In his book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, Gregory Boyd deals with the problem of divine violence in the Old Testament. One of the many issues Boyd discusses in the book is the fact that God uses foreign nations to bring judgment on Israel.
In his study of the “dark side of the Bible,” Boyd discusses one of the most “horrific” acts of God, that of “God judging people by having unborn babies ripped out of their mother’s wombs (Hos 13:16)” (2017: 146-47). Boyd quotes Hosea 13:16 six times in the book to emphasize this dastard act of God.
On page 290 Boyd writes, “because my goal is to be ruthlessly honest in my evaluation of this material, readers who stand within more conservative traditions should be forewarned that I cannot shy away from sometimes using words like ‘horrific,’ ‘macabre,’ and ‘revolting’ when describing it. I am certainly not trying to be inflammatory or disrespectful in speaking this way. I simply cannot find a more polite way of describing, with integrity, portraits of God doing things like causing fetuses to be ripped out of their mothers’ wombs (Hos 13:16).” On pages 798-99 Boyd writes, “According to Hosea, Yahweh even vows to ‘cut [Israel] in pieces’ (Hos 6:5), to ‘send fire on their cities’ (Hos 8:14), and to ‘slay their cherished offspring’ (9:16, cf. v. 12), in part by having ‘their little ones . . . dashed to the ground’ and ‘their pregnant women ripped open’ (13:16).”
The Syro-Ephraimite War
Hosea ministered during the Syro-Ephraimite war and its aftermath. In announcing the coming of Assyria, Hosea proclaimed: “Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16). These frightful words of Hosea were proclaimed in the context of the Syro-Ephraimite war in the eighth century BC and the rise of Tiglath-pileser III. I have written much about the Syro-Ephraimite war in previous posts. What follows is a summary of the events that serve as the background for Hosea’s oracle.
Tiglath-pileser III was one of the most aggressive Assyrian kings in the long history of the nation. When Tiglath-pileser III came to the throne in 745 BC, his desire was to enlarge the Assyrian empire and establish complete domination of the Middle East. His quest for domination brought Israel into the sphere of his influence. In order to establish his empire, Tiglath-pileser established a policy of permanent conquest. This means that each nation conquered by Assyria became a province of the empire. Each conquered nation had to pay an annual tribute to Assyria.
An administrative system of regional governors was set up by Assyria to rule over the provinces and each province had to provide for the needs of the Assyrian army in case of war: food, soldiers, and slaves. Each citizen of the provinces became an Assyrian citizen. Assyria reenforced these policies by instituting brutal reprisal in case of revolts. In case of revolt by the vassals, Assyria would punish them by inflicting much pain and suffering, including the mass deportation of a vast amount of people.
In order to prepare for war with Assyria, Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria, formed an alliance in order to resist Tiglath-pileser. Acting in partnership, Pekah and Rezin turned their efforts to the south, to Judah, hoping to increase the strength, proximity, and size of their coalition. Ahaz (735-715 BC), king of Judah, refused to join the alliance, so Pekah and Rezin invaded Judah. In desperation, Ahaz invited Tiglath-pileser to protect him, thus beginning a series of events that brought Assyria to Samaria, motivated the preaching of Hosea, and culminated with the deportation of the people of the Northern Kingdom.
The War Policies of Assyria
No one likes war, but war is a reality that has existed in human society from the dawn of civilization. With no exception, one characteristic of wars is the extreme violence that goes on in the battlefield. Wars cause much anguish, disruption, destruction, and an untold number of lost lives.
In warfare, nations use different techniques to achieve their goal, which is victory against their enemies. In antiquity, as well as in modern times, nations develop policies of intimidation and terror in order to force submission by their opponents. These acts of uncontrolled violence strike fears in the hearts of those under siege.
“War is after all nothing but war, a reversion to savagery” (Olmstead: 1951: 646). In wars, soldiers cast aside their inhibition, their sense of humanity, and take the lives of men, women, and children. Their actions express the horrors of war and the paroxysms of violence that are present in conflicts between nations.
One of the most violent nations in antiquity was Assyria. In his article, “Cruelty and Military Refinements,” De Backer (2009: 13-50) presents a detailed catalogue of the brutal ways the Assyrians dealt with their prisoners of war. Assyrian records and monuments preserve the evidence that they were a brutal and violent nation. Assyrian reliefs show prisoners being impaled, Assyrian soldiers flaying captured soldiers, beheadings, mutilation, and dismembering.
In wars some of the most vulnerable victims are the women and children (Kruger: 2016: 100-115). On one Assyrian monument, women and children are portrayed with their lifted arms, lamenting the violence and the destruction of their city. Archaeologists have uncovered many mass graves in places where battles occurred and one common feature of these mass graves was the presence of bones of women and children who were buried along with the men killed in battle.
The Disembowelment of Pregnant Women
One of the most violent and brutal conducts in times of war was the Assyrian practice of ripping open pregnant women in order to expose their fetuses. According to Dubovsky (2009: 417), the purpose of the disembowelment of pregnant women was the Assyrian desire to “eliminate not only their actual enemies but also potential ones: those not yet born, who might seek to reclaim the land or orchestrate another revolt.” It is also possible that the disembowelment of pregnant women was seen as an act of “revenge exerted by the winners for all the friendly losses which they had to deplore during the combat” (De Backer: 2009: 44). On page 414 of his article, in describing the scene in one Assyrian relief, Dubovsky describes in detail how the act of disembowelment was done.
Most scholars agree that the concept of “ripping open pregnant women” and the concept of “dashing in pieces the little ones” is not found in Assyrian war accounts. Some scholars believe that these claims of violence against women “are intended to serve propagandistic or ideological purposes” (Kroger 2016: 106). According to Olmstead (1951: 647), “These atrocities were committed by ‘battle-crazy Assyrians.’”
The disembowelment of pregnant women is attested in only two reliefs, one from the time of Ashurbanipal and another from the time of Tiglath-pileser I. Dubovsky (2009: 418) concludes that since no extant Neo-Assyrian inscription mentions this kind of atrocious act, that the disembowelment of pregnant women was performed only in an extreme case and that such an act was justified as a divine punishment falling upon the enemies of Assyria for their egregious disloyalty.
One example of the disembowelment of pregnant women is found in a relief from the time of Ashurbanipal depicting Assyrian troops ruthlessly ripping open a pregnant Arab woman. The relief shows an Assyrian soldier inserting his hands into the woman’s belly. The other example is found in a relief dated to the time of Tiglath-pileser I.
In his article,“‘Ripping Open Pregnant Women’ in Light of an Assyrian Analogue,” Mordechai Cogan quotes an Assyrian poem, probably dated to the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076), in which the poet praises the actions of the victorious king. One section of the poem, in which the poet relates the victory of the Assyrian king against his enemy, reads as follow:
He slits the wombs of pregnant women
he blinds the infants
He cuts the throats of their strong ones.
In commenting on the words of the poet describing the acts of the victorious king, Cogan wrote: “Out of the entire catalogue of the horrors of war, he singled out the attack upon the defenseless women and children; and this in order to impress upon all that the cruelest of punishments awaits those who sin against Assyria’s god” (1983:756).
This terrifying practice, the disembowelment of pregnant women, was a form of psychological warfare. It was Assyria’s way to show their enemies the consequences of revolting against the empire. In case of rebellion by vassals, the Assyrians would bring reprisal by enforcing their rule with violence and brutality.
However, the biblical record shows that the practice of ripping open pregnant women was also the practice of war of other nations in the ancient Near East. When the prophet Elisha anointed Hazael to be the next king of Damascus, Elisha wept aloud when he saw how Hazael would cause violence and horror against the women of Israel. When Hazael saw the prophet weeping, he asked: “‘Why does my lord weep?’ [Elisha] answered, ‘Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women’” (2 Kings 8:11-12).
In his oracle against the Ammonites, Amos said the Lord would punish them because of their violence against the women of Gilead: “Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory” (Amos 1:13).
In his oracle against Israel, the prophet Hosea pronounced a judgment against the Northern Kingdom. The judgment would be an Assyrian invasion that would bring untold terror and violence against the inhabitants of Samaria: “Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16).
In discussing this inhumane practice during siege warfare, Cogan wrote: “Acts of horror such as these, performed during the course of war, are documented throughout history, and no specific age or people can be pointed to as having had a patent on atrocity” (1983:755). Cogan’s words, that “no specific age or people can be pointed to as having had a patent on atrocity,” can be seen in the fact that one king in Israel also committed such an atrocity.
The writer of the book of Kings says that Menahem, after he became king of Israel and a vassal of Tiglath-pileser, invaded Tappuah to punish them for not supporting him. Most texts read “Tiphsah” (2 King 15:16 NIV), a city near the Euphrates River. However, the text should be read “Tappuah,” a town located in the tribe of Ephraim (Joshua 17:8).
During the invasion, “Menahem punished Tappuah, all the inhabitants of the town and of its whole district, because on his way from Tirzah they did not let him in. He punished them even to ripping open all the pregnant women” (2 Kings 15:16 NAB).
In his description of Menahem’s act, Josephus wrote:
Menahem, the general of his army, . . . made himself king, he went thence, and came to the city Tiphsah; but the citizens that were in it shut their gates, and barred them against the king, and would not admit him; but in order to be avenged on them, he burnt the country round about it, and took the city by force, upon a siege; and being very much displeased at what the inhabitants of Tiphsah had done, he slew them all, and spared not so much as the infants, without omitting the utmost instances of cruelty and barbarity; for he used such severity upon his own countrymen, as would not be pardonable with regard to strangers who had been conquered by him. And after this manner it was that this Menahem continued to reign with cruelty and barbarity for ten years (Josephus: “Antiquities,” ix. 231-32).
Josephus was so appalled at the cruelty and barbarity Menahem used against his own countrymen that he said such a practice would be unforgivable even if it were done against foreign enemies.
I think it is wrong for Boyd to say that Yahweh vowed to rip open the womb of Israelite women or that Yahweh caused “fetuses to be ripped out of their mothers’ wombs.” The disembowelment of pregnant women was one of the many barbarities of war that the Assyrians had committed for centuries. When the Assyrian army came to Samaria and ripped open the womb of Israelite women to remove the fetuses, they did what they had been doing for hundreds of years. As Cogan wrote, “Acts of horror such as these, performed during the course of war, are documented throughout history, and no specific age or people can be pointed to as having had a patent on atrocity.”
When Pekah and Rezin besieged Judah, God offered Ahaz a way out of the conflict. God sent the prophet Isaiah with a message for Ahaz: “Tell him to stop worrying. Tell him he doesn’t need to fear, . . . This invasion will never happen; it will never take place” (Isaiah 7:4, 7 NLT). Ahaz refused to accept God’s offer. Instead, “King Ahaz sent messengers to King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria with this message: ‘I am your servant and your vassal. Come up and rescue me from the attacking armies of Aram and Israel’” (2 Kings 16:7 NLT). So, because of a stupid political decision by Ahaz, Tiglath-pileser came to fight against Israel. Thus, early in Hosea’s ministry, “King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria” (2 Kings 15:29). Hosea knew what the Assyrians would do when their army came to Samaria. It was common knowledge that the Assyrians were brutal in the treatment of their enemies.
It was not Yahweh who caused fetuses to be ripped out of the womb of Israelite mothers. Assyrian soldiers did to Israel what they had being doing to other nations for centuries. The Syrians, the Ammonites, and other nations also ripped fetuses out of the womb of women they conquered, and yet, they were not motivated by Yahweh.
Ahaz’s “no” to God in rejecting God’s help could not be overturned. As Fretheim (1984: 76) wrote, “The creature is given power to reject God, power to make the world other than what God desires for it.” If Ahaz had listened to Isaiah and relied on Yahweh to deliver him from his enemies, it is possible that the women of Samaria would never have had to suffer the indignities they suffered at the hands of Assyrian soldiers.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Boyd, Gregory A. Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. 2 Vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
Cogan, Mordechai. “‘Ripping Open Pregnant Women’ in Light of an Assyrian Analogue.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 103 (1983): 755-757.
De Backer, Fabrice. “Cruelty and Military Refinements.” Res Antiquae 6 (2009): 13-50.
Dubovsky, Peter, “ Ripping Open Pregnant Arab Women: Reliefs in Room L of Ashurbanipal’s North Palace.” Orientalia 78 (2009): 394-419.
Fretheim, Terence E. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Herzog, Chaim and Mordechai Gichon. Battles of the Bible. New York: Barnes and Nobles, 1997.
Josephus, Flavius. The Works of Josephus. Trans. William Whiston. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.
Kruger, Paul A. “Mothers and their Children as Victims in War: Amos 1:13 against the Background of the Ancient Near East.” Old Testament Essays 29 (2016): 100-115.
Olmstead, A. T. History of Assyria. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.