The Book of Judges and writing about violence

The Old Testament is at best a questionable guide to morality. In particular, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are among the vilest books, at least in their prescriptions, in any religion – which is notable, considering that both Exodus and Deuteronomy contain versions of the Ten Commandments.

But as much as I disagree with the genocide, unusual restrictions (e.g., Leviticus is the source of much of the homophobia in Christianity, as well as less-adhered-to “rules” such as not wearing mixed fabrics), and literal heavy-handedness of the God of Moses, the Old Testament is an endless, endless gold mine for turns of phrase and poetry. God may have been a bastard, but his interpreters/creators were committed writers.

In 2006, I decided I would read the entire King James Bible cover to cover, since it is one of the most influential documents in English, having been the source of every phrase from “the sun also rises” to “stranger in a strange land.” I didn’t accomplish my goal; I skipped a few books and only skimmed the New Testament, which I had heard again and again through years of Mass.

The Book of Judges, an Old Testament book between Joshua and Ruth, made one of the deepest impressions on me. It doesn’t have the poetry of Isaiah or the epic mythos of Exodus, but it definitely has crazy, proto-Tarantino violence.

When I was writing a short story recently (“The Lightning, which I mentioned in the last entry; I will publish it to my Tumblr soon), I was looking for how violence was described in older literature. Recent texts and films err on the super-gory side (in writing) or the blurry-who-knows-what’s-going-on side (in film). How did writers from 5,000 approach the fight scene or murder, though?

Judges has some ideas:

“Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the test, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote him the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.” (Judges 4:21).

“They chose new gods; then was war in the gates: was there shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?” (Judges 5:8).

“She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his he’d, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples (Judges 5:26).”

“At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:27).

The Book of Judges is also the source of the “evil in the sight of the Lord” phrase, which is evocative for its ambiguities. Is it more terrifying that they committed “evil” actions knowing that an omniscient god was watching, or that they acted without knowing that they were being, well, judged?

The passages above are grotesque. Yet, they maintain a “just the facts” nonchalance.

When writing about violence, this approach is useful if the author is trying to set a scene in which cruelty is normal and even banal. Getting hung up on details quickly leads to moralizing or expression of a viewpoint of some sort, which is ok for certain projects. For dystopian and sci-fi novels, though, I think this sort of commoditization of violence – oh, here’s someone getting a nail driving through his head, moving on now, Israel, etc. – is what makes them work.

I recently read H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and, like the other Wells I’ve read, it is visionary, but underrated for its dark side. It isn’t long after the titular duo land on the moon that they’re punching through Selenites – easier than they thought – and bleeding. In the context of the moon’s novel wonders though – mooncalves! a solid atmosphere! aliens! – the violence is passé.

The Book of Judges is similar in that the immense violence is secondary to the active, jealous god who is such a magnet for the readers’ attention (even more so than for the characters transfixed by him) that we often end up hopping around the violent sequences like islands in a relentless literary stream. The nonchalance is fitting – the violence is window-dressing, a bunch of incidental effects in a story about Yahweh. The writers saved the energies they could have spent on description and reflection and moved on to keep developing the central thread. Not a bad creative writing tack/hack, from 4,000 years ago.

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