When the Bible Sanctions Violence, Must We?

When the Bible Sanctions Violence, Must We? February 4, 2013

Today’s post is the second of three by Dr. Eric Seibert, Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College (post one is here). 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).

It is a truism to say the Bible contains a lot of violence. That much is obvious. Yet not all violence is regarded the same way in the pages of Scripture. Sometimes, the Bible makes it unmistakably clear that certain acts of violence are wrong.

No one who reads the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, for example, is going to conclude that this passage is meant to encourage murder! Nor are people likely to read the story of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his deadly dealings with Uriah and conclude that we should “go and do likewise.” In fact, in this instance the narrator explicitly tells us that “the thing David had done displeased the LORD,” (2 Samuel 11:27, NRSV). Most of us would concur!

Stories like these, though troubling in terms of what they reveal about human sinfulness and our capacity to hurt others, are not problematic in terms of what they say about violence. In both cases, these narratives clearly demonstrate that the use of violence is bad and undesirable.

But what are we to do with passages of Scripture that sanction violence and portray it as something good? How should we regard what one might call “virtuous” violence in the text?

Examples of “virtuous” violence abound in the Old Testament and are embedded in some of its most beloved stories: the flood narrative (Genesis 6-8), the story of the ten plagues, culminating in the death of every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 12), the drowning of the entire Egyptian army (Exodus 14-15), the “conquest” of Canaan (Josh 6-11), Jael’s slaying of Sisera (Judges 4), and David’s slaying of Goliath (1 Samuel 17), to cite just a few notable examples.

In each of these passages—and many others like them—lethal violence is condoned and sometimes even celebrated.  Passages like these create significant problems for Christian readers.

Should we regard Jael as the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24, NRSV) because she drove a tent peg through Sisera’s skull? As we read about dead Egyptians washing up on shore, should we join voices with the Israelites and praise God for throwing “horse and rider” into the sea (Exodus 14:30-15:21)? Should we approve of Israelites killing Canaanites, massacring Midianites, annihilating Amalekites—including women and children—because they Bible says they did so with divine approval and blessing?

Or, to reduce these questions to the title of this post, “When the Bible sanctions violence, must we?”

My answer to that question is an unequivocal “No!” We should not, and we must not! It is extremely dangerous to endorse violent texts like these. Tragically, this kind of approval has often led to future acts of violence against others (as noted briefly in my previous post).

As Christians, we have a moral obligation to critique the assumption that violence is somehow “virtuous,” in spite of what the Bible suggests on numerous occasions.

Violence is not a virtue. It is not a fruit of the spirit or a mark of discipleship. It is a behavior we attempt to avoid and restrain. Even Christians who believe violence can be justified in certain situations, such as protecting the life of an innocent person, must surely object to some of the violence that is approved in the Old Testament. There are no moral grounds for slaughtering babies, infants, or toddlers. Yet the Bible justifies their extermination on more than one occasion.

Surely, those of us who follow the prince of Peace, the God of Life, must raise our voices in protest and object. We must say, “This is not right!” Such violence is never justifiable and should never be condoned.

In my next post, I’ll talk a little bit about how I think we should go about confronting the problem of “virtuous” violence in Scripture. But for now, I’ll simply end with a question. I believe we should critique positive portrayals of violence in the Bible. Do you?

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  • swclough

    This argument only works if you hold to a very low view of Scripture. If we see the Scripture as divinely inspired, then we have to wrestle through what the Bible says because we learn who God is primarily from what God has done. Using the author’s premise, we are no different from Thomas Jefferson who cut out the sections of the gospels he did not want.

    While wrestling through the events of the Old Testament is not an easy thing, the whole thrust of the Bible is that sin emerged when man decided that he had the ability to make moral judgments regarding ultimate right and wrong and “be like God.” Although the argument seems palatable at first because of how difficult some of these passage are, the author’s ultimate argument is no different from the offer in the garden. Let’s evaluate God and discard everything we do not think is acceptable and keep what we agree with. It is not credibly intellectually to treat the Bible that way. It either is inspired, or it is not.

    • Rafael

      Or it’s Inspired(and True) but contains interpolations. Problem solved.

  • Rafael

    When a minority of text contradicts a Majority by alot, it is an interpolation, and not the original, these violent/Anti-YHWH text come either in 1 passage or a verse or 2 and are not appearing in The Most Authentic text such as The Genesis, Matthew, John, Hosea, Zechariah, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Pauls letters, etc.

    They are therefore obvious interpolations, as it’s so small that you cannot even form a story with it, God is Love however is the Majority and what The Bible is about.

    For example Eye for eye was an Interpolation that was refuted by YHWH(The Father and The Son and The Holy Spirit) Himself in Matthew 5(You have heard), as that Eye for an eye is in Exodus, is partly a copy of Deuteronomy(Deuteronomy contains more complete laws) and Deuteronomy lacks the “eye for eye” it is therefore unbiblical.

    YHWH(The Father and The Son(Jesus Christ) and The Holy Spirit) said,

    Matthew 7:12 – “In everything, therefore, [a]treat people the same way you want [b]them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

    Matthew 22:34-40 – “34 But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. 35 One of them, [a]a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and [b]foremost commandment.39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.””

  • Seraphim

    With all due respect, this point of view strikes me as just as much of an “easy answer” as does Piper’s “God can kill whomever He wants.” I don’t side with Piper. This is an issue I am wrestling with. Most of the “horrible commands” in Torah I can understand (with help from serious Jewish and Christian scholarship) as improvements and corrections on other, worse, Ancient Near Eastern practices. Passages where God actually commands violence are more difficult.

    But first, I want to say that we can’t put all violence in one basket. The extermination of the Canaanites is of a different category than the flood story. God is a God who judges. We cannot erase this fact from Scripture, because it not only permeates the Old Testament, it also permeates the New and the words of Jesus Christ Himself. To toss all passages about judgment is irresponsible. The flood story is a reconfiguration of other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories, and it emphasizes certain fundamental truths about God and creation. It establishes a pattern of recreation and new covenant which will define the trajectory of Israel’s story. And it shows God’s judgment as coming in response to sin rather than human noisiness.

    Concerning books like Joshua and Judges, this is certainly more difficult. But your solution was unsatisfying. You said that you don’t toss those books, that you still considered them useful, but your solution fell completely flat. What are they? Just examples of what not to do? Are they in any way different than other Ancient Near Eastern literature, then? It seems to me, that we have two responsibilities, as faithful Christians who desire to acknowledge Christ as the supreme self-disclosure of God and also acknowledge Scripture as the story of God’s work in the world through and for His People.

    First, we must be critical with these Old Testament texts. We cannot just say “well, it’s God, so yeah.” Christ has revealed God to us. He revealed God to us as a cruciform God. The way of life He proposes to His followers is centered around that cruciformity. “Be holy as I am holy” becomes “Be crucified as I am crucified.” Old Testament texts which seem to drive in the opposite direction must be seriously thought through.

    But second, and this is where I part from you, we must appropriate these Old Testament texts. We cannot simply dismiss them, and to say that they are useful as examples of what “God isn’t like” is silly. They are Scripture. They have something to do with God and God’s story in the world. How do we read them in the light of Christ? Many of the Fathers suggested (without denying the literal) that we must focus on the allegorical. I don’t entirely reject this approach, but it alone is unsatisfactory.

    My preferred method at this point (in a very early stage of thought) is to understand these texts as documenting Israel’s understanding of God at a very early point in her history. As time went on, and Israel lived and died in covenant with the Mighty One of Jacob, she came to understand Him more deeply. This process was accelerated by the direct revelations given to the Israelite Prophets. So, with respect to the conquest of Canaan, we have a trajectory in Israel’s story- you are out of the Desert, come to this Land, make it a New Eden through obedience to my instruction, and I will dwell with you. That’s the substantial core of the story, and at present, this is what I appropriate to the Christian story.

    One must deal with the more troubling elements like the actual slaughter of the Canaanites. There are a few factors that I take into consideration as I think through these issues. (1) We cannot totally dismiss the concept of divine judgment. It’s only part of the story, but to wipe it out entirely seems irresponsible to me. (2) We should recognize that not all Canaanites were killed. According to Joshua, only three cities were burned. The process was likely that of entrance, initial skirmishes, and then gradual diffusion until the conquests of King David. (3) We understand that there was mercy shown to some Canaanites (Rahab, who is cited in the New Testament) and that some foreigners were incorporated into the people of God (Ruth.) Some scholars even suggest this inclusivity as a major theme of these books.

    So, this doesn’t eliminate all the problems. We still have the killing of women and children. We still have haram warfare. But I think these suggestions lead to a critical reappropriation and reconfiguration into the Christian story. And I find that alone much more satisfying than a pure dismissal.

    • “The flood story is a reconfiguration of other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories, and it emphasizes certain fundamental truths about God and creation. ”

      Namely, that the God of those who take the bible literally kills children with the same zeal and vindictiveness that he kills everyone else. Thus He is unjust. And unworthy.

      But not everyone must take the bible literally, and say that it is all true and infallible. The bible after all may have been inspired by god, but it was written by humans, translated and mistranslated and mistranslated again by Men (and usually also men in the lower case as well). The message of God is holy, as are the living beings of this Earth. The scriptures, which are dead in the eyes of the Lord, are not.