These days ISIS, more than any other global power, evokes the specter of violence and death. Boko Haram kidnaps girls by the thousands. The Soviets —I mean, the Russians acting like Soviets — impose their violent will on the Ukraine. Terror abounds all over the globe. In depicting the psychic harm war inflicts upon our souls, American Sniper breaks its own box office records; meanwhile, Americans learn that we’re about to go to war again. It’s ISIS that makes us shudder.
ISIS seems intent only upon imposing fear and death. We can’t point to anything constructive ISIS does. ISIS slaughters aid workers and journalists just as readily as it does enemy combatants. In the face of ISIS anything other than cowering submission brings grisly death. If we found ourselves repulsed by torture and shocked by videotaped beheadings, now we are haunted by the gruesome memory of a Jordanian pilot set on fire.
Just as alarming, ISIS looks like the Holy Spirit’s evil twin: we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes (see John 3:8). ISIS has some kind of association with Al Qaeda, yes. But ISIS also emerged from power vacuums in Syria and Iraq. Apart from the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies, a firestorm like ISIS would have found no oxygen to fuel it. When international powers determined that Syria’s corrupt government had to go, ISIS took “our” side — sort of. Now a vulnerable nation like Jordan, which would much have preferred to stay out of things, finds itself at war. And the United States anticipates conflict that will keep us all bloody for decades.
Where does the violence end? And how did it begin?
In such a moment, we imagine ISIS as “different” from ourselves, a whole distinct category of the specieshomo sapiens. We did the same with Nazis back in the day, as if genocide’s engineers had not been the brothers and sisters of our own immigrant citizens, as if they were not the grandparents of the amiable Germans and Poles we befriend today. We forget, by the way, our own history of torturing — often burning alive — our own African American citizens, grandchildren of those this nation had enslaved. Our own president condemned ISIS and its grotesque ways, and he also reminded us that the potential for such violence dwells within every society. Naturally his opponents went nuts: they are nothing like weare, they cried.
But we are like they are, and they are like we are. Violence breaks us down. As I write, Eddie Ray Routh goes on trial for the murder of American Sniper hero, Chris Kyle, at a shooting range. Along with another veteran, Kyle met his own death while trying to help other psychically wounded veterans find peace and sanity.
Chapters 6-9 of Genesis recalls an even more fearsome outbreak of violence — violence perpetrated by God. I frequently wonder about those parents who decorate babies’ rooms in Noah’s Ark motifs — “Oh, look at the animals!” — when the story stands as the Bible’s most fearsome. God wipes out all of humanity along with all the other animals that “moved on the earth” (Genesis 7:21, NRSV) in a horrific manner.
A careful reading suggests we are to imagine the fear of God’s victims. You’d think God might just smite the world Monty Python style, but instead God goes with a flood. The story pauses for seven verses to paint the picture (7:17-23). Four verses narrate the rising waters, and three recount how “all flesh” is wiped out. Contemporary biblical scholars debate the specific ways in which this story weaves together earlier literary sources: according to these theories cases of repetition reflect primitive editing. So be it. But the effect could scarcely be clearer: we hear this part of the story three times.
“All flesh died” (7:21).
“Everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died” (7:22).
God “blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground” (7:23).
Few modern people actually believe God sent a literal flood to destroy every land-dwelling animal. A few fundamentalists may, but most of us recognize an ancient myth when we see one. Other ancient Near Eastern cultures produced flood stories of their own.
But myths have a way of surprising us if we really pay attention. And few people really pay attention to the flood story. First, there’s the question of what provokes God to act with such devastation. Reflecting its complicated history of composition, the story provides two answers. People had grown wicked, hopelessly so (6:5). The Hebrew of Genesis 6:5 is emphatic: “The LORD saw that great was the evil of humankind upon the earth, that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was altogether evil all the time” (my translation). The second explanation transcends human evil: “the earth” had become spoiled. It was filled with violence (6:11-12).
So we are back to violence. Ancient Jews devoted a lot of energy to imagining why things went wrong with creation. The story has it that God actually regretted creating humankind. In biblical fashion, God doesn’t stand as an impassive observer: the biblical God actually feels pain regarding how things have gone (6:6). But what went wrong? One theory seems to have been quite popular. One of the Bible’s most bizarre passages precedes the flood account. In it the “sons of God” saw how beautiful women were and “took” some for themselves (6:1-4). It is possible, but not necessary, to read this action in terms of rape. Prominent noncanonical texts like 1 Enoch and Jubilees link this strange account with the flood. The “sons of God” are wicked angels, and their lustful behavior led to the violence and corruption that so provoked God.
Myths will surprise us if we pay attention. This imaginative, even fanciful, interpretation suggests that violence begets violence. Not even God is exempt. Yet God disrupts the cycle of violence. Having deployed violence to end violence, God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants. Rainbows in the sky will remind God that God has promised never again to destroy the world in such a fashion. Given humanity and its disposition toward violence, God may well need the reminder (9:16).
Horrific as ISIS may be, it by no means stands outside the circle of humanity. It seems to have arisen and found nourishment out of countless factors, including the interventions of our own government. Violence has a way of pulling us all in. Somewhere the cycle has to end. It may take more than a rainbow to convince us, but that is God’s way. If the reign of God is at hand, as Jesus says it is (Mark 1:14-15), we’ve all got some repenting to do.
Greg Carey is the Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, Pa. Via ON Scripture.
Addressing the rise of religious violence and the role that faith leaders have in working to a solution.
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