Violence in the Old Testament
Violence in the Old Testament
- Jerome F. D. CreachJerome F. D. CreachPittsburgh Theological Seminary
“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.
- Biblical Studies
- Judaism and Jewish Studies
Violence and Hebrew Ḥāmas
Recent Old Testament scholarship shows a marked interest in violence, which is often understood broadly as a reference to any destructive act by God or humans. Thus, “violence in the Old Testament” may refer to any description of God or human beings killing, destroying, and doing physical harm. As part of the activity of God and of God’s chosen people, therefore, violence has theological consequences that are often at the center of the discussion of the subject.
Despite the intense interest in God’s association with violence, however, the Hebrew word ḥāmas, which most translations render as “violence,” refers almost exclusively to human action and therefore sets violence outside the activity of God. The word also connotes action motivated by arrogance, selfishness, or vindictiveness. Thus, “violence” does not identify all human destructive action. For instance, Gen. 49:5 includes the word in its description of Simeon and Levi, saying that “weapons of violence are their swords” (see King James Version, “weapons of cruelty”). Verse 6 says further, “in their anger they killed men, and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.” “Violence” in this passage connotes wanton destruction. The passage suggests that some weapons and use of weapons might be legitimate, perhaps to defend the innocent or to right a wrong. Simeon and Levi, however, act only to satisfy a thirst for wrath (Gen. 49:7).
Some appearances of ḥāmas suggest further that “violence” is that which defies or ignores the sovereignty of God and the intentions of God for the world.1 Such an understanding appears in passages like Psalm 73, which identifies the wicked as violent (“pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment”; v. 6). These are people who deny God’s demand for and attention to justice by saying, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” (v. 11).
Consistent with the identification of ḥāmas as action against the just order of God, the term sometimes appears as a cry to God in the face of injustice (Jer. 6:7).2 Exodus 23:1 and Deut. 19:16 characterize a false witness as ʿēd ḥāmas (a “violent witness”). The notion that a false witness threatens life and well-being appears in fuller form in many of the prayers of the Psalter. Psalms 27:12 and 35:11 specifically include ḥāmas to describe false accusations concerning which the psalmist petitions God to act as judge to set the situation right.
Ḥāmas may also refer to oppression by foreign powers. This use of the word is consistent with other uses in that the nations appear as arrogant and self-acclaimed powers that act contrary to the purposes of God. Habakkuk portrays the Babylonians marching to battle with complete disregard for God’s work in the world. They come “for violence” (Hab. 1:9) with the attitude that “their justice and dignity proceed from themselves” (1:7). That is, the Babylonians act as though they are self-created, responsible to no one but themselves (cf. Isa. 60:18).
This understanding of the Hebrew term ḥāmas points to a distinctively Old Testament perspective on the picture of God acting destructively which may provide religious communities an option for reading the text as authoritative: the Old Testament shows a keen awareness of violence as a problem in human society and among nations as they act cruelly to one another; as such, violence is against God’s intentions for the world. Instead of removing God from that violence, however, the Old Testament shows God reacting to the violence of humans with corrective measures. That means that sometimes God kills or destroys or uses human instruments to do so as a way of counteracting violence.3 Acts of divine destruction, however, are not associated with cruelty or wanton destruction. God’s ultimate purpose is for correction and redemption (Isa. 19:1–25).4
Violence and Creation
Although the term ḥāmas is a logical starting point for a study of violence in the Old Testament, the relationship between God and violence requires a much fuller explanation, beginning with the part violence plays in creation. In 1895 Hermann Gunkel published Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit, in which he identified a common motif in ancient Near Eastern creation accounts that he called Chaoskampf or “chaos battle.”5 Gunkel observed that most creation stories depict a god doing combat with other gods in order to establish order. One prime example was the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, in which Marduk fought and killed Tiamat, a chaos monster, as the first step in creation.6 Gunkel saw this same type of battle in depictions of Israel’s God in passages like Job 26:7–14, Pss.74:12–17 and 89:5–14 (6–15), and in later apocalyptic material in both testaments (Dan. 7–12; cf. Rev. 16:14, 16, 17:14, 19:11–16).7 Thus, scholars since Gunkel have often explained the biblical creation accounts in terms of God doing combat with chaotic forces that represent evil and disorder.8
Despite this pattern of chaos battle in some Old Testament texts, Gen. 1:1–2:4a narrates a story of God creating without violence or combat. In this account, the elements do not represent rival deities, and the story declares the creation “good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). What is more, in Gen. 1:1–2:4a the elements participate in the process of ordering at God’s invitation (Gen. 1:9, 11, 20). The fact that this account was likely part of the last stages of the creation of the Pentateuch may indicate that the portrait of God in Gen. 1:1–2:4a was normative for those who gave the Old Testament canon its present shape. Hence, it seems that the account of God creating without violence in Gen. 1:1–2:4a “now serves as the overture to the entire Bible, dramatically relativizing the other cosmologies.”9
In terms of political and military ambition, the picture of God in Gen. 1:1–2:4a sets the Israelites in contrast to the Babylonians in their identity with violence. Babylonian kings bore the “image” of Marduk and went to battle to create order among the peoples they conquered. Thus, their creation epic justified Babylon’s military conquests and legitimated a “theology of power.”10 Genesis 1:1–2:4a, however, implicitly urges cooperation instead of combat. It seems that the author of this account, from a perspective of powerlessness and victimization, understood God and creation differently than did the Babylonians. Passages that include the chaos battle theme also seem not to have supported violent acts by the Israelites. Rather, their authors made implicit claims about Israel’s God’s superiority to gods like Marduk as they declared their God’s ability to save them from oppression.
If one reads Gen. 1:1–2:4a as the opening story of a larger, coherent narrative, the initial creation by nonviolent means sets the stage for the violence of humans which threatens to undo the creation. Genesis 4 narrates the first shedding of blood when Cain kills Abel. Shortly thereafter, Gen. 6:11 speaks of the creation being “ruined” or “corrupt” because it was filled with violence. The flood story therefore represents God’s first grand effort to engage the violent forces of the world in order to preserve the creation (Gen. 6–9).
This mythic framework, which operates on the assumption that God created the world for peace, is in turn a key to understanding many parts of the narrative material. For instance, the Exodus story, which includes God’s destruction of the Egyptians, proceeds from the account of God choosing to work through Abraham and Sarah to bring blessing to all humankind, a direct link to the first creation story (Gen. 1:28–30, 12:1–3, 17:15–22). God selected them as agents through whom to carry out the initial plans to bless and preserve humankind and to establish justice and righteousness on earth (Gen. 18:16–21). With the blessings placed on humankind now concentrated in this couple and their descendants, Exod. 1:7 indicates that the blessings are taking effect (“But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them”; see Gen. 1:20, 28). Pharaoh’s acts against the Israelites appear therefore as acts against the stability of the cosmos.11 The plague stories, in turn, depict God working to stabilize the world. This is apparent, for example, in the story of Aaron’s rod-turned-serpent swallowing the serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians (Exod. 7:8–13). The word for “serpent” (tannin) in other texts refers to the mysterious creatures of the sea that represent disorder and chaos (see Ps. 74:13).12 Hence, Exodus depicts Pharaoh as commander of the forces of disorder, forces that would destroy and diminish life. The elements of God’s creation rise up to fight against Pharaoh, but the Israelites do not fight. Instead, God fights for them via nonhuman elements (Exod. 14:14).
In this way, Exodus 1–15 links Pharaoh with the sea as a force of chaos and disorder. After the Israelites’ escape from Pharaoh, Exod. 17:8–15 introduces Amalek, a foe who appears in association with the wilderness, another symbol of disorder and death (see also Deut. 25:17–18).13 Amalek is a personification of this life-threatening “un-world” just as the Egyptians are symbolic of the waters of chaos.14
The symbolic importance of Amalek as a figure of evil and violence continues to the end of the narrative material in the Old Testament. First Samuel 15 reports that the prophet Samuel instructed King Saul to “go and attack Amalek.” Saul’s failure to carry out the order becomes the primary reason God rejected Saul in 1 Samuel 15. The story draws on the account in Exod. 17:8–16 (see v. 2) by presenting the charge to Saul as a charge to rid the world of an evil force that emerged in the wilderness, now represented by Amalekite king Agag and his forces. At the end of the Old Testament narrative, Esth. 3:1 introduces the villain Haman as “the son of Hammedatha the Agagite,” thus presenting him as a direct descendant of the Amalekite king whom Saul refused to put under the ban.
Warfare, Conquest, and the Ban
Warfare appears frequently in the Old Testament and represents a special category of violence. The account of Israel’s conquest of Canaan and the order to put residents of the land under the ban (to “utterly destroy” them) raise ethical questions like those raised by modern colonial conquests and ethnic cleansing (Deut. 7:1–11, 20:10–18; Josh. 1–12). Such comparisons fail, in part because of the mythical and legendary dimensions of many of the relevant passages. Nevertheless, a close reading is crucial for understanding this part of the Old Testament.
There are literary and historical factors that provide context and in some cases mitigate the impact of Old Testament accounts of war. Archaeological evidence clearly indicates that the Israelites had limited control of the land early in their history as a nation. Their domain was limited to the hill country, the least desirable areas, until much later.15 In other words, the story in Joshua 1–12 is idealized. It does not reflect what Joshua’s army in the late Bronze Age (1550–1200 bce) actually accomplished.
The first writing of the story was likely in the 7th century bce during the reign of Josiah. Josiah sponsored the writing of the first draft of the history in order to support his religious and political reforms, which focused mainly on purifying worship and limiting the cult to the Jerusalem temple. The story took final form while Israel was in exile in Babylon. In other words, the story of Israel’s sweeping conquest of Canaan was not told by people seeking to conquer the land of another. Rather, the story emerged from efforts to create an identity in that land for the people of God, who in the last stages of telling the story themselves had no land. As such, the story urges reliance on God, not on military action.16
The greatest ethical challenge arises from the Old Testament presentation of the ban. The practice entailed the complete annihilation of the enemy along with all the enemy’s possessions that might otherwise be captured as spoils of victory. The Hebrew verb ḥāram connotes this practice (New Revised Standard Version, “utterly destroy”; Deut. 7:2), and the noun that derives from it (ḥērem) refers to persons or objects “set apart for destruction” (Deut. 7:26). Such persons or objects were designated as sacrificial gifts to God in exchange for God’s help in securing victory in battle. Thus, ḥērem identifies “devoted things” that the Israelites were not to touch or possess (Josh. 7:2).
This practice is attested outside the Bible in the record of king Mesha of Moab on the Moabite Stone, a 9th-century bce victory monument.17 It seems certain that the Israelites practiced the ban as their neighbors did (e.g. Num. 21:1–3). Nevertheless, the notion of “utterly destroying” the enemy in the conquest story seems to be an emblem of pure religious devotion and not an actual record of killing people or an incentive to do so. One sign of the symbolic character of the ban is its appearance in Deut. 7:2, in which Moses presents the ban as a precondition for Israel to occupy the land. Deuteronomy 7:3–5, however, explains what ḥērem means in two stipulations, neither of which involves taking life. The first stipulation is a statement against intermarriage (vv. 3–4), and the second stipulation is to destroy the sacred objects of the residents of Canaan (v. 5). Thus the ban in Deuteronomy seems to be “a metaphor for religious fidelity” that does not involve the taking of life.18
This is confirmed by the fact that the conquest story presents some Canaanites who not only are preserved, but who are presented as models of faith as well. Two prominent groups of Canaanites are said to have survived the Israelite attack and continued to live in Israel’s midst after the conquest: Rahab the harlot and those in her house (Josh. 2, 6:17), and the Gibeonites (Josh. 9–10). The very presence of these two groups illustrates further that the ban in Joshua is not something that was actually carried out according to the strict rules laid out in Deut. 7:1–5 and 20:10–20.19
There are also signs within the conquest story itself that those who put the story together seem to have been quite concerned about the violence of the conquest, whatever historical reality it represents. One such sign is the presentation of the conquest as a largely defensive action by Israel and the residents of Gibeon, its covenant partner, against the attacks of the kings of the land. This perspective is evident in a series of five comments (Josh. 2:9–11, 5:1, 9:1–2, 10:1–5, 11:1–5) that tie together the individual stories of the conquest into a unified narrative. Each of the five editorial summaries reports that Canaanites heard of the Israelites’ presence in the land and responded first in fear (“all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear”; 2:9, 5:1), but as the story progresses they plan for war against Joshua’s army (9:1–2, 11:1–5) and against the Gibeonites who are allied with him (10:1–5). As Lawson Stone observes, “It is therefore enormously significant that they construe the entire military campaign after Ai as a defensive reaction.”20
The Old Testament also expresses at numerous points explicit concern for the way the Israelites practiced war vis-à-vis their enemies. Amos 1:3–2:3 indicts Israel’s neighbors for various acts of cruelty during martial conflicts (e.g., the Ammonites “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory”; 1:13). Incidentally, the prophet uses the war crimes of surrounding people to draw a parallel with Israel’s mistreatment of the poor, thus elevating economic injustice to the level of war crimes (2:6–8).21
The Deuteronomic legislation addresses Israel’s practice of war directly. For example, it prohibits cutting down fruit trees during a siege (Deut. 20:19–20). Such wanton destruction, which was a regular part of Assyrian sieges of cities, was not to be part of Israel’s warfare.22 These law codes also legislate proper treatment of female captives by demanding compassion and respect (Deut. 21:10–14). Laws like these probably reflect Israel’s own internal dialogue over how to wage war, either in comparison to neighboring people who committed acts of cruelty or as correctives to Israel’s own brutal tactics (see Num. 31:18).
The Hebrew prophets engaged the problem of violence in a variety of ways that must be sorted out in order to gain an adequate picture of these complex figures. According to some Old Testament narratives, the so-called pre-classical or non-writing prophets were involved in planning, supporting, and carrying out warfare and other violent acts. Elijah and Elisha are the best examples. They were radical devotees of Yahweh who tried to purify Israel of the worship of other gods. They appear in the narratives of 1–2 Kings, like Phinehas (see Pseudo-Philo 48.1), the fiery priest who stamped out the worship of other deities by killing the devotees of those gods (Num. 25:1–9). Hence, the figures of Elijah and Elisha raise the problem of zealous religious commitment that prompts the devotee to violence.
The Rechabites are closely associated with Elijah and Elisha in this regard. Led by Jehonadab, they participated in Jehu’s bloody revolt against the Omride dynasty and helped purge the land of the worship of Baal (2 Kgs. 10:15–17, 28). The name “Rechab” (“chariot”) may indicate they identified the Lord as a chariot god (Ps. 68:4) and thus understood warfare as a principle activity of God in the effort to cleanse the land of religious impurity.23
The narratives in 1 Kings 17–2 Kings 13 also present a wide range of other actions by Elijah and Elisha, all of which involve the death of those who opposed them. Elijah participated in the overthrow and death of Ahab with his prophecy of Ahab’s violent death (1 Kgs. 21:19). He also predicted a similar fate for Ahab’s wife Jezebel (1 Kgs. 21:23–24). In Elijah’s last act, just before ascending to heaven, he called down fire from heaven on representatives from king Ahaziah, who succeeded Ahab (2 Kgs. 1). Elisha similarly fomented violent rebellion against the ruling house in Israel by supporting the bloody revolt of Jehu. During this event Jezebel was thrown from her window and dogs ate her, as Elijah had earlier predicted (2 Kgs. 9:30–37). Perhaps the most shocking act of Elisha, however, appears in the story in 2 Kgs. 2:23–25. As Elisha walked toward Bethel, some boys taunted him by calling him “baldhead” (v. 23). So Elisha cursed them, and two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
It seems clear that Elijah and Elisha operated on the assumption that wars and political revolts were instruments God used to work out God’s judgment. This same notion appears in other parts of the Old Testament as well (2 Chron. 20:6–12). The idea was that God used war as a legal judgment to settle disputes between parties, or between nations.24 This seems to be confirmed by Elisha’s concessions to the cruel acts of the Syrian king Hazael for the larger purpose of punishing Israel for its sins (2 Kgs. 8:11–13).
The identity of both Elijah and Elisha as “the man of God” is important for understanding their role in some violence and destruction. This label identifies them as people who possessed the power of the holy, thus as those with power over life and death. On the positive side, Elijah and Elisha used their power as holy men to preserve the lives of poor widows, and they could bring the dead back to life (1 Kgs. 17:8–16; 2 Kgs. 4:1–7, 13:14–21). Nevertheless, stories of their destructive actions illustrate that contact with the holy could be dangerous, and a holy man had to be approached carefully. Hence, the brief account of the boys who taunted Elisha illustrates what happens to those who bother a holy man. Such stories are lessons intended to instruct readers on this matter.
The Old Testament does not treat stories of prophets like Elijah and Elisha uncritically, however. The prophet Hosea directly rejected Jehu’s bloody coup, which Elisha supported. The objection to Jehu’s action comes though the symbolic name of Hosea’s first child (“Name him Jezreel, for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel”; Hos. 1:4). Furthermore, within the Elijah story itself the figure of Obadiah appears as a counterexample of how to deal with king Ahab. Obadiah protected prophets of Yahweh while he also served the king, all without violence (1 Kgs. 18:3b–4).
The so-called classical or writing prophets highlight in their oracles the problem of violence in its many forms as actions against the purpose of God. See the discussion above of Amos, who railed against mistreatment of the poor; Habakkuk, who spoke against Babylon as arrogant in war; and below, concerning Nahum’s indictment of Assyria for its cruelty in war.
In response to the violent acts of foreign nations, however, the prophets in turn used rhetoric that may seem to encourage or promote violence. This is particularly true in the so-called oracles against foreign nations (Isa. 13–23; Jer. 46–51; Ezek. 25–32). The book of Nahum as a whole speaks like the oracles against foreign nations and thus is a prime example of the problem of this material. Nahum proclaims God’s destruction of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Made prominent by Assyrian king Sennacherib (d. 701 bce), Nineveh represented a major military power which threatened Judah and destroyed Israel in 722 bce. Nahum’s message thus presents God’s vengeance against Nineveh as a response to the violence of the Assyrians.
Nahum 1:2–11 begins the proclamation against Nineveh by describing God with the terms “jealous” (qannôʾ; see Exod. 20:5) and “avenging” (nōqēm; v. 2). The first term refers to God’s desire for absolute devotion (Exod. 20:5; Josh. 24:19). The second word refers to justice meted out by a legal authority (see Ps. 94:1). Following these statements about God’s wrath, three statements in the rest of the section qualify the notion that God is an angry avenger. First, verse 3 puts God’s anger in perspective with a reference to a frequently cited line in the Old Testament: “The Lord is slow to anger” (see Exod. 34:6). Second, verse 7 makes a positive declaration about God’s character that clarifies who God defends with divine wrath: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him.” So here God defends Judah because it recognizes its helplessness; Nineveh will be defeated because it vaunted itself to the place of God.
Third, Nahum also makes clear that the Assyrians are brutal in their dealings with other peoples and thus directly oppose the will of God. Verse 9 seems to present in a rhetorical question the main flaw of Nineveh: “Why do you plot against the Lord?” Assyria is presented clearly in the book as a powerful and oppressive nation that disregards God’s intentions.
Nahum 3:1 then sums up Nineveh’s blatant rejection of God’s vision of peace: “Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty—no end to the plunder.” The verses that follow describe further how Assyria conquered, plundered, and terrorized nations like Judah. The killing was so rampant that there were “piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies!” (v. 3). The Assyrians produced artwork depicting their military exploits that suggests this is accurate. In a relief discovered in the palace of Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 bce), they show their soldiers attacking a city while residents of the city are impaled around its perimeter and bodies piled at the base of the wall, with more combatants falling from the ramparts above.25 For this reason the book of Nahum ends by saying to Nineveh, “Who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (3:19) Nahum declares, however, that any empire that relies on violence will eventually meet the wrath of the Great Judge who “protects those who take refuge in him” (Nah. 1:7).
But that is not the last word on the matter, even for the cruel Assyrians. The book of Jonah recognizes that God has pity on the people of Nineveh too, just as God has mercy on all nations. Jonah 3:10 states that God saw how the people of Nineveh turned from evil and “changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them.” Then the final chapter reveals the reason Jonah fled toward Tarshish in the first place. Jonah quotes a description of Israel’s God that appears in abbreviated form in Nah. 1:3: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). This same theme of God’s mercy appears at the end of Micah (7:18–20, concerning God’s forgiveness of Judah). Thus, it seems this segment of the Book of the Twelve (Jonah, Micah, Nahum) was shaped in part to set the varying claims about God’s wrath and mercy in tension with each other. The final form of the material suggests a theology of divine mercy, for Israel and its enemies (Jonah and Micah), though that mercy has limits because of God’s commitment to justice (Nahum).26
Like the Prophets, the Psalms display violence both in descriptions of actions by powerful oppressors and in the speech of those who call on God to bring vengeance on those oppressors. The Psalter identifies the victims of violence as the righteous (ṣaddîq; plural ṣaddîqîm), a term that denotes helplessness, humility, and dependence on God (Ps. 34:20–23 [Eng. 34:19–22]). The perpetrators of violence are the wicked (rĕšāʿîm), whose character is opposite that of the righteous (Ps. 1:4–6). Psalm 10 contains a litany of descriptions of how the wicked oppress the righteous which represents the Psalter’s portrait of this group: “They sit in ambush in the villages; in hiding places they murder the innocent” (v. 8a); “They seize the poor and drag them off in their net” (v. 9b); “They stoop, they crouch, and the helpless fall by their might” (v. 10).
These descriptions of the destructive and life-threatening activity of the wicked are clearly linked to the arrogance of the wicked and their disregard for God. For example, Ps. 10:3 states that “the wicked boast of the desires of their hearts” and they “renounce the Lord.” The wicked say, “God will not seek it out” (v. 4), with the belief that God “will not call us to account” (v. 13). Therefore, they act as though they can simply take what they want to the detriment of the poor and needy. In some psalms the violence of the wicked takes the form of public accusation (Ps. 109) and even false testimony, described as violent (Pss. 27:12, 35:11). The wicked also appear in some psalms as national enemies and thus represent the powerful nations that attacked and dominated the kingdom of Judah (Ps. 9:18 [Eng. 9:17], 10:15–16).
As a response to the violence of the wicked, numerous psalms call on God to bring vengeance. The language of these petitions may seem extreme (Ps. 109:17–19, 20) or even repugnant (Ps. 137:8). Two features of such prayers, however, provide context that makes them more understandable. First, the main aim of the prayers for vengeance is for God to arise as judge over the world (Ps. 94:1–3) to protect the innocent person or the helpless nation who suffers at hands of bloodthirsty enemies (Ps. 59:2–6 [Eng. 59:1–5]). Thus, the request for “vengeance” is a request for legal, or legally responsible, protection, not revenge (see the discussion of Nah. 1:2–11 above).27 Second, the petitions for vengeance in the Psalms are not prayers for the psalmist to be empowered to respond to enemies. The psalmist is powerless and so prays for God’s help apart from human agency (Ps. 11:1–2).
Although the righteous in the Psalms do not pray to be God’s agents to address violence, numerous psalms present the king as such an agent. The monarch appears as God’s representative on earth (Ps. 2:6–8). In some psalms the king appears as one who counteracts violence and oppression by defending the poor (Ps. 72). But numerous psalms include boasts by the king and ascription of actions to him that suggest punitive, military action. The king reports in Ps. 2:9 that God empowered him against the nations to “break them with a rod of iron” and “smash them into pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Similarly, in Ps. 18:43 the king says concerning enemy, “I beat them fine, like dust before the wind” (Eng. Ps. 18:42).
This violent rhetoric is consistent with the self-portrayal of kings in the ancient Near East and images that enhance that portrayal.28 As the book of Psalms progresses from beginning to end, however, it increasingly describes Israel’s king as a victim of violence rather than a perpetrator of it. This picture occurs at the beginning as well, in Ps. 3:1–3 (Eng. superscription and vv. 2–4). But scholars have noted a significant shift in pictures of the king in Psalms 90–150, and the link between the king and violence is one significant part of that shift. For example, near the end of the Psalter, Ps. 144:1–2 quotes some of the boasting lines of Psalm 18, but then frames them with a denial of the king’s ability (vv. 3–4). This shift is likely due to the experience of Babylonian captivity (587–539 bce), when Israel lost its monarchy. Regardless of the cause, by the end of the Psalter the king has become one of the poor and needy and models dependence on God, not royal power expressed as violence.29
Violence against Women: Judges as Test Case
Violence against women is a problem that appears throughout the Old Testament. The origin of the problem is often thought to be patriarchal society itself, which seems by its very nature a system that perpetuates violence against women. Although the patriarchy label is too simplistic for Israelite society, numerous stories confirm that women suffered because of a male-oriented system.30 The book of Judges is a prime example of the problem, with stories of Jephthah’s daughter (Judg. 11:29–40) and the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19) as the most egregious examples.
Feminist critique of Judges and similar Old Testament texts sometimes assumes that the book gives tacit approval to violence against women. An alternate view that may be more true to Judges, however, is that the deterioration of Israel in Judges is actually marked by the declining status of women and violence done to them. Indeed, the movement of Judges, from the promise of life in the land to chaos and violence, may be plotted in large part by the women who appear in the book.
In the opening chapter, Caleb’s daughter Achsah appears as a favored and prosperous woman. She seeks a blessing of land from her father and he grants it (1:14–15). Specifically she asks for an area called Gulloth-mayim, which means “basins of water” (1:15). In a land where water was at a premium, and survival of towns often depended on capturing and storing water in cisterns, owning land with a water source would have been a sign of power and influence. Thus, Judges begins with this striking portrait of a woman who has power and possesses land.
In the chapters that follow, other prominent women enter the narrative. Deborah appears early in the cycle of judges as one of the most influential leaders in Israel (4–5). Although identified as “the wife of Lappidoth,” she has a role that extends far beyond the domestic realm. She is a judge, prophet, and warrior. Within the story of Deborah another woman, Jael, kills the villain Sisera (4:21–22, 5:26–27). Jael, like Deborah, is associated with household activities. The book introduces Jael in relation to her tent and refers to her as the wife of Heber. It is worth noting, however, that the tent in 4:17 is identified with Jael, not her husband. Clearly she exerts significant power within the tent and that power alters the military and political situation outside the tent. Similarly, an unnamed woman kills Abimelech in Judg. 9:53.
These stories can by no means be interpreted as signs of egalitarianism, but they do portray women in favorable circumstances, as having influence, power, and honor. By the end of the book, however, Israel is embroiled in a civil war that is the direct result of a cowardly Levite leaving his concubine to be raped in Gibeah (Judg. 19), followed by his ghastly act of cutting up her body and sending parts of it to the various Israelite tribes (Judg. 19:29–30). The story clearly shows that the Levite lied about the event to cover up his own injustice (Judg. 20:3b–7) and subtly, yet certainly suggests that the Levite’s treatment of the concubine is the cause of the tragic war that ends the book (Judg. 20:30).31 In other words, the violent treatment of women in Judges seems to be the primary illustration of how Israel has lost its way during a time when “there was no king in Israel” (Judg. 21:25).
Review of the Literature
Recent scholarly interest in violence in the Old Testament falls into one of two primary, if uneven categories. First, a relatively small number of studies treat the issue with comparative data and approach the subject from a nonsectarian perspective. John Barton sets the standard for work of this type by setting Amos’s oracles against foreign nations against a backdrop of natural law.32 He shows that Amos recognizes a standard of behavior in warfare on which nations of the ancient Near East agree and by which they may be judged. C. L. Crouch follows this approach in a study of war and ethics in the ancient Near East.33 Crouch helpfully teases out assumptions behind the nature of warfare and its practice by showing connections between cosmology and the ethics of war in Judah and surrounding nations, and also demonstrates the effect of varying historical circumstances on these nations’ conceptions of war. P. D. Stern also draws heavily on Israelite cosmology in this treatment of the ban, though with different results from Crouch.34 K. L. Younger’s treatment of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts is also an important work.35
Religiously motivated treatments of violence in the Old Testament make up a larger second category. This category in turn has three distinct subcategories, each of which represents a particular stance toward religious tradition and especially toward the notion of the Old Testament as sacred scripture. One important group of publications sees religious fervor as the root of violence and thus calls into question the authoritative status of the Old Testament. Such publications are “religiously motivated” in that they question the authority of the Old Testament for contemporary readers. Regina Schwarz, for example, argues that the exclusive claims of monotheistic faith expressed in the Old Testament lead to a sense of scarcity: salvation is available only to those who follow this one God; thus, divine favor is limited, and those outside the favor of God are doomed to destruction.36 Hector Avalos draws a similar conclusion and thus advocates a “re-canonization” in which the thoughtful reader, in line with pacifist sensibilities, excises objectionable Old Testament texts.37 Scholars who advocate for such treatment of the Old Testament typically recognize that the violence that emerges from the Old Testament is largely due to certain interpretations and appropriations of the text by readers and practitioners—the texts themselves are not always so ethically clear or direct. Some feminist readings of certain Old Testament passages, however, also suggest that the text itself expresses oppressive ideals that thus should be rejected.
Scholars in this category generally “read against” the text. They are not inclined to seek a perspective on violence from within the Old Testament. For example, they tend to see Israel’s election as inherently harmful to others, and thus as a source of violence. From this point of view violence is any act, of God or humans, that harms, destroys, or coerces another.
The second subcategory of religious approach attempts to retain the authoritative status of the Old Testament by arguing that certain parts should be favored over others. Those who follow this type of treatment of the material suggest hermeneutical moves that allow “nonviolent” passages to establish a norm. A primary example is John J. Collins’s 2004 presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature. Collins surveys ways in which biblical texts have been used to justify violence and shows how problematic most explanations of such texts are; he dismisses allegorical interpretations and other attempts to “explain away” the violence in the Bible; he proposes that some texts (for example, the command to love neighbor and resident alien; Lev. 19:18, 34) should be privileged over others. Eric Seibert makes this point in a slightly different way. He suggests that the whole Bible is canonical and thus authoritative, but some passages do not present a true picture of God. Hence, it is a mistake to equate “the textual God with the actual God” in every case.38 Since some passages present a misleading portrait of God, Seibert insists, “we must be careful not to denigrate the Old Testament or give the impression that it is theologically irrelevant.”39 Instead, we must look behind the text and its human shaping to find the real God.
A third religiously motivated approach represents an effort to find redeeming qualities in all texts that seem to promote violence. Ellen Davis represents this approach with the idea of reading the text in sympathy with Augustine’s rule of charity, that is, the idea that all Old Testament passages should teach either how to love God or love one’s neighbor. Davis insists, however, that difficult texts typically have internal correctives that support this type of educative reading.40 Walter Moberly takes a similar approach in an essay on the Shema (Deut. 6:4–9) in which he interprets the ban in Deut. 7:1–11 as a continuation of the great prayer.41 Jerome F. D. Creach follows a similar path in a book that treats the problem of violence in the entire Bible.42
It is important to note that René Girard has an approach that transcends all of these just described. An anthropologist and literary critic by training, Girard concludes that all human society is founded on mimetic violence (that which comes from the desire to have what another possesses), but that violence is regulated through rituals, most obviously through sacrifice. In sacrifice an innocent victim “stands in” for the community and becomes a venerated figure. Much of Girard’s work related to the Bible relates to the meaning of Jesus’ death. As a sacrifice, however, Jesus’ death calls into question the most fundamental and frequent violent act in the Old Testament. Jesus’ death thus exposes the sacrificial system on which all human society rests. According to this view, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 40–55 does the same and represents a high-water mark in the Old Testament. Hence, Girard’s interpretation calls forth a community committed to nonviolence and positive mimesis. Girard’s works include The Scapegoat (1986), Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World (1978), and Job (1985). James Williams interprets and popularizes Girard’s work in The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred.43
The primary source for the study of violence in the Old Testament is the Old Testament itself. Certain parts of the Old Testament, however, are crucial in this regard. The books of Genesis (esp. chaps. 1-11) and Exodus (esp. chaps. 1-15) contain the story of creation coupled with the account of God redeeming Israel from slavery through the defeat of Pharaoh. The conquest account appears in Joshua 1–12, but Exodus (17:8–16), Numbers (13; 21:1–3, 21–35; 31; 32; 33:50–56), and Deuteronomy (1:1–4:43; 7; 20) anticipate the taking of the land, and the narrative books that follow Joshua present its completion (see especially Judg. 1–3; 1 Sam. 15).
The story of Elijah and Elisha and their violent acts is found in 1 Kings 17 through 2 Kings 9. The entire prophetic corpus is important for a study of violence because prophetic oracles so often contain either indictments of violent acts or vengeful rhetoric in response to those acts. As noted, however, the books of Jonah and Nahum provide an entrée into the latter problem.
Violent rhetoric and complaints of violence appear throughout the Psalms. For the study of the problem of the language of violence, however, certain psalms that call for God’s vengeance are especially important: Psalms 58, 109, 137, and 139.
Another dimension of the issue with primary sources is the 2nd-century ce debate about the Old Testament as Christian scripture. For a general discussion of the Marcionite controversy see Tertullian, Against Marcion 1.25–26 [ANF 3:290–293]. For Tertullian’s particular stance on the controversy see Against Marcion (ANF 3:269–475); see especially 7.7. Irenaeus’s views on the matter appear in Against Heresies 1.27, 3.4, 3.12.12, 3.25.3, 4.27–32 (ANF 1:309–567).
- Avalos, Hector. Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. New York: Prometheus, 2005.
- Barton, John. Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.
- Carroll, M. Daniel, and J. Blair Wilgus, eds. Wrestling with the Violence of God: Soundings in the Old Testament. Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 10. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015.
- Collins, John J. “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122.1 (2003): 3–21; reprinted as Does the Bible Justify Violence? Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.
- Creach, Jerome F. D. Violence in Scripture. Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.
- Crouch, C. L. War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in Light of Cosmology and History. BZAW 407. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009.
- Crouch, C. L. “Ezekiel’s Oracles against the Nations in Light of a Royal Ideology of Warfare.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130.3 (2011): 473–492.
- Davies, Eryl. “The Morally Dubious Passages of the Hebrew Bible: An Examination of Some Proposed Solutions.” Currents in Biblical Research 3.2 (2005): 197–228.
- Davis, Ellen F. “Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic.” Anglican Theological Review 82.4 (2000): 733–751.
- Earl, Douglas. Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010.
- Fretheim, Terence. “God and Violence in the Old Testament.” Word and World 24 (2004): 18–28.
- Fretheim, Terence. “‘I was only a little angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 58.4 (2004): 365–375.
- Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Translated by Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
- Good, Robert M. “The Just War in Ancient Israel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 104.3 (1985): 385–400.
- Gunkel, Hermann. Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung über Gen 1 und Ap Joh 12. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1895.
- Miller, Patrick D., Jr. The Divine Warrior in Early Israel. Harvard Semitic Monograph 5. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.
- Schwartz, Regina. The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
- Seibert, Eric A. Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
- Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984.
- von Rad, Gerhard. Holy War in Ancient Israel. Translated by Marva Dawn. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
- Williams, James G. The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
- Wright, Jacob L. “Warfare and Wanton Destruction: A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 19:19–20 in Relation to Ancient Siegecraft.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127.3 (2008): 423–458.
- Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
1. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. I: The Theology of Israel’s Historical Traditions, translated by D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 157.
2. See H. J. Stoebe, “חמס ḥāmas, violence,” in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, edited by Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, translated by Mark Biddle (3 vols.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), vol. 1, 437–439.
3. Terence Fretheim, “‘I was only a little angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets,” Interpretation 58.4 (2004), 365.
4. See Ulrich Berges and Bernd Obermayer, “Divine Violence in the Book of Isaiah,” in Monotheism in Late Prophetic and Early Apocalyptic Literature: Studies of the Sofja Kovalesvskaja Research Group on Early Jewish Monotheism Vol. III, edited by Nathan MacDonald and Ken Brown (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 9–10.
5. Hermann Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung über Gen 1 und Ap Joh 12 (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1895), 29–114.
6. J. Richard Middleton, “Created in the Image of a Violent God? The Ethical Problem of the Conquest of Chaos in the Biblical Creation Texts,” Interpretation 58.4 (2004): 342–344.
7. See especially Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).
10. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, translated by Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 195–198.
11. Terence Fretheim, “The Plagues as Ecological Signs of Historical Disaster,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110.3 (1991), 385.
13. Othmar Keel, Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms, translated by Timothy J. Hallet (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997 ), 76.
14. Philip D. Stern, The Biblical Ḥērem: A Window on Israel’s Religious Experience (Brown Judaic Studies 211; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 173.
15. Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000–586 B.C.E. (2d ed.; New York: Doubleday, 1992), 329–338.
16. Millard C. Lind, “The Concept of Political Power in Ancient Israel,” Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute 7 (1970): 4–24.
17. Lauren A. S. Monroe, “Israelite, Moabite and Sabaean War- Ḥērem Traditions and the Forging of National Identity: Reconsidering the Sabaean Text RES 3945 in Light of Biblical and Moabite Evidence,” Vetus Testamentum 57.3 (2007): 335.
18. Walter Moberly, “Toward an Interpretation of the Shema,” in Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs, edited by Christopher Seitz and Kathyn Greene-McCreight (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 135.
19. Norbert Lohfink, “ḥāram,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, translated by David E. Green (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 197.
20. Lawson Stone, “Ethical and Apologetic Tendencies in the Redaction of the Book of Joshua,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53.1 (1991): 33.
21. John Barton, Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 77–129.
22. See Jacob L. Wright, “Warfare and Wanton Destruction: A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 20:19–20 in Relation to Ancient Siegecraft,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127.3 (2008): 423–458.
23. Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel (rev. ed.; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 61.
24. Robert M. Good, “The Just War in Ancient Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104.3 (1985): 387.
25. Keel, Symbolism of the Biblical World, 102, 394.
26. See Mark S. Gignilliat, “Who is a God Like You? Refracting the One God in Jonah, Micah and Nahum,” in Monotheism in Late Prophetic and Early Apocalyptic Literature: Studies of the Sofja Kovalevskaja Research Group on Early Jewish Monotheism, Vol. III, edited by Nathan MacDonald and Ken Brown (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 70–71.
27. Erich Zenger, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, translated by Linda M. Maloney (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 70–71.
28. See Keel, Symbolism of the Biblical World, 291–306.
29. See Patrick D. Miller Jr., “The Psalter as a Book of Theology” in The Way of the Lord: Essays in Old Testament Theology, by Patrick D. Miller Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 214–225.
30. For a more complex picture see Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 43.
31. See the discussion in Jerome Creach, Violence in Scripture (Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 148–150.
32. John Barton, Amos’s Oracles Against the Nations: A Study of Amos 1:3–2:5 (SOTSMS 6; Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
33. C. L. Crouch, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in Light of Cosmology and History (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009).
34. P. D. Stern, The Biblical Ḥerem: A Window on Israel’s Religious Experience (BJS 211; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991).
35. K. L. Younger, Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (JSOT Supp. 98; Sheffield: JSOT, 1990).
36. Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
37. Hector Avalos, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (New York: Prometheus, 2005).
38. Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 241.
40. Ellen F. Davis, “Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Inner Biblical Hermeneutic,” Anglican Theological Review 82.4 (2000): 733–751.
41. Moberly, “Toward an Interpretation of the Shema.”
42. Creach, Violence in Scripture.
43. James Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctified Violence (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).