Old Testament Overview

Violence is one of the central preoccupations of the biblical text. The book is full of violence. It is not a G-rated book. Not even PG. I doubt that it would get an R. It’s just way too over-the-top violent for that. It is possible that you have not noticed this. Or perhaps not paid attention to it. It is very common for Christian communities to experience the violence in the biblical text as embarrassing or offensive. This leads to attempts to reframe the text to make it seem less violent. That’s how the story of Noah and the ark can become a suitable-for-children story about a petting zoo on a boat rather than a story about the near-extinction of the human species. That’s how the birth of Jesus can become a suitable-for-children story about a cute baby sharing a barn with warm, fuzzy animals rather than a story which includes the mass murder of infants and young children by an occupying military force. But this kind of sanitizing (Hallmark-card-izing) of the text is very disrespectful of the text. And it is profoundly unhelpful — especially to people struggling with abuse. It obscures the central passions of the text and can leave the impression that biblical faith has little to say about situations involving violence or abuse. It will not be possible to give a full account here of the Old Testament perspective on violence. We can look at a few texts and hint at some of the more important themes:

1) CREATION. Unlike many stories about beginnings, the O.T. does not root creation in a story about violence.1 Before the creation of life ‘the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” 2 The Spirit of God hovers over deep waters. A powerful image. If you go all the way back you still find God hovering, awaiting the right time to speak. The introduction of violence and abuse into the story comes later — and it’s arrival is not welcomed by the Creator as a good thing. This places violence outside the frame of God’s original intentions. It is from the very beginning understood that violence is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

2)THE FALL. The threat of violence first appears in the text in Genesis 2:

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”3

God establishes capital punishment as the consequence for violation of a particular commandment. The question arises: will the threat of death have the desired result? We learn quickly enough that the threat of death was insufficient to ensure righteousness. And, perhaps more importantly, we learn that when God finds that the threat was not effective, God changes the consequences. Paradoxically, the serpents prediction turns out to be true: “you will not surely die”4. There are consequences, the first of which is awareness of shame. . . but the violence of capital punishment is rejected by God.

3) CAIN, ABEL, LAMECH AND NOAH. After the Fall the theme of violence is brought to center-stage by the conflict between Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s first two sons. It is important to notice that the kind of violence which the text is concerned about here is violence which is connected with religious conflict — Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable but his brother’s was acceptable (for reasons which the text never explains). How does God respond to this violence according to the text? There are clearly consequences for Cain. He is to be a fugitive and a wanderer, living in fear of retributive violence. In response to Cain’s fear that this punishment will lead to even more violence God makes an interesting and disturbing promise. In order to protect Cain from the retributive justice which he fears, God promises to be even more violent: “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.”5 Will the threat of escalation of violence bring the violence to an end? We learn soon enough that threats of escalation of violence are not effective in ending violence. The text next returns to the theme of violence when talking about Cain’s descendent Lamech6. Here we have a clear indication that violence and threats of increased violence have not had the effect of reducing violence:

23 Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. 24 If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

The threat of 7-fold violence did not bring violence to an end. The problem has gotten worse. Within a few generations it apparently took a threat of 77-fold violence to be credible. The theme of increasing violence sets up the next narrative section: the story of Noah. God’s effort to use threats of increased violence to reduce violence have not worked. The situation has become extreme:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.”7

Again we see God escalating the violence in an effort to redeem creation:

“Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.”8.

After the flood, Noah sacrifices to God and God responds with a promise:

“The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”9

Apparently even God has learned that violence leads to more violence and neither the threat of escalating violence nor the actual escalation of violence will achieve the desired result. There will have to be another way. Immediately after the story of the flood God provides instructions about religious sacrifices — and imposes an explicit constraint on violence:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”10

There is no longer any room for the 7-fold escalation or the 77-fold escalation of violence. Murder is still murder and has serious consequences. But there is no room in the new order for disproportionate violence or threats of violence. Everyone has tried that (including God) and it didn’t work. Until this point in the biblical narrative there were no constraints on violence other than the threat of more violence. This is the beginning of finding a different path. In the end, when the dust has settled, God abandons forever threats of apocalyptic violence as a way to reduce violence and insists that human responses to violence be limited and proportional.

4) ABRAHAM AND ISSAC. The issue of religiously sanctioned violence re-emerges powerfully in the story of Abraham and his son Issac.11 Child sacrifice was a common feature of religions in Abraham’s world. According to the biblical text God tells Abraham to participate in this kind of human sacrifice. Had Abraham been paying attention to God’s promises (which were dependent on Issac for their fulfillment) he might have seen the absurdity of this demand. But, like many of the prominent figures in the O.T., he appears in the narrative as pretty clueless and apparently just does what he is told. For our purposes it is only important to notice that God appears in contradictory ways in this text. In the beginning of the narrative God instructs Abraham to kill his son as part of a religious ritual. At the end of the narrative God prevents Abraham from killing his son and makes it clear that child sacrifice has no place in worship. This is a repetition of the reversal found in the Cain-Abel-Lamech-Noah narrative: at the beginning God participates in the escalation of violence but at the end God rejects violence. My own instinct is that the first part of this narrative is a ‘hook’ — a way to draw people’s attention to the text by starting with something familiar. Child sacrifice would have been familiar in the ancient world. A God who demands death would have been familiar. So the familiar draws people into the narrative. The narrative develops towards the surprising ending: God isn’t like that at all. God does not condone violence against the innocent–much less sacrificial violence. Whatever else the story of the binding of Issac means (and it is a very complicated text which people much more knowledgeable than myself have argued about for a long time) it is a clear statement by God that religious rituals involving animal sacrifice were to be a replacement for human sacrifice. This is part of our major theme which emphasizes that violence is part of the problem–not part of the solution. There are gods who work by means of violence and threats of violence, but the God of this narrative does not endorse violence. When the dust settles, it is clearly God’s role to bring violence to an end. God enters the narrative to save the life of the person being harmed.

5.THE PSALMS. The psalms are a remarkable for our purposes in the way they give voice to the experience of people who have been victimized. Sometimes the cry of victims is full of unrestrained rage and a longing for Lamech’s 77-fold vengeance. Consider, for example, part of Psalm 140:

1 Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; protect me from men of violence, 2 who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day. . . . 9 Let the heads of those who surround me be covered with the trouble their lips have caused. 10 Let burning coals fall upon them; may they be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, never to rise.

Texts like this — of which there are many — ought not to be taken as a divine endorsement of such sentiments. But the fact that the text gives voice to the rage of people who have been abused is notable. There is no hiding from abuse in these texts. People who have been abused are heard. Also notice that God is not present in the text on the side of “evil men.” God has clearly taken sides. This God is a God to whom victims can turn and say “rescue me.” It is assumed that God will listen. In addition to expressing rage and a longing for vengeance texts like this express a longing for God to bring vindication — and often a deep frustration that God has not acted quickly enough or decisively enough on behalf of the abused. Consider, for example, Psalm 22 (a text Jesus quotes from the cross):

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.

The spiritual distress expressed in this text will be a familiar reality to anyone who has experienced abuse. Later in the same Psalm we find the writer more hopeful about God’s response to the injustice:

24 For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

The experience of God’s absence and inattentiveness which exists in the beginning of the Psalm may seem incompatible with the experience of God’s attentiveness found at the end of the text. But confusing experiences like this are common among survivors of abuse. The text gives voice to both of these experiences of God — both the crying out and the assurance that God has listened.

6. CONSTRAINTS ON MILITARY CAPABILITIES Another part of the critique of violence in the O.T. is a theme related to a prohibition on acquisition of offensive military capabilities. Consider, for example, this text:

The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.12

In all probability this refers to horses used to draw chariots–which were the state-of-the-art offensive weapon system at the time. The same theme is found in I Samuel where the dangers of establishing a monarchy are explained in some detail. Here we find that the LORD is particularly concerned about the potential that the tribes would become a credible military threat to their neighbors:

10 Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”13

These warnings apparently had little impact. By the time of King David, chariots were commonplace and other prophets picked up the theme. Here’s Isaiah:

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD.14

For another example of this theme read the story of Gideon and the military conflict with the Midianites in Judges 7. In this narrative God clearly insists that his followers not pose a credible military threat to the ‘evil-doers’. God rejects this kind of violence. It is not my intent here to discuss what implications these texts might or might not have for military policy in the modern world–it is only my intent to point out that the O.T. contains many texts which critique violence and threats of violence and which make it clear that God has not hesitated to be more restrictive on the use of violence than his followers would have preferred.

7. JOB The book of Job has the same kind of ‘reversal’ structure which we saw in the narrative of Abraham and Issac. The book begins with God in the role of the abuser. The ‘hook’ of the narrative involves God allowing Job to be harmed without just cause. Job is not happy about this:

2 “As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul15

Jobs ‘friends’ try to argue him out of his anger at God. But Job insists that God be tried in a court of law. By the end of the narrative, when the dust has settled, we find that God agrees with Job. Job has insisted on his innocence, on the fundamental unfairness of what has happened. And God agrees. At the end of the narrative, God criticizes Job’s friends and takes Job’s side. God says to Job’s friends:

“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.16

In all of his rage at God, Job had spoken rightly. The ‘god’ who appeared at the beginning of the narrative deserved all the criticism it got from Job. Even in his rage at God, Job was closer to the truth about God than were his pious friends. The bottom line is reasonably clear, in the end God acted to defend the person who has unjustly harmed. Again, the God of the O.T. hears, stands with, defends and protects those who have been unjustly harmed.

8. THE CRITIQUE OF SACRIFICE The O.T. contains a substantive critique of the practice of sacrifice. We saw the beginnings of this critique in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Later in the O.T. text we find that Israel tended to forget it’s beginnings as slaves in Egypt, tended to forget that God takes the side of the persecuted and victimized. And when it forgets its history, it forgets to be like the God it serves. The result is exploitation, injustice and abuse. When God’s people start to victimize the vulnerable, God sends prophets to remind them that no religious ritual can substitute for justice for the oppressed. Here is how the prophet Amos puts it:

21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!17

And here’s Hosea:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.18

The theme is this: No matter how rigorous you are in your religious observances, you can’t claim to be close to God if you are not attentive to the needs of those who have been unjustly harmed. We pay attention to the needs of those who have been abused, because God pays attention.

CONCLUDING OBSERVATONS This is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of relevant O.T. texts. There are many complicated and confusing questions that deserve more attention than we have time for here. I hope the above is enough to suggest the following:

  • There is a lot of violence in the O.T. text. But there is also a perspective on this violence. Violence is part of the problem, not part of the solution. The O.T. presents many violent narratives in order to critique violence–especially religiously sanctioned violence. It seeks to put limits on the escalation of violence. It seeks to prevent the faithful from becoming a violent people. May God grant us the courage to oppose violence with the same persistence as is found in this text.
  • The voice of people who have been abused is not silent in the O.T. text. The anguish, the suffering, is not sanitized. Not hidden away. Not privatized. The rage, the sense of abandonment, the confusion, the resentments. . . it is all right there on the surface of things. No doubt there are many people who would prefer a text that is less emotionally raw. But the O.T. text does not pull many punches. May God grant us the courage to be as emotionally honest as this text.
  • In the O.T. God is on the side of people who have been unjustly harmed. God heard the cry of the oppressed in Egypt and rescued them from their bondage. God was on the side of the oppressed. God heard the demand of Job for justice–even when Job was questioning God’s own commitment to justice–and God responded to vindicate Job. May God grant us the courage to be consistently on the side of those who have been unjustly harmed.

I am aware of the fact that this presentation of the O.T. perspective on violence is not comprehensive. There are many texts which don’t fit neatly into the perspective I have outlined. I do hope, however, to have made it clear that the O.T. contains significant pro-victim themes. And I hope to have made it clear that the caricature of the God of the O.T. as a blood-thirsty, kill-all-the-bad-people kind of deity does not do justice to the text.

RECOMMENDED READING

  • Millard Lind, Yahweh Is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Christian Peace Shelf) Herald Press (January 1980) ISBN-10: 0836112334
  • Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on Canaanite Genocide, Stanley N. Gundry (Series Editor), Zondervan, 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0310245681
  • The Problem of War in the Old Testament by Peter C. Craigie. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978) ISBN-13: 978-0802817426
  • Warfare in the Old Testament : An Argument for Peacemaking in the New Millennium by Lynn Jost. Direction, 27 no 2 Fall 1998, p 177-188.

For views less inclined to see a critique of violence in the O.T. text see:

  • The Zeal of Phinehas : The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence by J. J. Collins, Journal of Biblical Literature, 122(1, 2003)3-21
  • The Unholy in Holy Scripture: The Dark Side of the Bible by Gerd Ludemann (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
  • Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Overtures to Biblical Theology) by Phyllis Trible (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1984)

  1. In contrast, for example, to the Babylonian goddess Tiamat who makes war against her children and then makes heaven and earth from her own body after being split in two by Marduk, the storm-god.  

  2. Genesis 1:2  

  3. Genesis 2:16-17 

  4. Genesis 3:4 

  5. Genesis 4:15  

  6. Gen 4:23-24  

  7. Genesis 6:11  

  8. Gen 7:23  

  9. Genesis 8:21-22 

  10. Gen 9:6 

  11. Genesis 22  

  12. Deuteronomy 17:16  

  13. 1 Samuel 8:10-20 

  14. Isaiah 31:1 

  15. Job 27:2  

  16. Job 42:7  

  17. Amos 5:21-24 

  18. Hosea 6:6 

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