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Every society must make sense for itself of the violent impulses of its citizenry. Prophets, psychologists, poets, politicians and philosophers are frequently called upon in public forums to address the kinds of questions that grip a society when it feels itself on the verge of chaos as a result of some particularly monstrous crime committed by one of its citizens: "How did we come to this place? Where did this begin? Who is responsible? What can we do about it? If left unchecked, what is our future?"

The place where prophets, psychologists, poets, politicians, and philosophers debate the answers and solutions to violence in the society may vary depending upon the society. In modern times we have forums like CNN, Larry King Live, Crossfire, the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to air our fears and concerns. In biblical antiquity, schools of prophets, priests, and scribes presumably found ways to convene together to discuss the theological significance of recent episodes of violence within the society. Explaining human beings' impulse and appetite for violence was not the only topic biblical thinkers had on their minds. A more pressing theological question loomed on the horizon that threatened to chip away at the heart of Hebrew identity: "Why does God permit humans to suffer violence, endure violence or commit violence?" This was the bigger question facing the public thinkers of the day.

What's apparent is that there were categories of crimes against humanity, according to ancient Israel's pundits, that, if left unchecked and unexamined, threatened to undo the very fabric of Hebrew identity and society. Of course, the most persistent threat against the tiny nation of Israel, surrounded as it was by superpowers to the north and to the south, was war, which explains why biblical writers devote copious commentary on the public world of politics and military conflicts. But we have the same writers to thank for seeing in the very midst of private acts of adultery, rape, and incest equal threats to Israel's identity and future. Stories of Judah's misbegotten affair with his daughter-in-law Tamar, the butchered concubine in Judges 19; Gomer the abused wife in Hosea 1-3; the sexually ravaged woman in Ezekiel 16 and 23; and the woman caught in adultery in John 8, are the sort of illustrations they peppered their comments with to heighten the stakes. Those retelling these stories perceived a thread of coherence between the public world of war and politics and the private world of women's rape and abduction. Both are governed by strict rules of boundaries, accountability, and ownership (see Regina Schwartz's Curse of Cain).

Unlike modern day prophets, psychologists, poets, politicians and philosophers who fail to see the national and religious implications of violence against women, ancient thinkers recognized that the rape of women and girls was more than a private matter, more than a threat to property rights of individual men. Violence against women, the most vulnerable segments of a society (including children and the elderly), if left unchecked and unexamined, poses a threat to the very fabric and future of a society. Rape is a particular kind of human violence which carries powerful symbolic meanings in a culture, ancient and modern (see Alice Keefe: Woman's Body and the Social Body). Not only does it signal the asymmetrical distribution of power between men and women in which women's bodies perpetually subject to male possession are objectified, fantasized about, and freely violated. Rape and plundering women's bodies also signal the depth of a society's depravity, the lack of governance, and the failure of those in charge to maintain social order.

Stories of kidnapped women and girls in the Bible are not widespread, but they are there for us to stumble upon and miss the point if we dare. To do either is to put ourselves at risk. One of the main points of the story of the kidnap and rape of the virgins of Jabesh-gilead and the women of Shiloh in Judges 21 by the Benjaminite men is to portray the depths to which the tribes had sunk as a depraved and vulnerable community. Despite stories here and there of strong, resourceful women leaders (e.g., Deborah and Achsah), Judges casts a negative light on male honor and masculinity of the tribal leaders by depicting the women as unprotected, even in their homes (Jael, Judg 4: 17-21), sacrificed by their fathers (Jephthah's daughter, Judg 11:34-40), and institutionally raped (Judges 21) as evidence of Israel's degeneration without a strong central leader.

Beginning with the book of Genesis, the biblical writers selected representative examples of violence as a way of shedding light on larger topics about the nature of human existence itself. Story after story demonstrates how the authors tried not only to explain violence, but to help rationalize faith as well. They were concerned to answer not only where violence got its origin (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel), but more pointedly "how does one maintain one's faith and sanity in the presence of irrational violence and overwhelming evil?" Violence was a topic of study to the extent that it shed light on the greater threat to human existence which was evil itself. Unlike violence, evil was not random, episodic, and human. Evil was, according to biblical thinkers, calculating, pervasive, sinister, and seemingly outside and beyond the human will to control and regulate (e.g, Job).

Oddly enough, evil and violence are at the heart of all great religions and religious literature. Bloodshed and death, for example, play a mighty role in the birth of both Judaism (Israelite slavery and the drowning of the Egyptians at the Sea) and Christianity (the tortured body and shed blood of Christ). Perhaps it's possible then to understand the ubiquitous presence of violence and aggression, betrayal and disaster stories in the Bible as the way ancient thinkers forever sought to remind their audiences that you can't appreciate the depth of God's redemption of humankind without first grasping the depth of depravity and aggression humans are capable of. As the Gates of Prayer: the New Union Prayerbook states "that out of eternal darkness form emerges...light dawns, and life is reborn...[That] ...Order reigns where chaos once held sway." The myths they came up with, the connections they drew between the known and the unknown, was part of their reflection or speculation upon what might have happened to explain how things came to be the way they were. Hence, they rehearsed stories—fanciful, elaborate, grand, insightful, and powerfully violent stories—ones capable of capturing the pathos and drama of what it means to live as threatened humankind in a threatening world. Thus, while for modern believers our faith is obsessed with and based on what actually happened; for the ancient believer, it was a matter of explaining that which may never have happened in reality, but is quite possible in the realm of the cosmos:

Then the Lord said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians... (Exod. 3: 7-8).

Brothers murder each other. Husbands hand their wives over to strange kings to save their own necks. Innocent women are kidnapped or raped. A whole nation teeters on losing sight of its identity and purpose. And prophets and pundits are called upon to pull up a chair to explain not just how violence got its origin, but why God permits violence seemingly free reign in society. More importantly, they are hauled in to explain how it's possible that human beings continue to believe in God and the inherent goodness of creation despite the overwhelming presence of evil and the senseless violence they witness and endure in the world.

Renita Weems is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University. She is an SBL member and author of Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets.

Citation: Renita J. Weems, " Making Sense of Violence," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:


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