The End of the Bronze Age – Destruction and Genocide as a Way of Life

“Never leave an enemy behind — for he will rise again to fly at your throat!”  Shaka Zulu

bronze_age_collapseHistory does not occur in a vacuüm, but yet we seldom think about all of the interwoven threads that weave together to create the cloth of our lives.  It is no different for the events of the Bible.  The Bible centers its tales on a small group of people, the Israelites at first, and their relationship with their Lord and the development of their culture and history.  But there is the bigger picture to be considered.  There were a number of critical historic events we should be aware of as the Bronze Age faded out and was replaced by the Iron Age.

Life for many in the late Bronze Age is difficult and survival is problematic.  In Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, old Greece and Central Europe, the inhabitants find themselves fleeing natural disasters: volcanic eruptions and drastic climate changes which affect their ability to grow food and live off the land.  This triggers mass migrations of hungry, aggressive groups which invade other nations seeking new lands to live in.

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Life was not easy:  it was a series of defensive wars and survival tactics to counter savage invaders.  In the Old Testament we read about Israel’s aggressive actions; when they move into new lands they slaughter entire populations.  This was an integral part of achieving Abraham’s covenant goal of the promised homeland  in Canaan.  Scholarly circles who study this call it “ban” — we call it genocide today and condemn it.  Why did the writers of the scriptures leave them as part of their history, graphically unvarnished, for our reading without edit?  This is what we will examine today.

It is an accepted part of Western culture that we go to war for “worthwhile” purposes and that we do not kill any more people than necessary to ensure victory.  Historically, this point of view is an aberration.  Most cultures at that time simply assumed that victory would include the destruction of the conquered.  Homer is often quoted from his Iliad where he has King Agamemnon explain why Troy will be destroyed completely.  “My dear Menelaus, why are you so wary of taking men’s lives?  Did the Trojans treat you as handsomely as that when they stayed in your house?  No; we are not going to leave a single one of them alive, down to the babies in their mothers’ wombs, not even they must live.  The whole people must be wiped out of existence and none be left to think of them and shed a tear.”

Other well-known examples:  Asoka’s reputation in India, particularly well-known as the battle of Kalinga (260 BCE) where he slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people.  Sannacherib of Assyria ‘s (689 BCE) destruction of Babylon:  all of the inhabitants were slaughtered and rivers were diverted into the city to destroy it.  In 612 BCE, it was turn about when Medes and the Babylonians united to destroy Nineveh (the capital city of Assyria).  The city was pillaged, severed heads put on display at the main gate and the city reduced to rubble.

Early_Bronze_Age_hoardTotal destruction was accepted because it was necessary:  the survivors kept on fighting.  There was not a culture of acceptance and assimilation.  The surviving Babylonians of Sannacherib sought revenge (and got it) against Assyria.  The Israelites destroyed all of the local tribes in Canaan except for one and that one plagued their existence for years.  There are instances where instead of total annihilation, some of the conquered people would be taken for slaves and distributed to the elites as was done with the Hittites and the Egyptians during their wars and the Hebrews in the Babylonian exile.

It was accepted because there was a different view of individual life.  People thought about themselves not as individuals, but as members of a group and they acted to protect that group.  Wrote sociologists Chalk and Jonassohn “Historically and anthropologically people have always had a name for themselves.  In a great many cases, that name meant “the people” to set the owners of that name off against all other people who were considered of lesser quality in some way.  If the differences between the people and some other society were particularly large in terms of religion, language, manners, customs, and so on, then such others were seen as less than fully human:  pagans, savages, or even animals.”  Helen Fein’s provocative phrase hits the nail on the head”  the members of the Others are beyond the “universe of obligation”. http://www.genocidetext.net/gaci_origins.pdf  Ancient histories ARE NOT biographies, they are NOT written about ordinary men and women.  They are not written about individuals but are written about groups and the actions by the men who led them.

Archaic_ageGiven the prevailing attitude of the time, that it was normal and right to cleanse a conquered land of potential problems, this was particularly true for Moses and the existing inhabitants of the promised land.  Moses knew the character of the existing tribes not only from his Egyptian education and diplomatic experience gained from his time in the Egyptian court but from the collective memory his people had post-Flood.  The Canaanites descend from Noah’s son Ham.  The Israelites knew that these distant kinsmen were part of the reason that the flood had occurred:  because the world had plunged into violence, sin and idolatry so repugnant that Yahweh had decided to wipe them out.  They knew that after the flood, the situation had not improved much and that only the Hebrews were faithful to Yahweh.  Moses writes that Yahweh himself told him that Yahweh was giving the Hebrews Canaan away because he detested what the Canaanites were doing; it was time for them to go.  Moses also knew that Yahweh, while liking the Hebrews better, had his eye on his people because they had their own problems and weren’t particularly righteous either.  They did not have what it took to allow temptation to stay in their lands or soon they would be as bad and as detestable to Yahweh as the prior inhabitants had been.  There could be no assimilation.

Today, we do not like to think that way.  We like to think of ourselves as merciful.  Individual life, to us, is the most precious gift of all.  But we are in a different place and different circumstances.  Mercy is the gift of the strong to the weak.  As Jesus later says “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for and do good to them that persecute you …”  The LORD is ultimately able to give mercy because he is strong.  His people have not always been so.

 

 

 

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