Some recent conversations and readings have caused me to revisit my thinking on portrayals of divine violence within the biblical texts. Specifically, I have been asking myself: what exactly am I to make of the fact that the bible often portrays God as violent or as commanding or approving of massive acts of death-dealing destruction?
Now the reason why these texts strike me as troubling isn’t necessarily because they portray God as violent, unattractive, and evil but because this portrayal of God seems inconsistent with the God portrayed throughout most of the biblical narrative. If this portrayal of a violent God was consistent with the rest of the bible, then it would be easy to simply close the book, and move on to better things. However, as far as I can tell, the bible primarily presents God as the God of life, of creation, of healing, of forgiveness, of the oppressed, and so on. Therefore, those who are drawn to this (dominant) portrayal of God are left to struggle with the texts of terror.
When approaching these texts, it is important to remember that the authors are shaped by the contexts and ideologies that they inhabit as they write. Indeed, what I think we see reflected in these texts is the extra-biblical ideology of conquest as it is proclaimed by the triumphant or by the oppressed who unconsciously adopt the ideology of the oppressors.
Thus, for example, in the Old Testament narratives related to the conquest of Canaan, we encounter history as it is written by the triumphant. Not surprisingly, as with most stories of conquest, we read of how the victors experienced divine assistance and, even at their most vicious (say when they were slaughtering women, children, and animals) they are portrayed as simply ‘following [God’s] orders’. Of course, such narratives are strikingly similar to the stories told by other Powers, from contemporary American narratives about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to most of the parties involved in the two world wars, to empires as diverse as the Babylonians, the Ottomans, the British, and so on. Therefore, during the moments of history when the ancient Hebrews (briefly) enjoyed some relative military success, it is not surprising to see them relating history through lenses tinted by triumph.
Stated bluntly, this is what war criminals tell themselves (and end up believing) in order to sleep with clean consciences — which also means that the overcoding involved in these stories tends to be bullshit… regardless of whether or not they come to us from Obama or the Deuteronomist. So, truth be told, I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy it that God has called America to be the policeman of the world, and I don’t buy it that God called Israel (past or present!) to slaughter the people who live in the land they wish to inhabit. The day God starts telling you to slaughter innocents, is the day that you should start looking for a new God… because the odds are the voice you are hearing isn’t God at all.
This way of thinking covers a good deal of the violence described in the Old Testament, but it still does not explain references to divine violence in the New Testament (notably references to the damnation and torment of those who are perceived of as enemies of God and God’s people), which was written, not by the triumphant, but by members of an oppressed and subversive minority. In these instances, I think it is best that we understand references to divine violence to be an expression of one of the ways in which oppressed people end up internalizing the ideologies of their own oppressors. This is, after all, a common thing to see — rather than finding a third way of being and acting, oppressed people often fall victim to the propaganda and the spectacle imposed by the oppressors, but simply wish that the tables were turned. Of course, much of what attracts me about the biblical narrative is the struggle to discover, express, and act out a third way (the Way of Jesus Christ) but it is not surprising to discover that those who follow this way do so imperfectly and — despite their best efforts — still end up enmeshed in some of the violence of their times. The same is true of any of us.
In sum, I believe that there are various and competing traditions and voices found within the biblical narrative. Some of these traditions are more prominent and carry greater weight than others. It is my opinion that the traditions that speak of God as the God of life, creation, healing, liberation, forgiveness and of the oppressed, outweigh the traditions that speak of God as the God of death, conquest, destruction, and of the triumphant. Therefore, I reject such portrayals of God. These texts of terror just might be Christianity’s ‘Satanic verses’.