The title for this post is occasioned by a question raised in new book called The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy by Eric Seibert. Seibert quite bluntly asks, “Is mass murder ever cause for celebration.” (33) He views the violence of the Old Testament as unacceptable and immoral. He “regards all forms of violence as inappropriate for Christians, and [he] cannot condone the use of violence in any situation.” (6) Not only is the violence perpetuated by people in the Old Testament wrong, the violence allegedly perpetuated by God is also wrong. He writes,
“In some circles, God’s violent behavior is explicitly praised. For example, after God drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, the Israelites–who are safe on the other side–see the bodies of dead Egyptian soldiers washing up on shore (Exod. 14:30). They respond by singing a song of praise to God for this unprecedented act of divine violence. . . . The writer displays no uneasiness with this overwhelming act of divine violence and regards God’s behavior as completely praiseworthy. It constitutes an example of ‘virtuous’ violence that is hard to miss. But is it really appropriate to rejoice over the death of one’s enemies? Is mass murder ever cause for celebration?
“Of course, God’s violence in the Old Testament is not limited to mass killing and large-scale slaughter. Sometimes God is portrayed as being directly responsible for the death of a particular ‘sinner.’ Such acts of divine violence include the execution of Er and Onan (Gen. 38:7-10), the incineration of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-2), the smiting of Nabal (1 Sam. 25:38), and the elimination of Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Regardless of whether God’s behavior is explicitly justified in the text, most readers regard such divine violence as ‘virtuous’ simply because God is the one doing it.” (32-34)
Seibert says we often forget to view these acts of violence from the vantage point of the victim.
“We need to see the faces of those being killed in these stories. We need to look deeply into their eyes as we listen to their stories and experience their pain and suffering. Until we have done that, our job is incomplete, and we have not really read the text, or at least not very well. Paying attention to the victim in these texts, and straining to hear their voices, raises serious questions about the ‘virtue’ or ‘virtuous’ violence. It encourages us to critique, rather than condone, acts of violence against others. But here I am getting ahead of myself. The present point is simply this: these stories are often read, retold, and reused in ways that mask their violence and make them seem less violent and less problematic than they really are.” (43)
I have a number of questions regarding this approach. It seems that Seibert is starting with his nonviolent presupposition and then proceeds to “overcome” Old Testament violence by dismissing them as wrong. To charge God with “mass murder” is to presuppose that God does not have the right to take a life (or lives) where and when he chooses to do so. What if we did look into the eyes of some of these ‘victims?’ What would the soldiers of Pharoah’s army say? Some may have said, “I simply wanted to chase down the Israelites and kill them.” Others may have been more accommodating, “I wanted to return them to a life of slavery.” If someone had come upon some Nazi soldiers who were about to kill some Jews but they were in turn killed by our bystander, would we want to appeal to their killer that he should look deeply into the eyes of these Nazis so that he could feel their pain and suffering? What of the pain and suffering of those he was about to murder?
I see more and more of this type of thinking which views the Old Testament as primitive, tribal and immoral. The behavior displayed by many, including the God of the Old Testament, is not worthy of a Christian ethic. Jesus showed us a better way. A way of peace and nonviolence. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is to some degree Marcion revisited. I’m thinking of making this the topic of our annual forum next year. The issues are very important and warrant discussing.
The Violence of Scripture is from Fortress Press. It is a paperback with 232 pages and sells for $23.00. You can read chapter 1 here.