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Violence in Biblical Narrative

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 23, Number 2, October 1999
pp. 387-392 | 10.1353/phl.1999.0038

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Philosophy and Literature 23.2 (1999) 387-392

Notes and Fragments

Many commentators today want to show that far from being nonviolent, the Bible is really full of violence. In a sense, they are right. The representation of violence in the Bible is enormous and more vivid, more evocative, than in mythology and even Greek tragedy. If we compare Judaic texts to pagan ones, we find that the amount of represented violence is greater in the first than in the second. Some defenders of the Bible say that current criticism of its violence lacks historical perspective because it makes no allowance for the fact that in our world many people who write about the Bible have become extremely sensitive to violence, much more sensitive than at any time in the past. We should, in fact, be careful not to project modern values and attitudes back upon archaic texts.

There is a lot of truth in this view, of course, but it is a poor defense of the Bible from the standpoint of religious believers. If we have to say that the Bible is full of violence because it is the product of a violent culture, how can we attribute to the Bible a positive role in the battle against violence? How can we say that reading the Bible makes us better, which is what Jews and Christians believe. There is something I like in the contemporary refusal to condone biblical violence, something refreshing and challenging, a capacity for indignation that, with a few exceptions, is lacking in standard scholarship and religious exegesis. Believers must come up with a better answer than a sociological one or they will defeat their own purpose. I think there is a better answer than reading the Bible from within the contemporary cultural milieu and, in a sense, my own work is an attempt to find that answer.

A good example of a book that seems scandalously violent is the Book of Psalms. Many psalms are not only violent but full of hatred and resentment. The narrator complains that he has many unjust enemies who not only destroy his reputation but threaten his life and even physically assault him. In some of the psalms the narrator is surrounded by these enemies who are about to lynch him. He curses them, he insults them; above all he asks God to rain fire and destruction on these enemies.

The intensity of resentment in these psalms may well be the main reason why Nietzsche sees in the Judeo-Christian tradition a resentment which does not exist in the pagan world. These are the so-called psalms of malediction or execration. Nowadays in order to minimize their violence many Bibles call them "penitential." They are not penitential at all but vengeful.

Many traditional and scholarly commentators minimized the violence of these texts which they regarded as a stereotyped expression of anger, a collection of clichés devoid of any referent in the real world. The complete denial of the referent right now is the end product of a long process during which the reality behind all ancient texts has been more and more de-emphasized. This is a way of getting rid of the problem entirely or of turning it into a psychological or psychoanalytical problem. But some free spirits among the believers have always underlined the violence in these prayers. There are other texts in the Bible that forbid human beings to pray to God for the destruction of their enemies, and this is precisely what these psalms do. C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms finds them shocking and does not hesitate to say so: "In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naïveté." Lewis finds these texts especially problematic in view of the fact that this intensity of hatred is not found in pagan writing:

If we are to excuse the poets of the Psalms on the grounds that they were not Christians, we ought to be able to...


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