On Violence in the Bible: A reflection
Approaching the Bible as a human work
1. When the people of Israel went in battle they were doing it to survive in the region. It was what happened to all ancient peoples. War took a meaning—a “sacred meaning”. A war was associated with religious acts, sacrifices, commands of divinities, etc. People depended on their gods to help them in their wars. The people of Israel were not exempted from this.
2. Their relationship with the Lord God influenced their views of wars. So it can happen that the Hebrews went to war to defend the rights of the Lord God and the rights of God to guard his own people. So a war would be seen as people under the leadership of God himself. We read, for example: “Then down went Israel against the mighty, the army of the LORD went down for him against the warriors” (Jg 5/13).
3. Those in combat would surely see things that way. They must have done many religious rituals and sacrifices. Thus they must have also religiously purified themselves. Before crossing the river and facing hostilities, Joshua ordered the people to purify themselves. He said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will perform wonders among you.” (Jos3/5). God was with his people and especially with the combattants. Sacrifices had to be done for God. God was consulted. Prophets were consulted. Remember the role of the Ark of the Covenant. At times it was part of battles. It was a visible sign of the presence of God among combattants. When Uriah was talking to King David, for example, he was reporting that the Ark was in a tent in the midst of the fighting army. “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents” (2Sam 11/11). So remember that while in battle the soldiers relied on their faith. To have faith in God was an important condition in battle. Soldiers needed the assurance of God. They needed the full support of God. See how it would feel to be told that God will make them win! “And to Joshua the LORD said: I have delivered Jericho, its king, and its warriors into your power” (Jos 6/2).
4. During those times, at the end of a war, it was a practice that the “losers” would be condemned (see Jos 6/18-24). Whatever was taken from the losers would be given to the Lord God in thanksgiving to the victory led by God. Victory was God’s victory. Massacres and burning were done for the Lord God.
5. Note then the religious dimension in war. In all wars it was the Lord God who fought for Israel. It was more about God fighting for the people than people fighting fof God.
6. Now, those who wrote about the wars want their readers to see how God was their savior. The written texts were “cathechetical”. They were written to form the minds of readers.
7. So we need to be clear also about Biblical texts. Yes, we say that the Biblical texts form the “word of God”. God had a message to say. But the texts were also written by human authors. Those authors lived in their moments of history and they were marked by the culture and literature of their times. They were part of the Near East culture. They had a view of the world coming from their cultural background. Hence they would attribute to God many things happening around them. Wars, famines and illnesses, for example, were seen as instruments of God’s will. Today we do not think so much this way. But the ancient Biblical authors were like that.
8. The Biblical authors used the different literary styles at their disposal at that time. Hope and despair, cry for help or shout for victory…all that were recorded with the cultural-literary formation of the authors. The authors tried to comprehend the events around them; they tried to answer their deep questions and they saw it important to communicate their insights. They needed to uncover the meaning of the events of their history and the history of their nation. The authors did not hesitate to use violent language and associate God with it. Let us accept this as a fact.
9. In the Bible, then, we read expressions touching on human conditions and existence. This is one reason why we can still relate with the texts because we sense how the texts also express our own human lives. Of course there is a big historical gap between the Biblical authors and us.
10.We do not exactly share the same sentiment of the authors when we read about the joy of seeing violent revenge happening to, say, Egyptians or Babylonians. The authors of the Psalms may have prayed for the deaths of Babylonian children whose heads will be smashed against rocks (see Ps 137/9). That type of bitterness may have been found among people of that time but we need not share the same mentality. The authors were linked to their time and situation. So some parts of the Bible were closely linked to the historical situation in which they were written. Yet, there are Bible parts whose sense and meaning may go beyond their historical moments. The meaning may be real for us even today. So the Biblical call for justice and purity of heart remains valid for us today. The rejection of violence and injustice in the Bible remains valid today.
11.The Bible is an “invitation” to “travel”—to take a “trip” with the people of Israel…and to “travel” with Jesus. If we accept the invitation we can see how God has always been and is always the God who spoke through the Biblical authors. He is the God who continues to encounter us as he encountered the people of Israel. To meet God Biblically, we need to enter into the dynamics of the texts.
12.The Bible is like a “cake” of many layers. The texts are marked by living experiences of particular historical moments. They are marked by the culture, language and mentalities of human authors. We cannot enter into the Biblical texts without accepting the human, cultural and historical dimensions. Of course we read the Bible with our own cultural and historical backgrounds. Of course there is a wide gap between us and the Biblical authors. But somehow we need to recognize that the Biblical authors had their own views of life.
13.When we encounter Biblical verses that look so violent let us not forget how they were written by human authors. They were reading their historical conditions and they had their own way of writing about them. They used violent phrases and images. So if we read the prayer about smashing children’s heads against rocks, remember that they are supplications. The psalmist was expressing an act of faith which was a spiritual path. Yes, it was an act of faith calling for violence. We need to discern both the value of the faith and the historical expression of that faith.
14.We cannot deny that violent texts are really in the Bible. We do not close our eyes to these texts. But the books in the Bible are not always “pious” books. They are not exactly books of piety. They express the life of a people who were always hit by violence. For centuries the people of Israel were confronted with violence from the different nations and empires around them, including the violence within their own nation. The Bible has always been part of that history.
15.Check it out. When we read about God engaged in violence let us keep in mind the tendency of the Biblical authors to refer to God’s act of judgment. The authors refer to his intervention so that goodness and peace win. The authors refer to God acting so that violence and evil be thrown away. To be spared of violence, it is normal for people to desire for the disappearance of whatever that threatens them. Biblical authors wanted the disappearance of violence. Their literary styles, therefore, were marked by the intensity of this desire.
16.Biblical authors were part of their cultural world. In that culture, people used curses and swearing to protect themselves from harm. The “schadenfreude” (i.e., the desire for someone else's misfortune) would be a shield of protection. Cursing, swearing, wishing harm against others are seen as ways to neutralize the “bad guys”. To throw an anathema against a threat would have a protective effect. Do we not see, in amateur boxing or karate, players wearing protective masks? Well, curses and swearing and throwing bad words against enemies were like protective masks. That was cultural at that time. It was in the culture of the Biblical authors. That found a way into the written texts.
17.Now, our sensibility today might be different. But think about it. In front of violence and extreme injustice—in front of grave conditions where no solution seems available—do we not also find some recourse to saying “bad words”? In front of injustice done to millions of people today do we not feel the “comfort” of expressing ourselves using the “violent verses” in the Bible? Do we not feel close to the Biblical authors who were confronted with so much evil that appeared so superior to human capacities of protection?
Jesus himself knew how to use violent language.
18.Look at Jesus. Yes, we know that his message was “non-violent”. But he still spoke about violence. To welcome the Kingdom of God can be accompanied by violence! The promotion of the Kingdom is marked by a battle against evil. “No one can enter a strong man’s house to plunder his property unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder his house” (Mk3/27). “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword” (Mtt 10/34). “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force (Mtt 11/12). Bible experts note that when Jesus said this he may have had in mind the marginalized people following John the Baptist and later following Jesus himself. There were the publicans, women with “bad reputation”, zealots, etc. Jesus was trying to make sense of the situation.
19.Jesus went to the Temple and made a mess there (see Mk11/15-17). It was a prophetic gesture against the Temple practices. With the coming of God’s Reign, the Temple will no more place and it will be destroyed (see Mc 13/2). The call of Jesus to welcome the Kingdom placed the listener in a situation of decision making. The language of violence was designed to highlight the seriousness and urgency of making a decision.
How do we theologically deal with the image of a violent God? (Taking from Andre Wenin)
20.Note that when there is violence there is the refusal of limits. When people engage in violence they forget their limits and they forget the limits of others. They cross the boundaries of respect and integrity, they violate others. The Bible gives us a good description of this. One of the major problems that the Bible confronts is the existence of human violence.
21.In the beginning—during Creation—we have “sweet” presentation of God exercising a controlled mastery over the created world. God’s domination was not imposing, it was respectful. At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, we see the image, also “sweet”, of peace. The Lamb is victorious over the powers of evil. There is no more violence and no more crying (see Rev 21).
22.In between the creation story and the victory story of the Lamb, we read violent books of the Bible. Biblically speaking, it looks like the Bible shows us a history of violence and how God reacts to it. God is “slow to anger”, right? (See Ex 34/6 ; Is 48/9 ; Ps 103/8). God does not allow the human person to pervert his creation and put it in threat. God does not allow the extinction of his creation. Hence God wants to destroy war and violence (see Ps 45/10 ; Hos 2/20 ; Ez 34/25 ; Is 11,6-9). Yes, the Bible may present God as involved with violence too. But God is not stained by violence. Ok, it may look like a presentation of violence in God too. But not that the violence associated with God is not a violence of the adolescent. It is not an immature violence. It is not violence made for the sake of violence. God does not do violence arbitrarily. For example he is not a God of revenge. Does he not make the sun rise for both the good and the evil (see Mt 5/45).
23.God is frustrated about the violence of people and he is so worried about the victims of that violence. The psalms are filled with verses showing the concern for victims of violence. Now notice the movement of the Bible from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The Bible is like a “teaching” text. God seems to be involved with the violence of people but the involvement is in view of disengaging people from their own violence. God’s form of violence is in view of restoring human integrity. We this this, for example, in Hosea. God will give the harlot a hard time even to the point of putting her in shame but in the end the harlot will find her true lover and husband and she will, herself, be a provider for the nations (see Chapter 2 of Hosea). The violence experienced by the harlot leads to her integrity and clarity of vocation.
24.Look at the Genesis perspective. In Genesis there is the failure of humanity. Violence is consequence. What does God do? He admits that violence is now part of the human condition. Now he makes the effort to limit the effects of violence that has become part of human history (see Gn 6/11,13). Remember that in the start the human was already vegetarian. Now, with the Noah story and the flood, God modifies what the human can eat—and it is not longer a vegetarian diet. God makes a “discount” with human violence (see Gn 9/1-3). Eating animals symbolizes the space allowed for violence. But notice that limits are given. Do not eat meat with blood: “Only meat with its lifeblood still in it you shall not eat” (Gn 9/4). Blood symbolizes life. Then when violence is done, it must be repaid. It cannot go on without an answer. So another limit is given. Revenge can be sweet but it cannot be the answer to violence. “Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed” (Gen.9/6). Biblically revenge is recognized as a human fact but it is never allowed full use.
25.Note that “sandwiched” between verses 4 and 6 is the verse in which God shows concern for the victims of any violence, be the victim animal or human: “Indeed for your own lifeblood I will demand an accounting: from every animal I will demand it, and from a human being, each one for the blood of another, I will demand an accounting for human life” (Gn 9/5). Finally, God reminds the human that the human has a vocation to be in God’s image and is destined for life (see Gn 9/6b-7).
26.The Biblical author of Genesis sees the reality of violence but senses the place of God in it. Somehow the author articulates this insight, and here we see the result.
27.Now after the Babylonian exile revenge was investigated and the Book of Leviticus, written after the exile, made it clear: “You shall not hate any of your kindred in your heart. Reprove your neighbor openly so that you do not incur sin because of that person. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19,18).
28.Later, in the New Testament, Jesus will “purify” this rule by showing that “my neighbor” is not just someone of the same tribe or ethnic group. The neighbor is anyone, any human (see Luk 10,29-37).
29.The Bible may show many cultural elements that influence the Biblical authors, yet it shows a movement, a flow, a clarification of what is God, eventually.
30.As the Old Testament flowed on it became progressively clear that violence and revenge cannot be absolutely associated with God. Slowly there is a hesitation. Slowly violence and God cannot be put together easily. We see texts that highlight the disproportion between God’s anger and his forgiveness and mercy for generations (see Ps 30/6 ; Is 54/8). Some verses show the hesitation to make God violent at all; that deep inside God is the resistance to punish anyone (see the Sodom and Gomorra story where Abraham had to negotiate with God Gn 18/22-32; see Jon 3/9-10).
31.Amont the prophets we can note Hosea. In Hosea we see the image of God as refusing to revenge. “I will not give vent to my blazing anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again; For I am God and not a man (Hos 11/9). In Hosea then we see how it is not easy to just apply to God violence. Even if it is possible it is not so immediately done. An insight into God becomes more and more manifest.
32.We dare say that although Biblical authors have written with their cultural baggage, they were receiving insight about God. The discernment took time. The hesitation to link God with violence was in the pens of the authors. That too we need to recognize and discern. If we must admit that there are violent verses in the Bible, we need also to discern how those verses struggled with a deeper insight about God.
33.Of course the summit is in Jesus. Although we are working with the Old Testament in this course, we can move a bit into the New Testament if only to clarify our understanding of God and violence in the Bible.
34.The insight we gain as we move in the Bible is this: God hears the cry of the victims (see Ex 3/7.9). Yes, God gets involved with history and through the pens of Biblical authors God too is associated with violence. The violence that God institutes is for the sake of restoring the victims. It is to limit and counter the violence of people. But then, slowly, Biblical authors sense that somehow violence and God do not really mix that easily. But surprisingly, as God wants to save victims, God also wants to save the violent people! God wants to save all including the violent ones. In other words, God deals with the violent and tries to pull them out of their violence.
35.How can this happen? Again we stay with the Bible. It is clear that God himself allows that he becomes victim of human violence. This is realized in Jesus who reconciled everyone “with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it” (Ep 2,16). St. Peter wrote: “When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly” (1 P 2/22-24).
36.By putting Jesus to death each one’s eyes are opened to each one’s violence. Henceforth each can renounce one’s own proper violence! The murder of Jesus, the “crucified God” (Moltmann) has turned to heal us from our own violence.
37.The Bible then shows that the God who appeared violent earlier has become the victim of violence.