The subject of violence in the bible is much larger than a study of the word “violence” itself, but I thought it would be interesting to start there.
After reading the nearly 60 texts from a concordance search of the word “violence”, (Hebrew: hamas) here are some general conclusions:
- Violence is linked with evil – evil people, evil plans, accompanied by murderous anger (Proverbs 10:11)
- Violence is judged as sinful, cursed, will come back on the ones who use it against others, it fills the land and necessitates God’s judgment (Psalm 7:16; 11:5)
- Violence is linked with court fraud (Ex 23:1; Ps 35:11)
- One cries out to God to be safe from violence and violent people (2 Samuel 22:3)
- Violence is a sign of innocence is not having violence on your hands (Job 16:17)
- According to the prophets, in the future time of restoration violence will be finished, not heard of anymore (Isaiah 60:18)
So it’s never a good thing, never excused or justified. It’s always evil, done by evil people, a reason for the righteous to cry out to God and a reason for God to judge the ones who practice it.
Tension in the OT over violence
1. From the beginning, with Cain’s murder of Abel and Lamech’s boast about killing a boy who hurt him (Gen 4) to the story of the flood in which violence is twice cited as a reason for judgment (Gen 6:11, 13), violence plays a large role and is consistently condemned by God as evil. And so God destroys the world by a flood – and act of world-wide holy war, leaving no man woman or child alive, except the one family on the ark and the animals they saved; an act of violence on a world-engulfing level. Violence is used to punish people for being violent.
2. Just as the death penalty is used against murderers, so violence is used as a punishment for idolatry. Especially held up as an example of the worst form of idolatry is worship of the god Molech because it includes sacrificing children in the fire (Jer 32:35). And so because of this extreme, cruel violence, those who practice it must be killed by stoning (Lev 20).
3. Amos begins with the roaring of the lion, YHWH who encircles surrounding nations and condemns them for extreme acts of violence against other nations, and for this sin he promises their violent destruction. King Jehu puts an end to the brutal and idolatrous reign of king Ahab (wife Jezebel) by a horrific bloodbath, which is condemned by the prophet Hosea (2 Kings 10; Hosea 1).
4. Specific acts of violence are remembered as praiseworthy models, such as Phineas’ zeal for YHWH which motivated him to drive a spear through the copulating couple who had “yolked themselves to the Baal of Peor” (Numb 25). In fact all the elders had to execute their fellow Israelites while the Lord punished them by a plague. Phineas is rewarded; with him God makes (ironically) a “covenant of peace.” David who was helped by God to kill Goliath and later helped in many battles wants to build a temple, but cannot because of the amount of blood he has on his hands (the Chronicler’s explanation 1 Chr 22:6).
5. The great liberation from slavery in Egypt is the root experience, formative for the people of Israel, constitutive of their identity. The great violence of slavery is what Moses reacts to, but over-reacts to, by killing an Egyptian. But the liberation is finally accomplished by God’s action of killing all the first born of the Egyptians. The oldest strata of Hebrew poetry celebrates the God who delivered Israel by throwing horse and rider into the sea, violently saving the Hebrews from Egyptian violence (Exod 15).
6. The conquest of the land of Canaan is promised and aided by God who sometimes requires the slaughter of every man, woman and child in acts of herem, or holy war, and who even strips the kingdom from Saul for inadequate slaughter of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15). But Habakkuk cites the “plunder of many nations” done by the Israelites and the human bloodshed and violence to the earth as a reason why “all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you.” (Hab 2:8).
7. The exile itself, Israel’s greatest experience of God’s judgment for her sins, is a massive violence to every level of society, leaving few survivors. Those who manage to come through the horror alive, in Babylon, are so damaged by the experience that they cannot sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, but must hang their harps on the willows – as they fantasize about smashing the heads of Babylonian children on the rocks (Ps 137).
8. The vision of the future time of beating swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks (Micah 4:3) only further emphasizes that swords and spears are bad things in themselves – regardless of whose hands they are in; and yet there is that hopeful vision of a time of peace to come in which no hand will hold them, neither will people learn how to use them.
Irresolvable Tension remains in the Old Testament
1. In the end there is an irresolvable tension within the OT on the subject of violence. It is celebrated and condemned. It is a means God uses against those he condemns and a reason he condemns them. It is an evil means to stop the evil that it is. Its immorality as a means deconstructs its justification for use as a vehicle for punishing itself. Using evil to stop evil cannot be anything but evil. Using violence to punish violence is violent.
2. As long as Israel remained a nation in control of her own laws and military (whether the tribal militia or the monarch’s armies) she did not question her own use of violence, but at the same time bitterly complained to God when others were violent against her.
Jesus and Violence
1. Perhaps it was the experience of Roman occupation with its severe restrictions that opened the door to Jesus’ alternative response to violence. Clearly not everyone was happy with those conditions: Jesus’ enemies were quite frustrated that they needed Roman permission to exercise capital punishment against him, though they finally managed to succeed.
2. For his part, Jesus knew that those who live by the sword would die by the sword (Matt. 26:52) and taught his disciples to become blessed peacemakers (Matt 5:9). The only example of an attempted use of capital punishment that Jesus confronted in the gospels, he stopped (the woman caught in adultery, (John 8).
3. Jesus, it appears, was implementing as a present reality that the prophets had envisioned as the dawning of the “age to come” when nations would not lift up sword against nation nor even learn war anymore (Isa 2:4; Micah 4). Jesus followed the trajectory of the prophetic vision, thus becoming the “Prince of peace” (Isa. 9:6) teaching his followers that love of neighbor was second only to complete love of God, and that these two commands encompassed the entire Torah (Matt 22:34-36). His sermon on the mount included the command, “love your enemies.” (Matt 5:43)
4. Jesus was innocent, but at his arrest and trial he offered no resistance. He “turned the other check” allowing the forces of evil to exert against him their full force. He absorbed that evil, exhausting its power, ending the cycle of violence for all time, “thus making peace making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:20)
Following the Trajectory
There is a clearly discernible trajectory concerning violence. In the world of the OT, the authors accepted violence as a given fact of life, both permissible for them to use against enemies, and used by God, the way they conceived of God, and yet, always an evil if done to themselves, for which they cried out to God, and which God helped them escape/recover from. But the prophets could see a future day when God’s kingdom would come and swords would be put away permanently, peace would reign. Jesus was on that same prophetic trajectory, asserted that in his presence, the Kingdom had indeed come, the new age was at hand, and that violence would not be the last word.
Major building blocks of a foundation being laid / an angle of trajectory is set in motion
- Creation Theology: competing cosmologies (slide: picture of ancient world)
- Contrast alternative cosmologies: Egyptian, Babylonian
The biblical creation accounts were written to proclaim a theological understanding of the world, in stark contrast with the Babylonian creation story. Very briefly: the Babylonian story, re-told every year at the new year festival (think: Christmas + Mardi Gras) described a mythical world of the gods in which violent conflict between them finally resulted in the creation of the earth and humans, out of the bloody remains of the looser god. Humans were products of violence, an after-thought, created to keep the sacrificial fires burning with meat which fed the always-hungry gods.
- Biblical Creation
- Intentional creation (not after thought): Humans are intentionally created, in fact at the height, or pinnacle, on the 6th day of creation, as God’s crowning achievement, in fact created, male and female, “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27)
- Physical world is good (repeatedly pronounced so)
- Humans intentionally created, in God’s image, both genders
- Blessed with fruitfulness (flourishing as well as reproduction) – the blessing theme is reasserted again and again – and extends to the whole earth and all its people, for example Gen. 9:1; 12:1-3)
- One God – Monotheism (no gods to fear or placate)
- No nature (fertility) gods, no astral gods, no gods of the underworld
- Moral Monotheism (the Yahwist Revolution): unlike all the other ancient religions, Israel’s God cares about how humans treat each other. This is a massive shift! (Pagan gods were unconcerned about morality: how humans treated each other. Rather they wanted to be venerated and fed by sacrifices)
- The Torah vision of a (nearly) egalitarian (except slaves) covenanted community: laws and sanctions for violations are universal, no class distinctions (quite unlike the class-distinctions assumed and embedded in other ancient legal codes, such as the Law of Hammurabi). Special provisions for support for the “widow, the orphan and the stranger” reverse normal class-based preferential treatment for the wealthy. Land is equitably distributed and never to be sold on a permanent basis (Sabbaths, Year of Jubilee, Lev. 25)
- The Torah doctrine of Retribution: Asserted (on the surface; the stories say that retribution is God’s preferred method) and Subverted (narratives of grace and redemption keep returning, inexplicably – if retribution is God’s true way of reacting to human sin) – think of the cycles in Judges of sin-> oppression -> lament -> deliverance. If Retribution were the last word, there could only be one round.
- The Prophetic Vision: following the trajectory of a covenanted society of justice projected into the future: a vision of global peace, justice, security, and inclusiveness (Micah 6 // Isa. 2; Isa 25; 56)
- Conclusion: from creation to the view of a finally-restored world of peace, God’s will is for human flourishing, which brings to an end all violence. This trajectory was long in reaching its destination. It’s implications were only worked-out over time. But Jesus himself revealed that this is the trajectory that wins, in the end.
A Short Strategy for Reading the Bible
- First ask the question: What was it about this particular text that the community of faith found important as a guide to their faithfulness to God, given what they believed that they knew of God then, and how they understood themselves and their context then?
- Then ask the trajectory question: Where does this text sit? On which trajectory is it? Is it on the purity trajectory? Is it on the justice/liberation trajectory?
- Ask the Jesus question, since his revelation of God and God’s will takes precedence for Christians: how does this text fit on the trajectory that Jesus championed? What did Jesus say or do that has bearing on this text? How can I understand this text in such a way that it will increase my faithfulness as a disciple of Jesus?
- End with the “end game” or eschatological question: given the vision of God’s future state (Isaiah, & Micah, & Joel & Revelation, et.al.) how does this text move us forward? I’m thinking of the vision of the Messianic banquet, the throne room of the Lamb, etc.
- Remember, the Holy Spirit’s role is to guide this process, and I believe he has and is guiding it now.
A thought experiment:
If you were to say to people at church: “I have just found a website at which I have purchased a slave from Ghana. And I have purchased his sister. They are now my property. I can do with them as I wish.” How would they react? (predictably, of course). But the question is, why would they react with such predictable horror? What text(s) brought them to that conclusion? They are already well down the road of the trajectory that Jesus guided us to follow, and that the Spirit is leading.
How does this strategy apply to other issues?
Recommended reading: “Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of Godby Eric Seibert, Fortress press, 2009
Concordance search for hamas “violence”: this is a word search for a Hebrew word, so I have selected various English versions in which it is most easily observed.
Gen 49:5-7 5 Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 May I never come into their council; may I not be joined to their company– for in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
NAS Exodus 23:1 “You shall not bear a false report; do not join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness (literally, “violent witness”).
NAS Judges 9:24 in order that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood might be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers.
NRS 2 Samuel 22:3 my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence.
NRS 2 Samuel 22:49 who brought me out from my enemies; you exalted me above my adversaries, you delivered me from the violent.
NIV 1 Chronicles 12:17 David went out to meet them and said to them, “If you have come to me in peace, to help me, I am ready to have you unite with me. But if you have come to betray me to my enemies when my hands are free from violence, may the God of our fathers see it and judge you.”
NAS Job 16:17 Although there is no violence in my hands, And my prayer is pure.
NRS Job 19:7 Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice.
NRS Psalm 7:16 Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends.
NRS Psalm 11:5 The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence.
NRS Psalm 18:48 who delivered me from my enemies; indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries; you delivered me from the violent.
NRS Psalm 25:19 Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me.
NRS Psalm 27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
NRS Psalm 35:11 Malicious witnesses (literally, “violent witness”) rise up; they ask me about things I do not know.
NRS Psalm 55:9 Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.
NRS Psalm 58:2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth.
NRS Psalm 72:14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.
NRS Psalm 73:6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
NRS Psalm 74:20 Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
NRS Psalm 140:1 Deliver me, O LORD, from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent,
NRS Psalm 140:4 Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent who have planned my downfall.
NRS Psalm 140:11 Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent!
NRS Proverbs 3:31 Do not envy the violent and do not choose any of their ways;
Prov. 4:14-17 14 Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers.
15 Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on.
16 For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble.
17 For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.
NRS Proverbs 10:6 Blessings are on the head of the righteous, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.
NRS Proverbs 10:11 The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.
NAS Proverbs 13:2 From the fruit of a man’s mouth he enjoys good, But the desire of the treacherous is violence.
NRS Proverbs 16:29 The violent entice their neighbors, and lead them in a way that is not good.
NRS Proverbs 26:6 It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence, to send a message by a fool.
NRS Isaiah 53:9 They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
NRS Isaiah 59:6 Their webs cannot serve as clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds of violence are in their hands.
NRS Isaiah 60:18 Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.
NRS Jeremiah 6:7 As a well keeps its water fresh, so she keeps fresh her wickedness; violence and destruction are heard within her; sickness and wounds are ever before me.
NRS Jeremiah 20:8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
NAS Jeremiah 22:3 ‘Thus says the LORD, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
NAS Jeremiah 51:35 “May the violence done to me and to my flesh be upon Babylon,” The inhabitant of Zion will say; And, “May my blood be upon the inhabitants of Chaldea,” Jerusalem will say.
RS Jeremiah 51:46 Do not be fainthearted or fearful at the rumors heard in the land– one year one rumor comes, the next year another, rumors of violence in the land and of ruler against ruler.
NRS Ezekiel 7:11 Violence has grown into a rod of wickedness. None of them shall remain, not their abundance, not their wealth; no pre-eminence among them.
NRS Ezekiel 7:23 Make a chain! For the land is full of bloody crimes; the city is full of violence.
NRS Ezekiel 8:17 Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O mortal? Is it not bad enough that the house of Judah commits the abominations done here? Must they fill the land with violence, and provoke my anger still further? See, they are putting the branch to their nose!
NRS Ezekiel 12:19 and say to the people of the land, Thus says the Lord GOD concerning the inhabitants of Jerusalem in the land of Israel: They shall eat their bread with fearfulness, and drink their water in dismay, because their land shall be stripped of all it contains, on account of the violence of all those who live in it.
NRS Ezekiel 22:26 Its priests have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.
NRS Ezekiel 28:16 In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out from among the stones of fire.
NRS Ezekiel 45:9 Thus says the Lord GOD: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right. Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord GOD.
NRS Joel 3:19 Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the people of Judah, in whose land they have shed innocent blood.
NRS Amos 3:10 They do not know how to do right, says the LORD, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.
NRS Amos 6:3 O you that put far away the evil day, and bring near a reign of violence?
NRS Obadiah 1:10 For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.
NRS Jonah 3:8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.
NRS Micah 6:12 Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
NRS Habakkuk 1:2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
NRS Habakkuk 1:3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
NRS Habakkuk 1:9 They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward; they gather captives like sand.
NRS Habakkuk 2:8 Because you have plundered many nations, all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you– because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them.
NRS Habakkuk 2:17 For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you; the destruction of the animals will terrify you– because of human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them.
NRS Zephaniah 1:9 On that day I will punish all who leap over the threshold, who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.
NRS Zephaniah 3:4 Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law
NRS Malachi 2:16 For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.
“Molech” texts (the pagan god to whom child sacrifice was performed):
1 Ki. 11:7
2 Ki. 23:10