Violence in America — and the Old Testament

Since the terrible tragedy of the December shooting in the Sandy Hook Elementary School, much has been written and said about the need to prevent and control violence in our country and around the world. As church leaders and members we need to be actively involved in this debate.


One way to foster a better understanding of the way violence impacts our faith and even develops out of it is to organize a congregational study of Eric Seibert’s recent book “The Violence of Scripture, Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy” (Fortress Press, 2012). An associate professor of Old Testament at Messiah College, Seibert deals directly and bluntly with numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible that not only describe violence but insist that God commands it. We all know that these texts exist, but taken together (more than 600) they demonstrate how easy it is to rationalize them and ignore the powerful influence they exert. Seibert contends that Christians often overlook them because they do not know the Old Testament well enough to recognize them. But more often, we do not take their vitriolic effect seriously due to a preconceived assumption that all parts of the Bible are spiritually valuable and can be used for models for action regardless of how heinous they are.


The story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6-11) is one example. Often taken as a sign of God’s saving grace, considering the way it depicts the drowning of every living thing not resident on the ship, Seibert points out that it could be alternatively called “God’s Massacre.” No doubt he uses this shocking epithet to awaken our sensibilities and help us see how easy it is to sanitize accounts that argue that massive violence is God’s will. Other passages that quickly come to mind include David’s killing of Goliath (I Sam. 17), the genocidal passages in Joshua 6-11and Jael’s assassination of Sisera (Judges 4-6).


Seibert is a committed Christian and understands the many spiritual benefits found in the Old Testament, but he insists that it can never be used as a model to advocate murder, assassination, genocide or war. The Old Testament is an imperfect pattern for action because some texts not only describe violence but condone and advocate it. As primary historical examples, he notes how Scripture has been used to justify the Crusades, the practice of slavery (and apartheid), the Civil War (both sides), the legitimization of colonization, oppression of women, the condemnation of gays and lesbians, etc.


Seibert argues that the Scriptures should never be used to justify violence and demonstrates how to always read them nonviolently. In addition to providing five steps of biblical interpretation that make this process possible (Chapters 5-9), he also suggests that violent texts be approached constructively. The story of Noah’s Ark, for example, can be read from “outside the ark,” considering the fate of those who perished in the story as a result of God’s wrath. In the case of the conquest narrative in Joshua, the genocidal passages could be read from the perspective of the Canaanites, not as idol worshippers, but as human beings and individuals. “Once we do, it becomes very difficult to regard killing of Canaanites as an act of ‘virtuous violence.’”


Seibert’s approach to violent Old Testament texts may seem challenging, and even threatening, to many Christians. But at a time when we do not even know how to protect our own 6-year-olds, we need to understand our acceptance of the violence around us before we can suggest ways to prevent it.


The next column will explore Seibert’s suggestions about reading violent Scriptures with children.

EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.