This post was written in 2014. We’re publishing it now before a new round of posts in the lead-up to our time in Australia.
As part of some of the ethics reading I’ve been doing, recently I read Eric Seibert’s ‘The Violence of Scripture’. He’s an anabaptist Old Testament lecturer in the US and his basic assumption when reading the Bible is that it should never be used to hurt others, yet history shows that over and over again it has been. This is not just about the Crusades. It’s about the Puritan defence of the Mystic River Massacre with Judges 20; it’s about the husband who tells his wife he’s entitled to hit her because her bones are his; it’s about the Palestinian Christians who have been so alienated by militaristic Zionism that they no longer read the Old Testament.
Seibert argues that these violent actions are not only due to misuses of the biblical text but because violence permeates so much of the Bible, and is often portrayed as virtuous. Think of the capture of Jericho, told as a story “that emphasized Israel’s victory with nary a word about the human carnage that resulted when the walls fell down.” Seibert’s experience is that people either don’t even realise the violence of these texts, or, once they do, feel that this means that violence is somehow good. He’s not interested in whether the actions of the figures of the Old Testament were good because he sees them as being unable to transcend the violent worldview of their time. Instead, his concern is that people swallow and then perpetuate violent theologies for use today because they have no ‘permission to read [the Old Testament] differently’. That’s what he’s aiming to give: the tools for what he calls an ethical or non-violent reading of the Old Testament. He asks, “How does one read violent texts in ways that are liberating and life-giving, and that reduce the risk of being used to justify further acts of violence and oppression?’
One of the great mistakes Seibert believes Christians make when reading violent texts is that we think people fit neatly into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, so we assume that the Israelites are always the ‘goodies’.
Seibert gives 5 suggestions for critiquing ‘virtuous violence’
- Look for internal critiques of violence within the violent texts. Does the text itself suggest that those purporting the violence are not actually the ‘goodies’?
- Use nonviolent voices to undermine violent ones. The Bible isn’t only violent, so how do other texts shed light on the violent ones?
- Read with the victims of the text. The victims are human beings; compassion for their experience begins with imagining it.
- Read from the margins. Whose story is left out? What is the text not saying?
- Appeal to commonly accepted standards of morality. Maybe you think the Bible’s saying something’s good, but maybe you should listen to the voice screaming, ‘No! This is wrong!’
I think points 3 and 4 are useful for us in terms of grasping the scope of what’s going on; if we see the horror of the violence we are less likely to unthinkingly consider is God-ordained and apply it to our own cause. However, they are motivated by a hermeneutic of suspicion, that is, a reading against the text and its flow. This seems to me to mistrust the Bible.
What interests me about points 1 and 2, however, is that they read with the text. They ask where the Bible critiques or limits or provides commentary on its own events. For example, Seibert points out that if you think the book of Joshua is xenophobic, there is the book of Ruth. Even within Joshua, you have the inclusion of Rahab who is faithful but not part of Israel, and the story of Achan who is an Israelite but is unfaithful. My own example would be that of Jephthah, contrasted with Abraham by the text in order to showcase his unfaithfulness.
I confess however that these first two points sounded very familiar to me, and I suspect it’s because of the Aussie evangelical tradition from which I come.
My camp is big on ‘biblical theology’.
It means that we do very careful exegesis of particular passages but that we also seek to locate those within the Bible’s bigger story. It means that, at least in my experience, we’re less likely to fall into the trap of assuming there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and that the Israelites are the ‘goodies’. In the Bible’s big story, everyone up to Jesus is fractured in some way; we don’t need to defend King David’s battle — he might be ‘a man after God’s own heart’ (a poor translation by the way), but he’s also a murderer and an adulterer, and the Old Testament wasn’t that keen on kings to begin with! He too is a reminder that we need a better King, one who would suffer at the hands of violent men that he might win peace for all.
In my Aussie evangelical tradition, our theology of sin is such that we expect every single character in the Old Testament to have some kind of failing. This means we’re alert to the Bible’s own critiques of the characters that others might read positively. Of course we could do better at this — for example, it was new to me reading Carolyn Sharp’s view on Esther, that the literary techniques employed to describe the violence at the end of Esther work to condemn it. Nevertheless, I don’t feel the need to defend the actions of the Israelites; with Sharp and the text I’m able to condemn them because this is the story the Bible tells over and over again: the people who are delivered then fail dramatically to be the light to the world they were called to be.
My thinking is that if you see that the Bible on some level critiques its own violence, this makes Seibert’s latter three points less necessary. You don’t have to do the extra work of imagining a counter-narrative, because the Bible has itself already tempered the triumphalism. Reading Seibert’s book I felt like he had to do a lot of work to argue that it’s OK to see some Bible characters and their actions negatively, yet as an Aussie evangelical this is built into how I read the Bible. It means that rather than reading the Bible and wondering if I have to accept these (to me) immoral things as good, I can read the Bible and see that there’s good biblical reason to see these things as immoral. That’s not to say there aren’t difficult texts or ones that bother me, but it means my starting place can be one of trusting God that the Bible is God’s word and that it is good.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.