Reading Violence in the Old Testament

Richard Dawkins, in his classic, understated way, once described God as:

'Arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.'[1]

It’s not exactly a measured remark, and Dawkins is certainly no theologian, but there is an extent to which he has captured some of the feelings of our culture when it comes to the character of God in the Old Testament. In reality, our society is becoming less biblically literate and so increasingly unaware of these sorts of accusations, but that certainly isn’t the case for students of Theology. What are we supposed to say when our classmates or tutors come at us with questions or accusations about the character of God? What are we supposed to think and feel when we come face to face with stories of total brutally, which are littered throughout Scripture?

As theology and biblical studies students we are constantly faced with deeply troubling images of violence: the gang rape, murder and dismemberment of an unnamed woman; children being mauled by bears at the command of a prophet; a woman being threatened with death by fire for being pregnant while unmarried; children being offered up as sacrifices; not to mention the divinely-mandated genocide of several people-groups.  

As evangelical Christians (and signed up members of our Christian Unions) we’re onboard with the whole ‘infallibility of Scripture’ thing. As the UCCF Doctrinal Basis puts it: 'The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.'[2] But, how does our view of Scripture as ‘inspired and infallible’ mesh with those stories referenced above? And what about the claim of ‘supreme authority’? How are we to read stories like these and understand their place in a text that claims to have ultimate authority?

In speaking about concepts of the Bible as an authoritative text, Pamela Milne offers the following comment: 

Feminists need to ask if the Bible serves any useful purpose. My answer to that is a resounding no… I think feminists should abandon the idea of an authoritative Scripture because it is more detrimental than beneficial to women seeking authority.[3]

Her view comes from the perspective of Feminist Criticism, but many from other schools of biblical criticism will bring similar questions to the text, and we need to consider how to answer them.

What I’d like to do is to take us through three examples of these sorts of difficult texts and consider how we can approach them and answer critical questions about them. These examples don’t address every question that we’re going to face, but they do cover three main types of criticism that might be levelled, and hopefully will give us a bit of a starting point when it comes to approaching similar stories.
 

The Texts of Terror — how do we deal with all the violence against women in the Bible?

'Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women’s freedom and equality, but it’s certainly not alone in this. Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.'[4]  - Cath Elliot

Both inside and outside of the academy, there is a strong assumption that Christianity is misogynistic, and that, naturally, this is shaped and directed by Scripture. The Old Testament contain various stories that seem to support this assumption: the stories of Hagar, Bilhah and Zilphah ─ the original handmaidens ─ ‘given’ as sex slaves to the patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob, in order to provide extra children; the story of Dinah raped by a stranger before being  married off to her attacker; the story of Tamar, threatened with being burned to death for adultery by the very man who’d impregnated her (her father-in-law); the story of an unnamed daughter of Jephthah, one of the Judges of Israel, who becomes a human sacrifice when her father makes a hasty and ill-advised vow to the Lord; the story of another Tamar, the daughter of the king, raped by her own half-brother, and cast out into the street in shame. 

These are some examples amongst many, and they offer a terrible window into the lives of women in this culture. But, are they more than that? What is their purpose? And what effect do they have on the shape of faith and practice?

Elliot considers Christianity (and all other faiths) to be entirely opposed to the freedom and equality of women. The stories of the women I’ve referenced above no doubt contribute to this perspective. There is often an assumption that the Bible functions like many other religious texts, as a series of rules and instructions and moralistic teachings, and yet, as we know, it is so much richer and varied than that. The problem is that many assume that the entirety of Scripture should be read as prescriptive, rather than recognising that much of it, especially the narrative portions, are primarily descriptive. Even a cursory read of the book of Judges, to take one example, will clarify that this is the case. Nothing about the context or content of chapter 19 and the rape and murder of the unnamed concubine suggests that the actions of either her rapists, or her husband, are appropriate, let alone ‘recommended’. The reaction that most readers have when encountering this story is horror and grief, which is entirely in keeping with the reaction of the witnesses to the aftermath[5], or the understated verdict of the narrator, given in the final verse of the book: ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.’[6]  

Other critics, like Milne, don’t want to reject the entirety of the faith, but would prefer to do away with these stories, and any sense of authority bound up in them, and perhaps we feel a bit more sympathy for that approach. The apostle Paul, in 2 Timothy, offers that famous description of the function of Scripture: ‘all scripture is god-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’[7]

How does that apply when it comes to something like the story of Tamar being raped by her half-brother, Amnon?[8] To paraphrase Milne: what useful purpose does that story serve? 

In part, it holds up a mirror and shows us what humanity is like. These stories are not presented as examples to follow, but rather as evidence in the case against us. They graphically demonstrate the nature and effect of sin, and our great need for a rescue.

In part, it also gives a voice to those who are suffering, and a window into the experience of those who are suffering in similar ways today.  In witnessing the abuse and disgrace that Tamar suffers, we are given insight into the plight of other women who have experienced sexual violence. Tamar, as the only sexual abuse victim in the Bible who speaks, provides a voice for those voiceless victims, and perhaps for voiceless victims today as well. Much like the Psalms give us words when we struggle to articulate our pain or joy, so these stories give words to those who are otherwise unable to express their experiences. And as the holy scriptures present Tamar’s reproach of Amnon’s assault on her, her condemnation of him is endorsed, and becomes a sort of prophecy — a declaration of what God thinks of those who would enact this sort of violence on a person made in his image:

‘“No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel.’[9]

Divinely mandated genocide.

One of the most common objections around the morality of the Bible and the Christian faith, is bound up in accounts of various ‘holy wars’. From the Crusades of the early medieval time; to the ‘Manifest Destiny’ justification for the expansion of the USA, and removal of lands from Native American peoples during much of the 19th century; through to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. In each of these instances certain parties have used biblical themes, ideas and examples to justify their actions. There is much that is deeply problematic about those situations, and the rhetoric being used, but the question we want to examine is whether there is a fair comparison to be made between those incidents previously mentioned, and the events following the Exodus. In short: is the book of Joshua recounting a divinely mandated genocide?

To answer that question, we need to consider three things:

Firstly, what do we know about the people who were living in the land already? The Canaanites, were, like every other person in the Bible, sinful humans who had rejected God and were worshiping idols. Sometimes that idol worship took a really horrible form, including child sacrifice. But the major issue is that they, like all of us, were living without reference to God, and the consequence for our rejection of God is death. 

Secondly, we see that the events of Joshua don’t come out of the blue. In Genesis 15, whilst making a covenant with Abraham, the Lord explains what is going to happen to the Canaanites, several hundred years in the future, when their land is taken away from them and given to Abraham’s descendants. The explanation concludes with these words: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites[10] has not yet reached its full measure.”[11]

There is clear evidence here of the patience of God: he could have wiped them out then and there, but he doesn’t. He gives them the opportunity to repent and return to him, but they don't. They double-down on their sin, and so by the time the Israelites make it to the land, the Canaanites have sealed their fate. And yet, despite even that, there still appears to be an opportunity for things to change, which is made clear in the story of Rahab and the spies.[12] In that incident it is clear that the whole of Jericho have heard that Israel are on their way, and that God is on their side,[13] and yet, rather than repentance, or a plea for mercy, the King of Jericho sends men to find and capture the Israelite spies. Rahab is the exception. She begs for mercy and shelter with Israel, and it’s granted to her. Who knows what might have happened if all of Jericho had responded in the same way?

Thirdly, we see that the fact that God is on the side of Israel is the deciding factor in the outcome of their ‘invasion’. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt who escaped due to the intervention of God, and they have spent the last 40 years wandering the desert. This desert wandering would doubtless have done no favours to either their physical strength or their fighting prowess, and presumably their weapons were neither the newest technology nor in the best condition. And in the end none of that matters, because it is made crystal clear throughout the rest of the book that any battle that they do win will only be because God gives them the victory, rather than because they’ve got the skills. Jericho is the classic example. How do they win? By marching, shouting and blowing horns. This is not a story about an overwhelming force of hardened warriors, attacking a group of poor, defenceless locals. It’s a story about God bringing judgement on people who have set themselves up against him. And since this is his world, he’s well within his rights to do so.

Old Testament Laws

‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’[14]

Most of our non-Theology friends, if they know nothing else about the Old Testament will know about all its many rules. There are, the internet reliably informs me, 613 rules in the Torah. There are the ones everyone has heard of:  no murder, no adultery, no stealing, etc; but there are also a bunch of others which are a great deal less well-known to your average-Joe: rules about what food you can eat, what clothes you can wear, what crops you can grow, and what to do if you get mildew in your house. It all seems very detailed, very picky, and pretty unnecessary. And when it comes to the punishments for breaking the rules, they can often feel totally over the top and out of proportion. To our 21st century, liberal, western ears, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, sounds utterly barbaric.

And that’s without even starting on the sacrificial system. Suffice it to say ─ it’s a bloodbath, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, animal after animal being slaughtered to appease a God whose standards appear to be unreasonable harsh.

So, how are we supposed to understand this for ourselves, and then go on to defend it to our sceptical classmates?

The big picture is that the law is all about mercy. That might seem unlikely at first hearing, so let me show you what I mean:

Firstly, it helps people to be merciful to each other. The famous ‘eye for an eye’ law is a classic example. Even though to our modern ears it feels harsh and cruel, it was actually all about insisting on something known as ‘proportional response’. 

One of the places where we can see disproportionate response is often in the comments sections on social media. Take, for example, an incident that I witnessed play out on Facebook a couple of years ago: an outraged grandmother made a public post about the fact that her 11 year old granddaughter had her hair chopped off by a boy at school. It was an unkind thing for him to do, no doubt, and the grandmother’s outrage was pretty understandable, however, the disproportionate response came in the comments of friends and strangers alike, who suggested such consequences as: ‘expel him from school’,‘call the police and charge him with assault’, ‘call in the Minister for Education’, and ‘kill his mother’. In the words of Ron Burgundy: “that escalated quickly”.

Our tendency as humans is for revenge, whether in our own personal arguments, or in the larger scale and infinitely more damaging arenas of geopolitics. One archduke gets assassinated in the Balkans, and a month later the whole world is at war with one another.

The purpose of ‘an eye for an eye’[15] is to stop that terrible revenge cycle, and to ensure that everyone (rich or poor, powerful or not) gets the same justice and the same consequences. And those consequences are reasonable and proportionate. Of course, we think that over time, as humans, we have grown and changed and got better somehow, and so whilst the ancient Israelites might have needed to be told those sorts of things, we certainly don’t, right? And yet, over 3000 years later, in this country there were 220 crimes that were punishable by death, including theft, ‘being in the company of Gypsies for one month’, and ‘strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age’.[16] If humanity hadn’t improved in 3000 years, perhaps it’s a bit naive to think that the last 200 years will have had much of a drastic improvement?

We are not merciful to others. Our hearts aren’t prone to restraint when we’ve been hurt or wronged, and the ancient Israelites weren’t much different, and so God stepped in and gave them laws to curb their tendency to revenge and offer a more reasonable way forward.

Secondly, the law is set up to allow us to receive and enjoy God’s mercy towards us. As we know (from our reading of the Old Testament, our observation of our own culture, and our familiarity with our own hearts), humans are sinful. God made us, he gave us a beautiful world to live in, and he offered us a relationship with himself, and yet from the very beginning we see humans take his good gifts, mistreat his creation, and reject the relationship. Life comes from him, and in rejecting him, we cut ourselves off from that life too. The consequences for our rebellion and our rejection should be death. And yet, unlike us, God doesn’t throw the relationship away or give up on it. He puts in motion a plan to rescue us, and whilst his people wait for the day of that rescue to come about, God also sets up a sacrificial system that functions in a few different ways:

1. It showed the seriousness of sin. 

Whenever I think about the temple in Jerusalem I start to imagine something very serene: all marble pillars and soft voices. The reality would have been very, very different. The temple was not a place of peaceful reflection, it was a place where sacrifices happened: all day, every day. Animal after animal: birds, lambs, goats and cattle, being brought to be slaughtered and set alight. The vibe would have been a lot less like a quiet cathedral, and much more like an abattoir. The sounds and sights and smells wouldn’t allow people to underestimate the seriousness of sin. Blood was being shed. Death was occurring in front of their eyes every day, as a reminder of the fact that death was the penalty for their sin.

2. It allowed them the opportunity to continue to live at peace with him.

There were all sorts of sacrifices that existed in the system, some were ways of thanking and worshiping God, others were ways of covering over sin and guilt, but the sacrifice-aspect — giving something over to be killed, or burned — featured in all of them, and acted as a reminder that there was a separation between God and his people (because of the people’s sin), and functioned as a temporary solution. It didn’t make everything ok again, but it did mean that while waiting for better sacrifice — one that could offer perfect payment rather than just a temporary covering over — they could live at peace, and enjoy the presence of their Maker and Lord.

3. It set up the system of substitution.

Sacrifice was all about substitution. It acknowledged that things were not right between humans and God; that humans had rejected him and gone their own way; that humans had brought disharmony into the relationship; and that something needed to be done to make things right. By rights, people should have paid the price for their own sin, but the price would be their own death. In place of that, God had designed a system whereby animals stood in the place of the humans. Those sheep and doves and goats and cattle died, so that the people didn’t have to. And yet, of course, a sheep was never going to work as a perfect sacrifice. What they needed — what we all needed — was a perfect substitute. One who is fully man, who understands what it is like to be tempted in every way, but also one who is fully God, perfect and sinless and so able to offer a sacrifice, in our place, once and for all.[17]

The Bible is not an easy book to read, or to get to grips with. There is a lot that we’ll find hard, and have questions about, and perhaps even be uncomfortable with. The Old Testament is, at times, extremely violent. But, the very presence of violence doesn’t mean we need to do away with it. Instead, we need to do the work to properly understand it. 

The reality is: studying Theology isn’t an easy thing to do, but it is a great thing to do! As Christians we’re going to have to work hard. We’re going to have to do the reading. We’re going to have to think. And we’re going to have to pray. But, in my experience, it’s very much worth it. This is God’s word ─ work hard, and trust that he’ll speak to you, by his Spirit, and that you’ll be drawn ever closer to Christ.

Suggested reading:

‘Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis that You Can't Learn from Exegesis Alone’ by John L Thompson, Eerdmans, 1997.

‘Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Old Testament Narratives’  by Phyllis Trible, Augsburg Fortress, 1984.

‘Violence in Scripture: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church’ by Jerome F. D. Creach, Westminster John Knox Press, 2013

Notes:


[1] The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, (London: Black Swan, 2007), 31.

[2] Clause C, Doctrinal Basis, UCCF: The Christian Unions from https://www.uccf.org.uk/about/doctrinal-basis (Accessed: 17 Nov 2020)

[3] Pamela Milne, ‘No Promised Land: Rejecting the Authority of the Bible’ in Feminist Approaches to the Bible Ed. by Hershel Shanks (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeological Society, 2012), 49.

[4] ‘I’m not praying’ by Cath Elliott in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/19/gender.religion)

[5] Judges 19:30

[6] Judges 21:25

[7] 2 Timothy 3:16-17

[8] 2 Samuel 13

[9] 2 Samuel 13:12-13

[10] Amorite refers to one tribe of people who lived in the land of Canaan (along with the ‘Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Girgashites… and Jebusites’ - Joshua 3:10).

[11] Genesis 15:16

[12] Joshua 2 and 6:22-23

[13] Joshua 2:11

[14] This quote is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but the original author is unknown.

[15] Leviticus 24:19-22

[16] ‘A Brief History of Abolition’ from Amnesty International UK (https://web.archive.org/web/20070930223055/http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=10403)

[17] Hebrews 9:11-28

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