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

Violence and the Bible

Last night at the Berks County (PA) Theology with a Twist, I spoke about “Violence and the Bible.”  We had a good discussion, around tables and as a group.

I’m posting my talking points below.  Maybe they can generate conversation here as well.


Violence and the Bible

Berks CountyTheology with a Twist, Kutztown Tavern, Sept 8, 2009

Julia M. O’Brien

1.  There’s really violence in the Bible?

Let’s name some of it.  What violent content of the Bible bothers you?


2.  We aren’t the first generation of folks to be bothered by it. There’s a long list of strategies to respond to that violence.  I’ll identify 5 to start with.

a. celebrate it. Accept it. Imitate it.  Stone those adulterers.  Take the land God gave you.

b. justify it. we might not like it, but it was part of God’s plan for redemption.T he logic: God might not want you to kill others today, but if Israelites hadn’t killed Canaanites, then the Jewish religion might not have survived, and then where would Christianity be?

c. selective reading. ignore the parts that bother you, focus on the positive. (includes the Revised Common Lectionary, in its selection and in its editing of passages). especially, selective importance. NT mores impt than OT, gospels more impt than Paul or Revelation, words of Jesus more impt than gospel writers themselves.

d.  explain it historically. these events might not have happened that way, anyway. Biblical acct of conquest of Canaan doesn’t match up with facts on the ground. Archaeologists and social historians rethinking roles of women, period of Judges, exiles returning to an empty land

e.  read creatively.

early church:  Four-fold approach to scripture. Origen: When Psalm 137 says happy are those who bash the enemy’s infant against the rocks, it really means to dash your sins  against the rocks of reason.

Modern version of this—actually postmodern– version texts don’t say anything apart from readers. Solution is to read in a non-violent way.

Any of these sound familiar?


3. My observation:   you only have to solve the problem of the violence in the Bible when you have particular assumptions/convictions about what the Bible is and what you’re supposed to do with what you read there—what usually gets called biblical authority. So, helpful to think about that you believe about the Bible. What do folks say about the bible?

Only rule of faith and practice

God’s rule book

Bible is instructions, good patterns for life.

(reflected in pop use of “Bible”: The Gardener’s Bible, The Grilling Bible)

Live biblically. Have a biblical marriage.

All of the strategies except #1 trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance caused when the Bible doesn’t live up to what you’ve been told about it.   So people try to fix it with these strategies and more

Why the strategies don’t work for me:

1. problematic biblical passages are not truly exceptions, especially when you begin to pay attention to gender equality. patriarchy runs throughout the Bible, even through the “good” texts.   Even beautiful texts like the Prodigal Son are focused on males.

2. I think you shouldn’t claim that something’s true about the Bible if it’s not true about the whole Bible.   If you don’t accept the authority of the whole Bible (which would be hard to do, given the internal contradictions), then quit throwing “biblical authority” around. If you want to talk about parts of it, then talk about parts.  And acknowledge–and explain–your selective reading.

My own response to violence in the Bible? Think differently about the Bible.  Read it for something different than instructions.  Read it for how it provokes you to think about human living. I probably find more violence in the Bible than most people and it probably bothers me less. I read it for something other than rules. Reading the Bible continues to be a very powerful experience for me, because I read it for the dynamics of the story.  How it encourages me to think about individual and corporate human experience.

Leads me to reject another response I haven’t mentioned yet:  throw it out. Consider yourself superior to it. The Bible is too powerful, too meaningful for me to stop reading it.

I’m talking about that on my blog and offering reading/discussion questions in my Reading the Bible as an Adult project. I’d love to have your feedback.


3 Responses to Violence and the Bible

  • Thank you for sharing these. We are going to be submerged in these issues very soon in my intro class, and I will share some of your thoughts with them. I especially like the different categories of responses. This blog will go up as a blackboard link today.

    I am also grateful for your articulation of the need to view the Bible differently. In my tradition, we are wrapped up in words like authority and “practical application.” I always cringe when students ask, “How can we apply this text?” It makes me feel like the Bible is a band-aid to place over a skinned knee. On the other hand “relevance” is too weak a word for how the Bible functions in communities of faith. Unfortunately, in the congregational climate for which my students are preparing, church members often want the one-word approach to defining the Bible and its function in their lives. Any thoughts on how to move our culture away from such simplistic understandings?

  • Dave,
    I wish I knew how to move away from simplistic understandings. My approach (to show the benefits of more complex ways of thinking) is a tough sell. What works for you?

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