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.

 

biblical violence and reading the Bible like Jesus did
the Canaanites weren't the "worst sinners ever": engaging Copan and Flannagan on Canaanite extermination
a brief thought on John Dominic Crossan's new book on the Bible and God's violence
want to read an excerpt from The Bible Tells Me So? (of course you do)

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