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Violence in the Bible: A Problem to be Solved?

Violence in the Bible: A Problem to be Solved

By Julia M. O’Brien
Lancaster Theological Seminary
Lancaster, PA (USA)
March 2010

“Maybe the violence of the Bible isn’t a problem to be solved but rather an invitation to a conversation.”

The quote was voiced after a session of the “Violence and the Bible” seminar I’m teaching this semester. Keith, an insightful Doctor of Ministry student, was reflecting on the powerful things the difficult texts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament have encouraged—even compelled—the class to discuss over the past six weeks.

Each Wednesday since the middle of February, we have found ourselves reflecting more deeply on how the violence described in the Bible resonates with the violence in our world and in our own lives. When we placed the book of Joshua in the historical context of anti-Assyrian politics during the time of King Josiah, we saw not only the power of violent rhetoric to enforce group solidarity in the sixth century BCE but also the way in which our own (U.S.) culture keeps people in line by feeding fear of foreigners: think McCarthyism and the Minute Men. When we painfully worked through the graphic depictions of rape in the Prophets and analyzed the gender scripts that make the imagery so effective, we better understood why rape of women continues to be a primary weapon of war, why rape of men remains the ultimate threat to masculinity, and why transgender folk face such violent retaliation; the Army chaplain in the class and the members of the Metropolitan Community Church affirmed that these ideologies are very much alive, as did a recent episode of CSI: SVU devoted to rape as a weapon of war in the Congo. When we explored biblical accounts of violence against children, several students shared their own experience of harm at the hands of family; many “got,” at a painful level, why Donald Capps thinks that the book of Hebrews was written by an abused child (The Child’s Song: The Religious Abuse of Children. Westminster John Knox, 1995), though not all found his description of a submissive Jesus equally satisfying.

Week after week, we keep seeing how “true” these texts are to human experience, how disturbingly contemporary they feel, how they are provoking us to talk about our histories of being harmed by violence and of perpetuating it.

Most of the authors that we’ve read, however, are following the road more frequently travelled: they treat biblical violence as a problem demanding a response. In Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress, 2009) , Eric Seibert offers a christocentric solution to Old Testament images of a violent God: because Jesus reveals a God who is kind to the wicked, nonviolent, does not punish people with infirmity or disaster, and is loving, any contrary biblical witness must be attributed to “mere” human perception. In Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2005), Jacqueline Lapsley argues that when we recoil from the account of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19-21), we are actually honoring the wishes of narrator, who goes to great lengths to make the Levite a supremely unsympathetic character and to portray him as the pinnacle (nadir?) of deplorable human behavior in a time before the judges reigned. Though the nature of her response is quite different, Cheryl Exum also takes action against biblical violence in her classic article, “The Ethics of Biblical Violence against Women” (in The Bible and Ethics: The Second Sheffield Colloquium. Sheffield, 1995). Exum insists that prophetic images of violence against women are so horrific that they must be acknowledged for the pornography that they are and rejected as authoritative in any way.

To be honest, most students in the seminar have liked the “fixes.” They breathed a sigh of relief after learning that Joshua might not really have annihilated the Canaanites and after Lapsley suggested that viewing Judges 19 as legitimating rape is a misinterpretation. Many confessed that they enrolled in the class desperate for any historical, literary, or theological insights that would allow them to keep believing that the Bible is indeed the Good Book.

But in the process of working with these texts I believe we’re beginning to think differently about what the Bible is good for. Instead of asking what the Bible teaches about violence, we’re experiencing how it encourages us to interrogate and reflect on the contemporary world. We’re finding that the Bible can be meaningful even when—and perhaps precisely when-- it doesn’t fit our standards of morality.

Is there a future for this kind of approach to the Bible, in which readers spend less time arguing about what the Bible teaches and more time in conversation about how its themes resonate with our world?

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