Let There Be Violence? (evangelicalism and the dark side of the Bible)

Let There Be Violence? (evangelicalism and the dark side of the Bible) April 7, 2014

Over at OnFaith, Brandon Withrow has published an article on the growing rift emerging among evangelicals on how to handle the biblical depictions of God as violent. I was interviewed for the piece, along with several others.

Early in the article, Withrow observes:

Many Christians today are critical of the violence they see in other religions — especially Islam — but there’s an inescapable cognitive dissonance if you are appalled by the violence done in the name of one religion but not by the violence done in the name of your own.

As is well known, this is the very point that Richard Dawkins and other atheist writers have pointed out in recent years, and it presents a genuine theological problem. Though Christians, including evangelicals, quickly condemn genocide today, it is hard to do so if your God commanded genocide yesterday.

I am glad to see Withrow addressing this issue. I’ve blogged about this myself quite a few times (e.g., here here here here here here). Recent release of the movie Noah has raised the issue yet again.

The fact that in the Bible, too often to be ignored, God either kills, commands others to kill, or is compliant when they do, is a vexing theological problem that goes back to the early church. In my experience it is among the top 2 or 3 issues raised by those confused or skeptical about the Christian faith.

Hiding under a blanket won’t make this go away. It has to be addressed in a manner that goes beyond the defense of inerrancy and literalism. And it certainly has to rise above the unfortunate culture war (pun unintentional) rhetoric of recent months.

Here again is the link to the article.

Withrow teaches religious studies at The University of Findlay and is most-recently co-author (with Menachem Wecker) of Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education. He regularly blogs at The Discarded Image. He has also posted here at rethinking biblical christianity… (here and here).

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  • Mark Moore

    I think the Abrahamic god is the second most murderous entity ever imagined. Xenu of Scientology fame being the most murderous in all of literature having destroyed 76 six planets compared to Yahweh’s paltry one in the flood. Jesus though holds the universe record for torture by sending billions of people to be tortured for all eternity.

    How can people worship a second rate genocidal maniac and loving torturer in hopes of becoming better people?

  • Ross

    Unless I’ve missed something, I didn’t think that there was any reason to believe that God was still commanding such things? Please tell me if I’ve missed the bit where I need to go out and kill a Philistine or something.

    Even if I were just to use the Old Testament I don’t think the continuation of such “atrocities” would be in order either. I find the slaughters mentioned in the bible highly troublesome and I’m not quite sure how to interpret them, but trying to infer that current Christian or Jewish religious activity is genocidal due to certain past reported happenings seems to be stretching a point a bit too far.

    I suppose there are a number of ways of discussing the “atrocity” issues as culture-bound, in a culture very different to ours, along with other issues as to whether these “atrocities” actually occurred, but for a modern mind-set I think we have to say that there is something disturbing in the narratives, which raise many questions about the nature of God or at least our understanding thereof.

    I would however also add that it seemed fairly okay for our fathers to firebomb Dresden and obliterate Nagasaki and Hiroshima in very recent times. I don’t remember God Commanding this, even though some may have felt so at the time. I’m sure a fair few who didn’t believe in God went along with it.

    My current line of thought is that maybe in some way we are getting a picture of a God who deals “pragmatically” rather than “ideally” in a broken World which itself is not “ideal”.

    In terms of the horror of God consigning people to Hell, whatever the underlying reality of that may be, I understand that this is not his desire. It seems to me that we are either already there or well on the way under our own steam and he gives us one choice, which is to not go there. Maybe by trying to heap the blame on God (or religion), we’re missing the point which is that we as humans can often be really atrocious.

    • Ross ~ I think an understanding of war does tend to help us understand the spiral into violence which cultures of war are sucked into. There is a drive to seek honor and glory, and a tendency to de-humanize the enemy. But I actually notice this in apologists for biblical massacres – they emphasize the complete and total of wickedness of the Canaanites, Midianites, Amalekites, etc. as if to say – what other choice was there but a Final Solution? Atrocities we can at least wrap our minds around, if not condone. . . in human beings. Leaders like, say, Henry Kissinger or Curtis LeMay taking a “pragmatic” approach to world affairs makes sense. But God is no Machiavelli. A perfect God (not our finite understandings of God, but the reality behind those imperfect understandings) is something far greater, a much higher standard than our petty tribalisms. God’s methods of communication, whether it be via inspiration or the incarnation, are limited not because God is limited, but because *we* are. In our weakness he is strong. But while I can see God “lowering” himself to communicate with us on our limited level, I don’t see God “lowering” his standards of goodness, love, and justice to somehow accommodate xenophobia, brutality, and that insult to the image of God which is slavery. In fact, Jesus is the prime example of God’s uncompromising love in the face of human cruelty. The standards of God are infinitely higher than ours, but they must be in some way *recognizably* higher. God’s standards don’t *look* like evil – otherwise how could we possibly judge what is evil in comparison? Ethnic cleansing, misogyny, and slavery are all things that fallible human beings like you and I can still recognize as evil. Yet the Old Testament contains books which purport that God does these things. If we make an exception of judging “God’s” evil actions in the Old Testament good “because he is God” – it seems like special pleading to still insist on holding others accountable today for those same actions. Far from maintaining a moral absolute standard, such a view undermines our ability to make moral judgments altogether. So the conflict here is a high view of God and his goodness clashing with a (purportedly) high view of Scripture. And it has implications not just about the nature of God, but on the nature of ethical boundaries for all of us.

      • Ross

        In terms of a possible “God being pragmatic”, I don’t necessarily mean that he definitely commanded a genocide of the Canaanites and was being pragmatic in that action, though I think it’s an option to consider. More that he has to adopt some sort of pragmatism in dealing with people full stop.

        If we assume he is totally Good, Loving etc, then we could say he could not come near us at all (or vice versa). Yet it seems that he does. He uses sinful people to carry out his works. Not everything we do will be totally pure and like him, but some of our actions will be on his behalf, whilst at the same time some won’t be. (though a lot of this may depend on your view of the “saved” human nature!). So whatever it is we see in the flood, or massacre of the Canaanites narratives etc, is human behaviour somehow guided by God. It may be that the narratives themselves even, are not a representation of real events, but some other action of fallen sinful people, somehow in partnership with God. It is this bothering with us at all which is “pragmatic”.

        Anyway, I’m not trying to set up any profound doctrinal statement here, just fishing around to make some sort of sense of troubling aspects of faith. Personally I think focusing on these bits of scripture to make or break really profound truths is a bit of a Red Herring. I will revert to my usual cop-out which is that rather a lot of this God business seems a bit of a mystery to me and I may never understand it!

        • I think I agree with you about God “pragmatically” interacting with and through people (through inspiration, incarnation, etc.). And it makes sense for God to connect at the frequency of understanding for any given time/place in history. My issue is that the concept of divine inspiration is often used as a rolling pin to flatten together (“harmonize”) books and stories that differ tremendously. To get to the heart of it, I’m concerned about 21st Century Christians naively deriving the “eternal character of God” from some of the worst of these problem passages. If one takes some of these problem passages literally and then “harmonizes” them with other books. . . then the moral supremacy of God, his “otherness,” will be greatly diluted. This is why systematic theologies based on inerrancy often have the most morally suspect conceptions of God. Now, there is a danger of going too far in the other direction and saying that the whole of the Old Testament is offering a mere caricature of Israel’s God. That perspective makes no sense to me either. The moral voices that reveal God’s nature are represented in the Old Testament tradition and they are overwhelmingly stronger than the problem verses which have been cited already. We’re on the same page in that respect – missing these greater truths would be like missing the vibrant forest for a half dozen dead trees. I find these moral voices in the latter prophets in particular. I do notice that it is precisely when prophets are *out* of power that you hear their moral wisdom clearest – voices like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos . . . and I think there may be a lesson there. Power often justifies itself in terms of a divine sanction – and that impulse obfuscates God’s nature. However, by approaching power centers from the outside, the prophets were able to point out how God’s power is very different from earthly power (for example, Isaiah 40:10-15). If Israel always acted rightly by the lights of the Hebrew Bible, one could be forgiven for suspecting we are dealing with just another tribal god. But it seems as though God operates according to a higher dynamic, which a tribe or nation like Israel is held in sharp contrast to.

          • Ross

            Justin, thanks for your reply.

            In many respects I am fairly convinced of the God of the bible, precisely because of the critical approach to Israel by its own scriptures. Also when God says “true fasting is…to share your bread with the hungry….and satisfy the desire of the afflicted etc” (Isaiah 58-11), which seems somewhat contradictory to other commands or approaches to fasting, I get glimpses of a great God who is pointing out errors within his own beloved people and calling them to being better. This I can relate to what I know of myself and mankind in general.

            I read somewhere recently (here?), that one good result of the problems with scripture is that it requires one to put great thought and effort into understanding it and that this “working at it” is an important part of faith. Not quite sure how or if intentional that is :-{

  • Kim Fabricius

    Hiding under a blanket won’t make this go away.
    A fallout shelter, on the other hand …

  • Nate

    An eminent Christian scholar recently gave a lecture at a church entitled, “The so-called Problem of OT Genocide” I highly respect this individual, but the title (hopefully I got it right) so turned me off, I couldn’t even bring myself to consider going. The need to shape and construct things as though there isn’t a problem is extremely distasteful, and it feeds the ‘Jamaica, man, no problem’ (a phrase we learned in Jamaica by Jamaicans to emphasize ‘service’). Implied is the notion that everyone who doesn’t see things our way is simply prejudicial. I understand using ‘a catchy phrase’ that grabs attention, but I would have gone the other direction, for his phrase implies the Bible simply has no problems if your heart is right. Sorry, but as an Evangelical, I think such a notion stinks. PS. Now that I’ve ruined Evangelical’s witness (tongue and cheek), I will say that Kline’s notion of ‘intrusion ethics’ is the closest I’ve seen in lessening the cognitive dissonance.

  • This issue of biblical genocide (not to mention the nausea inducing implications of Numbers 31:18) was the first hairline crack which led to the shattering of the concept of inerrancy for me. There are good intellectual reasons to reject inerrancy – but for peace of mind and moral ballast, I could not accept a perfectly moral God who commands and commits worse atrocities than anyone I have ever met. I know under the inerrancy framework that moral queasiness on my part only indicates what a reprobate I am and how I am unwilling to “submit” to God’s will. But I can sleep at night in confidence knowing that while God may be beyond my understanding. . . he’s at least recognizable to me as good. All that being said, the point the OnFaith piece brings up is crucial: both hard-line atheists and conservative evangelicals seem to agree that the authority of the Bible amounts to zero if it contains untrue or even misleading information about God. I’ve always distrusted false dichotomies, and this seems to be one that is being eagerly held onto for overriding ideological purposes (by both groups). However, it is a perfect storm for a crisis of faith. I would like to see more models that indicate how non-fundamentalist Christians can read the Old Testament with a discerning eye for what we can glean of God’s true character. (edit: I do not mean models for this approach to biblical interpretation don’t currently exist, just that I would like to see more.) These would need to be models that affirm the status of the Old Testament as part of God’s ongoing revelation – not Marcion’s solution of completely rejecting the God of the Old Testament. I think using Jesus and New Testament ethics as the rubric is a good start, but the sooner pew-dwelling Christians confront these particular passages, the better. Contradictions and variants in textual transmission are nothing compared to this stumbling block. These are conversations that should be happening in churches – the moral imperative to do so is already present.

    • Bev Mitchell


      I agree, and like your approach. As for models to add to the hopper, a few years ago I read Christopher J.H. Wright’s “The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith”. Wright is a noted OT scholar and offers a good example of one way to wrestle with these problems. The quotes below offer a hint as to his general approach. He may seem too inconclusive to you, even a species of side-stepping (as he perhaps does to me) but I think he is on to something in saying that hope for certainty of any kind in this area is likely a chimera.

      “God with his infinite perspective, and for reasons known only to himself, knows that we finite human beings cannot, indeed must not, ‘make sense’ of evil, for the final truth is that evil does not make sense. ‘Sense’ is part of our rationality that in itself is part of God’s good creation and God’s image in us. So evil can have no sense, since sense itself is a good thing.”

      True to the above thesis, he never stoops to giving us his/the definitive answer. Among others suggestions, Wright has this to say re the Canaanite genocide:

      “When we look at the conquest……..as a unique and limited event, a specific act of God located within the narrative of Israel’s early history of salvation, it also helps us to understand why Jesus could prohibit his disciples from emulating the violence of the Old Testament, without condemning the Old Testament itself. Remember when the Sons of Thunder, James and John, wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven? (on the Samaritan village) …………. but Jesus roundly rebuked them. Such methods were not for Jesus or his disciples ……….. We do not behave in such ways now, nor should we ask God to.”

      And then he makes this often overlooked point:

      “The Israelites needed to know (as we do) sic, that the conquest was not some charade of cozy favouritism. Israel stood under the same threat of judgement from the same God for the same sins, if they chose to commit them. In the course of Israel’s long history in Old Testament times, God repeatedly did act in punitive judgement on Israel. And the language used to describe God’s actions on such occasions is exactly the same as the language of the conquest (‘destroy’, ‘drive out’, ‘scatter’ etc.).”

      There is much more to Wright’s thorough treatment. As he readily, and refreshingly, admits, he does not have a definitive solution. In fact, he seems prepared to concede that such a solution is beyond us. Humble approaches like this are likely to be much more helpful than many of the others often encountered – from atheistic to fundamentalist and in between.

      • Bev ~ Thank you for the reference, I will be sure to follow up on it. From what you’ve presented it looks as though Wright makes an interesting case about Israelites being judged by the same standards as the conquered tribes. I guess I just want to use stronger language to distance God’s character from those darker passages, for two reasons. The first is that it is problematic to invoke a kind of divine moral relativity. For even if biblical genocide was a unique and limited event, never to be repeated – the idea that it was ever morally right is problematic for understanding God as our basis for an eternal moral framework. It also makes it difficult or impossible to condemn similar acts today – it really neuters the power of holding evil to God’s standard if his standard is so low. And second, I see theology as the difficult task of trying to understand a pure, holy God when we have very limited understanding of what that looks like. This theology business is hard enough to begin with. Then, along comes biblical inerrancy, cocksure of it’s own understanding of the Bible. It takes all of what is said about God in the Bible and squeegees all that disparate information into some kind of mutant systematic theology – without any regard for context or consistency. And this way of doing theology makes God end up looking. . . well, very confused, and not so pure. Now I don’t think that’s the Bible’s fault – I think it’s the inerrantist, literalist approach to the Bible that is to blame. Those are practical and ethical reasons for putting a strong caution sign next to those dark passages. But its true to say that from God’s standpoint we may be wrong in our approach to understanding these texts. I just trust God’s justice and love, and in doing so I can’t stand neutral to those passages. I can’t reserve judgment because it actively affects my understanding of God *right now.* I realize that is not the case for everyone. And I admit that has less to do with biblical scholarship than it does my own ingrained sense of morality. I may be wrong, but this I’m sure of: God is *better* than what someone like me can imagine, not somehow *worse.*

  • I believe there was a lot of violence at the hands of the Israelites (or at least they bragged about it and gloried in it), but I don’t think it had anything to do with God.

    I think it was common for gods of that time to be thought of as war gods, and many Israelites were no different in this regard. In my opinion, it is simply not true that atrocities and violence were commanded, or performed, by God.

  • It’s a huge issue not just within evangelicalism, but also among those “outside.” I cannot tell you how many people I have talked to over the past 12-18 months who say they are not a Christian (or rejected Christianity) because they cannot love or worship such a murderous, violent deity. I’m writing a book on the topic myself, however, which might be why I seem to have these conversations with people.

  • Peter, you are quoted in the OnFaith article as follows: “For Christians, the tectonic shift away from tribal thinking and killing enemies is certainly driven home by Jesus and the apostle Paul,” said Enns. “It is in the teachings and actions of Jesus — culminating in his death and resurrection — where we see the truly authoritative presentation of God.”

    Putting aside my discomfort with your “canon within the canon” approach to the Bible, I’ll say simply that you do not appear to be reading the New Testament with the same critical approach you use with the Old. As a “for example,” what do you propose to do with Luke 19:27: “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them,” — that would have been just about every person alive at the time — “bring them here and kill them in front of me.'” If this is the “truly authoritative presentation of God,” then where is your “tectonic shift”?

    From my Jewish perspective, you are reading your New Testament selectively, as I think you should. You have a portrait of Jesus that comports to parts of the canon, but not its entirety, and I think this is a good thing. You’ve made the argument here before, we are responsible for how we read the Bible, and this is how you read the Bible responsibly. I’m with you 100% so far. My objection is how you describe your process of selection: New Testament preferred to Old Testament, Jesus and Paul preferred to Moses. Putting aside my discomfort with the supersessionist implications of this description, I think you’re failing to see (or at least, to describe) how much of the Jesus tradition you have to jettison to achieve your perspective.

    • peteenns

      Your points are excellent, and, despite the appearance on the surface, I think about these things a lot and take them quite seriously. My brief answer (at least at this stage in my life) is that the NT writers are not wholly removed from tribalistic thinking, though given the weight the trajectory seems clear. I don’t mean to pit Jesus “against” Moses–especially since I think Moses has nothing to do with it and the issue here is not with God himself but how God is (understandably) depicted. I also think the parable in Luke is an instance where the rhetoric of divine retribution is echoed but, as with parables in general (not just morally difficult ones), I do see or expect a one-to-one correspondance with the details fo the parable and realia.

      Having said this, I am not at all dismissing your observations. As I said, I struggle with them. The NT has its own theological challenges. Actually, I expected to see you give a reference to Revelation (say, ch. 14), though here too I see the use of a popular genre, apocalyptic, that employs the rhetoric of divine retribution.

      I could say more but I hate dominating my own comment thread.

      • Revelation seemed a little too easy! Also, as you say, it’s part of a genre (disturbing as the genre may be) that requires death and destruction to make it go. Parables are different, as they can (and often are) peaceful stories … though they are easier not to take literally.

        Then again, I don’t take the Noah story literally, or the Joshua story literally. They too are shaped by genre and other like considerations, and were initially told by people with a different idea of “literal truth” than we have today (I could be quoting you here). This is not to say that we can simply shrug these stories aside, or dismiss them with apologetics. It’s a fair and quite awful question to ask why our holy texts employ such imagery, even if the imagery is not to be taken literally. Ditto for Luke 19:27.

        I see great promise in the project of Jews and Christians wrestling with texts together. I imagine that you see the same thing. Part of my purpose is to suggest that Jews like me who are interested in dialogue can be put off by what strikes us as an intent to pit the New Testament against the Old.

        I consider this to be part of an ongoing discussion. I, too, am at “this stage in my life.”

        • peteenns

          Fully agreed on Noah and Joshua, which is the way forward to avoid supersessionism. I don’t think those texts describe God. They show us how people understood God, but in the Hebrew Bible there is also movement–hard for me to read the Rahab story of book of Jonah any other way. But again, I am a work in progress here.

          • Well … to understand how ancient people understood God, we first have to understand those ancient people and how they understood the stories they told. That’s an impossible task, not that we don’t have to try. But we can’t approach the texts using a 21st century “literal” reading, and assume that this is how the ancient Jews “understood” God.

            As a liberal Jew, I’m supposed to believe in a process of ongoing and evolving revelation. But my own personal bias is to give the ancients some benefit of the doubt. It’s a little too easy to imagine them as the sort of “tribal” folk who would see God as an “us against them” proposition … especially if we imagine ourselves as above all such tribalism.

            One distinct feature of the literature of the ancient Jews is its self-critical nature! Either the criticism of the tribe in the literature preserves a tribal counter-narrative, or it represents an adoption by the tribe of a perspective (real or imagined) from outside of the tribe. In either event, I think it’s fair to imagine the ancients reading these texts as critically as you and I do.

          • BHB

            lbehrendt and Pete, thanks for the productive dialogue here. It makes me think that reading the comment section of blogs doesn’t have to be a total waste of time. 🙂

            lbehrendt, your point that Christian attempts to interpret the OT/Hebrew Bible apart from self-reflective dialogue with Jewish voices/tradition is spot on in my opinion. Pete has been a huge help to me in reading the OT/Hebrew Bible more critically, but I agree that any hermeneutical attempt to read the OT through NT lens WITHOUT likewise being willing read the OT and NT through the lens of Jewish tradition/critique can only end with Christian hypocrisy and self-justification. Thanks for the reminder.

  • BHB

    Pete, I’ve followed your posts about violence in the Bible closely over the past several years. Thanks for pushing this born-and-bred evangelical to be more reflective about the blinders I bring to scripture. It’s been a faith-saver for me. Also, I can’t wait to read your upcoming book, “The Bible tells me so”.

    I’d love to hear you reflect more about the problems with the violence we find in the metaphor of scripture. Recently I helped facilitate a bible study through the minor prophets and really had to wrestle with the depictions of God found there–Hosea and Nahum, anyone? Sometimes it was convicting and inspiring, and at other times it did indeed seem “porno-prophetic”.

    The most helpful thing I read was “Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets” (2008) by OT scholar Julia M. O’Brien. She helped me think about models for interacting with scripture that would go beyond a “love it” or “hate it” approach to these problem passages. She insists, “that challenging prophetic metaphor ideologically can serve constructive purposes. Bringing into focus the often-invisible assumptions that govern the thinking of ancient authors and modern readers allows a level of reflection on culture and self that other reading strategies do not. It also invites theological engagement beyond simple assent or objections to biblical texts. Theology in this vein becomes not simply learning from the Prophetic Books but also exploring the implications of their explicit and implicit claims about God.” (p. 175)

    The point I took away from this is that we don’t want to just excise the passages that trouble us from scripture, but read these troubling passages as an iterative process that forces us to confront not just the violence in scripture but the violence we harbor and hide within ourselves.

  • Kim Fabricius

    In addition to undoubtedly horrific words of Luke 19:27 in the parable of the Talents (cf. Matthew 25:30), one could add the similar “hard sayings” in the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:41, Mark 12:9, Luke 20:16) and the parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:13). But here’s the thing: these are all parables. It is hermeneutically illicit to make one-to-one correspondences, willy-nilly, between figures of authority in the stories of Jesus (even when they are kings or vineyard-owners) and the God whom Jesus identifies directly in his teaching and embodies in his actions. When Jesus deploys stories to justify his behaviour to his enemies (as in the parable of the Prodigal Son – more accurately, the parable of the Compassionate Father), or to the hard-of-hearing (as in the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard – more accurately called the parable of the Generous Employer) – on the grounds that “Hey, I’m compassionate to sinners and generous to the least because that is the way my Father behaves, then we may trust that the narrative authority figures are representational. But in the parables of the Talents, the Wicked Tenants, and the Wedding Feast, the point is different: the parables are not addressing the character of God but the eschatological seriousness of the challenge of the gospel.

    And what is the nature of this gospel? You will find it as teaching, in nuce, in the Sermon on the Mount, which is a manifesto of nonviolence and enemy-love, based – you guessed it – on the character of God (Matthew 5:45b) – a teaching which forms the very climax of the six so-called “antitheses” (Matthew 5:21-48). And more importantly still, you will find it as praxis in the deportment of Jesus, which is uniformly and unambiguously shalomful – he would rather be killed than kill – and so it comes to pass. And after the resurrection – then too there is no payback, even for his killers.

    I hear what Ibehrendt is saying about supersessionism. Woe unto Marcionites! After all, Jesus himself says salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22b), while Paul insists that Christians are but honorary children of Israel (cf. Romans 11:17b). Moreover, we must acknowledge that the OT contains plenty of traditions of a nonviolent God, while the NT contains some rather gruesome images of God indeed (if concentrated, for the most part, in Revelation). In fact, neither the NT nor the OT present a homogeneous image of God. Walter Brueggeman observes that the OT is “not at all vexed about juxtaposing texts that explicitly contradict each other” – and the same goes for the NT. However, IMHO, it is entirely legitimate, indeed urgently necessary, that the baleful divine depictions be interpreted (a) according to context, (b) according to genre (in the case of Revelation, yes, apocalyptic), (c) according to, yes again, trajectory – and, (d) above all, that they be deconstructed Christologically. This is not a “canon within a canon”, it is Jesus himself as the interpretive key that unlocks the whole of scripture And it is not that Christians prefer Jesus to Moses – that’s not the way I’d want to put it (it sounds like a contest!) – it is that Christians find the law of Moses fulfilled in the teaching and life of Jesus.

    • BHB


      There is much in your post that I could agree with, but I would like to make the point that genre and context, while crucial, will not eliminate all of the moral problems we find within scripture (not saying this is necessarily your position).

      This is why I believe thinking about the problems with the metaphorical depictions of God in the prophets can be useful. Metaphor and rhetoric are powerful tools of persuasion and as readers of scripture we need to be willing to challenge some of the depictions of God we read as well as allow the scripture to challenge us. We need both.

      What do you think? I’d love to hear how you or others wrestle with this issue.

    • Andrew Dowling

      And just to add on, the parables in Matthew and Luke are sandwiched by the author’s own allegorization that likely were not part of the original parable/teaching. This is where the Gospel of Thomas becomes useful, as it presents some of the parables in (what I’d consider) their more original form without the obvious explanations added by the Synoptic authors.

  • Kim Fabricius

    Metaphor, yes, hmm… But (biblical) metaphors of God are more than just “tools of persuasion”, let alone mere ornamental tropes, they deliver a cognitive, epistemological load, they actually identify who God is. So when, after Jesus, we call God “Father”, of course this is a metaphor (only some Arians insisted that it is not) – God is not gendered – and of course we take our cue from human fatherhood. But then (if you like) all bets are off, as this divine Father, whom Jesus calls Abba, (a) is entirely determined by “his” relation to the Son (as Gregory of Nyssa said, “without the Son the Father has neither existence nor name”), and (b) is a permanent, living critique of all human fathers (such that macho fathers, authoritarian fathers, abusive fathers – in a word violent fathers – are unmasked as distorted instances of true fatherhood).

    I focus on the metaphor of fatherhood because Jesus’ experience of God as Abba, “his immediate awareness of God as a power cherishing people and making them free”, is the “source and secret of his being, message and manner of life” (Edward Schillebeeckx). By this “metaphor” all other biblical metaphors identifying God are to be judged – modified, supplemented, corrected. “King” being a chief instance. And, of course, God the Warrior simply does not feature in the life and witness of Christ (and, I would argue, military/warfare language/imagery in the rest of the NT is entirely deconstructed).

    Is that helpful?

    • BHB

      You offer some great quotes, and I agree meditating on Jesus
      experience of God as Abba is powerful stuff that needs to be a part of the conversation when we try to think through the metaphors that trouble us. I pushed back with you originally because I don’t feel the appeal to genre or context when talking about troubling parables or metaphors will solve all the problems. Christological deconstruction is part of the answer, but to me the fact that Jesus transforms the OT metaphor of fatherhood legitimates the place for ideological criticism when dealing with scripture. So I come back to the conclusion that there must be a place for CHALLENGING prophetic metaphor when we read scripture. What do you all think? Can this be a legitimate and spiritually beneficial reading strategy?

      For a full presentation of this argument I’d direct you back to Julia M. O’Brien, whose work I am drawing from. Below are some reactions I have to specific statements from your post. I’m not trying to be argumentative—these are just the questions that come to my mind.

      “Biblical metaphors actually identify who God is…” But what if biblical metaphors identify God in opposing ways? Are all metaphors fully reconcilable with each other or are some in direct tension with each other? Malachi uses the God as Father metaphor in a very different way than Jesus’ Abba. This Father demands obedience (1:6 A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor?) and threatens violent punishment when it is not given (2:3 Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it.). Malachi’s invokes the
      ideological frame of culturally permissible patriarchal violence to legitimate his theological point that disobedience to God will be violently punished just as a father has the right to violently punish a disobedient son.

      “God is not gendered…” but the meaning of the metaphor of father IS gendered. Fathers exercise power in a way that mothers do not in the
      biblical context.

      “By this metaphor all other biblical metaphors identifying God are to be judged…” Isn’t there a danger that all metaphors are partial and so none should be invoked as the ultimate metaphor? Given the metaphor as God as husband or God as father how do you choose which has pre-eminence over the other?

  • Kim Fabricius

    Thanks for the pushback – and the incisive questions.

    My all-too-brief response is that, yes, as I have insisted, we must engage in critique, including ideology-critique, of the biblical images of God, and challenge those we find wanting. But wanting in what sense, on the basis of what criterion? Back to my point about Christology. Why is God’s Abbahood the key to evaluating other images of God? Because it is incontestably the key to Jesus’ own understanding of God.

    I haven’t read O’Brien – but I see that now I must! In fact, I’ve just been over to Amazon about it. And looking at the table of contents, how interesting – the three images of God O’Brien explores in chapters 4-6 – God as (Abusing) Husband, God as (Authoritative) Father, and God as (Angry) Warrior – are deconstructable precisely on the basis of Christology, i.e., Jesus’ understanding of God as (if you like, purloining many theologians, ancient and modern, male and female) gynaecologically informed. Here I push back on your insistence that “the meaning of the metaphor of father IS gendered”: not the “meaning”, I’d say, rather the “word”, which takes on new meaning from its use (a Wittgensteinian point) within a trinitarian construal of God. “Without the Son ‘the Father’ is not God but an idol” (Janet Martin Soskice, in her chapter “Calling God Father”, from her invaluable book The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language [2007]).

    Thanks again for your excellent points, and the discussion as such.

    • BHB


      Good points, and ultimately when push comes to shove, and I’m left scratching my head at the Bible, I always want to run back to Jesus for help. Thanks for your trinitarian clarification. I often find my own thinking fuzzy so it helps to have other people sharpen it.

      More generally, I think Pete is raising good concerns about the problems of violence in scripture. I’d like to see him link the problem of historical (or mythical) depictions of violence with the violence we find in prophetic metaphors. Both learning from and confronting what is problematic in the prophets is an area where I’d love to hear more from Pete (or anyone else) in the future.

  • I would like to point out possible hypocrisy in those critiquing violence in the OT. See well-known sociologist Peter L. Berger, in A Far Glory:

    Another exaggeration may have been the conventional view of the reach of scientific rationality. One does not have to look at religion only in order to find this thought plausible. It is amazing what people educated to the highest levels of scientific rationality are prepared to believe by way of irrational prejudices; one only has to look at the political and social beliefs of the most educated classes of Western societies to gain an appreciation of this. Just one case: What Western intellectuals over the last decades have managed to believe about the character of Communist societies is alone sufficient to cast serious doubt on the proposition that rationality is enhanced as a result of scientifically sophisticated education or of living in a modern technological society. (30)

    At some point I may well do some in-depth research to see exactly what people were saying about communism in the USSR, what evidence was available for the atrocities committed within, and whether it was likely that those praising the USSR knew about those atrocities. But for now, I trust a well-respected sociologist to get his facts straight on such a matter.

    • BHB

      The comments I’ve seen by people here don’t seem to be hypocritical. They are wrestling with a morally vexing problem of violence (metaphorical or otherwise) in the OT which is a serious issue. Take the OT prophets, I certainly don’t think the moral problems are solved by labeling them as primitive and violent, and myself as enlightened and peaceful. What I am searching for are reading strategies that help me challenge violence in the text, our society and my own heart. What if wrestling with violence in our scripture is part of the way God leads us to conviction about our own violent ways that remain hidden by our cultural biases?

      Telling people not to employ “scientific rationality” ultimately doesn’t help me figure out how to read the sexual violence of Hosea 2:3-4 or Ezekiel 16:37-41 as a Christ follower. So I’m back to the question of what kind of reading strategies do we employ here? I’m not sure there is a singular one so I’m open to hear different perspectives. I like what @lbehrendt:disqus said earlier about appreciating the self-critical nature of ancient Jewish literature itself.

      I’m all for not privileging our modern biases, but with that said, we still have to struggle with what it means to read and walk in the way of peace.

      Peace to you!

      • I didn’t mean to criticize hypocrisy in this very blog, but more in general, especially of atheists and skeptics who criticize evil in the Bible and simultaneously sanction greater evils, either implicitly or explicitly. One important difference between hypocrites and non-hypocrites is that the former cannot actually solve the problems they point out—something Jesus explains in Mt 7:1-5.

        The fact that the Bible self-critiques is absolutely fantastic. This is one of the strengths of many religions, a strength not [to my knowledge] found in Fascism or Marxism.

        I will trust people’s critiques of violence in the Bible more if they are able to reduce violence in the world. But when people ask why God ‘let’ the Holocaust happen, and then fail to do what is necessary to stop further genocides (the US knew well what was happening in Rwanda before the killing hit its zenith), I will question their ability to talk about violence competently. The Bible culminates in Jesus and his followers recorded in it. Whatever the OT may say, that is how the Bible finishes off. This is a fantastic resource.

  • I really appreciate this conversation and the thoughtful comments. I have been researching a while on the topic of God and death in the Torah. But here is the Big question, in my mind: is it possible to create a theory that meets the following demands?
    1) God actually commanded genocide
    2) The Israelites actually commanded genocide
    3) God is good

    Any takers?

  • James

    Getting a handle on violence in Scripture requires answers to questions like these for starters: Is there universal agreement today on the constitution of legitimate and illegitimate violence as they relate to the deity? If God were to address the problem of cosmic evil, how best to do it without violence? If he were to initiate actions that resulted in both salvation and judgement, two sides of the coin of his good purposes, how might he do it without resorting to violence? I think we need to know more about the nature of good and evil before we pronounce too loudly on the role of violence in preserving one and eradicating the other–consider action taken by the Father against his own Son. We also may understand better other examples and pictures of divine initiative, including love, as they crop up in the biblical storyline.

  • Jeremy

    It seems to me that many Christians are critical of Islam’s use of violence… not because they use violence but because of what Islam finds as acceptable for the use of violence. I don’t see that as producing a cognitive dissonance because they are clearly not equal. I also have a lens with which I can see the character of God (Jesus Christ) that allows me to rule out any over simplified or racial genocide in scripture. With islam there is not such thing. The life of Muhammed fuels my distrust and distaste for what Islam teaches about justified violence. The real debate starts with is all violence evil? If yes, then you have to reject or radically alter the revealed God of the Bible. If no, what violence is good/ok and what is not? If no, what is a good cause of violence and what is not? I don’t understand where people don’t see the rampant wickedness of humanity and not come to the conclusion that we are guilty of furthering violence and we all deserve violence. Escaping it is a mercy not a right.

  • BHB

    James and Jeremy,

    My initial response would be that we should NOT start with trying to establish what types of violence are legitimate/illegitimate or good/evil. We live in a world permeated with violence and that distorts justice, mercy and peace in multidimensional and complicated ways. Our scriptures are not free of violence. Our communities are not free of violence, and neither are our hearts. Instead of using some first principle, dogma or proof text to separate “legitimate violence” from “illegitimate violence” we start by putting ourselves in the company of those who suffer violence and listen more carefully to their experiences to better understand the condition that afflicts all of us. Maybe this is supposed to be an iterative process where we dialogue with others and with scripture to reveal violence wherever it may be found. Maybe this is a muddled philosophy, but what scares me about starting with philosophical determinations of “good” and “bad” violence is that whoever is put in the place of making that decision will inevitably be a fallen human who cannot see their own participation in some culturally-sanctioned evil. We can’t escape violence by going “back to the Bible” – so we must challenge it everywhere. This is where I’m at. Maybe someone else can find a more fruitful path through this maze, but any path we choose must be scrutinized self-critically for how it may promote harm of others in unseen ways.

    • James

      The ability to ferret out actual instances of divine violence in biblical text is akin to the skill of differentiating between parts historical and mythical–arduous! Easier (perhaps better) to receive the narratives as they come, place our own sordid stories into the flow and hope to find some order in chaos. My personal experience is that eventually a faithful God of noble character emerges.

  • I just want to add a mention of a recent book on this question, Philip Jenkins’ LAYING DOWN THE SWORD: WHY WE CAN”T IGNORE THE BIBLE’S VIOLENT VERSES. Highly recommended!

  • Nash

    There is a simple way to explain it. People developed customs and attributed them to God.