The Bible and violence

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The Bible overflows with "texts of terror".[1][2][3]

Supercessionist Christians focus on violence in the Hebrew Bible while ignoring or giving little attention to violence in the New Testament.[4]

Hebrew Bible[edit]

There are many instances of violence in the Hebrew Bible.

Abraham carries a lit torch in his left hand and a sword in a belted scabbard while leading his heavily burdened son uphill as two onlookers and their donkey gawk.
Abraham carries fire, a sword, and unrevealed intentions for his son carrying a heavy load uphill.

In the story called the Binding of Isaac or the Akedah[5][6] God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. The account states that Abraham "bound Isaac, his son"[7] before placing him on the altar. Abraham is about to kill his son when an angel of God stops him at the last minute. (Genesis 22:5 and 22:8).

Several of these arise in the context of the story of the conquest of Canaan.[8]:319-320 For example, in Deut 20:16-18 God orders the Israelites to "not leave alive anything that breathes… completely destroy them …".[9] thus leading many scholars to characterize the exterminations as genocide.[10][11] Other examples include the story of Amalekites and the commandment to exterminate them,[12] the story of the Midianites,[13]:245 and the battle of Jericho.[13]:289-296

The instruction God gives in Deut 20:16-18 is for Israelites to exterminate "everything that breaths", but the precise extent of the killing varied, as Van Wees notes.[14] He goes on to say that "The genocidal campaigns claimed for the early Israelites, however, were largely fictional; the intrinsic improbability and internal inconsistencies of the account in Joshua and its incompatibility with the stories of Judges leave little doubt above this." [14] Most scholars conclude that the biblical accounts of extermination are exaggerated, fictional, or metaphorical.[15] In the archaeological community, the Battle of Jericho is very thoroughly studied, and the consensus of modern scholars is that the story of battle and the associated extermination are a "pious fiction" and did not happen as described in the Book of Joshua.[16] For example, the Book of Joshua describes the extermination of the Canaanite tribes, yet at a later time, Judges 1:1-2:5 suggests that the extermination was not complete.[17]

Likewise, it is not clear if the historical Amalekites were exterminated or not. 1 Samuel 15:7-8 implies ("He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword.") that - after Agag was also killed - the Amalekites were extinct, but in a later story in the time of Hezekiah, the Simeonites annihilated some Amalekites on Mount Seir, and settled in their place: "And five hundred of these Simeonites, led by Pelatiah, Neariah, Rephaiah and Uzziel, the sons of Ishi, invaded the hill country of Seir. They killed the remaining Amalekites who had escaped, and they have lived there to this day." (1 Chr 4:42-43).

Scholars point out that collective punishment, particularly punishment of descendants for transgressions committed by ancestors, is common in the Jewish Bible.[18]

New Testament[edit]

Various passages in the New Testament illustrate the non-violent message of Jesus. These are a few examples:

Ephesians 4:32 "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you".

Luke 6:27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you".

Matthew 5:43-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?".

Matthew 6:14 "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you".

Romans 12:14 "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse".

Romans 12:17-21 "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone".

1 Peter 3:9 "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing".

1 John 2:9-10 "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble".


Probably the central act of violence in the New Testament is the crucifixion of Jesus. This act, held in most Christian theologies as crucial to the redemption of humanity by God, is also held to be ordained by God.[19]

Jesus has grabbed a money changer by the tunic and has raised his fist in preparation to strike.
A 14th century rendition of the Cleansing of the Temple.

There are sayings of Jesus that promote or glorify violence:[20]

  • Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.Matthew 10:34[21]
  • I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.Luke 12:49-51
  • And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.Luke 22:35-38
  • "I came to cast fire upon the earth (Luke 12:49)
  • I have come to cast fire upon the Earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49–53
Jesus holds a whip in his hand in striking position while merchants scramble away, or brace for blows.
A 19th century rendition of the Cleansing of the Temple.

Jesus' cleansing of the Temple is an example of direct violent action by Jesus.[22]

The apocalyptic Book of Revelation is full of imagery of war, genocide, and destruction; it may be the most violent book in the entire Bible.[23]

Theological reflections and responses[edit]

The theological problem of theodicy deals with how evil can exist if God is omnipotent, omniscience, and good. People of faith who emphasize pacifism have struggled with biblical passages describing God as warlike or violent.[24][19]

Sociological reflections and responses[edit]

Scholar Nur Masalha writes that the "genocide" of the extermination commandments has been "kept before subsequent generations" and served as inspirational examples of divine support for slaughtering enemies.[25]

Arthur Grenke claims that the view or war expressed in Deuteronomy contributed to the destruction of Native Americans and to the destruction of European Jewry.[26]

Niels Peter Lemche asserts that European colonialism in the 19th century was ideologically based on the Old Testament narratives of conquest and extermination and that some radical Zionist groups have brought the same idea to bear in Israel.[27]

Scholar Leonard B. Glick states that Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, such as Shlomo Aviner, consider the Palestinians to be like biblical Canaanites, and that some fundamentalist leaders suggest that they "must be prepared to destroy" the Palestinians if the Palestinians do not leave the land.[28] Several scholars draw similar conclusions. [29][30][31]

The Book of Revelations has been used to justify Christian hostility, Christian imperialism and Christian sectarian violence.[23]

Theological uses[edit]

Discussions of the violence in the Bible have been deployed for various theological reasons.

Separation[edit]

As the early Christian Church began to distinguish itself from Judaism, characterization of the "Old Testament" and the portrayal of God in it, as violent and unforgiving, were contrasted rhetorically with certain teachings of Jesus to portray an image of God as more loving and forgiving, which was framed as a new image.

For example, in his work Contra Faustum Book XIX,[32] the Church father St. Augustine discussed Jesus of Nazareth's Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus urges his followers to turn the other cheek when confronted by violence, as opposed to applying the Lex Talionis.

Supercessionist Christians have continued to focus on violence in the Hebrew Bible while ignoring or giving little attention to violence in the New Testament.[4]

Support for gnostic theologies[edit]

Gnosticism is a philosophy that has undergone waves of popularity, including some at the time that Christianity and Judaism were separating. A key notion is the division between the material world, which gnostics viewed as being created by a demiurge, and a spiritual world created by the true god.[33] Perhaps the most famous example of an early Christian Gnostic was Marcion who characterized the "God of the Old Testament" as the demiurge, and dropped the Hebrew scriptures from his version of the Bible. Marcion saw the God of the Old Testament, the Demiurge and creator of the material universe. For Marcion, the God about whom Jesus spoke was an altogether different being, a universal God of compassion and love, who looks upon humanity with benevolence and mercy.[34]

Marcion's teaching was repudiated by Tertullian in five treatises titled "Against Marcion" and Marcion was ultimately excommunicated by the Church of Rome.[35]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jenkins, Philip (March 8, 2009). "Dark Passages". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2010-11-26. "the Bible overflows with "texts of terror," to borrow a phrase coined by the American theologian Phyllis Trible. The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. … If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery." 
  2. ^ Thomas E Fretheim. God and Violence in the Old Testament. Word & World Volume 24, Number 1 Winter 2004. Quote: The Old Testament has a reputation: it is a book filled with violence, including the violence of God. The New Testament commonly avoids such a charge; but it, too, is filled with violent words and deeds, and Jesus and the God of the New Testament are complicit in this violence.
  3. ^ Gibson, Leigh; Matthews, Shelly (2005). Violence in the New Testament. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 3. 
  4. ^ a b Gibson, Leigh; Matthews, Shelly (2005). Violence in the New Testament. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 3. 
  5. ^ Jewish Virtual Library. "Akedah". Accessed March 25, 2011
  6. ^ Judaism 101: A Glossary of Basic Jewish Terms and Concepts Accessed March 25, 2011
  7. ^ Genesis 22:9
  8. ^ Ian Guthridge (1999). The Rise and Decline of the Christian Empire. Medici School Publications,Australia. ISBN 978-0-9588645-4-1. "the Bible also contains the horrific account of what can only be described as a "biblical holocaust". For, in order to keep the chosen people apart from and unaffected by the alien beliefs and practices of indigenous or neighbouring peoples, when God commanded his chosen people to conquer the Promised Land, he placed city after city 'under the ban" -which meant that every man, woman and child was to be slaughtered at the point of the sword." 
  9. ^ Ruttenberg, Danya, Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: War and National Security Danya Ruttenberg (Ed.) page 54 (citing Reuven Kimelman, "The Ethics of National Power: Government and War from the Sources of Judaism", in Perspectives, Feb 1987, pp 10-11)
  10. ^ Grenke, Arthur, God, greed, and genocide: the Holocaust through the centuries, pp 17-30
  11. ^ Philip Jenkins - quoted in NPR article "Is The Bible More Violent Than The Quran?" by Barbara Hagerty. Online at Is The Bible More Violent Than The Quran? : NPR.
  12. ^ A. G. Hunter "Denominating Amalek: Racist stereotyping in the Bible and the Justification of Discrimination", in Sanctified aggression: legacies of biblical and post biblical vocabularies of violence, Jonneke Bekkenkamp, Yvonne Sherwood (Eds.). 2003, Continuum Internatio Publishing Group, pp 92-108
  13. ^ a b Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God delusion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-618-68000-9. 
  14. ^ a b *Van Wees, p 242
  15. ^
    • Van Wees, p 242, "largely fictional"
  16. ^ Ehrlich, pp 117
  17. ^ Ehrlich, p 119
  18. ^ Krašovec, Jože, Reward, punishment, and forgiveness: the thinking and beliefs of ancient Israel in the light of Greek and modern views, BRILL, 1999, p 113. He cites the following examples of collective punishment (of descendants) in the Bible:
    Ex 20:5 - "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments."
    Deut 5:9-10
    Exodus 34:6-7: "And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
    Deuteronomy 7:9-10 - "Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. 10 But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him."
    Jeremiah 32:18 - " You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the fathers' sins into the laps of their children after them. O great and powerful God, whose name is the LORD Almighty"
  19. ^ a b Hawkin, David J. (2004). The twenty-first century confronts its gods: globalization, technology, and war. SUNY Press. p. 121. 
  20. ^ Stroumsa, Gedaliahu G. "Early Christianity as Radical Religion". In Ilai Alon, Ithamar Gruenwald, Itamar Singer. Concepts of the other in Near Eastern religions. p. 176. 
  21. ^ Cim, David. "The sword motif in Matthew 10:34". Theological Studies; Vol 56, No 1 (2000), 84-104. School of Theology, Australian Catholic University. doi:10.4102/hts.v56i1.1698. 
  22. ^ War, A Catholic Dictionary: Containing some Account of the Doctrine, Discipline, Rites, Ceremonies, Councils, and Religious Orders of the Catholic Church, W. E Addis, T. Arnold, Revised T. B Scannell and P. E Hallett, 15th Edition, Virtue & Co, 1953, Nihil Obstat: Reginaldus Philips, Imprimatur: E. Morrogh Bernard, 2 October 1950, "In the Name of God : Violence and Destruction in the World's Religions", M. Jordan, 2006, p. 40
  23. ^ a b Barr, David L. (2006). The reality of Apocalypse: rhetoric and politics in the book of Revelation. Society of Biblical Literature. p. 127. 
  24. ^ Seibert, Eric A. (2009). Disturbing divine behavior: troubling Old Testament images of God. Fortress Press. 
  25. ^ Masalha, Nur, The Bible and Zionism: invented traditions, archaeology and post-colonialism in Palestine-Israel, Volume 1, Zed Books, 2007, pp 273-276:
    "Prior revisits the old ground [in his book The Bible and colonialism: a moral critique] … First, the biblical narrative, with its 'divine promise' was inherently linked with the mandate to ethnically cleanse or exterminate the indigenous people … third, in the narrative of the Book of Deuteronomy the divine command to commit 'genocide' is explicit. Fourth, genocide and mass slaughter follow in the Book of Joshua. These highly dubious traditions of the Bible have been kept before subsequent generations of Jews and Christians in their prayers…. The historical evidence, however, strongly suggests that such genocidal massacres never actually took place, although these racist, xenophobic and militaristic narratives remained for later generations as powerful examples of divine aid in battle and of a divine command for widespread slaughter of an enemy…. [Professor Bernardo Gandulla, of the University of Buenos Aires], while sharing Prior's critique of the perverse use that Zionism and the State of Israel have made of the Bible to support their 'ethnic cleansing' policies in Palestine, … Prior … found incitement to war and violence in the very foundation documents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the Hebrew Bible, for instance, there is a dominant strand that sees God as ethnocentric and militaristic. Furthermore, in their conquest of Canaan, the Israelites are commanded by Yahweh to destroy the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Later in the days of the Israelite kingdoms, they are urged to show no pity, but to massacre their enemies…. Today, both Christian Zionists in the West and Israeli messianics continue to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures for archetypal conflicts, which guide their attitudes towards the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine: the Palestinian Muslims and Christians." Masalha refers to: Prior, Michael P., The Bible and colonialism: a moral critique, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
  26. ^ Grenke, Arthur, God, greed, and genocide: the Holocaust through the centuries, New Academia Publishing, LLC, 2005, pp 17–18: "Discussing the influence of Christian beliefs on the destruction of the Native peoples in the Americas, Stannard argues that while the New Testament view of war is ambiguous, there is little such ambiguity in the Old Testament. He points to sections in Deuteronomy in which the Israelite God, Yahweh, commanded that the Israelites utterly destroy idolaters whose land they sought to reserve for the worship of their deity (Deut 7:2, 16, and 20:16-17). … According to Stannard, this view of war contributed to the .. destruction of the Native peoples in the Americas. It was this view that also led to the destruction of European Jewry. Accordingly, it is important to look at this particular segment of the Old Testament: it not only describes a situation where a group undertakes to totally destroy other groups, but it also had a major influence on shaping thought and belief systems that permitted, and even inspired, genocide."
  27. ^ Lemche, Niels Peter, The Old Testament between theology and history: a critical survey, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008,pp 315–316:"The [Biblical] story of the 'morally supreme people' that defeats and exterminates another, inferior, nation was part of the ideological baggage of European imperialists and colonizers throughout the nineteenth century. It was also carried by European Jews who,... migrated to Palestine to inherit their ancestral country … In this modern version of the biblical narrative, the Palestinian population turned into 'Canaanites', supposed to be morally inferior to the Jews, and of course the Arabs were never considered their equals … The Bible was the instrument used to suppress the enemy".
  28. ^ Glick, Leonard B., "Religion and Genocide", in The Widening circle of genocide, Alan L. Berger (Ed). Transaction Publishers, 1994, p 46::"[God] looked with favor on what we may fairly call their [Israelite] proto-genocidal destructiveness. The Book of Joshua provides us with one of the earliest texts in which a deity quite plainly promotes the destruction of a people. As the Hebrews, under Joshua's leadership, undertake the conquest of Canaan, they massacre everyone who stands in their way…. It is instructive (and distressing) to note that contemporary Jewish ultra-nationalists in Israel root their politics in the Book of Joshua and equate their territorial aspirations with the will of God. Here, for example, is Shlomo Aviner, a prominent theorist of the Gush Emunim … movement: 'from the point of view of mankind's humanistic morality we were in the wrong in (taking the land) from the Canaanites. There is only one catch. The command of God ordered us to be the people of the land of Israel'. Others have identified the Palestinians as 'Canaanites' who are engaged in a 'suicidal' struggle opposing God's own intentions; hence the Jewish people must be prepared to destroy them if they persist in pursuing their collective 'death-wish'."
  29. ^ Whitelam, Keith W., The invention of ancient Israel: the silencing of Palestinian history, Routledge, 1996, especially pp 71–121. Cited by Ehrlich, pp 117 "Keith Whitelam (1996) has published a book [The invention of ancient Israel: the silencing of Palestinian history] in which he has implied that the modern European imperialist Zionist Jewish movement has drawn inspiration from the biblical conquest tradition … Parallels are thus drawn in Whitelam's thought between the genocidal Israelites presumably of Joshua's day and the racist Zionists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and also between the ancient Canaanites and the modern Palestinians … the interpretations attributed to [Whitelam] of the place of the book of Joshua and its … genocidal account of Israel's emergence in the land that it claims as its own pose a challenge to Judaism…. It thus behooves us to ask … how has the Jewish community dealt with these foundational narratives, saturated as they are with acts of violence against others?…."
  30. ^ Boustan, Ra'anan S., Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practice in Early Judaism and Christianity, BRILL, 2010, page 4-5
    "Later readers of the Bible dramatically transformed this divine directive [Deut 20:15-18] through hermeneutic alignment of the Canaanites with the current detested 'other'. Thus the Canaanites have been identified with … Palestinians (by militant Zionists), and scores of other 'enemies' of Israel. In doing so, the violence perpetrated against these groups is not only justified, but indeed, part and parcel of the original divine plan. The violent legacy of the Bible is a product of both its own violent narrative and the hermeneutics of violence applied to it".
  31. ^ Hitchens, Christopher, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Random House, Inc., 2007, p 101
  32. ^ Contra Faustum Augustine of Hippo, NewAdvent. Archived 30 July 2007 at WebCite
  33. ^ On the complexity of gnosticism, see Larry W. Hurtado (2005). Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 519–561. 
  34. ^ Metzger, Bruce. Canon of the NT ISBN 978-0-19-826180-3; The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 characterized Marcion as "perhaps the most dangerous foe Christianity has ever known."; Harnack's Origin of the New Testament: "Marcion, on the contrary, treats the Catholic Church as one that “follows the Testament of the Creator-God,” and directs the full force of his attack against this Testament and against the falsification of the Gospel and of the Pauline Epistles by the original Apostles and the writers of the Gospels. He would necessarily have dealt with the two Testaments of the Catholic Church if the Church had already possessed a New Testament. His polemic would necessarily have been much less simple if he had been opposed to a Church which, by possessing a New Testament side by side with the Old Testament, had ipso facto placed the latter under the shelter of the former. In fact Marcion’s position towards the Catholic Church is intelligible, in the full force of its simplicity, only under the supposition that the Church had not yet in her hand any “litera scripta Novi Testamenti.”"
  35. ^ Pixley, Jorge V. (2004). Jeremiah. Chalice Press. p. 65. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Armstrong, Karen. The Bible: a biography. Atlantic Monthly Press. 2007 isbn 978-0-87113-969-6
  • Boustan, Ra'anan S., Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practice in Early Judaism and Christianity, BRILL, 2010, pp 3-5
  • Cohn, Robert L, "Before Israel: The Canaanites as Other in Biblical Tradition", in The Other in Jewish thought and history: constructions of Jewish culture and identity, Laurence Jay Silberstein, (Ed.), NYU Press, 1994, pp 76-77
  • Cowles, C. S., Show them no mercy: 4 views on God and Canaanite genocide, page 79
  • Ehrlich, Carl S., "Joshua, Judaism, and Genocide" in Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,BRILL, 1999, pp 121-122
  • Firestone, Reuven, "Judaism on Violence and Reconciliation: An Examination of Key Sources", in Beyond violence: religious sources of social transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, James Heft (Ed.), Fordham Univ Press, 2004, p 75
  • Garber, Zev, "Deconstructing Theodicy and Amalekut", in Post-Shoah dialogues: re-thinking our texts together, James F. Moore (Ed.), University Press of America, 2004, pp 241-243.
  • Hitchens, Christopher, God is Not Great
  • Kravitz, Leonard, "What is Crime?", in Crime and punishment in Jewish law: essays and responsa, Editors Walter Jacob, Moshe Zemer, Berghahn Books, 1999, p 31.
  • Magid, Shaul, "Subversion as Return: Scripture, Dissent, and Renewal in Contemporary Judaism, in Subverting Scriptures: Critical Reflections on the Use of the Bible Beth Hawkins Benedix (Ed), pp 217-236, p 234.
  • Salaita, Steven George. The Holy Land in transit: colonialism and the quest for Canaan. Syracuse University Press. 2006 isbn 978-0-8156-3109-5
  • Selengut, Charles, Sacred fury: understanding religious violence, p 20
  • Van Wees, Hans, "Genocide in the Ancient World", in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, Donald Bloxham, A. Dirk Moses (Eds), p 242.


External links[edit]