There is violence in the Bible, and it is a problem. Violence in literature should expose the evil of such behavior to foster peace. But much of the violence in the Bible fails to convey that message clearly. Such destructive behavior is contrary to our basic human values. It can confuse Christians and embolden atheists.
One approach to biblical violence is to ignore it, to airbrush salvation history. Difficult passages of the Old Testament are omitted from the liturgy. Another approach is to read such texts allegorically as non-historical epics. Old Testament history does differ from modern critical history, but the core of many biblical stories cannot be denied without voiding scripture.
The foundation of a correct understanding of such violence is to acknowledge the infinite chasm between divinity and humanity. When scripture speaks about God in relation to himself, it states clearly that God is not human. But when God is acting within the human sphere scripture often presents God as expressing himself in a human manner. Since divine knowledge communicated directly to humans would be incomprehensible to us, God must communicate his message in a human manner. In scripture God is condescending to the human level much as a father would speak to a child in terms the child can comprehend and only a child would read such texts literally. Therefore, passages that are not in accord with the goodness of God must be understood as divine condescension to our sinful human condition.
This leads to anthropomorphisms, such as the wrath of God, which can be misleading. God cannot be angry, and God cannot act violently. When scripture ascribes anger and violent actions to God it does so to express by a human activity a process in God by which he directs and corrects his people, a process for which we humans have no other adequate expression.
God’s message is received according to our cultural mindset, which during earlier phases of human development was often quite violent. Since human beings can receive a message only with their present disposition, God has allowed his word to be understood by his people according to their stage of development. And fierce violence was endemic to early pastoral tribes such as those of the Old Testament. Too readily we forget or sanitize the violence of ancient cultures. Their brutal language is disturbing, but it was the vernacular of that age. However, such violence never was endorsed in scripture as a way of life. The enduring message was always the peace proclaimed by the prophets.
God is involved in scripture not only with violence but also with other unacceptable behavior such as polygamy, slavery and deception. The Bible as sacred does not mean everything therein is laudable. Our insight into such difficult passages always will be limited but not without benefit. Had the people been less militant, God’s message might have been expressed in a more irenic manner. Rather than bemoan that God is associated with the violence of scripture, we should be embarrassed God had to condescend to such a sinful human level so his message of peace gradually would be absorbed by warring nations. With violence so prevalent in our culture, this realization should move us to embracing peace more radically.
Father Earl Meyer is with St. Fidelis Friary, Victoria.