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Religion

Emory scholar looks intently at Old Testament violence


  • By Winston Skinner
  • |
  • Apr. 26, 2019 - 7:30 AM

 Emory scholar looks intently at Old Testament violence

Winston Skinner / The Newnan Times-Herald

Dr. Joel LeMon talks about aspects of violence as depicted in Mesopotamia during Old Testament times at the Carlos Museum on the Emory University campus.

Many think of the Bible as a book of peace, but there are many incidences of violence in its pages – particularly in the Old Testament.

Cowetans were among those in the audience of about 80 when Joel M. LeMon, who teaches in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, gave a talk that explored aspects of violence as seen in the Old Testament.

LeMon spoke on “‘Break the Teeth of the Wicked’: Picturing Righteous Violence in the Ancient Near East” at Ackerman Hall in the Michael C. Carlos Museum on Emory’s campus.

LeMon is “one of Emory’s finest young scholars” and is “so gifted and thoughtful,” said Elizabeth Hornor, director of education at the museum.

During his talk, LeMon, shared “a lot of images against enemies, against human creatures, against animals, against hybrid creatures and against the gods” from ancient Mesopotamia.

“There’s nothing special about Mesopotamian violence. I watch Netflix.  Watch the news. We are as violent as anything you will see tonight,” he said.

The images showed potential, kinetic and resultive violence. Potential violence is an act that is about to happen. LeMon showed an image of Rameses III grasping the hair of an enemy who is “trying to fend off a death blow that the pharaoh is about ready to strike.”

Kinetic violence shows “the moment where a body is forcefully intruded upon by another,” he said, and resultive is “is where we see the results of violence.”

LeMon showed images from the Balawat Gates from Iraq. The gates were excavated from the Assyrian palace of Shalmaneser III, who reigned from 859-824 BC.

The gates show figures in procession but also beheaded heads and impaled figures.

“How in the world could any of this be described as righteous?” LeMon asked.

He said there are “modes of violence understood by their creators” in the belief that “violence must take place for good things to happen.” Their goal was “making the world the way it should be.”

LeMon noted that with certain exceptions, the Mesopatamian world depicted humans and gods committing violent acts.

“We typically see the king only in certain kinds of violence,” LeMon said.

Some of the ancient violence depicted relates to “the constant struggle which is the natural world,” LeMon said at the Feb. 21 lecture. “There is no clear winner and no clear loser. It is just the natural world.”

“The gods when they fight each other, any kind of violence can be depicted. When the gods are fighting, anything goes,” he said. 

With kings, the violence is more likely to be resultive – a royal walking across the dead bodies of his enemies or relate to soldiers committing violence on behalf of their king.

In the ancient world, enemies often were beheaded and the heads counted to determine the damage done. 

“Sometimes there would be a head count. Sometimes there would be a hand count, and sometimes there would be a phallus count,” said LeMon, who joined the Emory faculty in 2007. “We have representations of all three.”

LeMon pointed to several images of a king using a weapon against a lion. He said the lion stands for humans – showing the king committing violence without directly depicting him injuring another person.

LeMon said the indirect depiction was likely taken because people viewing the art might identify with the victims. Therefore, the king is show as victor over an enemy “in a form that’s not human.”

LeMon holds a PhD from Emory and a masters of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has written several books and has one coming out in a few months focusing on his research into the depiction of violence during the Old Testament period.