Violence in the Bible and the Ethos of God


It is by no means inaccurate to call the Bible a violent book. In fact, it would be an understatement.

For example, the biblical narrative of the Israelite conquest of Canaan in Joshua, the entire book of Judges, certain Psalms and much of the prophetic literature within the Bible center around very violent people and events. The book of Joshua describes God giving the Israelites authoritative victories in battle and has a terrifying, morally questionable caveat: they consistently receive the mandate from God to slaughter all men, women, children and often even the livestock. God grants victories so long as these mandates are upheld and seems to allow their defeat in times of lack of dependence on God. Psalm 137 talks about dashing the heads of their enemies’ babies against rocks! That’s pretty messed up, right? Throughout the Deuteronomistic History, we read stories of rape, murder, revenge, assassination and war. However, perhaps most troublesome, in the prophets we read of YHWH destroying the kingdoms of Israel by means of violent conquerors, who decimate the temple, enslave the Israelites and, in the case of the Northern Kingdom, drag them off into oblivion.

These violent passages inevitably raise questions about the ethics of God and rightly so because if we are to interpret these texts to be historically-or even theologically-true, God may seem less good and more tyrannical.

Now, Assuming that God is loving and good (and not just nominally as if to say that simply whatever God does is good, but rather that God has a consistent character of goodness), I believe that if we are to consider the ethos of God in these bloody passages within the context of systematically formed theological paradigms, we will probably find ourselves caught between three distinct patterns of thought.

First, the theology of Dispensationalism might be tempting to the inquirer. Dispensationalism is an extremely conservative system of theological thought that assumes that God adopts different administrative principles through different ages of time. For instance, in the book of Joshua, God’s goodness is not called into question but rather God utilized a different set of rules for approaching morality and used violence to bring about God’s promise to the Israelites, while also exterminating several wicked groups of people. If the inquirer wished to uphold historical inerrancy of the Bible, Dispensationalism can be quite appealing.

Secondly, contemporary Process Theology bases itself on the foundation of Whitehead’s panentheistic metaphysical philosophy that places God in an evolutionary position in relationship with the universe. This esoteric approach assumes that God grows, learns new things, evolves with the universe because of God’s relationship with the universe and is able to experience change. Though few, if any, Process Theologians concern themselves with the historicity of the Hebrew Bible, they are able to salvage the goodness of God by postulating that the God of the Hebrew Bible, especially the earlier books, was in the process of becoming and as everything is, will always be in that teleological process of progress.

Lastly, historical-critical approaches to the Bible freely assume that, say, the details in Joshua either did not happen, therefore rendering scripture historically inaccurate and that the later Jewish writers believed that God commanded them to commit such acts of (exaggerated or fictional) violence. This pattern of thought allows us to replace the morally questionable biblical narrative and interpretation of history with the notion of later Jewish revisionist history and the assumption that if God is good, God would not order nor reward genocidal practices. Though this is efficient at salvaging God’s monogamous commitment to goodness, for some, especially conservatives, it may come at too high of a price in regards to our theological inheritance from Judaism and from scripture. In a real sense, all history is revisionist history and the Bible is hardly an exception. The biblical writers did have an agenda after all, whether people like to admit that or not.

While all three of these paradigms have problems, another temptation is to chalk it up to mystery (“God’s ways are higher”, etc), which though prevalent and seemingly humble, is an answer I find to be a copout for the theologian. While mystery is a fundamental aspect of Christianity, there are many passages in scripture that require a profound wrestling match to extract truth and the Christian must engage in this activity in light of Christ, the Prince of Peace. While I must confess that I am very much still in this wrestling match and hope to always be, I maintain that we can construct a synthesis between the dialectical tension one meets when considering the questionable ethos of God in the Hebrew Bible. I suggest that while God Godself was not unevolved by the time of the setting of Joshua, the writers of Joshua might have had an evolving notion of God and, like other religious tribes, assumed that God blessed the genocidal activity in Joshua. However, there is no epigraphical or archaeological evidence for this conquest, which leads me to assume that it is part of the later developed legendary prose fiction in scripture. A tradition passed down through generations to explain how God delivered God’s promise in giving the land of Canaan over to the pre-Monarchic Israelites. Several of my other posts deal with historical hermeneutics and God’s involvement in history, thus I will simply conclude by suggesting to you that as a Christian, I believe God is most axiomatically and epistemologically revealed to us in the person of Jesus. Thus, our conceptions and constructions of God must first submit to the character of Christ in the scriptures.

Lastly, remember the scriptures, specifically the ones I have dealt with in this post, were developed and canonized thousands of years ago in pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment communities, which means that their conception of history was much different than ours is now. In fact, our notion of history as record of factually corresponding events is a rather new idea. Most languages do not even distinguish history from story; like in French (histoire) and German (Geschichte) the two ideas are covered by the same word and have not always been distinct.


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