Violence in the Bible: Greatest Hits

12/26/2016 09:46 pm ET

For many, the Bible (both the Hebrew Bible [aka the Old Testament for Christians] and the New Testament) is a moral touchstone and a guide to a peaceful life. Yet such a use of the Bible relies on a rather selective reading of its stories, since the Bible also contains numerous disturbingly violent tales. These violent stories are often passed over altogether or explained away as cultural remnants of the time when the stories were transmitted and written down. Yet it is worth knowing that these unseemly accounts still exist in the Bible, because some tend to treat this book as a homogeneous document that has a consistently nonviolent message. In fact, the Bible is far from a non-violent book. Here are the Top Ten most violent stories from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament:

1. The Rape of Dinah (Genesis 34): The patriarch Jacob had twelve sons (the so-called Twelve Tribes of Israel), but only one daughter Dinah. One day, the prince Shechem laid eyes on Dinah and immediately desired her, such that he “seized her and lay with her by force.” Her father was initially outraged by this violation, but as it occurred in a patriarchal society, the men of both families planned a marriage between Shechem and Dinah, which would undo the shame that resulted from the incident. The only condition was that Shechem’s people had to agree to be circumcised. The men in his city begrudgingly obliged--no small feat for adult men. Yet two of Dinah’s brothers were not satisfied with the arrangement, and “on the third day [after the circumcision], when they were still in pain” and could not defend their property, the brothers attacked Shechem’s people, killed all the males, and took all their children, wives, and material goods.

2. Genocide in Joshua (Joshua 1-12): The Israelite tribes were liberated from Egypt and understood the land of Canaan to have been promised to them--despite that the fact that there were numerous other tribes living there. Therefore, the book of Joshua recounts a systematic, though highly idealized, slaughter of the people who were in the Promised Land before the Israelites got there. Genocide is, of course, a modern category; ancient people would have just assumed that their people and their gods were better than foreign people and gods and would have quickly engaged in such violence in defense of their kin. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that the Israelites’ movement in the land was far more gradual, and that instead of exterminating all foreign people, they probably intermarried and adopted some of the cultural habits of the native people.

3. The Dismembered Concubine (Judges 19): A Levine and his concubine were traveling and stayed overnight at Gibeah. In a scene intentionally reminiscent of Lot’s treatment in Sodom, the townspeople gathered around the home he was staying in, wanting to rape him. The householder with whom he was staying tried to protect him and offered his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to them instead. The Levite consented to offer his concubine, and as the story goes, the people “raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.” She collapsed on the threshold of the door. When the Levite found her, he put her on his donkey and went home. At home, he cut her body into 12 pieces and sent a piece to each tribe of Israel.

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4. The Murder of John the Baptist (Mark 6): John the Baptist is mentioned in all four canonical gospels, but his death is only described in the Gospel of Mark. Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great) arrested John the Baptist, because John seemed to have publicly criticized Herod Antipas’s marriage to his brother Philip’s wife. Herod Antipas, however, didn’t want to kill him, but his wife Herodias did--probably due to the damage he had done to her reputation. Herodias spurred her daughter (also called Herodias) to request “the head of John the Baptist” when Herod Antipas wanted to reward her for dancing at his banquet and pleasing his guests. Distraught but bound by honor, he ordered John to be beheaded and his head brought in on a plate.

By  Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

5. The Killing of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5): Acts of the Apostles tells an idealized version of what the early church was like in Jerusalem immediately after Jesus’s ascension. Accordingly to the first few chapters, all believers pooled their financial resources into a common fund to be administered to the group by the apostles. Ananias and Sapphira liquidated their property but only donated part of the proceeds to the group. They both lied about it in front of Peter, and collapsed and died as punishment.

6. Wilderness Slaughter (Exodus 32): After the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years. Frustrated with their predicament, the Israelites built a golden idol in the absence of any other sign that Yahweh was still on their side. To punish them, Moses commanded the Levites to take their swords and ambush the people, “each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.”

7. The Parable of the Unfaithful Slave (Luke 12): Jesus tells parables in all of the canonical gospels; many scholars think that the parables stand the best chance of preserving the original ideas of the historical Jesus. Yet many of the stories in the parables contain a dark side. In this case, the parable tells of a master who leaves his slaves in charge of his estate while he is away. The bad slave takes advantage of his master’s absence, drinks too much, and beats other slaves. The master comes home unexpectedly and punishes the slave by “cutting him into pieces.” The moral of the story in Luke seems to simply be to remain vigilant for the return of Jesus. Even so, it is hard to ignore how the story disturbingly paints God as a slave holder who punishes his slave bodies with bisection.

8. Revelation’s Bowls of Wrath (Revelation 16): Revelation narrates a vision of the end times to one John of Patmos. The entire book is violent, so here is just a representative example. In chapter 16, angels pour out a series of bowls of God’s wrath onto the earth and its people. The second angel pours wrath into the sea, turning it into the blood of a corpse and killing everything that lives in it. The fourth angel pours wrath on the sun, which then scorches all living people who do it repent. Even if these visions are “just” symbolic, they are dark indeed.

Matthias Gerung [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Matthias Gerung [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

9. Jephthah’s Human Sacrifice (Judges 11): Jephthah was one of the biblical judges (a kind of tribal, military leader before the emergence of kings). While away at war, Jephthah vowed to God that if he was successful in battle against the Ammonites, he would sacrifice to God the first thing that came out of his home when he returned. Tragically, it was his only daughter. Jephthah honored his vow to God and killed her, after giving her a period of two months to mourn her virginity.

10. Sexual Violence Against Jacob’s Wives’ Slaves (Genesis 30): Many people overlook the domestic dynamics in the book of Genesis. In this case, Jacob had two wives (though he only wanted one--the other was foisted upon him through trickery). Each of these wives had what is typically described as a “maidservant.” In reality, “female slave” is a better translation. Female slaves were not simply the property of their owners; they were also sexually available to them. It is for this reason that we see Rachel and Leah offer their female slaves as surrogate bodies to Jacob in their competition to produce the most offspring for him. Crucially, the notion of consent is absent from this story. The female slaves had no autonomy over their bodies or sexual activities, and therefore, their use in this story as child-bearing vessels can be seen as a kind of sexual violence.

But wait, there's more. Unfortunately the Bible’s violence can't be limited to a top-ten list, so here are a few runners up and honorable mentions.

1. Cain Kills Abel (Genesis 4): Many treat this as the first “murder.” The story is brief and ethically ambiguous. Read it for yourself and see if you can figure out what Cain did (if anything) to displease God before killing Abel.

2. Jesus Crucified (Mark 16 and parallels): Many no doubt expected this event to feature more prominently on the list. But in the Roman Empire, crucifixion was extremely common, especially if one’s actions incited disorder and threatened the hegemony of the Romans. There’s every reason to think that if the gospels stories have any truth behind them, Jesus and his followers would have been seen as a threat to the Romans, if only because they stirred up the populace in the already politically tense city of Jerusalem.

Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3. Judas’ Deaths (Matthew 27; Acts 1): There are two different versions of Judas’s death, both gruesome. In Matthew’s version, he hangs himself, while in Acts, he collapses in a field and his bowels rupture.

4. Drowning Pharaoh’s Army (Exodus 14): In this well known story, God helps the Israelites escape Egyptian slavery by drowning the Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. As careful readers observe, God had systematically hardened Pharaoh’s heart during the violent plagues leading up to this and during the pursuit in the wilderness, so Pharaoh seemed to have little control over his own actions.

5. Paul Wishes Castration on his Opponents (Galatians 5): In this letter, Paul is exasperated with the Galatians for listening to other teachers who oppose his ideas. This exasperation peaks in chapter 5, who he writes that he wishes his opponents would castrate themselves. Modern translations usually gloss over this coarse phrasing.

As one can see from these examples, using the Bible as a moral touchstone is a complicated enterprise. Doing so requires that one comes to terms with these and other instances of cruelty and violence. The history of biblical interpretation is full of various strategies for dealing with these uncomfortable incidents, and will likely continue to be for some time, as people make this book meaningful in times anew.

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