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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Patriarchy, Monotheism, The Bible, and Violence

Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative (Fortress Press, 1984)

Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (University of Chicago Press, 1997)

Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002)

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable violence of war has confronted us almost daily. Images of suffering children and refugees left homeless by a conflagration of bombs and invading troops challenges us to examine our views of the justice of war and its effects.

Of course, the Bible is full of narratives that record violent acts in the name of God. Sometimes even God is the perpetrator of these acts. Think simply of God's bringing the plagues on the Egyptians as a result of the pharaoh's inability to change his mind about releasing Moses and the Israelites, or of God's hand in Jesus' death. As many comics have remarked, if you want sex and violence in your reading, look no further than the Bible. Even more problematic, of course, is the ways that readers use the biblical texts that record violent acts to justify violence of their own in God's name. The Bible is not the only sacred text that records such acts; few sacred texts—especially those of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—lack records of violent acts performed to appease the gods, to punish opposing nations, to oppress marginalized peoples, or to elevate one god as more powerful and worthy of worship than another.

Almost twenty years ago, Phyllis Trible offered a scathing critique of the misogynistic readings of Scripture offered over the centuries by churches and synagogues in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative (Fortress Press, 1984). Drawing on the powerful liberation theological perspectives of Johannes Baptist Metz-which Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza brought to biblical criticism's attention in her remarkable In Memory of Her (1982)-and using the tools of literary criticism, Trible retells four tales of biblical women whose stories religious communities have largely ignored to their peril. Once told, these stories function as a dangerous memory that challenges the misogyny and patriarchy of the dominant religious hierarchy. Trible recounts these "tales of terror in memoriam to offer sympathetic readings of abused women....It interprets stories of outrage on behalf of their female victims in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again. In telling sad stories, a feminist hermeneutic seeks to redeem the time." (Trible, 3)

Indeed, Trible was one of the first to call to account the unspeakable horror of violence dominating the biblical texts. She retells the tales of four women whose stories belong to the sacred scriptures of church and synagogue but whose stories are largely ignored by those institutions. She provides startling and incisive portraits of Hagar, "the slave, used, abused, and rejected"; Tamar, "the princess raped and discarded"; the unnamed woman of Judges 19-21, "the concubine raped, murdered, and dismembered"; and the daughter of Jephthah, "a virgin slain and sacrificed." (Trible, 1) Trible's book unsettles the dominant religious hierarchy here, for one only need ask if anyone can remember the last time he or she heard the story of Hagar or the unnamed woman in Judges read on a Sabbath or a sermon preached about any of these women's unjust suffering.

The most terrifying text Trible discusses is Judges 19-21. A concubine becomes angry with her master, a Levite, and returns to her father. Eventually, the Levite goes after his concubine to bring her back, with horrific results. The story ends with violence begetting more violence as the tribe of Benjamin appropriates the wives of Shiloh and the virgins of Jabesh-gilead for themselves. Trible points out that this terrifying story "depicts the horrors of male power, brutality, and triumphalism; of female helplessness, abuse, and annihilation. To hear this story is to inhabit a world of unrelenting terror that refuses to let us pass by on the other side." (Trible, 65) Trible's book remains a classic text targeting the violence of the Bible and the ways such violence can be subverted to remember victims of violence.

Regina M. Schwartz, in The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (University of Chicago Press, 1997) offers a broader reading of violence and its insidious character in religious communities. Beginning with original myths of violence, such as the Cain and Abel story, she argues that at the foundation of many religious communities there is the attempt to form and establish collective identity. In order to establish its identity a group must exclude others in terms of race or gender or religion, among other qualities. What happens in Israel, as the nation begins to try to define itself as monotheistic, is that the stories record that one God demands absolute loyalty to this God. Such allegiance means that everyone who chooses not to participate in this identity is an outcast and an enemy of not only the nation but of God.

Thus, in the stories of the conquest of the land, it is acceptable for the Israelites to use violence against the Canaanites and others. Schwartz explores the ways that identity is invented through covenants, that identity is owned through a focus on the land, that natural identity comes through kinship, that identities are divided by various drives toward nationalisms, and that memory provides a way of inscribing identity. Schwartz's book provides a deeply stimulating meditation on religion and violence that seems very prescient these days when the violent legacy of monotheism can so easily be seen in the nationalistic fervor of many nations.

By now it is commonplace to remark that more violence than good has been committed in the name of religion. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian strife confirm this age-old adage. Wake Forest religion professor Charles Kimball has made something of a career out of speaking about the ways in which religion becomes evil. He does so again in his recent book, When Religion Becomes Evil (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), an even-handed examination of the violent legacy monotheism.

Every religion, he argues, has the capacity to work either for good or evil, and he contends that there are five warning signs we can recognize when religion moves toward the latter. Whenever a religion emphasizes that it holds the absolute truth—the one path to God or the only correct way of reading a sacred text—to the exclusion of the truth claims of all other religions and cultures, that religion is becoming evil. Kimball suggests that other warning signs include blind obedience to religious leaders, apocalyptic belief that the end time will occur through a particular religion, the use of malevolent ends to achieve religious goals (e.g, the Crusades), and the declaration of holy war. Although Kimball focuses primarily on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, he also cites examples from new religious movements such as the Peoples Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, and the Branch Davidians. Religion can resist becoming evil, he argues, by practicing an inclusiveness that allows each tradition to retain its distinctiveness while it works for the common good. Kimball provides an insightful guide to help us understand why evil is perpetrated in the name of religion.

Each of these books, in its own way, offers lucid insights into the perplexing and often complex relationship between religion and violence.

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. is Editorial Director, Trinity Press International in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

 
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