A case for using violent biblical texts

Old Testament Professor Eric A. Seibert encourages pastors and lay leaders to redeem violent Bible verses by using them responsibly in church.

Photo: "The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites" by Nicolas Poussin (c. 1624) / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a university professor, I can state with some confidence that many people do not look forward to taking exams. Finishing them, yes; taking them, no. Exams are, by their very nature, inherently stressful.

But they should not be traumatic.

Exams should be designed to measure what students have learned — without threatening their mental and emotional health in the process. When creating an exam, instructors should be mindful of the impact certain questions might have on their students. Questions that run the risk of inducing a trauma response should be avoided.

Yet it is precisely this kind of question that recently appeared on an ordination exam for PC(USA) candidates.

The offending question was based on Judges 19, an Old Testament text steeped in gender-based violence. It includes the gang rape and dismemberment of an unnamed woman commonly referred to as the Levite’s “concubine.” The story is potentially triggering – and traumatizing – for some people, particularly those who have experienced rape or other forms of sexual assault. For that reason alone, it is inappropriate as a stand-alone question on an ordination exam. Moreover, in a testing environment, there is really no chance for test-takers to look away or take a break, if that is what they need for their own self-care. And, if they are triggered, there is no opportunity to lean on others for comfort and support, something that could happen if the passage was discussed in a communal setting like a Sunday school class. (Before taking their exegesis exam, minister of Word and Sacrament candidates sign an honor code that they will not discuss the exam with anyone over the testing period which lasts roughly five days.)

In this case, ordinands were forced to wrestle with a horrifying biblical passage all by themselves, knowing that if they did not respond well, their hopes for ordination might come to an abrupt end. All this is deeply troubling at many levels.

The inclusion of this item on the PC(USA) ordination exam, and the controversy that has ensued, raises a host of important questions, not least of which is what role violent biblical texts should play in the life of the church.

Where have all the violent verses gone?

It’s no secret that many violent verses never make an appearance on Sunday morning. While various explanations can account for this (e.g., most violent biblical texts do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary), I suspect one of the primary reasons ministers avoid violent verses is simply because they are unsure what to do with them. Despite years of biblical, theological, and practical training, most seminarians graduate with little (if any) instruction about how to handle violent biblical texts in church.

For all the excellent instruction I received during my four years in seminary, I cannot remember a single class period devoted to exploring various ways to deal constructively with violent verses in church. And I would be surprised if any seminary requires ministerial candidates to take a course on “The Practical Use of Violent Verses in Ministry” as part of their prescribed curriculum. Given the lack of training most ministers receive in this regard, it is not surprising that many violent verses never find their way to church.

The church is impoverished when violent biblical texts are neglected.

This is unfortunate and potentially dangerous. Ignoring violent biblical texts leaves congregants ill-equipped to deal with some of the Bible’s most problematic passages. It opens these verses to abuse by people who use them to harm others. In addition, bypassing violent biblical texts deprives churchgoers of all the positive benefits these verses have to offer when read responsibly. However you look at it, the church is impoverished when violent biblical texts are neglected.

Training pastors and lay leaders to use violent verses in church

So what can be done to remedy this undesirable state of affairs? Some changes need to be made in the way people are trained for ministry. At some point in their educational journey, people preparing for ordination should receive instruction about how to use violent biblical texts in church. It should be an integral part of the curriculum. Focused attention should be given to violent verses in Scripture — the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), the conquest narrative (Joshua 6-11), the tragic tale of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11), and many, many others. How can passages like these be used positively and pastorally in the context of ministry? What types of sermons could be preached from them? How might they be used in Sunday school classes? What possibilities exist for incorporating them into worship? Questions like these should be explored under the guidance of skilled professors who can equip up-and-coming ministers for these tasks.

Yet getting solid training is only half the battle. Those who minister, both pastors and lay leaders, need to be intentional about actually using violent biblical texts in church. Ministers could preach from passages like these on a regular basis. They might even devote a sermon series to some of Scripture’s most troubling texts. A special focus could also be given to these passages in Sunday school classes and adult forums. These settings are ideal for engaging difficult passages since they provide much-needed space to voice concerns, raise questions and look for answers. Even worship leaders can make use of violent biblical texts when constructing responsive readings or prayers of confession.

Finding ways to use violent biblical texts responsibly

I am convinced there are several specific ways ministers and lay leaders can use violent verses positively in sermons, Sunday school classes and liturgies. It’s a topic I address in my forthcoming book Redeeming Violent Verses: A Guide for Using Troublesome Texts in Church and Ministry. I’ll briefly provide a couple of examples here.

First, those who minister can use violent biblical texts to address difficult topics like domestic violence, rape, capital punishment, white nationalism, incest, suicide, human trafficking and so forth. The story of Joseph being sold by his brothers opens the door to a discussion about modern-day slavery (Genesis 37), and the story of Naboth’s vineyard is ideal for addressing the unjust nature of capital punishment (1 Kings 21). Biblical accounts of rape – Dinah (Genesis 34), Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), Tamar (2 Samuel 13) – create space for honest dialogue about the problem of sexual violence against women (and others), a topic the church is often reluctant to address. When ministers focus on violent passages like these, offering appropriate trigger warnings when necessary, they can talk about issues that are routinely ignored.

Second, pastors and lay leaders can use violent biblical texts to encourage self-reflection and promote spiritual growth. Consider the story of Jehu’s rise to power in 2 Kings 9-10. It is a particularly bloody narrative that contains extreme acts of violence. Jehu stops at nothing to secure his hold on power, eliminating everyone he believes threatens his position.

Ministers can use this rather obscure story to invite people to consider how they treat people who threaten their power and position. Maybe it’s that new employee at work, the one doing a fantastic job who now stands poised to get the promotion they so desperately wanted. How far would they go to thwart her? Would they start damaging rumors? Take credit for her accomplishments? Perhaps even sabotage her work? While most of us would never think of killing our rivals, there is more Jehu in us than we may care to admit.

When violent biblical texts are used responsibly, they have far more to offer us than we often realize. We ignore them at our peril.

Obviously, these two approaches for using violent biblical texts are just the beginning. Skilled pastors, devoted Sunday school teachers, and gifted worship leaders can use these texts in all sorts of creative ways: to help congregants develop compassion for victims of violence, to prevent people from using the violent verses to harm others, to emphasize the destructive nature of violence, and more. When violent biblical texts are used responsibly, they have far more to offer us than we often realize. We ignore them at our peril.

So yes, while I believe it was a misstep for the PC(USA) to include a stand-alone essay question about the Levite’s “concubine” on the ordination exam, I don’t think that means we should ignore such passages. On the contrary, we need well-trained ministers and lay leaders to use violent biblical texts responsibly in church. When they do, we will all be better at it.

Portions of this article were adapted from Eric A. Seibert’s upcoming book with Westminster John Knox Redeeming Violent Verses: A Guide for Using Troublesome Texts in Church and Ministry. Used by permission.