Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Violence in the Bible

The topic of violence in the Bible has received renewed attention in the wake of the events of 9/11, but even before this act of religiously inspired violence exploded into our consciousness, a number of scholars had wrestled with various dimensions of biblical violence. These include broad systematizers like Rene Girard (The Scapegoat) and Regina Schwartz (The Curse of Cain), as well as much more focused studies such as von Rad's classic monograph, Holy War in Ancient Israel and Susan Niditch's War in the Hebrew Bible. Of course, one motivation behind much of recent critical biblical scholarship is a sense of ethical uneasiness over the fact that the biblical authors frequently appear to be more comfortable with the use of violence than we are today in the modern West.

Much of the scholarship produced in the last several decades has been excellent, but there are some troubling trends and a certain confusion of issues that are worthy of deeper reflection. Perhaps the most pervasive problem has been the tendency to assume that if a biblical account includes violent actions, then the text itself endorses the violence exhibited in it. Here one thinks of the way in which a number of feminist interpreters have treated the horrific account of the Levite's concubine and the subsequent internecine strife that ensues in its wake (Judges 19-21). Thus some interpreters suggest either that the text is endorsing the violence found in it or is inciting violence simply by exhibiting it. (See, J. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women, 176-198; Koala Jones-Warsaw, "Toward a Womanist Hermeneutic: A Reading of Judges 19-21," in A Feminist Companion to Judges, ed. Athalya Brenner, 172-185.)

It seems to me that many of the arguments about violence in the Bible are in fact quite close to arguments about violence in Hollywood films. There are certainly many Hollywood films in which gratuitous violence is included simply to market the film. However, there are a considerable number of Hollywood films that use violence in a nuanced and even profound fashion. Thus one would be hard pressed to argue that On the Waterfront's use of violence is an endorsement of it. Of course the question is, which category do various biblical narratives fall into? The way in which violence is reported in Judges 19-21 is strikingly similar to Clint Eastwood's masterful film, Unforgiven. Both the film and the biblical text take their points of departure from a violent act against a woman of secondary status who is in some sense considered more a piece of property than a respected human being. From there, each story explores how the inequities that may have been encoded into the social fabric contribute to a rising tide of violence that spins out of control. If this analogy is correct, then both Unforgiven and Judges 19-21 strongly critique the violence they describe.

Yet when we speak of violence in the Bible, we are less often pointing to accounts like Judges 19-21, where one can more readily argue that the text may condemn violence. Rather, the focus of such discussions usually refers to such cases as the apparent divine command to annihilate the Canaanites.

Typically, scholars resort to monotheism and election to explain the sources of biblical violence. For example, Regina Schwartz, author of The Curse of Cain, informs the reader that "The Other against whom Israel's identity is forged is abhorred, abject, impure, and in the 'Old Testament' vast numbers of them are obliterated." (Schwartz, 18-19). Schwartz attributes the rise of such ideas to an immature and dangerous psychological process that should be outgrown and left behind. "The very idea that identity is constructed 'against' suggests scarcity, as though there were a finite amount of identity itself, and so a space must be carved out for it and jealously guarded, like finite territory." (Schwartz, 20). Other recent scholarship has also associated the notion of Israel's election with violence and deep intolerance towards all non-Israelites, grounding this assertion less in psychological than in sociological and ideological terms.

Thus in his recent popular book, The Unholy in Holy Scripture, Gerd Ludemann asserts that "as Israel is the holy people, chosen by YHWH, it must totally avoid contact with other peoples; political neutrality and religious tolerance are excluded." (Ludemann, 71). As John Collins astutely observed in his recently published presidential address to the SBL, the attempt to link monotheism and religious violence in a simplistic fashion simply will not hold water. "Violence and the sacred went hand in hand long before the rise of Akhenaten or Moses, and polytheism can be used to legitimate violence just as easily as monotheism" (Collins, 3-4).

The notion that Israel's assertion of her election leads inevitably to the idea that all those excluded should be annihilated is inaccurate. In fact, the biblical idea of election is composed of three, rather than two, categories: The elect, the anti-elect and, the non-elect. "The elect," are God's chosen people, Israel. "The anti-elect" are those few groups who are deemed to be enemies of God and that Israel is commanded to annihilate. Texts that deal with the anti-elect pose a serious challenge to any biblical theologian or scholar. But in fairness to the biblical text, one must recognize that Israel viewed the vast majority of foreign individuals and nations as "the non-elect" rather than "the anti-elect." These non-elect peoples were always considered fully part of the divine economy, and, in a very real sense, Israel was to work out her destiny in relation to them, even if in separation from them.

In his SBL Presidential address, John Collins cites Oliver Wendell Holmes as an example of a person who at the start of the Civil War was filled with certitude over the righteousness of the cause of abolition. However, by the end of the war, Collins tells us, Holmes had concluded "that certitude leads to violence." Collins suggests that the best way to lessen "the contribution of the Bible to violence in the world, is to show that that certitude is an illusion" (Collins, 21).

Yet Collins himself is quite certain of this claim and thus he has not managed to provide a way to ameliorate the clash of absolute values that he believes conduces to violence. Imagine the pacifist who has total certitude—a certitude that leads to non-violence. Just as it is quite dubious that monotheism and exclusivism can be linked causally to violence, it is questionable to link absolutism and certitude to violence. There is a misplaced bias against fanaticism that links the idea of fanaticism to evil. Fanaticism can be directed towards human good; in fact, many of the world's greatest religious figures rightly could be called fanatics. The single-minded dedication to a cause that is associated with fanaticism can produce an Osama Bin Laden, but it has also produced Mother Teresa. Evil, not certitude is the problem, and while they frequently occur in the company of each other, this is far from universally the case.

Identifying evil is profoundly tricky; but, in certain instances, evil flourishes because the broad-minded relativist fails to acknowledge it. Collins is correct about the potentially deleterious effects of certainty, but he doesn't give enough weight to the equally deleterious effects of uncertainty. Today many thinkers are so constrained by the overwhelming sense of relativism that afflicts Post-Modernity that they are ineffective in meeting the moral challenges that arise. If biblical scholars hope to lessen the Bible's contribution to the world's evils, they must offer compelling alternative interpretations that open the reader to the text's highest moral and theological possibilities, and they must do so with a conviction, approaching, but perhaps just short of, certitude.

Can we assume that violence is itself always an evil? Collins, although he sees violence as an evil, rightly recognizes that violence can at certain times be justified (Collins, 18). However, the Holmes quote implies that it was the certitude of the abolitionists that led to war, suggesting that if only the Northerners had been more open to other ideas, violence could have been avoided. While possible, one wonders whether the evil of slavery could have been ended bloodlessly and in a way that preserved the union of states. Thus the move to blame the bloodshed on the certitude of the Northern abolitionists seems somewhat misplaced. As World War II has made clear, at times non-violence against aggressors can be a tremendous evil, while engaging in violence against them can be not only a morally justified lesser of two evils (as Collins affirms), but it can be a mitzvah, a divine imperative.

None of this is to say that the Bible does not contain problematic instances of violence that remain morally troubling in the extreme. The Bible's call for the utter annihilation of the anti-elect remains morally problematic, but rarely in the simplistic ways that some have presumed. Even these most disturbing texts are mitigated by a number of factors: such texts are not historical and thus were not actually enacted; they were aimed at internal community maintenance more than at ethnic coherence; they were a religious attempt to explain serious historical evils; and they were part of a broader biblical and later religious tradition which contains many other elements that qualified, critiqued and ultimately defanged the most ferocious elements of this type of ideology.

More often than not violence is an ambiguous phenomenon whose valence can only be determined by carefully weighing the details of the specific situation and the intentions of the actors involved. Thus we may indeed condemn some of the violent acts that the Hebrew Bible condoned. But doing so should not blind us to the fact that the text is on the mark in its awareness that violence, while frequently a grave evil, is in certain rare instances a righteous course of action.

Recognizing that the biblical authors may have wrongly justified certain instances of violence can help us make better decisions today. But it cannot be used as an argument against avoiding hard decisions by implying that all evils can be challenged and contained through verbal diplomacy alone. The profundity of the biblical text resides in its complexity and ability to challenge our popular conceptions of violence, justice, and evil. While violence is indeed often unwarranted, there are times when employing it is a necessary good.

Joel S. Kaminsky is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and Biblical Literature at Smith College. He is an SBL member.

*I want to thank: Moira Bucciarelli, John J. Collins, Jacqueline Lapsley, Jon D. Levenson, Gregory Spinner, and my student Anne Stewart for their valuable criticisms and helpful suggestions. I am particularly thankful to Prof. Lapsley for letting me consult her article on Judges 19-21 from her forthcoming book: Whispering the Word: Strategies for Reading Women's Stories in the Old Testament Theologically (Westminster/John Knox, 2004).

Citation: Joel Kaminsky, " Violence in the Bible," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.