a violent event, but tells it from the point of view of the society which benefited from that event, and therefore veils and vindicates the violence. No one in a society where myth holds sway is aware that the facts have been tampered with or coloured, so people in such societies are not hypocrites. But the more biblical influence works on a society, the less myth is likely to work. The OT, slowly at first, tells of these events, but tells them from the point of view of the victim. This is not universally clear in the OT, but is dazzlingly clear in the Gospels. The central event in world history is the Son of God becoming the victim of this process, and then rising. In the passion story Caiaphas says:

It is better that one man should die for the people, rather than that the whole nation should perish. (Jn:11:50)

His is the voice of everyone, every individual, every society which has tried to solve its problems by scapegoating; the voice of reason, the voice of political common sense, the voice which speaks up for the ‘common good’. It is the voice of pogroms, ethnic cleansings and final solutions, and has been heard countless times in history and has resulted in untold human suffering. But it is not the voice of the gospel. The gospel speaks with another voice, with the voice of the victim. That’s why the Gospel as well as being a unique piece of theology is a unique piece of anthropology.

But let’s start in the garden of Eden. Adam gets into trouble because he imitates and acts upon the desire of Eve. The Bible makes clear that desire is the start of the problem. The serpent paints God as a rival, and when they are found out Adam and Eve blame each other and the serpent for their wrongdoing.

The very next development is the violence which begins to emerge from the rivalry between Cain and Abel. Bear in mind that this story came into being in a culture where human sacrifice is common and is the way of securing divine favour when all else fails. One man performs a blood sacrifice which works. (When the Bible says that it was pleasing to God it means that it was religiously and socially effective.) The next performs a plant sacrifice which doesn’t. He then kills the first man. The obvious conclusion in this culture is that this is an act of sacrifice – this is a holy act pleasing to God. But the biblical account is written to show that this is in no way an act of religion, just a murder, and that God has nothing to do with it. The issue here is that ancient people were aware that blood sacrifices ‘worked’ – of course because they are a reflection of the initial scapegoating violence which prevent the group turning on each other. If we want to find out the purpose of sacrifice, we have to observe what happens when it fails. The purpose of sacrifice is to prevent what happens when it fails. Cain’s bloodless offering failed to extinguish his resentment. If a mob unites in order to lynch someone and the victim escapes, that mob will start blaming each other for the escape and a huge fight will ensue. What happens here is basically the same. When animals fight, generally they have an instinct which will stop them fighting to the death. Human beings all too often seem to lack this instinct, this is illustrated both by personal homicides and by wars which escalate and claim millions of victims. When a conflict results in blood, vengeance becomes necessary. And that vengeance can quickly spiral out of control. In our society we have police and a judiciary to stop that happening or to nip it in the bud when it does. But we cannot comprehend how dangerous the threat of violent revenge is for primitive peoples. Our text shows this clearly in 4:23-24. Lamech says to his wives; I killed a man for wounding me, a boy for striking me. Sevenfold vengeance for Cain, but seventy-sevenfold for Lamech.

The possibility of this awful bloodshed, the result of anger which wells up from inside and cannot always be explained is always just round the corner. Once this begins it cannot be stopped, so it must at all costs and by all means be prevented. Sacrifice exists to do precisely that. Human sacrifice is the obvious way and even in societies as developed as ancient Greece or the Aztecs, right up to the arrival of the conquistadors, it was part of daily life. All the anger and violence could be ritually directed against one victim, and that victim as it were takes on the violence of the whole group, he dies to keep the rest of the group alive. People scorn as primitive, the idea that ‘If we do not perform this sacrifice disaster will befall us’. But of course it is literally true, not just theologically. If the rivalry and latent violence within the group is not channelled onto something safe – i.e. the sacrificial victim, it will erupt and engulf the community – disaster. If  God is the protector of the community it is perfectly understandable that people consider the sacrifice to be his will. If the result of the sacrifice is peace it is understandable that people say that God has accepted the sacrifice. People have claimed that there is a huge difference between human and animal sacrifice. From our point of view as modern westerners maybe, but not from the point of view of sacrificial societies. If the victim is human he is always somehow marginal to the community – a foreigner, a stranger, a child, (Remember uninitiated children are scarcely  members at all). He may be a prisoner of war – some societies waged war almost continuously and none of the usual reasons could be adduced, the war was to provide prisoners and therefore a continual supply of sacrificial victims. He may also be the king, which may seem strange, but royalty too is marginal. The queen is certainly not one of us. The novelty of Princess Diana was that she was “just like one of us". In true pastoral societies the domestic animals are members of the community albeit marginal, and therefore they are perfect sacrificial victims The thing with anyone marginal is that no vengeance can result from their death since they do not have blood relations with anyone in the community.

(In the light of this we can see that the Psalmist’s My sacrifice is a contrite spirit is not just a helpful pious thought. If the violence that results from rivalry is prevented by sacrifice, the non-sacrificial alternative is to find another way of making sure people don’t get as far as that violence. A contrite spirit, a humble spirit, a forgiving spirit is the only possible alternative antidote to this. This will achieve what sacrifice tried to achieve – the end of violent scapegoating rivalry. In the end it is far more effective, since it diffuses the root cause of the rivalry.)

            Cain receives a mark to ensure that he will not be the victim of the scapegoating process. Criminals very often become such victims in the modern world. In prisons very often child murderers are tortured or murdered themselves by the other inmates. Clearly they are not exacting justice; they are making him the victim of their own base desires, but often hiding behind the mask of some sort of self-righteousness. When a mob beats a thief to death in Nairobi, they are not doing that because they are all totally opposed to theft and want to rid the world of this scourge, they are projecting their own shadow nature onto the thief and refusing to own it. This is what God has in mind here. Mobs and vigilante groups usually fall into the trap of perpetrating evil much worse than the evil they seek to combat. Structurally what they are doing is scapegoating.

The beginning of culture is shown up for what it is – murder.

            Cain then is the founder of civilisation. Many societies have a foundational story involving violence and killing but mythologised to make it all seem good. Rome and Thebes in the ancient world for instance. Perhaps the United States is a good modern example. Until recently the founding myth was one of good Christians with a manifest destiny given by God to tame and civilise and set up a republic which would be a laboratory for democracy. Native Americans were bad and uncivilised so if violence was done to them it was all with the best of intentions. No one would call what was done to them theft or murder or genocide. Now that the story has been de-mythologised we see it for what it is, one group grabbing the land of another and killing them in the process, but even in living memory Hollywood portrayed the myth as if it were history. Anywhere else, the story of Cain would have become just such a foundational myth, but the Bible will not allow that. We can begin to understand Cain only when we look at that of Abraham.

The Sacrifice of Abraham

Human sacrifice was a fact of life among people in the ancient Near East much more than we moderns realise. We are familiar with the fact that the people of Israel worked out their identity in contrast to the people around them, and that the constant temptation, into which they repeatedly fell, was to be exactly the same as those people – mimesis! Think of how we believe Christianity to be a religion of peace, but for most of its concrete history it has been practised in a climate where war between groups and states has been the norm of social life. Standing where we do we find it scandalous that Christians have waged war and committed violence and used torture in the name of God. We must realise though that if this is the culture in which the Church lived it takes an awful long time for people to escape completely from that culture, even when they hear the Gospel every day. The Roman Empire was controlled by violence. With the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan in 313 Christianity became the religion of the empire, and the empire was subsequently evangelised. But this is never a one way process and all too often, the empire instructed the Church rather than vice-versa. The same was true of Israel’s dealing with human sacrifice, and nothing illustrates the seeming contradiction better than the dilemma of Abraham sacrificing his son, and the perplexity of the reader who isn’t really sure where God stands in all this. Difficult as it may be, this story provides a ringside seat which enables us at close quarters to view and feel the dilemma concerning human sacrifice which troubled Israel for many hundreds of years. The story contains much more than we can adequately deal with here, but let us note two things.

1.       When Abraham eventually has a close encounter with the living God on the Holy mountain God makes it quite clear that he does not want this human sacrifice. Abraham is called the father of faith i.e. the initiator of the process by which people would realise that God did not require violence towards each other. The movement from human to animal sacrifice is an essential part of the process of our growth in faith.

2.       It takes the veil of animal sacrifice and shows that it is trying to hide the violence of human sacrifice. Thus the first paving stones are laid on the way that will lead away from sacrifice of any kind.

The Golden Calf.  Exodus 32

            The business of sacrifice plays no part in the giving of the covenant. The words of the Decalogue, while making it clear that people must worship only Yahweh, do not mention at all the main way in which he would be worshipped for the next thirteen hundred years, i.e. sacrifice. It is very important to note this, that while the manual of Israelite religion, Leviticus, is a very precise sacrificial instruction book, the foundational document is totally un-sacrificial.  Moses ratifies the covenant with a sacrifice in 24:3-8, but this does seem to be almost an afterthought. Moses reads the covenant and the people say: All the words Yahweh has spoken we will carry out. (24:3) We have seen that sacrifice is a way to preserve peace and harmony in a community. The premise of the Decalogue is that obedience to these words will make a harmonious community. So these are really two forms of religion which are incompatible, or if people really obey the Decalogue, they won’t need sacrifice. But of course the sacrificial urge is still strong. Perhaps this is part of the reason the people resort to the Golden calf. Moses leaves something of a cultic vacuum. The dilemma of the Golden Calf helps to explain why after so long, Christians can still have a sacrificial view of their faith, i.e. they can still need scapegoats.

Moses takes hold of the sacrificial frenzy let loose by the golden calf and simply redirects it, getting the Levites to slaughter three thousand. He proclaims that those who do the killing – who carry out his bidding - are on Yahweh’s side,  and the narrator suggests the same; And Yahweh punished the people for having made the calf. (32:35) We are very suspicious of this and cannot see how the God who delivers the Decalogue and says Thou shalt not kill could be behind this vial incident. We must note that the two great lessons learned about sacrifice in Genesis have been reversed. God made it quite clear to Cain that he did not approve of the slaying of his brother, and to Abraham that he did not want him to slay his son. Here the Levites consecrate themselves by doing precisely that:

You have consecrated yourselves to Yahweh, one at the cost of his son, another of his brother, and so he bestows a blessing on you today. (32:29)

We must also note that this is the beginning of the Levitical priesthood. The priests who will have control of the sacrificial cult play the key role in the violence here. we have already seen that sacrifice is a way of channelling violence.          

            Moses breaks the tablets, seemingly a mere angry reaction, but would it not make more sense for him to hold them aloft and remind the people that this was what God wanted, and that what they were engaged in was a very poor second best? OK, up he goes again to get God to produce a copy of the tablets. Yahweh said to Moses:

Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you broke.” (34:1)

By asserting the identity between the two tablets the author has made it all but impossible for the reader to miss the obvious, that the two versions are utterly different. The new set of commandments is largely preoccupied with the maintenance of rituals and cultic procedures. [1]

The violent incidents are rather like liberating or revolutionary governments being constrained to use violence against people and to lock them up in the cause of freedom. No matter how convinced the perpetrators are of the necessity, some people will always see through it. Israel tried sacrificial solutions to resolve social tension, but she was least able to operate these things well. If we wonder how Moses and Aaron got from the Decalogue to sacred slaughter, it also helps us to understand how we got from the Gospel to the Inquisition. The Inquisition was all powerful but also, of course, very fragile, because the truth it was trying to defend was subverting the way they defended it. When we try to paint these awful accounts in rosier colours or explain them as being products of a primitive culture we miss the point of them. The Bible tells of these things precisely to show that this is what tends to happen even in a society committed to peace and justice and truth. And it happens in the name of truth. If it happened within living memory of Sinai, we should not be surprised that it happens in Northern Ireland today. The Bible is not just a set of instructions about repudiating violence. It is the story of the  sometimes very painful, often backsliding process by which people come to repudiate violence.

In our own society the police and the judiciary are the people charged with the control of violence, they are therefore particularly vulnerable to it. In Israelite society the priests served the same function, which is why there are such precise instructions about how to enter the presence of the holy. See the prescriptions in Ex 28:31 foll. The Hebrew priests vested themselves for the sacrificial liturgy like members of a bomb squad preparing to diffuse a ticking bomb, and they had good reason to do so. [2] If it does not work exactly to diffuse the latent violence in the community the results can be disastrous.

Moses and Korah

In Numbers 16 – 17 an incident occurs which shows just how easily violence can be masked under the canopy of the sacred. Basically Korah and his group question the authority of Moses, they want a slice of the action too, so Moses challenges them to a sacrificial competition. This is the sort of power/authority struggle that goes on in human communities. It can be very destructive – as the fractious history of Protestantism shows very clearly. Moses immediately interprets this challenge as muttering against Yahweh. In this way his use of authority is like that of the medieval papacy dealing with anyone who opposed it’s authority.

In vv 29-30 Moses says that if the men die a violent death it will be proof that they hold Yahweh in contempt. The rebel leaders are then immediately swallowed up by the earth and fire consumes the other 250. It all seems clear enough, God has spoken, QED.

We can be fundamentalist and take this at face value, it was necessary then, it doesn’t happen now. Or with Marcion we could say that the God of the OT was bloodthirsty and not the God of Jesus.  Or we can say this is certainly not the God we know and preach, so this could not possibly have happened, and let’s hope none of our parishioners ever read it and question us about it. Or we can say that this story hides real violence behind a sacred screen. Probably Moses somehow manages to convince those loyal to him that the rebels really are murmuring against God, whips them up into a fury, and they become a mob who attack the rebels, and like all mobs they believe that the violence they have done is really God’s violence. A peace and unanimity descends over the camp – no one will even think of challenging Moses now, so this peace must come from God. What happens here is not very different to the burning of witches and heretics in the middle ages. Someone challenges the sacred authority of the Church, that must be a challenge to God, that person must be killed. QED.

            Except that the Bible has a built in lie detector. We read:

On the following day the whole community of Israelites were muttering against Moses and Aaron saying: You are responsible for killing Yahweh’s people! Now the community was banding together against Moses and Aaron. (17:6-7)

Imagine in the parish there is someone who continually challenges the authority of the Parish Priest, at the parish council. He writes letters to him and to the bishop about the way that he does things and how there should be much more involvement. The PP is convinced that he is a crank, but also doesn’t like having his authority challenged, and, of course, he has on his side the sacrament of orders and the code of canon Law. On his side the man has documents from the bishops on collaborative ministry. One Sunday it comes to a head. During the sermon he stands up and challenges him. The PP calmly but firmly tells the man to stop causing trouble and to sit down and say his prayers like the other 900 people who come here to Mass every Sunday. In a fit of rage the man storms out of Church and, not looking where he is going, walks straight under a bus and is killed. When the ensuing commotion dies down the PP stands up and says: “Well, I think God has made his will clear enough” He casts a spell over the congregation, a fearful awe takes them over and they wonder if he might be right. Then someone stands up and says: “No, this has nothing to do with God’s will, if you had handled this man better from the start he would never have got into such a state and this would never have happened, so it is not God, but you who are responsible for his death.” The spell is broken for ever.

And if we who read this today are disturbed and perplexed by what we read it is precisely because that lie detector is also at work in us. This is not the last word about the way God deals with challenge, we have also read the gospels, and Paul’s hymn to love. We do not believe that God brought about the killing, we will not fall for that; and neither will the Israelites, nor the final editor of Numbers. This whole idea of God killing people is exposed for what it is, a sham, but the only way the Bible can unmask it is to get inside it, go along with it, pretend to tell the myth of sacred violence and then challenge it. When John says that The light shines in the darkness he means that even in this barbaric darkness of seeming sacred violence, God’s light shines, showing it up as a lie. If the Bible didn’t tell these stories we would never have the equipment to unmask it. That’s why all this literature is bound between the same two covers. Because having read: God so loved the world . . . we know that the one who kills these rebels cannot be God, and must be a projection of human violence. Whatever the human author(s) of Numbers is trying to tell us, the divine author of the whole Bible makes his message shine through it. Part of what we mean by divine inspiration is that these texts  reveal to us something which neither the author nor the reader wishes to have revealed.

                                My mother told how  once, towards the end of the war, she and her friends went to the cinema, and the newsreel showed footage of the German campaign on the Russian front, and how the German soldiers were freezing to death in their thousands. She told how many people in the cinema were crying for the Germans. The film maker wanted to make anti-German propaganda and whip up enmity against them. But because my mother and her friends were also imbued with the Biblical spirit which automatically sympathises with victims, it’s effect was the opposite. In a Society which was not shaped by Judeo-Christian revelation, such a reaction to the plight of one’s enemies is highly unlikely.

Elijah on Mt. Carmel.

                        For all his success, Elijah falls into a trap, that of violence. He uses the sacrificial energy which the prophets of Baal have whipped up and turns it against them. They are not just killed because they worship the wrong God. Their slaughter is rather like The murder of Amin’s friends and henchmen when Obote took power for the second time in Uganda, or any similar occurrences. These people have been ruining the nation for several years. The people realise that they have been horribly deluded by them and want revenge. But is this worthy of a spokesman of God, is this what God wants? What follows perhaps supplies an answer.

            This has been the most climactic moment of Elijah's life so far, the thing he had worked for and hoped for. The threat by Jezebel to kill him has to be taken seriously, but he has been in grave danger all along. Why should this precipitate emotional collapse at the most successful time in his life? Perhaps it the text’s way of telling us that this victory isn’t everything and that the act of violence at the end of it does not bring about peace (which structurally it should do) but results in inner turmoil. Surely if Elijah has fully carried out God’s will, he should have a bit more inner strength than that. Here the Bible is disarmingly honest. A story which is like so many other victory stories suddenly takes an unexpected turn. Elijah has then to go to Horeb to be re-educated. If not, Yahweh just looks like a bigger and better version of Baal, just another God who enjoys knocking his enemies’ teeth out. At this crucial point in the religious life of the nation, God’s spokesman must be pushed in another direction.

            At Horeb, the Earthquake, Wind and Fire are the conventional guises of God, the expected backdrop to a theophany. This sort of God and the God who is happy for people to murder his enemies are quite at home with each other. But, instead, he gets the sound of a gentle silence, and the text does not tell us what we want to know - that God is in this sound. He leaves it up to the reader, just as Elijah has to draw his own conclusions. But one thing is clear. This is a different statement about God. Elijah’s zeal is admirable, but he hasn’t got it all right, and this incident moves understanding on a little. People understandably say that it’s unwise to build a whole theology on this short and not totally clear passage. But the whole of the narrative has been telling us that God is encountered at the edge, in the unexpected place; not in the centre. This passage draws all that together and helps us reach some conclusions. There does seem to be some sort of repudiation of violence here. So the author tells us the gruesome story of the massacre not to praise Elijah or hold it up as an example for imitation, but to lead us on to Horeb and to get us to see that this is not what God is like at all. Remember that the Bible is not simply the rejection of violence, but the story of the process by which people came to reject it.

The Prophet Micaiah I Kings 22:1-28.

            This passage gives an almost textbook definition of what a prophet is. The court prophets give Ahab a favourable answer, but they are functioning as a group, not as individuals. Jehoshaphat is not convinced, no doubt aware that their answer is the product of mob-dynamics rather than any desire for the truth. Ahab is honest enough to say that he doesn’t like Micaiah because he only gives unfavourable prophecy. Having been used to doing his wife’s bidding and to the ways of the prophets of Baal, Ahab cannot imagine why a prophet would not just be a voice to give support to the king’s plans, whatever they may be. In front of the kings we find All the prophets in a state of ecstasy before them (v.10) the ecstasy is probably the result of preparing for war. Then we hear:

Zedekiah, son of Kenaanah, who had made himself some iron horns, said: “Yahweh says ‘With horns like these You will gore the Aramaeans till you make an end of them.’” And all the prophets cried ecstatically in the same veins saying: “March on Ramoth in Gilead! Success is sure for Yahweh has already given it to the king!” (vv. 11-12)

The author wants us to see what is going on here. the prophets are really like a group of warriors gearing up for battle, and Yahweh in fact says nothing of the kind.

            Enter Micaiah, who is told in no uncertain terms by the king’s messenger to give a favourable message. The author spares no effort in getting  us to see through the nature of false prophesy. He must speak the same as all the others, Vox pouli vox Dei. He’s being instructed to speak with the voice of the mob. The author is also showing us how difficult it is for Micaiah to say anything else, how enormous the pressure to conform. Micaiah’s first words are exactly the words of the other prophets; Success is sure for Yahweh has already given it to the king. He is ridiculing them and possibly also the king and the king knows this. Possibly that little sentence had already become a chant, a war cry, a slogan. The king recognises this straight away and urges him to stop playing around and simply tell the truth. So he does and tells the king that the military campaign will not be a success and that Yahweh revealed how he would put a deceptive spirit into the mouths of the prophets.

            This ability to stand out of the crowd is something which typifies the prophets. The pressure to conform is almost irresistible, both socially and psychologically, and yet he can rise above it. Here we see the true religion of Yahweh as something which involves individual choice and is not simply a function of the group.

            Approximately 100 of the Psalms make explicit mention of the enemies, of the individual being attacked by a crowd. Here, for the first time in history is the voice of the individual victim being allowed to rise above the voice of the mob, who ordinarily assume that right, and therefore God is on their side. In the psalms God is always on the side of the victim against the mob, although sometimes the aggressor seems to be God himself – an understandable human reaction to great suffering. This, along with the praise of God is the main business of Israel’s prayer, and this is quite unique among the religions of the world. If we take the Psalms as revelation, and therefore that in them God is teaching us how to pray, then the plight of the victim of mob violence seems to be one of God’s main concerns.

             Nowhere is this made clearer than in the suffering servant song of Isaiah. Here somehow the crowd confess that they had scape-goated this victim/servant. They assumed that God was punishing him: We thought of him as someone being punished, struck with affliction by God. But they realise that not only was God on the side of this victim – something unique in the OT, but that through him God brings about healing: that this one who is cursed is actually the source of their peace. We have been healed by his bruises.

It is possible that the prophet who saw these things happening in various ways in his own life and the lives of his people realised that some day there would be an individual for whom this would become truer and more real than ever before. He realised that the story was not over yet, that this was not just a reflection of things past but also of things to come. Leonardo da Vinci designed a helicopter some three hundred years before the first one was made. He knew that scientifically it was possible, but no one at the time had the technical competence to make his plans real. That had to wait. This song too had to wait for someone to come along who would make it really singable, whose life and death would make all it said come true.


1. BAILIE, Violence Unveiled, 148-149.

2. Ibid., 150.

©; John Hemer MHM 2003

This version: 14th April 2003

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