Niditch – Ban as Sacrifice versus the Ban as God's Justice

It is not easy for humans to kill others.  To participate in mass killing in war is destructive of individual psyches and of the larger community’s mental health.  The ban in either trajectory is a means of making killing in war acceptable.  How does the ban as sacrifice and the ban as God’s justice differ in this regard?  The ban as sacrifice is a part of war against those who are not of one’s group, a means of securing aid in victory.  The ban sometimes has to be imposed to win.  God demands his portion and cannot be refused.  The reasoning goes “If we offer them, we may be saved.”  Group solidarity is thus increased–better we should live than they–and guilt is reduced–God demands his offerings–but the enemy is recognized as human, worthy of God’s sacrifice.  Inanimate booty can almost always be kept, because God has received the best portion.  In contrast, the ban-as-God’s-justice ideology actually motivates and encourages war, implying that wars of extermination are desirable in order to purify the body politic of one’s own group, to eradicate evil in the world beyond one’s group, and to actualize divine judgment.  In the ban as God’s justice a sharp line is drawn between us and them, between clean and unclean, between those worthy of salvation and those deserving elimination.  The enemy is thus not a mere human, an offering, necessary to win God’s assistance of God, but a monster, unclean, and diseased.  The ban as God’s justice thus allows people to accept the notion of killing other humans by dehumanizing them and the process of dehumanization can take place even within the group during times of stress, distrust, and anomie.

Susan Niditch in War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, “Chapter 2” (Conclusion).  This text represent, in my opinion, a very important scholarly effort not to treat war in the Hebrew Bible as monolithic.  There is not simply one approach to war to be found there.  It is very important reading for those for whom the wars in the Old Testament present a significant problem.  Too many works attempt to deal with inherent ethical problems before adequately describing what the ethical problems might be.  To the best of her abilities, Niditch attempts not to do this.

Related Posts:

Fretheim on God and Violence in the Old Testament

Ezra 9-10 – The Context of Today’s Reading Makes it a Tough One