When the “Good Book” is Bad:
Challenging the Bible’s Violent Portrayals of God
by Eric Seibert
by Eric Seibert
February 1, 2013
Today’s post, the first of three, is written by Dr. Eric Seibert, Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College. Much of Seibert’s work is centered on addressing the problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament, especially his violence. He is the author of Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress 2009) and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress 2012). Seibert is also a licensed minister in the Brethren in Christ Church and the Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Initiative at Messiah College. He is currently working on his third book, Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus (Cascade).
The basic premise of my recent book, The Violence of Scripture, is quite simple: the Bible should never be used to harm others. One might imagine such a “profound” truth to be self-evident and hardly worthy of a book length treatment. But the sad reality is that the “good book” has been bad news for far too many people.
The Bible has been used to inflict enormous pain upon others and to endorse all kinds of evil. It has been used to hurt and even kill people. Specifically, it has been used to justify warfare, oppress women, condemn gays and lesbians, support slavery, and legitimate colonization, to name just a few of its troubling legacies. When the Bible is used for such evil ends, there is no mistaking the fact that something has gone terribly wrong.
Most Christians would attribute this misuse of the Bible to faulty interpretations and misguided interpreters. And this certainly is part of the problem. But, unfortunately, the problem runs deeper than this. It runs right through the pages of Scripture itself.
To put it bluntly: not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us. I realize this may sound blasphemous to some people and flies in the face of everything they have been taught to believe about the Bible. When the Church grandly proclaims the Bible to be the Word of God, it gives the impression that the words of Scripture are above critique and beyond reproach. We are taught to read, revere, and embrace the Bible. We are not taught to challenge its values, ethics, or portrayals of God.
But this way of reading the Bible is problematic, to say the least. At times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept. Rather than seeing this as a sign of disrespect, we should regard engaging in an ethical and theological critique of what we read in the Bible as an act of profound faithfulness.
Unfortunately, the Church does not often help us know what to do when we encounter problems in Scripture. Time and again we are told that Bible reading is one of the main avenues for spiritual growth, and I certainly do not wish to dispute that. But what happens when people dig into the Bible and find things there that are not only unsavory, but downright unhealthy for them?
What happens when reading the Bible pushes people away from God rather than leads them closer to God?
If we feel compelled to accept what we read at face value, and are forbidden from asking honest questions about the troublesome texts we encounter, we run the risk of using the Bible in ways that may harm others (not to mention ourselves!).
For example, if we accept the patriarchy embedded in biblical texts as normative and God-ordained, we may easily find justification in the Bible to treat women as second-class citizens.
Similarly, if we embrace the many positive portrayals of violence in the text (more on this in the next post), we may find ourselves approving of certain acts of violence and war. If we regard Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua as unproblematic, we may find it much easier to legitimize the colonization of indigenous populations.
Thus, if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it. We need to protest what is objectionable and condemn what is immoral. Otherwise, we run the risk of perpetuating the violent legacy of Scripture by making the “good book” behave in very bad ways.
When the Bible Sanctions Violence, Must We?
by Eric Seibert
February 4, 2013
Today’s post is the second of three by Dr. Eric Seibert, Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College (post one is here). Much of Seibert’s work is centered on addressing the problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament, especially his violence. He is the author of Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress 2009) and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress 2012). Seibert is also a licensed minister in the Brethren in Christ Church and the Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Initiative at Messiah College. He is currently working on his third book, Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus (Cascade).
It is a truism to say the Bible contains a lot of violence. That much is obvious. Yet not all violence is regarded the same way in the pages of Scripture. Sometimes, the Bible makes it unmistakably clear that certain acts of violence are wrong.
No one who reads the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, for example, is going to conclude that this passage is meant to encourage murder! Nor are people likely to read the story of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his deadly dealings with Uriah and conclude that we should “go and do likewise.” In fact, in this instance the narrator explicitly tells us that “the thing David had done displeased the LORD,” (2 Samuel 11:27, NRSV). Most of us would concur!
Stories like these, though troubling in terms of what they reveal about human sinfulness and our capacity to hurt others, are not problematic in terms of what they say about violence. In both cases, these narratives clearly demonstrate that the use of violence is bad and undesirable.
But what are we to do with passages of Scripture that sanction violence and portray it as something good? How should we regard what one might call “virtuous” violence in the text?
Examples of “virtuous” violence abound in the Old Testament and are embedded in some of its most beloved stories: the flood narrative (Genesis 6-8), the story of the ten plagues, culminating in the death of every firstborn Egyptian (Exodus 12), the drowning of the entire Egyptian army (Exodus 14-15), the “conquest” of Canaan (Josh 6-11), Jael’s slaying of Sisera (Judges 4), and David’s slaying of Goliath (1 Samuel 17), to cite just a few notable examples.
In each of these passages—and many others like them—lethal violence is condoned and sometimes even celebrated. Passages like these create significant problems for Christian readers.
Should we regard Jael as the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24, NRSV) because she drove a tent peg through Sisera’s skull? As we read about dead Egyptians washing up on shore, should we join voices with the Israelites and praise God for throwing “horse and rider” into the sea (Exodus 14:30-15:21)? Should we approve of Israelites killing Canaanites, massacring Midianites, annihilating Amalekites—including women and children—because they Bible says they did so with divine approval and blessing?
Or, to reduce these questions to the title of this post, “When the Bible sanctions violence, must we?”
My answer to that question is an unequivocal “No!” We should not, and we must not! It is extremely dangerous to endorse violent texts like these. Tragically, this kind of approval has often led to future acts of violence against others (as noted briefly in my previous post).
As Christians, we have a moral obligation to critique the assumption that violence is somehow “virtuous,” in spite of what the Bible suggests on numerous occasions.
Violence is not a virtue. It is not a fruit of the spirit or a mark of discipleship. It is a behavior we attempt to avoid and restrain. Even Christians who believe violence can be justified in certain situations, such as protecting the life of an innocent person, must surely object to some of the violence that is approved in the Old Testament. There are no moral grounds for slaughtering babies, infants, or toddlers. Yet the Bible justifies their extermination on more than one occasion.
Surely, those of us who follow the prince of Peace, the God of Life, must raise our voices in protest and object. We must say, “This is not right!” Such violence is never justifiable and should never be condoned.
In my next post, I’ll talk a little bit about how I think we should go about confronting the problem of “virtuous” violence in Scripture. But for now, I’ll simply end with a question. I believe we should critique positive portrayals of violence in the Bible. Do you?
by Eric Seibert
by Eric Seibert
February 5, 2013
Today’s post is the third and final one by Dr. Eric Seibert, Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College (post one is here and post two is here). Much of Seibert’s work is centered on addressing the problematic portrayals of God in the Old Testament, especially his violence. He is the author of Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress 2009) and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress 2012). Seibert is also a licensed minister in the Brethren in Christ Church and formerly the Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Initiative at Messiah College. He is currently working on his fourth book, Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus (Cascade).
Since the pervasive presence of “virtuous” violence in the Old Testament constitutes a major problem for modern readers, I want to devote my last post to what can be done about it.
As I see it, overcoming this problem involves learning to read the Bible nonviolently, in a way that increases our love for God and others, promotes justice, and values all people. In The Violence of Scripture, I suggest several steps we can take to help us read this way.
One very important step we can take is to be intentional about problematizing and critiquing “virtuous” violence when we encounter it in the Bible. This is not hard to do, especially if you are willing to read violent verses from the perspective of the victims. For example, when reading the flood narrative, try reading the story through the eyes of those people outside the ark. Or instead of reading the story of the battle of Jericho with the Israelites who are circling the walls, try reading the story from the perspective of the Canaanites sitting inside the city.
Reading in this way complicates the notion of “virtuous” violence considerably. It is hard—some would say impossible—to justify the killing of infants and toddlers in stories like these. Reading this way sensitizes us to the problem of violence in these texts and keeps us from simplistically classifying such moral atrocities as good.
When read from the perspective of the victims, the myth of “virtuous” violence is exposed for what it really is: a myth. As I said in my previous post, violence is not a virtue. Violence is destructive and harmful. It is not the kind of behavior that should be sanctioned or celebrated, even when the Bible suggests otherwise.
Critiquing the violence in these texts does not, however, render them useless. Rather, it allows us to deal with them more responsibly. For example, even though I do not believe God commanded Israelites to slaughter Canaanites, I think that narrative can still be used constructively. i) The conquest narrative in Joshua 6-11 reminds us that religious violence is extremely dangerous because it gives divine sanction to behaviors that in any other context would be deemed immoral. ii) Moreover, if one assumes the narrative was intended to bolster the political ambitions of King Josiah, it stands as a sober reminder of the way political leaders sometimes use religion to promote their own agendas.
Similarly, while we should certainly critique texts that contain violence against women and/or depict woman as second-class citizens, we should still attempt to use texts like these for positive ends. For example, some of these texts can be used as starting points to discuss the problem of domestic violence which is so endemic in our own day. We can use these texts that oppress, devalue, and subordinate women to begin conversations about the way woman are still mistreated in the world.
Using such texts to name these issues—issues which are infrequently discussed in the Church—can be a first step toward raising awareness and can help us begin to confront these problems more directly.
Reading the Bible nonviolently involves a commitment to read it in ways that are faith-affirming and life-giving. It means learning to read in ways that preserve the dignity and well-being of all people. This will require us to be critical of “virtuous” violence in the text while at the same time looking for ways to move beyond critique, to see how these texts can function positively for us despite the problems they raise.
In short, what I am suggesting is that we find ways to both critique and embrace troublesome texts, always reading in the direction of justice. I believe this represents an ethically responsible way to deal with the problem of “virtuous” violence in the Bible. What do you think?
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Follow Up Review: "Violence in the OT"
The Opposite of Critical Thinking is Fear