A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Thinking through Biblical Violence

In the spring 2010 semester at LTS, I’ll be teaching a new course:  Violence and the Bible.

I first envisioned the course 5 years ago, as an extension of a course I already teach (Prophets of Divine Wrath:  Nahum, Obadiah, and Malachi), work I’d done in my Nahum volume, and workshops I’d given in churches.

Now it’s time to give the course shape and select readings.  So, I turn to readers with questions:


  • Which violent biblical stories most deserve attention?
  • What readings have been helpful to you as you consider biblical violence?
  • What approaches to biblical violence do you find most helpful?
  • What does this course just have to talk about?
  • What concrete examples can you offer of the “spillover” of biblical violence into the world?
  • What other questions should I be asking?

8 Responses to Thinking through Biblical Violence

  • * Which violent biblical stories most deserve attention?
    God v Pharaoh and all of the Egyptian women, men, girls, boys, livestock, water-based life forms, and soldiers and horses…
    Revelations and Daniel – Even if your specialty is HB/OT, would be interesting to see how violence in apocalyptic…while perhaps intending hope…also does some other not-so-hopeful work
    Hosea 1-2 – For reasons you are well aware.
    David giving 7 of Saul’s sons over to the Gibeonites – motives, blood debt, consolidating power

    * What readings have been helpful to you as you consider biblical violence?
    I hear a certain HB/OT professor at LTS wrote a book or two…
    Women’s Bible Commentary

    * What approaches to biblical violence do you find most helpful?
    1. Accept it uncritically as a story that generations have shared. Yell “Opa” and enjoy a drink together in celebration of the wonderful story we have just read.
    2. Read it slooooooowwwwwwwwlllllllllyyyyyyy
    3. Compare/contrast to current wisdom on the cycle(s) of violence (Hosea), terrorism, etc etc.
    4. Compare/contrast to current insights on common sense with regards to equalities/inequality, ownership, power, status as valid humans, ecology
    5. Pastoral approaches – OK, so the text is distasteful and ugly…how can it be used in pastoral settings? Can it be?

    * What does this course just have to talk about?
    1. Giving the narrator a free pass
    2. Giving the narrator’s God a free pass
    3. Doing both without even thinking about it

    * What concrete examples can you offer of the “spillover” of biblical violence into the world?
    1. Folks who are only marginally biblically literate will argue parallels in Middle East conflict to Exodus/Joshua. Helpful to know a bit more about whether such parallels are, in fact, there.
    2. Trying to think of concrete examples, but my criteria would include someone who committed such violence somehow quoting or intentionally alluding to scripture. I’m stuck.

    * What other questions should I be asking?
    1. Can good and useful things come from violence?
    2. Does recognizing those things somehow validate violence?
    3. What other ways could have worked in the text examples analyzed?
    4. Would the text have been powerful enough or oral-transmission-worthy enough had it not included violence? Does this matter? (i.e. Exodus story – and this is my question)

  • That very very last sentence: What I’m wondering is the canon-power a story would have if it did not use violence. Many Psalms and Proverbs, for example, work fairly well without overt use of violence and their form didn’t require it for impact, it seems.

    But given humanity’s interest in all things CSI Miami, Law & Order, Heroes, CNN, Fox News, etc etc now…
    And surely humans aren’t THAT different from humans then with respect to engaging stories….
    Could a story like Exodus have even survived or been distributed in a widespread manner if it was bereft of violence?
    Would we be reading about Zeus, if Zeus threw silk scarves?

    And the kicker – Am I asking the question because I want to give a free pass to the author and the author’s God?

    Of course I do. But the question remains…

  • Just about anything in Judges, but probably the most horrific would be the story of the Levite’s concubine.

  • An important element I appreciated in your course on Prophets Divine Wrath was the examination of violent prophetic metaphors against women. Narrative and metaphorical violence against women should, and I expect will, be part of your new class.

    I went to a lecture on Friday by Dr. James Brenneman, a Mennonite OT scholar, on Reading Joshua Backwards. He seeks to deal with the violence in Joshua through a canonical critical approach, which has its limitations, particularly for laypersons. Dealing with the violence in Joshua and the conquest narratives are significant for contemporary issues of the land of Israel/Palestine, Native American and postcolonial theology, and with liberationist perspectives that rely heavily on Exodus as a model, which cannot be too easily separated from conquest.

  • I would be interested in analysing the ideology of Joshua and the cherem in the context of the Ancient Near East. And I also like the idea above about covering violence in apocalyptic literature such as Daniel and Revelation, especially covering Revelation so that students avoid a Marcionite caricature of the HB and realize divine violence is present in both Testaments.

  • I would say that Moses seemingly clear instructions to Joshua to “show no mercy” & “totally destroy them and anything that breaths” in Deuteronomy regarding the Canaanites. Joshua’s less than obedient handling of the Canaanites i.e. Rahab etc. and how we can make sense of such genocidal commands in the name of God. Should such a God be trusted? How are these stories different from modern Jihad stories? How would Jesus or any NT author handle these texts?

  • * Which violent biblical stories most deserve attention?
    The story of Samuel’s rebuke of Saul for not slaughtering the Amalekites is particularly bothersome to me. Also it seems that you need to eventually deal with the crucifixion of Jesus.

    * What readings have been helpful to you as you consider biblical violence?
    I’ve only read Proverbs of Ashes by Brock and Parker. But I like the power that narrative has on this topic.

    * What does this course just have to talk about?
    I think the class has got to deal with how Christian theologies might reinforce exploitation.
    It would also be helpful to consider the many forms violence takes. We tend to think of the ‘war’ types first; but what about the way ‘competition’ is violence that can cause me to objectify people – see them as obstacles to my end goals? Bullying/teasing? Is ‘silence’ violence?

  • I was introduced to the writings of Jean Zaru last week and came across a lecture she gave (Building a Culture of Peace . . . Apr. 2009): http://www.plowsharesproject.org/journal/php/essay.print.php?issu_list_id=12&essay_list_id=17). It made me aware of my ignorance of a few more issues related to violence.

    Zaru says, “[I]t is absolutely necessary that we understand how violence and systems of domination function. Structural violence is often silent. It does not easily show.” How, then, do we learn to find structural violence in the Bible?

    Later she says, “One distinct weakness of the concept of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the basic assumption of symmetry, which views contending parties in conflict as being equal. This is absolutely false.” This may be true in our understanding of other violence . . . can we identify the weaker party in conflict and understand the imbalance?

    I was also struck by this thought, “Nonviolence exposes and then challenges the structures of domination, and not just the overt symptoms. It then, in turn, requires the oppressor to examine how they, too, are victims of the very violence they impart.” As we look at biblical violence, identify the oppressor, get angry at them, can we then see them as victims of the violence, too?

    Thanks for a place to put these thoughts and questions!

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