Situating the disturbing theme of violence in the Bible within its historical (non)reception, the present paper begins by pointing to some “violent” appropriations, then moves on to outline other, promising responses. Placing the author’s recent publication within this framework, the present work suggests some interpretive options of fruitfully engaging violent texts—options that pay particular attention to socio-historical context of, literary-rhetorical nuances and theological envisioning in these texts.
By Dominic S. Irudayaraj SJ
Senior Lecturer, Hekima College, Nairobi; Visiting Professor, PIB, Rome Jesuit Visiting Scholar
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA
When encountering violence in the faith-inspired and faith-inspiring pages of the Bible, it can disturb even a cursory reader. Such de-settling texts are provocatively categorized as “Texts of Terror” (cf. Trible 1984)! Naturally, efforts at coming to terms with them have marked the interpretive history for centuries. The rich trove of available literature on this problematic theme is an ample attestation to such efforts at outlining responsible responses to violence in the Bible. The present work aims to undertake neither a comprehensive survey of such responses nor even to make an inventory of the violent texts in the Bible. Rather, its purpose is to point to some of the reading strategies that we, as readers of courage and commitment, can fruitfully have recourse to when faced with a violent biblical text. But before that, a historical note may be in order.
Tendency towards a “Violent” Reading!
In the context of engaging the theme of violence in the Bible, Marcion, a second century gnostic thinker, frequently gets featured—ironically, for the contrary example that he has set. In fact, Marcion’s response marks a quintessential and extreme reaction. Guided by his philosophical background, Marcion is known to have suggested that the Old Testament should not be part of the Bible! Even the New Testament did not escape his gnostic gaze. Only ten sections in the gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul (including the one that is no longer available to us) made up to the so-called Marcion canon. Thankfully, such an abrasive attempt at deletion was successfully challenged by Tertullian, one of the Fathers of the Church.
Today, though none of the Bible readers may toe the lines of Marcion’s “violent” discarding of biblical texts, various shades of tendencies towards deleting or, at least, editing some of the “non-palatable” biblical texts still linger. Eric Zenger (1996: 20-22) cites an interesting episode that unfolded in the Carmelite convent in Dachau, Germany. The convent was on the way of the pilgrims who went to visit one of the Nazi concentration camps, which was not far from the convent. Initially and in keeping with the conventions of that time, the convent had the custom of reciting the Office of the Hours in Latin. Those prayers included some imprecatory psalms as well (e.g. Ps 137:7-9; for details on Imprecatory Psalms, see below). However, when they switched to reciting the Office in the local language, these very psalms that called for vengeance and God’s fury on the enemy should have sounded quite shocking. In response, Gemma Hinricher, the prioress, chose to eliminate them from the list of “recite-able” psalms! Even, popular culture seems to follow a similar strategy. The lyrics of Boney M’s famous By the Rivers of Babylon (3 Apr 1978), for example, repeats only the palatable portions of Psalm 137.
Uncritical or Bypassing: Equally Problematic
If efforts at deletion marks an extreme response, the other extreme is constituted by a naïve appropriation of such troubling texts. History bears witness to the fact that a tendency to quote the Scriptures in order to garner approval for heinous crimes such as slavery, genocide, misogyny, racism, etc. is a sad and dangerous outcome of an uncritical reading of violent texts. For instance, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” which draws its impetus from the Divine Warrior text in Isaiah 63 “has become a song of war, used in virtually every war in which the United States has been involved” (Claassens 2016: 335; On Isaiah 63, see below).
A somewhat similar but equally unhelpful interpretive option is the choice to look away from these troubling texts. A perceptive analogy by Eric Seibert powerfully captures the potential ramification of such a choice: “Ignoring violent texts is like camping on the bank of a crocodile-infested river…. These Leviathan-like texts ... can erupt with violent force when it is least expected” (2012: 147).
Some Interpretive Suggestions
From the discussion thus far, it needs no belaboring to state that there is violence in the Bible—in both the Old and the New Testaments (on the latter, see De Villiers and Van Henten 2012: ix-x). And it presents a persisting problematic to us, the readers. These texts, in turn, call out to us for meaningful ways of appropriating them. As indicated earlier, the scholarly suggestions to such appropriations are aplenty. For the sake of heuristic purpose, such suggestions are grouped here under three broad categories: socio-cultural, literary-rhetorical, and theological. The categories are neither comprehensive nor mutually exclusive as the following discussion will illustrate. A brief word on each of these categories might be appropriate.
(i) Socio-cultural: Any violent text in the Bible has come down to us from a time, a society, and a culture that is far removed from ours. Hence, it helps to pay heed to the cultural and chronological distance between the text and us. As such, situating the text in its socio-cultural context (as much as possible) might pave the way for a helpful meaning-making process. Equally important in this process is the socio-cultural setting of the reader and how it informs a particular way of reading a violent text. (ii) Literary-rhetorical: the Bible as we have it is a written text. As literary scholars make us aware, texts are written with an attendant motive of persuading the readers. Hence, they are couched in certain literary forms and styles. If so, attention to the literary-rhetorical conventions can also come handy in this meaning-making process—a process that eschews any tendency to viewing the biblical texts as mere mirror images of historical events. For example, Dever has persuasively shown how the marauding massacre of the Canaanites, as portrayed in the book of Joshua, can hardly be supported by the available archaeological data (2017: 186-188). (iii) Theological: because biblical texts stem from faith-communities, they enunciate a community’s experience and expression of who God is and how this God relates with them. Therefore and as stated in the socio-cultural aspect above, the context and experience of the community can also be usefully factored into the reading of these texts of terror. The following section presents a few illustrations to highlight how these categories can aid in reading some difficult texts.
Violence and in Its Varieties
Not all violence in the Bible follow a singular pattern. There are cases of violence between human beings (e.g.: the capture of and the massacre in Jericho and Ai; Joshua 6-8; see the archaeology-related note, above). In other cases, violence stems from God’s own self and the target are either human beings (e.g.: the slaughter of the first born of the Egyptians; Exod 12:29-30) or the entire world (e.g.: the flood story; Genesis 7). There is also a third type, which is somewhat on the reverse direction. Here, human beings call out to God for vengeance (e.g.: imprecatory Psalms, see below). An example from each of these types will now be briefly analyzed from the three interpretive categories suggested above.
(a) Violated Near-Neighbor: Already in the first few pages of the Bible, Cain’s cold-blooded murder of his younger brother Abel bespeaks a shocking story of a violated near-neighbor. The event’s intensity is aptly captured in the subtitle, supplied by the NAB editors: “The trampled brotherhood.” So we ask: how would the three delineated categories (socio-historical, literary-rhetorical, and theological) help in coming to terms with the violence here?
A literary-rhetorically cued reading, for example, may pause to take note that the word “brother” occurs 7 times in this text. Seven, being a symbolic number in the Bible, may underscore the author’s focus on brotherhood in order to powerfully portray the fractured brotherhood, the decimated near-neighbor. A second nuance pertains to the very names of the brothers. Cain in Hebrew possibly means “lance/spear” (cf. 2 Sam 21:16) and Abel, on the other hand, signifies “breath/vapor” (in Ecclesiastes, the same word is translated as “vanity/transitory”). As is often the case with the Hebrew literary style, the names are already indicative of the forthcoming prospects of these two siblings. Literary features such as these point to a stylized rendition of the story of the First Family.
A socio-cultural sensitivity, on the other hand, might train the readers’ eyes to what seems like a passing description: “Abel became a herder of flocks, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (v.2). Against the backdrop of the occupational contest that frequently unfolds between two competing groups (agrarians vs. pastoralists) for the same turf, might this primeval story of the First Children a condensation of conflicts—conflicts that continue even in our times?
A theologically oriented reading might point to the grace that not only warns Cain (“sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can master it.” Gen 4:7) but also reaches out to Cain with a protective mark lest he is killed (Gen 4:15). Despite these delineated details, there still remain some troubling details in this texts, such as, the divine favor of Abel’s offering over Cain’s (Gen 4:4-5). Some scholars have pointed out how such favoritism paves the way for the violence that ensues, thus implicating God. Arguing along the same lines, other interpreters indicate the very trouble with the notion of monotheism and its attendant assertions: one God, one blessing, one chosen people/person, and the conflict that these engender (cf. Schwarts 1998). To summarize, while socio-cultural, literary-rhetorical, and theological sensitivities may help highlight some nuances, there still remain troubling details in this primeval story of Murder in the Field!
(b) Violent God: Among the violent acts that are portrayed as proceeding from God’s own self, Ezekiel 16 and 23 present shocking illustrations. These chapters show Israel and Judah as personified women who undergo violent punishment. The images are horrific, the language is near pornographic and the envisaged ravage (gang rape) is appalling. Weem’s work on these texts (titled, “Battered Love” 1995) perfectly captures the sexual violence in these prophetic portrayals.
A socio-cultural sensitivity is often suggested to engage the troubling details here. In the ancient Near Eastern context, where honor/shame played a significant role, a husband’s honor is frequently predicated upon his control of his wife, particularly over her sexual propriety. In such a patriarchal honor/shame context, a wanton wife would only mean dishonor to her husband. In other words, to say to any Israelite man “your wife is a wanton one” would be a straight-forward act of shaming.
Of course, the focus of the accusation in these texts (Ezekiel 16; 23) is the worship of other gods (as opposed to or in addition to Yahweh). Scholars note that if the prophet had condemned such a syncretic worship in plain words, it may not have had as much persuasive effect as the use of the shocking image of a wanton wife. Hence, biblical interpreters invite us to situate these texts in such a cultural context. At the same time, we are also cautioned from stopping with a mere socio-culturally situated reading because the danger of reinforcing sexual violence and wife abuse might be close at hand (cf. Siebert’s perceptive analogy, above). In short, a socio-cultural reading ought to go hand in hand with a reader-resistance that does not at any time approve the portrayed acts.
If Ezekiel’s text is a depiction of violent God against “wanton women,” my work on Isaiah engages the Divine Warrior’s bloodbath (Isa 63:1-6). This short passage portrays the divine in blood-spattered garments which was the result of trampling down people in anger and wrath and pouring out their lifeblood. It is proposed that situating such a blood-saturated text in the socio-cultural context of a marginal post-exilic community helps attend to some nuances in this texts. True, the text details the violent acts of the divine in arresting descriptions. Still, the same text also leaves behind some marginal elements. Interestingly, these marginal elements meaningfully correlate with the experience of the exilic people. As such, the prophetic vision appears to correlate the identity of God with God’s decimated community—as though indicative of the divine solidarity with Israel’s experience of exile. Further, even marginality is not the last word here. There are also mighty, saving elements that the prophet weaves in for adumbrating hope to the people at the exilic periphery (cf. Irudayaraj, 2017: 111-126).
In the illustrations thus far, if the first case (Cain and Abel) points to violence between humans, the other illustrations (Ezekiel and Isaiah) speak of God’s violence towards human beings. A third, albeit curious, case is constituted by a call for violence that goes up from human beings to God.
(c) Imprecatory Psalms—A Plea for Vengeance: Most of the content of the Old Testament is God’s words to human beings. However, the book of Psalms presents an exception: they are predominantly human beings’ words to God. Among these, the imprecatory psalms (e.g.: Pss 12, 58, 69, 83, 94, 109, 129, 137) are an outcry for vengeance from the earth to the heavens. Psalm 137, for example, paints a shocking image of a gleeful call to dash the Babylonian babies against the rocks!
In dealing with these difficult psalms, De Claissé-Walford makes four important observations: (i) it is true that “enemies” fill the pages of psalms. Keel counts that 94 different terms are used for the enemies (1969: 93-131 in De Claissé-Walford 2011: 85). Though they are shown as blood-thirsty, gigantic, surrounding etc., none of them is specific (ii) most of the imprecatory psalms are communal. It is the voice of a gathered community. It is never an individual’s vengeance against another individual; (iii) they stem from inexplicable pain which is felt by a community of people. Confronted by evil, they appeal to (or, even demand) the power that can deal with and defeat that evil; (iv) it is a passionate cry to God to make things straight; but never asking permission to carry it by oneself (De Claissé-Walford 2011: 85-86). Thus, De Claissé-Walford rightly shifts the focus to the language used as well as the community’s context. Along the same lines, isn’t it the case that marginal communities’ perception of their gods often gets outlined along violent lines (cf. Irudayaraj 2017: 98-107)?
The short reflection thus far on how we may meaningfully read the violent texts has extended an invitation to pay heed to socio-cultural contexts (as much as possible), textual subtleties (persuasion-focused rhetorical features), and the theological visions that are outlined. Nonetheless, it bears to mention that there is no “one size fits all” solution to problematic details that these texts house.
We began this paper with a parlance of Trible (“texts of terror”). Perhaps, it may be appropriate to conclude it with her one other, appealing imagery. Trible compares our challenging task of making meaning of these troublesome texts to Jacob’s experience at the ford of the Jabbok. In a night long contestation, Jacob is shown as wrestling with the fearsome figure (Gen 32:23-33). In the end, Jacob emerges with both crippling victory; and magnificent defeat (Trible, 1984:4). So can our experience of wrestling with the violent texts be! When faced with violence texts, we might find ourselves surprised, shocked or even wounded. All the same, it is in our continued contestation with these troubling texts, which lets the text’s various nuances come to the fore, that the blessing of a non-violent reading of these problematic and yet faith-based texts may gradually unfold!
Claassens, L. Juliana. 2016. “God and violence in the prophets.” Pp. 334-351 in The Oxford Handbook of the Prophets. Ed. Carolyn Sharp. New York: Oxford University Press.
De Claissé-Walford, Nancy L. 2011. “The Theology of the Imprecatory Psalms.” Pp. 77-92 in Soundings in the Theology of Psalms: Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Scholarship. Ed. Rolf A. Jacobson. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Dever, William G. 2017. Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. Atlanta: SBL Press.
De Villiers, Pieter, and Jan Willem Van Henten, eds. 2012. Coping with Violence in the New Testament. Leiden: Brill.
Keel, Othmar. 1969. Feinde und Gottesleugner. Pp. 93–131 in Studien zum Image der Widersacher in den Individualpsalmen. SBM 7. Stuttgart: Verlag Katholi-sches Bibelwerk.
Schwartz, Regina M. 1998. The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Seibert, Eric A. 2012. The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Trible, Phyllis. 1984. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Weems, Renita J. 1995. Battered love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew prophets. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Zenger, Erich. 1996. A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.
I agree with your insights and propositions, and also the acknowledgment that there is no single solution to the problems that these violent texts raise.
Just some thoughts to extend the discussion. Is there really a way to read a violent text non-violently? Perhaps for the intellectual person it is understandable, and much more for the theologian. Even then, as you rightly pointed out, one cannot avoid encountering violence being perpetuated through the Scriptures. I haven't done sufficient academic and intellectual reading on this topic, but I believe the tension I encounter between the existence of good and evil in the same God lingers in the minds of many other readers of the divine text. In reading the violent text in a non-violent way, is a person trying to see the evil side of God in a good way? Is the reader to constantly be trying to find reasons to avoid ascribing evil to God?
In Deuteronomy 32:39 for instance, we encounter the God who puts to death and makes alive. The violent and brutal manner in which some of these texts appear is not merely to express some reality in a nuanced/vivid imagery to carry across a message. I believe that it is the reality that is expressed to portray the exact effect it is communicating. Our human understanding of power is to exert its force to carry out one's intended end. Every obstacle must be removed with force in order to achieve an end if one has power. Not to exhibit the power to uproot and destroy what prevents one from achieving an end is seen as weakness. It is a contest, more or less. The same person who is capable of doing good can also accomplish evil, at least to protect the ones he or she loves. This human way of thinking is extended to God as well.
Expressed in another way, if my God is good, then this God should do everything to defend me from my enemies, and if possible, eliminate them and destroy their properties to keep me safe. The intensity of the hatred my enemies have for me should reflect in the ferocity with which God deals with them. This is how I can demonstrate to everyone that my God is powerful. I do not expect this God to deal violently with me if I keep all his commandments. Wanting to ascribe goodness to God always is problematic for the faith. Perhaps, one could attempt to redefine what power means when it resides in God. That this power is incapable of hurting our existence as human beings is something that we cannot comprehend.
Can God always ensure my safety and good life if he does not hurt others? Can God always keep me happy by not allowing my loved ones to suffer accidents, diseases and death? One can try to interpret violence in the biblical texts in a non-violent way, but it is a reality that has to be embraced and acknowledged. The same God who gives life can take it away. I do not think that God can always take away evil without causing harm to another person, even if that person is innocent.
Our varied contexts in daily experience influence what aspect of God we lift our voices to. And this God's will is carried out through the medium of human beings, as far as our human understanding goes. Can a suffering community/person refuse to act when confronted with elimination? Would the God to whom they cry not empower them to destroy their enemies instead? Just as a person does not hear the voice of God literally in an explicit command in order to carry out a good act, the same person cannot be expected to receive an explicit command to carry out destruction of one's enemies. To say that God did not ask a person to carry out an evil act by oneself before its execution is like begging the question altogether.
Eventually, humanity is responsible for its actions. God will remain God, and full human comprehension of his ways will remain the darkest of all mysteries. Has God evolved in the way we perceive him? Is he a new God or the same Yahweh who now chooses to suffer with suffering humanity and refuses to use his power even when his loved ones face hardships that cannot be overcome without violence? That means that true power, as can be ascribed to God, must take on a new definition. Otherwise, occasional violence must be part of the spiritual equation.
Thank you for these thoughts, Karlson.
There are a number of aspects that your thoughts touch upon: that God in God’s self shall remain a mystery; that the biblical portrayals stem from cultures and contexts that are often different from those of ours; that our comprehension of God and God’s word—of which, difficult (read, violent) texts make an unmistakable part—are colored by our contexts and concerns…
All these are attestations to a worth-repeating view that there is not "one" way of reading the violent texts!
Rather, what may be helpful are dispositions that look to diverse areas (historico-cultural, literary and theological … are but some) to ask questions—even difficult ones (remember, Job), wrestle with relevant details (for instance, poetry has a style and tone that are markedly different from prose), and theological articulation (the verse from Deut which you cite, for example, might be adumbrating a view that can be helpfully appropriated by situating it within its pericope; and then, within the book itself).
Such a suggested, nuanced sensitivity is geared to find in violent texts more than what meets the eyes but NEVER at the expense of the violent details.