The Bible And Violence
The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament contain narratives, poetry, and instruction describing, recording, encouraging, commanding, condemning, rewarding, punishing and regulating violent actions by God, individuals, groups, governments, and nation-states. Among the violent acts included are war, human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, murder, rape, and criminal punishment. The texts have a history of interpretation within the Abrahamic religions and Western culture that includes justification and opposition to acts of violence.
In the Hebrew Bible
Hamas, meaning ‘violence, wrongdoing’, is the Hebrew Bible’s primary term for violence and is first used in Genesis 6:11: “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” It occurs sixty times in the Hebrew Bible, is almost always used to identify physical violence (Genesis 49:5; Judges 9:24), and is used to describe human, not divine, violence. “Sometimes the word refers to extreme wickedness (Isaiah 53:9; 59:6) where physical violence may or may not be [involved].” Hamas may also refer to verbal, or even ethical violence. “The term Hamas sometimes appears as a cry to God in the face of injustice (Jer. 6:7).” Exodus 23:1 and Deut. 19:16 characterize a false witness as ʿēd ḥāmas (a “violent witness”). The notion that a false witness threatens life and well-being appears in fuller form in the Psalter.”
In the Torah the terms gazal (rob) and asaq (oppress) are frequently used in combination to describe the human violence of taking/robbing/plundering as oppression of the poor which may or may not include physical, verbal or other types of harm. They are also used both separately and in combination throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible describing robbing the poor (Isaiah 3:14, 10:2; Jeremiah 22:3; Micah 2:2, 3:2; Malachi 1:3), withholding the wages of a hired person (cf. Deuteronomy 24:14), political oppression (Hosea 12:7), charging oppressive interest (Ezekiel 22:12), and oppressing the outsider in their midst (Ezekiel 22:7) as acts of violence.
The Hebrew verb ḥāram connotes [complete annihilation] (New Revised Standard Version, “utterly destroy”; Deut. 7:2); the noun that derives from it (ḥērem) is sometimes translated as “the ban” and denotes the separation, exclusion and dedication of persons or objects to God which may be specially set apart for destruction (Deuteronomy 7:26; Leviticus 27:28-29). Historian Susan Niditch says “the root h-r-m links together several biblical non-war and war usages of the term … under the heading of sacrifice.” Early use of the term indicates the Israelites were not allowed to touch, possess, or redeem these “devoted things”. However, later use of the term, such as in Numbers 18:14-17 and Deuteronomy 7, indicates items and first born children set aside as ḥērem were to be redeemed by the Priests. Hebrew scholar Baruch A. Levine notes Deut.7:1-11 as an evolution of Hebrew ideology in Exodus 33:5-16, with its addition of the ban (see also Exodus 20:19,20). Levine concludes this is one of several indications, including extra-biblical evidence, that ḥērem was a later addition to Hebrew thought. Levine says this is indicative that Israel was still, as late as Deuteronomy, making ideological adjustments to having imported the foreign practice of ḥērem from its source in the surrounding Near Eastern nations.”
Over half the occurrences of the verb and noun for the root ḥ-r-m are concerned with the destruction of nations in war, but other terms associated with what Old Testament scholar Eric Siebert describes as “divine violence” may or may not include war. Siebert says divine violence is “violence God is said to have perpetrated, caused, or sanctioned.” Specifically, this includes (1) violence God commits without using human agents (e.g., sending down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah); (2) violence God commissions, typically unbeknownst to those being commissioned (e.g., using Babylon to punish Judah for their sins); and (3) violence God commands directly (e.g., ordering Israelites to wipe out Canaanites).” For example, concerning those who worship idols, Deuteronomy 7:16 uses akal (“consume”) when saying “You must destroy (consume) all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you…”. Deuteronomy 7:24, on the other hand, uses abad when saying “you shall make their name perish from under heaven…” while Deuteronomy 20:10-18 says “…you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy (ha-harem taharimem) them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you…”. “Amos 1:3–2:3 uses akal to indict Israel’s neighbors for various acts of cruelty during war (e.g., the Ammonites “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory”; 1:13) and uses those war crimes of surrounding peoples to draw a parallel with Israel’s mistreatment of the poor, thus elevating economic injustice to the level of war crimes.” (2:6–8).
Other terms are: ṣamat (put an end to, exterminate…annihilate); shamad (destroy, exterminate); nakah (to strike fatally, kill, in manslaughter, murder…as retaliation …in warfare, conquest…combat…attack, rout); aqar (pluck up, often in the violent sense); qatsah (to cut off, in a destructive sense); shabat (with zeker can refer to one’s “memory” being “blotted out” but in another idiom it means to “be blotted out…from…[the] earth” to “be exterminated, be destroyed, perish”); and kalah (kalah in Qal can mean “be finished, be destroyed).
Book of Genesis
When Adam and Eve disobey God, he curses them and banishes them from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). In Genesis 4:1-18 Cain, the first born man, murders his brother Abel. God curses Cain for this, and also grants him protection from danger.
In the Genesis flood narrative (Genesis 6-9), God sees that “wickedness of man was great” and decides to exterminate mankind and all animals, saving only Noah and those he brought with him on the Ark. After the Flood, God promises to never again destroy all life by a flood.
In Genesis 18-19 God resolves to destroy the cities Sodom and Gomorrah, “because their sin is very grievous”. God promises Abraham that he will spare Sodom if as few as 10 righteous people can be found there. The cities are destroyed, but angels save Abraham’s nephew Lot and most of his family from the destruction. God tests Abraham by demanding that he sacrifice Isaac, his son (Genesis 22). As Abraham is about to lay the knife upon his son, God restrains him, promising him numberless descendants.
Isaac’s son Jacob conspires to gain his elder brother Esau’s birthright, but the brothers ultimately reconcile (Genesis 25-33). In Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob meets and wrestles with someone, a man, angel or God, who blesses him and gives him the name Israel.
Joseph (Genesis 37-50), Jacob’s favorite son, is sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. Joseph prospers after hardship, with God’s guidance, and saves his family from starvation.
Book of Exodus and Book of Leviticus
Moses, a Hebrew raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, one day encounters an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. He slays the Egyptian and flees Egypt. God hears the plight of the Israelites and sends Moses back to Egypt to bring them out of that land to Canaan. At one point during the journey back, God intends to kill Moses, but he is saved by his wife Zipporah (Exodus 2-4).
Moses asks Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but Pharaoh responds by demanding more work from them. Moses repeats his request several times as the Plagues of Egypt afflict the Egyptians, but God makes Pharaoh refuse until the tenth plague, when God kills all firstborn people and cattle in Egypt, apart from those of the Israelites, who are protected. The Israelites are allowed to leave, but God again changes Pharaoh’s mind, and an army is sent after them. God saves them from the army by drowning it in the Red Sea.
At Mount Sinai, God gives the Israelites the Ten Commandments and the Covenant Code (Exodus 20-23). These laws include thou shalt not kill, eye for an eye and laws about slavery and other things. Capital punishment is prescribed for some crimes. Animal sacrifice in the form of burnt offerings is mentioned, and it is prescribed that an ox that kills a person is to be stoned. The Code states that “And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” and “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.” The Israelites promise to follow these laws (Exodus 24:3).
The Israelites break their promise by worshiping the Golden Calf. God is angered by this and intends to “consume them”, but Moses persuades him not to do so. Moses is also angered, and he breaks two stone tablets with God’s writing. On Moses’ command, the Levites kill about three thousand people (Exodus 32).
God has Moses make new stone tablets, and gives Moses the Ritual Decalogue, which states in part “Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest they be for a snare in the midst of thee. But ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their Asherim” (Exodus 34).
The Book of Leviticus sets out detailed rules for animal sacrifice. The Holiness code, Leviticus 17-26, sets out a list of prohibitions, and the punishments for breaking them. Punishments include execution, sometimes by stoning or burning.
Book of Numbers
God orders Moses to count “all that are able to go forth to war in Israel” (Numbers 1). God hears the people “speaking evil” and punishes them with fire. Moses prays, and the fire abates. God is again angered and sends “a great plague” (Numbers 11). God hears Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses, and punishes Miriam with leprosy. Moses asks God to heal her which he does (Numbers 12).
The Israelites reach the border of Canaan, but due to reports from spies they refuse to enter, and wish to return to Egypt. God is angered, and tells Moses “I will smite them with the pestilence, and destroy them, and will make of thee a nation greater and mightier than they.” Moses persuades him not to, but God declares that the Israelites will now wander the wilderness for forty years before they can enter Canaan. They are attacked by Amalekites and Canaanites (Numbers 13-14). In Numbers 15, a man is found working on the Sabbath. God orders him to be killed and he is stoned.
Korah and a group of men rebel against Moses and Aaron. God destroys them (Numbers 16). The Isralites “murmur” about this, and God punishes them with a plague (Numbers 16). At Hormah, a Canaanite king fights the Israelites, and the Israelites promise God that if he gives them victory over this people, they will destroy their cities. He does and they do. The Israelites speak against God and Moses, and God sends venomous snakes that kill many of them. Moses prays for the people, and God helps them (Numbers 21).
The Israelites conquer the cities of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and they “smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him remaining; and they possessed his land.” (Numbers 21). When the diviner Balaam beats his donkey, it speaks. Balaam later prophesies on the future of the Israelite’s enemies (Numbers 22-24).
Some Israelites commit harlotry with women in Moab, and sacrifice to their gods. God is angered, orders executions and sends a plague, but “the main guilt is Midian’s and on Midian fell the vengeance” (Numbers 25 and 31).
God orders Moses to “Harass the Midianites, and smite them”, and to again count “all that are able to go forth to war in Israel” (Numbers 25-26). The Isralites war against Midian, and “slew every male”. They take captive the women and children, and take all cattle, flocks and goods as loot, and burn all cities and camps. When they return to Moses, he is angered, and commands “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (Numbers 31).
God tells Moses “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places. And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you have I given the land to possess it.” and “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then shall those that ye let remain of them be as thorns in your eyes, and as pricks in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land wherein ye dwell. And it shall come to pass, that as I thought to do unto them, so will I do unto you” (Numbers 33).
Book of Deuteronomy
Deuteronomy begins with a review of previous stories, including a battle between the Israelites and the Amorites (Deuteronomy 1:41-44), and the destruction of Rephaim by the Ammonites with Yahweh’s help (2:21), along with similar other displacements. Deuteronomy 2:31-37 records the complete extermination of the people ruled by Sihon king of Heshbon. Similar treatment, at Yahweh’s command, was given to the people under Og king of Bashan. Moses also recounts how God destroyed the followers of Baal-Peor, and threatens to destroy the Israelites if they return to idolatry. Similar threats of destruction for disobedience, or idolatry more specifically, can be found in Deuteronomy 6, 8, 11. On the other hand, God promises that if his people obey him he will give them victory in fighting their enemies in Deuteronomy 6, 11.
Deuteronomy provides legislation to protect perpetrators of unintentional homicide from revenge killings (4, 19). The Ten Commandments prohibit murder (5:17). Deuteronomy 7 orders the complete annihilation of the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan, and God promises in exchange for obedience to bring diseases on the enemies of Israel. Chapter 9 records an incident in which Yahweh was angry and intended to destroy the Israelites, but was dissuaded by Moses. Deuteronomy 12 records Yahweh’s displeasure at the practice of burning sons and daughters as offerings to deities. Deuteronomy 13 insists that those who advocate the worship of other deities must be killed, and that a town that worships other deities must be entirely exterminated, including its livestock. Deuteronomy 14 forbids self-mutilation. Deuteronomy 17 punishes anyone who worships any deity or feature of the natural world with stoning to death, and likewise imposes the death penalty on anyone who disobeys the judicial decision of a priest.
Deuteronomy 19 imposes the death penalty for premeditated murder, establishes cities of refuge, and also imposes the lex talionis: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” limiting vengeance (verse 21, NRSV). Deuteronomy 20 regulates warfare, allowing for various exemptions from military service, and mandating that a city which Israel fights (outside of Canaan) should have all of its males slaughtered, with women taken as spoils of war. The Canaanites, on the other hand, are to be completely exterminated (20) exempting only the fruit trees. Deuteronomy 21 commands the use of sacrifices to atone for blood in cases where a murderer cannot be identified, and mandates a month-long period of mourning before an Israelite warrior can have sexual relations with a female captive. It also mandates the stoning to death of rebellious children. Deuteronomy 22 orders the killing of women who cannot prove that they were virgins on their wedding night, and of both the man and woman when a man sleeps with another man’s wife. It also mandates the death penalty for a man who has sexual relations with a betrothed virgin, and of the virgin if she does not cry out for help when raped.
Deuteronomy 24 imposes the death penalty for the kidnapping of a fellow Israelite, and forbids putting parents to death for crimes committed by their children, and vice versa. Deuteronomy 25 allows for judges to have people punished in legal disputes by flogging, but limits the number of strikes to forty. “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (25:11-12). This chapter also urges the extermination of the Amalekites (verses 17-19). Deuteronomy 28 contains blessing and curses: blessing, including the defeat of Israel’s enemies, if Israel obeys; and curses if Israel disobeys. These curses include disease, famine, defeat and death in warfare, insanity, abuse and robbery, enslavement, and cannibalism due to extreme hunger. Similar threats appear in the following chapter (29) and in Deuteronomy 32.
Book of Joshua
Several kings ally together to fight the Israelites. The people of Gibeon, learning of the city’s destruction, tricks the Israelites into a peace-treaty. When Joshua learns of the trickery, he curses the Gibeonites (Joshua 9). When the king of Jerusalem hears of the treaty, he and several other kings attack Gibeon, who then call on Joshua for help. God attacks Joshua’s enemies with hailstones, the Israelites are victorious, and the enemy kings are captured. Joshua goes on to conquer more cities but never completes the conquest (Joshua 10).
More kings gather to fight the Israelites. The Israelites defeat and kill them all. Joshua 11 commands the hamstringing of horses.
Joshua finishes most of the conquest of Canaan, with the exception of Gibeon and possibly some Canaanites and Amelakites: “For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, to come against Israel in battle, that they might be utterly destroyed, that they might have no favour, but that they might be destroyed, as the LORD commanded Moses.” “And the land had rest from war” (Joshua 11).
The tribe of Manasseh is given cities with Canaanites they can’t drive out, but Joshua tells them that they will be able to (Joshua 17).
In Joshua 20, God tells Joshua to assign Cities of Refuge, so that “the manslayer that killeth any person through error and unawares may flee thither; and they shall be unto you for a refuge from the avenger of blood.”
Book of Judges
Books of Samuel
In the Books of Samuel, The Israelites war with the Philistines and are defeated at the Battle of Aphek. The Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant, but God makes his displeasure known, and they later return it. The ark arrives at Beth-shemesh, where God slays fifty thousand men for gazing upon it (1 Samuel 6). Samuel urges Israel’s people to “put away the foreign gods” and serve only God, which they do. The Philistines attack and are defeated at Mizpah.
Saul is made king of Israel and wars with many enemies. Samuel commands Saul “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul does not fully obey, which angers God and Samuel. Samuel kills the captured Agag, king of the Amalekites.
David, anointed king in secret (1 Samuel 16), comes into Saul’s service and “loved him greatly”. The Philistines attack Israel, David slays their champion Goliath, and they flee. David becomes popular, witch makes Saul fear him and plot his death. David and Saul’s daughter Michal wish to marry, and Saul asks for a dowry of one hundred foreskins of the Philistines. David delivers two hundred, and becomes the king’s son-in-law (1 Samuel 18). Saul again wishes David dead, but they are reconciled by Saul’s son Jonathan.
War comes again, David is victorious. Saul again wants to kill David, and he flees with help from his wife. Saul searches for him and slays the inhabitants of the city Nob for aiding David (1 Samuel 22). David defeats the Philistines at Keilah, then flees the city pursued by Saul (1 Samuel 22). David and Saul reconcile. David seeks refuge with Achish, king of Gath, and claims he is raiding Judah but is actually raiding and killing in other places (1 Samuel 27). The Philistines begins a war against Saul. David’s wives Ahinoam and Abigail are taken in a raid on Ziklag, but he rescue them (1 Samuel 30). The men of Israel flee before the Philistines, and three of Saul’s sons are slain. Saul asks his armour-bearer to kill him, but is refused, so he takes his own life. The armour-bearer also takes his own life. Saul’s body is beheaded and fastened to a city-wall by the victorious Philistines, but it is retaken by inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead (1 Samuel 30).
A man tells David of Saul’s death and that he himself killed Saul. David has him killed (2 Samuel 1). A long war starts between David and Saul’s son Ish-bosheth (2 Samuel 3). David demands and is granted the return of his first wife Michal, despite the public grief of her new husband Palti. Two men assassinate Ish-bosheth, and David has them killed (2 Samuel 4). David wars victoriously with the Philistines. While transporting the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, a man called Uzzah carelessly touches it and is killed by God (2 Samuel 6).
David defeats and plunder several enemies, and “executed justice and righteousness unto all his people.” (2 Samuel 8). The children of Ammon mistreat David’s emissaries, and is defeated by his army (2 Samuel 10).
In order to make Bathsheba his wife, David successfully plots the death of her husband. This displeases God, and David is told that “the sword shall never depart from thy house.” God kills David’s and Bathsheba’s child, that was conceived during her previous marriage. She then gives birth to Solomon. David conquers and plunders the city Rabbah (2 Samuel 11-12).
David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar. Absalom, her full brother, in return has him killed (2 Samuel 13). Absalom conspires and revolts against David. Absalom is finally defeated and dies in the Battle of the Wood of Ephraim, and David mourns him (2 Samuel 15-19). Sheba son of Bichri revolts, but is ultimately beheaded (2 Samuel 20).
In 2 Samuel 21, David has seven of Sauls sons and grandsons killed, including “the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul”, though he spares Sauls grandson Mephibosheth. More wars take place. 2 Samuel 23 names and praises several of David’s warriors.
The Prophets and Psalms
Characters like Phinehas (Num. 25), Elijah (1 kg. 18:39–40; 2 kg. 1), and Elisha (2 kg. 2:23–25; 9) killed, ordered killing, participated in killing and foretold killing in the name of God. Elijah called down fire from Heaven to consume the sacrifice, then followed this display of God’s power by catching and personally killing all the prophets of Baal; he twice called the fire down from heaven to consume the Captain and the fifty men with him sent by the King (2 Kings 1:10); Elisha called bears from the woods to maul the 42 “youths” who mocked him, and visited leprosy on Gehazi his deceitful servant, (2 Kings 5:27); Amos pronounces judgment on the nations including Israel offering a vision of Divine judgment that includes a swarm of locusts and divine fire; Ezekiel said, “The word of the Lord came to me” repeatedly pronouncing violent judgment against the nations and Israel, and a feminist interpretation of the book of Nahum speaks of the “rape” of Ninevah, the book’s “fascination with war, and the glee with which it calls for revenge.”
As a response to the violence of the wicked, numerous psalms call on God to bring vengeance on one’s personal enemies, for example Ps. 109 calls for vengeance on the entire family as “payment” to the Psalmist’s accusers beginning with his children, including his wife and all his ancestors. Psalm 137 speaks against Babylon and expresses a desire to dash “their infants against the rocks”.
In the New Testament
In the Gospel of Matthew, Herod the Great is described as ordering the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem.
There are sayings of Jesus where he states that he comes to bring fire or a sword. The cleansing of the Temple is considered to be a violent action by Jesus. There are also sayings of Jesus that oppose violence, such as Turning the other cheek and the passage about Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.
The earliest detailed accounts of the killing of Jesus are contained in the four canonical gospels, with other implicit references in the New Testament epistles. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus predicts his death in three separate episodes. All four Gospels conclude with an extended narrative of Jesus’ arrest, initial trial at the Sandhedrin and final trial at Pilate’s court, where Jesus is flogged, forced to carry his cross through Jerusalem, and then crucified. The metaphor of sacrifice is used in reference to His death, both in the Gospels and other books of the New Testament. In each Gospel these five events in the life of Jesus are treated with more intense detail than any other portion of that Gospel’s narrative. Scholars note that the reader receives an almost hour-by-hour account of what is happening.
The Book of Revelation is full of imagery of war, genocide, and destruction. It describes the Apocalypse, the last judgment of all the nations and people by God, which includes plagues, war, and economic collapse. Some other books of the Gospels also use apocalyptic language and forms. Scholars define this as language that “views the future as a time when divine saving and judging activity will deliver God’s people out of the present evil order into a new order…This transformation will be cataclysmic and cosmic.”
Whenever Jesus calls people to a new vision in light of God’s impending kingdom, judgment, or a future resurrection, he is using apocalyptic speech. For example, Jesus uses apocalyptic speech in Matthew 10:15 when he says “it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town,” and in Mark 14:62, where he alludes to the book of Daniel with himself in the future “sitting at the right hand of God.” Bailey and Vander Broek go on to say, “In the material about John the Baptizer there also appear apocalyptic images: ‘the wrath to come’ (Luke 3:7); ‘the axe … lying at the root of the tree’ (Luke 3:9); the Coming One with ‘winnowing fork … in His hand’ (Luke 3:17); and chaff burning with ‘unquenchable fire’ (Luke 3:17).”
Charles B. Strozier, psychoanalyst historian says: “The most troubling dimension of ‘endism’ is its relation to violence. … fundamentalists generally believe… transformation can only be accomplished violently, and that the move from our time into the next requires mass death and destruction when ‘…this earth will be purged in the fires of God’s anger, that Jesus will return, and that a new heaven and a new earth will be reborn'”. The Book of Revelation has been used to justify violence and has served as an inspiration of revolutionary movements.
Theological reflections and responses
Texts of violence have produced a wide variety of theological responses.
As part of the many reflections on religious violence inspired by the Abrahamic religions that followed 9/11, John J. Collins wrote a short book called “Does the Bible Justify Violence?”. In the book he reviews the passages in the Bible describing violence done by God, commanded or promised by God, and done by people, as well as how these texts have been used by religious people and governments throughout history. For example, he discusses The Exodus and the conquest of the Canaanites in the subsequent Book of Joshua, as two sides of the same coin; the Exodus story has inspired hope for millennia as well as civil rights movements; at the same time people identifying with the liberated Israel supported by God have cited the conquest to justify actions ranging from genocide of indigenous peoples to Apartheid. Collins concludes that the Bible speaks in many voices and answers his question as follows: “….historically people have appealed to the Bible precisely because of its presumed divine authority, which gives an aura of certitude to any position it can be shown to support — in the phrase of Hannah Arendt, ‘God-like certainty that stops all discussion.’ And here, I would suggest, is the most basic connection between the Bible and violence, more basic than any command or teaching it contains….The Bible has contributed to violence in the world precisely because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation.” Collins, writing as a Christian scholar, also notes: “It is not unusual for Christian interpreters to claim that ‘the Biblical witness to the innocent victims and the God of victims demystifies and demythologizes this sacred social order’ in which violence is grounded. Such a selective reading, privileging the death of Jesus or the suffering servant, is certainly possible and even commendable, but it does not negate the force of the biblical endorsements of violence that we have been considering. The full canonical shape of the Christian Bible, for what it is worth, still concludes with the judgement scene in Revelation, in which the Lamb that was slain returns as the heavenly warrior with a sword for striking down the nations.”
Regina Schwartz is among those who seek to reimagine Christianity and the Christian biblical canon in ways that reduce violence which she describes as arising from the ancient Israelite invention of monotheism and some of the ways that the ancient Israelites conceived of themselves in relation to that one god and to other peoples, which Christians inherited. She wrote: “The Other against whom Israel’s identity is forged is abhorred, abject, impure, and in the “Old Testament,” vast numbers of them are obliterated, while in the “New Testament,” vast numbers are colonized (converted). The tying of identity to rejection runs counter to much of the drive that could be found elsewhere, both in the Bible and throughout religious myth and ritual, to forge identity through analogy, even identification…. Among all the rich variety, I would categorize two broad understandings of identity in the Bible: one grounded in Negation (or scarcity) and the other in Multiplicity (or plenitude). Near the end of her book, she wrote: “My re-vision would produce an alternative Bible that subverts the dominant vision of violence and scarcity with an ideal of plenitude and its corollary ethical imperative of generosity. It would be a Bible embracing multiplicity instead of monotheism.”
Stephen Geller notes that both the Deuteronomist and the Priestly authors working in the Axial Age were re-evaluating and reformulating their traditions, like their neighbors were, using the literary means available to them. The Deuteronomists expressed their new notions of the transcendence and power of God by means of ideas and associated laws around unity—the one-ness of God, worshipped at the one temple in Jerusalem, by one people, kept distinct from the rest of world just as God is; zealously and violently so. Likewise the Priestly author adapted the myths and rituals of the ANE and the specific traditions of the ancient Israelites to forge different meanings for blood sacrifice than their neighbors had, specifically in the elaborate and precarious rituals on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest had to enter the Holy of Holies and the presence of God; in their work the Priestly authors also attempted to express the transcendence and unity of God who is yet in a relationship with humanity with all its variable sinfulness. In Geller’s reading the blood is not magical nor is the animal just a substitute for a human sacrifice; instead blood is at once an expression of the violence of the fallen world where people kill in order to eat (unlike Eden) and the blood itself becomes a means for redemption; it is forbidden to be eaten, as a sign of restraint and recognition, and is instead offered to God, and in that action the relationship between fallen humanity and God is restored. The Priestly authors underline the importance of all this by recalling the mortal danger faced by the High Priests, through the telling of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu when God refused their “strange offering” and consumed them with fire. One result of this reformulating work, is a God with aspects of terrifying and powerful otherness; as Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Evan Fales, Professor of Philosophy, calls the doctrine of substitutionary atonement that some Christians use to understand the crucifixion of Jesus, “psychologically pernicious” and “morally indefensible”. Fales founds his argument on John Locke’s statement that revelation must conform to our understanding. Philosopher and Professor Alvin Plantinga says this rests upon seeing God as a kind of specially talented human being.
Historian Philip Jenkins (quoting Phyllis Trible) says the Bible is filled with “texts of terror” but he also asserts these texts are not to be taken literally. Jenkins says eighth century BCE historians added them to embellish their ancestral history and get readers’ attention.
Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis is concerned by what she calls a “shallow reading” of Scripture, particularly of ‘Old Testament’ texts concerning violence, which she defines as a “reading of what we think we already know instead of an attempt to dig deeper for new insights and revelations.” She says these difficult texts typically have internal correctives that support an educative reading.
The problem of evil
Discussions of bible and violence often lead to discussions of the theodicy – the question of how evil can persist in the world if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good.
Philosopher Eleonore Stump says the larger context of God permitting suffering for good purposes in a world where evil is real allows for such events as the killing of those intending evil and God to still be seen as good.
Jon Levenson resolves the problem of evil by describing God’s power not as static, but as unfolding in time: “the operative dichotomy, thus, is not that between limitation and omnipotence, but that which lies between omnipotence as a static attribute and omnipotence as a dramatic enactment: the absolute power of God realizing itself achievement and relationship. What the biblical theology of dramatic omnipotence shares with the theology of a limited God is a frank recognition of God’s setbacks, in contrast to the classic theodicies with their exaggerated commitment to divine impassibility and their tendency to describe imperfection solely to human free will, the recalcitrance of matter, or the like.
Genesis and violence at creation
Canaanite creation stories like the Enuma Elish use very physical terms such as “tore open,” “slit,” “threw down,” “smashed,” and “severed” whereas in the Hebrew Bible, Leviathan is not so much defeated as domesticated. Theologian Christopher Hays says Hebrew stories use a term for dividing (bâdal; separate, make distinct) that is an abstract concept more reminiscent of a Mesopotamian tradition using non-violence at creation. Most modern scholars agree that “Gen. 1:1–2:4a narrates a story of God creating without violence or combat. In [the Genesis] account, the elements do not represent rival deities, and the story declares the creation “good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). What is more, in Gen. 1:1–2:4a the elements participate in the process of ordering at God’s invitation (Gen. 1:9, 11, 20).” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says “God’s characteristic action is to “speak”… God “calls the world into being”… “The way of God with his world is the way of language.”
These stories in Genesis are not the only stories about creation in the Bible. In Proverbs 8, for example one reads of personified Wisdom being present and participant in creation. There is also what is called the “agon” (meaning struggle or combat) model of creation in Psalms 74 and Isaiah 51:9–10 in which God has victory in battle over the monsters of the sea. Historian theologian Christopher Hays says, there is similarity to the Canaanite myths in these Hebrew verses. However, he also says the differences are more pronounced than the similarities. Hays says Enuma Elish and Memphite theology are focused on a certain locale, where Genesis one does not mention a location (Isaiah 66:1); as has been noted, there is no theogeny in Genesis; and in the Canaanite stories the creators are glorified by being identified with other known deities whereas in Genesis, YHWH is glorified by the denial of other deities.
The intent of Genesis 1:1-2n concerning “creation from nothing” is disputed. Jon Levenson, writing Jewish biblical theology, asserts the creation stories in Genesis are not ex nihilo, but rather a generation of order out of chaos, similar to other ANE creation myths; the order allows life to flourish and holds back chaos which brings violence and destruction, which has never been obliterated and is always breaking back in. He finds that the writers of the Hebrew Bible referred to God’s actions at creation as a statement of faith in a God who could protect and maintain them, or who could also step back and allow chaos to rush back in, as God did with the Flood. He finds that the writers of the Hebrew Bible also held up God’s actions at creation as a challenge for God to act, and a challenge for themselves to work in covenant with God in the ongoing work of generating and maintaining order. In this, the Bible story is dissimilar to the both the Memphite story and the Babylonian in that the Hebrew Bible says the divine gift of working with God in creation is limited to humankind, meaning, for the Hebrews, humans alone are part of God’s being. This sense of honoring or empowering humankind is not in any of the Mesopotamian or Canaanite myths.
Warfare from Genesis through Joshua
In the Bible God commands the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land, placing city after city “under the ban” -which meant every man, woman and child was supposed to be slaughtered at the point of the sword. For example, in Deuteronomy 20:16-18 God orders the Israelites to “not leave alive anything that breathes… completely destroy them …”, thus leading many scholars to characterize these as commands to commit genocide. Other examples include the story of the Amalekites (Numbers 13,14), the story of the Midianites (Numbers 25,26), and the battle of Jericho (Joshua 1-6). Starting in Joshua 9, after the conquest of Ai, the battles are described as defending against attacks from Canaanite kings.
Hans Van Wees says the conquest campaigns are largely fictional. In the archaeological community, the Battle of Jericho has been thoroughly studied, and the consensus of modern scholars is the battles described in the Book of Joshua are not realistic, are not supported by the archeological record, and are not consistent with other texts in the Bible; for example, the Book of Joshua describes the extermination of the Canaanite tribes, yet at a later time Judges 1:1-2:5 suggests that the extermination was not complete.
Historian Paul Copan and philosopher Matthew Flannagan say the violent texts of ḥerem warfare are “hagiographic hyperbole”, a kind of historical writing found in the Book of Joshua and other Near Eastern works of the same era and are not intended to be literal, contain hyperbole, formulaic language, and literary expressions for rhetorical effect—like when sports teams use the language of “totally slaughtering” their opponents. John Gammie concurs, saying the Bible verses about “utterly destroying” the enemy are more about pure religious devotion than an actual record of killing people. Gammie references Deuteronomy 7:2-5 in which Moses presents ḥerem as a precondition for Israel to occupy the land with two stipulations: one is a statement against intermarriage (vv. 3–4), and the other concerns the destruction of the sacred objects of the residents of Canaan (v. 5) but neither involves killing.
C. L. Crouch compares the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah to Assyria, saying their similarities in cosmology and ideology gave them similar ethical outlooks on war. Both Crouch and Lauren Monroe, professor of Near Eastern studies at Cornell, agree this means the ḥerem type of total war was not strictly an Israelite practice but was a common approach to war for many Near Eastern people of the Bronze and Iron Ages. For example, the Mesha Stele says that King Mesha of Moab fought in the name of his god Chemosh and that he subjected his enemies to ḥerem.
The Book of Judges and violence against women
Scholar author Phyllis Trible looks at these instances from the perspective of the victim making their pathos palpable, underlying their human reality, and the tragedy of their stories. Some feminist critiques of Judges say the Bible gives tacit approval to violence against women by not speaking out against these acts.
O’Connor says women in the Old Testament generally serve as points of reference for the larger story, yet Judges abounds with stories where women play the main role. O’Connor explains the significance of this, saying: “The period between the death of Joshua and the anointing of Saul…was a period of uncertainty and danger… lack of human leadership is viewed as disastrous, for when “every one does what is right in their own eyes, the results are awful” and that is illustrated by the violent acts against women recorded in Judges.
Beginning with the larger context and tracing the decline of Israel by following the deteriorating status of women and the violence done to them, which progresses from the promise of life in the land to chaos and violence, the effects of the absence of authority such as a king (Judges 21:25) is reflected in the violence against women that occurs when government fails and social upheaval occurs.
Non-violence and Shalom
The term for peace in the Hebrew Bible is SH-L-M. It is used to describe prophetic vision of ideal conditions, and theologians have built on passages referencing it to advocate for various forms of social justice.
The violence of Hell
The concept of hell as a place of punishment in the afterlife arose in Second Temple Judaism and was further developed in the Christian tradition; Judaism subsequently moved away from this notion. There are Hebrew Bible verses indicating early Jewish thought did contain some belief in an afterlife. For example, Isaiah 26:14 which is part of proto-Isaiah (chapters 1–39), speaks of “the dead who live no more” as being “punished and destroyed”. And Daniel 12:2–3, which is generally believed to date to the second century BCE, asserts “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” More evidence comes from Maccabees, written in the second century BCE, and by the first century CE, friction between the Sadducees and the Pharisees over this issue is documented by both the New Testament writers and Josephus giving evidence of its presence in Jewish thought.
The word Sheol appears 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and the term “Tartaros” appears frequently in Jewish apocalyptic literature where it refers to a place where the wicked are punished. In the New Testament there are three words translated Hell: the Greek word hades, which is a general equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol, is used to identify the temporary place of the unsaved after death but is not used in relationship to the lake of fire or eternal punishment; gehenna is uniformly translated Hell and refers to eternal punishment; and one occurrence of tartaros appears in 2 Peter 2:4 and is considered equivalent to gehenna. All the references to gehenna (except James 3:6) are spoken by Jesus himself. A literal interpretation involves violence. Jesus also taught punishment in Hell would be by degrees (an idea Dante later developed) with one servant receiving a lighter beating than others, hypocrites receiving more condemnation than others, and so on.
According to a statement by the publisher of “Four Views on Hell”, Zondervan, “probably the most disturbing concept in Christian tradition is the prospect that one day vast numbers of people will be consigned to Hell.”
C.S. Lewis argued that people choose Hell rather than repent and submit to God. Miroslav Wolf argues that the doctrine of final judgment provides a necessary restraint on human violence. Tim Keller says it is right to be angry when someone brings injustice or violence to those we love and therefore a loving God can be filled with wrath because of love, not in spite of it. Oliver O’Donovan argues that without the judgment of God we would never see the love in redemption.
Marcionism and supersessionism
As the early Christian Church began to distinguish itself from Judaism, the “Old Testament” and a portrayal of God in it as violent and unforgiving were sometimes contrasted rhetorically with certain teachings of Jesus to portray an image of God as more loving and forgiving, which was framed as a new image.
Marcion of Sinope, in the early second century, developed an early Christian dualist belief system that understood the god of the Old Testament and creator of the material universe, who he called the Demiurge, as an altogether different being than the God about whom Jesus spoke. Marcion considered Jesus’ universal God of compassion and love, who looks upon humanity with benevolence and mercy, incompatible with Old Testament depictions of divinely ordained violence. Accordingly, he did not regard the Hebrew scriptures as part of his scriptural canon. Marcion’s teaching was repudiated by Tertullian in five treatises titled “Against Marcion” and Marcion was ultimately excommunicated by the Church.
Supersessionist Christians have continued to focus on violence in the Hebrew Bible while ignoring or giving little attention to violence in the New Testament.
Sociological reflections and responses
Jože Krašovec described the ancient near eastern (ANE) context in which the stories and text of the Hebrew Bible originated, in which gods were identified with peoples, and the flourishing or destruction of a people were a reflection of the power of its god or gods; while the ancient Israelites conceived of its deity as one person in contrast to the polytheistic conception of its neighbors, it remained like other ANE peoples in considering itself as a whole in relationship with its god. From this foundation arose notions of flourishing of the nation as a whole, as well as collective punishment of the ancient Israelites and their enemies.
Scholar Nur Masalha writes that the “genocide” of the extermination commandments has been “kept before subsequent generations” and served as inspirational examples of divine support for slaughtering enemies.
Arthur Grenke quotes historian, author and scholar David Stannard: “Discussing the influence of Christian beliefs on the destruction of the Native peoples in the Americas, Stannard argues that while the New Testament view of war is ambiguous, there is little such ambiguity in the Old Testament. He points to sections in Deuteronomy in which the Israelite God, Yahweh, commanded that the Israelites utterly destroy idolaters whose land they sought to reserve for the worship of their deity (Deut 7:2, 16, and 20:16–17). … According to Stannard, this view of war contributed to the … destruction of the Native peoples in the Americas. It was this view that also led to the destruction of European Jewry. Accordingly, it is important to look at this particular segment of the Old Testament: it not only describes a situation where a group undertakes to totally destroy other groups, but it also had a major influence on shaping thought and belief systems that permitted, and even inspired, genocide.
Sociologists Frank Robert Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn question “the applicability of the term [genocide] to earlier periods of history, and the judgmental and moral loadings that have become associated with it.” Since most societies of the past endured and practiced genocide, it was accepted as “being in the nature of life” because of the “coarseness and brutality” of life. Chalk and Jonassohn say the Old Testament contains cases they would consider genocide (if they were factual) because of women and children being killed even though it was war and casualties in war are excluded from the definition of genocide. They also say: “The evidence for genocide in antiquity is circumstantial, inferential, and ambiguous, and it comes to us exclusively from the perpetrators.”
Historian and author William T. Cavanaugh says every society throughout history has contained both hawks and doves. Cavanaugh and John Gammie say laws like those in Deuteronomy probably reflect Israel’s internal struggle over such differing views of how to wage war.
Arie Versluis says, “…indigenous populations have also appealed to the command (in Deut.7) in order to expel their colonizers. This is shown by the example of Te Kooti…in the nineteenth century who viewed the Maori as the Israelites and the colonizers as the Canaanites.”
Scholar Leonard B. Glick states that Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, such as Shlomo Aviner, consider the Palestinians to be like biblical Canaanites, and that some fundamentalist leaders suggest that they “must be prepared to destroy” the Palestinians if the Palestinians do not leave the land. Several scholars draw similar conclusions.
René Girard, historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science says that, “desire is mimetic (i.e. all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.”.
Philosopher, sociologist, theologian and author Jacques Ellul says: “I believe that the biblical teaching is clear. It always contests political power. It incites to “counterpower,” to “positive” criticism, to an irreducible dialogue (like that between king and prophet in Israel), to antistatism, to a decentralizing of the relation, to an extreme relativizing of everything political, to an anti-ideology, to a questioning of all that claims either power or dominion (in other words, of all things political)…Throughout the Old Testament we see God choosing what is weak and humble to represent him (the stammering Moses, the infant Samuel, Saul from an insignificant family, David confronting Goliath, etc.). Paul tells us that God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty…”
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia