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Violence in the Old Testament

Oxford Research Encyclopedia of ReligionJournal abstract

“Violence in the Old Testament” may refer generally to the Old Testament’s descriptions of God or human beings killing, destroying, and doing physical harm. As part of the activity of God, violence may include the results of divine judgment, such as God’s destruction of “all flesh” in the flood story (Gen. 6:13) or God raining fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24–25). The expression may also include God’s prescription for and approval of wars such as the conquest of Canaan (Josh. 1–12). Some passages seem to suggest that God is harsh and vindictive and especially belligerent toward non-Israelites (see Exod. 12:29–32; Nahum and Obadiah), though the Old Testament also reports God lashing out against rebellious Israelites as well (Exod. 32:25–29, 35; Josh. 7).

Christians have wrestled with divine violence in the Old Testament at least since the 2nd century ce, when Marcion led a movement to reject the Old Testament and the Old Testament God. The movement was substantial enough that key church leaders such as Irenaeus and Tertullian worked to suppress it. In the modern era interpreters have taken up the problem with new vigor and have treated it from fresh perspectives. Some attribute the Old Testament’s accounts of God destroying and killing to the brutality of the society that produced it, but they believe modern people are able to see the matter more clearly. They find support for this view in the apparent acceptance of cruel practices of war by Old Testament authors (Num. 21:1–3; Judg. 1:4–7; 1 Sam. 15). Within this way of reading is also a feminist critique that sees in the Old Testament a general disregard for women, illustrated by some passages that present sexual abuse as well as general subordination of women to men with no explicit judgment on such atrocities (Judg. 19; Ezek. 16, 23).

Assessment of the significance of records of or calls for violent acts in the Old Testament are difficult, however, because of the complex literary and canonical context in which such passages appear and because of the incongruity between ancient Israelite culture and the culture(s) of readers today. Studies that compare the Old Testament presentation of violence with that of contemporary ancient Near Eastern nations offer potentially more controlled results. Comparative studies alone, however, cannot account for the multiple layers of tradition that often make up Old Testament references to violence. That is, while Assyrian and Babylonian records of warfare presumably describe what Mesopotamian kings actually did in battle, the Old Testament often reports wars and military conflicts, and the aspirations of the leaders of Judah, from the perspective of a defeated people. Thus, even Judah’s desire to defend itself militarily morphed into an expression of hope in God.

Given the complexity of the development of the Old Testament canon, a fruitful and ultimately more accurate way of treating the subject is to determine how ancient Israelites thought about violence and how the subject then affected the overall shape of the Old Testament. A logical starting point in this endeavor is the Hebrew word ḥāmas. This term connotes rebellion against God that results in bloodshed and disorder and a general undoing of God’s intentions for creation. Thus, violence appears to intrude on God’s world, and God acts destructively only to counteract human violence. For example, in Gen. 6:11–13 human violence ruined the earth and thus prompted God to bring the flood as a corrective measure. This way of understanding violence in the Old Testament seems to identify the Old Testament’s own concern of violence and presses a distinction between divine destruction and judgment and human violence.

Despite this potentially helpful approach to violence in the Old Testament, many problems persist. One problem is the violent acts that religious zeal prompts. Old Testament characters like Phinehas (Num. 25), Elijah (1 Kgs. 18:39–40; 2 Kgs. 1), and Elisha (2 Kgs. 2:23–25; 9) killed, ordered killing, or participated in killing in order to purify the religious faith and practices of the Israelites. Nevertheless, most texts that contain problems like this also contain complementary or self-corrective passages that give another perspective. The complexity of the material with regard to violence makes it possible to argue that the Old Testament opposes violence and that the ultimate goal, and divine intention, is peace.