When the “Good Book” is Bad: Challenging the Bible’s Violent Portrayals of God

Today’s post, the first of three, is written by Dr. Eric Seibert, Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College. Much of Seibert’s work is centered on addressing the problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament, especially his violence. He is the author of Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress 2009) and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress 2012). Seibert is also a licensed minister in the Brethren in Christ Church and formerly the Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Initiative at Messiah College. He is currently working on his fourth book, Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus (Cascade).

The basic premise of my recent book, The Violence of Scripture, is quite simple: the Bible should never be used to harm others. One might imagine such a “profound” truth to be self-evident and hardly worthy of a book length treatment. But the sad reality is that the “good book” has been bad news for far too many people.

The Bible has been used to inflict enormous pain upon others and to endorse all kinds of evil. It has been used to hurt and even kill people. Specifically, it has been used to justify warfare, oppress women, condemn gays and lesbians, support slavery, and legitimate colonization, to name just a few of its troubling legacies. When the Bible is used for such evil ends, there is no mistaking the fact that something has gone terribly wrong.

Most Christians would attribute this misuse of the Bible to faulty interpretations and misguided  interpreters.  And this certainly is part of the problem. But, unfortunately, the problem runs deeper than this.  It runs right through the pages of Scripture itself.

To put it bluntly: not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us. I realize this may sound blasphemous to some people and flies in the face of everything they have been taught to believe about the Bible. When the Church grandly proclaims the Bible to be the Word of God, it gives the impression that the words of Scripture are above critique and beyond reproach. We are taught to read, revere, and embrace the Bible. We are not taught to challenge its values, ethics, or portrayals of God.

But this way of reading the Bible is problematic, to say the least. At times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept. Rather than seeing this as a sign of disrespect, we should regard engaging in an ethical and theological critique of what we read in the Bible as an act of profound faithfulness.

Unfortunately, the Church does not often help us know what to do when we encounter problems in Scripture. Time and again we are told that Bible reading is one of the main avenues for spiritual growth, and I certainly do not wish to dispute that. But what happens when people dig into the Bible and find things there that are not only unsavory, but downright unhealthy for them?

What happens when reading the Bible pushes people away from God rather than leads them closer to God?

If we feel compelled to accept what we read at face value, and are forbidden from asking honest questions about the troublesome texts we encounter, we run the risk of using the Bible in ways that may harm others (not to mention ourselves!). For example, if we accept the patriarchy embedded in biblical texts as normative and God-ordained, we may easily find justification in the Bible to treat women as second-class citizens.

Similarly, if we embrace the many positive portrayals of violence in the text (more on this in the next post), we may find ourselves approving of certain acts of violence and war. If we regard Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua as unproblematic, we may find it much easier to legitimize the colonization of indigenous populations.

Thus, if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it. We need to protest what is objectionable and condemn what is immoral. Otherwise, we run the risk of perpetuating the violent legacy of Scripture by making the “good book” behave in very bad ways.


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  • Sapient1

    Hi Peter

    Re: “But this way of reading the Bible is problematic, to say the least. At
    times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must
    condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept. Rather than seeing
    this as a sign of disrespect, we should regard engaging in an ethical and theological critique of what we read in the Bible as an act of profound faithfulness.”

    May I ask to just who or what you are being profoundly faithful if not the God of the Bible or the Bible as His word?

    Do you have some other source of authoritative “Revelation” that you use to judge the God of Scripture and Scripture itself by? What is that…?

    And of course, ultimately, the question is whether you have some other God…I would likewise be pleased to know just who that God is and how you portend to know about him….

    Finally, seeing as how you apparently hold to a different god and a different revelation, just how do you claim the name “Christian” with honesty?

    God bless

  • A biblical target

    Thanks Peter, its logical that one doesn’t have to be a bibliolater to be a believer Salvation is not dependent on our belief in the Bible but our belief in Jesus Christ. Far too many people today are making the simple teachings of Christ into something complex. Christianity has become a worship of the Bible instead of God. and for anyone who doesn’t know the God they’re worshiping, the answer is simple; read about Him in Matthew Mark Luke and John and then ask HIs Holy Spirit to help you understand scripture.

    • hellbindercda

      and you don’t think the people that committed horrid atrocities in the old testament and through the last 2,000 years did that also? Or are you turning the scripture to fit your modern moral and ethical understanding.

      Jesus the Christ is supposed to be a human sacrifice that appeases the wrath of the old testament god Yahweh so that you can escape the eternal torment of endless flames in hell. (according to western fundamentalism)

      I would like to know what part of being sprinkled in the blood of a human sacrifice sounds moral or ethical to you. and what kind of cosmic level deity would actually think like that in the first place?

  • Hermano

    Peter, is God violent? Is He bipolar at best, or schizophrenic at worst? For example, did He get fed up with mankind and kill almost everyone in the Genesis Flood?

    The problem believers have always had, including Moses and the other Bible writers, is our ineptness in recognizing Satan, and in differentiating between him and God.

    The following is the most important article I have ever read. It provides mind-blowing revelation about how to read the Bible, and about the unwavering goodness of God:
    “SATAN: Old Testament Servant Angel or New Testament Cosmic Rebel?” found at http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2013/11/satan-old-testament-servant-angel-or-new-testament-cosmic-rebel-by-richard-murray.html

    Author Richard Murray is a criminal defense attorney outside Atlanta, and holds a Masters of Practical Theology from Regent University. (Michael Hardin has debated him.)

    • hellbindercda

      No, the problem is taking these stories as literal truth. Most of them are simply made up or borrowed from other cultures and traditions and heavily modified.

      if you read them as religious mythology or allegory you can then interpret them in light of current understanding and development and turn then into good. If you stick to a literal interpretation you end up with the insanity of western fundamentalism.

  • Henry Venema

    can you actually read something without bringing your simple minded politics to bear on the issue. Please learn how to read, that would be a big help instead of trolling for the right wing

  • venila

    nice blog!