Why is there so much violence in the Bible?
It’s one of the most common challenges thrown out to Christians, and also one of the most common questions that Christians ask themselves.
In reality, there are no quick and easy answers to this question, but there are some important things that we can say in order to map the terrain more clearly. There are several different types of violence in the Bible, and it is not helpful to lump them all together and view them the same way.
"There are no quick and easy answers to this question."
First, there is violence that is described. Ancient society was inherently violent, and because we are being given a truthful account of society, that violence is recounted to us. For, example, King David’s ‘fixer’ was a man called Joab. Joab had a taste for watching young men fight to the death for his entertainment. 2 Samuel 2 gives us an account of how such a gladiatorial contest flared into wider violence and bloodshed. We are being shown something of the character of the men involved, and how their actions had wider consequences that destabilised the monarchy. The violence is not being endorsed or commanded; it is simply described.
Another example would be the stories of sexual violence that we find in the Old Testament. Not long after the Joab incident, we read of one of King David’s sons raping his half-sister Tamar. Again, this terrible event resulted not only in personal tragedy, but also in massive political destabilisation, and indeed, civil war. There is absolutely nothing in the story that suggests we are to approve of the rapist’s actions. Indeed, we might feel encouraged that violence against a woman was considered important enough to be included in this generally quite male (and male-authored) book.
Next, there are many places where prayers are violent. Such prayers are typically in the psalms, although they are also found elsewhere. The psalmists often pray for God to assist them:
"The psalms express deep emotions in the face of severe suffering."
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. (Psalm 31:3–4)
Sometimes these become prayers for God to exercise his righteous judgment, to vindicate the innocent:
Awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment. Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered around you, and over it take your seat on high. (Ps 7:6–7).
And sometimes these spill over into prayers for violent judgment:
Rise up, O LORD, confront them, overthrow them! By your sword deliver my life from the wicked (Ps 17:13).
It is worth remembering that these prayers are poems, and they use florid and intense language, as poets still do today.
The psalms express deep emotions in the face of severe suffering. Modern counsellors and therapists understand the value of being able to give vent to feelings such as these. Expressing them verbally often makes it less likely that they will become actions. Addressing prayers to God for vengeance helps the psalmist to leave the cause with God rather than taking matters into his own hands.
These prayers are often expressed in quasi-judicial terms, especially when they use ‘eye for eye’ language. Such prayers are appealing to God for justice rather than revenge. This is discussed in more detail here.
The New Testament teaches that our true enemies are not people, but spiritual powers: systems and structures of evil which oppress and abuse.
Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12).
And the ultimate enemy of humanity is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). So the psalms can be very powerfully used to pray against these non-personal enemies of humanity such as ecological catastrophe, sickness and violence.
Violence as divine judgment
And then there are violent descriptions of God’s present or future actions in judging evil. Often these are poetic and metaphorical, and the remarks made earlier about florid language in the psalms would also apply here. The graphic imagery of a burning lake of fire in Revelation 20 and 21 has given rise to the unfortunate and unhelpful medieval ideas of devils eternally roasting the unsaved. This is not at all a biblical image.
Once again the idea of divine judgment is a complex one, and this article simply points out some of the more prominent headline issues.
Quite often, judgment in the Bible is presented as the inevitable consequence of human actions. Those who ride tigers have trouble dismounting from them. In Isaiah 7, the prophet warns King Ahaz not to make a treaty with Assyria, but to trust in God. Assyria was the superpower of the day, and Ahaz was hoping to benefit from its protection, due to some local difficulties he was experiencing with small neighbours. Ahaz ignored the prophet’s words, and not long afterwards the king of Assyria ransacked and almost destroyed Ahaz’s kingdom. We read about it in 2 Chronicles:
At that time King Ahaz sent to the king of Assyria for help… So Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria came against him and afflicted him instead of strengthening him. For Ahaz took a portion from the house of the LORD and the house of the king and of the princes, and gave tribute to the king of Assyria, but it did not help him. (2 Chronicles 28:16–21)
The well-known story of the Flood is somewhat similar. God’s actions in creating the world, as told in Genesis 1, are described as separating waters and allowing land to emerge. In the ancient mind God (whichever god they believed in, actually) always created in this way. So God had pushed back the waters of chaos and was holding them there. In the Flood story (which takes place in direct response to human violence (Genesis 6:11) God stops holding the waters back and allows them once more to cover the earth. It is a picture of God saying to humanity, ‘Very well then. Have it your own way.’ There is much to ponder here in terms of our current environmental crisis.
Although the language of judgment is one that many are uncomfortable with these days, it is a common biblical theme, and one that is worth further consideration before being dismissed. In his book ‘The Locust Effect’, Gary Haugen describes many situations across the world where the most vulnerable people are unable to benefit from healthcare, education or employment provision. This is because they are subject to arbitrary violence, theft or enslavement without effective recourse to judicial redress. In response to this issue, Haugen founded the International Justice Mission (IJM) which works with governments around the world to help them deliver meaningful justice to the poorest and weakest.
Few of us would wish to dispense with institutions that make and enforce laws (even if we point out their shortcomings), and in the same way, a hope for divine judgment is an essential part of the promised world where all tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4).
The Bible is very clear about judgment, but it is equally clear that provision has been made for those who cannot withstand it – which is all of us. By the mercy of God and the obedience of his Son, we can be declared righteous in God’s sight if we have faith in him.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
Violence commanded by God
The final, and hardest, category of biblical violence is in the situations where God appears to command Israel to go into battle and slay people, sometimes even including non-combatants. The main clustering of these commands is found in the book of Joshua, in relation to Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan.
These passages are very troubling for many of us, and many people are working hard on trying to understand how we are to interpret them.
There are those who say that these stories are Israel’s misunderstanding of the character and purpose of God. We certainly do see a development of theology and ideas between the Old and New Testaments– this is touched upon here.However, many people are uncomfortable with the idea that the Bible could be in error on such an important matter as what God did and did not command.
There are those who argue that the events of the conquest are a one-off in history, never to repeated, and for the purpose of God’s plan of establishing the nation of Israel, and thereby blessing the world. They would say that the actions against the Canaanites were justified punishment for their sins. Many people are uncomfortable with this idea; and the extent to which the Canaanites are being characterised as sinful, rather than in some way ‘alien’, is debated.
There are those who would argue that the conquest was rather more gradual than is generally believed, and that there was a slow displacement of one people group by another rather than a swingeing conquest. There is some archaeological evidence to support this. By this argument, the Bible is putting a theological ‘spin’ on what happened – characterising it as a grand takeover in the name of God even though it was actually a more gradual event.
It is worth pointing out that – contrary to popular belief – the book of Joshua is quite ambiguous about the extent to which the conquest was a massacre. The study of human behaviour tells us that people don’t hang around waiting to be killed – they send away their women and children to safety (eg 1 Samuel 15:5–6). When armies conquer cities they generally only find soldiers there. More than this, the Hebrew word often translated as ‘utterly destroy’ in Joshua has a much broader, more flexible meaning than this. It certainly didn’t always mean ‘slaughter’ – it could be used about objects, for example. Such objects were sometimes destroyed but sometimes brought undamaged into the sanctuary. Sometimes our Bible translators have inadvertently done us a disservice by automatically implying that the word always means death.
And finally, as discussed here, the book itself is ambiguous about the extent of the casualties, frequently giving accounts of what happened to the survivors of cities that were apparently completely annihilated.