Why Biblical Violence is Good for Your Kids

Why Biblical Violence is Good for Your Kids April 22, 2015
Flilckr: Cain and Abel by AK Rockefeller
Flilckr: Cain and Abel by AK Rockefeller

What’s all that violence doing in the Bible? Does it make you uncomfortable? How are we supposed to teach these stories to children?

I mean, the first family was marked by violence. Cain killed his brother Abel. How’s that for a dysfunctional family system?

Just two chapters later, God floods the earth, killing everyone and everything on the planet except for one family and two of every animal…And somehow we’ve made that a cute children’s story?

A boy named David kills a mean, nasty giant named Goliath. Hey, kids! You know that bully at your school? Go ahead and fight that jerk! You may think you’re weaker, but God’s on your side. You got this!

And then there’s Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. It takes years of therapy to recover from that one.

But here’s the thing. Violence doesn’t just happen in the Bible. Children see violence all the time on the news, in cartoons, and in video games. Unless children are growing up in a bubble, we can’t stop them from witnessing violence.

Nor should we want to. Violence happens. It happened in biblical times and it happens in our time. The problem isn’t that there’s violence in the Bible. If there wasn’t violence in the Bible we would accuse it of naively hiding the truth that humans have a tendency to be violent.

The problem is how we interpret that violence. Children and adults shouldn’t avoid those violent texts. Rather, we need to learn how deal with them.

Yesterday, Suzanne and I delivered a presentation on biblical violence at the Faith Forward conference. We specifically examined the murder that started it all – Cain and Abel.

We began by explaining that mimetic theory claims that the Bible is a “text in travail.” It struggles with two competing forces. One force seeks to hide the voice of the victim. It tells us the story from the point of view of the perpetrator. The victim is silenced in these stories, which are known as myths. Interestingly, the word “Myth” comes from the Greek root “muo,” which means “to close eyes or mouth” or “to keep secret.” By closing the mouth of the victim and our eyes to the victim’s suffering, myths keep the victim’s story a secret.

The competing force in the biblical narrative keeps our eyes open and listens to the unheard voice of the victim. Generally speaking, victims get to tell their side of the story in the biblical account. I say “generally” because there are plenty of mythical stories in the Bible, but we also frequently hear the voice of the victim. That’s what makes the Bible a text in travail.

To highlight the difference between myths and Bible, we compared the two ancient stories of sibling murder. First, the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus and then the Bible’s story of Cain and Abel. Romulus and Remus were sons of the Roman god of war, Mars. Together, they killed their great uncle, who was a threat to their rule. Then they decided to build a city. Romulus built walls to protect the city, but Remus thought the walls were too short. To prove his point, he jumped over them. Romulus was enraged, so he killed his brother. Romulus continued building the city and named it Rome, after himself. He populated with city with outlaws and fugitives, all of whom were men. Without any women around, what was Rome to do? Romulus came up with a plan. He kidnapped Sabine women. How romantic! Well, the Sabines didn’t like that, so they went to war with Rome. Romulus defeated the Sabines and the Sabines accepted him as their king. When Romulus died, Mars looked with favor upon his beloved son of war and welcomed him to the heavens. Romulus was then deified as the god Quirinus.

The Bible tells a similar story. The founding of the first city was also based on a murder, but this time God doesn’t approve.

Cain became jealous of his brother Abel. God responded to Cain’s jealousy by saying, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

From the very beginning of the story, God doesn’t condone violence. Later, Jesus would say, “You have heard it that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” The Cain and Abel story is a warning against anger, for anger leads to murder.

But Cain didn’t master the sinful anger that was crouching at his door. He was consumed by it. He invited his brother to the field, where he killed Able. God came to Abel and said, “Where is your brother?…What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

In the myth, we never hear from Remus after his death. The mythical gods don’t care about Remus. But the Biblical God listens for the voice of the victim, whose blood cries out from the earth. God not only hears the voice of the victim, but disapproves of the murder. God holds the perpetrator of violence accountable. Whereas the myth endorses violence, the Bible disapproves of it.

Cain then freaks out. He has an anxiety fest as he worries that he has unleashed a cycle of violence and cries out, “whoever finds me may kill me.”

Interestingly, God also hears the cry of the perpetrator of violence. God’s purpose for human life isn’t a cycle of violence, but to end violence with nonviolence. So, God “put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.”

Cain then built the first city and named it after his son. Romulus named his city after himself – after a murderer – thus locking Rome into a pattern of pride and violence. Cain, on the other hand, named the city after his son, Enoch. In doing so, Cain offered a new pattern of being in the world – one based on humility, repentance, and new beginnings.

Both stories attribute the founding of cities to a murder. In the myth, the murder is condoned, the victim silenced, and the murderer is vindicated in his violence by being elevated to divine status. In the Bible, God disapproves of the murder, speaks for the victim and reveals the truth of the utter nonviolence of God.

But what about those other stories? You know, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, and David and Goliath?

The violence is critiqued in all three stories. God actually repents of violence in the flood story. It is the gods (Elohim is the Hebrew word for gods) who call Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But it is the specific Hebrew God Yahweh who stops the sacrifice. While it seems that God endorses David’s violence and wars, do you remember why David wasn’t allowed to build God’s Temple. He had blood on his hands. It was his son Solomon, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for peace (shalom), who built the Temple.

Biblical violence is good to teach our children because in virtually every biblical story that seems to endorse violence, even God sanctioned violence, there is a critique of that violence. If Christianity is to have any credibility moving forward into the 21st century, it is that critique of violence that we need to teach our children.

The future of Christianity, indeed, the future of the human race, depends on it.


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  • Marcion

    “Romulus defeated the Sabines and the Sabines accepted him as their king.”

    If I may nitpick, this isn’t what happens in the story.

    “The Romans and Sabines renew the battle in the valley between the hills; but Roman prowess had the advantage. At this juncture the Sabine women, from the outrage on whom the war originated, with hair dishevelled and garments rent, the timidity of their sex being overcome by such dreadful scenes, had the courage to throw themselves amid the flying weapons, and making a rush across, to part the incensed armies, and assuage their fury; imploring their
    fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, “that as
    fathers-in-law and sons-in-law they would not contaminate each other
    with impious blood, nor stain their offspring with parricide, the one
    their grandchildren, the other their children. If you are dissatisfied with the affinity between you, if with our marriages, turn your resentment against us; we are the cause of war, we of wounds and of bloodshed to our husbands and parents. It were better that we perish than live widowed or fatherless without one or other of you.” The circumstance affects both the multitude and the leaders. Silence and a sudden suspension ensue. Upon this the leaders come forward in order to concert a treaty, and they not only conclude a peace, but form one state out of two. They associate the regal power, and transfer the entire sovereignty to Rome. The city being thus doubled, that some compliment
    might be paid to the Sabines, they were called Quirites, from Cures. As
    a memorial of this battle, they called the place where the horse, after
    getting out of the deep marsh, first set Curtius in shallow water, the
    Curtian Lake. This happy peace following suddenly a war so distressing,
    rendered the Sabine women still dearer to their husbands and parents,
    and above all to Romulus himself. Accordingly, when he divided the
    people into thirty curiæ, he called the curiæ by their names.”

    Livy, Ad Urbe Condita Book 1

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19725/19725-h/19725-h.htm#a13

    There are many dubious things in the story of the founding of Rome (like the way the Sabine Women accept their kidnapping!), but there’s a pretty big difference between Romulus defeating and subjugating the Sabines and the leaders of both factions answering a call to peace when they realize how violence will hurt the ones they love and joining together into a new nation.