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Is God a warrior to be feared? (First part)

Today, I would like to begin a reflection on a very discussed topic, especially among those who are bound to a certain image of God to justify their existential positions. I follow the considerations of Thomas Römer, a great scholar of the Old Testament and a professor at the prestigious Collège de France. His suggestions are contained in his book I lati oscuri di Dio, edited in Italy by Claudiana Publishing.

In the books from Deuteronomy to Joshua – the so called Deuteronomistic History – often God is presented as a warrior. The Deuteronomic History is composed of books whose origins date back to the 7th century BC, in the kingdom of Judah.

Since the time of Tiglath-Pileser (745-727 BC), the Syrian-Palestinian area is part of the Assyrian Empire. In 722 BC, the reign of Israel was destroyed, losing its autonomy and becoming an Assyrian province. The kings of Judah were also his vassals, starting from 734 BC, even though the little kingdom was still standing.

The Assyrians built a system of efficient communication channels between the center of the empire and the periphery, thus promoting trade and cultural exchanges. Usually the Assyrians deported the populations they submitted. The Assyrian deported the intelligentia, i.e. the social, religious and political classes that could foment against the central power.

It is not difficult to guess as to the small palestinian kingdoms, all this being a real trauma. Until then, both Israel and Juda had ever faced great international politics. Assyrian texts and documents were spread everywhere for propaganda purposes and to submit vassals. The encounter between Jewish culture and religion with that of Assyrian had a decisive influence on the formation of the Old Testament.

When Assyrian presence weakens, during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC), then this will be the period in which biblical literature begins to flourish. The first text is the oldest part of Deuteronomy, where it is easy to recognize Assyrian style and ideology.

The texts of Dt 6:4-5 and 10:12 are emblematic in this regard. There is talk of a God – i.e. YHWH (to be read Adonai)- who has become unique in Judah and who has to be loved exclusively and uniquely. Such love doesn’t have a sentimental or passionate meaning. In fact, in Dt 10:12 the verb to love is accompanied by verbs of fearing, serving and obeying. In fact, these verbs  represent themes such as loyalty and submission, well present in the famous vassalage treaties, in which the king must be loved by his vassals:

 

You will love assurbanipal son of Assaraddon, king of Assyria as yourself (around 627 BC)

We will love Assurbanipal king of Assyria, and we will hate his enemy … (about 650 BC)

 

In Deuteronomy, God is presented as an Assyrian sovereign. The whole literary structure of Deuteronomy is similar to the literary form of Assyrian vassal treatise. For example, the call to the witnesses to guarantee the validity of the treaty (see Dt 30:19) and the blessings and curses for those who respect or disobey the treaty (see Dt 28:20).

The difference is that in Deuteronomy, God – YHWH – takes the place of Assyrian King. But this has an important consequence: God then is depicted as a Warrior King to be feared and respected?

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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