Violence and the Bible

Battle of Gilboa by Jean Forquet (1420-1480)

Battle of Gilboa by Jean Forquet (1420-1480)

If you spend much time with scripture you have to come to some sense of resolution about how you will approach the question of violence within the Bible. If you are following what I am writing about Esther, we are entering a portion where when you take seriously the violence that is being talked about, which I will do, it should force you to ask some really difficult questions.

Probably the simplest answer that many people come to is to simply ignore it.  The bible like so much of the media we consume simply assumes violence is a part of life. In the book of Esther the violence is never ascribed to God or God’s will, it is simply a result of the way things are and the characters in the book work and live out of the societies assumption towards violence and revenge.  At other times the violence is directly attributed to God’s will, for example this is the prophet Samuel speaking to King Saul to get him to go and wipe out the Amalekites:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. 1 Samuel 15: 2-3

I choose this one because it may have some relevance to the story of Esther since the villan in the story is an Agagite (King Agag is the one Saul did not kill, but Samuel the prophet did and perhaps some think this is the cause of the animosity). But this is one of many throughout the Old Testament where God seems to tell the people in effect ‘wipe them out, all of them.’ At other times God is behind the violent action, whether in the plagues in Egypt or even God being behind the armies of Assyria and Babylon taking the people into exile. Yet on the other hand Jesus effectively argues for non-violent lifestyle, and throughout much of the Old Testament, particularly in the prophets, we see a hope for a vision of peace and harmony where swords are turned into plowshears and nations no longer train for war. The contrast was such that one of the earliest heresies in the church, Marcionism, argued that there were two gods, the New Testament God of Jesus and the Old Testament demiurge who was the violent and evil creator (more about Marcion in the Place of Authority 2-3: The Early Church’s Identity Problem).

At some level, I have had to reconcile how I approach this issue because within it rests a broader question on how we approach and value scripture:

An approach, but not one I advocate, followed by many conservative Christians is to fully embrace the picture of the violent God, hence God’s wrath and holiness become central parts of their theology. Within this approach violence may have a divine sanction, especially towards the other. This was the way of thinking that was operative during the crusades or the colonization of the Americas where the options presented were convert or die. This is in my opinion a very dangerous ideology and ripe for abuse in many ways, where the other is de-humanized and can be eliminated as offensive to God. Within this theology the spokesman (and it typically is a man-although not always) gets to determine what is holy and what is profane and as a mouthpiece of their god. Much violence, abuse, and destruction has been sanctioned by advocates of this theology and while one can make a biblical justification for it-it goes completely against the vision of Christianity I practice.

Another approach which tries to engage the question faithfully, is represented by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who states God is in recovery from violence. Brueggemann attempts to take the Old Testament witness very seriously as a whole and is a phenomenal interpreter of texts and theologian, yet this is still not the approach I would advocate. You can see Brueggemann talk about this way of thinking here.

As a Lutheran pastor there are several pieces of my tradition that form my approach to this question:

  1. Ultimately as a Lutheran I am focused on God’s action of coming down in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus the Christ, as the lens through which the rest of scripture is viewed. Jesus words and ministry interpret and critique the rest of scripture, and so it is here that I look to find what God is like.
  2. Lutheran interpretation of scripture has always advocated for ‘a cannon within the cannon’ which is a fancy way of saying not all scripture has equal weight or value. As I mentioned a couple times going through Esther, Martin Luther didn’t like Esther (or James or Revelation for that matter) because what was important was what reveals Christ.
  3. Finally from a Lutheran perspective God is ultimately a gracious God and so while I would not go the direction of Marcion and eliminate the Old Testament, rather I read the bible back and forth, and even in the times of darkness and violence to ask the question of ‘where is the God of love in the midst of this’ and there may be parts where we say ‘the God of love does not seem to be in this’ at least at this point as we read, but sometime later we may see something different.

The scriptures are in dialogue with each other and are not one unified voice, but rather a chorus of different voice trying to point to God. I attempt to take scripture very seriously, but there will be times when I struggle against a certain piece (as I will with the ninth chapter of Esther) because it seems to go against the grain of the ultimate direction of where scripture is hearing, it may be out of tune with the rest of the chorus. Yet my own voice is just one voice within the larger chorus of voices trying to wrestle with the God scripture tries to point us to. The Old Testament in particular deals with the parts of life that we may not think God has much part of, yet it puts the place of God right in the middle of the messiness of life (violence, broken families, living in exile and many other situations). I think Ellen Davis does a very nice job talking about this here and I would like to think my way is similar to hers. Sometimes it means we will wrestle with scriptures and the pictures of God  it paints, but to me that is a part of our vocation as the people of God.

The perfectionist part of me struggles with putting out such a rough reflection, and I may come back and do some more work on this at another point, but I am also trying to put limits to how long I spend on any one project.

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3 thoughts on “Violence and the Bible

  1. Pingback: Exodus 15: The Songs at the Sea | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Exodus 23: Justice, Celebration and Presence | Sign of the Rose

  3. Pingback: 1 Kings 20 King Ahab and the Conflict with Aram | Sign of the Rose

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