Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence

By: 
John J. Collins

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war against Muslim extremists have drawn attention again to the age-old implication of religion in war and violence. In the current conflicts, attention has mainly been focused on the religious motivation of Islamic suicide bombers and terrorists.Yet, as Bruce Lincoln has pointed out in his recent book Holy Terrors, there is a surprising symmetry in the rhetoric of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden. 

Both construe the conflict in dualistic terms as good versus evil, although their values are diametrically opposed. In fact, the religious heritage of the west is scarcely less violent than that of Islam. Religious violence is deeply embedded in the scriptures that are the wellsprings of Judaism and Christianity.

The Book of Exodus tells us that “the Lord is a man of war.” In the ancient world, gods were supposed to defend their people and help them in battle, and the God of Israel was no different in this respect. The most problematic part of the biblical account, however, is surely the conquest of Canaan. According to Deuteronomy, the Israelites were to destroy the people of the land utterly. “Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” Rather: “break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples of the earth.”1 The Book of Joshua describes how this commandment was carried out. Because Israel is the chosen people, it may, and is even commanded to, destroy any people that seem to obstruct its mission.

There is of course considerable irony in this commandment. Deuteronomy is also one of the great repositories of humanistic values in the biblical corpus. This is the book that repeatedly tells the Israelites to be compassionate to slaves and aliens, and to remember that they were slaves in the land of Egypt. The ethical principle to do unto others as you would have them do unto you was not an innovation of the New Testament.2 The laws on slaves and aliens in Deuteronomy show an appreciation of what Emmanuel Levinas calls “the face of the other”3 as human and call for empathy with our fellow human beings. But this empathy does not extend to the Canaanites. By the time Deuteronomy was written, the people of Israel and Judah knew what it was like to have their land overrun and their shrines burned down. Yet there is no appreciation here of the face of the Canaanite and no misgiving about doing to others what they themselves had suffered. 

There is also some irony in the way in which these commands of destruction are embedded in the story of the Exodus, which has served as the great paradigm of liberation in Western history.4 But the liberation of the Israelites and the subjugation of the Canaanites are two sides of the same coin. Without a land of their own, the liberated Israelites would have nowhere to go. But the land promised to them was not empty and had its own inhabitants. Read from the Canaanite perspective, this is not a liberating story at all.5

Yet a further irony is that modern scholars have concluded that the slaughter of the Canaanites is largely if not entirely a work of fiction. Archeologists now find no evidence that the people of Israel originated outside the land. Rather, they seem to have evolved within Canaan. The commandments in Deuteronomy, and their execution in the Book of Joshua, have more to do with the ideology of King Josiah in the late seventh century BCE, than with the supposed conquest of Canaan by invading Israelites six centuries earlier. This does not relieve the moral problem posed by these books, however. In the words of James Barr, “the problem is not whether the narratives are fact or fiction. The problem is that, whether fact or fiction, the ritual destruction is commanded.”6 The destruction of the Canaanites is depicted in the Bible as the will of God, and it is justified simply by God’s decision to give their land to Israel.

I am not suggesting that the religion of ancient Israel was exceptionally violent. In the context of the ancient world, it was probably less violent than most. The violence towards the Canaanites must be balanced against the humanistic aspects of Deuteronomic law. But the violence remains, and it has had fateful consequences in western history. The English Puritan revolution was justified repeatedly by biblical analogies drawn from the Old Testament. Oliver Cromwell drew a parallel between his revolution and the Exodus, and proceeded to treat the Catholics of Ireland as the Canaanites. He even declared that “there are great occasions in which some men are called to great services in the doing of which they are excused from the common rule of morality,”7 as were the heroes of the Old Testament. A generation later, the Puritans of New England applied the biblical texts about the conquest to their own situation, casting the native American Indians in the role of the Canaanites and Amalekites. In 1689, Cotton Mather urged the colonists to go forth against “Amalek annoying this Israel in the wilderness.”8 A few years later, one Herbert Gibbs gave thanks for “the mercies of God in extirpating the enemies of Israel in Canaan.” He was not referring to biblical times. Similar rhetoric persisted in American Puritanism through the 18th century, and indeed biblical analogies have continued to play a part in American political rhetoric down to the present.9

Of course Americans are not alone in looking to the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament for an exemplary paradigm. The Boers of South Africa applied the story of the Exodus to their situation under British rule, and black African liberationists later applied it to their situation under the Boers. Most obviously, biblical narratives have been a factor in the Zionist movement in Israel, shaping the imagination even of secular, socialist Zionists and providing powerful precedents for right-wing militants. Biblical analogies also provide the underpinnings for support of Israel among conservative Christians. 

“There is a time to kill,” said Qoheleth, “and a time to heal…a time for war, and a time for peace.”10 Not all violence is necessarily to be condemned. The image of God the Warrior and the hope for an apocalyptic judgment have often given hope to the oppressed. Nonetheless, few will disagree that violence is seldom a good option, and that it can only be justified as a last recourse. Most people in the western world are rightly repelled by the idea that terrorists, such as the perpetrators of the attacks of September 11, 2001, could be inspired by religious ideals. The thrust of my reflections on violence and religion in the biblical tradition is that the problem is not peculiar to Islam, but can also be found in attitudes and assumptions that are deeply embedded in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The material of which I have been speaking is what Gerd Lüdemann has called “the dark side of the Bible.”11 The issues it raises are not just academic. These texts have had a long effective history, and there is no reason to believe that it has run its course. What are we to say about it at the beginning of the twenty-first century? 

There is a long and venerable tradition of interpretation, going back through the Church Fathers to Philo of Alexandria and Hellenistic Judaism, that sees it as its task to save the appearances of the text. Luke Johnson has recently argued that modern interpreters have still much to learn from the Fathers: “Origen shows how much more passionately Scripture is engaged when the reader is persuaded of its divine inspiration, which implies that God’s wisdom is somehow seeking to be communicated even through the impossibilities of the literal sense. If interpreters today were to learn from Origen, they would not rest easy with the practice of excising or censoring troublesome texts, but would wrestle with them until they yielded a meaning ‘worthy of God.’”12 But allegorical interpretation, of the kind practiced in antiquity, is hardly viable in the modern world. It is all very well to say that the Canaanites that we should root out are vice and sinfulness, but we still have texts that speak rather clearly of slaughtering human beings.

A more promising strategy is to note the diversity of viewpoints within the Bible, and thereby relativize the more problematic ones.13 So, for example, we can emphasize the concern for slaves and aliens in Deuteronomy, or the model of the suffering servant, or the New Testament teaching on love of one’s enemies. It is not unusual for Christian interpreters to claim that “the biblical witness to the innocent victim and the God of victims demystifies and demythologizes this sacred social order” in which violence is grounded.14 Such a selective reading, privileging the death of Jesus, or the model of the suffering servant, is certainly possible, and even commendable, but it does not negate the force of the biblical endorsements of violence that we have been considering. The full canonical shape of the Christian Bible, for what it is worth, still concludes with the judgment scene in Revelation, in which the lamb that was slain returns as the heavenly warrior with a sword for striking down the nations. In short, violence is not the only model of behavior on offer in the Bible, but it is not an incidental or peripheral feature, and it cannot be glossed over. The Bible not only witnesses to the innocent victim and to the God of victims, but also to the hungry God15 who devours victims and to the zeal of God’s human agents.

And therein precisely lies its power. There is much in the Bible that is not “worthy” of the God of the philosophers. There is also much that is not worthy of humanity, certainly much that is not worthy to serve as a model for imitation. This material should not be disregarded, for it is at least as revelatory as the more edifying parts of the biblical witness. The power of the Bible is largely that it gives an unvarnished picture of human nature and of the dynamics of history, and also of religion and the things that people do in its name.16 After all, it is only in the utopian future that the wolf is supposed to live with the lamb, and even then the wolf will probably feel the safer of the two. The biblical portrayal of human reality only becomes pernicious when it is vested with authority, and assumed to reflect, without qualification or differentiation, the wisdom of God or the will of God. The Bible does not demystify or demythologize itself. But neither does it claim that the stories it tells are paradigms for human action in all times and places.

The least that should be expected of any biblical interpreter is honesty, and that requires the recognition, in the words of James Barr, that “the command of consecration to destruction is morally offensive and has to be faced as such,”17 whether it is found in the Bible or in the Koran. To recognize this is to admit that the Bible, for all the wisdom it contains, is no infallible guide on ethical matters. As Roland Bainton put it, in his survey of Christian attitudes to war and peace, “appeal to the Bible is not determinative.”18 But historically people have appealed to the Bible precisely because of its presumed divine authority, which gives an aura of certitude to any position it can be shown to support; in the phrase of Hannah Arendt, “God-like certainty that stops all discussion.”19 And here, I would suggest, is the most basic connection between the Bible and violence, more basic than any command or teaching it contains.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great American jurist, reflected late in his career that he had entered the Civil War brimming with certitude over the righteousness of abolition, which surely was a righteous cause.20 By the end of the war he had drawn a different lesson, that certitude leads to violence. The Bible has contributed to violence in the world precisely because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation. Perhaps the most constructive thing a biblical interpreter can do towards lessening the contribution of the Bible to violence in the world, is to show that that certitude is an illusion. 


John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. He has published widely on the subjects of apocalypiticism, wisdom, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Professor Collins is also co-editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism and has participated in the editing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has served as editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature as well as president of the Catholic Biblical Association and of the Society of Biblical Literature. 

Issue Title: 
Violence and Theology
Issue Year: 
2004