Let’s talk a little bit, and I mean very little, about “violence” in the bible. Like all biblical topics, this one is huge, both in scope and in available scholarly content. This post is meant to be an introduction to the ideas surrounding violence and the bible.
First, I always like to be clear what it is we’re talking about. What do we mean by “violence”, and what do we mean by “the violence of/in the bible”?
When we say “violence”, do we mean (a) sacrifice, (b)murder, (c)sanctioned killing, (d)mythical (story) violence, (e)some combination of these, or (f)the violence done by people with the bible, or even (g)the violence done by people to the bible? Let’s look quickly at each:
A) Sacrifice. Sacrifice is not violence. When we talk about sacrifice in the ancient world, “violence” isn’t the right word. Sacrifice was how people felt they best served the gods. It shouldn’t surprise us that ancient Israel was a product of their time as much as they were a product of their own origin stories. The way we classify murder today is not the same thing as sacrifice in the ancient world. Food was a valued commodity for people without storage facilities and ways to preserve it. Offering food to a deity is an act of devotion, worship, faith, obedience, and so on. In a crude way, we can think of it like a lion devouring prey. It may not be pretty to watch, but we wouldn’t classify it in the same category as a serial killer, even if the lion only preyed on gazelle. The lion is just doing what it was programmed to do by evolution and design (which aren’t mutually exclusive). Ancient cultures believed the gods deserved honor, and strove to honor them in the ways most befitting their specific character. Israel’s deity was pure, holy, honorable, just, charitable, and good: and so their sacrifices were meant to cleanse the worshipers and prepare them for the sacred spaces in which they’d worship. There’s a wonderful post about Leviticus and the sacrifices here, which I’d highly encourage you to read for more on this topic.
B) Murder. Murder is, from the perspective of the bible, violence. This is where biblical ideas live, in unsanctioned, unwarranted, unrestrained violence; the kind that winds up with one party dead and the other a victor. This is highly important when processing the flood narrative in Genesis 1-11 (“creation” is the first chapter of The Flood, Babel is the afterword). It helps to read the story backward a bit, so we understand what the author is doing here. People gathered at a tower, presumably to take up arms and storm the heavens, and so they were dispersed. But why did they gather at a tower? Because they were prone to violence. But why? Because they didn’t learn from the flood. What’s the flood? When God flooded the earth because of violence. What violence? The kind Cain committed. But who is Cain? The first murderer. But where did he come from? The garden. What garden? And so on… Much of Genesis works this way, with earlier chapters answering much later questions. When Yahweh gives the commandments to Moses “do not murder” is on the list, but “do not kill” is not. Why? Because murder, sacrifice, and killing are all different concepts in ancient Israel. Which brings us to sacred or sanctioned killing.
C) Sanctioned Killing. This one is where people usually hang up. God commands Joshua to obliterate the Canaanites, man, woman, and child. Children? Yes, children. Too much theology has been done with the Joshua narratives already, much of it ignoring the gruesome details and various iterations of what it was that happened throughout his illustrious career as a general. We may have to return to this in a later post, but let’s get a general idea of Joshua now. The book of Joshua should probably more accurately be titled “The Tale of Joshua the Giant Killer”. This doesn’t mean someone named Joshua never existed, or that he didn’t captain the armies of Israel into battle. It just means the stories about his victories most likely were, as still are today, greatly exaggerated to preserve the historical kernel. First, archaeology bears no record of whole clans of giants. So the stories of Joshua and Caleb might be being framed from a person of shorter stature seeing someone in the 6’+ range. Tall, but not giants. Yes, individual “giants” have been found, but these seem to be as they are now, not the norm. Joshua’s conquest is first and foremost about eliminating the “sons of the anakim” or “the giant clans”. The anakim were descendants of the nephilim, which we know from Genesis were descendants of fallen angels who bred with human women. The New Testament refutes the idea that angels are gendered beings, or that they are able to impregnate anyone, indicating a change in belief in regard to this point, but this may be a topic for later. The conquest is primarily about ridding the land of these ‘giants’ (=demigods for the greeks). Secondarily, though it comes across as primarily in the way Joshua has been edited, the conquest is about the triumphal procession of the ark of the Covenant across the unclean lands. The ark’s movement across canaan signals the arrival of Yahweh, or the return, depending on which tradition you ask. Joshua and Judges both contain dual competing narratives, with credit being given to Joshua for utterly eliminating one tribe, only to have the next verse say that the people were still in the land “to this day” (one of those little notes that lets us know that for whatever happened to the victims and victors, the editor is alive and well). In addition to all of this, archaeology has proven pesky to taking Joshua as a flat, literal story about a historical conquest. That is, the historical record doesn’t confirm that Joshua destroyed, or was anywhere near the time of the destruction of Ai, or Jericho. More than likely these cities were discovered already destroyed, and so attributed to Joshua when he arrived (Columbus and Vespucci “discovering” America fits here).
D) Mythical (story) violence. Whether Joshua (or anyone else) actually killed anyone isn’t a discussion we can have. The only thing we do have is the stories, and the stories say that they did. So when dealing with these texts, the questions we don’t ask are “did Joshua really kill x, y, and z?” or “did God command Joshua to kill x, y, and z?”. The stories say what they say, uncomfortable as it may be to modern sensibilities. What I’m calling mythical violence is violence we find in the stories. This violence is on the pages of the book, whether or not it occurred in real time in history. Ancient interpreters of the bible thought nothing was there by mistake, so even if the story isn’t historic, they’d say to find the why. What is the sacred violence commanded in Joshua’s narratives? Herem. Halot notes that the “ban” or “what is banned” is originally referred to as “Yahweh’s booty”, meaning “what belongs to Yahweh”. Here again it is important to reference the giant killer tradition, as the herem in Joshua is applied to supposed descendants of nephilim, which came from beings in Yahweh’s domain (angels). In essence, those under “the ban” were already Yahweh’s possession because they were from his class of being, which he ruled over as well.
E) Some combination of these. No major story in the bible has a single author or editor or even historical tradition. There are multiple angles on virtually every event and character (save a few), and so it follows that each story is going to contain within it multiple traditions about violence and how it should be handled, or whether something is even considered to be “violent” in the eyes of the author/original audience. At times, sacrifice is put under the same microscope by the prophets as unsanctioned murder.
F) The violence done by people with the bible. This one is clear enough, and probably not what most people mean when they talk about the violence of the bible. Though for some, this is a very real and active reality. Queer sexuality is still addressed with violence, as are many women’s rights. Children are beaten under the guises of “spare the rod, spoil the child”. Left-handedness used to be “beaten out” of those born left-handed. Anyone not on the “winning side” of history is viewed as not on “the LORD’s side”, and so violence done to them is justified.
G) The violence done by people to the bible. For certain, nobody means this when they talk about the violence of the bible, but what I call doing violence to the bible involves allowing later theological ideas and philosophical notions to influence how the text is interpreted. Moses didn’t know the nicene creed, and neither did Jesus. There was no worldwide network of churches for James. The texts of the bible say what they say, and often times, don’t affirm later creeds (and so, theology makes attempts to fill those gaps – “I studied with a Rabbi” doesn’t cut it here).
The bible is not “a violent book”. The bible is a collection of stories spanning thousands of years of human history and activity with their deity. Humans are violent creatures. I would mistrust a book about human history written without violence spilling from its pages. It’s the violence that lets us know the biblical authors are doing their best to tell us a story that encompasses the entirety of what it means to be human and searching for God, and as often as they can, without the use of mythology.