Violence in Scripture
COLLECT FOR VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE
God of all mercy, who weeps with us as we anguish over lives broken and lost to the violence which so pains our community: Open our ears that we might hear their cries; open our eyes that we might see their fears; open our hearts that we might embrace them in love; and open our arms that we might protect them from all harm; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Examine the evolution of violence and the different contexts in which they are expressed in Scripture
Explore the historical and theological implications of various concepts of violence related in Scripture
Develop a perspective on the manner in which the Gospel of Jesus shapes our understanding of the violence portrayed in Scripture
Genesis 1:1-2, 31 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Deuteronomy 20:10-20 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God. If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.
Psalm 137:8-9 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Matthew 5:3-12 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Among the most frequent criticisms of Christianity is the assertion that both its theology and history are grounded in acts of violence perpetrated or sanctioned by God. After all, it is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures whose wrath destroys the world in an epic flood (Genesis 7:1-8:19), sets Sodom and Gomorrah ablaze (Genesis 19:12-29) and drowns Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:26-31). It is this God who idly stands by as Cain murders Abel (Genesis 4:1-15) and Tamar is raped (2 Samuel 13:1- 22). And, it is this God who empowers the people of Israel to seize land, plunder property and slaughter enemies in the conquest of Canaan, the “Promised Land” (Joshua 1-12).
The portrait of a faith in which God seemingly condones violence or, at least, elects not to intervene also is prominent in the New Testament. The “slaughter of the innocents” ordered by Herod in response to Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:16-18), beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12) and stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) have caused many to wonder what “omnipotent” God would fail to rescue vulnerable children and faithful disciples from terrible and utterly unwarranted deaths. Jesus himself displays a temper and decidedly aggressive spirit in overturning the money changers’ tables in the Temple following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12-13). And, no act could conceivably be more violent than the crucifixion of Jesus and the moment when Jesus questioned why God apparently had forsaken even him (Matthew 27:46).
However, despite the violence enumerated throughout Scripture, there also is consistent evidence of a God of mercy and compassion. God intervened, for example, to save Isaac from sacrificial death at the hands of his father (Genesis 22:12), Joseph from murder by his brothers (Genesis 37:18-28) and the guard in Gethsemane from Peter’s sword (Luke22:50-51). Jesus rejected violent retaliation for evil acts and commanded his disciples to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:38-48). And, while violence marked Jesus death, no act could better reflect the boundless grace of God than his resurrection (Luke 24:1-7).
Not only is the Biblical witness to violence difficult to reconcile, so too is the history of those who ascribe to its tenets and number themselves among the faithful. The Jewish community in the first two centuries of the Common Era was regularly engaged in violent revolution – most notably against the Seleucid and Roman Empires. Although national liberation was a dominant theme, internal religious struggles and messianic expectations also motivated violent conflict. While Jews subsequently experienced centuries of oppression and victimization, they nevertheless remained confident in God’s covenant with them as “chosen” and, when challenged, attempted to respond – even when overwhelmed and in a losing cause. Today, the nation of Israel still invokes its distinct relationship with God in the often violent defense of its territory against the claims of the Palestinians and surrounding nations.
The history of Christianity also is closely linked to violence in pursuit of political, economic and religious objectives. Although propelled by the most heinous of acts – the crucifixion of Jesus on a cross – the basis for the use of violence as a tool of the faith was developed in the theory of “just war,” initially proffered by St. Augustine and further refined by St. Thomas Aquinas, both of whom suggested three criteria (with important differences) essential to the justification of state-sponsored violence: legitimate authority; just cause; and right intention. Their arguments provided the theological and political rationale for much of the conflict of the past 1,500 years – from the Crusades to the Inquisition; from the European territorial wars to the colonial conquests of indigenous people; and from the regional conflicts which have dominated our recent memory to the use of violence in attempts to achieve particular social or religious objectives by extremist groups and non-state actors.
Clearly, both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament are replete with acts and images of violence. So, too, is the history of the religious traditions that holds these books sacred. However, it is our interpretation of them and the theological significance they have for us that most merit our attention. While a detailed analysis of these complex and nuanced issues is far beyond the scope of this discussion, several perspectives on violence provide a thoughtful basis for our engagement and reflection.
Among the most comprehensive examinations of this topic is Jerome F. D. Creach’s Violence in Scripture (2013). In it, he constructs a model for interpreting the violence recounted in the Bible, focused first on God’s purpose in creation and, second, the defense and restoration of that perfect cosmic order. Importantly, he notes that the Biblical creation narrative differs significantly from its Ancient Near Eastern rivals. Whereas these cultures depicted creation as a violent struggle among primordial forces, Genesis tells of one God who, “creates without doing battle or engaging in conflict.” Although God eventually emerges in Scripture as a “warrior,” this role plays out as the one who would restore order among a world in chaos and gone amok. As such, Creach argues that violence in this context is to be understood as a righteous tool, in the hands of a righteous God, used for a righteous purpose: the reclamation of a perfectly created cosmos. This setting also lays the foundation for the “warrior” who meets out justice against those guilty of subverting God’s purposes throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Vengeance is another dimension of violence expressed in Scripture, especially in the context of God’s anger with Israel’s frequent blindness to God’s supreme reign. And while often painfully graphic, Creach stresses that its intent is not retribution but, rather, reinstatement. God uses violence to renew and sanctify relationships.
However, the most difficult expression of violence in Ancient Israel to understand and reconcile is the story of the conquest of Canaan and the placing of the indigenous population “under the ban” (Joshua 1-12). So horrendous are the actions commanded by God that Creach observes that the conquest of these people would constitute, “what modern people would call war crimes.” There is little doubt that people were slaughtered. The question is whether these wars were simply barbaric invasions intended to capture land and subjugate people or were intended to accomplish some nobler purpose. It can be argued, for example, that the annihilation of the inhabitants of Canaan was intended to assert the “righteous” primacy of the God of Israel over all others and punish those who did not acquiesce. Creach also has suggested a possible benevolent motive: liberating people from the oppression of false gods – inviting the polytheistic Canaanites to join Israel in the worship of the one true God.
Any studied analysis of the Hebrew Scriptures must conclude that violent force is frequently used to accomplish God’s reign. And, we 21st century people of faith must accept this historical truth. Still, there is more to consider. How, for example, are we to understand Jesus’ crucifixion and the seeming detachment that allowed the death of God’s own Son? How are we to interpret Jesus’ life and ministry? And, how does Jesus’ Gospel message change the way we perceive violence in the Bible?
Two medieval themes dominated the development of atonement theology, the rationale for the necessity of Jesus’ violent death. At the beginning of the second millennium, Anselm of Canterbury proposed that Jesus died to repay God for the sins of humankind. A generation later, Peter Abelard advanced the proposition that, “Jesus died as the demonstration of God’s love. The change that results from that loving death is not in God but in the subjective consciousness of the sinners, who repent and cease their rebellion against God and turn toward God” (Weaver).
Although the tension between these theories remains even today, the concept of atonement as “satisfaction” intended to remedy injustice, sin and evil has loomed especially large in Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism. However, a number of scholars (most notably in the Mennonite tradition) have challenged Jesus’ violent death as the preeminent act of salvation. Based on the witness of Jesus’ own life – which rejected violence as a means to enact God’s reign – they argue that his teachings fundamentally define a nonviolent God and that his resurrection (more than crucifixion) secures salvation (Weaver and Yoder). Brian McLaren summarizes this perspective especially well. If Rome’s motto is “peace through the destruction of enemies … for Jesus the motto is peace through nonviolent justice, peace through the forgiveness of enemies, peace through reconciliation, peace through embrace and grace.”
Despite thousands of years of exegetical, historical and theological analysis, the issue of violence in Scripture and its implications for people of faith remain topics of significant debate. And while no clear consensus has emerged, they must be engaged if synagogue and church are to address thoughtfully the violence so prevalent in contemporary society.
The Rev. Dan Handschy, Ph.D. (Retired)
Is God violent? If not, how do you reconcile the violence that so regularly appears in the Bible? Conversely, if God is violent, how can we embrace Jesus’ gospel of peace as normative for Christian behavior?
Does Scripture differentiate the violence perpetrated by God, nation-states, religious communities and individuals? What are the implications for our understanding of violence in America today?
Is our salvation dependent on the violence of Jesus’ death – either as a penalty for our sins or substitute for the sacrifice of our own lives?
If the violence perpetrated or sanctioned by God in Scripture is intended to restore order or right wrongs, to what extent (if at all) is it justified in addressing contemporary injustices?
Does the Gospel demand pacifism? Does the God of justice demand violent confrontation when necessary?
THE REV. ANNE KELSEY
There is much violence throughout Scripture, and most of it ends in the same place: the grave. Each family, culture, and religion has particular customs about death and burial. Often we can learn something important about ourselves when we encounter unfamiliar ways of handling these. American graveyards and cemeteries are orderly, restrained, and regulated. A cemetery in Merida, Mexico – with its jumbled above-ground graves, small shrines, and statues offers a different perspective. Looking at the picture of the crosses, black crucifix, and an angel both pointing to the sky and holding a finger to its mouth raises lots of questions that we are each invited to answer for ourselves.
COLLECT FOR PEACE
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
Creach, J.F.D. Violence in Scripture. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. Crossan, J.D. God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Hassner, R.E. and Aran, G. “Religion and Violence in the Jewish Traditions” in Juergensmeyer, M., Kitts, M. and Jerryson, M. (Eds.), Violence and the World’s Religious Traditions: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Horsley, R. A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003.
Marr, A. Tools for Peace: The Spiritual Craft of St. Benedict and Rene Girard. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, 2007.
McLaren, B.D. Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson, 2007.
Steffen, L. “Religion and Violence in Christian Traditions” in Juergensmeyer, M., Kitts, M. and Jerryson, M. (Eds.), Violence and the World’s Religious Traditions: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Weaver, J.D. The Nonviolent Atonement (Second Edition). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.
Weaver, J.D. The Nonviolent God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013.
Yoder, J.H. The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking. Edited by G. Stassen, M.T. Nation and M. Hamsher. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2009.