Yahweh's "Cruel Sword": The Manifestation of Punishment and the Trauma of Exile
Reed, William Justin
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Divine weapons, as powerful rhetorical symbols, play a vital role in religious ritual and wartime rhetoric throughout the ancient world, including the Hebrew Bible. In the context of ancient empires, divine weapons often served as powerful symbols of divinely sanctioned violence and functioned to empower the already powerful. In the Hebrew Bible, the sword serves as Yahweh's most frequently attested weapon. Though one might expect such references to be found in narratives of military victory over enemies, the majority of examples occur in the prophetic books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel amidst descriptions of the impending destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent exile. This dissertation analyzes four different divine weapon motifs found in the prophetic books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel as part of the complex process of dealing with cultural trauma. The prophets drew upon their culture's own curse language and weapon motifs prevalent among the foreign invaders to portray Yahweh's sword as the embodiment of retribution for covenantal oath-breaking. These four motifs represent the most common divine weapon tropes found in biblical and Mesopotamian texts. Each motif contributes to the image of the king as the sole proprietor of divinely sanctioned violence through reference to the mythological status of divine weapons. Comparing these biblical motifs with their counterparts in Iron Age Mesopotamian literature (both Assyrian and Babylonian) demonstrates how the biblical authors were familiar with imperial motifs and drew upon them to construct a counter-narrative of their suffering. The prophetic versions of these motifs affirm the imperial narrative connecting rulers with the divine realm, while at the same time changing what the narrative signifies. In terms of theoretical framework, I employ Jeffery Alexander's sociological model of cultural trauma to demonstrate how divine weapons serve as powerful vehicles for the prophetic narrative because of their association with empire, level of abstraction, and emotionally laden character. This narrative removes the agency of the oppressor, while working to restore a group identity forged through an understanding of collective suffering. This serves to reframe much of the violent rhetoric of the prophets as part of the trauma process, while denying imperial claims to authoritative violence.