Views on divine violence in the Hebrew Bible

In Exodus, God is portrayed as bringing destruction upon the Egyptian agriculture and people. 12:23 Yahweh protects the households of Israel from the destroyer while 12:27 & 13:15 say Yahweh was the active agent in the death of the firstborn. There are texts in the Hebrew Bible in which Yahweh sends a terminal illness on a child for the sins of his father (2 Sam 12:14-15) and God commands King Saul to kill all the Amalekites, even the children (1 Sam 15.3). People who take the Bible as their sacred text are often troubled by these “questionable” divine behaviors. A number of ways of dealing with such texts have been developed. Six of these are discussed below.

Seibert [Disturbing Divine Behavior] lists four explanations often given by those who affirm the Bible is God’s word.

  1. Divine immunity. Whatever God does is right and we have to accept it.
  2. Just cause. God had good reasons to punish these people.
  3. Greater good. God needed to destroy some people for the well-being of Israel.
  4. God acted differently then. In the Old Testament God did those things but no longer. (A. van de Beek, Why? On Suffering (1990), 263.

Note: each of these views assumes that God said and did these things. [1-3 are common among conservative evangelicals. See Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide.]

  1. God was wrong to do these things but that is just the way God is according to the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh has a “dark side” according to biblical texts.

5.1 Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson concludes that there is an “uncanny, ghastly, ferocious, hostile, and nearly Satanic” side to God. Yahweh may be vengeful beyond what is just, be the cause of evil, or renege on his covenant promises. Levenson finds it unacceptable to elevate the divine goodness above the texts where Yahweh is capricious. He speaks of the “coincidence of opposites” in the deity (an internal dualism). Yahweh struggles within himself and does not always act in good and loving ways. (Levenson, “Cataclysm, Survival, and Regeneration” in ed. Daniel Landes, Confronting Omnicide: Jewish Reflections on Weapons of Mass Destruction. Aronson, 1991, pp. 39-68).

5.2 Christian scholar Walter Brueggemann holds that some biblical texts present the predominant “testimony” that Yahweh has universal love and goodness while “counter testimony” texts protest the majority view by affirming that Yahweh is savage, sulky and abusive. These “contradictions” are in the very life of God (Theology of the OT, 268). “Israel is never fully, finally certain of Yahweh’s inclination toward it” (Theology of the OT, 227. see 213-228). An Unsettling God: the Heart of the Hebrew Bible (2009).

  1. God is completely good so the biblical texts that depict God in these ways are wrong.

6.1 Terence Fretheim is conversant with the views of Levenson and Brueggemann and agrees that there are problematic texts in the Bible. Fretheim follows Abraham Heschel and argues that God becomes wrathful in particular situations because of the divine love. If there was no human sin there would be no divine wrath or violence. Divine judgment is brought forth out of love in order to help restore the beloved to proper relations.

In “God and Violence in the OT” he does not want to downplay texts where God is implicated in violence but he does seek to absolve God of blame. (1) God works through human agents and thus has to live with the failings of the humans. God becomes associated with the fallout (24). (2) God’s overarching purposes are judgment on sin and salvation of the oppressed. (3) It is for these purposes that God sometimes employs violence in the attempt to overcome human violence by trying to prevent a greater evil.

The Bible is a sacred text for Fretheim but he notes that some biblical writers revised what earlier biblical authors had said about God so Jews and Christians today are justified in establishing criteria to distinguish which teachings about God in the Bible are appropriate. He seeks to distinguish what some texts say about God and what God is actually like. Fretheim and others hold that Jesus is the best model of what God is like so this is used to critique other biblical teachings about God (28).  [See his “Reflections on Brueggemann’s God” in God in the Fray, eds. Linafelt and Beal (Fortress, 1998, 30-37), “God and Violence in the OT” (2004), also his God and World in the OT (Abingdon, 2005, 269-284).]

6.2  C. S. Cowles (an evangelical) argues that Jesus is the model of God for Christians and since we cannot imagine Jesus doing some of the things attributed to God in the Hebrew Bible, then those portrayals of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible in which Yahweh is less than loving are inaccurate pictures. Some biblical writers got the message wrong. There is a “progressive understanding” of God in which the Jews at first attributed bad characteristics to God but then began to distance Yahweh from death and destruction. The writers of some texts misunderstood what God was disclosing because their receivers were distorted. See Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide ed. by C. S. Cowles (Zondervan, 2003), 38-42.

See also:

Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God by Eric Seibert (2010),

The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy by Seibert (2012),

The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals when it Gets God Wrong (and why inerrancy tries to hide it) by Thomas Stark (2011);

Violence in Scripture by Creach (2013),

God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist? by Lamb (2011).

For broader ethical issues see Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton Sparks (2012).

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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