Formation: The Bible - What to do with violent scriptures?

What to do with violent biblical texts?

One of the things you’ll notice if you spend much time reading your bible, is that it contains a lot of violence. You don’t have to get very far before you run into the spilling of blood.

The first incident of violence in the scriptures is in the story of Cain and Abel. And here we can clearly see that this violence is a bad thing. Cain gets jealous of his brother and ends up murdering him, taking his life, spilling his blood, and God is not happy about this. This is the kind of violent story in the bible that is easy to make sense of. 

But what happens when the violent texts get a little more complicated? Because it’s not too long before we start bumping into all kinds of violence, and this time it’s not just the villains – it’s our heroes. We have people like Abraham having a womb-slave; taking a servant Hagar and forcing her to bear him children. We have the conquest of Canaan – which on the one hand is this story of liberation from slavery in Egypt and the entry into the promised land, and yet on the other hand is the story of genocide, as the people of Israel move into a territory that is already occupied, and wipe out all the people there – men, women and children.

And then not only is this what they do, but it appears that they’re doing what God has told them to do. God is the one who has said they should go in there and wipe everybody out. What do we do when the heroes of our stories turn out to be violent people, using violent means to accomplish violent ends? And apparently God is on their side?

And what do we do with this, when we seek to follow the way of Jesus, who seems to be offering us a challenge – to love our enemies, to forgive those who have sinned against us, to not turn an eye for an eye, but turn the other cheek. A God who is said to be love. 

Sometimes the way to deal with these violent texts is to allegorise and spiritualise. Or simply to say that this is how it was and this is what people deserved before the era of grace that begins with Jesus. But all of these options leave you with a bible, and a God, who endorses and is complicit in this kind of violence. 

So what’s the alternative?

It helps if we continue to move away from the idea of the bible as a divine instruction manual and remember that these ancient writings come to us as resources for wisdom, rather than divinely composed rules for life. Which means that when we read of an ancient warrior, or an ancient battle, the first inclination doesn’t have to be to seek to emulate them, even if the way the story is told celebrates them as a hero.

Secondly, it is very likely that some of these texts were idealised. Archeological evidence suggests to us that the widespread genocides recorded in the Old Testament are quite likely exaggerated to suggest the favour that rested on them – especially when these texts were most probably compiled while they were in exile/oppressed etc. A nation trying to emphasise its identity, and doing so by narrating themselves as victorious when they were faithful to God; a way of interpreting their own history to make sense of the present.

So what if we were to read these kinds of violent stories as a commentary of wisdom on the human psyche, the human condition. An insight into our ongoing struggle with ego, with competition, with fear of otherness and the way people have always integrated all of this into religious beliefs and our claims about what “God has said”. Our sense of belonging in a religious community can be shaped by the belief that we’re in and other people are out. God is on our side but not theirs. So God becomes implicated in our own violence. We use the name of God to give divine support to the causes and battles we align ourselves with.

Which means that we should also pay attention to the evolving view of God emerging in the biblical narrative. We see an ongoing wrestle with, debate about, and even argument over who God is, what God has told us to do, and what God is like. 

And as a subversive and revolutionary view of God continues to emerge in the story, often through the prophets, ultimately the violent ‘warrior’ God is undone by Jesus, who instead says to “love your enemies.” We see a progressing and evolving view of God, and we arrive over the course of the story at this point of view that says God is love.

So why is it important to keep reading these stories? 

Because they carry the history of a sacred tradition and sacred story that give us some insight into a different way of being in the world. And if we don’t read these stories, and the way that people have wrestled with the core insights of the human condition, and the way that spirituality can help move us outward from some of our core problems, then we easily think we’re much better than them. We think we’ve outgrown these stories. But we haven’t. Look at the world around us now; for all of our civilisation and modernity and technology and ethics, we’re still fighting tribal wars of ego and competition.

We still live in a world where people are oppressed and marginalised for various kinds of otherness, whether it be ethnicity and race, or economic class, or political tribe, or sexuality; all sorts of ways to justify the elimination of the different, of the other. The one who triggers fear in us. The one who makes us uncomfortable. 

And this doesn’t just happen on a systemic scale – lest we get ourselves off the hook too easily here – it happens at a personal level too.

So if we ignore things like the bible because of its violence, or we find ways to justify the violence that’s there, in both cases we are not set up to enter into the conversation about how we negotiate a way forward from these aspects of the human condition and experience that we are still immersed in.

And although stories in the text are brutal in their acknolwedgement – and at times - endorsement of –violence, we are also offered different ways forward. And this mirrors the idea that the spiritual life is one of transformation. 

 So here are some helpful questions to ask when we read violent biblical texts:

 Why are they telling this story?

How are they using the name of God?

How do I use the name of God?

What does this story tell us about how they saw God?

How does Jesus help me make sense of this?

How do I see God?

So Now What?Clint Gibson