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The Prophets and Non-Violence

By J.R. Hyland

In the eighth century BC, the oracles of Amos, Micah, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah inaugurated an era in the spiritual and ethical history of nations that continues in our own time.

These prophets were not reformers of the political-religious system into which they had been born. They were iconoclasts who understood that a corrupt system had to be dismantled in order for a just and ethical society to be established.

They spoke out against the violence of war and the violence of sacrificial religion. They condemned the exploitation of the poor and powerless at the hands of a corrupt justice system and told of a God whose parental love combined the tenderness of a mother and the protectiveness of a father. And unlike the earlier prophets who blamed the surrounding nations for the corruption of the Israelites, men like Amos and Isaiah told the people it was their own iniquities that brought suffering and calamity upon them.

These prophets said God spoke through them. But how were they able to receive a message that generations of religious spokesmen had refused to hear. There were some brief allusions to similar concepts that were embedded in the Book of Psalms, but those ideas had never gone beyond an embryonic stage of development. Most of the Psalms were written circa 1000---950 BC during a time of unprecedented territorial expansion and prosperity. And during that time the wars fought by the sons of Israel, under the leadership of King David, confirmed them in the worship of a violent and partisan deity, a god-of-war, who was celebrated in many of the Psalms.

"[For David] Yahweh will force all your enemies under the sway of your scepter in Zion....The Lord is at your right hand. When he grows angry he shatters kings,he gives the nations their deserts, smashing their skulls, he heaps the wide world with corpses."

Psalm 110 JB The psalmists were convinced of their own righteousness and the sinfulness of their enemies and believed that God concurred with that judgment. "[A Prayer by David] "Come Lord, Oppose my enemies and defeat them! ..Punish them with the sufferings you have stored up for them; may there be enough for their children and
some left over for their children's children! But I will see you because I have done no wrong." Psalm 17:13-15 TEV)

But two hundred years after self-righteousness, war, and revenge were celebrated in the Psalms, the Latter Prophets of Israel came with a radially different message. Isaiah spoke God's assessment of human behavior: "My thoughts are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours." And nowhere were the ways of men further from the ways of God than in the human glorification of the sword and of slaughter. It had to

"This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem...They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." After the prophet told the people what they must do, he implored them to do it: "Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord."

In the Northern Kingdom of Judah, the prophet Micah gave the same kind of message that Isaiah gave in Jerusalem. The people must never prepare for war again: they were to exchange their destructive weapons of war for the farming equipment that would nurture people rather than destroy them. Only then would "every one live in peace among his own vineyards and fig trees, and no one will make him afraid."

The prophet Hosea also spoke to the people of the Northern Kingdom. He spoke out against the ruthlessness of their leaders but he also indicted the average person for his worship of power and violence: "Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness...they employ violence so that bloodshed follows bloodshed."

The oracles of Isaiah gave the same message about the people of Judah. "Their deeds are evil deeds and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways. The ways of peace they do not know."

The worship of destructive force was a besetting sin of those who were followers as well as of those who were their leaders. Men who did not themselves command the power that wealth and privilege brings, allied themselves with the collective power of war. The rewards of such an alliance are immediately apparent. The exercise of destructive force brings instant gratification. The long periods of time and the constant effort it takes to build anything of value--whether a city or a life--can be destroyed in a moment of destructive power.

The great, ethical prophets of Israel called their people back from their worship of war and destruction. They saw their nation's reliance on force as evil: idolatrous; a perversion of God's will."Why have you ploughed iniquity, reaped injustice,and eaten the produce, lies? Because you have trusted in your chariots and in your hosts of warriors." And the Prophets said that this idolatry had been going on ever since the Hebrews entered the Promised Land and annihilated the people of Jericho. "I brought you into a fruitful land to enjoy its fruits and the goodness of it, but when you entered upon it you defiled it and made the home I gave you loathsome."

The Latter Prophets were the first men of historical record to denounce wars that had ended in victory for their own people. Until then, the violence of battles won had always been celebrated by the victors and whatever god they worshipped was duly thanked for helping them to massacre their enemies. Unlike individual acts of homicide which called for retribution, the mass murder of battle was rewarded and those who took part in the slaughter were much-honored. But the prophets intruded on this sanctification of violence. Just as they called for an end to domestic injustice and brutality, so also they called for an end to the injustices and brutalities of war. The sword and the shield, symbols of triumph and glory among men, were to be rejected by God's people. The celebration of destructive force was to be replaced by activities that nurtured everyone: the plowand the pruning shears were the symbols of God's earthly kingdom.

Isaiah told the people of Judah what the Lord demanded of them "The Lord's teaching comes from Jerusalem, from Zion he speaks to his people...they will hammer their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives. Nations will not go to war, nor prepare for battle again. After the prophet told the people what they must do, he implored them to do it: "Come now, descendants of Jacob Now, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the (knowledge)light which the Lord gives us." Isaiah 2:4

But for the Latter Prophets, the brutality of war, its injustices and its disregard of the suffering of others did not spring, full-grown, in the heat of battle. They were spawned in the cruelty and injustices of daily life. War was the ultimate expression of the outrages that were tolerated in everyday society by most of the people. When unjust laws and the greed of men inflicted suffering on others, depriving them of their possessions or their lives, the average citizen did not try to help his neighbor: "The Lord has an accusation to bring against the people who live in this land....'There is no faithfulness or kindness.'"

Isaiah also told his people that the Lord took no pleasure in religious rituals and penitential fasts. These were man-made substitutes for what the Lord required. "When you fast, you make yourselves suffer;...Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that? The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear."

The prophet Isaiah was calling into question a way of life that created the poor among them in the first place. Injustice in Judah, as everywhere else, was systemic. Those who were well-off and powerful accumulated what they had by promulgating unjust laws. Others used corrupt courts to cheat and defraud people. Injustice permeated the entire society even while the scrupulous observance of religious ritual was used as a yardstick to measure righteousness. Piety and ruthlessness were joined together in an unholy alliance.

"Woe unto you! You make unjust laws that oppress my people. That is how you keep the poor from having their rights and from getting justice. That is how you take the property that belongs to widows and orphans....You go to court but you do not have justice on your side. You depend on lies to win your case. You carry out your plans to hurt others. You are guilty of lying, violence and murder."

Isaiah made it clear that it was not only the lawmakers and community leaders who were responsible for the rampant injustice. Without the support of the average, law-abiding citizen who forms the bulwark of any community, a corrupt society could not be maintained: "The Lord was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene..."

For the ethical prophets justice was not an abstract concept: it was a concrete activity: a divine imperative; the essence of righteousness. And injustice was not only a manipulation of religious laws, it was ungodly. The Prophet Amos denounced that ungodliness: "You are doomed you that twist justice and cheat people out of their rights...You people hate anyone who challenges injustice and speaks the truth in court. You have oppressed the poor and robbed them of their grain. I know how terrible your sins are. You persecute good men, take bribes and prevent the poor from getting justice in the courts."

The laws devised by men had been used to make a mockery of justice, but it was not only in the court system that ungodliness reigned. The Prophet Jeremiah juxtaposed the abuse of poor and powerless human beings with the slaughter of helpless animals on altars dedicated to God. He stood in the Temple courtyard and in the name of the Lord denounced the slaughter that took place on the altars there.

"Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways...Do not trust in deceptive words saying, This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the lord!...[but] if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place..then I will let you dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers..."

Among the Hebrew people, the violence of animal sacrifice had become the center of religious worship. But it was a travesty of justice, a substitute for godliness. And the Prophet Isaiah said it was an abomination in the sight of God.

"[W]hoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb is like one who breaks a dog's neck...They have chosen their own ways and their souls delight in their abominations."

The cult of animal sacrifices had made a giant slaughterhouse of the Temple of the Lord: "The multitude of your sacrifices--what are they to me? I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats...Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight."

The Prophet Amos also denounced the cult of animal sacrifice as a bloody substitute for justice and righteousness. "I despise your feasts...When you offer me holocausts, I reject your oblations and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle...but let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream."

And in Jerusalem, Jeremiah reminded the people that it was they, not God, who had instituted the bloodbath of animal sacrifices. "I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.

The great prophets of Israel told the people that their way of life was not only an affront to the God with whom they had covenanted, it would lead to the destruction of their nation.

"The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statues, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, its inhabitants suffer for their guilt."

But the prophets were speaking to a self-satisfied and prosperous people who believed that success at home, and in the larger world, belonged to the aggressive. Both Israel in the north and Judah in the south were expanding their borders and their economy and they saw militarism as essential to that expansion. And while the prophets called by God warned that these policies would ultimately lead to their own destruction, there were hundreds of establishment priests and prophets who were giving a different mssage. Those false prophets were the spokesmen for an unholy alliance of religion and nationalism and assured the people that the Lord was well-pleased with them and would lead them to victory. And the people believed them.

So despite the warnings of the prophets, they did not reform themselves or cease from their worship of force. They believed they were invincible: they were God's chosen people; heirs of the covenant. They held to this claim right up to the time they were defeated and driven from their own land. By 587 BC, both Israel and Judah had been overthrown by their enemies. The Hebrew people had either been killed, or sent into exile--just as Amos, Micah, Hosea and Isaiah and Jeremiah had prophesied.

It was fifty years before some of the Hebrew people returned from their exile in Babylonia and when they did, they slowly began to rebuild to rebuild Jerusalem. But once they had firmly reestablished themselves in the Promised Land there was, again, widespread support for the claim that aggression and violence, aided and abetted by God, would bring about the re-establishment of a mighty Jewish nation. And within a few centuries of their return from Exile, the Jewish people were once again involved in war and power politics.

Various wars and alliances continued to mark the history of Palestine until 70 A.D. when Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by the Romans. As in the past, the people listened to those who urged them to put their trust in warfare and weaponry.

They believed the religious and secular leaders who told them that if they provoked a war with the Romans, God would give them victory over this latest enemy and restore Palestine to their rule.

But even as the militant zealots were gaining widespread support for the overthrow of those who occupied Palestine, God again inspired a prophetic message which warned the Jewish people that initiating war would bring about their own defeat, not that of their enemies. Around AD 30, Jesus of Nazareth began his ministry with a claim that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah's promise of a God-appointed messenger. Like the prophets who had come before him, he denounced the religious rituals and rules that were used as a cover for injustice and violence. And he warned his countrymen that unless they renounced their idolatrous worship of war and violence, they would again bring destruction upon themselves. Once again Jerusalem would be razed and the Temple would be destroyed.

It happened as Jesus had warned. But this time it was almost 2,000 years before the Jewish people had a homeland to which they could return.

End Chapter

Excerpted from: BIBLE HEROES: Saints and Sinners
Copyright 2002, J.R. Hyland

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